Sunday, November 29, 2009

Was Jesus really born to a virgin mother?

Matthew 1:18-25 makes this claim:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

The birth of Jesus of Nazareth to a virgin woman has been claimed by the Church from apostolic times, but it is today one of the most vexing claims about Christ that the Church grapples with.

I commend to your attention Tod Bolsinger's essay about the virgin birth. Among other things, Tod says that there was no expectation among first-century Jews that their Messiah would be born of a virgin. There is a passage in Isaiah in which the prophet is speaking to King Ahaz and tells the king,

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

The King James and many later versions quote Isaiah, "... a virgin is with child," but this is a retrojection of Church tradition onto the Hebrew text. The Hebrew word used is alma, which simply means "young woman" with no indication of her marital status or sexual experience. Some scholars think Isaiah was referring to his own wife when he spoke to Ahaz, others that he was simply laying out a timetable for when Ahaz's troubles would be over. (Isaiah continued that by the time the child could eat solid food and choose between good and bad, Judah's foreign-policy problems would be gone.)

Since the Jews of Jesus day could certainly read Hebrew - it was taught in the synagogues, even though they mostly spoke Aramaic - they would not have ascribed virginity to the young woman of Isaiah's prophecy. In fact, the face reading of the passage is self-evidently against it! So Tod is right that no one of the time expected the Messiah to be born of a virgin. In fact, they didn't expect the Messiah to be born of the Holy Spirit, either. What they did expect was for the Messiah to be a powerful political ruler and military leader who would usher in an eschatological peaceable kingdom for the Jews.

However, Matthew quotes Isaiah thus:

"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel"

Matthew, of course, was written in Greek, and the word used for virgin is parthenos, which indeed means "virgin." The reason Matthew reads that way is that in 70 BC Jewish scholars in Alexandria translated the Jewish Scriptures into Greek. Their result is called the Septuagint, for "seventy," because the story is that 70 scholars worked nonstop for 70 days to make the translation. This translation is abbreviated LXX (Roman numerals for 70) and it was from the LXX that Matthew cited Isaiah. And the LXX uses the word parthenos in Isaiah where the Hebrew text uses alma.

There was no lack of myths or legends in the ancient world of miraculous conceptions and births. But there are profound differences between them and the story of the birth of Jesus. In most of the other stories, the encounter between the human parent and the god (or goddess) is presented graphically, even explicitly. What happens between the woman and the god is exactly what ordinarily happens between an ordinary husband and wife. But in Matthew’s story as well as Luke’s, God is not shown in the male role in conception. The Holy Spirit, the divine power and presence, works in Mary to conceive a child without a human father. There is no union between God and Mary, either in Matthew or in Luke. Jesus comes to exist as an unborn child simply because God wills it, not from anything God does to Mary. This distinction is perhaps a crucial one for understanding who Jesus was.

Let’s recall, for example, the story of the famous figure of Greek mythology, Achilles. Achilles was the son of a human father and a divine mother. Achilles’ portrayal in the Iliad shows that he was half human, half divine. He had much of the power and invulnerability of the gods, but the temper and tempestuousness of ordinary people. He led his men with godly courage, but carried out unforgivably harsh vengeance on the Trojan prince, Hector. Throughout the story, the tragedy of Achilles unfolded precisely because he was neither wholly god nor wholly human. He was half and half, and neither half was at peace with the other. His godly side strove for the higher virtues, but was dragged down by his humanity, and his divinity perverted his humanity. Thus, the story of the semi-divine, semi-human Achilles is one of tragedy.

Jesus is nowhere presented as a hybrid product of divinity and humanity. Jesus is not a half-and-half person. Jesus is affirmed as fully human and fully God, and his story ends not in tragedy at the cross but in victory at the empty tomb.

Tod observes that the virgin birth of Christ

... is God’s way of personally entering his creation. The Spiritus Creator that brought the universe into being, personally entered creation to bring restoration. God did not choose a human being, imbue that person with his Spirit and stick him on the cross (that view is called “adoptionism”). God himself did the job. God did not just send his Spirit, God himself saved us, was with us…

Mark D. Roberts has a thoroughly read-worthy series on whether the doctrine of Jesus's virgin birth is hype or history. Also, many people confuse the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception with the universal Christian doctrine of the birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary. But the are different ideas altogether.

The Immaculate Conception means that Mary, whose conception was brought about the normal way, was conceived without original sin or its stain - that’s what "immaculate" means: without stain. The essence of original sin consists in the deprivation of sanctifying grace, and its stain is a corrupt nature. Mary was preserved from these defects by God’s grace; from the first instant of her existence she was in the state of sanctifying grace and was free from the corrupt nature original sin brings.

However, this doctrine is exclusive to the Roman Catholic Church, having been promulgated only in 1854 by Pope Pius IX. Protestants have never worried about it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why the "Great Faith Experiment?"

I explained in my November newsletter column (click here to read)that we are doing financial pledging for 2010 differently this year.

In this post I will try to explain why.

In years past, pledges were done in a very traditional way. Pledge packets were delivered or mailed to the households of the church, the people filled them in and brought them back. The church's financial stewards opened the pledges, totaled them up and reported the total to our bookkeeper and finance committee chairperson.

And that was that.

What many people of the church probably don't know is that the sum of the pledges received for the coming year did not affect the amount of the budget for that year. Each annual budgets is formed by committee chairpersons and activity chiefs making a request for funding to the finance committee, which as a whole considers the requests, puts together a draft budget and re-evaluates the submissions. Some requests are sent back for reconsideration and after additional analysis and discussion, a final budget is formulated. This budget is sent to the church council for final approval.

The reason the sum of pledges received did not affect the budget amount is because almost 90 percent of our budget consists of fixed costs that can't be adjusted based on nothing more than amount of pledges. The heating/cooling bill, for example, is what it is. Property insurance costs are what they are. The payroll is the payroll. (Salaries did not rise for 2010, by the way.) Those expenses must be paid; in a strict sense they are not budgeted, but estimated, for the coming year. Some estimates are precise but others are only approximations. But they will not vary whether the pledged sum is high or low.

Furthermore, the money budgeted for ministries of the church forms the core of what our church is all about. Although from a strict financial-accounting perspective these expenses are "discretionary," they really cannot be. If we fail to fund our ministries then we cease to be a church in any meaningful sense of the word.

So we of the finance committee asked ourselves in the last few months, "Why continue to do pledging the same old way?" After all, once the pledges were totaled, nothing more came of them. No one ever got a "bill" from the church nor did anyone compare a pledge's amount against the amount actually given. Furthermore, many people declined to render a pledge.

We concluded that continuing to do pledges that way was not well advised. And so the Great Faith Experiment was born. We will still pledge to support the work of the church financially, but our way of receiving pledges will recognize that giving is part of both worship and discipleship. In that regard, our pledges are promises made to God.

This Sunday is Commitment Sunday.

During each worship service there will be a time to come forward to lay your envelope, with the pledge sealed inside, on the altar as a gesture of solemn commitment to God and God’s work of redemption by our church.

Afterward, volunteers will collect the envelopes and pray for each person by name that God may grant each of us grace to remain faithful to the commitments we have made. Then they will mail the unopened envelope back to you. Please keep it and use it through the coming year to remind yourself of the promise you have made to God to support the work of his church.

A final note: the budget approved by the church council for 2010 amounts to $275,332, a decrease of $23,760 (-8.6%) from 2009.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Stress on Army families is great, too

In much of the commentary related to the tragic killings at Ft Hood, attention has been paid to the enormous stress soldiers endure while deployed to operational areas and the difficulties of adjusting to normal life upon return. And those stresses and difficulties are very real and serious.

But let's not forget the stresses of the family members soldiers leave behind. From "Army Live," the official blog of the US Army: "Not Wanting to Let Go"

I recently came across the above picture (which I am sure many of you have seen already) of Paige Bennethum standing in formation with her father, pleading with him not to leave. Her father, Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Brett Bennethum was preparing to leave on a year -long deployment to Iraq.
Last week I attended the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Annual Meeting and Exposition and had the opportunity to sit in on the Military Family Forums. On the final day, the topic for the forum focused on the effects of extended deployments on Soldiers, families and especially the children.
The Army psychiatrist, Col. Kris Peterson discussed with Army Spouses and support groups the seriousness of repeated, lengthy deployments and the effects they are having on children.
For example, he noted that yearly mental health visits for children under the age of 15 have increased from 800,000 in 2003 to 1.6 million in 2008. One out of three school-age children are at risk for psychological problems and about 30 percent of children have significantly increased anxiety.
In an effort to deal with that trend and provide a central place for Army children to get mental and physical help, Peterson and other experts at Madigan developed the Military Child and Adolescent Center of Excellence in Fort Lewis, Washington.
The team consists of pediatricians, psychologists, social workers and child and adolescent psychiatrists whom are looking at the latest research and strategically planning the way forward for caring for Army children in addition to sifting through existing programs to find what actually works.
Many times when we think about the U.S. Army we tend to focus just on the Soldiers. We must remember that there are children all over the country like Paige Bennethum whose father or mother is/will be deployed overseas for months at a time. These deployments obviously have a great effect on the children and that is why the U.S. Army is working hard to create and development programs and centers that will assist families through those difficult times.
Military families, we want to hear from you. Let us know what you think can be done to assist families in times of deployments. Children; share your stories of how you deal with a loved one being deployed.