Wednesday, May 06, 2015

An Address of Sorts to Geneva College Students

I've always wondered what would happen if I got the chance to give you all a valedictory address.  Sort of like a commencement speech, but to all the classes and lacking in the typical self-focused irrelevance.  As my memory fades from the institution (in 3 years once this crop of first year students graduate), this seems to me to be my only chance.  What would I say, though?

First, you have been and will continue to be loved.  If there is one overarching theme I see coming from young Christian students, it is this: you do not believe that God could love you, or could continue to love you because of your (real or perceived) faults in morality.  We all perpetuate this, as we are convinced that if we are really saved, we must automatically lead holy lives.  But, my joys, this simply isn't true.  God calls us, eventually, to wholeness.  But it is a wholeness that always bears Christ's Cross, just as Symeon of Cyrene on the Via Dolorosa.  We find Christ by entering His sufferings, not by "having it all together" or "being perfect."  Indeed, don't take this as a license to cupidity; rather it is a sterner call to the holiness that we feign and therefore fear.  God calls us, daily, to our martyrdom. As we turn from the shoring up of the self and the ego, we find that these are merely false fronts -- duck blinds -- given by sin to hide the fact that they lead to nothingness, to the nihil from which we were called into being.  Sin tells us that God cannot love us, for God reveals the horror of what sin truly is.  We are all disordered in our loves; we must walk together on the road, leaving no man or woman behind.

This leads, naturally, to the second point: we must love if we are to know love.  God loves us, but just because "the Bible tells me so" is insufficient.  Love is a mode of existence, not a sentiment or a feeling, certainly not just a claim made without support.  This is why St John says "God is love," not "God has love."  To really know, in a much deeper than rational way, we must enter that mode of existence.  We must forgive our friends and our enemies, then we will see that Christ's forgiveness has been there all along.  We must love -- warm and fill -- our brothers and sisters, then we will find the One who says, "When I was hungry, you gave me food; thirsty and you gave me drink."  We should note that the sheep in that parable are surprised: "When did we do this to You?"  Cultivate those surprises.  Never fail to hope and expect Christ in the other, even when they fail to live up to our world's standards of "where God is pleased to dwell."  We are to become, by graced askesis, God's Temple.  However, we must not determine where God in His Spirit may move, for He is "everywhere present and fulfilling all things." Those who refuse to see the Christ will "weep and gnash teeth," seeing that the Love was already there, but they had cut themselves off from it by not loving the brother they could see.

Third, this love is transformational, or better yet is is transfiguring.  When Christ shines out the Unceeated Light on Mt Tabor He is giving us a glimpse of our own destiny.  Loving one another is not a giving a place for continued sin: it is a call to suffer for and with those who need God's glory to indwell them.  It may take years, and seem to bear no fruit, but God gives the increase in His own time and often in the hidden chambers of the heart.  Love one another.  Love is cruciform, so you will suffer.  Count it joy when you suffer for the Kingdom in this way: your reward is greater than the whole world.

Know, my joys, that many have suffered with and for you already.  Your parents, your teachers, your friends -- we are, along with all the saints, the Great Cloud of Witnesses looking to the Lord Jesus, who begins our Faith and beckons us to the end in Him.  Take up this Cross -- light and easy compared to the glory which will certainly be revealed in us -- with us.  The Church, those gathering in Christ's Cross and revealing His Resurrection, is important.  Our cultural religion would have you believe that you can have all the benefits of Jesus without religion.  In a sense, this is true: if we mean by religion a set of more-or-less arbitrary rules meant to manage guilt and create exclusive tribes.  The Lord Jesus does not dwell there.  But if we mean that community who seek, over time and in obedience to those who have traveled the Road before us (for what else is Tradition, friends?), to inhabit the Cross and live that mode of existence I've called love, then where else would the Christ be?  This is true religion, this is the Church.  It will involve rites and rituals and other things we find, for a variety of reasons, distasteful.  Medicine is often distasteful -- that doesn't mean it isn't healthful.  True, bad medicine leads to greater sickness: we must cultivate a spiritual awareness that can tell when our spiritual direction is harmful, so that we might seek out the good.  The wisdom here is hard: what seems rough at first might lead to health, to the crucifixion with Christ of the false self.  That which placates our conscience, or enables us towards self-actualization, or whatever may feel good for a time -- and we may mistake it for the Truth -- but it leads to death.  How are we to tell?  Is the Cross there along with the joy and the peace?  Joy and peace are of no avail, they are the City of Man, without the Cross.  In the Cross, they are God's grace and light spilled out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.  We need to find spiritual directors, fathers, mothers, and companions who know the joy and the Cross -- they can, through God's indwelling -- lead us in His paths and tend our souls.

Lastly, sing.  There is a reason that the whole ancient Church chanted every part of her liturgy.  Find that reason.  It must be sung.

God's blessings on you.  You have blessed me for 8 years in the classroom.

Yours in Christ,

Prof. Russ

Monday, April 27, 2015

What about the Basil Option?

Rod Dreher, writing over at The American Conservative, has been formulating what he calls “the Benedict Option” in our current cultural moment:

If an avalanche is coming, you don’t surrender to it and slide down the hill with the rocks, and you don’t get yourself killed by standing in front of it hoping that God will stop it before it hits you, or that someone will show up at the last minute to rescue you. You get out of the way, and take shelter where you can until it passes you by.

The idea is based on a brief passage in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, in which he advocates the necessity of small communities disengaging from the dominant cultural landscape in order to preserve what is good, true, and beautiful in those self-same cultures. St Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order of monks, did just this in the waning days of Western Roman civilization.

One of the difficulties of this, pointed out by many reviewers and commentators, is that Benedictine monasticism requires a fairly hefty withdrawal from the world; it is generally better situated among rural areas and out of the way places. Much of the history of Western monasticism, taking its cue from St Antony of Egypt and others, can be understood as this pull away from the urban to the secluded. Dreher speaks often of how the Benedict Option does not require one to become a survivalist, but we should be open to the practicality, even wisdom, of a complete disengagement from the urban cultural and political scene. Wendell Berry comes to mind as a possible “abbot-at-large” for the Benedict Option.

I don’t want, in any way, to diminish what Dreher is trying to accomplish; on the contrary, a revival of monasticism in its cenobitic form would do this country a world of good. The constant witness against the crass and ubiquitous materialism that the cloister preaches is a dire necessity for us; the devotion to intimate care from oblation to dormition constitutes a non-verbal gadfly against our revulsion of those who are young and those who are dying. However, the Benedict Option is best suited for the “highways and the hedges” in our country. So, instead of criticizing, I want to suggest that another saint provides a more concrete model for urban cultural engagement on the level that Dreher is arguing for: St Basil of Caesarea, rightly called the Great.

Basil is credited with developing what St Gregory of Nazianzus, in his elegy for his friend, called the ‘New City’ and which we know as the ‘Basiliad’:

A noble thing is philanthropy, and the support of the poor, and the assistance of human weakness. Go forth a little way from the city, and behold the new city, the storehouse of piety, the common treasury of the wealthy, in which the superfluities of their wealth, aye, and even their necessaries, are stored, in consequence of his exhortations, freed from the power of the moth, no longer gladdening the eyes of the thief, and escaping both the emulation of envy, and the corruption of time: where disease is regarded in a religious light, and disaster is thought a blessing, and sympathy is put to the test. (Oration 43.63)

Basil had set up a community of religious dedicated to the care of the urban poor, the displaced, the leper, the sick, and the dying. All within the metropolitan limits of Caesarea. Part of what allowed this to take place was Basil’s preaching on the true use and reality of wealth (a sentiment shared by none other than St John Chrysostom): the rich are for the health of the poor, the poor are for the salvation of the rich. It was a form, if you will, of separation in the midst of the world. Bounded by the strong sense of Apostolic Tradition, of the true Faith, and then sent out as humble, consubstantial healers in the city. This, it seems to me, is what Dreher is after.

The question that arises in my mind, though, is whether or not we have a solid enough Faith here in the States to start these sorts of communities of outreach and healing. Can there be any chance of coherent community outside a unified Faith, at least on the local level? Can the Presbyterians continue to fracture and shatter into a million warring factions (see Jonathan Frame’s classic and depressing essay “Machen’s Warrior Children” for how this has worked out on a level outside of the PCUSA) and expect to be a cultural bulwark? Can the Catholics recover from the cultural damage caused by the sex scandal? Are the Orthodox a significant enough presence in our urban areas, and are they willing to give up ethnic and nationalist distinctives for the sake of the salvation of the American soul?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Boast

In Romans (and Galatians) St Paul is at pains to exclude some sort of "boasting" before God.  It is explicitly condemned in 3:27, being excluded by the "nomos of Faith."  What is this boast? Most often, I've heard, and paradigmatically assumed, that it is a boast of law completion; I've kept the law, so I have something of which to boast of before God and man (implying that I can then leveraged that boast into some sort of earned salvation scheme -- effectively tying God's hands).  However, the first place in Romans St Paul uses the word is 2:17, where the boast is not in nomic performance, but a "boast in God," which seems -- utilizing 9:4-5 -- to be a boast in terms of election: the Judean has confidence before God because of his privileged covenantal status (granted initially by God via Abraham and later through Moses), which can be backed up (at this point as proof, not as merit) by circumcision and nomic obedience.

It goes without saying, I think, that this changes a good deal of how the early chapters in Romans are to be interpreted.

H/T to the book I'm reading: Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans: 2009).

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

A Prayer for Salvation

Lord Christ, by the grace of Your Cross and by the power of Your Resurrection, save me, save my family, save my friends, save my enemies. Save, Lord, all men as is Your desire. Amen.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Meditations on Holy Week

The fig tree withers
and the temple is cleansed.
May the passions within us
find the same fate, as You,
the Lover of all Humankind
grant us Your Great Mercy
on the Tree.

As You entered into Jerusalem,
cleansing the Temple,
so enter our hearts, O Good One,
and drive from them the sinful passions
that beset us and defile us.
For You love humankind
and are the Savior of our souls.

O Lord Christ, as You were silent before Your accusers,

so we are silent before You, the Source of Living Waters
whom we have spurned time and time again.
Open our lips, O Lord, that our mouths might proclaim Your praise;
Silence the tongues of our accuser, the enemy of all souls,
and crush the head of the murdering dragon,
granting us Your Great Mercy
and the world's salavation.

As Joseph was lifted out of the pit
by the remembrance of the cupbearer,
so You Lord were lifted up on the Cross
causing the thief to cry out,
"Remember me in Your Kingdom, O Lord!"
His cry is ours so that this day
we might join You in the Paradise who is the Spirit,
You who are the Lover of Humankind
and the Savior of our souls.

Your cry, O Christ, upon the Tree
"My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?"
spoken from God to God -- Hallelujah
for in our Godforsakenness of death
of sin, of corruption, You abide with us,
every crying out in intercession;
for you are the Lover of Humankind
and the saver of our souls.

The Tomb, cut out of rock,
will receive the one proclaimed,
"Behold, the Man!" on this day
of man's primordial creation.
From dust to dust, You return
to be resurrected the third day
so that we, being dust, might be raised
with You to Heaven,
for You are the lover of Humankind
and the Savior of our souls.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Tale of Two Ecumenisms?

Carl Trueman, professor of Church History at WTS, has been writing some important articles over at First Things.  Important, I say, because of his strong stance on Presbyterian Confessionalism.  Other Protestant authors, such as Peter Leithart (advocate of a sort of Reformed Catholicism), tend to respect the classical confessions (Westminster, Heidelberg, etc.) while connected more strongly to the Patristic and Medieval influences on the Reformation.  However, for many, that has opened the doors to seeing the priority of authority resting in broader Church history, not with the Reformed confessions; that is, many (some? I don't have statistics) have crossed the Tiber, the Thames, or the Bosporus due to the ecumenical outreach of modern Reformation thinkers.  Trueman, while appreciating the influence of Patristic and Medieval sources on Reformed thought, stays committed to the confessional authority and heritage that the post-Reformation scholastics bequeathed to Reformed communions.  My own sense of where this sort of dialogue is going leads me to believe that there will be a Reformed retrenchment against moderate and soft subscriptionism: the Confessions will, I think, in short order regain their authoritative standing in Reformed churches (my reservations about such a move can be found here).  This is no prophecy, however; I could be quite wrong.

Trueman's latest article goes further by calling attention to the work of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" (ECT), a group I have some passing affinity with (the former president of the college I teach at was a member -- it made him into a "lame duck" president in the eyes of the Board).  Trueman contrasts, very helpfully, the sort of ecumenism at the root of ECT versus the sort of informal, conference- and book-based ecumenism that seems to hold in broader Evangelicalism.  Think how many conservative Reformed pastors extol Mark Driscoll (Charismatic) or John Piper (Baptist), for an example.  A very, very important issue is raised here, but it isn't the one I wish to focus on.  Rather, it is a rather surprising inconsistency in his reasoning about doctrine.  He says, "perhaps the biggest disappointment about ECT is the fact that, like stadium evangelicalism, it disconnects matters which should be connected." By itself, there is much to be said about this.  However, as the article unfolds, we see Dr. Trueman doing the very separation he castigates.  He applauds Catholic theologians for getting the doctrine of God right, but says that the modern evangelicals, even those who totally botch the Trinity, get the doctrines of authority and salvation right.  In fact, he "still do[es] not see any advance beyond the sixteenth century" in matters of ecclesial authority or justification.  However, while the early Reformed may have held orthodox views about God (the charge of Nestorianism might be able to be leveled at Calvin and can certainly be leveled against Vermigli and others), the moderns by-and-large do not, which means that a separation has taken place: soteriology and theology are at odds in modern evangelicalism.  The problem, though, is that this is untenable: one's doctrine of God is one's doctrine of salvation.

In John 17, the Lord Christ [or St John in an editorial aside] says, "This is eternal life: to know You, the One True God and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent."  Knowing, as it well known among biblical scholars, is a participatory act, not a merely rational one: to know is to be in union with the one known.  To know God, to have eternal life, is to be in union with Him (the Father) and Jesus Christ (the Son) -- the assumption, spelled out elsewhere in Scripture, is that this done through the Spirit.  Eternal life, then, is not merely a gift, separate from God.  Since He alone has immortality (1 Tim. 6:16), to have "eternal" life is to partake in the life of God Himself, the Life that John says is Jesus (John 1:4).  Salvation, then, is participation or union with the Trinity.  To have your doctrine (or "knowledge" if you will) of God wrong is to not have salvation.  One can understand all sorts of things about the so-called ordo salutis and the relationship of justification to that (although I think that Chris Tilling's critique of both Old and New Perspectives as not being sufficiently Trinitarian is indispensable here), but if we have not God, we have nothing but sounding brass.  The two cannot be separated because, in essence, they are the same thing.

While Dr. Trueman may not be guilty of the separation (he seems to hold a more Catholic understanding of God, yet with Reformed soteriology), modern evangelicalism is.  The question of why, then, orthodox Protestants and orthodox Catholics disagree on the mechanisms of salvation becomes salvifically pertinent.  Both cannot be right (it is possible, as my Orthodox friends would aver, that both are wrong).  However, if we understand salvation as union with God (or, to use the Patristic term, as theosis), the question of imputation vs impartation becomes insignificant.  "Righteousness" is not something outside of God, either as a "created" grace or as a legal decree: righteousness is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who pours out the love of God in our hearts (Rom. 5:5).  The Orthodox distinction between Essence and Energy is helpful here.  How does one "become" righteous?  By being united with Christ in His death (His historical energy, as it were).  This union is accomplished by the indwelling of the Spirit at ecclesial baptism -- St Paul's argument in Romans 5-6 -- all because of the faith of Christ in the Incarnation.  More needs to be said about this, of course, but at the very least it pushes us to see that we need a third ecumenism that surpasses both ECT and the new evangelical consensus.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Review of "The Bible Tells Me So"

Enns, Peter. The Bible Tells Me So (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 267pgs.

Enns, a professor at Eastern University, writes often on his blog about the mounting scholarly and popular problems inerrancy faces.  This book, The Bible Tells Me So, lays out his case in a popular idiom.  It ranges through his field (Old Testament/Hebrew Bible) through the New and into modern criticism.  His main point, it seems, is that Scripture cannot bear the weight inerrantism puts on it: a claim that is, in my opinion, becoming more and more undeniable every day. The implications of this, for the life of the evangelical church, are staggering, although they are mostly left as subtle or provocative hints throughout Enns' text.  He lays out no program of how to interpret the Bible post-inerrancy, but merely strives to show that the old paradigm has no proverbial clothes on.

The argument is fairly clear; however, you cannot beat something with nothing.  In the end, the Bible is left, not as a normative collection of books (a canon for faith and life), but as a set that "carries the thoughts and meditations of ancient pilgrims and, I believe, according to God's purpose, has guided, comforted, and informed Christians for as long as there have been Christians" (234). He argues, at various points throughout the text, that portions of the Scriptures were "left behind" by later authors, especially those parts in which God is presented as a tribal-warrior death with a "hair-trigger temper."  I was left wondering how that might play out exegetically: are we allowed to leave behind parts of Scripture today? I realize that this comes dangerously close to committing the slippery slope fallacy on my part, but recent moves by various parts of the church have accomplished this very thing.  It gets to the very thorny (whether you are an inerrantist or not) issue of how "cultural conditioning" works in the New Testament (especially).

One thing Enns focuses on is the way both Jesus and the Apostles interpreted the Old Testament. It is well known that they, and the Church Fathers, Scholastics, Mystics, and others up until the Reformation, used very strange (to us) methods to derive meaning for their day, in light of what Jesus did and, therefore, who He was.  In fact, Enns says he would give a student a bad grade (among other things) if they engaged in that sort of exegesis. Here is one of the main points that we should focus in on: Enns has, unwittingly?, cut out how Protestants do biblical study, but has not put anything else in its place.  The historical-critical method doesn't cut it, since the history does not conform to our modern understandings of what counts as historical accuracy (an argument I've made before); grammatical-historical suffers from the same fate; redemptive-historical as well, although this one might get a bit more of a pass as it tends to focus on the canonical narrative, yet it assumes the full historical validity in the Scriptures.  What else can there be? If we cannot make recourse to "objective" history, what can we do?  Or, if apostolic (read: ecclesial-liturgical) readings are appropriate and necessary to maintain the Scriptures as "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16-17), how do we engage them without making "the Bible mean whatever you feel like making it mean" (168)?

Enns never quite says.  He offers some suggestions of how we are to approach the Bible post-inerrancy (236-244), but they do not amount to a complete exegetical agenda (nor, to be fair, was this his intent, as this is a popular level book, but I have the feeling that many will walk away from their reading wondering how the Bible, especially the OT, is normative for life today).  What Enns is seeking to accomplish in this work is important: we must read the Scriptures, if we are to know the God who inspired them, as they are meant to be read. They cannot bear the weight that sola Scriptura inevitably places on them.  But what?  Enns confesses that "I continue to work all this out for myself" (236). Just as Deuteronomy ends with the Israelites outside the Promised Land, so does TBTMS.

Trying to think alongside Dr. Enns, here are some thoughts as we seek to move forward: the Lord, the Apostles, and the Fathers/Mothers of the Church are all agreed that the key to reading Scripture is not found within method, or scholarly acumen. The key, the skopos of St Athansius and the hypothesis of St Irenaeus, is Jesus Christ, accessible to us by His Holy Spirit through participation in the life of the Church.  In other words, the Bible is an ecclesial document that cannot be properly read outside of the Church worshipping and communing. Lex orandi, lex credendi. Only being indwelt by the Spirit, what St John calls in his first epistle "the anointing you received from Him" (2:20, 27), can equip us to read the Scriptures towards salvation: this Spirit is the down-payment of the Church (not of individual believers in a "soul competency" sort of way -- this would lead to confusion and chaos, as can be seen in the history of Protestantism generally). Of course, this leads us to the question that continues to irk me: where is the Spirit? Who (which tradition/communion) has Him?

This is, to me, the great question.  It is, at least, the most important question I've ever come across. Enns, I think, points us back to this question, even if he is not explicitly asking it.