Informed Imagination in Practice
Reflections on Synod 2022
A note for readers for whom “Synod 2022” in the title above means nothing. The synod in question is the annual general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church that met most recently this past June. On its agenda was a report prepared by a committee appointed to study what the Bible says about human sexuality. The occasion for the appointment of the study committee was a debate in 2016 on same-sex marriage. At the end of the long and frustrating debate, Synod 2016 decided the denomination needed to appoint a committee to provide biblical warrant for the position the denomination already held on homosexuality (only those who agreed with the denominational position were allowed to serve on the study committee). This may seem backwards to you: to go looking for biblical support for what you have already decided, but that’s just what the synod did.
The synod directed the study committee not to change the denominational position but “to articulate a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality.” The denominational position, first articulated in 1973, holds that attraction to persons of one’s own sex is not in itself condemned by the Bible but that sexual acts between same sex partners are so condemned. In addition to seeking biblical confirmation of this position, Synod 2016 asked the study committee to consider whether such a position should be confessional, whether, that is, it should be binding on all office holders in the church, requiring them to subscribe to the denominational position, thus effectively ending further discussion. Synod 2022 in fact decided to do both of these things: affirm that the denominational position on homosexuality is biblical and affirm that it is confessional.
But since synod recessed these decisions have occasioned considerable discussion, especially among those who believe that the synod may have erred in its decisions. A question raised in those discussions is how the study committee and, with it, Synod 2022 used the Bible in their decisions. This question constitutes the immediate background to what follows, but the relevance of the discussion of Paul’s use of the Bible is by no means limited to those events. The church—thinking now of the church broadly, not denominationally—has much still to learn from apostle whose writings make up so much of the New Testament. Clay
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Nowhere are the issues of biblical interpretation present at Synod 2022 more clearly or brilliantly discussed than in the 3rd chapter of 2 Corinthians. Paul’s interpretative moves in this passage are stunning for the way they challenge conventional ways of interpreting the Bible, including ways of interpreting the Bible much on view at Synod 2022.
2 Corinthians begins with Paul, as often in his letters, defending his ministry. In the first verse of chapter 3, Paul, by this time well launched into his defense, suddenly stops himself short and asks: “Am I beginning to sound defensive here?” (3:1). Or so he would have said had he lived in 21st century Western society. Concluding that he has no reason to be defensive—after all, the Corinthian church owed its existence to him (3:2)—he begins to reflect on what it means to do ministry in the new context in which he finds himself (3:6). This is the sort of question that pastors ask themselves to this day. Ministry is and has always been challenging. Especially in times of great change.
For Paul, always the exegete, even under pressure, the challenge to his ministry steers him toward scripture. He is put in mind of a story about another person whose ministry was often in peril: the Old Testament figure of Moses.
The particular story that comes to his mind is part of a several chapter long conversation in Exodus about the nature of revelation. These stories play off in fascinating ways on the roles of Moses (representing written Torah), Aaron (representing the priesthood), and Yhwh (the God of Israel). Any theological account of how God is revealed to us should include careful discussion of this entire section of Exodus, but, alas, theologians seem rarely to notice it at all.
In the story, Moses comes down from the mountain a second time to deliver the “ten words” (we know them as the “Ten Commandments). These words, in the story incised on stone tablets, constitute the heart of the covenant between Yhwh and Israel. They are critical to understanding the relationship of Yhwh and the people.
The first time down the mountain with a first set of tablets, Moses had smashed the tablets to pieces on sight of Israel worshiping with the aid of a golden calf. Those tablets we are told had been written by the finger of God (32:16). Now, the second time up and down the mountain, the work of writing fell to Moses. This represents a profound shift. Revelation, it suggests, is never direct. It comes through human agency, through Moses. The written Torah, in this view, is always two things: human and divine. In this, biblical tradition differs profoundly from Islam or, for that matter, from Mormonism, both of which represent revelation as directly from God.
When Moses arrives back at the camp with the new tablets after forty days and nights on the mountain talking with Yhwh, his face shines with so much reflected glory that the people, including Aaron the priest, are frightened of him and initially avoid him (30). (It was, by the way, a misunderstanding of the Hebrew of this passage that led to the idea that Moses had horns; Michelangelo, who didn’t get the memo, gave Moses a very nice set of horns on one of his most famous statues.) To avoid frightening the people, Moses puts on a mask (the first biblical account of masking up). But when he comes before Yhwh (presumably in the tent of meeting; see 33:7), he takes off the mask and speaks to Yhwh face to face.
In this, Moses, functions as a mediator: unmasked before Yhwh but masked before the people. Christians will immediately recognize and compare the mediatorial role of Christ to this Old Testament story. The relationship between Christ and the Father is presented, for example in John 14, as fully open, unmasked, as it were. But what of the relationship of Christ to those whom he addresses—to us? It’s here that Paul, the master interpreter, steps into the story.
Go back to 2 Corinthians 3 and Paul’s defense of his ministry. With the story that we’ve just been talking about in mind, Paul seizes on a contrast between written revelation and the living presence of God. The first he calls mere “ink,” compared to “Spirit of the living God” or, drawing the contrast a second time, what’s written on “stone tablets” compared to what’s written on “hearts of flesh” (3:3).
This move is not new, of course. It’s found already in Jeremiah (31:31-34) and Ezekiel (36:26), but Paul draws the contrast in new ways. For him, these are two ministries, one the ministry of Moses, the other his own ministry. To say this, he himself admits, takes breathtaking boldness (3:4). Illustrating that boldness, he draws a contrast between “the ministry of death” (Moses) and the “ministry that brings life” (Paul; 3:7-8). Or, as he has it in the next verse, between the ministry of “condemnation” (Moses) and the ministry of “righteousness” (Paul; 3:9).
Here, it seems to me, we find a first key Pauline insight. The “letter,” as Paul puts it—the written text—is by its very nature unmoving. Set in stone, as he says more than once. The letter is the letter. The text is the text. It has no room, indeed, it cannot have room for what’s new, for what has changed, for what God may be doing at the present moment. As a result, it almost always functions as condemnation for anything new.
Take, for example, the family. There are several different iterations of family in the Bible, not one: memories of ancient Hebrew clans filtered through long history, Jewish families in various times and places, Greco-Roman families in the time of the New Testament, and more. These families are not much like our families (On this see a new article by Paula Fredericksen, “What Does It Mean to See Paul ‘within Judaism’?” Journal of Biblical Literature 141:2 (2022), 362-5, with extensive bibliography).
The Bible speaks of and to these ancient families, but what does the Bible have to say to our modern Western families, disassociated as they are from any kind of clan structure, having much more fluidity of roles within the family and within society than any ancient family? Families that now embrace same sex partners, something unimaginable in biblical antiquity?
The church, including the Christian Reformed Church of recent history, has often tried to force these families into the procrustean bed of ancient family with little to no success (and without much understanding of ancient families, either). The CRC tried this with divorce but ultimately gave up. In the midst of a long debate on the roles of women in church in the late 20th century, it tried, again with little success, to project the modern husband as a sort of pater familias, the head of the family in Roman marriage with ultimate rights over children and wife. That didn’t work either. Our marriages are not Roman marriages. The CRC is now trying in the name of a “literal” interpretation of scripture once again to force modern families in the direction of ancient families, and again it’s not likely to work.
In these efforts, appeal is often made to the letter of the Bible. And the letter, just as Paul predicts, acts chiefly to condemn, to say to people that the only way to be family is what the church takes as the biblical paradigm for family. The letter condemns because all by itself it has no way to take account of what is new, to sort between what seems good and, perhaps, of God and what is not. At Synod 2022, there was a good deal of handwringing about why gay people do not feel at home in CRC churches. Paul would understand why. The ministry of the church is too often the ministry of condemnation.
We need, as Paul suggests in this passage, another way to understand our relationship to the written scriptures. It’s here that Paul, still thinking of the story of Moses and the shining face, makes a brilliant move. He notes that when Moses enters the presence of God, he takes off the mask (3:16). Actually, Paul tells it differently, inserting into the text a new element. Instead of Moses merely entering before Yhwh, as the text has it (Exodus 34:34), Paul says that Moses “turned to the Lord. . ..” This is not a trivial change: “Turn to the Lord” is New Testament language for conversion. When one becomes a Christian, one “turns to the Lord.” In Paul’s understanding of the story, Moses does not just enter the presence of the Lord; he turns to the Lord very much in the New Testament sense.
But who is “the Lord” here? As Paul knows, the Hebrew text has “Yhwh.” The Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament often used in the New Testament, has as usual kyrios, “Lord,” for Yhwh. But in the New Testament “the Lord” usually means Jesus Christ. Which is it, (the Old Testament) God or Jesus? Who is being turned to?
Commentators on this passage have worried this issue back and forth, some arguing Paul means God (the Father; Yhwh) and some Jesus Christ. But Paul is having none of it. He cuts through the question by saying in the next verse that “The Lord is the Spirit” (3:17).
What does he mean? It seems to me that he’s still thinking about Moses going into that tent set off on the edge of the Israelite camp. When he enters the tent, what does he see? Nothing, of course. God is not physically present in the tent. But God’s Spirit is there. The Lord, whether Yhwh or the Risen Christ, is there manifested as Spirit.
This is how we still encounter God. In this we are the same as Moses. When we “turn to the Lord,” what do we see? Not the physical presence of the Lord, whether Father or Son, but the Lord present within us and among us in the Spirit.
And what do we do when entering the presence of the Lord? We do as Moses did. We take off our masks. And in this act of taking off our masks before the Lord we are changed. Paul uses here the word from which we get “metamorphosis.” “We all,” he says, “with unveiled faces mirroring the glory of the Lord are being changed [metamorphized] into the Lord’s image, from glory to glory, as comes from the Spirit of the Lord” (3:18).
It’s tempting to pause here to further articulate this vision of the Christian life as contemplation—a vision that was of great importance in the early church and should be equally important today. There is much, much more to be said. For example, we could explore this idea as a way to know if we are in the Spirit of God. We can tell by what reflection we bear. If we bear the reflection of Christ, it is the Spirit of Christ in whose presence we abide. But if we bear some other reflection, the spirit that abides among us and within us is not of God. As I said, it is tempting to pause and explore where this singular formuation of Paul leads, but to pause here would be to miss what is in some ways the most important thing that Paul is doing. He has not lost the thread. He is still talking about how to read the scriptures.
Consider how we have arrived at this point. What has brought here—to this powerful and attractive vision of the Christian life—has been, in fact and perhaps ironically, an imaginative interpretation of a text—of the “letter” in Paul’s own words. Paul, and now we ourselves, have begun with scripture: the story of Moses in Exodus 34. But Paul doesn’t let it rest there. His approach to scripture here (and elsewhere) is what I have in mind with the phrase “informed imagination.” He comes to scripture by way of an informed acquaintance with the text. Paul seems to know his Bible in both Greek and Hebrew. He’s well trained. But his approach is also imaginative. Free in a certain way. Speaking both of his approach to ministry and to scripture, he says that “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (3:17). This is part of the boldness of which he spoke earlier.
We are also invited into this freedom. What Paul is teaching us here is that the text points beyond itself. A text can only take us so far. Texts are written for a time and place. But texts also point beyond their time and place to what new thing God is doing.
Consider again the Moses story. When we read Moses or, now, when we read Paul, we are initially in the position of the people of Israel in the story. The story tells us that “Moses commanded them everything that Yhwh had said to him on Mt. Sinai” (34:32). This is the text’s way of talking about written Torah, “Moses,” as we have Moses through the written text.
But this text wears a mask or a veil. As Paul observes, reading the Torah from the point of view of the Torah is to read it as if a veil were laid over it (2 Corinthians 3:14). We see the glory, but only partially. We see the light, but filtered.
But suppose we are not confined to the role of the people in the story. Suppose that we are not simply readers. Suppose we can step into the role of Moses, who has not only the text, symbolized in the stone tablets, but comes into the direct presence of God. It’s to this that Paul invites us when he says, “We all with unveiled faces. . ..” We are invited to step into tent of meeting, as it were, with Moses, to come face-to-face with the Lord, who is the Spirit.
What Paul has set up on the basis of Exodus 34 is a dialectic—a back and forth—between the text and the Spirit. It’s a dialectic enacted by Moses in the story. He goes back and forth between text and presence. The presence of God in the Spirit enables us to read the text in ways that take account of not only where God has been but where God is going.
We need both things. We need the text. The text directs us towards God. But it also points beyond itself to the living presence of the Spirit. And it’s the living presence of the Spirit that enables us—together—to step into God’s future. If we stop with the text, we will find only condemnation; if we grasp that which the Spirit is writing on our hearts, we will find that righteousness of which Paul speaks.
I’ll leave it here, hoping that in doing so I have opened a bit of what the apostle is doing in this passage. Compared to the subtle and evocative approach Paul takes to the Old Testament, finding in it new thoughts for a new age, our ways of approaching scripture often seem wooden. We have too often clung to the letter and missed the Spirit. We have grasped condemnation and lost the joy.