Postscript to “The Danger in Being Ministerial”

When I wrote my recent post, “The Danger in Being Ministerial,” I omitted a couple of points.

For one thing, the priest/ess vs. pastor — or cultus vs. social ministry — distinction is largely rhetorical. I do not mean to say that they cannot overlap, only that often they do not.

Also, I am surprised that no follower of Jesus pointed out a hole big enough to drive the First Baptist Church’s Sunday School bus through, to wit, for at least some Christians, ministry is in fact cultus. But then not too many Christians read this blog.

After all, a famous passage in the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus telling his disciples that to aid the unfortunate is to honor (or worship him): “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

And if you focus on that teaching, you can sidestep the theological problem that has haunted Christianity since the first century CE: exactly who or what was Jesus?

Was he a mortal prophet? A would-be sacred king? A mortal prophet who was “adopted” and “exalted” by God?  A preexisting angel who was made the Son of God? Or was he an aspect or persona of the One God all along, since forever, sort of?

As Bart Ehrman points out in How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, all of those viewpoints were common, even orthodox, at different times.

And what was orthodox in one generation could get you excommunicated in the next — at least until the First Council of Nicea, which under imperial patronage hammered out what they called a creed, but which is easier to understand if you read it like a property lease.

Just as your rental house lease tells you, for example, that you cannot store inoperable, unlicensed motor vehicles on the premises, the Creed tells you what ways of thinking about Jesus are permissible. Every phrase drives nails into some so-called heresy or unorthodox interpretation.

Ehrman’s book is written for the non-specialist. He avoids technical language like apotheosis. He relies mainly on the accepted New Testament — the four gospels and those epistles of Paul that scholars think Paul actually wrote (not all of them) — with only occasional borrowings from the Gnostic gospels, etc.

His arguments construct a chronology of Jesuses. For instance, Paul’s epistles, which can be dated fairly closely, were written down before the Gospels and the book of Acts, even though the events in them postdate the gospels.

Ehrman argues that Paul’s Jesus was an angel who took human form, which fits in with Paul’s own experience — he never saw Jesus in person, although their lives overlapped and he met people who knew Jesus, but instead his claim to being an expert on Jesus came from a visionary experience that left him temporarily blind and disoriented.

How someone could be both human and divine at the same time was and is a problem for Christians. Ehrman gives his view of how Christians wrestled with that problem, and of course his Christian critics cry, “He’s got it wrong!

As a final criticism, Ehrman posits that the key to Paul’s Christology is that he thought of Jesus as an (or the) angel (of God/the Lord).  That, says Ehrman, explains how Paul could ascribe “pre-existence” to Jesus, and how, as a devout Jew, he could countenance worshipping Jesus.  As the key basis for this notion, Ehrman invokes a peculiar reading of Galatians 4:14, where Paul says that in his initial visit the Galatians received him “as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.”  Ehrman insists that this is to be read as a flat appositive construction, in which “an angel of God” = “Christ Jesus.”   But this isn’t actually as compelling a claim as he thinks.  Even Gieschen (on whose work Ehrman relies here) presents this reading of the construction as only a distinct “possibility.”  And most scholars (myself included) don’t think it really works.  The grammar certainly doesn’t require it, and it seems more reasonable to take it as a kind of stair-step statement, “angel of God” and “Christ Jesus” as ascending categories.

You see, Christianity is easy. All you have to do is interpret 2,000-year-old documents written by people to whom Greek often was a second language,  making sure that your sense of the words’ meaning and connotation is the same as theirs.

Or just do what the man in the pulpit tells you to do.

Mythic or esoteric explanations are missing, because this is a book about small o-orthodox Christianity pointed at educated readers-who-probably-were-raised-as-Christians — like Ehrman, who says that his own journey runs backwards compared to christology, from Jesus as an aspect of a Trinitarian God to Jesus as mortal prophet.

Read How Jesus Became God to be up to speed on the history of christology, and given the complexity of the subject, maybe you will understand why many Christians do not even want to think about it, preferring instead to make statements like this:

If you understand that most people are controlled and compelled by fear, then you will understand how hard it is to keep a church going that doesn’t teach about “paying for your sins in hell,” but rather how we bring God into our everyday acts [sic], how God can be here and now, not some nebulous, angry entity who is waiting to judge you when you die, how Jesus didn’t come to die for all of us horrible people, but to teach us about a radical way of loving unconditionally and all-inclusively and that Love is the answer to heal a broken world.

That is one of my former students writing on her Facebook page about her church.

A lot of the clergy actually don’t think that Jesus was divine anyway, if you pin them down. So where does that leave the cultus angle? Do you need a divinity for that? I would say yes, but there are ways to talk yourself out of that corner.


2 thoughts on “Postscript to “The Danger in Being Ministerial”

  1. There is an old book written by the Quaker George Fox, “The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded; and Antichrist’s Kingdom Revealed Unto Destruction” (1659) that is kind of an unusual read at first, yet kind of heartening later, once you get the hang of what is going on in his book (primarily by getting used to his tone and understanding that he is addressing criticisms against him).

    Essentially, the early Quakers believed that christianity (always with a lower case C) was a cult. In his book above (and other writings) George Fox restores Jesus’s status to what it was before the Nicean Creed, before church became hierarchal, before belief became a profession, before the Bishop in Rome corrupted Jesus’ teachings (turning it into a cult), and before selected translations of selected manuscripts by “men of letters” became dead words compiled in dead books, scrupulously studied by priests and ministers, to justify lording over the brethren, leading to Christianity and worship of Jesus as it is today in all Christian sects. For example, translating “Christ is among you” versus “Christ is in you” changes the whole trajectory of the entire religion, which might include, among other things, what you think about sin and goodness in individuals, etc. The early Quakers saw Jesus as an “example,” saw the bible as a “guideline,” would not enter a “steeple-house,” and did not believe that it was possible to know god from written words. People who cannot read, for example, can still know god. (Now Jesus loves us, this we know, because the bible tells us so.) They saw god as a metaphor, and the terms inner light, Jesus, god, Prince of Peace, Sun of Righteousness, and the sun were virtually interchangeable terms for them.

    Anyway, it is surprising to read 17th-century thoughts about Christianity and Jesus that are so radical, yet forward thinking. FYI—I am not a Quaker, but if I were interested in god, Jesus, and worship, perhaps I would consider it.

    I never thought that Jesus (or the 12 apostles) were real people—don’t know why. I never thought King Arthur (or his 12 knights) were real people either. I think they are all exemplars of some myth that was never written down.

  2. Pitch313

    A few years ago, thinking that Christianity might, for purposes of discussions among Pagans, be described according to its creeds, mentioned some differences between Christianity and Craft. My chief notion being that a person would not likely be at once a Christian adherent and a Craft practitioner.

    I was taken aback by the defenses of Christianity that also were denunciations of various Christian creeds. Or elements of those creeds. From Pagans, mostly. Who had Christian backgrounds, I supposed.

    I concluded that, in these times, Christianity is just about whatever its adherents want it to be. Including Paganism, if that’s what they want. Creeds are, it seems, for wimps, or some such.

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