Dr Ian Elmer replies

Over on the Catholica forum, Dr Ian Elmer has replied to my earlier criticism:

Hi David,
Thanks for your reponse. It is always good to hear from someone who is willing to discuss issues without resorting to personal, anti-intellectual comments. So I will ignore your final paragrah…LOL!

I would like to make a couple of points. First, I would challenge the implied distinction between prophets and priests. To suggest that the impulse towards reform was merely a prophetic one belies the fact that most of the prophets were either priests or functionaries of the Temple. Isaiah and Ezekel were both priests. Hosea was also connected to the Temple in some fashion. Jeremiah was one of the architects of the Josian reform. Moreover they were all men. In short, the prophets who were the most vocal in their defense of monotheism and the Temple cult were part of the emerging male-dominated priestly or aristocratic elite.

Secondly, recognising that much of the emerging cultus in the years leading up to the Exile served the agenda of such men does not equate with wanting to restore the age-old pagan belief in a female deity; and it is certainly not out of any “misguided feministic concern” that I raise the issue. It is merely one of historical interest, and it served to introduce for discussion the question of orthodoxy with which I ended the commentary.

I’m sure you would agee with Rahner’s observations about the salvific effect of faith regradless of the level of orthodoxy therein – something which nuns at my old convent school regularly pointed out by telling us that the Protestants would get to heaven before us because the were blessedly ignorant of the true faith and, therefore, could not be held accountable for their misguided actions.

I suspect that you have missed the point – although you did recognize the fact that monotheism developed in ancient Israel. I would, however, point out that the persistence of asherah worship was not confined Canaanite folk religion, as you say, but was also pervasive throughout Israelite folk religion – which brings me back to my first point. The “Book” religion propagated by prophets, priests and kings represented the educated, literate, male elite and not the folk religion of the masses; which is as true today in Catholicism as it was then in the YHWH cult of ancient Israel.

Cheers,

Ian

Ian, like Kyle in the comments on the previous post, has correctly pointed out that I “missed the point” of his essay, which is, essentially, that ““Book” religion propagated by prophets, priests and kings represented the educated, literate, male elite and not the folk religion of the masses; which is as true today in Catholicism as it was then in the YHWH cult of ancient Israel.”

But I still object to the way in which the suggestion is that because later Israelite orthodoxy was driven by an “educated, literate, male elite” (which is, as Kyle points out, a pejorative way of putting it to say the least) its value as authentic and authoritative revelation is, for some reason, to be questioned.

I am reminded of Richard Dawkins’ comment that “the book of Genesis, after all, was not written by any philosopher or scientist of any great wisdom. The book of Genesis was written by tribesmen who had no privileged information at all.”

For Dawkins – who, like Dr Elmer, is a member of an “educated, literate, male, elite” – the fact that Genesis was written by “tribesmen who had no privileged information” (a point which itself is seriously to be questioned) is a reason for not taking the Genesis stories seriously. Dawkins and Elmer may be using different standards, but they are using the same method to question the authenticity of the Scriptures as authoritative revelation.

Which brings me to ask another question: Why, by either Dawkins’ or Elmer’s standards, should we accept the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as authentic and authoritative revelation?

After all, a good case can be made either for the fact that Jesus was a peasant “who had no privileged information” OR for the fact that Jesus was a member of a “educated, literate, male” who was (if we take his mother’s side of the family) was also a member of the priestly clan centred on Jerusalem. On this last point it is interesting to note, as an aside, that though Jesus critiqued both the Pharisees and the priests, he was, in a way, a member of both.

In any case, why should Jesus be taken any more seriously than the author of Genesis or the authors of the later Jewish scriptures?

The answer, as we all know, is because Jesus was “sent by the Father” and his words are “Spirit and Truth”. In other words, as the Gospel of John testifies with its lists of witnesses to Jesus, Jesus had authority to teach in the name of his Father.

For the same reason, the apostles – who were either, depending on who you are talking about, illiterate fisherman (eg. Peter) or Jerusalem educated literary elites (eg. Paul) – also taught authoritatively because they were sent by Christ who was sent by the Father and were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

By extension, today’s ecclesiastical magisterium (who, I think, are the real targets of Elmer’s critique) are also an “educated, elite, literate, male, priestly” class (although some of them had their origins in tribal and peasant communities too!). But does this in any way invalidate the authenticity of their teaching? Certainly not. The only question that matters is: are they authorised to teach their “orthodoxy” in the name of God?

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22 responses to “Dr Ian Elmer replies

  1. Tony

    But I still object to the way in which the suggestion is that because later Israelite orthodoxy was driven by an “educated, literate, male elite” (which is, as Kyle points out, a pejorative way of putting it to say the least) its value as authentic and authoritative revelation is, for some reason, to be questioned.

    Where is Ian actually making this suggestion, David?

    • You may be right, Tony. It may rather be an implication that some could legitimately draw from Dr Elmer’s essay, rather than an explicit suggestion.

      A comment currently awaiting moderation links to the following comment by Dr Elmer on the Catholica blog which he claims exhonerates Dr Elmer from these charges.

      In the interest of fairness, readers might like to go to: http://www.catholica.com.au/forum/index.php?id=9714

  2. Kyle

    I remain sympathetic to both sides. I think you still accuse Dr Elmer of something he never explicitly stated. Yet, the language he uses does come dangerously close. However way he spins it, he goes beyond historical observation. To say the prophets and priests were primarily men is quite different to labelling them as partiarchal and elitist and portraying the whole development of the OT canon as a power struggle.

    Dr Elmer reminds me of a few Protestant friends of mine whose total spiritual life revolves around the questions ‘Am I saved?’ and ‘What do I have to do to get saved?’ I think these are the wrong questions to ask. As Christians, we should be thinking more along the lines, ‘How can I help build the Kingdom of God?’ and ‘How can I come closer to God?’ Even if orthodoxy is not salvific, that doesn’t make it unimportant. We shouldn’t be thinking ‘What’s the least I have to do to get saved?’ but ‘How can I have the best relationship with God?’

    • Okay. Let’s take it as read that I acknowledge that Dr Elmer “never explicitly stated” what I take as a logical consequence of his argumentation.

      • Peregrinus

        But Dr Elmer can hardly be responsible for what you take to be the logical consequence of his argument, David. You have to accept responsibility for that.

        Is the real issue here that you doubt, at some level, that the voice of the Spirit can be heard through a culture affected with “patriarchy” and “elitism”?

        • Oh, come on, Perry. I will take your question regarding my doubts as your little joke.

          As for Dr Elmer, I believe he has a responsibility for the consequences of what he has written.

          He has disparaged the authors of the Sacred Scriptures – and it WAS a disparaging way to describe them – as “a tiny, but increasingly powerful, Jerusalem-based, male literary and theological elite” – and then immediately went on to disparage the current Magisterium by saying: “Not much has changed in 2500 years! …Power and prestige still reside in the hands of a male dominated priesthood and hierarchy.”

          What on earth is any reasonable reader supposed to take that to mean?

          When someone yells “fire” in a crowded theatre they have to take some responsibility for the natural interpretation those who hear him give to his words.

          • Peregrinus

            I assure you David, I’m not joking.

            You assert that, in describing the (human) authors of the OT as coming from a patriarchal and elitist culture, and suggesting that this can be seen in the text they gave us, Dr Elmer impugns its authenticity and authority.

            The unspoken but necessary premise of your argument seems to me to be that, if the imperfections of the human culture within which it was written are reflected in the OT, then the OT is inauthentic and not authoritative.

            Without that premise, your argument makes no sense. Yet that premise does not, I think, reflect an orthodox Catholic understanding of the inspiration of scripture. And it’s certainly not a necessary Catholic understanding of the inspiration of scripture.

            So it may not be just Dr Elmer who is shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre. If there are people who will assume that patriarchy or elitism reflected in the text means no divine inspiration, will they not read your posts as telling them that they are quite correct? Whereas, of course, they are quite wrong.

            If anything needs to be challenged, surely, it is not the notion that the human authors lived and worked within a fallen culture, or that this culture has shaped the text, but the notion that this is inconsistent with divine inspiration.

            • Just trying to work out why Patrairchy would be a bad thing…

              • Peregrinus

                David’s argument proceeds on the assumption that it is, or at least that Dr Elmer uses the wrod in a pejorative sense. Do you think he’s wrong?

                • The unspoken but necessary premise of your argument seems to me to be that, if the imperfections of the human culture within which it was written are reflected in the OT, then the OT is inauthentic and not authoritative.

                  No, this is not the case, Perry. On this I am at one with “Blessed Martin”, as the Lutherans call him. He described the scriptures as the “swaddling clothes” in which the Incarnate Word is wrapped – a very apt description.

                  My argument with Dr Elmer is that he (not I) described the biblical authors pejoratively and derisively, with the explicit implication that their religious “orthodoxy” (over against “folk religion’s” unorthodoxy) is somehow tainted.

                  To me, it matters not two jots that the people who wrote much of the bible were literate, educated, Jerusalem-based, AND (to boot) MALE. It Only someone with an ideological barrow to push would make this the basis of an argument against accepting orthodox religious teaching.

                  It seems equally pointless to me to try to imply, as Dawkins attempts to do, that if the biblical authors were tribal peasants “who had no privileged information”, their witness is also for some reason to be questioned.

                  I object to making the human imperfections of the authors a criteria of criticism, not to the fact that the human authors were imperfect.

                  For this reason, I think your doubts about my “doubts” is unfounded.

                  • Peregrinus

                    I’m not meaning to be smart, David, but when you start talking about the “explicit implication” of Dr Elmer’s work, I feel your argument must be shaky.

                    If we grant that Dr Elmer described the human authors pejoratively and derisively it is still you, not Dr Elmer, who is making a link between that and the orthodoxy of what they gave to us. I think you have to accept responsibility for making that link; you can’t offload it onto Dr Elmer.

                    Dr Elemer notes, quoting Rahher, that there is still today a discrepancy between what the church officially teaches and what the people actually believe, but his point is not at all that what the people actually believe has a greater claim to orthodoxy. In fact, I read his point – which is again Rahner’s – as being that what we may call “popular faith” may be not at all orthodox, but still salvific.

                    If anything, he says, we get “too upset” about orthodoxy, and perhaps your reaction supports him; you can only understand his comments as being about orthodoxy, as though there were no other point he could be making, even though he says as explicitly as he possibly could that he is making a different point.

                    I have to repeat that it is you, not Dr Elmer, who suggests that describing the priestly authors as patriarchal, etc, has implications for the orthodoxy of what they gave us.

                    • Dr Elemer notes, quoting Rahher, that there is still today a discrepancy between what the church officially teaches and what the people actually believe, but his point is not at all that what the people actually believe has a greater claim to orthodoxy

                      But he goes further than this. He draws a parallel between the “literate, elite, Jerusalem-based, male, priestly” etc OT orthodoxy and the current “2500 later” situation in which “prestige still reside[s] in the hands of a male dominated priesthood and hierarchy”. His words, not mine. Quite explicit. Even for an implication! 🙂

  3. This is what von Balthasar called “the anti-Roman effect” – which is now so common in Catholic talk, whether among the laity or in academia as to be almost the norm: to disparage “Rome”, “the Vatican”, the “(mean old) Pope”, “(pedophile) clergy”, etc., as alien, sinister and wrong. Bizarrely enough, having been told such things by Protestants for centuries, and having defiantly rebuked them for it, the Protestants no longer saying so, we now do it to ourselves!

    I myself call it the phenomenon “self-hating Catholic”. If Catholicism weren’t so culturally ingrained, those who honestly think this way would go off and be Anglicans or whatever; but I seem to recall a sociologist explain that by and large Catholics and Anglicans don’t go elsewhere, they just lapse.

    One must say, people in this anti-Roman frame of mind seem to think that Vatican II called for women priests, gay marriage et al., and there is a giant rightwing conspiracy to return us to the Dark Ages… Yet they seem to think that sooner or later some new Pope will just declare all those things to be acceptable, and then we’ll be as the Anglicans. It’s a strange attitude, which seems quite illogical to me: if our faith is false, then give it up, and go elsewhere.

  4. Matthias

    strewth ,all i can see in Dr Elmer’s wordy god speak is an anthropological thesis rather than any theology.
    As is often the case with professional theologians ,they take on the scholarly and forget or never experienced the Holy Spirit. Dr Elmer’s position reminds me of the theological bankruptcy of Bishop james Pike.

  5. Well, Tony that’s what get’s me about Catholic academics – the ‘theologians’ claim they are not Scripture scholars and the ‘scripture scholars claim they are not theologians. Not only is this nonsense to non-catholics, but our own Holy Father made a special intervention at last years synod on the Word to the exact effect that we must bring an end to such a false dychotomy. (He himself is both a scripture scholar and a theologian of the highest rank).

    No scripyure scholar therefore – as Ian definitely is – can wash their hands of the responsibility of taking into account the theological ramifications of their exegesis.

    • Tony

      Again David, I think you’re arguing from what you think is written or what you think is implied rather than what is actually written.

      Matthias opines that Ian’s words are more like an ‘anthropological thesis rather than any theology’. I have no reason to assume that Ian ‘washes his hands’ in the way you suggest, but (again, as far as I’m aware) his interest/expertise/passion is not theology. As Ian said himself:

      ‘… recognising that much of the emerging cultus in the years leading up to the Exile served the agenda of such men does not equate with wanting to restore the age-old pagan belief in a female deity; and it is certainly not out of any “misguided feministic concern” that I raise the issue. It is merely one of historical interest …’

      HOWEVER, beyond all the argy bargy I’d like to acknowledge something I regard as very important. You are by profession and (presumably) passion involved in ecumenism. I sometimes think we need more inter-church ecumenism than with those of other denominations!

      Too often, in my opinion, this blog, along with Catholica and many other sites, contribute too much to inter-church division rather than unity.

      BUT you at least have moved out of the comfort zone of your blog (I wish I could think of a ‘crossing the Tiber’ metaphor!) and ventured to the ‘dark side’ of Catholica and, I hope, been given a reasonably respectable hearing.

      I really appreciate that and, to me, it is a great witness to your own integrity.

      • Unlike my protestant and orthodox brothers and sisters in Christ, I have a real and FULL communion with my Catholic brothers and sisters, and esteem them as such. I have said as much on the post about why I have included a link to Catholica on my blog.

  6. matthias

    Tony Would that not be “intrachurch” ecumenism you want rather than the ecumenism” with those of other denominations?”
    Would make sense especially with the eastern rite catholics and other groups. You are right about unity and division but ‘you aint seen nothing” around disunity and division until youhave experienced a good old Proddy fundamentalist dispensationalist talking about-read trashing- those who have other positions ,Protestant or catholic. It makes you blush and ashamed to be a Christian

  7. Peregrinus

    D: But he goes further than this. He draws a parallel between the “literate, elite, Jerusalem-based, male, priestly” etc OT orthodoxy and the current “2500 later” situation in which “prestige still reside[s] in the hands of a male dominated priesthood and hierarchy”. His words, not mine. Quite explicit. Even for an implication!

    He does. But he seems to accept that the “official” teaching of the modern “male-dominated priesthood and hierarchy” is orthodox, and the popular faith which differs from it is not. His point is not that the popular faith is orthodox, it’s that it isn’t orthodox, but that this doesn’t matter (as much as we might think).

    And, if that’s the view he takes of the current situation, there seems to be no warrant for your assumption that he takes, or implies, the opposite view with respect to disparity between “establishment” and “popular” Jewish beliefs in the OT period.

    As I say, this is something you are bringing to the party, not him.