An Orthodox Christian Response to
the Inclusive Language Lectionary
by Father Paul Tarazi
The readers of the January 1984 issue of THE WORD will have read, at the end of the article "Orthodox Statement on Homosexuality", a note about the new non-sexist lectionary (p. 11). It should be obvious to the reader that the predicament with which this matter faces us is unprecedented. To be sure, regarding any other topic, including homosexuality, one still has the opportunity to debate the matter and convince the other of his error on the basis of our faith which is anchored in the biblical teaching. But now we are faced with a tampering of the Holy Bible itself. We do not mind that people are willing to accommodate their own understanding of the Bible in order to cater to human whims; after all it is their churches and they are free to compromise the truth in order to have them filled up! Now, however, they are planning to drag us too on this path by injecting their own interpretations into the holy text itself. The matter is indeed extremely dangerous; twenty years from now we shall be faced with fellow Americans who will have been bred on another Bible. We shall have difficulty communicating with them; later such difficulty might turn up into an impossibility. One wonders how the National Council of Churches, whose proclaimed hope - if not aim - is the unity between its member Churches can bless (and there is definitely at least an implicit blessing!) such an essentially divisive endeavor.
I would have liked to abide more on this matter of extreme danger, but my purpose in this article is rather to help my fellow Orthodox Christians understand the basic fallacy of this lectionary which can be called anything but translation of the Bible, let alone Bible. However I think it is necessary to point out that the campaign by the National Council of Churches to present this project is actually one of promoting it. This is quite obvious from the material in the package sent to me by the Office of Information of the Council:
1) The Newsletter quotes only members of the committee that worked on this project; thus the tone is clearly one of praise. Besides, the translation is said to have been "the first interdenominational effort of its kind"; and "prepared by a committee on behalf of the NCC" (qualified precisely at this point as the nation's largest ecumenical organization), without being "an official lectionary of the NCC"! In an included FACTSHEET, and under the heading WHO'S WHO IN THE NEW LECTIONARY'S DEVELOPMENT, the NCC is presented as including Orthodox bodies.
2) The package contains a presentation of the translation committee members as eminent scholars in their fields. It also contains a list of persons who would be willing to speak for the new translation, but none that would speak against it. In both lists, it is worth noting, there is no Orthodox Christian.
Now to the lectionary itself I think that it would be most practical that I take up one by one the points made in the appendix to the lectionary and answer them, since it is in this appendix that the authors express their theological criteria behind their translation.
I think that the authors are already on the wrong track right at the beginning of the appendix where they state the basis for their approach, namely that, in their eyes, the statement "God is Father" is simply a metaphor in the same way as "Life is a dream" is a metaphor. For them "God" and "Father" are two dissimilars juxtaposed, and so the meaning of God is extended. From there they easily proceed to the further extension of the metaphor into including God's Motherhood.
For us, Orthodox Christians, our knowledge of God is through Jesus Christ who is our only possible starting point for any talk about God. And let us make it unequivocally clear since the beginning that we mean here the historical Jesus of Nazareth, born of the Virgin Mary and who lived in 1st century Palestine. Now it is this Jesus who, unlike anyone before or after him, has systematically used to address God as Abba. This aramaic Abba was a feature of the language of little children when addressing specifically their actual earthly father. It was a typical expression for internal family use and is equivalent to our English "daddy." Any reaction of scandal by any of my readers will only match a similar one among Jesus' contemporaries. A reading of our gospels will clearly show that the ultimate scandal presented by Jesus Christ was the way he saw his relationship to God: unique. One would not call God "daddy" and Jesus did!
As I indicated in my commentary on I Thessalonians, the impact of this reality is mirrored to us in that the baptismal cry that seals our having become "children" of God is not a general "Father", but the specific and historical cry of Jesus himself: Abba, which is then translated into Greek as meaning "the Father" (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6; see also Mk. 14:36. No wonder the scholars behind the new lectionary have simply dismissed this whole matter in their translation). To be sure, what is heard at baptism is the cry of Jesus, of his spirit, since he alone can utter this word. As for us, we may only dare, in Jesus, to call upon the heavenly God as Father and to say Jesus' prayer, which is actually called the Lord's - Jesus' - prayer. Consequently, what happens in baptism is that we confess that God is the Father of Jesus Christ; and only inasmuch as we receive Jesus' Spirit do we become able to utter the same word Abba and recognize Jesus' Father as also ours. Again we learn to say Abba not alongside Jesus, but in him and through him, since God is not our Father in the same way as He is Jesus' Father.
This explains why the Apostle Paul calls God "the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." That is also why we believe "in one God, the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible." In this connection God's Fatherhood does not refer to His being the almighty creator - or else we would be talking of Zeus and not of our God! - but rather to His being the Father of Jesus Christ and ours through him. Indeed, the Creed through and through draws on biblical terminology. Here again shines more than ever their misreading of the Nicene Creed when they speak of "the Almighty Father" -in order to knock down the alleged male authoritarianism reflected in such an expression - whereas the actual text speaks of the one God who is Father and Almighty.
And in all this let us not forget that Jesus did not also sometimes call God Imma/Mother, but always and exclusively Abba/Father. After all Abba was an insurmountable scandal! He might as well have pushed for a spicy one! But he did not, and for sure. Had He done, the Church would have recorded such an instance as it did when it reported the actual fact that it was women - and not the apostles! - that first witnessed the empty tomb on Easter day. Conversely, God's recognition of Jesus as His Son takes a central place in the gospels. One need only think of the Theophany at the river Jordan and the Transfiguration. Here again, what is specifically stressed is the unique relationship of Jesus to God. He is not a son of God as humans could be, but the Son of God. This is the basis of our approach to the Trinity which is the fundamental aspect of our faith.
Consequently the statement "God is Father" is not a metaphor as is assumed by the translators, but a reality since what it actually means is that God is the Father of Jesus; that is how we have known Him. Precisely because God's Fatherhood to Jesus is not an imagery, one cannot subscribe to the translators' statement that God is bisexual, both the father and mother of Jesus. The Orthodox teaching states that Jesus' relationship to God the Father is a mystery and cannot be compared to the realm of creation and/or humanity. Such comparison has in fact been the source of all heresies regarding God. And just imagine for a moment if one continued on this heretical line of thought: the Holy Spirit would become the brother and/or sister of Jesus, and we would end up with a pantheon! After all, why would one cater only to feminism? In some years children - as brothers and sisters - will be requiring us to help them make up for their absence in the biblical text and we will end up reshaping the Trinity again!!!
The translators did not take heed to the caveat of not comparing the divine and human realms, and embarked on saying the following: since God does not only beget - which is a male action - Jesus, but also gives birth -which is a female action - to him, then He is both Father and Mother. It remains to ask them why they stopped short of elaborating on the nine month period between begetting and giving birth and on how this would affect the interrelationship between God's fatherhood and motherhood. But suffice it to say that they quote in favor of God's motherhood a text from the Third Council of Toledo that mentions the Father's womb. It is beyond my comprehension that they appeal to this text which specifically reads: " . . . the Son was begotten or born out of the Father's womb, that is, out of His very essence." Not that we Orthodox Christians are bound by this statement of the Council of Toledo (it is highly doubtful that the Orthodox teaching would say that the Son was begotten of the essence of the Father). What I am actually trying to point out is their misreading of a text whose intention is to state that the Son's begottenness from the Father is not to be compared to a human one; and they are doing just that! They have tried to incorporate some Church tradition besides the Bible (one is inclined to ask: since when do Protestants appeal to Tradition and what for? Is it to impress us Orthodox Christians?). It has helped only to clearly show that their whole issue is a forced one.
Child of God instead of Son of God when used of Jesus
Here it becomes even clearer that the translators are hooked on the issue of identification. As God has been desexified or bisexified, Jesus has been put on the same operation table, so that both man and woman would be able to identify themselves with him and thus imitate him. But the New Testament and Orthodox teaching are adamant in making it clear that no man nor woman can identify with Jesus. He is unique and he is always the one that calls us to come to him. We all, men as well as women, respond to his call.
In the New Testament there is no such thing as the imitation of (let alone identification with) Jesus Christ. Whenever St. Paul speaks of imitating Christ (I Cor. 4:8-17; 10:31-11:1; I Thess. 1:6; 2:14) he is asking his readers to equal Christ in neither his maleness, nor even his humanity, but in his sufferings. And in this matter one need not become a male to identify with Jesus.
Again, Orthodox theology does not teach imitation of Jesus Christ, but transformation through him, the Only Son, into sons and daughters of God. Here the male does not have a head start because his sonship is not more similar or akin to the Sonship of Jesus than the daughtership of the female. Jesus' Sonship to God the Father lies in his having the same will as the Father through being obedient to the will of the Father. If a male is obedient he becomes the son of God, and if a female is obedient she becomes the daughter of God. Our becoming children of God will always be a dynamic issue and never a settled matter: "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). It is unfortunately a de facto distorted understanding of Martin Luther's "salvation only through faith" by many a Protestant theologian that ended up by making the issue of becoming a child of God a matter of sitting in a place of honor. And the unavoidable question becomes: "Why should women be excluded?"
Indeed in Christ there is neither male nor female as well as neither slave nor free as well as neither Jew nor Greek, precisely in our baptism into his death, a death of obedience to the will of the Father. The question is thus really: "Why should women be excluded, when the offer is made that they become daughters - and not just plain and neutral children - of God?" In Christ male, female, slave, free, Jew, Greek ... realize God's call to each of them by striving to abide by His will. In Christ does not mean as Christ else, what would not only woman, but also the slave and the Greek do? It is not our imitation of Christ that saves us, but he himself.
Sovereign instead of Lord
The translators consider that the word "Lord" is exclusively masculine whereas the term "Sovereign" can accommodate God's bisexuality. There is no need here to take up this issue again. What is puzzling is that the translators differentiate in this matter between the earthly Jesus and the risen Christ, saying that the use of "Lord" in reference to the former is somehow acceptable due to his maleness, whereas the latter is one with God and thus bisexual! Two points: a) such a differentiation is the least to say heretical; b) New Testament theology shows that the title "Lord" applies more specifically to the risen Christ. But the lectionary does not seem too much interested in theology.
Human One instead of Son of Man
Son of Man is to be kept in spite of its awkwardness. It is an apocalyptic title taken from the book of Daniel and thus a technical term whose meaning cannot be circumscribed by another title. Only a detailed study can reveal its meaning; any other handling of it is bound to distort it since it assumes to be equivalent to it. Besides, the Son of Man in Daniel is quite different from "son of man" in Ezekiel.
Addition of Women's names to the Text
The new lectionary adds the names of Sarah and Hagar to that of Abraham, those of Leah and Rachel to that of Jacob, etc. The additions are made to include the other sex. Let us suppose that in the coming years youngsters would raise again the issue from the perspective of age, and not only of sex. Suppose they would say that the real problem in the Church is that we hear only about older males and females, whereas the youth are excluded. Would we then rewrite the Bible by including besides Jacob, Leah and Rachel, the names of their children (they had at least twelve sons not counting the daughters)? And how about the servants and the slaves? After all why should one cater to only one perspective? And the issue of sex is just one such perspective. The biblical text will end up by not being any more the historical and thus factual Bible, but simply a text made after our own image. I will come back to this later.
The translators go even further (for what could after all stop them?) by making the 1st century Jews say: "We have Abraham as our father and Sarah and Hagar as our mothers" (Mt. 3:9). Obviously we have here a crystal clear example of their complete disregard for historical accuracy. Their intention is to accommodate the Word of God to their own preferences. Why bother at all with the Bible?
Conclusion and Comments
I am aware that I could and perhaps should have said more on each of the points. But it is my firm conviction that even such an effort will have proved insufficient and even for some not quite to the mark. The reason can be simply stated: these Protestants we are dealing with here do not even heed their basic criterion, namely the sole authority of Scripture. Their so-called translation is actually an interpretation, and no doubt a heretical one for that matter. What happened to the basic article of the Reformation faith: Scripture is its own interpreter? What happened to the centuries long stand of Protestantism that the biblical text must not be adulterated, that the translation must not include hearings nor footnotes, that the pulpit is the place to actualize the biblical text into the life of the hearers, that the preacher is to seek help from the Holy Spirit and commentaries? What happened to this stand according to which the Bible must remain the Bible as it was handed to us, whereas its interpretation is to take place in preaching and thus remain open for criticism and correction? What happened to this stand meant to preserve the integrity of the biblical text for the future generations, a pure text unburdened with interpretations that may well prove to be wrong? What happened to this stand that so firmly stated again and again that interpretations are to be consigned in commentaries and articles but ought never to take the place of the Bible itself? What happened to the Reformation caustic criticism of the Roman Catholic Church magisterium? It has poorly ended in exchanging this magisterium for pseudo-scholarship, and in the Protestant tradition where not even scholarship is allowed to have the last word in matters of biblical interpretation. Nothing but Scripture itself is its own ultimate interpreter, since everything else - including both scholarship and pseudo-scholarship -has a changing face in this changing world. . . thus we have been told for centuries. What happened to all this? Well, let us listen to the chairman or rather chairperson of the lectionary committee, the Rev. Dr. Victor Gold: "It's my understanding that God intends the words of Scripture to be applicable to everyone that reads them, including women." What happened to the centuries long efforts since Origen in the field of textual criticism in order to secure the original biblical text? What happened to the efforts of myriads of copyists to preserve for us the Bible? Are we now to bow down to Dr. Gold's understanding and listen to a manipulated text as if it were Scripture?
Yet I do not think that Dr. Gold is totally to blame. He is just a too obvious case reflecting the trap inherent in the Reformation attitude towards Scripture, which de facto boils down to the following: Scripture is de facto the Word of God; Scripture is de facto the sole authority for a Christian; Scripture and nothing else; Scripture, Scripture, Scripture. Scripture became the center of the Protestant way of life; the Bible stood at the center of the church building. The Reformation de facto exchanged the Roman Catholic Church Pope and magisterium for Scripture as a sure source of authority. One need only refer to the history of the biblical canon to realize that Scripture as it stands today had a history. One is also to realize that the actual individual books of the Bible had also their prehistory. Our only possible sure source of authority cannot be but the same as our only sure source of knowledge of as well as life in God: the historical Jesus of Nazareth.
It is this historical Jesus and not the biblical text that is the basis of the Christian faith. The historical Jesus should never be toned down into an a-historical person for all winds and seasons. The historical Jesus is a Jewish man who called God Abba. He, and only he, the Son of Mary, is the Son of God. He, and only he, who suffered and died under Pontius Pilate is the only Son of God. This reality could never be stressed enough: Jesus, and only he, is the Word of God, the Revelation of God, God revealed to us. Scripture is a response and a witness to this Jesus. It is the most reliable response and witness, but still in this category and cannot be put on a par with Jesus. No one and nothing, neither the Church magisterium nor Scripture can be put on a par with Jesus, not even in matters of authority. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are after all the same stock: they looked for a tangible source of authority, they looked for a tangible source of security. They simply forgot that there cannot be any other such source for us Christians except Jesus and his only vicar: his Spirit.
No one and nothing faces us from God's part except the historical man Jesus and his Spirit. Everyone and everything else is on this side, facing God, responding to Him. . . everyone and everything, including magisterium, Scripture and Church. None of these can identify with Jesus. None of them can address us like the historical Jesus, and the historical Scripture - the closest tangible witness to him - should remain so as our safe path back to this historical Jesus. Forgetting this basic abc of the Christian faith, the members of the new lectionary committee spent tons of energy to make the biblical text immediately applicable to both men and women, insuring them that they will thus never be able to hear their Saviour, Jesus of Nazareth! The translators are misleading their people into believing that - if I am allowed to plagiarize Jeremiah (7:4) - "Scripture, Scripture, Scripture" will save them. Thank God there are still children of the Reformation who take seriously the "narrow gate" of scholarship and preaching to reveal to their fellows the true Jesus Christ, instead of the mirage of immediate applicability.
Orthodox theology has learned from the Bible that nothing is to be identified with Jesus, and that the Church-i.e. we, men and women - is facing Jesus and always responding to his call. Following the lead of Rev. 12, Orthodox theology saw in the woman - who represents both Israel of the Old Testament and the Church of the New Testament - a symbol of the Virgin Mary in that she epitomizes Israel in the flesh of whom came Jesus, as well as the Church that bears him. A basic feature of Israel after the flesh, the Church and Mary is that all are respondents to God's call. Thus Mary, a woman, is for us Orthodox Christians the utmost and most accurate symbol of the whole Church, both men and women. Both men and women, since in Christ, in our baptism into his Body, the Church, there is neither male nor female but respondents to God's will. Perhaps from this perspective - and it is the only possible one, since we, humans, can only be respondents to Jesus and God, and never similar to them - it is the women that end up by having the head start ... as long as they take seriously that their point of imitation is - not (nor can be) Jesus Christ, but - Mary the mother of Jesus as symbol of the Church, and the myrrh-bearing women as first witnesses of the Resurrection, heart of our faith. And the men in our Church had better take this matter seriously if they want to be saved by Jesus.
But here we are touching on Mariology where the Protestants will have to make a serious effort. Their first step in this direction is to understand that we mean Orthodox and not Roman Catholic Mariology, and the difference is quite substantial! If I am stressing this point here, it is because I believe that the nonsense of the new lectionary may open up the way for at least considering Mariology in some Protestant circles, and these Protestants should be offered the alternative of Orthodox Mariology. My feeling at this point is that the Chalcedon formula "true God and true man" should be represented in a 1st century cast that would sound thus: "true Son of God and true Son of Mary." This is after all where our Mariology is anchored. My invitation to my fellow Orthodox is to take up the opportunity offered us in the blatant nonsense of this new lectionary.
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America