Saturday, June 27, 2015

Aiding and Abetting

Today I've been thinking about the Homoiousians.  I imagine you think about them from time to time as well, but just in case they've not been at the forefront of your mind recently, let me remind you who they were.  The Homoiousians were the moderate party in the fourth century debates about the person of Christ.  They positioned themselves between the Homoousians on the one hand (note the lack of 'i' - homo rather than homoi) and the Arians on the other.  To boil it right down, whilst the Homoousians said that God the Son was of one being with the Father, and the Arians said that God the Son was unlike the Father, the Homoiousians said that the Son was similar to or like the Father in his essence and attributes.

As we all know (right?), the Homoousians ultimately won the day; the Gospel story required the relationship between Father and Son which they championed.  Arianism has been denounced as heresy by all branches of the Christian church.

But my thinking today has not really about the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of yesteryear.  Rather I've been thinking about the role played by the 'moderates', the Homoiousians, in all this debate.  They were a varied bunch.  Some were very slippery characters; they had Arian sympathies, but lacked the courage of their convictions.  Others were simply concerned for the unity of the church; they wanted to try to acommodate the views of as many as possible (whilst ruling out the extremes of Arianism).  Others just felt that it wasn't as important as everyone was making out; they just wanted to preach the gospel without getting mixed up in this abstract argument.

History has not judged their efforts kindly, nor should it.  Whatever the motives, good or bad, the attempt to moderate and compromise and hold people together led to the Homoiousians advocating, or at least tolerating, heretical doctrine.  They did not, in the final analysis, speak the truth about God.  Had they been allowed to triumph, the Gospel would have disappeared.  In the end, whatever they hoped to achieve, they were in fact aiding and abetting the enemy.

I've been thinking about Homoiousians as I reflect on the role some people I respect very much are playing in the big debates in the church today - especially around gender and sexuality.  I worry that in trying to be gentle, kind, moderate...  they're running the danger of being on the wrong side.  When it comes down to it, on this and all issues, we have to listen and speak.  If God said nothing on the subject, we'd jolly well better shut up.  But if he spoke, we'd better hear what he says and articulate it clearly.  No messing around.  No fudging, no hedging, no softening the edges.  Rather, gentleness with clarity.


  1. Were the homoiousians wrong? If they were wrong, how do you know?

    Given that people of various denominations and theological backgrounds have taken up positions on all sides of society's current debates on gender and sexuality, perhaps there isn't much clarity to be found, and the moderates are right to be trying to maintain unity and peace between people with different views?

    If there were such a clear answer, why are so many Christians unconvinced of it?

    1. All fair questions. I do think the homoiousian party was in the wrong, and the consensus of the church since has been that they were mistaken. How do I know? Just because the data of Scripture doesn't go with the grain of their system; or to put it another way, if they were right about the nature of God, the gospel as the Scripture unfolds it wouldn't make sense. I wouldn't put them all in the same bracket as the Arians, though. There is 'mistaken' and then there is 'heretic'. I think the distinction is important.

      Is there clarity on gender and sexuality? Well, I think it is clear that it is only in the last 100 years that anyone has thought that Scripture wasn't clear on this, and I am sure it is not coincidental that this has gone alongside developments in wider society. In other words, I think Scripture is clear but that there are other factors than Scripture at play in shaping people's thinking and articulation of their views. This is inevitable, and it's one reason why we should listen carefully to the historic interpretation of Scripture.

      I'm not against moderation, and I'm for careful nuance in complex situations. Goodness knows I'm in favour of unity. But not at any cost, and I'm very aware that the potential cost of getting this wrong is high.

    2. Thanks for the reply Daniel. I can't say that I'm convinced by your argument, but then I wouldn't expect to be.*
      Re: gender and sexuality, yes the specific issues that are being debated in society are ones also being debated within Christianity, but that has always been the case, and as far as I can tell religious practice and interpretation of Scripture has always ultimately bent with the wind of social change. I mean, I'm afraid it is an old chestnut, but the example of slavery is unfortunately apt here - texts within the Bible are very clear that slavery is permitted (regulated, controlled, but permitted); and those Christians who argued for abolition had to take a different hermeneutic. From my outsider's perspective, a consistent application of the same hermeneutic results in LGBT-affirming churches, but I'm sure there is some nuance I'm missing since I am outside looking in.

      *I am personally an atheist, so for example I don't think "the gospel as the Scripture unfolds it" does make sense - ergo I see no reason the Homoiousians were any more likely to be wrong about God than the Homoousians, among other disagreements.

    3. Fair enough. It is interesting (to me, but possibly not to anyone else) that you think the gospel story doesn't make sense because you're an atheist; I am not an atheist because I don't think the gospel story (by which I just mean the life, death, and reported resurrection of Jesus) makes sense or can be explained on the assumption of atheism. So we're coming at that from different ends, if you like.

      I quite understand why you would consider the slavery example to be important, but for various reasons I am not convinced it is apposite. For one thing, the abolitionists were not being driven by changes in the surrounding culture to change their reading of the Bible; rather, their reading of the Bible drove them to change the surrounding culture. That's different from the way the sexuality debates are working. And the reason for that difference is deeper. It is true that slavery (economic slavery, not the sort of race-based slavery of latter times) is present in the Bible, and is even regulated in parts of the OT. But it is always an expedient, never something which is praised or commanded in and of itself. The Bible, being a history, contains a lot of stuff which is just telling us how it was, not necessarily suggesting that is how it should have been. With gender and sexuality questions, though, we get to the heart of what the Bible says humanity is about - just read the first three chapters and you get a good feel for the essential nature of maleness and femaleness, and their interrelatedness through marriage. And that perspective runs through the whole thing, not just as an incidental observation but as clear teaching about what being human means. It's even used as a sort of parable of the relationship between Jesus and his people, and for Christians that ought to be kind of a big deal.

      I don't imagine you're persuaded, but I hope you can see why I might be.

    4. The gospel story part...well, that could be a whole debate in itself, so I'll just drop that if you don't mind.

      Abolitionism...I think it is a complex issue. However I think it is notable that a religion that was over a millennium and a half old came up with a substantial strand of abolitionism centuries after slavery returned to being a "live" issue [e.g. the UK won the asiento in the early 1700s, and the slave trade had been running for a while by then], and around the time that slavery's economic viability was struggling to compete with industrialisation and colonial labour. In other words in my reading of the history, though there were a few exceptional individuals whose behaviour was driven by their moral convictions (including their Christianity for some of them), abolitionism as a mass social movement was based on economics and proto-socialism. Case in point being the support of British textile workers for the Union in the US Civil War - even at a cost to their own livelihoods, British workers were opposing slavery for largely secular reasons.
      I would also argue that OT slavery includes a racial component as it differentiates between Hebrew and non-Hebrew slaves, but since that wasn't my main point I'll drop it.
      Coming back to gender and sexuality, the Bible claims that God created man and woman; this does not mention intersex people, or trans folk, and neither of them fits well into a binary framework. Are intersex people "really" one sex or the other, and how should we tell which? I answer that by saying they're neither male nor female, but can choose to adopt either as an identity, but I don't see how that option is available within your framework, and I can't see any other consistent answer to that question.
      Then with trans-folk, again the gender binary doesn't exactly work here. I bring them up second because I know some people claim that all trans people are confused/mentally ill. If however you're prepared to grapple with their lived experience this is another strike against the gender binary.
      And that's only one of the roots of my dispute with the idea of maleness and femaleness as a core of what humanity is all about - the other is that I, my wife, and other people I know feel comfortable within ourselves while not fitting our gender roles. The most important thing about me is not my gender, at least in my opinion, and it's not the key point in how I relate to other people either. In fact I find things which segregate the sexes disturbing - they tend to separate me from my closest friends, and my wife from her closest friends, for no good reason that I can discern.
      I honestly don't think that gender is core to the human experience - it certainly isn't core to my experience, so if the Bible says that gender is at the core of what humanity is about, that is IMO a strike against the Bible.
      I am not expecting you to agree with any of this, but you're an interesting fellow and I will be following your blog to see what you come out with in the future,

    5. Thanks for engaging - one does one's best to be interesting. A couple of rejoinders, if I may...

      We can park slavery/abolitionism - I agree that the phenomenon is in and of itself open to multiple interpretations. Probably no one interpretation holds all the truth, and such is the muddiness of real historical movements (as opposed to the rarified world of ideas).

      I do just want to highlight one difference in our approaches, because I think it would by itself explain most of our different conclusions. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that you start with experience - yours or others - and then seek to interpret reality in the light of that experience. That is, of course, a perfectly sensible (and to a certain extent inevitable) thing to do. But if the Christian story is true, you'll never make sense of the world that way - because the Christian story tells me that my experience of the world and myself is mixed up, and I need revelation to understand it rightly. That is to say, the Christian story says very strongly that what *is* is not what *ought to be*, and this extends right down to my own experience of myself. So, I'm working from the other end: I find myself convinced that Jesus rose from the dead, and that means I have to interpret everything else, including myself, in the light of that event even if it appears to contradict my experience.

      Still, I don't want to completely invalidate anyone's experience: even if I can't let my experience be normative for me, it is still my experience. It is what I have lived and felt, and that matters. And I have to be even more careful with other people's experiences, because I haven't lived and felt them and therefore it would be all too easy for me to ignore them or trample on them. So, yes, I want to grapple with lived experience of gender and sexuality, and especially those experiences which seem the least straightforward. But that won't stop me interpreting them in the light of the gospel.

      Two final words on gender: firstly, let me say frankly that I think some Christians, and especially in North America, move much too quickly from 'God made them male and female...' to ' they ought to behave like this and like that'. I think the expression of gender varies across cultures, and within certain norms I think that is fine and good. Being gendered is who we are; expressing gender is a more complex and fluid thing, and indeed varies across the Biblical history let alone outside it. Secondly, that you don't feel you experience gender as a core part of your human experience doesn't surprise me. I think gender is so close to us that we don't often see it; rather it affects how we see other things. Complex.

      Again, thanks for interaction - appreciate it, and quite understand if you want to call time on this conversation, but would also be happy to carry it on.

    6. Okay, interesting points all; if you don't mind I'm going to focus on what you suggest as the root of our differences, because I think there's some sense in what you suggest (with some quibbles, because when aren't there?):
      First the quibbles - I don't trust experience. I do interpret reality in light of experience, because what alternative is there? The problem of induction is a real one, and that ends up casting uncertainty on everything we think we know, quite apart from the fact that our memories are faulty, our senses deceptive, and our minds constantly engaged in lying to us.
      Denying that problem is a short trip off a steep cliff, but you'll forgive me for saying I find your solution to it no better than denial.
      If I've understood you correctly, you're nodding in the general direction of presuppositions - you presuppose the Resurrection and then build your worldview from that fixed point. Now don't get me wrong - every ideology needs a presupposition, or to use an alternative image a fixed point around which to build. However, my fixed points are two: that solipsism is untrue* and that human minds and senses - though imperfect - are not totally deceptive.**
      Looking at that fixed point and comparing it with the Resurrection, the Resurrection seems weirdly specific - a specific apocalyptic preacher really existed, preached much as reported in this series of books, was executed and was then resurrected. That's a whole series of claims about history, none of which is beyond reasonable doubt on the basis of the evidence we have from the hard, slow methods of the Academy.*** And after all that, I don't see how it solves the hard problems of building an ideology, unless you either posit the Bible being open to simple interpretation [falsified to my eyes by the multifarious denominations of Christianity], or ongoing revelation [and given that your experience is untrustworthy, how can you trust the revelation?****]
      And now I've hit four footnotes for a blog comment, so I should possibly stop typing in such a convoluted way and see what you think of this mess.

      *There are philosophical arguments against solipsism, but ultimately I reject it on the basis of aesthetics and then work from the assumption it is untrue.
      **Or totally deceptive but in an internally consistent way - ultimately if our minds always tell us that left is right we can deal with it, the problem comes when they tell us left is sometimes left, sometimes right and sometimes straight ahead; and even that might be manageable if we can work out the pattern of the changes.
      ***Doubt about the resurrection is obvious. Doubt about the accuracy of the Biblical accounts likewise. The non-existence or rather mythical existence of the preacher Jesus is more speculative, but I think Richard Carrier makes an interesting case in On the Historicity of Jesus, and I look forward to seeing more discussion of the issue.
      ****In all seriousness, were I to experience an encounter with a god, I would be more likely to question my sanity than blindly trust it; because people who have delusions are common, and prophets seem to be pretty rare.

    7. Okay, so some good quibbles there. I take your point about experience, and in general I want to say experience is a good guide. (I say that on the basis of our senses and minds, as well as the external world, being the product of the good God - so it's a faith position, if you like). But I question whether our experience can give us access to ultimate things, or to values. That's where I think revelation is necessary - so, essentially, if God tells me my understanding of something is wrong, I should probably believe him (he made it all!) rather than sticking to my own point of view.

      I'm not a particular fan of using presuppositions in the way you've suggested (I've written about why on the blog if you want to read more). Rather, I'm convinced that the historical evidence for the resurrection (in the context of the long history of Israel recorded in the OT) is compelling and also full of meaning - meaning enough for me to re-shape my whole view of the world around it. That there is also doubt about the resurrection just means not everyone is convinced by the evidence; it doesn't obviously make it untrue. I do regularly revisit this one event and sort of sense check it - am I still sure? I am. It's not, by the way, the bare event which shapes my thinking, but the event as explained and witnessed to by the preceding Scriptures of the OT. So, not just one drop in the ocean of history, but the high point of an incoming tide, if you like.

      Incidentally, I think that if you met 'a god' you may well question your sanity; but if you met 'the God' (who created your mind and everything else) the impression might be quite different...

    8. Right, so I was drafting a reply to this, and I've somehow lost it. As a result this may be a bit more abbreviated than I'd planned, for which my apologies. On the upside, I have had a chance to read your post discussing presuppositional apologetics, so I can address your position more directly rather than what I'm interpreting you to mean from your comments above.

      One thing I was pleased to see was your recognition that presuppositionalism is circular as an argument. You think it makes the position unassailable, I think it makes the position not worth assailing ("X is true if you accept premises which lead to X" is so trivially true as to not be worth attacking), but no matter.
      Our experiences of course cannot create our values; in just the same way that science can give us knowledge but not tell us what to do with it, all our experiences in life can't tell us what is right. I'm not sure though, how revelation is supposed to help here.
      After all, gaining revelation is an experience - either one which you have had yourself, or one which you have had indirectly through input from people you have met, or things people have written, etc. Why is that experience more valid and trustworthy than others?
      I'm not claiming to have great answers here, because I would say that ultimately my values are rooted in my aesthetics, or in other words that some things just seem right and I try to extrapolate and develop those feelings into a system which is coherent and fits with my values. Honestly, I think that is one of the weakest parts of my personal philosophy - I am much more comfortable with my epistemology, for example, and feel it is much better grounded - however, I really don't see that your version is better even in this area where my justifications are weakest. Your aesthetics lead you to like revelation as a way of jumping the is-ought gap (and I still don't see how that works, as I said). Mine lead me down another path. I don't think that it's easy to argue aesthetics directly (viz the ways people argue about art for an example), and those disputes are best approached by other means, but here we are somewhere near the bottom of the rabbit hole anyway.

      In answer to your last point I don't see how I could be expected to know the difference between a god and "the God" - if a god is powerful enough, and knowledgeable enough (and real enough!) to have a meeting with me, what more could the God do? That sounds like you're putting trust in your fallible experience and flawed mind to know the difference between beings so far beyond you that they merit being called a deity, and I'm certainly not that confident!

    9. So, sorry for the slow reply - been a busy week. Still fairly busy, so here's a short answer. When I talk about 'revelation' I mean this: something, or specifically someone, coming in from outside the whole world system with a particular message. That is to say, revelation is not just one of the things which occurs within the realm of experience; it is a thing which, although it occurs within that realm, is not possible within that realm, and thus shows that it does not originate there. In essence, when I am talking about revelation I am talking about the incarnation: God (who does not belong to creation and is not one thing amongst the many things of which we could have experience) becoming a human being (which does belong to creation and is such a thing) so that in experience there is now a factor which is inexplicable on the terms of experience...

      Does that make any sense at all?

      So revelation is not primarily a subjective thing, but an objective: the history of Jesus. And my 'values' derive from that history, because if he really is who he claims to be then his history not only takes place within world history but as such is also the foundation of all world history.

      In other words, and this is pertinent to the last point, I think you're treating God as if he were one factor amongst many, when in fact if he is anything he is the bedrock on which all our experience (because the whole of our universe) rests. If you came face to face with the bedrock of existence, I think you'd know...