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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Meditation on God: Husband

*** Unusual content warning. :) ***

The other day in a class I'm taking on Christian spirituality we did a meditation in which a single word speaking of God is used as the focus of meditation. The leader suggested some possibilities such as Abba or Father, Lord, Shaddai, Shepherd, Husband or Bridegroom, Lord, and so forth. I didn't know how far I was going to get with most of them, so I decided to take a risk: husband or bridegroom. The Bible often portrays God in general and Christ in particular as husband or bridegroom. I chose it because some of the others seemed fairly impersonal. I probably should have foreseen that this would lead to some very personal reflections ...

I'm posting this in hopes that it will be a useful meditation for those of us walking the paths of our lives alone.

God as Husband

Stands with me
Cherishes me
Loves me
Is kind and tender toward me
Glad to see me
Watches over me
Listens to me
Takes away the shame of abandonment
Takes away the shame of being unloved
Defends me from unkind reports
Advocates for me with others
Wipes away my tears
Makes me beautiful
Hears my sorrows
Hears my joys
Makes me glad by his presence
Makes me look forward to the future with gladness because I will not be alone

Monday, September 24, 2007

Patristics Carnival: Call for Submission

For those of us interested in patristics (the study of the church fathers), the next Patristics Carnival will be hosted here. Send submissions / nominations to the carnival email by 09/30/2007. The Carnival is scheduled to be posted mid-week next week. Read here for guidelines and addenda. The Patristics Carnival is a worthy addition to the Christian blog carnivals and is organized by Phil Snider at hyperekperissou.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

What Does Pop Spirituality Offer?

I have a number of friends who are into "spirituality". Not any specific spirituality, mind you, but more of a generic spirituality. I would not necessarily call it "New Age" because some of them have beliefs that might be considered "New Age" while others that label might not fit so cleanly (if that concept even applies to New Age spirituality). So here I speak of the popular / generic spirituality of some of the folks I know. I wonder how much it's like the generic spirituality of anyone you know?
  1. Pop spirituality makes no judgments: therefore it cannot distinguish real from imaginary, true from false, right from wrong.
  2. Pop spirituality will never confront you with your shortcomings: therefore it can never make you grow out of them.
  3. Pop spirituality will never teach hard truths: therefore it can never make you think to your utmost.
  4. Pop spirituality will never tell you there is objective reality behinds its beliefs: therefore it can never offer certain comfort in times of trouble.
  5. Pop spirituality will never tell you there is a right or wrong path: therefore it can never give you guidance.
  6. Pop spirituality will never call you to repent: therefore it cannot work in you to create a clean heart.
  7. Pop spirituality views spirituality as a private matter: therefore it rarely builds a community where a person belongs.
  8. Feminist pop spirituality has no place for men: therefore it cannot help women where their lives involve men.
  9. Pop spirituality has no place for marriage: therefore it cannot help with sustaining a life-long love.
  10. Pop spirituality sees humanity as the highest authority: therefore it cannot inspire us to go beyond ourselves.

That's other than the obvious: Jesus rose from the dead: therefore we have certainty that he speaks the truth about these things.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Proselyte Baptism and Infant Baptism in Classical Judaism

The Christian practice of baptism is a descendant of the previous Jewish practices of ritual washing. Classical Judaism established the practice of ritual washings for converts to the faith. The Talmud records an early conversation about this between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel:
If a proselyte was converted on the eve of Passover, - Beth Shammai maintain: he performs tebillah [ritual washing] and eats his passover-offering in the evening; while Beth Hillel rule: one who separates himself from uncircumcision is like one who separated himself from a grave. (Pesachim 92a)
At the end of the passage above, the Soncino Talmud has a commentator's footnote on the purifications of one who separated himself from a grave (contact with death):
He must be be sprinkled with the water of purification on the third and seventh days after the circumcision; hence he is not yet fit in the evening. (editorial footnote to Pesachim 92a)

The first comment's inclusion in the Mishnah rather than the Gemara, along with its reference to the schools of Hillel and Shammai, suggests an early historical date for Jewish baptism of converts. The Christian practice is then the inheritor of the Jewish practice.

The Talmud also speaks of the Jewish practice of baptizing very young children, and special status is given to those who grew up in the faith, having been baptized at under 3 years of age. It stipulates
A minor proselyte is immersed by the direction of the court. (Kethuboth 11a)
The Talmud also here discusses opinions if the baptized child rejects conversion upon coming of age.
The general approach of Judaism regards conversion as a family affair, with the children being considered proselytes along with the parents and being baptized along with them. There are some differences to the Christian pedobaptist practice in that baptism was not the normal mode of entry to the covenant, but only the mode of entry for those not born into the covenant. Children born to parents who were already baptized were considered part of the covenant already.

On the matter of acting on behalf of children and securing their baptism, it was reasoned,
That it is an advantage to him and one may act for a person in his absence to his advantage? Surely we have learned this already: One may act for a person in his absence to his advantage, but one cannot act for a person in his absence to his disadvantage! (Kethuboth 11a)

In light of the pre-existing Jewish practice of infant baptism along with a proselyte household, the household baptisms recorded in the New Testament have a historical context by which they should be understood and interpreted. Household baptism, which included infant baptism, was an established practice and was continued in the New Testament. In light of the historical context of household baptism, infant baptism cannot justly be said to have no Scriptural warrant in the New Testament.

I am deeply indebted to Uuras Saarnivaara's Scriptural Baptism, in which he begins to develop this argument without Talmud citations, but gives enough of the text of the quotes for me to chase them down in an on-line searchable Talmud.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Proclaiming Softly: Christian Reconciliation Carnival #8 is Up

Thank you to Proclaiming Softly for a great job of hosting Christian Reconciliation Carnival #8. Due to her networking and fellowship skills, we also have some new players this month. Stop by and give them a read.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Origen and the baptism of infants

In the recent debates over pedobaptism and credobaptism, Dr. Pursiful makes brief mention of Origen's comments on the subject. In the interest of broadening the discussion, I would like to cite Origen more fully:
The church has received from the apostles the tradition to give baptism even to infants. For those who were entrusted with the divine mysteries knew that all men have the natural pollution of sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit. No man is free from the defilement of sin, even if he is one day old. Since the inborn uncleanness is washed away through baptism, little children also come to be baptized. For unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (Origen, "Commentary on Romans," V. 9)
I have a question for credobaptists or for anyone who holds that pedobaptism is invalid: If the early church held infant baptism to be of apostolic origin, on what basis would you deny that it is of apostolic origin? And if it is of apostolic origin, is there any valid basis for a Christian to reject it? Here we may see different constructions of Sola Scriptura come into play. Lutherans hold to the primacy of Scriptures but are still informed by the witness of the early church, especially in cases where the early church explicitly cites the apostles' teachings not elsewhere written.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Christ, Eternal Life, and Merit

This post continues a conversation with Jeff the Roman Catholic over at Cross-Reference, who has done an exemplary job keeping the conversation peaceful.

By this stage of the conversation on Christ, faith, works, and merit, we have established a few points on which we agree, and it is probably simplest if I begin reviewing Jeff's post with an eye to the things on which we already agree:

  • We agree that, in having Christ, we ourselves have changed.
  • We agree that if there is no visible sign of change, there is cause to question whether we do in fact have Christ.
  • We agree that followers of Christ will grow in our desire to become worthy of Christ.

For all these agreements, the disagreements are still substantial. For convenience' sake I am splitting them under two major headings here: fulfilling the requirements of the law, and merits v. rewards.

Fulfilling the requirements of the law
Of course, we are sinners, so we must repent and ask forgiveness often. -- Japhy
This is what I mean when I say we do not fulfill the requirements of the law. Anyone reading along -- or with any background in the argument -- already knows that Roman Catholics and Lutherans disagree on whether we Christians fulfill the requirements of the law. Jeff did me a kindness by stating the Roman Catholic position in his own words lest anyone suspect me of misrepresenting it.
And as for "the divine law", it is qualified by "according to the state of this life", meaning, as I show below, the avoidance of those behaviors which disqualify one from inheriting the kingdom of heaven. {And hoping I've picked out the pertinent parts below ... WF} Clearly none of us hopes to go the grave as an adulterer or a thief. The commandments of God are not burdensome: the yoke of Jesus is easy and his burden is light (cf. 1 John 5:3; Matt 11:30). ... Why all this concern with being made worthy? Because there's a whole laundry list of people who won't inherit the kingdom of heaven (idolaters, thieves, fornicators, etc.). Such behavior is not found in a life worthy of God.
There is a disconnect between what Jesus and his disciple John are saying on the one hand (see passages cited) and the idea of fulfilling the requirements of the Law by avoiding a certain laundry list of behaviors on the other. Just as a case in point, notice that the laundry list stops short of mentioning hatred and strife, which appear on some of Paul's list of "such as these shall not inherit", etc. If Rome had taken up Christ's and John's and Paul's and James' teachings on love fulfilling the requirements of the Law and covering a multitude of sins, Rome's position would be on much more solid ground. But the "avoid deadly sins" approach -- hey, am I clear, I'm not defending deadly sins here -- but that approach of simply avoiding certain major sins really cuts short the requirements of the law.

In equating "avoiding deadly sins" with "fulfilling the requirements of the Law," all the most difficult requirements are set aside, all mentions of love of God and neighbor are removed, all mentions of sins of omission are removed. "The requirements of the Law" are then reduced to a rather short laundry list of egregious sins that even conscientious atheists might hope to avoid. It is on these grounds that Lutherans on this matter consider Roman Catholics to be "antinomians" -- those who set aside the Law or are lax with the requirements of the Law. We see a move like this as using the Law to justify ourselves, even though we know that nobody is justified by the Law, but rather through the Law we become conscious of sin and are condemned. In order for the Law to have its proper force against sin and sinners, it must be allowed to do the job of condemning us to death so that our old natures may be condemned and die, with ourselves being crucified with Christ and raised to new life. In this way Lutherans see the Roman Catholic avoidance of being condemned by the Law as badly missing one of the main points of the Law: to anchor that condemnation by which we die to our old selves. Japhy, I don't know where you stand on this next part, but just speaking from experience of conversations with Roman Catholics, as a group you all are awfully skittish about acknowledging that the Law condemns us and we deserve to die; while acknowledging the idea in principle, in practice you all can hardly leave the topic quickly enough. (You share that tendency with a number of other Christian groups.) Allowing the law to condemn our sinful natures to death is a necessary part of true repentance. It is as much a mistake to gloss over that condemnation too lightly as it is to dwell on it too obsessively. The Law has a good and useful place not only in upholding the good as the Noble Fellow's Aspirations, but also in condemning the negative as a scouring pad for our hearts. And I think it is precisely the need to see yourselves as meriting eternal life that leads to that kind of self-justifying move where the law is shortlisted to something loveless and without reference to God, something that even your standard issue bitter despairing atheist can manage. ("You say you love your brother ... Who doesn't do that?") Remember the prayers of the publican and the sinner? The one who went home justified before God is the one who knows the Law condemns him and who pleads for mercy, not the one who imagines that the law justifies him, even though he credits God that he is such a good fellow and thanks God for how many merits he has. Of the two, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner" is the better prayer. And as one modern theologian has commented, if the fellow who said "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner" is the one who went home justified, then why do we want to send the sinner back the next week with the other fellow's speech in his pocket about what a good boy he has been? Again, I'm not defending sin, but I am defending an honesty about the fact that we are all sinners, that the right grounds for justification is not shortlisting the law until we can self-justify using the law, but that the right grounds for justification is acknowledging that we are sinners and trusting God's mercy.

Trent (Session VI, Chapter XI) said: "no one should use that rash statement [...] that the observance of the commandments of God is impossible for one that is justified".

I think you already answered this in the way I would when you said
Of course, we are sinners, so we must repent and ask forgiveness often. -- Japhy

If it is true that we are sinners so we must repent and ask forgiveness often, then "the observance of the commandments of God" either has to be shortlisted to the point where other groups suspect you all of antinomianism, or it has proved impossible in practice for everyone who finds themselves at confession with something to confess. Again, our major complaints against Roman Catholicism on this point are first the mishandling of the law and second the self-justification of rerouting the road to God's approval so that it does not depend on mercy.

Merits v. Rewards
There is a kind Roman Catholic fellow that Japhy linked in regards to the conversation on merits v. rewards, posting Do we merit eternal life through our good works? Being Roman Catholic, he naturally defends the position that we do merit eternal life through our good works, and considers this not to be anti-grace on the grounds of infused grace. If any of my readers should stop by to visit Vivator, please honor his brotherly attitude. Vivator unfortunately provides a perfect example of what I've referred to as "Bible verse playoff theology" -- where he collects a set of verses that he believes support his position that eternal life is merited by good works, and then uses those passages to "defeat" a verse that he believes opposes his position. As I've posted here before, that approach generally shows that the position held is not built based on all passages of Scripture, but comes from outside and uses Scripture primarily to find support for an opinion already held. Bible verse playoff theology serves to remove part of Scripture from the playing field and is only necessary when a position is not fully Scriptural.

Vivator does not seem aware that his two dueling sets of Scriptures are discussing two separate topics: rewards on the one hand and worthiness or merit on the other. Vivator's general argument is that because God rewards us for such goodness as we have shown, therefore we were worthy of the reward and merited the reward. That actually does not follow. Before in conversations with Japhy I had mentioned the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where the precise point of the parable is that the reward we receive from God's hand far exceeds what we have merited: the reward graciously surpasses that which we are worthy of receiving and is beyond what we have earned. There is no need to play off these Scripture passages against each other or to abrogate the force of part of God's word; both sets of Scriptures stand at full force. And this is precisely where Roman Catholics and Protestants disagree on faith and works: whether the reward God gives is something we have actually merited, something of which we are actually worthy, or whether the reward is beyond our merits and worthiness to receive it and is in fact in every way a gift rather than a thing deserved. When a Roman Catholic reads Jesus' teaching about the sheep and the goats, I have often heard the argument from there go along these lines: "Works matter, God rewards us, we merited it with God's help." When a Protestant reads the sheep and the goats, our view takes account of the disproportion between the acts we have done and the reward received, and is more like this: "Christ would grant eternal life for a work of kindness so small as visiting the sick. What a gracious Judge!"

Let me know if you're interested in a play-by-play response to some of the passages you quoted. I wanted to stick with the overall arch of the argument, and most of your quotes were on the desirability of worthiness in a series of different contexts, against which I have no objection.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Road to Tamaulipas

When I was eighteen, my friend Pam's church went on a mission trip to Mexico, to Cd. Mante in the state of Tamaulipas which borders Texas (where I live) to the south. She knew that I was Christian and we were taking an advanced Spanish class together, so she invited me to come along as a translator. I was to help teach Vacation Bible School while some of the others helped with construction and repair projects at the church.

I had been to Mexico before, but only as a tourist. My parents had made an effort that we only saw certain parts of Mexico DF and then one of the pyramids. My trip to the poor side of Tamaulipas was an eye-opener. It was my first time seeing cardboard boxes in a field used as places to sleep, my first time seeing a crippled person without any medical care whatsoever, my first time to realize that poverty in the U.S. and third-world poverty are on entirely different scales.

It was also the first time I'd seen open disobedience to the law in a church ministry: the group was taking donations of clothing into Mexico and also donations of cloth for the ladies there to make into clothing, things which the Mexican government forbids to take into the country. The church leaders had timed their border crossing to coincide with the changing of the guard to try to minimize scrutiny. I had not known any of this in advance. I could see both sides of the argument and was just glad it wasn't my job to make a decision one way or the other. (I have since become glad for ministries such as Paper Houses which work within the existing Mexican laws to provide clothing purchased in Mexico. With any luck, someone will have mentioned this possibility to that church by now.)

When we got to Cd. Mante, we saw the church building and met the people of the church. The church building had no electricity and no air conditioning. In summer in that part of Mexico, it does get hot; fortunately we were all from southern Texas and didn't have any trouble with the heat. Most of the people had no cars; they walked for miles to get to the church services. Some of them walked for an hour or more to be able to attend. Even in their poverty they kept their homes well, sweeping their dirt floors with straw brooms and making what beauty they could. The people were hospitable, kind and generous. They take hospitality and generosity far more seriously than we do, maybe because there's so much more need for it. They were strikingly gracious and polite. The culture was very alive. One of the fellows at the church, untrained but still more than capable with his guitar, had written some Christian songs and had learned many others. I still remember a couple of them (some of them were quite good), and sometimes I still sing them to myself. For someone who went there to help, I sure came home having eaten a slice of humble pie, knowing I had far more to learn from these people than I had to teach them.

I'm not quite sure what was more of a culture shock to me: the fact that we were visiting a non-tourist area of Mexico, or the fact that the people I came with were Baptists. To be sure, living in southern Texas many of my friends were Baptists, but they had their church and I had mine. My experience inside the Baptist church was eye-opening, both the Sunday worship on the north side of the border on the way home and the daily worship in the church in Cd. Mante. The choirs were large and loud. The preachers were often laity. One of the lay-preachers, probably barely twenty years old, had a message that I remember to this day: that when people mock and ridicule us for our faith, it is in exactly those times that they are aware we have something different, something that they need, that those are exactly our best opportunities to witness to the kind of difference Christ makes in our lives. There was less Bible-reading than I was used to, but the Bible-reading was directly from Bibles rather than from excerpts printed on paper. And I had never before seen -- excepting televangelists -- a church meeting where attendees were called to make a decision to accept Jesus into their hearts. For those interested, I did see two decisions for Christ announced that week. One was a kind-hearted and honest woman named Perla; I'm fairly sure she had been a Christian before the week started but her earnestness demanded of her that she rededicate her life. The other -- I would have put money on it that he was mocking them, though he did seem to be the only mocker in the crowd. The prayers were not in the litany style that I was used to, but were more freeform. The preaching was heavily heart-based, as opposed to the head-based fare I had come to expect from my then-current pastor, a retired seminary professor. It was actually the first time I had heard the "walking on water" text preached as "Peter getting out of the boat" rather than as "fixing your eyes on Jesus." The songs were different too. It was the first time I had ever sung "King of Kings and Lord of Lords," except it was "Rey de Reyes y Señor de Señores". My friend Pam and I did it as a round as a going away offering, singing it through first in Spanish then in English.

Most harrowing part of the trip: riding in an oversized van down winding, poorly maintained roads with hairpin turns along sheer dropoffs at the edges of steep hills, and every place you would dearly love to see a guardrail, instead you see a row of white crosses at the edge of the road to commemorate the people who hadn't successfully made that particular turn. Glad I wasn't driving.

Most scenic part of the trip: the sugarcane fields. Not only is cane a beautiful crop, but as an added bonus it brought back fond memories of sugarcane samples I'd had as a kid.

Most memorable part of the trip: The people. Honestly, part of my heart stayed in Mexico with all the people I met. With Miguel and his guitar, Nora and her generosity, Adiel who was willing to travel anywhere for any length of time with no spare food or clothes or money but only his Bible, Perla and her sweet earnestness, little Marisol and dozens of others whose names have since been lost to memory.

I can't say that this was some event which changed the course of my life, but it did make a few things more plain to me. The old saying "there's more than one way to do things" became less of a cliché and more of a living reality to me as I spent some time worshiping alongside Baptists. The lines dividing Christians seemed to me an unfortunate thing. And in light of the needs facing the people in Mexico, it seemed like an obstacle to Christians getting our work done.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

"Proclaiming Softly" blog will host Reconciliation Carnival #8

Proclaiming Softly will be hosting the September Christian Reconciliation Carnival, and will be accepting posts through September 9. The Carnival is expected up on the 15th. The topic of the month:
How have you experienced Christian worship and practice in another culture or country or denomination that expanded your view of God, worship, or how to live the Christian life? This might include how encountering a different practice led you to a new/different interpretation of some Bible verses. Did you see your own traditional ways with new eyes? Have you heard some Bible passages with new ears? Have you actually changed the way you live or work?

Mail here to submit posts on the topic of the month or anything related to Christian Reconciliation.

The September edition of the Christian Reconciliation Carnival will be hosted at Proclaiming Softly. Stay tuned here (and here) for the topic announcement within the next day or two, and look for a carnival around mid-September. And a huge Thank You to P.S. for hosting.