Sunday, December 30, 2007

Best of the Blogroll: 2007

I'd like to ring out the old year by noting my favorite post(s) of the year for the blogs on my blogroll.
With my thanks to all of you for being bloggers!

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

In memory

Shortly after my father died, I dreamed that I was at the Feast of Salvation. I was sitting next to my father, and on his right was his father, and so on with everyone's father sitting to their right all the way back. Looking down the rows was looking all the way back to the beginning of time. The room was filled with people, seated basically in the family tree of humanity. At the very center, at the end of all the rows, the Lord was there.

... Somehow, when I'm awake, I can never get the seating chart to work out. But in the dream ... you know how dreams are.

In memory of Dad, on the 7th anniversary of his death.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas: On taking human form

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
But emptied himself,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness,
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death
even death on a cross
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above all names
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow
in heaven and on earth and under the earth
And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.

God's opening salvo in our redemption was the biggest surprise of all: the Word of God, God's self-revelation, took human form.

I know the whole "Garden of Eden" thing is a source of argument among Christians, whether it should be understood as historically true or symbolically true. I hope you'll pardon me for not getting embroiled in that particular argument today, but just mentioning this: regardless of how you view the historical angle, there is still much common ground on the theological angle. What brought about the fall was grasping at equality with God. That was the core temptation in eating the forbidden fruit: not knowledge but status.

Paul's writing (some think he was quoting an early hymn) focuses exactly on this angle. We thought equality with God was something to be grasped even though we did not by nature have it; Christ by nature had it but did not claim it. We sought to exalt ourselves to gain our own status; Christ rejected his status in order to be with us. We let ourselves imagine that God exalted himself to keep himself above us. In our redemption, God showed us that the reality of the matter was the opposite: God humbled himself in order to reach us.

God is not too proud to be born into a poor family, not too proud to be put into a trough instead of a crib, not too proud to become human. Our original distrust of God is built on the fact that he is something we are not: that he is above us. The first action in redemption was to take away our cause for distrust: now God lays aside his glory and comes among us as one of us.

This turns our original temptation on its head. If we want to be like God, we reject status and exaltation; we choose humility and service. We accept being human. Christ, in taking our humanity upon himself, gave us back our own humanity as a gift.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christian Reconciliation Carnival #10

Christian Reconciliation Carnival #10 is up at Hyperekperissou. Please stop by and check it out. And a big Thank You to Phil for agreeing to do the toughest carnival of the year: right before Christmas!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Patristic Studies: Debugging Christian History

Sometimes my children are working through a problem in math and find, by looking at their final answer, that they must have gone wrong at some point. The approach I have taught them is a time-tested approach: go back to the beginning and start over. Rework the problem forward step by step. Show all your work. See if you can spot the mistake.

I think this is why there is such a renewed interest in patristic studies in the church. We can look at where we are, and it is very plain to most of us that Christian theology and fellowship have gone very wrong in some ways. So we go back to the beginning and trace forward.

It is very tempting in patristics studies to look at the details, attempting to locate what is the problem. We can trace through doctrines, views of Christ, views of Scripture, views of church authority, views of the sacraments, and any other difference that plagues us we can review in all its history. But patristics is a vast field, and our current differences in Christian belief are a vast field. So pursuits like that -- as informative as they are -- have so far been unfruitful.

Sometimes, when tracing through a problem, we think we realize how a mistake occurred -- we spot a mistake in method. I very nearly wrote this post on Vincent of Lerins' Commonitorium as a case study in how problems of church doctrine were solved in the middle of the patristic age. The idea is that once a method could be established and agreed upon, then it was a matter of tracing forward from the earliest days of the church using that method, and we could then determine exactly when and in what way we made a wrong turn in method. We could apply the right method and see what results should have followed. Still, the very matter of method -- of how problems should be solved -- has become part of the field of disagreement.

Sometimes, when there is so much disagreement all around, the first thing to do is to determine when a problem occurred. I think this is our first necessary step because it is often possible to recognize when a mistake occurred even before we identify what the mistake entailed or how it was made. For example, in my own field of programming, when a certain type of problem occurs and resists a quick analysis, the thing to do is debug the program: trace through step by step looking for tell-tale signs not of what the problem is or how it came to be, but of when the problem begins. Finding exactly when the problem begins is then the biggest clue in identifying the exact nature of the problem and setting things right.

In order to spot a problem, we need a flag to say when a misstep has occurred. If we take "one, holy, catholic (all-encompassing) and apostolic church" as our benchmark for spotting a problem with the church, then we look for when the church stopped being one, holy, catholic (all-encompassing) and apostolic; the problem must have occurred before then.

Tracing through step by step, I think we're on safe ground to say that the apostolic church was still one, holy, and catholic (all-encompassing) at the end of the apostolic age, roughly 100 A.D. Likewise, the church still met those criteria in 200 A.D. and 300 A.D. By the time we get to 400 A.D. I'm not quite sure. Inching forward from 300 A.D., we get to the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. and find the apostolic churches are still in fellowship. At the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. the apostolic churches are still in fellowship, but it is strained. The Bishop of Rome did not attend the Council of Constantinople and some of the decrees of that council were, to say the least, involved in later controversies. By the time we get to 451 A.D. the apostolic churches have split into at least three separate groups which still exist and have never reconciled. So I would, just in broad terms, place the date when serious mistakes were made no earlier than 325 A.D. and no later than 451 A.D.

But, given that there were such early splits, can't we set aside those and concentrate only on the more recent ones? Aren't the more recent ones the most relevant? What about the split between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic church, often dated to 1054 A.D.? What about the Protestant Reformation, beginning in 1517 A.D.? Why focus on such early splits?

Again, it is tempting to trace the roots of the disagreements in those later splits back to the earlier disagreements between 325 A.D. and 451 A.D.; the roots are certainly there. But that would be a misstep for my present purposes; it is not necessary for later disagreements to be the same ones as those earlier disagreements in order for those earlier disagreements to be relevant, even for those earlier disagreements to be critical. No, the more pressing point here is that these later disagreements cannot possibly be resolved without first having resolved the earlier disagreements on more basic things. It is possible, in working a long and complex math problem, for there to be more than one mistake. But when there are two or more mistakes, fixing only the latest one does not fix the entire result. In fact, much work fixing a late mistake may well be wasted effort if there is an earlier problem underlying it.

So I would invite everyone reading along, and all those who would direct their studies towards the eventual reunification of the church, to rework the problem with me. The study of patristics is, in that sense, the record of the church "showing its work" as it worked out the meaning of the amazing things that happened among us.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

South City Midnight Lady

Sometimes when I listen to Christian responses to atheist attacks, I think I hear something like fear. If not fear, at least worry. Bear with me while I tell you about a Very Earnest Christian Song and then a song about a drifter and a prostitute, and I'll tell you why I think the worry about the neo-atheists is unnecessary.

The Doobie Brothers were a little bit before my time, but I always did like good music, and I wasn't a "current or nothing" snob; some really good music was written before I was old enough to notice, or even before I was born. The Doobies were a rock band whose members were Christians. Now, compare two of the Doobies' songs: "Jesus is Just Alright" and "South City Midnight Lady". On the surface, "Jesus is Just Alright" is the more Christian song. It's about Jesus. But it's awfully defensive in posture and awfully lukewarm in its witness to Christ (much like some of the current responses to the militant atheists, but I'm getting ahead of myself).

"South City Midnight Lady" is about a drifter and a prostitute. It's also a beautiful and powerful song with a theme of redemption. The song paints a picture of the drifter in the middle of another hopeless night at the end of another hopeless day.
Up all night, I could not sleep
The whiskey that I drank was cheap
With shaking hands I went and I lit up my last cigarette.
He looks over at the hired company for the evening, a prostitute -- and sees that she has fallen asleep. And all the sudden his hopelessness fades away as his heart begins to care for another human being. He has a tender moment that changes everything in his eyes:
I saw you sleepy-dreamin' there all covered and warm.
South City Midnight Lady
I'm much obliged indeed
You sure did save this man whose soul was in need
I thought there was no reason
For all these things I do
But the smile that I sent out returned with you.
I would contend that "South City Midnight Lady" is a more deeply and profoundly Christian song than "Jesus is Just Alright", because Christianity is at its strongest when things are hopeless, and our message for humanity's despair is that God's love is deeper. There is no situation so hopeless as to be beyond redemption.

God has stacked the deck: all good comes from him. So whenever anyone reaches out for good, they are reaching toward God whether they know it or not. God has woven his love into the fabric of all human relationships, woven his goodness into the fabric of the universe. From Satan's viewpoint, even the most desperate and debased of human relationships (like a drifter and a hooker) is in constant danger that someone will succumb to humanity as it was meant to be and actually love each other.

It's like the classic Christian philosophers said: all evil is a corruption of good. The devil is on borrowed territory. All his best weapons are precarious ones, always just an inch away from being redeemed.

I'm not saying I know the future of the new atheists. I'm not saying I know whether religious freedom will last or whether it will be taken away in the blink of an eye. I'm saying there are constants in the world just because God made it, and that one of these is that all good comes from him, therefore he will never be entirely lost or forgotten. And therefore the enemy plays only with borrowed capital, constantly at risk that someone will look up and see the good and see its source.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Call for Posts: Christian Reconciliation Carnival #10

Phil Snider of Hyperekperissou will be hosting Christian Reconciliation Carnival #10. Phil, who is a long-time advocate and devotee of patristics studies, puts forward this topic of the month:
How does our understanding of Early Christianity (here defined as the apostolic period to the end of the patristic age c. 750 AD) help or hinder our efforts at Christian Reconciliation?
Please submit your posts or nominations by midnight on 12/19/2007 to As always, posts on any subject related to Christian reconciliation are welcome.

And a big Thank You to Phil for his work towards Christian Reconciliation.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bonhoeffer on the culture war

The only way in which the Church can defend her own territory is by fighting not for it but for the salvation of the world. Otherwise the church becomes a "religious society" which fights in its own interest and thereby ceases at once to be the Church of God and of the world. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics
The latest salvo in the culture wars is The Golden Compass, a movie based on an anti-Christian book by an anti-Christian author released for the Christian holiday season. If our response is to argue in our own defense, we may succeed in showing that the author has drawn a bad caricature of Christianity in general and of God in particular. But we risk being drawn into an argument and a defensive posture. If, instead, we continue about our business of fighting for the world's redemption -- of showing God as the one taking on our sins and healing our wounds through Christ -- then we answer the current round of atheist misrepresentations more effectively than if we were to let ourselves be drawn into an argument about them.

Friday, December 07, 2007

A Question of Holiness

My friend C. used to go to a Pentecostal holiness-type church. She tells me this story of when she stopped going to church: It had been a long week at work. Deadlines, overtime, high pressure. And as she was standing outside the church after the worship service, telling her friend about her week and how stressed she was, her beeper went off.

"Oh shxt!" she said, and tended to her beeper.

"I'll pray for you!" was her friend's response. And she didn't mean she'd pray for her to have a better week, or for there to be less stress or less overtime. She didn't mean she'd pray for her office to leave her in blessed peace on the weekend. She meant that saying "shxt" was against their ethical code and that C. was therefore a sinner and her friend was going to pray for her to be more holy.

When my friend C. told me about this, I was floored. Our church has all kinds of faults, but if someone's beeper went off and they cussed, I don't think anyone would mention it. And if they had just been pouring out their hearts about how stressed they were about work, "I'll pray for you" would mean something like "that you have a better week".

Which is the gnat and which is the camel? To me, someone who saw and heard all that and thought the only part deserving comment was the one cuss word -- that's abusive. C. hasn't been back to her old church since. And I have no idea if the whole church is that way or if it's just a matter of "one in every crowd."

Meanwhile, I'm still praying for her. That she stops seeing herself as "not good enough" (she was always prone to that anyway) and stops seeing the church as "the place where that one lady is." Such moments cause people to turn away ...

Monday, December 03, 2007

Advent 1: The call of the world

In studying the presences of God, I have come to notice something: when God makes his presence known, it tends to be to those who are called, set apart, or sent on a mission.

God appeared to Abraham, the first of the called or chosen people that would become Israel.

God appeared to Jacob, ancestor of all the people of Israel. His life was not his own.

God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and Moses was sent back to Egypt. Even though he went grudgingly, he did great things. God had made himself known to Moses, and Moses had a mission.

When Moses led the people out of Egypt, God appeared to all of Israel in the cloud, in the fire, and again at Mt. Sinai where he had shown himself to Moses before. He made his presence known in the Tabernacle, then in the Temple, as the entire nation was set apart for God.

It seems like ripples in a pond as the call of God goes in ever-wider circles, as God's presence in the world becomes more enduring and gives rise to more knowledge of the Holy One.

Then "the word became flesh and tabernacled among us." The boundaries were removed on who could see God, who could know God. The call went out to all the earth.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

How can the Omnipresent be more present at some times?

In our recent conversation about real presence and omnipresence, we could hardly help coming up against this question a few times: how can the omnipresent God be "more present" at some times and places than others? I've been pondering that and have some tentative thoughts.

Some of God's appearances are a glorious presence: the burning bush, the pillar of cloud and fire, the revelations to Moses, the cloud and glory filling the Tabernacle and the Temple. One thing setting these apart from omnipresence is that God chooses to make his presence known to the people. Omnipresence is hidden from our senses. But in these cases God makes his presence visible, directly available to our senses. He does this so that we will see him. He makes sure that we know he is there. He also tends to have a special purpose when he makes himself known. When he appeared in the bush it was to call Moses. When he appeared in the pillar of cloud and fire it was to lead the people. In appearing to Moses he gave the Torah to the people through him.

The Tabernacle and the Temple are two special cases. Here God displays long-lasting presences, persistent or recurring presences. God's presence here is not bound to a particular person or a particular event. Here God's visible presence itself is the main message: he is with his people. His purpose seems to be that his people should understand that he is with them.

Then there are times when God appears without visible glory, sometimes even in human form. When he saw Adam and Eve naked, he clothed them. He visited Abraham when he was recuperating at Mamre, from which the ancients derived the principle that it is godly to visit the sick. I suspect that if we were to trace it through, all the acts of compassion which Jesus described in Matthew 25 are probably things God has been known to do for his people. (I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was a stranger and you welcomed me ...)

So all that is background to the things we had discussed about God's presence. What I see is that God's special presences are for us and for our benefit, and in each one of them there is some sort of blessing God gives his people. He may not be "more present" but he's certainly more known, more self-revealing. His visible presence lets us know where to go for his blessing, for his compassion and his forgiveness. Whenever he shows himself in this way, he shows himself as being for us and with us.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Luther's odd argument for real presence

For Martin Luther, the question of theology was ultimately the question of God's grace -- particularly Christ and him crucified. Luther was no stranger to the debating circles of his day, no amateur at driving home his point. So it always struck me as odd, more than odd, a serious mis-step in his arguments when he made an argument for Christ's real presence in communion based on ubiquity -- that is, based on omnipresence. That seemed to be a backwards argument. Luther had made plain and strong arguments on Christ's real presence from Scripture, which was his strong suit. So why take up an argument that starts by assuming that the bread and wine are nothing special?

But as time goes on, and the more conversations I have with people from non-sacramental churches, the more I come to understand that Luther was going for the heart of the problem after all. To paraphrase the thrust of his argument: Is Christ God? Isn't he omnipresent? Isn't it in him that we live and move and have our being? Isn't he the fullness of him who fills all things? Then how can you say that one who is omnipresent is not in the bread and wine? How can you say that one who is omnipresent is present everywhere in the universe except in the elements he singled out and said, "This is my body, this is my blood"?

You cannot say that Christ is not really present at all in the bread and the wine without saying that omnipresence isn't real presence; that is, without saying that omnipresence isn't real. Or without saying that Christ isn't really the fullness of him who fills all things, that Christ isn't omnipresent; that is, that Christ isn't God.

The more I speak with non-sacramental Christians, the clearer it becomes to me that many such Christians see a world where God is not omnipresent, where omnipresence is not a living reality even though it is confessed with the lips, even though as a point of doctrine it will always have their mental assent not because they give it any thought but because the Bible says it. A recent book I read on Christian spirituality speaks of meditation and "making God present." Nobody talks like that who genuinely believes in omnipresence. There is no such thing as "making God present." There is welcoming God's presence or not welcoming God's presence, but there is no changing the fact of God's presence. There is no "practicing the presence of God"; there is only practicing being aware of the Presence which is already there. Those who do not see God in the tavern or the bar, who do not know God's presence in their kitchens, if God is not with them doing rush-hour karaoke in their cars, if they have not looked at the homeless fellow under the bridge and seen Christ, then what hope is there that they will recognize Christ in bread and wine?

Zwingli's famous argument against the real presence is very telling: "The finite cannot contain the infinite." If someone genuinely believes that the finite cannot contain the infinite, then the finite Jesus of Nazareth was not the infinite God. If someone firmly believes that the finite cannot contain the infinite, then has God's real presence ever been known on earth? If not, then omnipresence is not real presence. Luther attacked the heart of the problem after all, the "worldview" as we would now say, when he challenged for the reality of omnipresence. In a world where God is really present, it is a natural thing to believe Christ can truly be present in the bread and wine. In a world where Christ is not even in the bread and wine, where then is he?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Return of the JW's

Saturday night the neighborhood JW's came to visit as scheduled. They are a sweet and friendly couple. (Unlike the last JW's who came by years ago, but that is another story.) Because they are so obviously sincere in their desire to serve God, I have always been as kind to them as I know how. So Saturday night I had cookies waiting when they stopped by. (Chocolate chip. Yes, with milk.)

And as much as I was ready to talk to them about who Christ is, I had determined to let them choose which topics we discussed since they had scheduled the visit, and to make sure that they could see that they are actual real human beings to me, not just debate opponents.

They got off to a very slow start. First, they let me know that they expected the world to end very soon, and that the beginning of the end was the year 1914. We went back and forth on the prophecies, especially on the question of immediacy. I was skeptical that 1914 had been such a special year, and while I would not be surprised to see Christ return now I would also not be surprised to see him wait for millenia more to come.

Next they wanted to explain that in hell there is no eternal torment, but that the condemned are eventually annihilated. I don't give annihilationists a hard time on general principles, since that's the most straightforward reading of some (but not all) of the texts dealing with what happens to those who are condemned.

They wanted to set up some Bible studies with me. I figured I owed it to them as human beings to mention that I'm a poor prospect for conversion. (I haven't yet been able to gauge whether they are good prospects for conversion to Christianity.) They said they would still like to schedule some Bible studies, and I said I would be willing to study the Bible with them.

From a debate standpoint the visit was very anticlimactic. The night mostly served to put the conversation on a more human level, leaving us in more productive conversation mode rather than adversarial debate mode..

I expect that everyone's tips and advice will come in handy ... as soon as they are ready to discuss something meatier than whether we are in the final days.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Righteous by faith: imputation and God's righteousness

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. (Romans 4:3, among other places)
There is a theory of our righteousness before God that is called "imputed righteousness." That terminology comes from Romans 4 in the AV (King James) translation, where God "imputeth righteousness without works" (Romans 6:6 AV). How exactly we should understand that has become a matter of some discussion over the ages, and currently again in the latest round of atonement debates.

Peter Kirk recently wrote,
Meanwhile, the view that I am working towards is a rejection of the “Reformed” idea that Christians remain sinners in actual fact but are nevertheless, by a legal fiction, counted as righteous in Christ. (Emphasis added. H/T Henry Neufeld.)
"Imputed righteousness" is often described as -- or thought of as -- a legal fiction. The weight of the argument is sometimes even rested on the word "imputed" as if that word meant an inaccurate accounting, a bookkeeping entry without basis in fact. However, a study of that word shows that the normal meaning is making an accurate accounting, not an inaccurate accounting.

I wouldn't for a moment dispute that, on the bookkeeping analogy, God does some very generous bookkeeping in our favor. "Forgive us our debts" presents itself to my mind as the most obvious example. Still, it is not quite a perfect analogy for a view that imputation is a legal fiction, because forgiving our debts is not a legal fiction; once the debts are off the books they are gone for all intents and purposes.

The question becomes, then, when we are counted righteous by faith, whether this is a legal fiction (imputing against reality) or whether there is any reality to being righteous by faith, any real righteousness involved. A number of questions arise in light of Paul's teachings in Romans 4 and in light of some of the subsequent debates on the topic:
  • Is faith righteous?
  • Is being accounted righteous by faith a gift? Is it gracious?
  • Is being counted righteous by faith merited or unmerited?
  • Do we merit the attainment of eternal life?
  • Are we righteous in and of ourselves?
The following are my thoughts on this.

There is no such thing as being righteous "in and of ourselves." That is the mistake of Eden, seeking a right status in and of ourselves instead of with God. Righteousness then primarily means being right with God. As I mentioned in a previous post, the pivotal event in humanity's fall from grace was distrusting God. Righteousness before God is trusting God, and from trusting God it follows that we will trust his ways and keep his word.

So I would argue that faith is righteous, not by legal fiction but by the inherent nature of things. This leads straight to the question of whether faith should be credited to us as if it were merit on our part. If we take this same view of faith -- not changing to another view of faith but maintaining the same view of faith as trusting God to keep his word -- then such faith is not any credit to us, since we do not create such faith. Neither can anything create this kind of faith in God except for the knowledge of God's faithfulness. That is to say that God is faithful, and when we realize this it is called by the name "faith." Here "faith" cannot mean mere belief in the existence of God, which is a faith no greater than the demons possess. But we mean knowing God as trustworthy and faithful, as the one who keeps his promises and fulfills his covenant.

From this it follows that while faith merits nothing, it is still genuinely righteous. Through that faith we are again put right with God, not because faith was meritorious, but because God had reconciled the world to himself through Christ, not counting our sins against us, and we were implored to be reconciled to God. Faith is the human side of reconciliation with God: a confession of faith is a confession of God's faithfulness. Those who are genuinely righteous, then, are not preoccupied with merit of their own, since they trust God who justifies sinners. Instead, by faith, they seek after the things of God: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God.

On this view, faith is genuinely righteous. But it is a misunderstanding of both faith and righteousness to think of faith as our faith as if it did not depend wholly on God's faithfulness, or to think of the righteousness of faith as our righteousness as if it consisted of something other than trust in God, the recognition of God's righteousness, God's mercy, and God's love.

We do not, then, merit the attainment of eternal life as if it were by works (however assisted) or as if it were an obligation of God's to us based on our works, that he must award eternal life simply to satisfy justice. Eternal life is a gift, one whose source is the overflowing generosity and joyful charity of God towards his children. No human act could ever earn eternal life. Nothing within our power could obligate God as a matter of justice to grant us an eternal reward. It is his faithfulness and love, it is his grace, which says to us that he will raise us from the dead. It is his everlasting love which is the source of his promise of everlasting life. It is his great mercy which speaks to us of the forgiveness of our sins, which are many and great.

Abraham was fully persuaded that what God promised, God was able to do. Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Most uplifting post I've read this week ...

Most uplifting post I've read this week. And my favorite takeaway passage:
A cup of coffee is more valuable than anything heaven has to offer. You see, a cup of coffee takes time, and we've only 70 years down here to do everything in our hearts. Every second I share with a saint is a second that he is the most valuable thing in my life, and that investment returns forever. If we wait until heaven to sit down with the saints, we lose all that interest. Heaven has unlimited time, so there's no sacrifice in sitting down with a brother in heaven. Time on Earth is brutally precious, so every minute shared is precious.
Anybody up for a cup of coffee? (Yah, I know, I don't touch the stuff, but the coffee shop will humor me with some lemonade, no doubt.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fallen by unbelief; Justified by faith

The atonement debates seem to be heating up again. Much of the ground has been thoroughly covered, but perhaps a few comments might be productive.

First, what is the nature of the fall? It is first of all a loss of faith in God, and the rest follows. The serpent is portrayed as preaching doubt in God: distrust of God's honesty, distrust of God's motives, distrust of God's word. The fall happens when we say in our doubt, "That's right; I can't trust God. He doesn't have our best interests at heart. He's trying to keep us down. He's trying to keep exaltation for himself." It is precisely a loss of faith -- a loss of trust in God -- that is the key moment of humanity's fall from grace. Grace, again, is a good relationship with God. When our actions advertise a distrust of God, when we say with our actions "God is not trustworthy", implicitly accusing God either of duplicity and treachery or of a lack of wisdom -- this inherently and by its very nature destroys the relationship of grace.

If the fall is a loss of faith -- loss of trust in God -- then is righteousness anything other than faith? Is righteousness anything other than confessing, "God is trustworthy"? Is a return to our right minds any more complicated than that realization that God is trustworthy, that he is for us and that his word can be trusted? God's faithfulness is the bedrock on which our faith stands. And our trust is not a blind leap or an irrational one, but a reliance on the reality of God's trustworthiness.

Abraham and the ancients were reckoned righteous by faith, because they considered that God who made the promise was faithful.

What about our faith? As guilty people, we dare not trust the judge. Does God have our best interests at heart? That question becomes, in our bad consciences, whether the judge has at heart the best interests of the guilty. We dare not risk it, so we hurry to accuse the judge of unfairness, to create a cosmic mistrial, to get ourselves acquitted not by innocence but by counter-accusations. That is unbelief. Notice how atheism -- supposedly a belief that there is no God -- actually in practice is much more preoccupied with accusing the judge of unfairness. The driving force of atheism is the variety of unbelief spoken of in the fall -- unbelief in God's fairness -- rather than unbelief in God's existence. The innocent may go before a judge boldly, but not the guilty.

Here is one place where Christ speaks plainly and clearly to us. It is in Christ that God has proved his faithfulness to us. In Christ, God has shown the world that he has our best interests at heart, even as guilty as we are. It is in seeing Christ and hearing the message of Christ that we trust God again.

And as we trust God again, we find that this is righteousness. This is faith; it comes through hearing the message of Christ. As we trust God again, we find that we are in a right relationship with him again, and that this is grace; it comes through Christ. The day of accusing God to justify ourselves is over.

The J.W'.s Part 2

Thanks to all who have given their advice on the upcoming visit from the Jehovah's Witnesses. Just from taking their pamphlets for all these months, I think if I were going to be dismissive I should have started that from the beginning, so I'm going to see the conversation through even if it does turn out to be a clunker. And as you all have said, any argument which is over their heads is one they're likely to take back to their supervisor rather than ponder themselves.

So I'm thinking I may start with what they do acknowledge. It seems that their usual script covers retranslating "the Word was God" into "the Word was a god" and expecting the Christian (Nicene) to drop it there, rather than run with it. If they translate the beginning of John as "the Word was a god", I think I could ask them exactly how many gods there are, and whether it's ok to worship this god. I'll also see if they have any understanding at all of what the Word of God becoming flesh really means and why it's big news for who Christ is. If they bite, I might even explain how Christ replaced the Temple ...

Comments and advice are welcome. So are prayers.

Thank you much for the comments and advice. It's been helpful in putting together my thoughts.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Jehovah's Witnesses Are Coming ...

The Jehovah's Witnesses are coming ... this next weekend, to be exact. A sweet JW couple has been dropping off pamphlets at my door for some time, and out of respect for their earnestness I've received their pamphlets and most recently a little booklet about what the Bible "really" teaches. They've asked if they can make a visit this next weekend -- presumably to talk me out of the error of my ways. Now, I think I can answer for my beliefs well enough, but I'd like some tips if anyone has personal experience: what is the part of the gospel -- the good news of Christ -- which J.W.'s get most badly wrong? I could google it, but I'm curious if anyone here has personal experience. I plan on evangelizing while they're here ...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Religious ambition as idolatry

Consider the people who built the tower of Babel. They might, to modern eyes, seem very religious. Didn't they accomplish great things? Didn't they seek with all their might to get to heaven? They had goals, they had dreams, they sought better for themselves. They were organized, they planned, they achieved, they accomplished. Isn't this commendable? But what they sought was not what God had asked of them, what they accomplished was not worth the trouble they put into it, though they would have denied this to the end. They sought to become great, to make a name for themselves. The goal of their religion, the pinnacle at the top of their tower, was their own glorified selves instead of God.

Sometimes we also think of climbing up to heaven by works and effort and continual improvement. But does God ever ask us to climb up to heaven? Have we forgotten that, in the beginning, God used to walk on earth; that he only withdrew his direct presence from this world after our sin? Even if at Babel they had succeeded in building their tower, they still would not have gotten to heaven that way. Not only was heaven not at the top of the tower, but they were seeking their own glory instead of God's. The kingdom of heaven is where God is glorified, not just a place that happens to be up high. And we too can work very hard at seeking a higher ground and being better, but if our greatest goal is our own betterment, then we are self-worshipers and idolaters.

And if we strive, the purpose of striving cannot really be to reach God, since He is already here with us. As Paul says, "do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend to heaven?' that is, to bring Christ down, or 'Who will descend into the deep?" that is, to bring Christ up from the dead. But what does it say? 'The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart." Where God meets man is here on earth. The word is not far from us. It does not have to be chased or pursued. As Christ says, "I will never leave you or forsake you." God is not at the top of a ladder that we climb; he is God-with-us, he is Immanuel. God meets us in His word, and He meets us in Christ, here on earth. He meets us in our humility. How often, trying to seek him, have we forgotten that God is already with us, and have instead left the sheep-pen? Have we thought that God was not in such a humble place as we have, or in such a humble life and service?

And when we remember our works and our striving -- for what writer in the Bible does not ask us to remember them? -- let us remember what God says works are for: "that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." When we come down to earth and humbly feed the poor, visit the sick, look after widows and orphans in their distress, then people glorify God. And we discover what Christ has told us all along, that he was already among us: "I was hungry and you fed me. You did it for me." That is true religion.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Google Meme

Dr. Platypus has an interesting meme.
I’d like to suggest a meme, where the premise is that you will attempt to find 5 statements, which if you were to type into google (preferably, but we’ll take the other country specific ones if need be), you’ll find that you are returned with your blog as the number one hit.

Here are my results from November 4, 2007:
  1. crucified God patristic examples
  2. Christian reconciliation carnival
  3. essential visits for theologians
  4. Talmud messianic prophecy
  5. Tolkien Lothlorien visions paradise

Of course, those are the things I'm somewhat pleased return this blog. There are other things that return this blog that are probably just plain goofy ("pet peeves homosexuality debate" also returned me as the top hit). Then there are ones where I just am not on Google's radar, and it's probably a reflection of my poor priorities. For example, when it comes to "Christ-centered systematic theology", Google never heard of me. "Forgiveness of sins through Christ"? Google never heard of me. "Love of God in action"? Likewise.

The Christian blogger's prayer: may my words reflect your Word and all glory be yours only.

Anyone else want to play?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Imitation of Christ (reprise)

I know there's much good to be found in Thomas A Kempis' classic The Imitation of Christ with the overarching themes of discipleship and humility. But I think it is incomplete in some vital ways, having only a partial view of Christ's work.

To imitate Christ more fully, a few more things need to be recalled in the picture of Christ's life: celebrating at weddings, welcoming sinners, eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, taking little children in his arms. Our idea of the imitation of Christ must grow beyond the medieval ascetic framework in which the author wrote. Our idea of imitating Christ must remember not only how much time he spent in solitude and prayer, but also how much time he spent with friends, how often he was seen at someone else's house for dinner, that he had even been known to invite himself over to an outcast's house. Christ's life did not consist solely of the quiet solitude of meditation, but also included the joyful and the friendly and the active.

We are not merely freed from worldly pursuits for our own sake to enable a withdrawal from the world. We are freed for a greater thing, to take up Christ's task of seeking and saving the lost, serving Christ in the redemption of the world. Christ went out in the world seeking and saving that which was lost. He saved that which was lost first of all by loving that which was lost. A fuller imitation of Christ includes time among the unloved and unlovable -- and particularly those in our own lives we have difficulty loving. The imitation of Christ brings us to learn love and joyfulness, hospitality and friendship from Christ, and to frame them as part of the redeeming work he has sent us to do.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Is dieting an eating disorder?

I know that dieting is not typically listed among the eating disorders along with anorexia and bulimia. But after years of watching some friends, and after talking with another friend, I'm starting to suspect that dieting is a low-grade eating disorder.

What counts as an eating disorder? I think it's anything that does not fit into a sustainable and healthy eating plan. And sometimes elements of self-abuse creep into diets, as people punish themselves for being overweight or withhold their favorite foods from themselves.

The only person I know who successfully lost weight long-term (without resorting to surgery) decided to skip dieting and to think only in terms of the "sustainable and healthy eating plan". He made several small but permanent adjustments to his normal eating plan (diet in the old sense of the word) and his weight slowly adjusted itself for what he was eating.

So there it is, my thoughts on why dieting is a low-grade chronic eating disorder, the socially acceptable eating disorder.

(Why post this on my blog? In case it might help someone ...)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Crucified God: Patristic Examples

No topic reveals peoples' images of God quite so quickly as the mention of God crucified, God suffering, God dying. Interestingly, some scholars have considered this to be a late invention. This post is no comprehensive survey but only a sampler of the theology of the crucified God in the early church.

From the late 100's A.D.:
The one who hung the earth in space, is himself hanged; the one who fixed the heavens in place, is himself impaled; the one who firmly fixed all things, is himself firmly fixed to the tree. The Lord is insulted, God has been murdered, the King of Israel has been destroyed by the right hand of Israel. - Melito of Sardis (died circa 180 A.D.), Paschal Homily

From one of the Desert Fathers:
He (Paul) then employed no subtlety or circumlocution, nor did he when he preached the gospel of the Lord blush at the mention of the cross of Christ. And though it was a stumbling-block to the Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles to hear of God as born, God in bodily form, God suffering, God crucified, yet he did not weaken the force of his pious utterance because of the wickedness of the offence of the Jews: nor did he lessen the vigor of his faith because of the unbelief and the foolishness of others: but openly, persistently, and boldly proclaimed that He, whom a mother had borne, whom men had slain, the spear had pierced, the cross had stretched—was “the power and wisdom of God, to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Gentiles foolishness.” - John Cassian (circa 360-433 A.D.), On the Incarnation of the Lord (Against Nestorius) 3.8

As I have mentioned before, I believe that the apostolic church was divided at Chalcedon (451 A.D.), and that synods since then have not necessarily spoken for the whole apostolic church but only for parts of the church. With that in mind, it is interesting to see the official stand taken by the Chalcedonian churches (among these all the Western churches, plus the Eastern Orthodox). In the Second Council of Constantinople (often reckoned the 5th ecumenical council, 553 A.D.), the Chalcedonian churches sought to clarify the earlier findings of Chalcedon, whether the two natures of Christ were divisible (a semi-Nestorian construction possible under Chalcedon). The council's findings were:
If anyone does not confess that our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified in the flesh is true God and the Lord of Glory and one of the Holy Trinity: let him be anathema. (Canon X, Second Council of Constantinople, 553 A.D.).

If anyone shall say that the wonder-working Word of God is one [Person] and the Christ that suffered another; or shall say that God the Word was with the woman-born Christ, or was in him as one person in another, but that he was not one and the same our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, incarnate and made man, and that his miracles and the sufferings which of his own will he endured in the flesh were not of the same [Person]: let him be anathema. (Canon III, Second Council of Constantinople, 553 A.D.).
In this age, the church is re-examining the early church and early doctrines to ensure everything is on solid ground. That is always the call of the God's people: to examine what we knows of Christ and to proclaim Christ to the world. The point of this post is simply that the proclamation of the Crucified God traces back to the early church and has been quite mainstream in the history of our proclamation of Christ.

To some it seems strange -- genuinely beyond understanding -- to proclaim God's suffering and death. To clear up this point so far as is possible, I will end where I began with Melito of Sardis from the late 100's A.D.:
When the Lord had clothed himself with humanity, and had suffered for the sake of the sufferer, and had been bound for the sake of the imprisoned, and had been judged for the sake of the condemned, and buried for the sake of the one who was buried, he rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed. Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven, I, he says, am the Christ.

Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness, I am the passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you, I am your ransom, I am your light, I am your saviour, I am your resurrection, I am your king, I am leading you up to the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up by my right hand. - Melito of Sardis (died circa 180 A.D.), Paschal Homily

That is why we proclaim Christ crucified.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Any Moltmann fans out there?

Theology is about God and our salvation, our cause for hope in the world, and therefore there is no such thing as merely academic theology. Jurgen Moltmann was a thought-provoking theologian who understood that well. As with anyone publishing a number of books, he left himself open to criticism in some places and likely even deserved it on occasion. With that in mind, I'd like to respond to certain criticisms against Moltmann which have been reviewed recently on Peter Leithart's blog -- but only those criticisms that seem somewhat unjust. Given the practical and hope-giving nature of Moltmann's work, I hope that the discussion may also be in that same vein. With thanks to Peter Leithart for the discussion of the pro's and con's of Moltmann, here is a brief review of some of the criticisms against Moltmann.

How do we know the Trinity?

An objection was made to Moltmann's studied emphasis on the "economic Trinity" (Trinity as known through action in the world, the Trinity of salvation history) as opposed to the "immanent Trinity", or the Trinity as it is in itself. How we should know the Trinity as it is in itself is a bit of a mystery. This was part of Moltmann's theological background and why many Lutherans stick with the economic Trinity as the only Trinity we actually know.

Leithart, quoting Pannenberg:
This steals from the Trinity of salvation history all sense and significance. For this Trinity has sense and significance only if God is the same in salvation history as he is from eternity.
On the other hand, if God really is the same in salvation history as he is from eternity, this objection is answered. In that case, it is the objection which is based on faulty premises, namely the premise that God is not the same from eternity.

Did God die on the cross?

From Leithart's blog again:
Moltmann has also been unclear about what he means by talking about the death of God. Karkkainen again prefers Pannenberg: "the Son of God, though he suffered and died himself, did so according to his human nature."
I do not see that "the death of God" is actually unclear; it seems more the case that we balk at it not because it is unclear but because it radically challenges our assumptions about God. This challenge to our ideas about God is inherent in the incarnation itself, in which the finite bears the infinite, the omnipotent takes up weakness, and the Immortal takes up a mortal body. Here Pannenberg, against Moltmann, refers Christ's death to Jesus but not to God, splitting Christ at the moment of death so that the divine and human natures are no longer united. I think Pannenberg's rejoinder shows that it was clear enough what Moltmann meant by the death of God, just that Pannenberg might rather cut some corners of his Christology and separate the divine and human natures of Christ rather than consent to what Moltmann meant by the death of God.

How does God overcome evil and suffering?
Others have criticized Moltmann for robbing God of any real ability to overcome the evil and suffering that He enters into out of love for us. Moltmann is so fearful of domination and any theology of lordship that he presents a God who can only endure with us, but cannot really deliver.
Is it really appropriate to characterize Moltmann as being "fearful of domination and any theology of lordship"? Or is more appropriate to notice that in Christ, God himself radically challenged our fondness for "domination" and "lordship" precisely in his incarnation and crucifixion? If this is the case, then Moltmann drew proper notice to the fact that, in Christ, in King Messiah, God himself chose weakness, even if that should seem foolish rather than wise in our human judgment. In his lordship and triumphal entry, Christ rode into town on a donkey. Then he took up a servant's garb and washed feet as a slave would do, and gave that as an example of lordship.

On that basis it seems that Moltmann has tried to give proper notice to Christ's radical challenge to our concepts of glory and lordship, our typically misguided quests for "domination". As Christ has demonstrated his lordship through weakness, so Moltmann has taken up the themes proper to Christ's incarnation, the themes which Christ himself put forward as essential to understanding his work. He met the disciples' human ideas of lordship and domination only with rebukes. Yet this did not make Christ one who "cannot really deliver", but instead one whose weakness was stronger than our strength.

Is it patripassian to say the Father suffered at the death of his Son?

The patripassian heresy from early Christianity is one that maintains that the Father suffered the crucifixion. Again from Leithart's blog:
I wonder with some others whether the charge of modalism lurks behind his program in the form of patripassianism. When the Son suffered and died on the cross, the Father did so with him. Moldmann is aware of patripassionist leadings, and, against Christian tradition, does not necessarily consider it heretical.
On the basis of the quotes provided, that criticism seems to be a little bit misleading. "Patripassian leadings", as best I can gather from what was quoted of Moltmann, is simply Moltmann's insistence that the Son's death grieved the Father deeply and the Father suffered, not from being personally crucified, but from grief over Christ's crucifixion, from love of him who died. This is not at all "patripassian" in the original heretical sense of the Father being crucified. As such the criticism does not hit the mark of Moltmann's teachings as quoted. It does serve as a way to bring the words "against Christian tradition" and "heretical" on stage in loose connection with Moltmann, despite the fact that Moltmann is not quoted as teaching the Father's death on the cross, merely the Father's suffering from his great love for Christ at Christ rejection and death.

Moltmann's theology has its faults. Still, his works raise the most important questions: Is God really impassible in the face of suffering? What is the nature of Lordship? How do we know God? Is God the God of domination who cannot suffer, cannot die? Is it possible to know God through speculation about his eternal nature apart from what is revealed in salvation history, especially in the cross of Christ? Is God as revealed in Christ radically different from God as he is in himself from all eternity? Or is the way to know God through Christ: the crucified God who has a radically different idea of lordship than we do, the God who takes up the cause of the godless at his own expense, who calls us not to have dominion but to take up the cross and follow him? That is why I enjoy Moltmann. The man does have a way of getting at the questions.

Announcement: Blog Summit on the Trinity

Nick Norelli is soliciting posts for a Blog Summit on the Trinity. All theology / biblical studies scholars please stop by and let him know if you're interested in submitting a piece on the Trinity.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Christian Reconciliation Carnival #9

Updated 10/25/2007 7:50am Central.

Welcome to the 9th edition of the Christian Reconciliation Carnival.

Topic of the Month

Several people wrote on the suggested topic for the month:
If you had to choose one thing that you believe your church or tradition does the best, or one contribution you believe your church body makes to Christendom as a whole, what would that be?

Dr. Pursiful presents Religious Freedom? This Baptist says, "You're Welcome!" Here Dr. Pursiful highlights the strong Baptist influence on religious freedom in the U.S.A.
I would argue that Baptists’ greatest contribution to the church is our pioneering work in the cause of religious liberty for all.

Mark Olson of Pseudo-Polymath praises the Eastern Orthodox liturgy, and with good reason. As anyone who has participated in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy knows, it is a service of exceptional beauty and depth.
Orthodoxy makes the claim that the essential and ‘best’ thing about their tradition is the liturgy.

Yours truly, from the Lutheran tradition, submits The Cross Is Our Theology. The Lutheran tradition's most sustained and deliberate contribution to Christianity is to keep the focus on Christ's crucifixion and resurrection as the center and wellspring of Christian life.

Update: Proclaiming Softly also has an entry from the Lutheran tradition: Living in the Questions, where she notes the "tensions" in the Bible which lend richness to all Christian theology, but in which Lutherans have made a deliberate theological decision to leave the tensions open. She also notes that the largest provider of social services in the U.S.A. is Lutheran Social Services.

General Discussion

John Hobbins of Ancient Hebrew Poetry considers the wedding of God and humanity, along with the wedding of a human bridgroom and bride, with insight from different Christian traditions and in Hebrew thought. It's his first submission to the Reconciliation Carnival. Welcome!

David Schutz of Sentire Cum Ecclesia requests help on a timeline of what I consider to be the second great schism in the church, Roman Catholic / Eastern Orthodox schism. He also expresses his distress as a Roman Catholic in watching the Eastern Orthodox courting Lutherans in ways that highlight the common differences with Rome that are shared by the Lutherans and the Eastern Orthodox.

iMonk continues his ecumenical series, asking Lutheran guest-blogger Josh Strodbeck (Fearsome Pirate) about God's sovereignty in the face of disaster such as the I-35 bridge collapse. (Watch for Josh's application of that old Luther saying, "a theologian of glory calls evil 'good'" ... Bullseye.) iMonk also asks 5 questions of Roman Catholics; answers are in the responses.


We're looking for one more person to host the Carnival this year, either right around Thanksgiving or early December. If you're interested, please drop an email to the carnival mailbox.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The cross is our theology

The cross alone is our theology. -- Martin Luther
By claiming that God himself was on the side of the godless, he (Christ) incited the devout against him. -- Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God
Every Christian theologian has a place for the cross. One theologian has a place for the cross while focusing on human merit, another has a place for the cross while focusing on attaining holiness, another has a place for the cross while focusing on God's sovereignty, another has a place for the cross while focusing on the church or the unmoved mover or some other driving force.

Lutheran theologians, on the other hand, have no place to speak of the cross in a theology about merit or about attaining holiness or about sovereignty or about the church. Instead, we have a place for speaking of holiness in a theology about the cross. We have a place for speaking about the church in a theology about the cross. Whatsoever thoughts come into our theology are arranged around the cross, rather than the other way around. To be sure, we use "the cross" as shorthand for all that went with it: the incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the restoration of fellowship between God and man. These are the driving force of Lutheran theology.

The vital questions of theology are all answered at the cross. Does God exist? You can point to him on the cross. Does God care? There he is on the cross. Am I forgiven? Look at the cross. Could God love a sinner? How can God be known? Does God abandon us in our suffering? Is suffering a sign of God's hatred towards us? How far would God go to save us? How much could God forgive? If the answer is not found in the cross, then it never was a life-and-death question to start with.

The cross breaks us out of our self-centeredness. Many Christians spend lives looking inward and agonizing about whether we are good enough. We can never look at ourselves and know that we are good enough. But we can look at God and know that God is good enough.

Every Christian tradition has a place for the cross. If we Lutherans have contributed anything, it is that we have carefully guarded the central place of the cross, the driving force of the cross, the ability to say "I resolved to know nothing except Christ and him crucified." Some of the best Lutheran theology books of modern times are On Being a Theologian of the Cross and The Crucified God. The Crucified God is the one who has the ears of the suffering world.

Jurgen Moltmann, author of The Crucified God, read Eli Wiesel's Night, the harrowing account of his times in concentration camps. Here is an excerpt from The Crucified God, beginning with his quote of Wiesel.

The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. 'Where is God? Where is he?' someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment in the noose after a long time, I heard the man call again, 'Where is God now?' And I heard a voice in myself answer: 'Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows ...' (Wiesel as quoted by Moltmann)
Any other answer would be blasphemy. There cannot be any other Christian answer to the question of this torment. To speak here of a God who could not suffer would make God a demon. To speak here of an absolute God would make God an annihilating nothingness. To speak here of an indifferent God would condemn men to indifference. -- Moltmann
The cross is seen as more than mere fodder for atonement theories, more than any payment and satisfaction scheme could ever imagine. In Lutheran theology, the cross did not merely fill in the blank in some theory about atonement whereby man could be reunited to God if only he believed the right thing. The cross did more than pay the price which would make a satisfaction theory work and thereby entitle man to be reconciled to God. Instead, the cross actually accomplished that reconciliation, actually accomplished the reunion of God and man, broke the boundaries separating us, and put God on the side of the godless.

In a sense, this gives Lutherans few "distinctives": what is our most cherished possession is the most treasured possession of all Christians together: God's grace, his gift of himself to the world through Christ. But it does give us cause to be glad of Martin Luther's legacy which has lived on with such a rich stream of theology.
The cross alone is our theology. -- Martin Luther

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Christian Sinners: Hallowed Be God's Name

I internalize and cover up my sin and weakness because I fear that any failure on my part implies a failure of Christianity.
Of all the ways in which we Christians discredit Christ, our failure to forgive non-Christians may be the most serious; our failure to confess our own sins is part of the same mindset.

When we Christians sin -- when we morally fail -- we do bring public discredit on Christ's name because we bear his name. But hiding the sin restores nothing; it just adds deception and hypocrisy to our repertoire of familiar sins. The way to restore God's honor is to confess, to publicly humble ourselves, to publicly exalt his forgiveness. When we hold up our sins as ours alone and take responsibility for them, when we hold up his mercy as his alone and publicly praise and glorify him, then even our failures announce the good news. When we exalt ourselves, even our successes bring no credit to God.

Time after time we lose our opportunity to announce the gospel to the world: the good news of forgiveness for precisely times like these, times when we have humiliated ourselves and failed painfully and lost all claim to be trusted or seen as worthy. These are the times when people outside the church can best relate to us, times when we could really explain Christ in a way that makes sense to the world at large. And we do not.

Sometimes cover-ups are made rather than firm condemnations of wrongdoing, as with Rome's approach in the notorious "pedophile priest" scandals. In a case with no humility and no accountability, the so-called forgiveness seems anti-justice and hopelessly self-serving.

The evangelical camp has known its secrecy and hushed-up sins too, but has often gone to the opposite extreme: when someone sins and falls publicly, there has at times been a rush to condemn not only the sin but also the fallen person, even in cases of genuine repentance. For people who say we bet our lives and eternities on God's forgiveness through Christ, who count on being redeemed and our sins forgotten, we don't always act like it.

In this age where a lax attitude towards sin is part of the culture, where upholding the reality of right and wrong is part of our struggle, I have to wonder: has forgiveness been a casualty of the culture war? Have we upheld grace and mercy in the same way we have upheld the law? I wonder how much of the hesitancy to proclaim forgiveness to the sinners within our own ranks is because we fear being seen as self-serving, because we fear the abuse of forgiveness, or because we fear being weak in our stand against sin.

Repentance and forgiveness separate the sinner from the sin. Repentance allows us, when we are guilty, to give up excuses and be adamant that our own sin was wrong. It allows us to once again say that right is right and wrong is wrong, abandoning the deception that comes with defending or hiding our mistakes. It is a return to honesty, a freedom from blame-shifting. In repentance we separate ourselves from our own sins, gaining the moral courage to denounce our own sins.

Forgiveness allows us to show that hope to a sinner. It shows freedom from deception. It shows how to condemn the wrong that we did without abandoning all hope for ourselves. It gives hope for redemption and restoration. More than that, forgiveness is an opportunity for us to show love: to show that a human being made in God's image is valuable in our sight, better to be redeemed than condemned.

There is a "gotcha" mentality in the media, where the press goes back and forth like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Next time our enemy falls into the lion's mouth, that would be a really good time for us to offer a word of redemption. Hallowed be God's name.

H/T to Mark at Pseudo-Polymath for a good read of the article containing the lead quote by Matt K. at Common Grounds. As they say, read it all.
I had put on a glossy fa├žade, feigning invincibility and faultlessness. I never revealed my weakness and humanness and thus was not a real person. He saw me as a fake, like a mannequin in Christianity’s window display. My friend’s assessment was right on- my pride and fear kept me from really loving him at all.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ambassadors in chains

Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the good news, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly as I should. (Eph. 6:19-20)
It's hard to watch people turn against you. It's hard to watch people being unreasonable or unjust. The early church had a lot of practice with that, being slandered and opposed at every turn. The unjust treatment we Christians have today from an ever-growing crowd of ever-more-hostile opponents could grind anyone's nerves: the mockery, the snideness, the arrogance, the complete unwillingness to engage in serious discussion but only in ridicule.

How do we respond? We can return the favor: repay mockery and contempt with more mockery and contempt, repay media bias here with media bias there. Sometimes we do, to our shame and discredit. Are we willing to be ambassadors in chains? Are we willing to rebuke or even be slandered rather than repay evil for evil? Much has been said of the current culture war. All I know is this: if the problem is the prevalence of evil, then repaying evil with more evil compounds the problem and guarantees a loss. If we repay evil for evil, we're fighting against ourselves.

As for those who mock us, their conscience may or may not be troubled by harrassing people who are kind. But they probably won't be bothered by harrassing people who are hateful towards them.

If we are no different, we've already failed as witnesses, as ambassadors of a kingdom where the laws are both more just and more merciful, as followers of a different ruler than the ruler of this world.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Is there a sacred/secular divide?

The sacred/secular divide that we hear about so often is a thing that exists only as a result of sin. In a world without sin, whether we think of Eden or of the world to come, everything is filled with the glory of God, and there is no "secular." The earth is holy. Again, when Christ was in the world bodily, the kingdom of heaven was breaking in and the divide between the sacred and secular was breaking down. Sin and disease and hard-heartedness struggled for existence in the face of God's presence.

One call we Christians have in this world is to carry God's presence with us wherever we go, not as a hidden presence but as a redeeming presence. We know what God's presence does because we saw it in Christ: welcoming sinners and seeking out the outcasts, binding up the brokenhearted, comforting the afflicted but troubling the self-righteous and the complacent. God's presence welcomes the stranger, it creates brothers and sisters for us all, and it shows us a face by which we will know we are home. By love it creates a place where people gather for the hope that someone there will hear them, someone there will know them, someone there will call them by name and treasure them.

The sacred/secular divide breaks down whenever we dare to really know another person.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Why Hymns Do More Good Than Sermons

Four short reasons why I think that on the average Sunday the hymns do more good than the sermon.

  • Even the most attentive church-goers won't remember much of a sermon, but they will memorize a good hymn.
  • A person has to go out of their way to hear a sermon, but hymns stay in our minds and go with us into the world.
  • In sermons, the pastor lifts up the name of God in church. In hymns, the believer lifts up the name of God wherever he goes.
  • The shelf life of a good sermons is fairly short. Some of the best hymns have been around for centuries.
Of course that only applies to the good hymns, not the ones C.S. Lewis calls "fourth rate sermons set to fifth rate tunes."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Christian Reconciliation Carnival News

Our Christian Reconciliation Carnivals have been drifting later in the month due to various other commitments. I would like to schedule two more Reconciliation Carnivals this year: one for late this month and one for late November/early December, for a total of 11 rather than 12 carnivals this year. And I hope I'm not being a terrible Carnival hog, but I would like to host this upcoming Carnival because I have a topic I'd like to suggest and it would be really horrible of me to suggest the topic for someone else's carnival. So with that much said:

The next edition of the Christian Reconciliation Carnival will be hosted here, with posts due by 10/21/2007. The topic will be: If you had to choose one thing that you believe your church or tradition does the best, or one contribution you believe your church body makes to Christendom as a whole, what would that be? (The point of choosing one thing is to get a focus rather than a laundry list.)

The last 2007 edition of Christian Reconciliation Carnival is still available for anyone wanting to host in late November or early December. New hosts are encouraged and are always welcome. Then in December at some point I'll send out a notice for us to regroup for 2008, and people who intend to host a Carnival in 2008 can put in their requests for the month(s) most convenient to them. Thank you!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Praying for Sodom

In the last couple of weeks I've seen more than one piece around the blogosphere about Sodom and Gomorrah. It seems to be on peoples' minds lately. Recently I taught a teenage Sunday school class on one of the texts neighboring to that. We're studying times in the Bible when God revealed himself directly to people; God revealed himself directly to Abraham just previous to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Does everyone remember that scene in the Bible where Abraham argues with God and bargains with God and haggles with God? Do you know what Abraham was trying to do? He was trying to save Sodom. He was praying for Sodom, begging for Sodom, pleading for Sodom. He did not ask for the wicked to be counted righteous. He asked that the city be spared ("forgiven" in some translations) because of the righteous people who lived there. Abraham was counted not only prophet, but also a friend of God.

I can't help but notice the contrast between Abraham and all the rest of us. Abraham did not excuse the wickedness of the city; he did not define one sin as greater and another as lesser; he did not exult over the bad guys getting blasted. He considered it his moral obligation to contend for what was right, and it made him bold before God.

I know there is a lot to be said about Sodom and Gomorrah, and most of us have already studied and taken notes. All I ask is that we add one mental image to that set of notes: the mental image of Abraham, from whom we all reckon our spiritual heritage, praying for Sodom ...

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Patristics Carnival #4

Welcome to the 4th edition of the revived Patristics Carnival with posts through 09/30/2007, organized by Phil Snider of hyperekperissou. For all of us who love early church history, drop him a post for the next carnival or let him know if you'd like to take a turn as a host.

In a month filled with commemorations of St. John Chrysostom, Phil -- the organizer of the Patristics Carnival -- contributes St. John Chrysostom and the Problem of Wealth.

Fred presents Rebirth of the Eagle posted at Deep Furrows. An ancient and patristic fable is still circulating online. Why? Because folks still find it helpful.

Gregory Alms of incarnatus est considers ancient Christian worship in Sunday liturgy in 150 A.D. and in Hippolytus on the Eucharist containing part of an order of service dated to the mid-100's.

The Way of the Fathers considers Secret Mark and methods for detecting ancient document forgeries Archko Forgery Fingerprint.

Aardvark Alley commemorates Gregory the Great, doctor of the church.

Ex corde ecclesiae presents John Chrysostom: Coherence between Ideas and Real Life.

Continuing with the commemorations of Chrysostom, Mike Aquilina pays his own respects. He also relays Pope Benedict's recent homage to Gregory of Nyssa.

John Hobbins of Ancient Hebrew Poetry reflects on the interplay between the Word of God and the people of God in Did the Church create the Bible, or the Bible create the Church?

Biblicalia presents some useful excerpts on patristic use of Scripture and other ancient writings from Lee Martin McDonald's book, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority.

Mark Thoma reviews two church fathers' comments on usury and economic justice.

My own modest contribution is a brief introduction to the early church's views on authorship, pseudo-authorship, and acceptance in the canon of Scripture.

Apocryphal Corner
Apocryphicity considers orthodoxy and heresy in earliest Christianity.

April DeConick of the Forbidden Gospels blog considers rewriting early Christianity and whether Luke is a trustworthy historian.

That's all for this month's Carnival. Keep the church fathers in mind for next month's Carnival due out the begnning of November.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Authorship, pseudo-authorship, and acceptance in the canon

From time to time I hear the argument made that because pseudo-authorship was an accepted and honored practice in certain ages and places therefore it is likely enough that certain books of the Bible are works of pseudo-authorship. I have even seen an article suggesting that dispute of pseudo-authorship for any given work must be on "sentimental" grounds, as if the existence of the practice of pseudo-authorship in some circles was enough to settle the question as soon as the suggestion was made for any given work. Thankfully, not all discussions of authorship and pseudo-authorship are so dismissive of genuine discussion on the question of authorship.

In New Testament studies, the claim of pseudo-authorship is commonly made of various letters attributed to Paul as well as several other works included in the New Testament. The arguments about authorship are far too broad for a single blog post. Here I intend to focus on some assumptions that tend to be made implicitly during the course of discussions on pseudo-authorship: that the identity of an author was of little importance to those receiving or evaluating the works, and that anonymous works of pseudo-authorship were received in the same way and with the same authority as the works of a known author.

Pseudo-Authorship and the Muratorian Canon
The Muratorian Canon is one of the earliest Christian canons of Scripture, usually dated to the end of the 2nd century (i.e. late 100's A.D.). It contains two passages bearing on the question of pseudo-authorship. First, after listing the letters held to be written by Paul, it continues:
There is said to be another letter in Paul's name to the Laodiceans and another to the Alexandrines forged in accordance with Marcion's heresy, and many others which cannot be received into the catholic church.
Before commenting on the first passage, it would be good to review the next also:
But the letter of Jude and the two superscribed with the name of John are accepted in the catholic church; Wisdom also, written by Solomon's friends in his honor.
The Muratorian Canon was very early in its discussion of the list of books to be received in the New Testament canon, and later discussion made some few adjustments to this early list. Still the early date and the assessment of pseudo-authorship are relevant here. The letters "forged" in Paul's name are rejected in plain terms on the basis of their pseudo-authorship, while the book of Wisdom has a kindly remark on its pseudo-authorship that it was "written by Solomon's friends in his honor". The comments on John's letters may also express some mild doubt as to their authorship, though it is more subtly stated. This suggests that, very early, the Christian community may have had a nuanced approach to the practice of pseudo-authorship. If the book of Wisdom was received largely based on its content, then its authorship was unimportant. If the letters of Paul were received largely based on their authorship, then pseudo-authorship was unacceptable. On the other hand, if the pseudo-letters of Paul (Laodiceans and Alexandrines) were rejected largely based on their plainly non-Pauline teaching, then it remains an open question how pseudo-authorship would have been received in the case of more Pauline teachings. In any event, pseudo-authorship was a recognized phenomenon, and the question of real or pseudo-authorship was part of the consideration for how a writing would be received.

The Bishop of Antioch and The Gospel of Peter
One work of pseudo-authorship which is known to this day is the Gospel of Peter. The early church was aware of this gospel and of its circulation under the name of Peter. Some early comments on this gospel are recorded by Serapion, Bishop of Antioch (d. circa 211 A.D.):
We, my brothers, receive Peter and all the apostles as we receive Christ, but the writings falsely attributed to them we are experienced enough to reject, knowing that nothing of the sort has been handed down to us. (Recorded in Eusebius' History of the Church vi.12.2)
Here again we see knowledge of the practice of pseudo-authorship. In the case of Peter and the apostles, the question of authorship was a question of certainty and authority; the apostles of Christ were believed to speak with authority on the matter of Christ. Serapion's unapologetic and unreserved rejection of the Gospel of Peter is on the basis of its pseudo-authorship.

Pseudo-Authorship and Eusebius
Eusebius' History of the Church contains various comments on authorship and pseudo-authorship. Peter and Paul are the subject of much modern speculation about authorship and pseudo-authorship; the same questions were being reviewed and studied in the days of Eusebius. On Peter's writings, Eusebius makes these comments:
Of Peter one epistle, known as hist first, is accepted, and this the early fathers quoted freely, as undoubtedly genuine, in their own writings. But the second Petrine epistle we have been taught to regard as uncanonical; many, however, have thought it valuable and have honored it with a place among the other Scriptures. On the other hand, in the case of the Acta attributed to him, the Gospel that bears his name, the Preaching called his, and the so-called Revelation, we have no reason at all to include these among the traditional Catholic Scriptures, for neither in early days nor in our own has any church writer made use of their testimony. (iii.3.1-2)
Eusebius' research shows signs of familiarity with writings of earlier ages. He gauges a writing's antiquity by how early the writing was received. This may include knowledge of whether the writings were received by those who knew the apostles in person. Again Eusebius shows a nuanced treatment of pseudo-authorship, with more of a three-tiered approach than a two-tiered approach. Peter's first letter is undoubtedly genuine and so unreservedly accepted. His second letter is doubtful as to authorship but considered valuable in content, and with its mixed credentials has a mixed reception. Still others were undoubtedly works of pseudo-authors and had nothing to recommend them; these were plainly rejected. In the case of writings attributed to Peter, Eusebius shows that there is more to the question of authorship and acceptance in the church than a straight-line acceptance or rejection of pseudo-authorship. While genuine authorship by an apostle was a guarantee of acceptance, pseudo-authorship was a consideration which weighed against a writing but not always irreparably.

In the case of Paul's writings, Eusebius made the following comments:
Paul on the other hand was obviously and unmistakably the author of fourteen epistles, but we must not shut our eyes to the fact that some authorities have rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews, pointing out that the Roman Church denies that it is the work of Paul: what our predecessors have said about it I will point out at the proper time. As for the Acts attributed to him, no one has ever suggested to me that they are genuine. (iii.3.3)
Again we see the concern for authorship coupled with an open discussion of disputes of the day. Again we see that while certain authorship by an apostle is a guarantee of acceptance, uncertain authorship may or may not lead to the ultimate rejection of a book. And once again the early church already has singled out a book on which modern scholarship questions the authorship.

This is only the briefest of introductions to the topic of pseudo-authorship and how it affected the status of various writings. It is not meant to settle the question of the authorship or pseudo-authorship of any particular work, nor even to exhaust the materials available in the works cited. It is only meant to call attention to some early Christian perspectives on authorship and pseudo-authorship and how that issue affected the status and recognized authority of writings in general. The early appraisers of the church writings showed a subtlety, scholarship, and discernment with which they are rarely credited. They showed an interest in authorship together with a contemporary knowledge of the practice of pseudo-authorship which allowed them to make principled decisions regarding the acceptance and rejection of various works of uncertain authorship.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Popes: Of infallibility, humility, and repentance

There's no two ways about it: disagreements are just not edifying. I have to force myself to write such a post as this, even to reply to such a kind soul as Japhy. And I have to wonder how much good is accomplished. If any good is accomplished, it would have to be this: to make a clear statement about exactly what the disagreement is, and what causes it, and what might repair it. Otherwise it becomes more a matter of rehearsing differences (or worse, rehearsing grievances) which accomplishes nothing good. I might even hope to offer reasons why the entrenched positions should be open to reconsideration.

Writing this, I know full well that the most likely reaction is -- must be -- that it will be dismissed out of hand based on entrenched positions that are not open to reconsideration, that it will be read not in the spirit of seeing whether it has anything useful to say or any insight or any gain for moving forward, but in the spirit of finding how it is -- how it must be -- wrong. That is the nature of such a division. That is one of the saddest parts of our divisions: that two followers of Christ could be robbed of their ability to see each other, hear each other, listen to each other, by the assumption that the other simply must be wrong and therefore simply must be dismissed, simply must have nothing to contribute to a conversation on that particular subject. In that scenario, the conversation really has no right to take place: there is no basis for disagreement, only an error that needs correcting. And so a conversation does not take place.

With our current example of the bishop of Rome as pope, I think the most useful place I can start is here: What is a pope? A Roman Catholic friend of mine once patiently explained that the pope is the fellow who speaks for the whole church. He is the bishop of the foremost see of the church, the one with primacy. He's only considered infallible under certain very limited circumstances: when issuing decrees ex cathedra for the whole church with the consensus of the whole church. Here he serves as the voice of the church, the unifying focal point of the church. Insofar as he speaks for the whole church united (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic), he can be assumed to have reached the right decision. I hope I've understood that correctly.

So if that is the theory, what is the historical reality? Where do we first see such a thing? The council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) took place early in the church's history. There was yet no bishop of Rome; the decisions for the whole church were made from Jerusalem. Still, there was a leader from the beginning. There is one who issues a decree ex cathedra, one who speaks from the primary see of the church of that day, one who is bishop of that primary see, one who gives voice to the decree of the church with the consensus of the church. That person is James. All the arguments in the world that when Jesus said "Feed my sheep" he meant "Have authority over the whole church" carry no weight when there is no sign that the person to whom it was addressed understood it that way, no sign that the person who recorded the conversation for posterity understood it that way.

Speaking for the whole church. The church has not been whole in any meaningful sense since Chalcedon. Before that, the breaches had not affected the major centers of apostolic Christendom. To get the feel for what happened at Chalcedon, consider this. Think of the little breaches before Chalcedon as "what would happen to the U.N. without Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, and Lithuania". Think of Chalcedon as "what would happen to the U.N. if China, India, Russia, and the U.S. would no longer sit at the same table." Nobody has spoken for the whole church since Chalcedon; the church has not been whole since then, and more than just crackpot heretics were swept away in that breach. There have been no valid decrees for the whole church since then because the whole apostolic church has not agreed on a decision since then. That breach broke fellowship with more than just oddballs who wanted to reinvent Christianity to suit their own preferences. That breach broke fellowship not between the apostolic church on one side and trackless, rootless heretics on the other, but pitted one apostolic church against another. The unity of the Christian church was broken, and nobody could claim to speak for the whole church because the church was not whole. Every voice was a partisan voice, the bishop of Rome against the bishop of Alexandria. Nobody can rightly judge a dispute in which he is a party. Rome eventually decided that Rome was infallible. Many Christians eventually decided that Rome, because she considered herself infallible, was therefore unreformable. I wouldn't go that far: almost anyone will realize they are fallible if they are humbled. I am not sure how far Rome would have to be humbled before she acknowledged that she was fallible.

From my point of view, the most necessary change is for Rome to become humble as Peter was, to admit mistakes publicly and accept correction graciously as Peter did, to know that repentance and humility are at least as necessary in the church body as they are in the individual members. See, here's the thing: I know a lot of Protestants who are tired of protesting. I know a lot of Protestants who wish Rome was what Rome claimed to be, who would dearly love to see the church re-united. But for most of us, we know too well which teachings were late-added, which were changed, which build up Rome more than they build up Christ, which are not from the apostles, which amount to human teachings. We know Rome isn't infallible. But it is the idea of her own infallibility that Rome guards the most jealously of all her late-developed doctrines. It's a given in Roman Catholic circles that Rome has never been wrong, that the protests are entirely mistaken, that there is no reason whatsoever for Rome -- or any individual Christian affiliated with Rome -- to listen when another Christian calls for reform in Rome, because we cannot possibly have a point.

In order for there to be a change, enough Roman Catholics would have to privately within their own ranks allow it to become thinkable that Rome has become partisan rather than catholic, has acted on her own behalf instead of for the good of the whole, that humility is in order, that fallibility is possible, that repentance is a virtue for the church herself. As long as it is unthinkable that we have anything worthwhile to say in our protests, we will not be heard but dismissed out of hand. And every time one Christian dismisses another out of hand, a brick is added to the wall of separation between us.

So we each have to make our appeal for unity as best we know how. Some Roman Catholics honestly believe that Rome is infallible and that the best they can do is to proclaim that until all the "erring brothers" come home. Some Roman Catholics are not convinced that Rome is infallible but know it's a one-way ticket out the door to say so plainly, and have no wish to leave. Others are not convinced that Rome is infallible but are frightened that, if Rome isn't infallible, then nobody is infallible and they would not be sure what to believe. All I can ask is that we be human beings to each other, brothers and sisters in Christ. For anything more than that, I have to trust each one to go forward as best he knows how.