Saturday, June 30, 2007

Your will be done on earth ... God, politics, and sinners

Here in the good old U.S.A., a number of Christian traditions have experienced church divides along liberal v. conservative lines. The differences in political views typically coincide with a number of theological differences. I have read Christian bloggers who identify with one or the other political agenda, who seem completely unashamed about expressing open contempt for Christians on the other side of the liberal/conservative divide, with no visible recognition that hatefulness and spite might be sinful rather than God-pleasing. When something is dear to our hearts and someone belittles it, there is always a temptation to bitterness and malice.

I would not for a moment tell people to ignore the world in which we live. We pray daily for God's will to be done on earth as in heaven. And in every political cause, there are those who earnestly believe they are working for exactly that: for God's will to be done on earth. Up to that point I have no objections, but more of a caution: certain types of laws do little good merely by being encoded in the law books. Trying to change hearts by mandate or to change lives by force generally breeds resistance and resentment, even if the cause is good.

Have you ever considered what happens when a politico-moral agenda becomes someone's top priority, their defining goal in life? It splits the world into pro and con. Before long, "good" is agreement with the agenda and "evil" is disagreement with it. It can become something very close to institutionalized enmity.

For example, consider what happens when women's advocacy groups and infant's advocacy groups clash over abortion. The women's advocacy groups do not see infant's advocacy groups; they define what they see in terms of their own agenda, and see mysogynists and oppressors instead of infant's advocates. The infant's advocacy groups do not always recognize the extent to which the abortion-on-demand camp is not trying to be anti-infant at all. A sensitive look at the wording used by the abortion-on-demand camp would notice that they really avoid acknowledging any infant at all, which is surely not a sign of hatred of the infant, but more likely of a deep-seated acknowledgment that if this really proves to be an infant, abortion-on-demand would be morally unthinkable. By being pro-woman (ignoring the infant) or pro-infant (ignoring the woman), we put beyond our reach any full-spectrum solution of the type that might actually work for everybody. And we cannot afford to miss the fact that it is the separation into antagonistic factions that puts a better solution out of reach.

Having strong views is not sinful; but we are sinful. There is a temptation to demonize the opponents. There is a temptation to ignore when they have a point lest it be seen as weakness and concession. There is a temptation to take the easy way out: to take our good motives as a guarantee of good perspective and good judgment. There is a temptation to miss the realities that every politico-moral agenda sets us up for both self-righteousness and enmity.

Christ was not shy about right and wrong. But he listed enmity itself as one of the things that had to go. The world (apart from Christ) has no resources to call on for reconciling between enemies. At best, the world only redefines the group considered to be the enemy; it does not oppose the general principle of enmity. But as Christians, we must oppose the general principle of enmity while holding onto the realities of right and wrong.

I wish that our conversations across the political divides did not start by assuming bad faith. I wish that each side would honestly ask the other, "Why is it you think that is the right approach to take, or the right priority to have?" and actually listen to the answer. Even if we don't agree, some good might come of the mere act of setting aside enmity and listening to each other.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Litany: for our enemies

"Pray for those who persecute you." - Christ
I was searching the hymnals on my shelf looking for prayers for our enemies. Couldn't find any. Odd, considering all the other prayers available there, and that's one of the prayers we're specifically called to make. So I thought, "Why not?"

Lord, we praise you for your loving kindness.
Your mercy endures forever.

While we were yet your enemies
Christ died for us

The righteous for the unrighteous
To bring us back to you.

Lord, have mercy on us.
Have mercy on us sinners.

Lord, if you kept record of our sins
Who could stand before you?

When I hid my faults
I wasted away.

When I confessed my transgression
You forgave the iniquity of my sin.

You oppose the proud
But give grace to the humble.

You have taught us to pray: Forgive us our sins
As we forgive those who sin against us.

Let mercy be the measure we use for others;
May their cups overflow with blessing.

We remember before you all hateful souls:
May knowing you bring peace.

We remember before you all who have wronged others:
May your mercy turn hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.

We remember before you all who hide secret guilt:
Create clean hearts, O Lord, and renew a right spirit.

Let the guilty heart turn to you:
May the forgiven celebrate your goodness.

May the redeemed celebrate your glory:
May your compassion be proclaimed to all the earth.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
His mercy endures forever.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Christian Reconciliation Carnival #6: Call for submissions

Christian Reconciliation Carnival #6 is coming up fast. Entries are due by this Saturday. Please email here to submit your June posts on the topic of reconciliation, general interest, questions, or respectful disagreements.

Because the Carnival is likely to be published on or around July 4, please consider the special topic of the month: transcending the divides of politics and nationalism.
Why does Christian fellowship rarely reach across the U.S. political divides?
Anyone more interested in non-U.S. politics might try,
Why are Christians in different nations so distrustful of each other?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Love your enemies

Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you, that that you may be children of your Father in heaven. ... If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even (the lowest sinners you can imagine) doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even (members of false religions) do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Jesus, Sermon on the Mount)

In the West, I believe we have forgotten what it means to pray for those who persecute us, to bless those who curse us, to love those who hate us. We have trouble loving our enemies -- even minor enemies such as people with different Christian theologies but who intend no harm, or moderate enemies who intend to degrade and harass but not to kill.

I think I have maxed out hearing the current public debate about Islam. The main approaches I hear in this debate are either denying the prevalence of hatred and violence and the legitimate cause for concern, or fomenting reciprocal hatred and fear; either relying on wishful thinking about the nature and scope of the problem or despairing of any peaceful solutions.

Jesus originally spoke the words of the Sermon on the Mount to those in occupied territory, conquered and oppressed by the Romans. Within a few centuries those conquerors were a memory, and Jesus' teachings had changed the face of the world. To the extent that we argue about his teachings rather than live them, we have a form of godliness but deny its power. Because the power is not in the page. The power is in someone who becomes Jesus' living word to the world, who dares to be kind to those who hate.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Muratorian Canon from the late 100's A.D.

I have sometimes discussed the canon of Scripture with people who suppose that there was a mass of writings -- including all the so-called lost gospels and so forth -- which all shared an equal claim to being authoritative Christian writings, and were only separated several hundred years later on the basis of politics or the prejudices of the day, or by a fiat of church authority based on questionable interests. The early Christian writings paint a different picture, and in that picture a unique place is held by the Muratorian Canon.

The Muratorian Canon is an early list of writings accepted and received as Scripture by the Christian Church. (It is also called the Muratorian Fragment because it surives only in fragment, as with many ancient writings). This post will review the status of our current New Testament books as recorded in the Muratorian Canon. Later posts will continue with notes about a handful of other books which were mentioned in the Muratorian Canon as either accepted, rejected, or disputed.

When was the Muratorian Canon written?

While almost every early writing generates arguments about its date, the Muratorian Canon is helpful in mentioning recent occurrences, which provides strong guidance as to when it was written. It makes this comment on the early Christian writing Shepherd of Hermas:
But the Shepherd was written by Hermas in the city of Rome quite recently, in our own times, when his brother Pius occupied the bishop's chair in the city of Rome ...
Pius was bishop of Rome from about 140-155 A.D.; if this is "quite recently, in our own times" then the Muratorian Canon likely dates from 170 A.D. or slightly later. There are those who argue dates that are centuries later, but without widespread acceptance given the author's mention that 140-155 A.D. was "quite recently, in our own times".

Which Christian writings had already gained acceptance as Scripture?

Of the twenty-seven books in our current New Testament, all but a handful already had gained acceptance as Scripture by the late 100's A.D. when the Muratorian Canon was written. When mentioning books which were included, the fact that the list survives in fragment form comes into play. The surviving text begins:
The third book of the Gospel: according to Luke.
After commenting on Luke, it continues to name the fourth gospel as that according to John. As we've seen in previous posts, there are earlier Christian writings mentioning that the four gospels are those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, so it is reasonable enough to suppose that the original list began with Matthew and Mark.

Book of Current CanonIncluded in Muratorian Canon?
Matthew(beginning of document is missing)
Mark(beginning of document is missing)
1 CorinthiansX
2 CorinthiansX
1 ThessaloniansX
2 ThessaloniansX
1 TimothyX
2 TimothyX
1 Peter 
2 Peter 
1 JohnX
2 JohnX
3 John 

In further posts I intend to fill out a more complete picture of the Muratorian Canon, reviewing the other books which were mentioned for good or bad. From there I hopt to review other early lists of Scriptures to show to what extent these inclusions and omissions were typical for lists of Scripture in the early church.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Lutheran Carnival #52: Gerhard O. Forde Edition


Welcome to the 52nd edition of the Lutheran Carnival, the Gerhard O. Forde edition.

Gerhard O. Forde was a theologian speaking with a voice of love for the Gospel, the good news of Christ, amid a church whose focus can stray and whose love can easily grow cold. His unapologetic boldness confronted theologians whose mere theorizing about the cross of Christ rendered it powerless. I've chosen to organize this edition of the Carnival with all the major titles being titles of his books.

Update 05/18/2007
After being relieved that the whimsical organization of this Carnival had actually worked for all the posts submitted, a late arrival has come to my attention that just doesn't fit. Too bad Forde didn't write a book called The Left-Handed Kingdom (by which Lutherans refer to God's paradoxical approach to the use of power). Dan at Necessary Roughness comments on Father's Day and the LCMS Convention being hosted here in my own hometown of Houston. Dan wishes dads a happy Father's Day and advises that any bureaucracy, whether government or synod, is a human exercise in the left-hand kingdom.

Theology Is For Proclamation
On the hypothetical God versus the proclaimed God in Christ: Outside the proclamation both theistic and atheistic theologians are strangely one. Both are trying to get God off our backs. The theist most often does it by trying to make God "nice," to bring God "to heel," so to speak, and the atheist does it by trhing to make God disappear. Both attempts have a similar outcome from the point of view of the proclamation: they only subvert it. Nevertheless, for better or for worse, neither theistic nor atheistic appeals seem to work for long.

Ask the Pastor continues to apply theology to "real life." Pastor Snyder dealt with matters of eternal election and everlasting life in Grace, Faith, and Predestination. He also addressed sins of the mouth by condemning Rotten Fruit from Gossip's Vine.

Aardvark Alley celebrated one of the Church's major festivals and also marked one of Christendom's watershed moments in this past fortnight's blogging. The Feast of the Holy Trinity celebrated the mystery of God's Triune nature while also making practical application of this Scripture truth. The Council of Nicaea commemorated orthodox Christianity's victory over Arianism, its reliance upon creeds and confessions, and the importance of Christians joining together to study and formulate theology in harmony with God's Word.

Weekend Fisher ponders ways to explain why "dueling Bible verses" is a bad approach to theology (to anyone for whom it is not self-evident). The March Madness playoffs bracket serves as an example of what not to do with "conflicting" Bible passages in Recognizing Good and Bad Theology: Bible Playoff Test.

Where God Meets Man
On "Treasure in Earthen Vessels" (the sacraments): Only where God promises to be present in a saving way in, with and under the earthly sign can one really be sure. Only then will faith be created and strengthened. God deals with men always through promises. Without the promise, the earthly sign would be at best only an act created by men to inspire themselves and not a sacrament.

A blogging match made in heaven is about to result in the first child for Random Dan and Intolerant Elle. Elle describes the fantasy and reality of her pregnancy so far. How she imagined pregnancy and what pregnancy really involves are two different things. She also announces the sex of her and RandomDan's child!

After what seems like a lifetime of hearing "The Bible doesn't say I have to go to church to worship God," the Rebellious Pastor's Wife decides to look at what the Bible says about church from a slightly different slant in What Scripture Says About the Congregation. In this submission, she looks at what the Gospels say through the interaction of Jesus and Peter, with additional resources drawn from the Old Testament and from the Epistles.

On Being a Theologian of the Cross
Warning against becoming a theologian of glory: Theologians of glory are thus always driven to seek transcendent meaning, to try to see into the invisible things of God, to get a line on the logic of God. They look at the cross and ask, "What is it all about?" They wonder what is "behind" it all. There is a reason for this, of course. If we can see through the cross to what is supposed to be behind it, we don't have to look at it! It is, finally, a matter of self-defense. He was "as one from whom men hide their faces" (Isa. 53:3). If the cross can be neatly folded into the scheme of the self's glory road, it will do no harm.

Elle's pregnancy also gives her occasion to ponder ultrasounds in Asia, infanticide, and abortion in The Ultasound Difference.

David Yow presents Misunderstanding Ministry posted at Original Evangelical, in which he takes apart the growing practice of deriding called workers as "professional Christians".

Thank you for submitting, reading, and/or linking. The next edition of the Lutheran Carnival will be hosted at Barb the Evil Genius (gotta love that blog name!); posts due by June 29th. There are still a few spots open for Carnival hosts this summer, so pop on over to the Carnival main site and claim a date that fits your schedule.

Take care & God bless!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Gospels in the 100's A.D.: The Diatessaron

As the Christian church had more than one gospel available, and particularly when all the gospel writings began to be collected as a set, questions began to arise from comparing them. Some events were recorded in one gospel but not another. Other events were recorded in more than one gospel but not always in the same order. Even in the 100's A.D., careful students of the gospels discussed the differences at some length.

Somewhere around 175 A.D., an early Christian named Tatian put forth the first known harmonization of the gospels. It is known as the Diatessaron, (which roughly means "Fourfold"), a harmonization of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Even though Tatian's own later teachings were criticized by the church, still his harmonization in the Diatessaron quickly became a standard work in the early Syrian church, largely replacing the four gospels in common usage there for several centuries.

Tatian's use of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the basis for harmonization is another example showing the unique status of those four gospels in the earliest church, back to the 100's A.D.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Lutheran Carnival #52 Call for Submissions

Lutheran Carnival #52 will be hosted here this upcoming weekend. Posts are due Friday; the Carnival will be up on Sunday. See submission instructions here.

See you at the Carnival!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Gospels in the 100's A.D.: Alternate Christianities and Irenaeus

In many places there is a general assumption that the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were chosen late in church history, hundreds of years after the fact, from a pack of equally strong contenders; that the "alternate" gospels enjoyed a similar history and following; that either politics or theological bias was the deciding factor in which versions of Jesus' life would reach us. The history of the canon of Scripture simply does not support such a view. The "lost gospels" so often trumpeted by pop scholars were simply never in the running; in fact, historically, from the earliest days among churches founded by the apostles no gospel writing was ever in the running other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

I will not attempt to cover all the available material from the 100's A.D., but to review some of the better-known writings that show the special consideration in which the four canonical gospels were already held in that century. In this post I will briefly review the very early non-apostolic groups and Irenaeus' early attempts to show how we can know the genuine teachings received from the apostles.

Brief Notes on Non-Apostolic Christian Groups
Given that much interest is currently being paid to the views of Christians who were considered heretical and why they were considered heretical, it is worth taking a brief look at the writings these groups were using.

Interestingly, when reviewing the literature for and against alternate Christian groups that far back, their own writings and those who rebutted them recorded that they also typically used one or another of the same four gospels we now consider canonical. The Marcionites favored a version of Luke with many passages edited out for their particular theological reasons. The Gnostics favored the gospel according to John.

Irenaeus makes early mention (possibly the earliest mention) of a non-apostolic gospel called the Gospel of Truth, a writing which he disowned based on its late date and non-apostolic origins. He comments both that "they put forth their own compositions" in contrast with those received from the apostles, and "Indeed, they have arrived at such a pitch of audacity as to entitle their comparatively recent writing 'the Gospel of Truth'." (Against Heresies 3.11) Irenaeus also argues that this gospel "agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the Apostles", which is something of an overstatement despite the plain differences in focus and style. After a copy of the Gospel of Truth was recovered from Nag Hammadi and was available for direct examination, it seems to have the character of a devotional commentary on the apostolic Scriptures, done in a semi-mystical strain with Gnostic tendencies. From the standpoint of a historian looking at the life of Christ, the Gospel of Truth does not bear any direct witness to Christ, mentioning only what is already recorded in the received apostolic writings, and in ways which make clear it is referring to the earlier apostolic writings as the original source material. The Gospel of Truth likely dates to around 150 A.D.

Irenaeus on the Four Gospels
But what about the churches that were apostolic, that had been founded by the inner circle of Christ's own followers?

Irenaeus is one of the better-known Christian writers of the 100's A.D., an early leader in giving criteria for distinguishing true teaching from false. In this, he relied heavily on the witness of the apostles as passed on to his own day. He had in his time met Polycarp, bishop of the church in Smyrna who had personally known some of Christ's own apostles, including the apostle John. Irenaeus placed confidence in this recent and direct personal knowledge as a reliable chain of transmission, a guarantee that the teachings he had received in this church were authentic to what the apostles themselves had handed down. His comments on the gospels received by the apostolic churches are deservedly well-known:
Matthew published among the Hebrews a gospel in writing also in their own speech, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel and founding the church in Rome. After their death Mark in his turn, Peter's disciple and interpreter, delivered to us in writing the contents of Peter's preaching. Luke also, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel preached by him. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, the one who leaned back on his bosom, gave forth his gospel while he was living at Ephesus in Asia. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1
Having briefly mentioned the origins of the four gospels and their apostolic origins (Matthew, Mark from Peter, Luke from Paul, and John), he later continues to explain how there are no other gospels recognized in the church except these four:
As there are four quarters of the world in whihc we live, and four universal winds, and as the church is dispersed over all the earth, and the gospel is the pillar and ground of the church, and the breath of life, so it is natural that it should have four pillars, breathing immorality from every quarter and kindling human life anew. Whence it is manifest that the Word, the architect of all things, who sits upon the cherubim and holds all things together, having been manifested to mankind, has given us the gospel in fourfold form, but held together by one Spirit. (He again names the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.) ... For the living creatures are quadriform, and the Gospel is quadriform, as is also the course followed by the Lord. ... these Gospels alone are true and reliable, and admit neither an increase nor diminution of the aforesaid number. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.11)

To be continued with more writings from the 100's A.D. ...

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Unless ...

Dan Edelen has a good post up titled Unless .... Go read it.

It's interesting to me that his lead-in angle is from Dr. Seuss ("Unless ..." is a key line from Seuss's The Lorax). Just as a side note, my second choice for a blog name was "Yop!" That's from the Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears A Who, where there are thousands of people too small to be seen, all shouting to be heard but to no avail until the littlest child adds a big loud "Yop!" And it's enough.

Recognizing Good and Bad Theology: Bible Playoff Test

Have you ever seen a tournament playoff bracket? Think of the March Madness basketball bracket, or the road to the World Series, the Superbowl, or the World Cup. The key feature of the playoff system is the quest for one champion. Along the way, other players are eliminated.

Last time that I posted on recognizing good and bad theology without recourse to doctrinal preconceptions, we looked at the analogy of leftover parts: if an understanding of the Bible systematically excludes parts of the Bible, we can already know it's a bad system. In the world of theology, the main way in which passages of the Bible become excluded is by a certain playoff mentality which is the subject of this post. In such playoff theology, certain verses win and other verses lose; some passages of Scripture overturn or eliminate others from the final result.

I am not arguing that all parts of the Bible are of equal interest. Compare the Bible passages listing inventory returned to the Second Temple to the Golden Rule and you'll see why I would not argue that all parts of the Bible are of equal interest. But I would argue that all parts of the Bible are relevant for their own purposes, and that none of them can be dropped off without losing something that should have been kept.

Certain passages of Scripture are contested in their interpretation. And in far too many cases the question is not about what the words meant as a matter of interpreting them from the original language and culture to ours, but about how they could be re-interpreted given that they do not fit into a certain theological system.

So in the Bible Playoffs, what is the winning verse? Does John 3:16 make it into the Sweet 16? Does it get taken out by Romans 9:18 before it gets to the Final Four? If so, you get Calvinism. If John 3:16 takes out Matthew 25:41, you get universalism. Does James 2:17 take out Galatians 3:25? Welcome to a sect of self-righteousness and earned salvation.

And if you get into playoff theology, "my prooftext can beat up your prooftext", well, ok, first off Scripture already lost because one of its passages was abused; but secondly there goes any objective way of knowing if the right prooftext "won". If one passage is supposed to win at the expense of the other, then what if the other one should have won? Objectively, how can you know that it shouldn't have? My premise is that one passage "winning" in such a way with another is "losing" -- a way that makes the Bible fight against itself -- ruins any chance of understanding the whole of the Bible, because it's not considered as a whole anymore. If you ever find someone saying "this passage cannot mean what it seems to mean because it would not fit into System X", there's only one thing to do: find the nearest exit from System X.

Scripture tells us time and again not to fall off to the left or the right, not to swerve to the left or the right. What we have is too many people who look at one passage that says, "Don't fall off to the left!" and so they rush off to the right as far as they can and fall off there; and another group that mocks them, and points at a passage saying "don't fall off to the right" (which the other people really should have taken seriously), and then the second group will rush the off to the left as far as they can (just to show those other folks) and they fall off to the opposite side. Each side (while falling off its own side) seems to count itself better than those who fell off the other side.

When I say "right" and "left" here, I do not mean any current political movements that go by those names. There is a Biblical sense of these words, that of setting boundaries on each side of us. Or to turn the sports analogy a different way, the ball is only in play when it is within the opposite boundaries, and the opposite boundaries define the field. The "opposing" passages of Scripture are seen as the left and right boundaries, things that complement each other rather than overrule each other. Understanding God is a wide field with boundaries extending to the limits of our minds and our senses. As soon as "opposing" passages are seen as one-sided, overruling each other, or forming a single line with no room in between, we have put ourselves in an untenable position for understanding God, and have cut ourselves off from areas we were meant to understand. By the same token, when we cut ourselves off from part of the mind of God, we also cut ourselves off from part of our humanity. If you doubt that, just check with anyone who has decided that either truth or love can be dispensed with, or that either faith or works really isn't that important, and so on for the practical results of taking sides for one or another of the "opposing" passages. Bad theology always has practical implications: in the end, it dehumanizes us.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Church and the Formation of the Canon of Scripture

The God-Fearin' Fiddler (a born-again convert to Roman Catholicism) has been discussing Scripture over at his blog. I've come late to the conversation, and wanted to comment on what he said here:
"Scripture is only known by the authority of the church"
Now there's a sentence that can mean different things.

If I take that to mean "Scripture is known because the church has witnessed to the authority of these writings from the beginning" I'd agree.

If I take that to mean "Scripture is known because an official decree was made several hundred years after Christ when the list of books was finally made which fully agrees with what the (western) church uses today" -- then I'd disagree.

On what grounds would I disagree? On the grounds that the church is "built upon prophets and apostles, with Christ Jesus Himself the chief cornerstone." (Or to support the same thing another way, based on apostolic succession back to the original apostles.) This has direct implications for whether the church has any authority to decide over certain books. The church did not have the authority to decide whether to include the accounts of Christ's life and teachings, and the church in the earliest days of her written works recognized four such accounts of Christ's life and teachings (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). The church did not have the authority to decide whether to include the prophets. And (at the risk of being repetitive) the church did not have the authority to decide whether or not to include the writings known to trace to the apostles. On the matter of the prophets and apostles and especially that of Christ, there was no authority to do otherwise than recognize, accept, and proclaim them.

The early church records show that the writings of the prophets and apostles and the gospels of Christ's life had fully gained recognized authority centuries before any council recognized them, and they gained this authority based on what they were. This recognized authority, long predating any such councils, extended to all of the books in the (Protestant) Old Testament and the large majority of the books in the New Testament. Any council which had not recognized those books would have been illegitimate.

Why would a council be illegitimate if it had not recognized those books? Because the church cannot have authority to deny its own foundation. Because the church is "built upon prophets and apostles with Christ Jesus himself the chief cornerstone", the church is bound by what it is and by what those writings are to recognize the authority of those writings. A church which denied the writings of the apostles would not have been apostolic. And, to put it more strongly, a church which took upon itself to decide whether or not to include the writings of the apostles would not have been apostolic either. The records show that the books known to be apostolic were in fact received without dispute; and in this way the church was established and confirmed as apostolic.

The only authority the church exercised was over the (relatively fewer) disputed books. For the disputed books, the church had to to discern which ones had ancient records strong enough to be officially recognized. In some cases this meant trying to determine whether a certain writing did in fact come from an apostle or contain the teachings of an apostle. This ruling over disputed books was a useful function, and the western churches have all followed a fairly unified canon of Scripture for many centuries now.

Biblical scholarship in recent centuries has made the attempt (in its own way) to re-open the question of the canon. They have discovered that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are a better source for the life of Christ than the faddishly fashionable but historically worthless "lost gospels". They vindicate the church's hesitancy towards other books such as 2 Peter and Revelation which gained acceptance more slowly. The scholars' arguments have sometimes mirrored the ancient disputes. It shows that the early church did a faithful job in recognizing what she was constrained to recognize and in carefully considering the remaining disputes.

But as for the disputed books ... it's a little bit like buying a car. You can argue about whether to get power windows or a fancy speaker system installed in the car. But you cannot opt out of having tires, transmission, and an engine or it's just not a car. In the same way the church decided on the disputed books, but could not have decided otherwise on the books of the prophets or the apostles or the four anciently attested gospels.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Discerning God's Will

I've recently been reading an introductory book on spiritual direction. One of the major topics covered is discerning God's will (usually rendered as "God's Will" with double capitals in the book). How do we discern God's will for our lives?

In itself, considering God's will is a good thing. Unfortunately, the current book's advice on discerning God's will does not have any depth on the most basic of all advice on God's will: loving God and neighbor. The author paints a picture of earnest and devout souls pouring themselves out in prayer in hope of finding that they have a commission for a Great Service, and scrutinizing every stray thought for a wisp of Holy Spirit that might lead them to what their Great Service should be.

The author shows some understanding that we humans are capable of self-deceit and self-delusion. But there seems little recognition that a great many Spiritual Quests are themselves somewhat self-deluded. God's general will is already revealed to us, from the negatives of not hating and not lusting to the positives of forgiving, loving, helping our families, helping our neighbors, greeting our enemies, and so forth.

C.S. Lewis once mentioned that it is easier to pray for a bore than to go visit him. Self-deceit enters our religious life when we pray for God to do what God has asked us to do. Nobody gets an additional assignment while refusing their original one. As the Scripture says, whoever handles a small trust well will be entrusted with more; whoever does not handle a small trust well will not be entrusted even with that. The Bible's advice on choosing good leadership is much the same: find people who have already done a good job with their families, who have already learned the basics and have already handled that trust well. They have built the necessary skills -- and shown the necessary faithfulness -- to be trusted with more. For our own lives, we have already been entrusted with certain small things that are within our grasp, things that are revealed in the Bible and are God's will for us all.

Someone on their knees, praying to know God's will (they would do it if only they knew it, they suppose), but ignoring their sick neighbor, not reconciling with their own families, harboring a grudge against the rude fellow at the office, and refusing be kind to their enemies -- and yet praying to "know God's will" -- this person's prayer to know God's will is not entirely sincere. The picture I had from the book was not so much of a noble soul praying, "Anything, Lord; anything", but of a would-be noble soul who did not want to love and serve the people he already knew, praying, "Anything but that, Lord; anything".

Friday, June 01, 2007

CRC #5 at the Cross-Reference

Jeff at the Cross Reference has done a great job of getting CRC #5 up and going. Stop by and say thank you, and take up his challenge to let at least one more blogger know about the Carnival. This month we had a record number of self-submitted entries (as opposed to round-up entries), I suspect largely due to the Jeff's knack for networking; let's keep the momentum building. Email here if you'd like to host the early July edition of the Carnival.