Sunday, June 05, 2016

Sermon: 2 John 4-6

The welcome at Washington Union CMA Church is always gracious and warm.  Here is the text of the sermon I preached there earlier today.
2 John 4-6: The Beautiful Lady

St John the Elder writes to the Elect Lady with one purpose: that she might be transformed by following the commandment from her Lord. So often, we think of commandments as impositions, as things that take away our freedom. We may be compliant with them, but we certainly aren’t going to be happy about it, and we’ll let other people know that, for sure. One only has to look at the newspaper, or the comments sections known as Facebook or Twitter, to see what we think of commandments and those who decree them. Even from leaders we like, or may have voted for, we are critical: think back to your youth, what did you think about your parents when they set down rules for you?

We’ve translated this into a theology that avoids God’s Law: doesn’t St Paul say “you are not under Law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14)? So what is St John saying here? Are we being brought back into bondage by “putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10)?

It may be helpful to first look at how we understand laws. Back in Genesis 1, the Lord God sets laws of division and boundary, to change that which was “formless and void” (1:2) to something that could be called “very good” (1:31). That is, laws were made to properly distinguish things and give them identity: water is different than air, land is different than water, all animals breed “according to their kinds.” Laws make it possible for creation to be fruitful, to be what God created it to be. The problem, then, isn’t laws, but the introduction of corruption, of death and sin, into that good creation: “The stinger of death is sin, and the strength of the sin is the Law” (1 Cor. 15:56). What St Paul is saying here is that the Law was “holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12), yet “sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed” (v. 11). Think back to the story of Adam: the commandment was to have freedom to eat of all the trees of the Garden, except one. Yet the Serpent stepped in and used that one small prohibition to bring death into the world.

What we see, then, when St Paul seems to argue against the Law in Romans or Galatians is not that God’s Law is bad or evil, but that the Law as co-opted by sin, death, and the devil has undone us. What we need is liberation from evil so that the “righteous decree” of the Law can be “fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4) and this is exactly what our Lord Christ has done. He has “condemned sin in the flesh” (v. 3), He has destroyed the power of the devil (1 John 3:8), and released us from the bondage of the fear of death (Heb. 2:14). Yet, we also must remember that in the midst of this He “did not come to destroy [the Law] but to fulfill it” (Matt. 5:17). What does this mean? So often, we assume that “to fulfill” something means to do away with it. But when we fill a glass to the brim (to “full fill” it), we have not done away with it, we’ve made it what it is supposed to be. Now it can be properly used. When Christ says He’s come to “fulfill” the Law, it means to bring it to its proper purpose. What is that purpose?

Here is where the 2nd Epistle of John comes in: the purpose of the Law is to train us in love. Consider our Lord’s words in Mark 12: “The first of all the commandments is ‘Hear, o Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (29-31). The point of the Law is to love God and love others. Or we might again go to the teaching of St Paul: “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the Law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall shall murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if any other commandment, all are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:8-10).

Returning to our Epistle, we can now understand why he says, “And now I plead with you, Lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment to you, but that which we have had from the beginning: that we love one another. This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it” (2 John 5-6). The command is to love, and to love is to obey the commandment. The Law is to train us in love and does so by being love. When we love someone, acting in a loving way does not seem burdensome or hard, it does not seem like our begrudging compliance to traffic laws, but it seems like freedom. It seems natural, for it is. Our loving actions flow out of the love that exists between us and our beloved. Or, as St Augustine famously said, “Love God and do what you will...let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.” If we are in the love of God, we can love.

St John, in the quote, refers to “the beginning” a few times. We find this beginning in his account of the Gospel, particularly chapter 15, which we read earlier today: “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love...This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (vs.9-10, 12-14). Here we see that we are in God’s love (“As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you”) and through that can love, that is, keep the commandment. This is not burdensome, but freedom. At the same time, it costs us everything (“lay down one’s life for his friends”), yet gives us everything and more (“You are My friends”). Because we have been loved by God in Christ, we can love all others.

This love, though, is no soft emotion. It is the “laying down of one’s life.” We see this, for example, in St Paul’s instructions to husbands: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her” (Eph. 5:25). How did Christ love the Church? He “gave Himself for her,” that is, He “laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16). No man, then, can say he loves his wife if he an adulterer, whether he has joined himself to a prostitute (1 Cor. 6:15-16) or has committed “adultery in his heart” by looking at another woman “to lust for her” (Matt. 5:28). Rather, forsake such lusts, “pluck out your eye and cut off your right hand,” and then you can say in truth and in deed that you love her. Or, as our Lord Christ puts it elsewhere, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Lk. 9:23). This is love, that we become “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20) and so are transformed into true lovers, which is what God is, for “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

St John gives this instruction to the “elect lady”: who is she? She is none other than the Church, the Bride of Christ, who like Eve before her is the Body of her Groom. How will we, who are the Church, be so transformed by the love of God, except by loving even as we are loved? St Paul shows us, again, that even if we had all the spiritual gifts, none of it would matter if we did not love one another. But, what does that love look like? “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy, love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7). If we so love, the world will see and will desire that which we have: our love for one another, our self-sacrifice, will transform not only us, but the whole world.

We must remember the context, though: this is not just moral effort being welled up of our own accord. This is living out the love of God, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), enabled by the Incarnation of God’s Son and His work on the Cross. We can be crucified to life in Him, but not without Him. This means that the work of love, our true calling and purpose, starts with prayer and becomes, not gaining favor or merit with God, but an enacted prayer -- a life that is prayer to God for the life of the world. Amen.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Lord is for us

The Lord is for you, dear ones, don't forget that.  He is for us in the integrity of our beings -- our wholeness, our health, our holiness, all of which arise from the same root as a beautiful tree of words.  Our salvation, we might say, being careful to not mean what we've so often taken it as -- escape or flight from His world and our primal constitution.

Be ever aware, though, that the Lord is against us, or rather, not us, but that which negates our being, that darkens our faces with shame and paralyzes us with guilt, that persuades us that we are not worthy of being in His Image, as if worth is something earned instead of being inscribed and maintained in us by Love.  He fights as a warrior against all this, His weapon the Cross, wielded in passionless wrath in His Passion, His Love that tramples down the first death that usurped us all.

The Lord is for you, for us, and has bent His whole will, His whole energy and action, on this very thing.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Systems Thinking and Systematics

I'm currently reading a book about "systems thinking" for a doctoral class.  Having been a manager, and currently being a programs director, this is a helpful book and way of thinking.  As a brief aside, I'd describe it as the combination of Stoic non-reactiveness, Family Systems psychology, and the Christian goal of eusebia from a business and industry standpoint: fascinating.  Being involved in the various disciplines of academic theology, I'm inclined to try and apply some of what I'm learning to those fields as well.

Systematics, almost painfully obvious, is the field most like the thinking engendered by systems theory.  After all, systematics is about finding (or generating) the system that holds all the disparate parts of theology together so that they might find proper pastoral application.  Biblical Studies, of course, is a foundation piece to this, as well as Historical Theology and Dogmatics (yes, Dogmatics, the study of the Church's understanding of theology, is different from Systematics: their confusion in the Protestant world is bizarre); canonical criticism, text criticism, the higher criticisms, biblical theology, narrative theology, and so on are all to be placed together in a workable system for use in "training in righteousness," etc.

However, as is well known, there are deep divides in the theological disciplines: biblical studies folks don't get along well with historians (either church historians or historical theologians); pastoral theology sees little need for the erudition and aridity of systematicians; dogmatists find biblical studies to be too concerned with the ancient Near East to be helpful in the life of the church today.  And so on.  Somewhere there has developed a feedback loop that continues and magnifies these unhelpful practices, assumptions, and habits.  (One of the things the systems thinking textbook says is to avoid placing blame, for that means we are not being rightly critical of our own place inside the larger system; however, in this case, it seems okay to me to blame the Enlightenment).

What if, instead, the work of a systematician was to identify how all the pieces fit together in a whole?  A whole, that is, that works properly: disciples are formed.  A systematician, then, is not the same as a philosophical theologian (although we need those too); they are the ones who study the whole breadth and depth of all the theological fields to pull together and integrate the seemingly disparate parts.  They are the mediators of conversation between those who would say that the "original authorial intent" is the key to biblical hermeneutics and those who argue that it is the use in the Church throughout time that demarcates meaning; between those who see ethics as a philosophical endeavor and those who deal with the practical effects of seeking holiness at the parish level; and so on.

This is only a brief foray into systems thinking in theology.  Currently I still know precious little about it (you can decide what the antecedent to that is).

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Rehabilitating Vice

When I used to teach Dante's Inferno for a Humanities class, I always took a good deal of time at the outset to explain the concepts of virtue and vice.  All my students, whether Protestant or Catholic, had difficulty grasping the concepts -- especially when we would reach discussion of the "Seven Deadly Sins" (or, how I re-conceptualized them in line with their origins, the "Seven Capital Vices").  It may be because of the Western penchant for juridical categories that we think only in discrete instances of "sin" (the history of which has its roots in Tertullian and a certain (privileged) reading of St Augustine).  However, it is arguable, on historical, theological, and scriptural grounds, that there is much lost in such a mindset.

What is most particularly striking, to me, is the sense of despair that has become an undercurrent in evangelical praxis over the last twenty years (it may be longer...I am young with a short memory).  The underlying premise is that our salvation is wholly eschatological: we are saved from our sins at the eschaton, while now we have merely the promise given to us by the Cross.  If we were to riff on Luther's famous simul iutus et peccator, we would say "justified, but not changed."  We are "right" with God (whatever that means), but still rank sinners with no hope of being anything but.  Until our dying breath, we will be sinners.  Early on in the process of this belief, there was at least hope of "moral progress": we would be able to look back 5, 10, 15 years and note our journey towards holiness or sanctification.  If we aren't able to discern any growth, though, we have cause to worry: have we "believed in vain" (1 Cor. 15:2)?  (It is worth noting that, depending on one's theological proclivities, this can be understood in two wildly different ways: for an Arminian, one could have backslid and therefore would need to ramp up faith; for a Calvinist, it intimates that one is not of the elect...I've seen folks become convinced of their own reprobate status, it is a spiritual death sentence.)  What has happened as time has proceeded, is the human tendency to reinterpret what is going on, hence the "brokenness" movement in contemporary evangelicalism.  Instead of hoping for long-term change, we have embraced our immersion in sin with a therapeutic solidarity: come into the church, sinners, for here you will find a support group to comfort you in this terminal disease.  This seems, of course, to be a good answer for the hypocrisy of American religion: we truly cannot judge anyone because we know that any real change is just temporary at best, an illusion at worst.  Certainly, this would be comforting to anyone coming in; for those of us who have been following Christ for years, though, it was our brokenness that brought us to Him, for He promised relief, Sabbath, and rebirth.  To find out that, indeed, your sinfulness is inextricably woven into your very being, so much so that even Jesus Himself cannot do anything about it (until the eschaton), is comfort that becomes colder every year.

In some ways, it feels like we need a renewed Epistle to the Romans.  St Paul is concerned to show forth what the justice (the "righteousness") of God is, as it seems that He has failed to keep His promises.  The Apostle's argument is, of course, that God's justice -- His setting right of the cosmos and its liberation from the captivity of death and sin -- is found in the Cross.  The promises have been kept, but not in the way we expected.  What we see in contemporary evangelicalism, though, is that the promises have not been kept; they have been deferred to the eschaton, which looks less and less imminent by the day.  Evangelicalism chastened of its violent chiliasm has nothing left but despair.  The victory on the Cross, at the very least, seems to be pious verbiage: we are still in our sins and, therefore, the most pitiable of men (1 Cor. 15:17-19).

The practical function of this is readily seen: young evangelicals who have adopted the mindset and culture of their surroundings, for one cannot change nature and one cannot do anything but sin.  It should come as no surprise that this up-and-coming generation of evangelicals have forsworn their parents' political affiliations and aspirations, opting instead for a decidedly liberal agenda that promises to effect "real" change through the ballot box and the fiat of executive order.  The old order of things, that Christian "morality" could be assured on a social level through legislation, has been co-opted towards a different sense of morality that many will claim as Christian.  (The truth, yet to be revealed, is that neither is Christian: but that is another story for another day.)

While I've seen this shift in my students, there is something more personal about it to be said.  They know that their sins are forgiven (that is, they won't be liable for them in Hell), but they've no experience of anything further.  They know if they sin that forgiveness is available, but they long for freedom from the oppression.  It is as if God has said that, while they were slaves to the devil, their actions will not be punished, yet they will remain in Satan's employ.  We look around and see people who have grown adept at managing their sin, but none who are holy.

These things were in my mind -- for they aren't just observations of those around me, but reflections on my own life -- when I started teaching Dante.  What Dante is working with there (for he most certainly did not originate it) is the ancient and catholic teaching on what evil is and does to human beings.  In short, evil has no proper existence, but is the negation of existence: just as darkness is not substantial, but is rather the absence of light (cold and heat, etc.).  Sin, then, is a discrete act of the absence of the good (Israel's Torah does complicate this, as there prohibited acts there that aren't objectively absent of good, i.e. the partaking of porcine delicacies -- it is an early form of askesis).  What sin leads to is the absence of existence for those made in God's image: it leads us to death.  Why, though, would any human choose something that leads to death, rather than the good (and, therefore, life)?

Modern evangelicalism would posit the choice is due to our inherent sinfulness, or "sin nature."  We can't help but choose this.  What Dante (and Aquinas and Sts Augustine and Athanasius, among others) would say is that our choice is still for the good, but it is a good perverted.  Nothing in itself is sinful, for sin is without existence.  It is when we misuse (in the Augustinian sense) things in the world that we are diverted towards death.  The practical consequence of this is that individual sins -- while they still lead us to death -- aren't what we should be guilty over: it is our disordered desires.  We desire the good, but wrongly: we desire it to give us security, safety, pleasure, comfort, power, and identity.  All these things humans were created to acquire from the Good Himself, merely using (in the Augustinian sense) created means to achieve that End.  Modern evangelicalism posits that our "sin nature" makes our discrete acts of sin inevitable: it is the act that must be avoided, as the only power we (maybe, but probably don't) have is to not act on our "sinful" desires.  The desires will always be sinful, making "holiness" about managing activity (a meaning it manifestly does not have in the Scriptures).  Where Dante and the catholic tradition differ is precisely in the question of desire.  For us moderns, we desire that which is inherently sinful; for the ancients, there is nothing inherently sinful, but our desires are oriented towards using the good wrongly.

Vice, then, is the disposition towards using God's creation wrongly.  Separated from communion with Him, and unable to see His Glory which would draw us away from enjoying (in the Augustinian sense) created reality, we seek the good but end up farther and farther away from God.  His Glory, for which we were made, even becomes ultimately dangerous to us, for we are so estranged from Him that what is Good we hate.  (Here, by the way, is the origin of the Lord Jesus' strong words about "hating" things created good: we use created things as substitute goods, as ends, and so end up hating the true Good who rightly orders His creation.)  However, since vice is a misdirection, it can be corrected, unlike a "sin nature" which can only wait until the eschaton: what is required is that we find the desire at the root of the vice (which then leads into discrete acts of sin) and redirect it to its true end.  First, though, we must notice that the Church has always proscribed baptism -- sharing in Christ's death -- as the first step towards the redirection of desire.  The healing of the human person can only come as it finally shares in Adam's death and so is freed from the tyranny of the evil one.  For the Israelites, freedom only came as they passed through the Red Sea; for us, it only comes as we pass through the waters of baptism (1 Pt. 3:21).  The Church has also regarded baptism and the attendant gift of the Holy Spirit as the moment of illumination or enlightenment -- when finally we can see God clearly and so start the restoration of salvation.

What we know from experience, though, is that things seem the same after baptism.  What has changed, though, is that we have passed from death to life (1 John 3:14) and so entered into spiritual war: our former master does not desire our freedom, but rather that we would be re-enslaved and so "crucify again for ourselves the Son of God" (Heb. 6:6).  While we are no longer under the dominion of sin, but rather the freedom of grace (Rom. 6:14), we must still be "trained in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16) to become what we are to become.  This is why, addressing those who have been baptized, both Sts John and Paul use the language of "purification" (2 Cor. 7:1; 1 John 3:3; etc.): our desires must be purified, must continually be put to death and raised anew in repentance and eucharistic celebration, and so attain to the "fullness of the measure of the Son of God" (Eph. 4:13).

There is a hope here that isn't present in modern versions of the Faith.  While there still is a battle (as St Antony of Egypt says, "expect temptations to your dying breath"), it is not a lost cause: we start out, through baptism, on the side of God's power, the Cross.  We have continual access to God's grace, the Holy Spirit.  If we fall, we repent and are so restored.  My brokenness is not a part of my essential identity -- it is the egoic identity of the one who has been crucified with Christ.  While the eschaton will bring the fullness of our freedom (Rom. 8), there is real freedom in the here-and-now through the ascetic life of the Church.  This, more than any other reason, is why we must rehabilitate the ancient and catholic teaching on virtue and vice, on baptism and eucharist.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Covenant Curses and the Messiah

While rereading St Athanasius' On the Incarnation to teach from it in class tonight, I came across a very interesting passage that I'd not noticed before (para. 35):
But perhaps, having heard the prophecy of his death, you ask to learn what is indicated regarding the cross.  For not even this is passed over in silence; but is expounded with great clarity by the saints.  For first Moses, in a loud voice, predicts it saying, 'You will see your life hanging before your eyes, and you will not believe' (Deut. 28.66).
This rather caught me off guard: how could I have missed such a stark Christological note in Deuteronomy? Looking it up in the ESV, however, I noticed that it was translated:
Your life shall hang in doubt before you.
While it is feasible to get the same sense from this as the Saint does, it is a bit of a stretch.  However, in the LXX (closer to the version that St Athanasius would have used) we have this:
Your life shall hang before your eyes...and you will not believe in your life.
St Athanasius, reading the Scriptures christologically, sees here a potent prophecy against those of the Jewish Faith as to why they don't believe.  We might fruitfully connect this to Romans 9-11, where St Paul's argument is precisely why this is currently the case and the role of the Gentiles (such as the Alexandrian bishop) to rectify the situation.  It is, rather than being a terror passage of Calvinism, a hopeful statement of our co-labor with God in Christ.

What is particularly of interest to me, though, is the connection this makes between the covenant curses found in Deuteronomy 28 and the Cross.  Just as He had warned Adam, so YHWH warns the ancient Israelites: this is the consequence of rejecting Life in Me.  Being separated from our Life in God leads, naturally, to death: from dust we are and to dust we must return.  Man, whether as an individual or as a people, is not naturally immortal: we become immortal by sharing in the eternal life who is God.  The curses, then, are not threats (just as Adam was not threatened, but warned) -- they are an eschatological declaration of what happens when we break the communion with Life.  Corruption, then, is the tendency of all things when separated from the Communion of Christ.  St Paul, again, will pick this up as a prophecy of how the Gentiles will come to the Faith, followed again by the Jews in Romans.  What is fascinating to me is that the Cross is found smack dab in the midst of the curses: they are not general "this will happen any time someone sins" in Deuteronomy, but they are a specific prophecy, given all the way back on the edge of the Promised Land, for what will happen in Christ for the salvation of the whole world.

This means that the point of the curses, in the end, is not juridicial (curses come to satisfy the wrath of God); rather, they are eschatological -- Israel's calling is to go through, in the Person of her Messiah and King, the death of Adam and so liberate the world from the power of sin and death.  She would not, though, understand this ("you will not believe in your Life") and so will have the hard tasks of bringing Adam's sin to the full.  Instead of merely seeking to be "like God" in a way other than that already ordained by God Himself (Gen. 1:26), they will seek to usurp God by putting Him to death.  In that fulfillment, what St Paul calls the condemnation "of sin in the flesh" (Rom. 8:3), God Himself will trample down death and call all to Himself to partake of the freedom of the sons of God (8:21, etc.).

Monday, April 18, 2016

Over-determination and Inspiration

Douglas Campbell, author of The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul, has a helpful metric for discussing the rhetorical strategies we use to understand texts: over- and under-determination.  Over-determination is where the text under consideration says something unhelpful or even contrary to what the claims based on it needs (think of how St James says "justification is not by faith alone" (2:24) and then look at the collective hand-wringing being done by searching that phrase in Google).  Under-determination is where the text does not provide the necessary backing for the claims based on it.  He makes a compelling argument in the book that the standard Protestant reading of St Paul and 'justification' is riddled with over- and under-determinations.  The book (which is massive) is well worth a read, even if you don't end up agreeing with his conclusions.  I'd like to use that metric to return to the topic of inspiration of the Scriptures, which I've written on before and will repeat some of the things I said there.  (And, as always, I reserve the right to disagree with myself.)

The stereotypical argument concerning inspiration, at least as I learned it, went something like this:

A: The Bible is God's Word
B: God is Truth (or, negatively, God cannot lie)
C: Therefore, God's Word is true ("in all it speaks on" is a possible under-determination)

None of this is, for the most part, controversial (that the Lord Christ, member of the Trinity, is actually God's Word, from whom the Scriptures derive their authority, is an important point, but more is made of the difference between the two than is actually warranted).  Also, none of this speaks a whit about inspiration.  Inspiration is a teaching about the origin of the Scriptures, not their veracity or reliability.  There may be correlations between the two topics, but they cannot, and so should not, be collapsed into one another.  To do so would be to commit the genetic fallacy: the conclusion that the truthfulness of something is inherent in its origins.  This particular fallacy has gotten lots of play in biblical scholarship over the years, especially in Old Testament studies with the Documentary Hypothesis; it also has a long life within the culture wars when we assume that if we have evolved from brute animals, we must be nothing more than animals (and do note that I'm not making any claims about this subject: it is beyond my ken).

It is possible, though, that even saying inspiration is a doctrine of textual origins is an over-determination.  Once we clear out the texts about God's (and, consequently, His Word's and Spirit's) truthfulness, we have precious few didactic texts about inspiration itself.  The main one is found, of course, in 2 Timothy 3:16: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God..."  Unfortunately, there is no parallelism, nor any explanation of the term used for inspiration, which happens to be, alas, a hapax legomenon.  The term itself, θεόπνευστος, is a compound word from "God" and "breathing," so it could mean "God-breathed." Again, though, this may be problematic as compound words in all languages do not necessarily equal the sum of their parts. As this seems to be a word of Pauline origin (it is not extant in any other relevant ancient literature), it would seem best to look at how God's breath/Spirit is understood in the rest of the Scriptures. Here we find, of course, God's breath fluttering over the primordial Creation (Gen. 1:2), or the filling of Bezalel and Aholiab "in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all workmanship" (Ex. 31:3 -- the connections between this passage and that of 2 Tim. 3 should not be overlooked), or His dwelling with -- and leaving -- the judges and the kings, or the famous passage in Isaiah 61 ("The Spirit of the Lord God is upon preach..."). God's Breath, then, is God's coming in power, especially in regards to the granting of words and wisdom. If we take this background back to 2 Tim. 3, we might see that the passage isn't speaking of origins, but rather how the Scriptures, bearing the Spirit of God, have power and authority: it is because they are a conduit of the divine Spirit that they can "make wise unto salvation...[be] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness." Read like this, the passage is utterly non-controversial. It does not speak about how the Scriptures came to be (other places speak vociferously about that: "the Word of the Lord came to me..."), but about the power of the Word in the apostolic ministry.

That last clause merits some unpacking. The biggest under-determination of this text is using it divorced from its canonical context. While one of the beauties of the Reformation was its opening of the Scriptures to any literate person (and the subsequent drive for mass literacy that is only now waning in Western culture), it came at the heavy price of all Scripture being read flatly, as if all Scripture was addressed to everyone in the same way at all times, and, worse, led to Scripture being read outside of its necessary ecclesial context. An argument I heard while listening to a podcast called "Kingdom Roots," made by Scot McKnight, assumed that this text meant anyone picking up the Scriptures could utilize that power and be "trained in righteousness," etc. However, this misses the point that St Paul the Apostle is writing this epistle to St Timothy, the designated guardian of the Apostolic Deposit (2 Tim. 1:14, 3:14, etc.). For him who has "carefully followed my teaching, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, etc." the power, the God-breathedness, of the Scriptures is made available to him for teaching (as a catechist), for reproof (as a pastor), for correction (again), for instruction in righteousness (note the chiasm), "that the man of God [those in St Timothy's care] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (3:16-17), or as St Paul put it elsewhere, "and He gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors-teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ..." (Eph. 4:11-12). What tools do these gifted by the Spirit have for this work of equipping and edifying? The God-breathed Scriptures. Along with them, though, and inseparable, is that Apostolic Deposit, that way of life learned from the Apostles, what came by mouth or by letter (2 Thess. 2:15). There is no tension here between the Scriptures and the Tradition, for both came from the same Source: the Spirit given to the Apostles by the Lord Christ. The Church, which is the dwelling place of that selfsame Spirit, is the keeper of the Deposit -- which includes the Scriptures -- and the place where they must be properly understood and applied to the life of the believers in communion.

All this to say, and the true impetus behind writing tonight, is that we need to locate the Source of the Scripture's inspiration: the Spirit working through the Church. We over-determine 2 Tim. 3:16 in an attempt to ground sola Scriptura in Scripture, creating a bizarro circular argument in a text that was never meant to bear the weight of the Chicago Declaration. What is missing in the arguments about inspiration, precisely, is the Church herself. Inerrantists will be quick, in the face of all the text critical facts, to say that the Scriptures have been preserved from all error; yet the Church, the dwelling place of the Spirit (according to those Scriptures), is untrustworthy, fallible, corrupt, etc. What the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy should make us do is to probe further our own understandings of what God is doing in history through His people, whom He has promised to indwell by His Spirit. The hard questions raised by post-evangelicals who have modified their views of Scripture based on the dilemmas and problems sola Scriptura and inerrancy (particularly) can be answered, but only as (paradoxically) we return to the Scriptures -- in their proper context, the Church -- and see what God has actually said about those Scriptures and the Church (and not just already assume our post-Reformation traditional answers).

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Difficulties with the RPW

On Facebook, a friend commented on an article shared by someone I don't know (such is social media and digital eavesdropping, I suppose).  The post is from a website that seeks to see "Worship Reformed According to Scripture and the Customs of the Ancient Church," an admirable goal if there ever was one.  The commented upon post was their "What hath Geneva to do with Canterbury?", in which they defend the RPW (Regulative Principle of Worship), a Reformed standard that they lament is slipping in our day.  As a Reformed Presbyterian who works at an Anglican seminary, it was of particular interest to me.  I'll let you read the argument and weigh its merits -- this post isn't a response, per se, but a reflection on some of the issues raised.

1) Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's take that the RPW is "the chief foundation of the error of the Anabaptists, and of diverse other sects” is fascinating.  I hadn't heard that particular quote from him (and, alas, it isn't cited as far as I can tell).  What the RPW does, though, is to take the Church's authority away from worship/liturgy/what-have-you entirely, as it puts the onus of figuring out what the Scriptures proscribe and prescribe squarely on the individual interpreter.  Now, of course, a collection of such interpreters (say, at Westminster Cathedral) could draft a series of statements meant to guide the Church in perpetuity; however, who is to say that their interpretation is, in fact, sufficiently biblical?  The Bible is a liturgical book, born out of and guiding the worshiping community: its interpretive context is the worship of the Church (which, as a side note, is why the Psalms are indispensable during worship and Scriptural interpretation).  If we are using the Bible, not just to critique what the Church has done in worship, but to determine what should be done in worship (sort of "proof-texting" our way into a liturgy), then we are putting the cart before the horse.  There are many oblique references to already established liturgical practices in the Epistles (and, arguably, in the Gospels): the texts would be used to explain what was happening in the liturgy itself.  Baptism?  John 3, Romans 5-8, and wherever St Paul talks about being 'clothed' or 'putting on Christ'.  Eucharist?  The "Last Supper" narratives, John 3, Revelation, etc.

It should be noted that I'm not accusing the author of the post of doing this: the strong RPW argument that we must build our worship off of Scripture is Baptist than Presbyterian.  As he states, "Presbyterians are abandoning their liturgical heritage," which implies that there is already a heritage, a tradition, that is being assumed, not constantly in question and therefore constantly being rebuilt.  (That most modern evangelical and Reformed worship would be unrecognizable to the first couple generations of Reformers is beside the point.)

The point, though, is that the RPW falls into the very same trap (and has historically) that sola Scriptura is prone: the community of interpretation (the Church) takes second fiddle to the individual, all in the name of protecting the laity from idolatrous imposition of shoddy practices by fallible men (the leaders of the Church).  The question of authority is not solved by sola Scriptura, it is just shifted so that it is difficult to see where the authority really is coming from.  It is easy, alas, to hide behind "this is the clear teaching of the Bible," when, in fact, there is no such thing: such a statement says much about the authority of the teacher, but precious little about the authority of the text.

2) "The NPW [the so-called "Normative Principle of Worship"], however, says the church has the right to require acts of worship as long as those acts are not forbidden in scripture. On this principle, the church can invent all kinds of ceremonies and rites and impose them on the saints so long as the required actions are not in themselves sinful."

This quote, in my mind, gets to the meat of my own difficulties with the RPW.  Note the language of 'invention' mentioned in it: of course it would be a bad thing, since all humans are totally depraved, for them to 'invent' ways of worshiping God!  However, this assumes that the rites, rituals, liturgies, and customs that have come down to us are, in fact, inventions.  St Paul, in a number of places, mentions the Apostolic Deposit and the things "taught by word of mouth or by letter" (2 Thess. 2:15).  St Basil of Caesarea, at least, understands these "word of mouth" things to be the liturgical, mystagogical, and hermeneutical standards of the Church that aren't necessarily found in the Bible (or, at least, in the surface meaning).  Could it be that the Apostles did more than hand down a collection of inspired texts?  Could they have provided the necessary interpretive context in the institution of various rites, rituals, and liturgies (which, we should expect, would have some elasticity over time)?  (This, also, doesn't rule out that some things are, indeed, inventions -- but that is why there was a college of apostles: to check one another and rebuke as needed, such as is seen in the Sts Paul-Peter encounter recorded in Galatians, or, in post-apostolic times, the letter from Rome to Corinth by the hand of St Clement.)

Going deeper, and my argument for this can be found in fuller detail if you follow the link above ("there is no such thing") at the end of point 1, there is good reason to affirm that the canon of Scripture itself, particularly the New Testament, is a "commandment of men."  There is no divinely inspired list of canonical books: there is an ecclesially sanctioned canon of inspired books.  I won't get into the fruitless debate that reduces this to "the Bible created the Church" or "the Church created the Bible": both polemics are sufficiently vacuous for themselves.  What is important is to note that the Church's sanctioning of the books (say, in the fourth century) says that they thought that these specific books sanctioned the way they "did" Church: there is no hint of reforming in Sts Athanasius, Gregory (pl), Basil, Chrysostom, etc. except getting rid of the heresies that had arisen out of changes made to the liturgies traditioned to them.  Why was Arianism such a problem as to need an ecumenical council to defeat it?  It changed the worship of Jesus Christ, which had been passed down from the Apostles, into worship of a mere creature.  What about Pneumatomachianism?  Again, it changed the worship by denying the Spirit personhood and divinity.  This last one is itself fascinating, as St Basil found that the worship of the Church did need reform, but only to clarify what had "everywhere, always, by all" been believed.  How did the men, guided by the Spirit we hope, who determined what books would be preserved, passed on, expounded, and applied to the Church's life, miss the RPW?  How did they miss sola Scriptura?

Alas, I do not have the answers to these quandries.  I wish that I did.  But they are nagging at me, always.  God forgive me where I have erred.