Equal Time, of an Unfortunate Sort

St. Gregory of Nyssa is one of the true heavy-weights of early Christian theology.  He, along with the other Cappadocian fathers (St. Basil of Caesaria and St. Gregory of Nazianzus), defined theology, and particularly the theology of the Trinity, in the period immediately after the Council of Nicaea in the early 4th Century.  It doesn't get any more rock solid than St. Gregory.

St. Gregory wrote a book called The Life of Moses, in which he reflects on the stories of Exodus and the rest of the Torah.  In doing so, he deals with the climax of the plagues that God has sent to Egypt--the killing of the first-born sons.  Here's what he says:

It does not seem good to me to pass this interpretation by without further contemplation. How would a concept worthy of God be preserved in the description of what happened if one looked only to the history? The Egyptian acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not. His life has no experience of evil, for infancy is not capable of passion. He does not know to distinguish between his right hand and his left. The infant lifts his eyes only to his mother's nipple, and tears are the sole perceptible sign of his sadness. And if he obtains anything which his nature desires, he signifies his pleasure by smiling. If such a one now pays the penalty of his father's wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries: The man who has sinned is the man who must die and a son is not to suffer for the sins of his father? How can the history so contradict reason?  (Paragraph 91).

In other words, how can we possibly accept the notion that a good God would punish these completely innocent children for the sins of their parents?  St. Gregory's answer appears to be "we can't."  But not to worry, because St. Gregory has a solution to this thorny problem:

Do not be surprised at all if both things—the death of the firstborn and the pouring out of the blood—did not happen to the Israelites and on that account reject the contemplation which we have proposed concerning the destruction of evil as if it were a fabrication without any truth. For now in the difference of the names, Israelite and Egyptian, we perceive the difference between virtue and evil. Since the spiritual meaning proposes that we perceive the Israelite as virtuous, we would not reasonably require the firstfruits of virtue's offspring to be destroyed but rather those whose destruction is more advantageous than their cultivation. (Paragraph 100).

In other words, St. Gregory doesn't think the Passover was an actual historical event.  Instead, he sees the story as being an allegory about Good (the Israelites) and Evil (the Egyptians), and how we must root out the foundations of Evil in our own lives--the "first fruits" of that Evil, i.e. the children.  Don't worry, St. Gregory, tells us--God wouldn't actually kill actual children.

As I have said before, I am a big fan of Rachel Held Evans's writing.  But I will confess I skimmed over her recent post entitled "I Would Fail Abraham's Test, and I Bet You Would, Too."  Here, she deals with another one of those tough passages from Scripture, the aborted sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham (Genesis 22:1-19).  Evans asserts that, she, along with most people, would have refused to even countenance the idea of sacrificing her son on God's orders.  From this conclusion, she then goes on to talk about a certain strand of Reformed theology that would see those kinds of ethical intuitions as being beyond the pale.

The post struck me as almost too obvious--isn't everyone troubled by the story of Abraham and Isaac?  Apparently not, as a blogger named Bobby Grow responded a weirdly vehement denunciation of Evans.  He begins by asking the rhetorical question of whether Rachel has said "farewell" to Christianity, which is apparently Evangelical-speak for "she's a heretic."  It must be the case, Grow asserts, that Evens no longer believes in God, because she is "rejecting the God of the Bible, and reshaping him in a cultural and consensual image that looks like modern humanity’s ethical and 'moral' trajectory rather than the God of the historic Christian faith and ‘holy writ.’"

This comment is so ludicrous and ignorant that it boggles the mind.  So, in Grow's reading, one assumes that St. Gregory is "rejecting..the God of the historic Christian faith and 'holy writ'" in The Life of Moses.  After all, Evans never actually says that the story in question didn't actually happen, while St. Gregory certainly does.  I am not sure what definition of "the historic Christian faith" Grow is using, but one that excludes the Cappadocian fathers is a hard one to take seriously.

In that light, I find Grow's condescending tsk-tsking of Evans on account of her lack of formal theological education hard to swallow.  I have no idea what goes on in an Evangelically-oriented theological education schools, but if this is the fruit, I am underwhelmed.  I have noticed that there is a certain species of Evangelical that likes to talk about "the historical Church" without having the faintest notion of what "the historical Church" was or believed in.  Instead, they project all of the narrow and historically a-typical elements of American Evangelical theology onto the past and hope that you won't go back and read the primary sources to check their work.  Grow's post reveals him to be a member of this tribe, in spades.

In one of the posts on Evans's blog, someone compared certain schools of Evangelical theology to the game Warhammer 40k.  Warhammer 40k is a miniatures game set in a science-fiction universe that is famous for coining the term "grimdark" (derived from the tagline "in the grim, dark future of the 41st Century, there is only war.")  In the Warhammer 40k universe, the Empire of Humanity is brutal totalitarian state dedicated to wiping out all threats, in the form of aliens, various demons, and heretics of all types.  Blind, unthinking obedience to a God-like undying Emperor is required, and they throw around quotes like "blessed is the mind too small for doubt."

Warhammer 40k is supposed to be a satire.  But these folks are serious.  Evans (and, by extension, St. Gregory) approach a very difficult text that seems to suggest that God is a horrible monster and say "no, this can't be right--let's try to find a different way to think about this."  And these Evangelical berserkers respond with "Silence, heretic!  Blood for the Blood God!"  I mean, really?  These folks make Father Z look like your kindly elderly kindergarten teacher.

I'll take my chances with Evans and St. Gregory, asking the questions.


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