Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Understanding Scripture: “What’s up with head coverings and eating blood?”

How to find the knowledge of God
How to find the knowledge of God.
I’m loosely following a discussion over at Darryl Hart’s Old Life; a Roman Catholic who goes by the name of Cletus Van Damme seems to be a fair-minded Roman Catholic who nevertheless is befuddled about Scripture because of Roman Catholic teaching about what the Scriptures really are.

I’m going to go into some depth here, because if you truly want to understand the Scriptures, the Protestant principles, as articulated by the Reformers, genuinely shed light and give understanding, in ways and places that the Roman Catholic teachings have only served to confuse things.

[I also saw a very good opportunity here to distinguish between different kinds of “traditions”, and how different the “traditions” Paul is talking about are from the “living Tradition” of the Roman Catholic Church.]

Cletus van Damme (CVD)
Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

CVD cited Robert:

“The WCF (Westminster Confession of Faith) can contain inerrant statements no less than the “protected” statements of Rome.”

In response, CVD said:

“The WCF does not make any claims to be inerrant (it actively endorses the opposite principle). It could contain opinions that happen to be true, but opinions that happen to be true are not the same as articles of faith.”

We don’t require “inerrancy” from the WCF, but there is nothing that is not true in it. That’s a key difference. The men who wrote the WCF were stating “what’s true” about God’s Revelation of himself (and other matters).

The principle of Scripture given in the WCF is correct: “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture….”

Whether or not the WCF is “inerrant” or “infallible” in this statement is just simply irrelevant. Whether they are making a true statement is an entirely other thing.

The Scripture is “the whole counsel of God”. This is what is required to know. Not some elaborate scheme of “infallibly interpreting” it. Note also that the difference between “implicit” and “explicit” things is defined here as well. What’s “implicit” is not some hidden thing brought out of the shadows, but something that “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture”. That is, the Trinity, the doctrines of the person and work of Christ, are, “by good and necessary consequence” “deduced from Scripture”. Certain “traditional” “Marian doctrines”, on the other hand, are shown by this distinction to be speculative and therefore not part of “the whole counsel of God”.

The Protestant principle of Scripture begins with God: a Sovereign God, a God of a particular Character. And as I wrote to you several weeks ago, a God who is Sovereign in the realm of “being” is certainly Sovereign in the realm of knowledge. God is capable of imparting his “whole counsel” to men, individually, and without the need for a Roman-style intermediary.

Citing Robert:

“We say that the Apostles were infallible whenever they taught. Rome says that Rome is infallible only sometimes when it teaches. Our view of infallibility is actually much higher, and we have a list of infallible statements called the canon. Rome has yet to give us such a list [of its infallible dogmas].”

CVD Responds:

So every statement of scripture remains binding and irreformable? OT all still in effect? Everything the apostles taught remains in force?

Yes, yes, yes. However, your concept of “binding” is conflated with “true”. Your concept of “still in effect” is conflated with “true”. Your concept of “in force” is conflated with “true”. I’ll explain below.

CVD asked:

What’s up with head coverings and eating blood then?

You need to understand, as the writer to the Hebrews said, that “God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways”. That is, the individuals through whom God spoke and to whom God spoke lived in “various times” and in various cultures, with different practices, different understandings of things.

Those cultural backgrounds are important in understanding “head coverings” and “eating blood”.

Let’s look at the latter first, “eating blood”.

“‘I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood.” (Leviticus 17:10-12)

What’s the “infallible interpretation” of that? How does Rome handle that? Well, your guy Thomas Aquinas went with the “four senses” of Scripture, and who knows where the “allegorical” ended up.

On the other hand, we, in the 21st century, have the wherewithal to understand now that Leviticus was written to the people of Israel at a certain time at a certain place, where the indigenous cultures did sacrifice animals, and those sacrifices had specific meanings to them.

(The Israelites themselves had been given certain sacrifices from God, and those sacrifices, too, had meanings).

So within that context, the context of a people in a certain culture who understood a specific set of animal sacrifices in a certain way, God’s word to those people has a definite (not “allegorical”) meaning. Here is what one commentator says:

The prohibition on eating blood (i.e. eating meat from which the blood had not been properly drained out) had already been stated (Lv 3:17; 7:26-27), but here it is explained, with repetition for added emphasis (cf. v 14, The life of every creature is its blood). The physiological facts that blood carries ‘life’ to all parts of the animate body and that death quickly follows serious loss of blood is here raised to a matter of moral and spiritual principle as well. The shed blood of an animal meant its life had been given up in death and thus, in the context of the sacrifice, its life had ransomed and cleansed (made atonement for) the life of the sinful human being on whose behalf it had been slain. The primary reason for the ban on eating blood, therefore, was its sacredness as the major element in the sacrifice rituals (Christopher J. H. Wright, Leviticus, in “New Bible Commentary”, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, pg 145).

If you really wanted to understand the Old Testament, instead of just pulling a particular verse out of context and using it as a whipping boy, you’ll see that the Sovereign God, in a specific time, speaking to a specific group of people, makes perfect sense. (Or at least, that it gives you a way of understanding this passage in Leviticus in the context and spirit within which it was given). So I hope you don’t have too many further questions about “eating blood”.

On to “head coverings”. The same principle applies: you have the writer, Paul, writing to a specific group of people in a specific culture. To this certain people within that context, who understood the cultural practice of “head coverings” in a certain way, God’s word to those people has a definite (not “allegorical”) meaning:

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God (1 Corinthians 11:2-12).

What follows is another Protestant commentator, relying on the “Protestant principle” for “understanding Scripture”, telling us what’s going on in this passage. Specifically regarding 1 Corinthians 11:2, he says:

Paul begins this [passage] with a verb (praise) that appears three times in this passage and nowhere else in his writings except for an Old Testament citation in Romans 15:11. I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. This expression of praise is remarkable since Paul does not use similar language elsewhere and throughout the letter he deals with serious problems of every kind (spiritual, theological, moral, social, etc.). As pointed out above, this passage introduces a section concerned with the glorification of God in our worship (cf. 1 Cor 10:31). The hierarchical chain that is outlined in the following verses and their references to shame and glory suggest concern that the Corinthians’ “worship” will result in dishonor rather in honor accruing to God. The language of praise is often associated with glory or honor (citations omitted). That which the Corinthians do which is praiseworthy brings them honor (or glory), and that honor and glory presumably also reflect to Christ and God the Father. Paul introduces this text with an affirmation of his praise for the Corinthians; in the following verses he will clarify how their behavior can and should remain praiseworthy through their obedience to his instructions. Worship that is not praiseworthy does not glorify God (Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, “The First Letter to the Corinthians”, from The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, ©2010, pg 505).

Paul has God and Christ in view here, as he writes of this “tradition”.

I want to pause here, because every Roman Catholic of a certain age will remember the rule that a woman had to wear a head covering in church. But what’s required is not a mechanical following of rules; it is an understanding of a principle in Scripture in which some cultural norm (in the “eating blood” passage above, or the “head covering” passage here) no longer has the significance for our culture that it had in the two respective cultures to whom the original passages were written. That “mechanical following of rules” is a direct fruit of [a significantly uninformed] Thomistic reflection on these passages.

The Reformed believers here will also see a principle in this passage, and will take away something that is significantly different. (Interestingly, one of the elders in my church, whose hair is “thinning”, walked into a second service with his hat on, to pick up something he had left in his seat from the first service, without seemingly a care for breaking some “head coverings” rule that would have Roman Catholic men of a certain age reflexively taking off their hats.)

Continuing with our commentator:

Presumably Paul is responding to the Corinthians’ own claim to have faithfully remembered him and the traditions he passed on to them. That the Corinthians were keeping the traditions (just as [Paul] passed them on is stressed. Whether the point was originally made by the Corinthians in their letter to Paul, or by Paul in his response, his words here serve as a strong affirmation, even if they are qualified by the teaching in the following verses. This verse suggests that a positive relationship still holds between Paul and the Corinthians, and he hopes that his present argument will be received in the light of that relationship.

The concept of remembering will be evoked again in Paul’s discussion of the Lord’s Supper. There, however, it is not Paul or his traditions that are remembered, but Christ’s covenant-establishing death for us (bold emphasis is mine). To remember, as usual in Scripture, does not recall something that was forgotten, but something that is kept in mind. Thus Thistleton has, “keeping me in mind” here, and BDAG renders the relevant part of this verse, “you think of me in every way”.

In the New Testament, “traditions” are frequently criticized or spoken of in critical ways (as “the traditions of the elders” or “the traditions of men”; cf. Matthew 15:2, 3, 6; Mark 7:3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 13; Galatians 1:14; Colossians 2:8). Thanks in part to the influence of those passages, traditions are frequently looked down upon in many evangelical circles. Three out of the five times that Paul refers to traditions, however, he does so with very positive connotations (here and in 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6). Traditions, when they do not undermine the teaching of God’s word but preserve valid interpretations and/or applications of it, are of great value to the church (505-506).

For a fuller explication of some “good” and “bad” traditions, see the following links:

Irenaeus confirms Michael Kruger on the “canonical core” of Scripture.
Which came first, the “apostolic succession” or the New Testament?.
Kruger vs Ratzinger, and
Kruger vs Ratzinger 2: “Apostolic Succession” is the adoption of a Second Century Gnostic Concept.

See this link for background on how early ecclesiastical traditions went wrong.

Continuing with the theme of “tradition” in this verse, Ciampa and Rosner continue:

In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:6 Paul refers to the standards for Christian teaching and living as the “traditions” he passed on. In this chapter he seems to have the standards for Christian worship particularly in mind. Although it has been suggested that in the following verses Paul will provide arguments that are intended to get the Corinthians to change worship patterns they have followed since Paul was with them, it seems more likely that he is merely providing them with arguments to support the worship practices that some of them had begun to question (perhaps in light of some of Paul’s other teachings). By pointing out that he is clarifying traditions that he passed on to the Corinthians, Paul reminds them that these are not simply his personal preferences He wants to help the Corinthians understand the implications of Christian teachings which predated Paul’s ministry among them and which are accepted by the churches in general (cf. 11:16). In this verse Paul brings bot the Corinthians’ respect for him and their respect for the traditions of the church to bear, and he hopes that he can leverage both in his attempt to move the Corinthians toward more healthy kinds of behavior — behaviors which glorify God (506).

So that is the preface for the “head coverings” comments which follow.

In saying I want you to realize Paul suggests that there is some aspect of the traditions mentioned in the previous verse that the Corinthians have not applied or understood as well as he would like. What he wants them to realize is that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of every woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. To Paul’s mind, everyone (except God) has a head, and it is important to understand who your head is.

In a hermeneutic (such as the one the WCF presents, in which “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly”, this passage militates against the notion that “the Church” [and especially not “the Roman Catholic Church”] as “the Bride of Christ” is somehow the “ongoing incarnation” of Christ. Paul’s language is far too granular here to enable that kind of “interpretation”.

The order of the pairs mentioned seems unexpected to many readers: man-Christ, woman-man; Christ-God. It has been suggested that if Paul were trying to establish an order of hierarchy he would have said something like “God is the head of Christ, and Christ is the head of every man, and man is the head of the woman”. But Paul is interested especially in the way men and women fit into the broader hierarchical framework. That explains both why he begins not with God or Christ but with the identification of the head of every man and goes next to the head of the woman and why he does not name the head first (i.e., “Christ is the head of every man” or “the man is the head of the woman”), but introduces the man and then his head, the woman and then her head (bold emphasis is mine, italics is the authors’s).

It is clear that Paul is not talking about the kinds of “traditions” at all that Roman Catholics are talking about.

These are not some kind of secret, hidden things having to do with “the Immaculate Conception” and “Assumption of Mary”. These are traditions that have been practiced out in the open, that are not secret, not “implicit” in any way.

Regarding the “head coverings”, specifically, in this passage, I’d like to share a selection from Dr. Gary Chapman, from Covenant Seminary in St. Louis (and a place where Dr. Bryan Cross once seemingly failed to pay attention), from a lecture in the series on New Testament History and Theology. (This is available as a free audio course for just the cost of a username and password):

We are talking about God’s communication to us. We have our own set of cultural contexts, be it Ghana, Taiwan, or the southern United States. Wherever our particular cultural context is, that is our backdrop. We need to decide as we approach Scripture what Paul was saying to the audience and what God would have that say to us today. We do not have some of the same problems that you find in 1 Corinthians.

There is not the same issue with the resurrection in most spheres of Christianity today. There are not the exact same issues with marriage today. There are ramifications of it, and there is a lot of overlap. Probably one of the most difficult texts in all of 1 Corinthians to apply to today is in 1 Corinthians 11 where it talks about head coverings. It says that women are to cover their heads in worship, and it gives a variety of reasons for that. It also says that men are not to cover their heads in worship…. I would argue that you have to understand what that meant in Paul’s day.

Let us start with the easier one, which is about the men. Why does Paul say that men should not have their heads covered? Why is that even an issue? I have a great picture of Augustus as a priest. He is wearing the priestly garments, and he has this thing over his head. If you look at most ancient statues of priests, their heads are all covered. That is not to say that the whole worshiping community was that way. It is just the priests whose heads are covered. When Paul explicitly says men are not to cover their heads, there are probably cultural associations that we do not understand. We do not have priests in that same sense who are conducting pagan religions to a whole variety of different deities, none of whom is truly God. That is different. That might be one of the issues there. With regard to women’s coverings, he repeatedly shows that this is a sign of submission and respect. Ladies, when you wear a hat today, are you thinking about submission and respect? Some of you might think this, depending on your cultural context. The vast majority of people who wear hats are not thinking of it as submission. It seems to me that in this context there is a trans-cultural application of this. Basically, it is simply to say that men are to submit to Christ and show that is their area of respect. Women are to submit to their husbands. That is what the passage says. That is the trans-cultural aspect. They are to have some way of showing that that is the way that all of this goes. In our society the wearing of a hat no longer shows that. The outward display is not important, but perhaps the inward display is important if you are going to be consistent in understanding 1 Corinthians 11. The point is that you take what is trans-cultural and you apply it to your culture today. It may look different for each culture.

Using the WCF as a guide (“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them”), I would suggest that what Chapman has provided is (in the spirit of the interpretation of the “eating blood” passage from Leviticus) the clearest and simplest understanding of the passage at hand.

CVD, you continued by criticizing the Protestant principle of understanding Scripture:

You distinguish between infallible/irreformable teaching/principles in Scripture and prudential/contingent application of those principles and practice just as Rome does. And your list called the canon isn’t an infallible list, according to Protestantism’s own criteria (not to mention textual criticism has and continues to modify the contents of that list). It’s easy to offer RC fallible lists – Denzinger, Ott, Ratzinger have all done it.

Your category of “infallible” is really missing the mark. The category should be “God is honored in his Word”. Because, as I’ve said, His Word is really all that we have from Him, in terms of Revelation, but His Revelation is “sufficient” for us.

“Protestantism’s own criteria” requires no “list”. It requires God’s Word, and the understanding thereof. That is “sufficient”. That’s what “the sufficiency of Scripture” means. That is what the WCF means when it says “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture”.

In discussions between Protestants and Roman Catholics, there is an endless number of directions in which one can go. Frequently, Roman Catholics won’t stop to address what’s just been explained (however much good sense it makes). For the Roman Catholic, mulit-puprose the objection to any particular Protestant argument is frequently “Oh yeah, but what about this…?”

In explaining how Protestants deal with these two verses (“eating blood” and “head coverings”), as well as the concept of what Paul meant by “tradition”, my hope is that Protestants will have a better general understanding of what’s happening in these discussions that frequently seems to leave one shaking one’s head.

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