Over at Internet Monk, Father Ernesto has written a brief introduction to oikonomia, a prominent feature of pastoral care in the Orthodox tradition. It basically boils down to dealing with people as if the goal were not to “fix” them but to bring them to God:
Americans have a strong built in idea that God is a law and order God. There is only one problem. That is not really what God seems to do in Scripture. He does support principles of justice. The prophets constantly rail against injustice. But, God’s purpose is to bring people into his kingdom. And, if a law appears to interfere with bringing someone into the Kingdom of God, then God has no problem in putting that law aside. Thus, the woman caught in adultery is forgiven outside the law because that unexpected forgiveness is precisely what she needs to hear in order to bring her into the Kingdom of God.
It should be noted, however, that although oikonomia can involve lessening the prescribed penance for sin, it could in some circumstances mean a hard-hearted (or headed) sinner might require a more severe penance in order to bring him to his senses. The bottom line is to deal with each personal individually rather than blindly applying the canons:
God understands people and God understands what will best work to give the best possibility that a person will truly come to him and be saved. In the same way, the bishop and his priests and deacons are called not to simply apply the canon, but to so come to know the person involved that when they apply the canon, they will do so in the way that is most likely to preserve that person’s salvation. Thus someone may be ordained much sooner than expected. A discipline for a sin committed by a church member may either be lightened or strengthened. But, at bottom, whatever action is taken must be based on a knowledge of a person and what will most help their journey to salvation.
So, oikonomia involves fulling admitting that rules and structure can be positive—and that there is such a thing as sin—but being willing to address these matters as if there were something more important than written laws and guidelines. It almost sounds like something Jesus would do, doesn’t it? :-)
…Which is good news for the orthodox. Larry Hurtado explains:
I continue to see some scholars stating as unquestioned fact that “orthodoxy” and “heresy” really only emerged after Constantine, that only with the power of imperial coercion could these categories operate, and that in the pre-Constantinian period all we have is Christian diversity, with no recognizable direction or shape to it. In some cases, scholars will admit that with Irenaeus (late second century) and perhaps even Justin (mid-second century) we may see the early expressions of notions of “heresy.” But a recent study by Robert M. Royalty, Jr., The Origin of Heresy: A History of Discourse in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity (London/New York: Routledge, 2013), marshals effectively evidence and argument that should correct such views.
The latest Biblical Studies Carnival is now posted at My Digital Seminary. Enjoy!
Miguel Ruiz at Internet Monk sheds new light on some old biblical texts.
The history of Christianity is a twisted tale of conflict over sexuality and the suppression of those who dissent the party line on bedroom ethics. These days, it is commonly argued that there is only one correct approach, from sound exegesis of Scripture, to human sexuality and appropriate boundaries. However, we still must concede that what is commonly accepted as “right” today is not exactly how we have always taught. Throughout the centuries, various sexual practices have gone in and out of favor with the church catholic at various times and in various cultures, as external influences have doubtlessly impacted how the relevant Scripture passages were read and understood. We’ve run the gamut from repressing to libertine, and everything in between. It is nothing short of confounding how difficult it is to get the Bible to speak directly and consistently on these matters. If we truly value and respect the Word of God, we would be wise to continue listening and respectfully consider alternate interpretations, especially those coming from fellow believers as a matter of conscience. We’ve all made mistakes in Biblical interpretation before, probably not for the last time. So I challenge you to listen with an open mind as I explain how we’ve been largely wrong about a particular issue for a number of years: Prostitution.
Note for the sarcasm-challenged: It’s satire. But it does make a point, and some of my readers will appreciate it.
Twenty years ago, Cardinal Avery Dulles proposed a ten-point plan of “intermediate goals and strategies” for the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) project. My former Church History professor, Timothy George, has seen fit to remind us of this plan in a recent post at First Things:
- Correct misleading stereotypes. For all our progress toward greater mutual understanding, stereotypes still persist. Often we hear “Catholics worship Mary” or “Evangelicals put private experience above the revelation of God in Scripture.” Such statements may well be true of someCatholics and certain evangelicals, but they represent a departure from, not an authentic development of, the church’s faith.
- Openness to surprise. Part of breaking through stereotypes is coming to recognize how devotion to Christ, the Scriptures, and the Gospel are manifest in surprising ways across confessional lines.
- Holy rivalry. By this phrase Dulles meant that Evangelicals and Catholics “should strive to excel each other not in wealth, power, and prestige but in virtues such as honesty, self-sacrifice, care for the poor, faith in God’s Word, and hope of eternal life.” This rule resonates with the counsel of the Apostle Paul: “Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other” (Rom. 12:10, NLT).
- Overcome mutual suspicion. Several centuries of mutual antagonism, recrimination, and indeed violence against one another have left deep scars in both communities. We must study the past before we can forgive it. In this way, memories can be healed and friendships restored, not only for individuals but also among entire communities of faith.
- Respect each other’s freedom and integrity. This rule speaks to the important distinction between evangelism and proselytism. An early ECT statement called for Evangelicals and Catholics to practice evangelism both within and across their distinctive communities. But this must always be done in the spirit of Christ—without forceful pressure or tactics that demean and disrespect.
- Ecumenism of mutual enrichment. Shunning any premature surrender of their unique characteristics and heritage for the sake of easy unity, Dulles called on Catholics and Evangelicals alike to affirm what “in faith may be seen as held in trust by them for the wholeoikoumene.”
- Bonds of faith. Even in our present state of ecclesial dividedness, there are many ways Catholics and Evangelicals can express together the common faith of the church. “It is no small thing that we can jointly read the same Scriptures as God’s inspired Word, that we can share in the confession of the triune God and of Jesus Christ as true God and true man. It is a blessing to be bound together by the same essential forms of Christian prayer, based on Holy Scripture, and by common commitment to the way of life held forth in the Ten Commandments as interpreted in the light of the New Testament. We are privileged to share in the same hope of eternal life in the Kingdom of God.”
- Joint witness and social action. Inspired by our founders Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, ECT has always pursued a dual strategy. We explore the spiritual and theological basis of our common bond in Christ, and we speak clearly to pressing moral and social issues of our time. For example, the most recent ECT statements have focused on the sacredness of human life and religious freedom. Our current project deals with marriage and its importance for the rising generation and our common life together.
- Peace and patience. The quest for Christian unity cannot be measured in terms of immediate success or visible results. The fact that an “interim strategy” is called for indicates that a quick solution is not in sight. We are reformers of the long haul and in the long view. On one occasion Father Neuhaus said to me, “Remember, Timothy, we may well be living in the firstdays of the early church!”
- Pray together. Cardinal Dulles encouraged us to pray, separately and together, “for full realization of Christ’s petition that we may all be one in a manifest way that induces the world to believe.” Thus we join our prayer with that of Christ himself who asked for his disciples to be one as he and the heavenly Father are one (John 17:21).
Though first presented some twenty years ago, Avery’s ten rules remain relevant and urgent today. Perhaps, when taken together, they sound unduly modest to some, small steps toward a distant goal, but they are steps that move in the right direction.
The bottom line for me is and has always been: the truly historical study of scripture, one that is not dictated by and asked to “serve” theology, will inevitably be in tension with that theology. And that tension must be critically respected rather than cut off or neutralized.
Historically speaking, the Bible we have presents us with some very serious challenges. Good theology will accept the challenge and understand that simple answers are often wrong and that sometimes, whether we are comfortable with it or not, resolutions will elude us.