The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24), Year C
The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So, he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So, Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.Genesis 32:22-31
As for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
There was a very special birthday that happened earlier this month. On October 8th, it was the 1,568th anniversary the Council of Chalcedon. For those of you who are either bad at math or have forgotten your Church history, the Council of Chalcedon met from October 8th to November 1st in 451AD and settled the doctrine of the Incarnation. If you don’t know what the doctrine of the Incarnation is, don’t worry, you will. Yet this is not the only birthday worthy of your attention. There was another birthday earlier this year that may be less familiar to you; on May 25th, American Christian Fundamentalism turned 100 years old. From May 25th to May 30th, 1919, the World’s Conference on Christian Fundamentals met in Philadelphia. In case you haven’t been watching the news lately, this is the conference that established the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy in conservative Christian groups all over the world. If you don’t know what the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy is, don’t worry, you will.
Though these two meetings are separated by time, language, geography, and subject matter, they share one thing in common: they sought to understand the Truth about God. Additionally, they agreed with the writer of the epistle that: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work”.
The Truth is a slippery thing however, if you have ever endured a philosophy course, or —God forbid— were a philosophy major, you may have heard the wisdom of the ages; “Those who study philosophy seeking answers are only going to be disappointed”. Seeking Truth about God is even worse, because God is so different than everything in creation as soon as you start to get a handle on the rules of the universe, you have to throw them all out the window and start from scratch when you try to talk about God. It can be such a frustrating endeavor seeking Truth, for any scrap of progress made merely leads to more questions. After a while it’s tempting to throw up our hands and wonder why it’s even worth the struggle. “Let everyone have their own truth, how can I know that theirs is any better or worse than mine?”
“For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”
In an age plagued by false prophets, half-truths, and fake news, the Epistle writer speaks the Truth. It seems these days everywhere we turn the Truth is under attack. Living in an age of abundant information, what was meant to bring a utopia of understanding and human growth has degraded into a world of itching ears, and special teachers to serve any psychological desire. If it was not clear before, these past few years have taught us that we cannot deny our responsibility to seek Truth, because living in a post-truth age is killing us.
Realizing that we all must grapple with the Truth is just the beginning of our struggle. We now must find our doctrine. Now “doctrine” is a loaded word that has fallen out of fashion in the post-truth era, as it is associated with ridged, usually unsubstantiated claims. This is unfair to what doctrine really is. Doctrine is not about inflexible claims, doctrine is discovering some aspect of the Truth through what others have taught by going through the struggle with them. Doctrine helps us discover the Truth because it allows us to see the whole struggle at once, so that when we grapple with it ourselves, we have the help of those who came before to see the possibilities. What we often forget, and what we cannot afford to forget, is that in seeking Truth, the struggle is more important than any conclusion. It is the struggle that changes you, not the conclusion.
In the Old Testament lesson, Jacob grapples with the Truth in the most literal sense. He is a man deeply afraid, because tomorrow he is coming face to face with his brother whom he wronged. Jacob is so afraid of his brother that he has sent ahead his family, livestock, and nearly every earthly possession, partially as a peace offering, and partially as insurance in case that he is killed. At this moment, he alone in the desert, dread is his only companion. In the middle of the night he is suddenly attacked! He cannot fully see his assailant and it is the fight of his life, yet Jacob gains the upper hand. As the sun begins to rise the assailant takes a desperate shot a Jacob, striking his hip hard enough to put it out of joint. Despite this, Jacob prevails and begins to realize who his assailant is. As the dawn breaks Jacob demands a blessing, God blesses him and gives him a new name: Israel. As God leaves Jacob asks what his name is, to which God simply asks, “why do you ask my name?” As Jacob goes to meet his brother, he is changed. He now has a limp, yet his spirit is stronger because he saw the face of God and lived.
On the surface this is a rather strange, though entertaining, tale. But through it we see how the struggle with Truth makes changes far greater than any comforting conclusion. In the Biblical tradition after the Fall from Eden humanity cannot see God face-to-face. This is not through any malice from God, it is simply the reality that God’s presence is so mighty, so powerful, so incomprehensible that humanity cannot handle witnessing the full glory of God. God did not yield to Jacob when the day came for his own sake, but for Jacob’s sake. What God is doing in this story is helping Jacob find his courage. God gives Jacob a challenge to show Jacob that he can face his brother. God pulls no punches either. They wrestle for hours. The fact that God strikes Jacob so hard that Jacob limps afterward is to show us that this isn’t some metaphorical inner struggle within Jacob, or that God is secretly letting Jacob win to give him a false confidence boost. This is a real fight, and Jacob really won. The final interaction between God and Jacob, when God answer’s Jacob’s question with a question, is not God deceiving Jacob or being coy or a tease. God’s answer is honest, “why do you ask my name?”. The implication is that Jacob already knows who he has wrestled with. He has wrestled with God; he has grappled with the Truth. Though he did not come out of it unscathed, through grappling with the Truth, he changed for the better.
While Jacob’s story provides an archetype for the struggle that leads to true doctrine, it is only helpful if we can apply it practically. It is here where we return to our two doctrines; one true, one false, The Doctrine of the Incarnation and the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy. Both come to substantial and controversial conclusions about God. As promised, the Doctrine of the Incarnation is that Jesus has two natures, one fully divine, one fully human, yet remained one person with one will. The easy way to remember it is that the Trinity is one nature, three persons, while the Incarnation is one person, two natures. The Doctrine of the Incarnation is the most controversial claim in the Christian faith, as it seems to have an outright contradiction: that the infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful God could also be the same person as a finite, human person. Biblical Inerrancy is the belief that God directly wrote the Bible, that the Bible contains no inconsistencies or contradictions, and that all the events described in the Bible happened exactly as they are described.
If you had to choose which of these doctrines is the true doctrine just by hearing the conclusions, to be honest with you I would choose Biblical Inerrancy over the Incarnation; if for no other reason than the Incarnation seems to be less internally consistent. Yet here I am arguing the Incarnation is the true doctrine. Now y’all can breathe again, because I’m going to spare you the many, many, many details of these two doctrines, (though if you do want to suffer through the many details, come join me for the Inquirer’s class or read the notes I’ve published on my website). What I will show you is that the Incarnation is the true doctrine, and Biblical Inerrancy is not a doctrine at all, not because of their conclusions, but how they got to their conclusions.
In the case of Biblical Inerrancy, the idea that Bible was the direct Word of God, and a complete, perfect history of the world, sprung up in the middle of the 19th century. Before the 19th century most biblical scholars understood the Bible to contain allegory, myth, some history, and other kinds of literature. What changed was the development of Source Criticism, using new archaeology finds and a more nuanced understanding of Hebrew and Greek to try and understand the human authors of the Bible; and Darwin introducing the idea of Evolution into the mainstream. For some, this felt like an attack, so they rejected struggling with new findings and invented this idea of the Bible being perfect history. It really took off after the 1919 World Conference of Christian Fundamentals because it provided a simple answer in an increasingly complex world, and in no small part because a belief that much contemporary Biblical scholarship was a German conspiracy (most of the leading Bible Scholars of the time happened to be German). In the wake of the Great War, Biblical Inerrancy provided a shield against struggle for the small price of intellectual integrity.
In the case of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, no one ever wanted end up with a doctrine of two natures in one person. Believe me, they tried pretty much every other option you could think of to explain how Jesus is both fully God and fully Human. Every theory they tried would lead them to a conclusion that did not match with the revelation in Scripture, nor their experience of a just and merciful God. It would always end up in a place where Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection did not save humanity, or some other unacceptable conclusion. But instead of prescribing a ridged, inadequate “solution”, at Chalcedon they set a boundary. Two natures, one person is the boundary that matches with Scripture, Logic, and Revelation, but how those two natures co-exist without consuming one another or the single person we are left to struggle with. It is a true doctrine because it invites us to struggle with our teachers and with the Truth. It does not seek to give a comfortable, easy ideology.
The difference between the Doctrine of Incarnation and Biblical Inerrancy is that Biblical Inerrancy gives one answer to everything, resisting and rejecting any kind of challenge, the Incarnation calls us to wrestle with God as our sparring partner, and to be made better through the struggle. In this age where the Truth seems more elusive than ever, God is challenging us to grapple with the Truth. Though we will never be able to totally pin it down and master it, through the struggle we learn not to be afraid of the challenge, we will at last find our courage again.