Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Range of Inspiration

One aspect of Evangelical and Protestant theology that is in desperate need of rethinking is inspiration.  This is, arguably, happening already through the work of Pete Enns and others.  The payout of this is yet to be seen: the work is in its very earliest days.

One of the questions that must be asked is: when did the work of the Spirit in inspiration stop?  The obvious answer is: when the last Apostle finished writing their last book/died.  However, it is not so easy.  Does the Spirit only inspire writing?  We might get this idea from 2 Timothy 3:16, but to do so would be to misread the text.

"All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work."

Where in this text does it say that only the Scriptures are inspired?  It doesn't.  Such is an assumption brought to the text.  Now, a rejoinder might be that nothing else in Scripture is explicitly called "inspired."  As is well known, an argument from silence is not ultimately convincing, to say the least.  (It is also worth noting that St Timothy is an apostolic legate, so this verse is not saying the Scriptures can do all these thing outside or without the Church:  Timothy, as the de facto bishop, is being given instructions on how to utilize the Old Testament in the context of his ecclesial work.). What can be learned from this is that while the Scriptures are inspired, that doesn't mean that nothing else is.  When  Paul tells Timothy or St Titus to "guard the deposit/that which has been entrusted to you," it is a safe, and historically accurate, assumption to believe that this Apostolic tradition was itself inspired.  What that Deposit consisted of, of course, is a matter of long debate.  At the very least we learn from early apologists such as Tertullian and St Irenaeus that it entails the Trinitarian regula fidei (which is the basis of my contention that the Trinity is the necessary assumption behind understanding the Bible: God Himself is the interpretive key, what Irenaeus calls the hypothesis and St Athanasius calls the skopos).

Back to the initial contention: inspiration ceased with the last writing of the last Apostle/their death.  It would seem that I've taken care, at least provisionally, of the first part. However, as the Deposit would have been completed by the death of the last Apostle (and, according to St Jude, much earlier: "the Faith once for all delivered to the saints"), then the initial definition still stands, even if slightly modified.  However, it seems that this understanding of inspiration was not held by Christians at all from their earliest days.  In the Counciliar Definitions, there is an appeal to the work of the Spirit in the deliberations: "Seven holy and ecumenical Synods which were directed by the inspiration of the one and the same Holy Spirit" (text from the so-called Eight Ecumenical Council of 879/880).  In some way, the Spirit continued to move and speak in the Church: not in the sense of adding to or augmenting or contradicting the ancient Deposit, but clarifying through the Fathers the language and the means used to teach it and apply it to the life of the Church.  Many, I know, would object to this line of reasoning, especially if they are traditionally Protestant (i.e., icons had been exonerated in the 7th Ecumenical Council).  There are disturbing questions that must be addressed if this is not the case, though.  Did the Spirit cease His work with the death of the Apostles?  The Lord Christ promised that the Spirit "would lead in all the Truth" in John 16:14 -- is this promise only for the Apostles?  If so, what guarantees do we have that we (or the Reformation, for that matter) have access to the unadulterated truth?  (Answer: none.).

And so, again, it comes down to which ecclesial tradition bears the Spirit?  As should be plain by now, I cannot confidently answer that question.

Some of the corollaries of all this (being the actual reason I started writing tonight) concern what might be called "later" practices of the Church.  To return to the Facebook discussion referenced in the last post, what about "prayer beads"?  Can this practice, which seems to have arisen in the Egyptian monastic movement, be legitimate even though it isn't Scriptural?  One Reformed who answered the question said a very interesting thing (paraphrased): we don't find prayer beads in the pre-Christian Jewish tradition, therefore they are a later pagan influence.  This sort of thing is certainly heard often, especially in some Reformed circles (those influenced by Theonomy, for example).  The assumption behind it is that the inspiration of the Spirit in praxis ceased with the Apostles.  To truly discern appropriate practice becomes, then, somewhat conjectural and certainly a form of archaeology.  It certainly runs the risk of Judaizing.  It also vaunts an unrecoverable past over the historical practice of the Church (interesting to note that this same critique can be applied to the textual theory that centers inspiration in the non-extant autographa).  However, there is no biblical reason to favor a reconstructed Jewish tradition over what actually happened historically: St Paul became a Greek for the Greeks, and so did the Church herself.  It has, and I think this is probably most true in Orthodoxy, retained many aspects of her Jewish heritage, but the Tree has not been stunted at the roots.  Rather, through the ingrafting that Paul mentions in Romans 12, the Tree is truly cosmopolitan: the standard by which praxis is judged is not by its Jewishness, nor even necessarily if it appears in Scripture (let us remember that Jesus did not condemn phylacteries, jus the enlargement of such), but by whether it accomplishes the goal of theosis, or becoming like Christ, or acquiring the Spirit (three ways of saying the same thing): inspiration, in other words.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Limits of Sola Scriptura

There is a very common objection, from Roman Catholics and Orthodox, to the doctrine of sola Scriptura: it makes each individual believer the official -- and potentially infallible -- interpreter of Scripture.  For some Protestants, of course, this is true.  It was true in my case, at any rate.  I remember a student, who is now a relatively well-known Lutheran apologist, talking to me once about my views on justification.  He asked how I could hold a certain position, since it didn't seem to jibe with the Westminster Confession.  My response, which was the same I gave my pastor at the time, was that I didn't particularly care if my interpretation lined up with the WCF, as that was a human produced document of only relative authority.  Rather, all I cared was whether or not my understanding agreed with Scripture.  What I didn't realize at the time was that I had made my own reason, and investigative powers, the benchmark of interpretation.  I was not necessarily any closer to what Scripture actually meant, but I was very close to what I meant.  This is not to say that my baseline critique wasn't valid, it just didn't go far enough.

Let me explain.

There is no reason to believe that my researches in history, philosophy, textual transmission, or event theology would lead me to a particularly proper interpretation of Scripture.  Using the historical-grammatical interpretive method (and this could be applied to most other "critical" methods) actually leads us into a quagmire: if we cannot understand the Scriptures without detailed analysis of the history and language behind them, then we will never truly understand the Scriptures.  Both fields, linguistics and archaeology, are fraught with human interpretive foibles.  Not to mention that those communities who, historically speaking, have not had access to decent scholarship are therefore put in an unenviable position: they may believe, but they cannot fully or truly believe.  They are relegated to an impoverished state in the Church.  (This is also a problem with holding that inspiration stops with the autographa, or original documents from the Apostles and Prophets -- they don't exist anymore, so any copy of the Scriptures is potentially riddled with errors; how can we confidently know what to believe, especially with scholars like Bart Ehrman telling us that the communities in charge of the manuscripts have emended them to suit their particular ideological needs?)  Not only this, but the sort of biblical interpretation as rational, scholastic endeavor means that those unable to engage on that level (children, the mentally handicapped, the uneducated) cannot fully benefit from the teaching of the Word of God.

To get around some of these individualist difficulties, there is the option to be a confessionalist: that is, the baseline interpretation of Scripture, at least theologically, is found in the WCF or the Three Forms of Unity, etc.  (There still is the option for grammatical-historical work here, of course; but at least it has boundaries around what is and isn't possible to ascertain from the texts themselves).  This does lead right into debates about how to interpret these documents and the various positions of "strict" v. "moderate" subscriptionism.  Supra- or infra-?  Paedo- or credo-?  And so on.  However, this isn't the problem that I had/have with the confessions.  That lies in the actual authority of them.  The reason my denomination holds the Confession in high regard is due to the belief that they are an accurate interpretation and application of Scripture.  But, who gets to decide that?  The authority of any confession becomes, quickly, circular.  "We believe the Confession to be adequately interpreting of Scripture; why do we believe this?  Because Scripture rightly interpreted produces the Confession."  This is, of course, a gross over-simplification of the issue; but the point remains.  As I've argued before, there is no "plain, clear, obvious" reading of Scripture.  Each reading arises out of a certain theology, out of a regula fidei that is necessarily foreign to the Scriptures themselves (in other words, there is no such thing as solo Scriptura).  The authority of the Confession, then, is a presupposition that cannot be adequately verified: it is an authority because it is an authority.  It reminds me, rather, of the Anarcho-Syndicalism scene in Monty Python's The Quest for the Holy Grail.

Both ways of engaging in sola Scriptura, the individual, academic route and the confessionalist route, both fail to provide an adequate authoritative base.  Both, in the end, must succumb to a form of fideism: we believe this to be the interpretation of the Scriptures because this is what we believe.  Maybe, in the end, this is where, epistemologically speaking, we must end up.  I hope not.

Again, the question becomes: where is the Spirit?  If there is any theme that runs through my thinking, it is this.  If we want to properly interpret the Scriptures, that is, if we want to read them towards the goal of salvation, then we must read them with and in the Spirit.  This assumes, though, that the Spirit is an actual reality (Gr: hypostasis) and not just a cipher for an emotional state.  We cannot say that we have the Spirit, and so are interpreting Scripture rightly, based on how we feel or on the presence of ostensible charismata, as both of those things can be engineered or manipulated (not just by preachers, but by our non-corporeal enemies).  How do we know who has the Spirit, then?

Saturday, January 10, 2015


A friend posted a question on Facebook about those who are Reformed and the use of prayer beads.  A discussion of those who were more or less committed to sola Scriptura ensued, with some Anglicans and Orthodox chiming in.  What was said isn't particularly relevant to what I'm writing right now -- the discussion proceeded down the same old talking points that are common to such things.  No real surprises at all.  For me, the important thing is once again how shaky it all is for us humans.  Either the Church fell into idolatry rather quickly (icons are being found earlier and earlier in the archaeological record, mosaics -- even of the Zodiac -- adorn Jewish synagogues; invocations of the saints are on record from very, very early, etc.) or the Reformation got it wrong.  I've tried, and maybe it is just my feeble mind, but I cannot see it any other way.  Of course, along the way, there were abuses: we shouldn't expect anything else.  But could the Church, whom Christ said He through the Spirit would lead into all Truth (Jn 16:13 -- or could our Lord be saying only the Apostles would be so led, with their descendants having to fend for themselves?), and which St Paul called the "pillar and ground of the Truth" (1 Tim. 3:15), have so monumentally failed in her dogma and worship (the twins that comprise the word "orthodoxy") that the Reformation (in its Calvinist and Zwinglian forms) was necessary to reset it?

And with the ongoing difficulties I've had in my faith, this question has loomed large.  The question is important, since being part of Christ's Body is tantamount to salvation (maybe this is why the Reformation developed the teaching of the "invisible Church"?): but which Church?  Which authority do we submit to that faithfully carries the life of Christ into the world still?  I've been told that I just need to have faith, by which seems to be meant blind belief: but the question of how I might be saved, how I might be healed and restored and glorified -- and the world along with me -- seems to need more than just "faith" in that restrictive sense.  It strikes me as more akin to Kierkegaard's "leap of faith" than what we see in the Gospels and Acts, which is predicated on the active presence of the Spirit.

While I flirted with a certain sort of ecumenism for awhile, I don't think in the end that it works: the mutually conflicting claims from all sides cannot jibe with one another.  We might say that many disagreements affect matters that are not important to salvation, such as a cappella music versus pianos/organs versus modern instruments.  However, if we believe there is any part of our doctrine and practice that does not lead us to or away from salvation in Christ, then we would do better to completely excise that thing.  I've heard, although I cannot confirm it, that Zwingli did not have singing in his churches.  If it doesn't matter how we worship God in song, then song is an unnecessary distraction from the real work of the Church.  If, however, how we sing helps to form us in Christ (and chanting of the Psalms, not metrical singing and certainly not praise bands, has the historical upper hand here), then we should hold firmly to it.  This doesn't mean, by the way, that there is an overly restrictive formula at work, an "if you sing like this, then God must save you" sort of thing: I cannot get into the theory behind the expansiveness of boundaries at this point, but let me point to Zeno and his paradoxes as a guide.

One way forward might be to ask, again, what the nature of salvation is.  If it is merely getting to heaven when we die, then there is no authority by which we might examine that claim.  All near-death experiences are unverifiable, even that little boy's from the popular book and movie, so there really is nothing but blind faith here.  The authority, I think, often lies with those able to be rhetorically astute in their (well-intentioned, no doubt) manipulation of fear.  In other words, sophistry.  We are all afraid of death, or at least have reservations about it, and these sorts of guarantees salve troubled souls.

Let's imagine, then, that salvation is becoming a 'good' person (whatever that means -- a problem with this possibility already).  Many of those who would be considered either heretical or pagan by ostensibly Christian groups produce impeccably moral people.  I'd even, and this is controversial, include atheists into this: I've met many who treat other human being respectfully and with love -- sometimes with greater earnestness and intensity than card-carrying Christians.  The objection might be made that those others are moral without stable reason.  That is, their morality is part of "common grace" but ultimately fails because it is irrationally held: it goes against their deepest held beliefs since only those who believe in the Christian God can be truly moral.  Understandable, but impossible to prove.  Plus, there is plenty of empirical evidence to show that, prima facie, the objection is false.  At any rate, the reality of the virtuous atheist shows up the theory that salvation is being/becoming moral.  This isn't to say that morality plays no part in Christian salvation, but it cannot be the be-all end-all.

Two down.  Maybe salvation is being made into a saint.  Now, you might think that I'm just repeating the "salvation as morality" claim, but I'm not.  A saint is not the same as a moral person, as any look at the history of saints will show.  Nor am I using the common Protestant definition of a saint as any one and every one who believes -- I've yet to see any Scriptural evidence to back up that particular understanding of sainthood (I've come to believe -- and I need to write this up -- that the differences between Colossians and Ephesians hinges on what a "saint" is).  No, a saint is one who has been healed of the corruption inherited from Adam, that is, who partakes of the Holy Spirit to such an extent that they can truly exclaim with St Paul "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me" (Gal. 2:20).  But again, how can this be shown?  Have I met any saints?  If this is the true definition of salvation, to be made a saint, what is the process by which this happens?  In other words, here is the crux of the matter: which ecclesial tradition allows for the possibility to become like the Apostles, like St Mary, like our Lord Christ Himself (albeit by grace, not by nature) in holiness?

And so, again, I'm stuck.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sermon: Luke 2:22-40

The text of a sermon given at First Presbyterian Church of Beaver Falls this Sunday.  I'm thankful for their warm hospitality.

“After the Feast”

We’ve just come out of the great celebration of our God and Savior’s nativity.  The stockings have been emptied, the packages unwrapped, the tinsel is in various states of decay.  Our bellies may still be smarting from the feasts we’ve had in the last month or so: worry not, January 1 starts our national two week diet, where we foreswear anything rich and vow to visit the gym.  Many of us have spent the last month reflecting on some aspect of the Incarnation, that event – still ongoing – in which God takes human nature to Himself and is born of a Virgin.  And so we celebrate Christmas.  However, once all is said and done, we don’t really know what to do with ourselves until Easter.  Jesus Christ, the old trope goes, came to do three days’ work.  His whole mission, we are told, is to die and rise again.

While there is truth in those sayings, they miss some very important things about the Incarnation that can only be seen if we slow down, read the texts, and pray for their application to our hearts.  With that in mind, we turn to our passage in Luke’s account of the Gospel.  Here we see what, to our eyes, looks like an odd scene: Jesus being presented in the Temple, His Mother going through the purificatory rites outlined in Leviticus 12.  The point that St Luke seems to be making, one he will make again, is that this Jesus has fulfilled the Law of Moses.  Not just some parts, but all.  The reason that the Law was given, as the Lord will say later on, is that it pointed to Him and prepared the world for His arrival: “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (24:44).  Christ fulfills the Law, not so that we can ignore it and neglect it, but to bring about the purposes for which is was given – the point, or the end, of the Law, as St Paul calls Christ in the Epistle to the Romans: “For Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4).

In fulfilling the Torah of Moses, our Lord also supercedes it: it is the shadow, He is the reality.  There is, then, a bit of irony in the passage: the most pure Lord, holiness Himself, who cannot dwell in uncleanness, is brought to the Temple by His Mother, Mary, in whom He dwelled, for her purification.  The sacrifices here, then, show themselves to be types that are passing away: the blood of pigeons and doves is no longer necessary as the presence of God Himself in her womb, plus the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit at the conception, renders her clean.  By bringing the Lord and the sacrifices to the Temple, the old system has been brought to completion and, as the author to the Hebrews tells us, “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete.  Now what is obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (8:13).

This might, though, lead us astray into thinking that, really, for all practical intents and purposes, the Law can be neglected.  To do so, though, would mean that we miss what the Law was actually about.  Why did God spend so much time in Exodus giving the plans for the Tabernacle and then repeat them, almost word for word, when it was constructed?  Why so much space detailing the sacrifices and holy days and procedures for priests and laity in Leviticus and Deuteronomy?  If He was just going to fulfill it and cast it aside, why have it in our Bibles?  Take a second and consider the word “fulfill.”  What does it mean?  If you have a glass of water, and you “fulfill” it, you do two actions: you bring it to its intended point (to hold liquid) and to its fullness – you fill it full.  For Christ to fulfill the Law and the Prophets does not mean He abolishes them, according to His own teaching in Matthew’s account (5:17); no, it means He invests them with the fullness of their purpose and brings them to completion.  In the case of the Temple, and the sacrifices, and cultic regulations, consider the great OT promise: “I will be their God, and they shall be My people, and I will dwell among them” (Ex. 29:45; Ez. 37:26, 27).  God, St John tells us, has come to dwell among us in Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:14); St Paul tells us that “for in [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Deity in bodily form” (Col. 2:9).  We can extend this, though: from whence did Christ receive this Temple that is His Body?  From Mary.  She has become a Temple of the Lord, in which He dwelt.  And who is Christ’s Body?  The Church.  All the OT provisions, and teaching, and regulations about Temple, sacrifice, cultus, priesthood speak of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and because they speak of Him, they speak of us who are joined to Him by faith and baptism.  When you read the OT, certainly you are reading about the history of Israel, but more urgently you are reading about the life in Christ.  You are reading about God’s purposes for the world, to make His whole human creation a clean and spotless dwelling place.  A place free of sin and corruption and death; a place of holiness and righteousness; a place where His glory might shine out to all the world, as St Paul says, “Do all things without complaining and arguing, that you might become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philip. 2:15).

Christ’s mission, which of course will culminate in His death and resurrection, is so much more than we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine: He came to construct the Temple of God, we the stones and He the substance.  How, though, shall we become the holy stones of God’s cosmic Temple, the pure Body of Christ?  How can we, different in ages and vocations, temperaments and abilities, join together with one heart and one mind to be built upon the one foundation of “the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20)?  Let us turn to the end of our Gospel reading for today.  It is another one of those curious moments that make us scratch our heads: “And the Child grew and become strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him” (2:40).  Why, if Jesus is “the fullness of the Deity in bodily form,” does He need the grace of God to be upon Him?  How can He become strong in spirit?  Whatever the Lord does, let us remember, He does for the sake of those He is remaking in His Image.  It is not because His divine nature is limited by the flesh that He grows and so on, but for our sake.  He becomes what we are – including going through all our stages of life – so that we might become what He is, as St Irenaeus of Lyons tells us.  All our earthly existence is taken up by our Savior so that we might, in the midst of our earthly life, take up His heavenly existence.  If you are a child, do not fret that you cannot be holy, cannot know God, until you are an adult.  No, Christ was an infant in perfect communion with His Father, Christ was a child who knew His God intimately, Christ was a teenager able to be filled with wisdom, an adult who did His Father’s will.  He has done this for us, but more He has taken the great limitations of our current existence, sin and death, and has defeated them on the Cross.  What is stopping us from becoming like Him?  You have, as the Epistle reading for today declared, “received adoption as children” and so “God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:5-6).  You are a son of God because He is the Son of God: you have died to your sins and to death itself because He has died for our sins and trampled down death by His death.  Now, instead of cowering at the dread judgment of God which will come upon all those who “suppress the Truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18) leading to their share in the “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41), you will instead cry out “Abba! Father!” and, in the words of today’s Psalm, “Praise the Lord!”

We have, like Simeon, seen the Lord’s salvation.  We must go a step further, though; as members of His Body, we have a part, a share, in that salvation.  The world is saved by Christ through us.  Shall we not then say, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch” (62:1)?  The book of Revelation speaks of this.  The seer, John, is shown a vision by one of the attendant angels who says, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the Lamb’s wife.”  “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God.”  Note, here, that St John expands our understanding of the OT once again: not only is the Church the fulfillment of the Temple, but she is also the fulfillment of Jerusalem.  When we read that Zion is “the apple of [God’s] eye” in Zechariah 2:8, it is speaking of us.  Read Psalm 48 and “Walk about Zion, and go all around her.  Count her towers; mark well her bulwarks; consider her palaces; that you may tell it to the generation following.  For this is God, our God, forever and ever.”  More than this, though, her destiny, to be filled with glory of God so that she “shines out like the dawn,” leads to “the nations of those who are saved shall walk in its light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it.  Its gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there).  And they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it.  But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” (Rev. 22:9-10, 24-27).

The last verse given returns us to the question posed at the beginning: now that the Feast of Christ’s Nativity is over, what shall we do?  We shall seek to be indwelt by Christ, to shine out His glory, and to be purified from all unrighteousness, as St Paul admonishes us, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).  Christ’s coming among us, His birth and His growing through all the stages of human life, is a great gift from our God and Savior, but it is a high calling as well.  All our lives are to have the aroma of Christ, the scent of His sacrifice on the Cross, so that we, becoming conformed unto His death, might share in His resurrection life for the life of the whole world.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Brief Thoughts on Christian Ethics

The point of the Christian life is not to become a better, more moral person.  The end, the telos, is to become Christ: not just to be like Him, but to participate in His Life and His Body.  If we think about this, though, this precludes all moral striving.  No matter how hard we work, we will never be filled with the Holy Spirit and so share in the divine nature.  Hence the necessity of faith, not just as rational (or even moral) assent, but coming under the authority and obedience of the King who offers the grace (Himself) so to do.  To become Christ is the goal: who is Christ?  He is the theandros, the God-Man, one who in His Person as the Word indivisably and unconfusedly unites the divine and the human natures.  How are we in any way to attain to Him?  We are human persons, who through faith in baptism are filled with the Holy Spirit who shares His nature with us.  This is why the Spirit rested on Christ in His baptism; this is why our Lord did nothing without the Spirit in His sojourn; so that we might, as sons of God remade in the pattern of the Son of God, might be joined with the Spirit for our salvation.  To acquire the Spirit, then, is the goal of the Christian life.  To acquire the Spirit is to become Christ; to become Christ is to become divine, glorified, theotic.  Here is where the central importance of the Tabernacle cultus and liturgy, detailed in the middle of the Torah, becomes so key: the Law was never about becoming moral, it was about becoming a Temple: pure, undefiled, holy.  A place for God to dwell.  The whole point of the commandments of God is not to make Him happy, as if our Lord needs that emotion (the One God dwells in blessedness of which happiness is but a pale shadow), no, the point of the commands is to be prepared for God's residence within us.  But, just as the unclean always threatened the sanctity of the holy courts, so sin, death, Satan, and the disordered passions threaten Christ's Holy Temple, His Body, the Church.  This makes the Law not about ascent to God to curry favor, but about guarding sacred ground: ethics, then, is priestly work.

This is why St Silouan the Athonite's dictum that "My brother is my life" is so important: the priests are not doing an individual task, but the collective work of protection and sanctification of the Church.  I cannot do my work as a priestly guardian without reference to my brothers and sisters, nor without their constant aid and intercession so for strength and forgiveness of sins (which, to digress briefly, is why the communion of saints is so vital).  All are saved together, none are saved alone.

It is worth noting that in the cultic regulation there are two categories of defilement: sin and symbols of death.  Sin is, in Levitical terms, the conscious breaking of the Torah, which leads to death (whether as a consequence of the action, i.e. murder or the death penalty, or on the social level, i.e. adultery shredding families apart).  The symbols, though, are those things that are not inherently sinful, but still reference death, especially as inherited through Adam.  An example would be the regulations concerning childbearing (Lev. 12): after a woman gives birth, she must go through a period of ritual purification after the flow of blood dams.  Then she must, if she is to readmitted to the Temple, offer a "sin offering."  Why?  Has she sinned?  No, rather the term is better understood as "purification offering" (cf. Milgrom's commentary on Leviticus): since Eve, childbearing has been a sign of both hope ("your Seed shall crush the serpent's head...") and the consequences of death ("greatly will I increase your pains in childbearing").  A birth symbolizes the curse on Eve, but it is not insurmountable: there will come One who will save all women through being born by a virgin.  This second category, the symbols of death, are fully dealt with by the destruction of death through the Resurrection.  No longer do menstruations or child bearings make women unclean and disallowed from worship of the true God (one has only to reach in faith for the fringes of the Lord's garment to be fully healed!).  Sin, however, remains as a defiling agent; here is why St Paul, for example, speaks of various actions, attitudes, and lifestyles as defiling or polluting the people of God.

To return to the main point, we know that the power of sin is strong enough, compelling enough (why else would our first parents even countenance the serpent?), and pervasive enough that we cannot resist it.  Here is where our brothers and sisters come in, especially those who have had their passions healed and purified ("saints"): they can offer us forgiveness.  Now, some might say, only God can forgive sins!  True!  God is the only One who forgives sins and He deigns to do it through the intercessions, through the rebukes, through the gentle and stern corrections of others.  The root of forgiveness, which is often lost in our overly legal culture, is release: the Church, as the Body of the Christ, undoes the bonds that hold us tight.  And the Lord promises (and warns) that if we forgive the trespasses of our brother and sister, our own trespasses are forgiven as well.  We are set free as we set others free.  This is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of the world.  This is, not morals and ethics, but entering the Cross, actualizing baptism, becoming the body, sharing the One Loaf, salvation.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A True Horror of Death

James Baldwin calls death "our inescapable fact."

It is in the midst of this that I think the modern world has failed...and that monumentally.  We seek to push death to the side, as death -- and the human necessities of caring for the dying and honoring the dead -- is not economically efficient (at the same time, however, death is particularly efficient as it clears out those who have become "obsolete," an insight brought to us with particular tragic clarity by Steve Jobs).  Death shows up our industrial and informational economy for what it is: a mask that, as Paschal said, we place before our faces to stop us seeing the Abyss we are running into.

A good friend and teacher died this week.  In the midst of grading and term endings, of preparing for Christmas, it is hard to find time to mourn.  But, at the same time, in the face of one of the most solemn moments in a human's history, how can grading and shopping be important?  No, there is a necessity to attend to the dead one, not as a "memory" but as an Image-Bearer, a proto-Icon, who now awaits resurrection with her Lord.  Her death, actualized in her physical body this week, was accomplished on the Cross and participated in with her baptism.  Her union with Christ, far from making her body a "shell" or some such, makes it a holy object: something that tangibly will rise on the Last Day, fully sharing in the Glory, the Eternal Life, of God Himself.  Her death becomes a testament, not to death's power, but to its futility: Death, thou shalt die.

In the meantime, though, we see the power of death, futile though it ultimately may be, to drive us to despair.  I was playing with my youngest daughter moments before I learned of my friend's death.  As we sat there, building blocks, I saw her as she truly is: an instantiation of love from my wife and I.  She is the outpouring of shared love.  I'm speaking ontologically, she is the natural hypostatization of our marital love.  This goes beyond symbolic gestures to something iconic: to truly see her is to see the Image of God, who with His Father and Spirit, is love.  Here is why death is such a terror.  Love shares His nature with us: eternal and at peace.  Death breaks asunder that bond and consigns love to the void.  It is the most unnatural of things, for it seeks to break apart that which is our very nature.  If Death can do that, what hope have we?

"Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down Death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing Life."

Hallelujah.  Here is the love as strong as death, as jealous as the grave.  No, in fact we must go beyond the Song and say here is the love stronger than death, more jealous than the grave, the One who will conquer Death and Hades for us and with us.


My dear friend, Martha, rest in peace until the Day of Resurrection.

Monday, December 08, 2014

"Is Born This Day"

Below is my homily from Chapel PCA's Advent Service, to which I was graciously invited by Pastor John Gardner.  The Incarnation changes everything.


When God the Father fashioned the mud into the likeness of the Image of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, He honored His creation in its physicality, in its separateness from Himself.  There is a distinction, which can never be confused, between the Uncreated God and created man.  God could, by His grace, unite Himself to that creation and thereby glorify it, which St Paul in the book of Romans says it our ultimate end (5:2, 8:30, etc.).  Man, through Adam and Eve, added a further distinction, though, a tragic one: through sin they broke the communion between God and themselves, introducing death into the world.  They who were to partake of the Glory of God, which is His eternal Life, instead began to sup with death, corrupting not only their minds and souls, but their bodies as well.  The constant refrain of the book of Genesis is “and so he died.”  God is Life, Existence, Being Himself, in whom dwells no death.  He is Holy.  And so God instituted, first through types and symbols, His redemption of His creation by becoming human so that He “might taste death for everyone” and that “through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:9, 14).  The advent of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ, is for us the beginning of holiness, the holiness that is our salvation.

There is a wonderful scene in Luke’s Gospel in which our Lord is traveling to raise a young girl from the dead.  As he passes through the crowds, He feels power go out from Him.  It turns out a woman with an unstoppable blood flow had reached out and touched His garments.  For the crowds, this would have been horrifying: ritual pollution, the effect of both death and sin, would pass from the unclean and make any who were clean desecrated.  Such is what had been revealed in the Law of Moses.  However, in this case, the reverse happened: the blood flow was dammed and Christ remained clean.  The Holy One was cleansing the whole world of sin and death and their corruptive effects by His coming among us.  His taking on of physical human nature, body, mind, will, activity, brought the purgation of our sins and of death itself.  The implications of this were not unknown to the early teachers of the Church:

He therefore passed through every age becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise, He was an elder for elders, that he might be a perfect master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards that age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also and becoming likewise an example to them. Then, at the last, He came unto death itself, that he might be the firstborn of the dead, that in all things he might have the preeminence, “the Prince of Life,” existing before all and going before all (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 22, Section 4).

All stages of life “under the sun” have been remade through Christ’s presence in the flesh.  Through His virginal conception and birth, He has sanctified marriage, motherhood, and virginity.  Through His infancy and childhood, His adolescence and adulthood, He has sanctified those and shown us how to live “soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Tit. 2:11).  He has sanctified water at His baptism, bread and wine in His offering of Himself to us, and all the “trees of the Lord” (Ps. 104:16) have been blessed by His crucifixion.  Most of all, though, He has harrowed and hallowed death by His sinless residence and resurrection from there.  Now He, who knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and therefore was not under the dominion of death, has risen with His flesh for our salvation.  We can, St Paul tell us, partake of this holiness, this freedom from death, through faith exercised in baptism: “Or do you not know that as many of us were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the Glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).

Christ’s birth, the Uncreated as the created, the divine as the human, is the fulfillment of Zechariah’s great prophecy: “In that day, HOLINESS TO THE LORD shall be engraved on the bells of the horses.  The pots in the Lord’s house shall be like the bowls before the altar.  Yes, every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be HOLINESS TO THE LORD OF HOSTS.  Everyone who sacrifices shall come and take them and cook in them.  In that day there shall no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the Lord of Hosts” (14:20-21).  If the Lord makes the pots and pans and horse bells holy, how much more us, who with great expectation celebrate His coming among us to liberate us from death and sin, the cosmic Canaanites?  Praise God for His honoring and blessing of all created reality in the enfleshing nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ!  Amen.