Monday, December 31, 2012

Why Rome?

Part of my duties at Geneva is to teach the Humanities. I teach both the introductory course that deals with some of the perennial themes of human life (adventure, death, love & virtue, cultural change, and "calling") and the quick-and-dirty Western Civilization course (we cover from Homeric Greece to the Baroque period). It is because of the second course, in which my lecturing covers the early Church and Medieval periods, that I have been presented with a question that did not particularly bother me as an undergraduate, nor as a graduate student, but has begun to become somewhat of a gadfly in my adult life: why Rome?

Why is Rome so important? Why does the patrimony that has come down to us from them (and from the Greeks as well, although I'll argue that they are not as vital, culturally speaking, but that is for another time...) continue to affect us and our cultural longings and concrete expressions? Why does "Classicism" come so often into the discussions of Renaissance and Reformation works and thought? What is it about Rome, that Empire that doggedly persecuted the Christians and even put their founder to death, that Western civilization is so beholden to?

It isn't, as I've often heard, that they did this, or that, or the other thing well. While that is certainly true (I've been to the Pont du Gard and have experienced firsthand their matchless engineering and stochastic artistry), there is something else. Something that keeps pulling us back, especially Christians, to this strange Greco-Italian Empire. I don't quite know what that is, but I've got a hunch: it is us. It is our history, more than just dates and facts, but it is what connects us -- even disconnected, consumerist Americans -- to the world. History is important, not just for its lessons, nor for its cultural influence, but because it is part of what makes us human (note, for example, that the Old Testament is mostly history: God obviously thinks it important, important enough to shape all of history into a cruciform pattern).

In other words, the day Rome falls from our cultural conscience, the day we forget who we fundamentally are, is the day that the West really ends. I do not necessarily think that the West needs to encompass the world (colonialism and empirialism are unfortunate parts of our Roman heritage), but it does need a place in the world. It is worth preserving, even the nasty bits (we need to remember that the past was not "golden"), and -- more imperative -- it is worth defending: we are fighting for our own cultural identity in the midst of an encroaching colonialism of another kind, one just as insidious as own cultural history. We have made the mistakes, so culturally we should be able to meet this challenge with some modicum of maturity and tact, even as we continue to develop what it means to exist in this strange mixture of paganism, of Christianity, of reason, of the "virtues", and of history.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Shame of the Cross

One thing I've heard, but cannot currently verify, is that the Fathers are not strong on why the death of the Messiah had to be a death on the Cross (although I think Irenaeus might have something to say about that Tree). Sitting in a Christmas Eve service this week, though, I was struck with a connection that I hadn't made before. It is this:

The reason the Christ must die on the Cross is not because it is the most torturous, but rather because it is the most shameful. Adam became shamed by his disobedience; through the shame of the Cross this is defeated and reversed. Clothing ourselves in the shamed Christ, who deserved no shame, is what brings us to glory.

Shame must be dealt with, not by a legal fiction of "forgetting," but by defeat at its own game. It is not enough to circumvent the weapons of the enemy (and what is shame but such a weapon -- I will expand on this in regards to the Law in the future); those tool must be rendered null and void. Salvation is from shame, from guilt, from death -- this is why ethics are so vital for the life of the Church, for death must have no place in the Body of Christ, the medicine and hospital of immortality.

More needs to be said, but I am typing this on an iPad, which is a bit cumbersome for me. Once the holidays are over, I'll expand on this.

For His glory and for the ending of Adam's shame. Amen.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Psalms for the Fast

While reading Lauren Winner's delightful little book Mudhouse Sabbath, I came across this gem:
...I rang up my rabbi [after failing a required fast]. I asked him how important these minor fasts were. I asked him if I would ever get any better at them. I asked him what the point was...Rabbi M. did not roll back thousands of years of rabbinic instruction and tell me eat a bowl of Chex on the morning of Yom Kippur. Instead, he said the hunger was part of the point. "When you are fasting," he said, "and you feel hungry, you are to remember that you are really hungry for God."
Our true hunger is for God.

This led me to think about the purpose of fasting, at least one aspect of it. We are creatures created with a wonderful plethora of emotions, of desires, of loves. However, due to the corrupting influence of death and sin, our loves, desires, and emotions (among other things) are disordered and misdirected, which leads to all sort of addictions, neuroses, and (what the Tradition calls) passions. Fasting, purposeful denial of food and drink for a set period of time, is intended to make us watchful and aware of these disordered things, so that we might pray and start to redirect (or, to use Paul's wonderful and participatory language, to "mortify") these things back towards their proper place: God. It is not a denial of our creatureliness, but rather a "setting right" of that which has gone crooked. It is a symbolic putting to death, hence mortification, of that which has been corrupted by Adam, so that it might rise anew in the resurrection of Christ. It is an affirmation of our creatureliness, both as it was before the Fall and how it will be after the Resurrection.

Fasting, as a liturgical practice, also helps to make sense of some of the Psalms. I remember when I first encountered Psalm 73 in worship. David says there:
Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
I couldn't fathom what that meant, especially as my fiancee (now wife) stood next to me. It was hard to sing, since liturgical singing is a form of vowing or "covenanting" (as my denomination calls it): I desired her (in many ways, not just as a young man desires a young woman), so how could I sing that "there is none upon earth that I desire besides You"?

Part of that issue has now been clarified by fasting (I've been married now for almost a decade, so I've lived with this question for quite some time): any desire/appetite we have, no matter how strong, is a desire to be unified with God. However, this shouldn't be understood as a pseudo-mystical anti-creational thing. Rather, my desire for my wife is not to be one of possession, of lust, of selfishness, but rather my desire is to be one of thankfulness to God; this allows the desire to be one that unifies both my wife and I with God in the mystery/sacrament of marriage (Eph. 5). Note that the height of Christian worship, the Eucharist, literally means "thankfulness" that is participation (koinonia) with Christ and with one another. Our gratitude is the way that our true desire partakes of both God's creation and of God Himself in a proper way. By denying ourselves some part of the created world, we can rediscover that. It is easy to slip into either an incipient materialism that says the creation is good in itself or an incipient spiritualism that says no part of creation should be involved in our worship (I find both options in Reformed worship, swinging like a pendulum; it should be noted that these are the two poles of ancient Gnosticism). Rather, we enjoy God through our use of the creation (as Augustine might put it). Fasting clarifies this and redirects it.

The Psalms, then, reveal the spirituality of a faster. David (and others) constantly speak of these redirections. I'm endeavoring to memorize these so that I might remember, in the throes of a fast, where my desire truly is; and how, if we seek that which we truly desire, "all these things shall be added to you." If we have God, we have everything. If we gain the whole world, but have not Christ, we lose all, including our life.

Psalm 73: "Whom have I in heaven but You? There is none on earth I desire beside You. My flesh and heart may fail; God is the strength of my heart and my portion forevermore"

Psalm 42: "As the deer pants for the water brooks, So pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?"

Psalm 34: "Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; Blessed is the man who trusts in Him!"

There are, of course, more. I will post more as I come across them. Once again, it seems that an understanding of the life of the Church as the proper interpretive context of the Scriptures (in this case, regular fasting) reveals many important aspects of those Scriptures.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

More on Repentance

Recently I wrote a short entry on Living a Life of Repentance. More can, and must, be said on that topic.

As I find myself (all too rarely and all too late) repenting of whatever sin, I wonder what the proper actions of repentance look like. Surely, if Christian tradition is to be believed, then there is a salutary spiritual effect from penance. Obviously, penance done wrong or without knowledge of how it is a healing practice is dangerous and destructive; but just because a doctor may give us meds that don't cure our physical disease (and sometimes make them worse) doesn't (normally) cause us to give up the whole practice of taking medicine, or seeing physicians, for our ills and aches and pains. What might be a proper penance, then?

First, it might be beneficial, for me at least, to look at the practical effects my own sin has on me: often I get irascibly angry at myself and take that anger out on those closest to me -- my wife, my kids, my employees, my students. For some reason, once I have sinned, I find it extremely difficult to overlook or sympathize with their sins or weaknesses. That reminds me of a parable:
Then Peter came to Him and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, 'Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me what you owe!' So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?' And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses." (Matthew 18:21-35)
The teaching, as practical as it gets, that our lives -- repentant lives -- are to be lives characterized by forgiveness, is one of the most prominent teachings of Jesus, found in all four Gospels. However, we often make this void by talking about the "free offer of the Gospel," turning the true Good News (not only that we are saved from our sins, but are in the process of being made more and more like God Himself -- theosis) into some sort of cheap grace, which produces embittered, arrogant, and hateful people who can easily hide behind a powerful (and powerfully demonic) Christian veneer. Lord, forgive me for doing this, help me to forgive others -- are we not of the same flesh from Adam?

What is penance? It is forgiving our friends, our brothers and sisters, our enemies. The salutary effect is our own forgiveness, but much more than that: it is the restoration of all things. Forgiveness is the ending of Adam's animosity towards Eve, it is the ending of our long rebellion against God and those made in His Image, it is the beginning of the new humanity in Christ. A Church without forgiveness is no Church. As Orthodox presbyter Stephen Freeman puts it, "Forgive everyone for everything." There is the Church Catholic, there is the Spirit, there is Life and Light and the overcoming of death, the trampling underfoot of the old Serpent who knows not what forgiveness is (Rom. 16:20). All our externals mean nothing if we have not forgiveness. Indeed, even Christ tells us that any true rituals we may possess from the Apostles are without effect without forgiveness (Matt. 5:23-24).

Here's the strange thing, though, and maybe the thing I've been musing on most: forgiveness is hard. Yet we expect it to come easy. I want my wife and children to forgive me quickly when I've spoken a word too harshly, or been selfish, or been absent (even if bodily present). Yet, if they sin against me, I want to see contrition, I want to see, maybe not groveling, but some self-abnegation, in other words, I want them to feel at my mercy -- being in the position to forgive or not is an incredible position of power: consider what it means for the Apostles to be given the keys to the kingdom: no wonder debates about what "Apostolic Succession" really is have raged! Yet, the parable teaches the exact opposite of what my experience is: giving forgiveness is to be easy, not used as a tool of power, but rather as a tool of reconciliation. All penance, in the end, is an exercise of reconciliation, of reuniting that which has been sundered.

Lord, give us strength to forgive as we have been forgiven.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Sermon: Mark 10:35-45

Posted below is a rough approximation of the sermon I presented at First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Beaver Falls. As before, I was warmly welcomed and received, even with my current follicular situation. May God bless them in their work in this place. The Gospel text for the day was Mark 10:35-45.

In Mark 1:14-15, it says: “Now after John [the Baptist] was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel.” For us, the words ‘repent and believe the gospel’ mean some sort of religious conversion: believe that Jesus died for our sins and has a special plan for our lives. While that is certainly part of the Gospel as presented in the Scriptures, it doesn’t make a lot of sense of this early passage in Mark, nor the question of James and John in today’s Gospel reading. It is clear in Mark’s Gospel, and in the others, that Jesus did not regularly talk publically about his own death or its purpose. He did share this with his disciples, as evidenced in his saying that he would “give his life as a ransom for many,” but it does not make up a large part of his public proclamation. Rather, what we see in Mark 1 is Jesus proclaiming the ‘kingdom,’ or reign, of God. Whatever that might mean, it was near ‘at hand’ and seemed to be coming to pass in the very proclamation and actions of Jesus Himself. We see this clearly a couple of verses later in chapter 1, “And he was preaching in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and casting out demons.” Part and parcel of this proclamation was the exorcism of the unclean spirits that held people in physical, spiritual, and psychological captivity.

Many of these actions, which included healings and resurrections and the multiplication of loaves, would have served in the eyes of his first-century audience as confirmations of his divine calling as a prophet and his legitimacy as the Davidic king. If He was the ‘king to come,’ the one to exercise God’s rule as the ‘highest of the kings of the earth’ (Psalm 89:27), the one whom the nations would have to kiss to avert His wrath (Psalm 2:12), then James and John’s request to sit at his right and left hands in glory makes much sense. Here is the warrior-king, prophesied over and over again in the Old Testament, who would overthrow the evil powers and establish Mt. Zion as the ‘top of the mountains and…exalted above the hills’ (Micah 4:1). Before this could happen, though, before the great prophecies of Israel becoming the greatest kingdom in the world could come to pass, the Promised Land would have to be reconquered. Before David must come Joshua. However, this time it is not the Canaanites who are squatting in God’s land, but the Roman occupiers. Many Judeans at the time of Christ held forth hope that God’s anointed would rout these filthy pagan overlords and reestablish Israel’s rightful claim to their ancestral land, just as Joshua did. If Jesus was that Messiah, James and John want to be in on the action, to be the men at his right and left hand, ready and willing and able to do the Master’s work of glorious conquest. Yet Jesus will have none of it; he does not outright deny them such a place, but rather says it is not for him to choose. They will share in his cup and his baptism, but he cannot guarantee them pride of place in this kingdom. Rather, as we see in his response to all the disciples, this is a very different kingdom than they, and their contemporaries, had imagined.

Let us look again at the actions that accompanied the proclamation of the ‘kingdom of God.’ “And he was preaching in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and casting out demons.” In Deuteronomy 7:1, God promises to “cast out” many nations from the land, so that the Israelites might inhabit it. Joshua fulfills this through his own proclamation of God’s Kingdom, that is, of the God who overthrew Egypt and was now coming to finally make good on the promise that Israel would inherit this land. That meant the squatters had to go. As we saw, there is a short leap from Canaanite to Roman squatters. However, in Mark, as Jesus is making the proclamation of the kingdom, he does not throw out the Romans, but rather casts out the demons. The real squatters, the real malevolent occupiers, are not the physical army of Rome, but rather the invisible army of Satan, which has enslaved not merely the Italian pagans, but the Jews as well – they are the cause behind the sicknesses and the possessions Jesus heals. While James and John may be expecting an earthly battle, Jesus makes clear through his actions that the kingdom’s arrival concerns a much more important battle, one which cannot be prosecuted with weapons made of steel. Rather, the weapons that this Messiah uses, over and over again, are stronger than any swords or bombs or drone-strikes. These weapons burst the bonds that hold the captive in his chains, whether those chains are physical, spiritual, or psychological. These are the weapons of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.

It is here that we are often tempted, in our own way, to misunderstand the mission of Jesus. We see him proclaiming love and peace and reconciliation and we suppose that the Jewish expectations of a warrior-king are wrong altogether. This is Jesus, meek and mild, with a little lamby on his shoulder. We moderns, for our own historical and cultural reasons, do not want a warrior-king, or at least we don’t want Jesus to be one (we must admit that we often ask our earthly political leaders to fill in the vacuum left by our ‘casting out’ of Jesus from this place; Lord, forgive us): Jesus the tame Messiah is a Messiah that cannot truly marshal us to a war that, like all wars, may require our death. Let us pause for one moment, though, and see if this might be wrong after all. First off, we have the exorcisms and the healings: times where Jesus asserts, in very vigorous terms, his authority as rightful king over all God has created. The claims that Death and Satan have exerted over the human race since Adam are shown up for what they are: illusions of grandeur that God Himself has come to disabused them of. Secondly, the cost of discipleship is our own daily death: Jesus says in Mark 8 “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (vs. 34-35). Jesus is the prophesied warrior-king, but James and John, and, alas, we ourselves, have envisioned the wrong battle and the wrong enemy, and therefore the wrong weapons for the waging of this cosmic war.

The weapons, as the Apostle Paul tells us, are not ‘carnal,’ but are “mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5). These are the strong weapons of compassion, of mercy, and of forgiveness that we see Christ wielding against the demons’ arsenal of arrogance, of hate, and of disunity. We are the devil’s captives when we do not forgive our brother, or even our enemy; rather, since he or she is a human just as we are, we must have compassion on them and forgive even if they do not seek it. As Jesus says in Mark 11, “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespassed. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses” (vs. 25-26). Forgiveness demolishes strongholds of the enemy in a way no amount of siege warfare ever could. This art of war, though, would require a new way to imagine and implement the chain of command.

Just like Joshua sent the twelve tribes into Israel to cast out the Canaanites, Jesus sends the twelve apostles. In Mark 6 we read: “He called the twelve to Himself, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them power over unclean spirits. He commanded them to take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bag, no bread, no copper in money belts – but to wear sandals, and not to put on two tunics…So they went out and preached that people should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them” (6:8-9, 12-13). Here we see that they have the same mission as Jesus, war against the demonic oppressors, but they do not go girded as warriors, but rather as those needing hospitality: no food, slight clothing, and no money. These commandoes are not what we, nor what Jesus’ contemporaries, expect. Rather than rough-and-tumble Marines, these are beggars. They would not have been considered to be anything more than the lowest of slaves. This is exactly what Jesus intended, as we see in our Gospel passage today. They already know by experience, even if it hasn’t yet set in cognitively, that the war will be waged in a different manner, with different weapons and different tactics. However, it seems to come as a complete surprise that the upshot of this is that those who would be greatest, the four-star generals, must be the slaves of all. There is no haughty and comfortable command post: rather those in the top ranks must be willing to sacrifice everything for Christ and for the sake of the salvation of the world. Jesus Himself, and this must have been shocking and distressing for the disciples, will take on this role, giving his life “as a ransom for many.”

A very old translation of Psalm 96:10 says, “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns from the tree.’” Justin Martyr and Augustine both understood this to mean that the locus of Jesus’ kingship, where the kingdom of God breaks into the world to judge it and heal it, is the Cross of Jesus Christ. Paul says much the same thing when he says concerning this wisdom of God revealed on the Cross, “none of the rulers of this rulers knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8). The chief act of war, by which Christ brings the whole world into judgment so that it might be saved, is the Cross. For the world of Jesus’ day, and indeed ours, this is ultimate foolishness. The Cross is a defeat: Rome and Judea conspired, under the inspiration of the Serpent, to destroy this One who had released so many from oppression. As the mockers said at the crucifixion, “He saved others; Himself He cannot save. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:31-32). Those ways, though, are the ways of the world, the ways of spiritual blindness, the ways that needed judgment, so that Light and Life could break out into the world through the Resurrection. Those are the ways of “those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles” who “lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.”

“Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.” Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, calls us to “take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow Him.” We share His throne by sharing His Cross. We do this by confounding the wisdom of our day, which is the same as it was in Jesus’ day, since it springs from the same demonic source that asked our first mother, “Did God really say…?” That wisdom is of individualism, of exceptionalism, of materialism, of hating our neighbor because they are “the 47%” or “the rich” or the “welfare queens” or the “elite.” Rather, Jesus Christ calls us, this day, to follow Him to the Cross, to deny ourselves, to take up the “full armor of God” (Eph. 6), to tear down “every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God,” by showing compassion to all the oppressed, whether they are Jew or Roman, rich or poor, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, for all share the human nature of Jesus Christ, whose body is broken, whose blood is shed, so that we might live: for He is the Life of the World.

Let us, then, attend again to the words of God in Job and in Psalm 104: God is the high King over Creation, the One who ordered it and sets it right, in ways we can hardly comprehend. But it is not done as some raw show of power, nor is it done to “lord it over them” as the Gentile rulers do – the politicians and power-brokers of this world do not reveal the Father. Rather, the Son does, the Son who “gives his life as a ransom for many,” showing that truly, in the words of Psalm 145:8-9, “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and great in mercy. The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works.” So, let us, who share in the throne of Christ, seated in the heavenly places, us who are the Body of Christ in the world, go forth in praise of God’s cruciform compassion, taking up our own crosses, denying ourselves, and following Him, so that the world might have life in the Name above all names, that of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has shattered the power of the enemy by His rule as a servant to all. Amen.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

In Praise of Simplicity

I do not have a simple faith. My faith has, for as long as I can remember, been guided by philosophical and theological speculation and introspection. I have found it hard to merely believe, instead I must know. This has been quite hard on me, as it has led down many wrong roads and to serious doubt of myself, of God, and of what I am doing at any given point in time. It has led to discontentment, to depression, and to despair. Yet, I wouldn't trade it for the world: our Lord is preparing me for something that I cannot yet ascertain.

However, I have regularly envied those with a "simpler" faith. I don't mean by this "unthoughtful" or "naive" or even "unstudied," but rather intend to imply a genuineness and a level of trust that I cannot totally fathom. These are the folks who get it without having to unravel all the mysteries of the faith. How is the bread and wine at the same time the Body and Blood of our Lord? How is God one, yet three, yet one? How do the two natures of Christ interact and cohere without confusion or division? These are the things that vex me. But there are those that can recite the Creed, read the Scriptures, and pray knowing that these things are true and they are vouched by God Himself: that is enough.

What bliss!

I often wonder if the difference is that these have met God and so know without knowing, whereas I am still searching for Him.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Achieving Balance

I remember, back in high school, coming onto a realization that has had a great deal of sway in my life: the mental and the spiritual and the manual must all be held in balance. My own personal constitution often demands that I passionately follow one aspect of my being for a short time, burn out, and then passionately go after another. So one month I may be embroiled in theological debate and the next month despair of really ever knowing anything about God. While I'm despairing, I might throw myself into baking, until that wears me down, so that I retreat to a semi-quietist prayer focus. None of these things are bad in and of themselves, however the way I experience them is exhausting. I need to hold them in balance. This is the struggle of my adult life, especially with two full time jobs, two kids, and two businesses that I help with. But it is necessary.

And so, tonight, I bake, but not to the neglect of other things. And I look forward to the Sabbath, so that there might be rest from all labors.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

"The Inscrutable Calvinist"

I'm not prone to linking things like this on my blog, but this was too good to pass up. Mind you, it is irreverent, but that might be a small price to pay for the gold within.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

On Authority

Lately, and for quite some time, my mind has been vexed with the question of authority, especially ecclesial authority. In our fractured experience of Christianity, I wonder who (that is, which communion) has the rightful authority to call itself the Church. This presupposes that there is one true Church. Maybe that is too much to assume, but if God is "not the author of confusion" (1 Cor. 14:33), then there must be one true interpretation and application of Scripture to the life of the believer. The Church is, as Paul asserts, the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15): can there be so many conflicting pillars? I may be looking at this the wrong way, but it seems that while there can be diversity in many things in the Christian life, there must be some sort of unity between the various bodies that comprise the one Body of Christ. Obviously, of course, that bond is the holy Spirit, but does that reality mean anything real and practical? That is, should there be some institutional unity amongst the Church? In many ways, this goes back to the previous post on authority. Hopefully, Lord willing, it is a step forward.

I present it as a dialogue between two people concerning the topic of Sola Scriptura.

Teacher: What should we believe and do so that we might be saved?

Catechumen: We must believe the Scriptures and do as they say, trusting in the grace of God through Jesus Christ.

T: Good. Whose interpretation of the Scriptures?

C: I don't follow. Scripture is self-interpreting. It's meaning is clear to all.

T: Then why are there so many differing interpretations? Should we have bishops or elders? Should we baptize via the process of immersion or sprinkling or pouring? Should we baptize children or only believing "adults"? Pre-mil? A-mil? Post-mil? I could go on, but hopefully you see the point.

C: I do, and it could drive me to despair.

T: Be glad, then, that we are not talking about the problematic presuppositions of textual criticism. The question, whether or not it is ultimately legitimate, often becomes whether or not there is a settled text at all (Dr. Bart Ehrman seems to have embraced this unfortunate train of thought).

C: So, there must be some ground that can guide us to a proper interpretation of the Scriptures, so that we might be saved.

T: Good. What is that "ground"?

C: The Spirit of God is the One who will "lead you into all Truth" (John 16:13).

T: Good. How do we know we have the Spirit, that is, that our interpretation is the proper interpretation of the Scriptures?

C: I do not know. This is something that has puzzled me for quite some time.

T: Let us do a little exercise, then. Who originally had the Spirit and the proper authority to rightly interpret the Scriptures?

C: That would be the Apostles of Christ, I suppose. It does say that the earliest Church grew because of its allegiance to Apostle's teaching, the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Acts 2:42).

T: Good. But what happens when the Apostles die?

C: Then their teaching must survive on in the Church. This, I suppose, is the origin of the New Testament?

T: Yes, but remember that Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, says that the churches are to follow his Tradition, whether through word -- that is, spoken to them in their presence -- or through epistle -- that is, what will become what we know as the New Testament.

C: Did they contain the same thing?

T: This is a common assumption, but we see no one in early Church history hold to it. There is a common life, what Acts 2 called "the prayers," that needed to be passed on, which is the meaning of the word "tradition."

C: So, there is an apostolic written tradition, the New Testament, and an oral tradition?

T: It would seem so, wouldn't it?

C: But we are still in a quandry: has the Tradition survived throughout all these centuries? Can we trust any group to have held it faithfully throughout all that time? Are not all men sinners?

T: Indeed, all men are sinners. However, we have been given the promise of the Spirit of Truth to guide us into all truth, yes?

C: Yes, we've already established that. But who continues on the Tradition, who has the Spirit?

T: What pattern do we see in the New Testament? Do the Apostles train up men to continue their work?

C: As we've seen in 2 Thessalonians, Paul, at least, passed this assignment onto the individual churches.

T: So now we see the necessity of conciliar unity, yes?

C: Yes, one of the guarantors of proper interpretation is that the ancient churches agreed with one another. If one church did not hold the Tradition faithfully, there were others that would correct them and lovingly restore them. At least theoretically.

T: We see this in Bishop Clement's letter to the Corinthians shortly after the Apostle Paul's death (know as 1 Clement in the Apostolic Fathers). The question, then, is: did the Apostles entrust certain people in the congregation to do the work of guarding the Tradition, passing it onto the next generation, and training others to do the same? Obviously, the Tradition was in the hands of the people, but the church had a leadership -- did they have a role?

C: Of course! The people needed to keep their regular jobs and lives, living out the life of Christ in all their walks. So the leadership would need to be focused on teaching, or on serving, just like it was in the time of the earliest Church (Acts 6). In fact, in his teaching on this to his co-worker Timothy, Paul talks about training up bishops and elders for the work of teaching (1 Tim 3).

T: Good, you are making much progress. So, the Tradition -- the Apostolic interpretation accompanied by the common life and the "prayers" -- was maintained by the individual churches working in concert with one another, but was guarded and passed on by its leadership, the bishops and the elders. In other words, when Paul says that the Church is the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15), he means it.

C: So, for the proper interpretation, we need conciliar agreement between the churches, a Tradition passed on through the leadership, and an agreement with the Scriptures themselves?

T: Yes, exactly! This is what Irenaeus and Ignatius, early bishops of the Church, argue in their various epistles. It is called "Apostolic Succession" in theological terms.

C: However, we know from Church history that "Apostolic Succession" isn't enough. Didn't Rome err in the middle ages, necessitating the Reformation? Didn't the Reformers see that the ancient Tradition had been irretrievably lost, necessitating the teaching Sola Scriptura?

T: Well, this depends on what we believe about the Great Schism of AD 1054. It is possible, and I only say possible as this is not the topic of discussion, that the Roman bishop left the apostolic succession when they separated over the question of the Quinisext Council and the Filioque. If that is the case (and, for sake of argument, let us assume that), then the Reformation would have been necessary to restore that communion -- and all the other communions under Rome's jurisdiction -- to unity with the Apostolic Church. If all the other ancient churches, though, had also fallen in the meantime -- that is, if Eastern Orthodoxy, or Coptic Orthodoxy, or Oriental Orthodoxy (I'll not argue which one is most faithful) had fallen away from the Tradition -- then the promise of the Spirit to guide us "into all Truth" and Christ's promise to be with us "even unto the end of the age" (Matt. 28:20) will have failed. So, one of those communions, or set of communions (remember conciliar agreement?), must preserve the Apostolic Tradition faithfully.

C: But this would deny the legitimacy of the Reformation! It is historically evident that the Reformers did not find union with the East, in any form.

T: Like I said, though, it depends on your view of the Great Schism. If Rome had only recently (that is, with indulgences, etc.) fallen into heresy, then the Reformation was a necessary corrective to an erring bishopric.

C: What about Luther's insistence on the conscious of the believer?

T: Ah, a very important question: does the interpretation of the individual trump the conciliar authority, the Apostolic succession, and the agreement of the Scripture with these?

C: Wait, what if the Scripture does not agree? What if, for example, a communion of churches, in conciliar agreement, decide that bishops are to be unmarried, where Paul explicitly commands that they are to be "husbands of one wife" and to have children (1 Tim 3)?

T: You are asking how the Church might be lawfully be reformed?

C: Yes, I suppose so. What happens when one link in the chain fails?

T: We must ask, first, whether one error constitutes a true break of the Tradition? Could the Tradition be flexible enough to allow some "wiggle-room"? No extant church, we might say, totally preserves the Tradition unchanged. This does not mean, however, that the Tradition has been lost, rather that portions -- and we might assume that the Spirit will keep these portions small -- have been developed, or changed, or evolved, without major damage to the whole.

C: While not thinking ill of the Spirit (God forbid it!), is this not a rather large assumption?

T: Maybe and maybe not. As the Gospel goes out into many different cultures, there is bound to be local needs that must be met, not with an ironclad Tradition, but rather one with flexibility. There are dogmas -- things that the Church, in her Spirit-given wisdom -- that must be held to, but there are other parts of the Tradition that must show some flexibility. What happens when bishops, for example, come under great persecution? Is it better to maintain their married status, or to "be like I am" as Paul says (1 Cor. 7), able to serve the Lord without family hindrance in times of distress?

C: There is wisdom in that, I suppose. One would need to have a good rapport with the other leaders to change that back after the persecution ceased, then.

T: Indeed. This is necessary. And part of the reason that, at least in the East, bishop celibacy is the norm, but not a dogma. They have greater battles to fight right now, however, then that one. Lord willing someday this will be addressed. Have you been praying for them?

C: Pardon me, I have not. Should we pray for other communions?

T: It is one of the greatest needs of any time.

C: We still have not addressed my question about the legitimacy of the Reformation.

T: Indeed, we have not. The great question of the Reformation is whether or not it has restored the Church to conciliar unity, with the same teaching passed on by the early Church, and all in line with Scripture. This is the "calling," as it were, of the Reformation churches. It could be her divine calling. Has she succeeded?

C: Historically, no. Rome still holds to the Tridentine councils, even though they have been modified somewhat by the Vatican councils. Does this mean that the Reformation has failed?

T: No, but her calling is in danger, as it will always be. The enemy of our Lord wants nothing more than to keep the churches from uniting in love and truth (and it must be both). The Reformed churches must be spurred on to greater historical study in doctrine, liturgy, and the common life. There are many assumptions that must be jettisoned, I'm sure, but that will require much greater study to ascertain. Despair not! God has not abandoned any who call on the name of Christ, even if, as of now, they disagree. His Spirit will continue to lead us into all Truth, into the full stature of Jesus Christ (Eph 4).

C: Then there is much work to be done.

T: Yes. God bless you.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

On Theological Authority

This is not meant to be a diatribe, but rather a thought-piece. I welcome any and all comments and corrections, as I am working through these things and it is easy to be overcome by passion, rather than love. Forgive me, I ask of you, in advance.

As a part of the Reformed community of Christians, I often hear sermons that detail various interpretations of passages given by (for example) Wayne Grudem, John Piper, John Edwards, John Calvin, Martin Luther, maybe John Owens or some other Puritan, and probably either Mark Driscoll or Tim Keller making an appearance here or there. Since these men are "in" with us, I suppose this is natural. However, I am increasingly troubled by the lack of Patristic and Medieval theologians, saints, and fellow believers showing up in our sermons, in our pietistic literature, and in our daily lives. Why is it, for example, that Augustine only makes a rare appearance (that is, when various passages of his can support our understanding of predestination)? Where is John Chrysostom? Or John of Damascus? Or Athanasius? Or Basil of Caeserea?

Part of the problem, I think, is that we do not require much in the way of Church history or historical theology in seminary. This might, although I am not sure, be due to the tendency of the Reformation itself to separate Church history into two parts: pre-Reformation error and Reformation recovery of the gospel. If that is our theological philosophy of history, then it makes sense to ignore (for all intents and purposes) those that came before Luther. This is not, of course, the official story that Reformed denominations hold, but it seems to be the implicit one. However, the view of the work of the holy Spirit that this vision of history entails is ultimately problematic. Jesus promises that the Spirit would "lead you into all truth" (Jn. 16:13). Was that promise only for the Apostles, after which the truth would fall into disrepair, error, and idolatry for 1400 years? If so, did Luther have the Spirit? Or Calvin? Or are we still waiting for the Spirit of Truth to reform us and remake us after Christ's image?

The question that I am asking, apart from these overly emotional arguments, is one of relative authority: to whom should we give interpretive priority, the moderns or the fathers? Note that I am not trying to draw a dichotomy (true or false) between them -- both have their place; my question is "what is that place?" What happens when they disagree? Sometimes sharply? Should the Ecumenical councils (at least the first four, if not all seven) hold some interpretive authority over modern hermeneutics? Or, are we so far advanced over the old ways of thinking as to render them irrelevant and outmoded? If so, does the holy Spirit change over time? Or is it a case of theological infancy blossoming into modern maturity (or adolescence)? Add to this the question of the piety/holiness of the interpreters: is Mark Driscoll more holy than Augustine? Than Maximos the Confessor? Is John Calvin a better witness to Christ than John Cassian? Should the relative holiness of an individual come into judging the relative merits and authority of their theology? Is Evagrius of Pontus correct when he says, "If you are a theologian you will pray, if you pray you are a theologian"?

Part of the difficulty, I think, is that in the Fathers pneumatology (our understanding and experience of the holy Spirit) is inseparable connected to ecclesiology (our understanding and experience of the Church): many of them where hard-working ascetic bishops who believed that they weren't uncovering something that was lost (whether in the first or second or third century), but rather were passing on something unmolested that had been passed on to them by their successors in the episcopate going back to the Apostles (known as "Apostolic Succession," which is attested to by St. Ignatius of Antioch as early as the 90s or 100s AD -- he was the third bishop of Antioch after Peter the Apostle to the Jews). In our Reformation context, we often talk about uncovering, or rediscovering, what had been lost -- and it is often very different from what these Fathers had passed on (for example, I know of no modern Reformed teacher who proclaims either theopoiesis or theosis [except maybe T.F. Torrance], that we are becoming by grace what Christ is by nature and that this is the true "chief end of man", even though this theme shows up in Irenaeus, Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, etc. as a true "Patristic consensus"). This is troubling, especially as I read people who will claim that, for example, Gregory of Nyssa (one of the Cappadocian Fathers) had some bad parts of his theology because he doesn't line up with the Westminster Confession of Faith. Apart from the gross anachronism that this entails in the first place, it assumes that later theological expressions, in this case the WCF, have interpretive priority over earlier ones. Is this a valid assumption? If so, how is this different from Cardinal John Henry Newman's idea of "doctrinal development"? In his case, the development was rooted in the Roman Magisterium: where is it rooted in the Reformed world? Sola Scriptura? Whose interpretation of the Scriptures? Is it possible (taking this to one possible logical conclusion) that all interpretations of Scripture are wrong and we have yet to come to a correct one (and who would have the authority to claim that that one really was the correct one?), but we will because we are getting more and more theologically "mature"?

If we go with the Fathers, by contrast, does this lock us into their ecclesiology? Should Presbyterianism, then, cease to be? (A related question is where was Presbyterian church government before the Reformation? Ignatius of Antioch, as mentioned previously, argues for one bishop per city who loving rules over a collection of presbyters -- this is strikingly similar, albeit not quite the same, as modern Orthodox practice. While arguments can be made for the Biblical precedent for Presbyterianism, where was it in historical actuality? I confess my own ignorance at this point. It may be there and I've just not run into it. If you have sources, please pass them along).

And so, years later, the Postmodern Protestant Dilemma rages on. Lord, have mercy.

Saturday, September 01, 2012


I often feel pressure to post on this blog. It is, after all, a tool of professional and theological development for me. Hopefully, it is a repository of insights; realistically, it is a "height-chart" that will show me, years from now, how far I've come. In the end, the professional aspect will fade away: theology is not about how many accolades, or publications, or positions one holds. Rather, if theology is done according to its own nature (logoi in a Maximos-ian sense), then it is the record of a journey into the love and mercy of God. Theology is, at best, an attempt to tell others about a relationship of great and intense intimacy: sometimes, details are left better unsaid, but a solid, staid fidelity must be asserted and witnessed. But a theologian, at the same time, is not the recipient of this intimacy: rather, he (or she, of course) is the witness to the cosmic love that the Father holds for His kosmos, His adorned creation. The theologian is one small part of that cosmos, but he (or she) is in a relatively privileged place: the bard that sings of the love held between Lover and Beloved. The one who describes the dance (the perichoresis) that the Beloved has been brought into, and through the tremendous mystery of the hypostatic union, has always been a part of.

Sometimes words are needed to describe; sometimes all the bard can do is provide background music (nothing, and I mean nothing, is worse than when a theologian interjects into this divine dance); sometimes all they can do is point others and say "join."

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Tonight's Prayer

In our family vespers tonight's collect was this:

Most merciful and loving God, Your blessed Son suffered and died for us.  Grant us grace to endure the sufferings of this present time, to overcome all that seeks to overwhelm us, and to be confident of the glory that shall be revealed in us.  We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ Your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.  Amen.

This is a prayerful speaking of much of Romans 8.  Maybe, thinking of the previous post, this sort of thing would be a good way to ressource the liturgical nature of the Scriptures?

Liturgical Exegesis

The historical situation of a Biblical text is often regarded as being of key importance in ascertaining meaning in the text: the context of geography, of time, of politics, and a whole host of others.  One aspect that I've not seen is how early Christian liturgics helped to shape and develop the New Testament writings.  Certainly, as Paul wrote the Romans (whom he was not, at that point, personally acquainted), he understood that they had already been participating in the rich symbolism, praxis, and routine of Christian worship and piety.  While there was certainly local variation (as attested to by the very different liturgical traditions in, say, the Didache and the Apostolic Traditions), there would also be much commonality (as attested to by the very compatible liturgical traditions in, say, the Didache and the Apostolic Traditions).  Should this factor in to how we understand the New Testament?  (I think that it is near to impossible to understand the Old Testament without the Tabernacle/Temple complex forming the, at least, background matrix).  Might Paul's reflections on, say, justification be influenced by his participation and celebration of the Eucharist?

Maybe all these lines of inquiry have been well-trod before me.  Much of my own background seems to me to assume that the Apostles (or whoever) wrote things down, sort of as an intellectualist exercise, without regards to the rich liturgical tradition that was already in place before any of the New Testament documents were written.  The Bible, though, is the Church's book, so the life of the Church holds at least some interpretive say in exegetical and theological matter.

Lex orandi, lex credendi

Monday, August 06, 2012

The Cruciform Existence

Much of my thinking lately, guided by the ecumenical confession of the hypostatic union, has revolved around how we participate in Christ.  Whatever we read of Christ, we read of ourselves: we are to share in Him.  That means, at base, an understanding of our "ecclesial existence" (a term I take from Met. John Zizioulas' book Being as Communion) must be a recapitulation, a reliving, of Christ's hypostatic existence.  In other words, when we share in Christ through faith and baptism, and continue to share in Him through the fulness of the Eucharist, we are living out -- in intensely practical ways -- His incarnation, His sufferings, His death, His resurrection, and His ascension (and in that order).  Most of the time, I suppose, we are sharing in the first three -- our experience of His resurrection in a physical, corporeal way is a future (to us) experience; something tasted only in sacramental terms, but which shall be revealed as the true reality.  So, when Christ tells us to "daily take up our cross," He means it.  We must, everyday -- in our unceasing prayer (God give us strength) -- die to self, die to our old allegiances, die to the world.  These things are already dead in the death of Christ: the Life of the world has died, so they have no hold on us.  Rather, being raised (provisionally and sacramentally) in Christ, we can live anew -- but this new life is cruciform, it is lived no longer for self, but for others.  Christ is always directed outwards; His Church is to be as well.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

A New Look and a New Title

As I've been teaching Bible and Humanities for half a decade now, I figured it was finally time to get professional about blogging.  Certainly there is a lot of clean-up work that needs to be done, but I think a layout change and a Twitter feed (@QereKetiv) is a good start.

A name change is also necessary.  When I started the "Withdrawals of a Theological Junkie" the point was to express how I wanted to stop a rather nasty habit (theologizing) and just couldn't seem to.  It was a dark point in my experience, which has been somewhat chronicled here.  I have no plan to delete any posts that have documented it, but I may clean some of them up (some contain errors too juvenile to allow).  Now, I find that the metaphor of "Qere Ketiv," which comes from the Hebrew Scriptures is apt.  The qere is "what is spoken" in the public worship, whereas the ketiv is what is written -- that is, the literal word on the page of the Masoretic Text.  The ketiv is the text, but sometimes it doesn't quite make sense.  So, the reading is maintained, but a scribal note is made to read something slightly different in the public worship.  A beautiful text critical system that is over 1,000 years old.  Better than our clunky critical apparatuses that are in the modern eclectic texts.  The metaphor of the Qere Ketiv speaks to the nature of theology: sometimes we must go beyond a prima facie reading of the text using a regula fidei, a rule of faith that guides interpretation.  That regula is none other than Jesus Christ who has come, has died, has been raised, has been ascended, and will come again.

I'd appreciate comments on what you'd like to see here and what you think of the new layout.

Thanks to Dr. Byron Curtis for helping me to further clarify my explanation of the qere and the ketiv.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Influence of Irenaeus

The fruit was sinful taken from a tree... the sin must be reckoned with on a Tree.

The man and his wife returned down into the dust... the Man, with His Bride, must arise from the ground.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Living a Life of Repentance

I've been told many, many times that one of the key virtues of a Christian life is repentance.  That is, turning away from sin and towards God: daily, hourly, minute-ly, etc.  This make sense.  At least, it makes sense if we believe ourselves to be so embroiled in sin, post-justification, post-start-of-sanctification, post-salvation (at least the beginning parts of it), that we cannot exist without sinning.  In that case, a life of repentance is utterly necessary and utterly impossible (and not only from man's standpoint, but also God's, since He was unable to break sin's yoke over you either at the Cross or at the "moment" of faith -- but that is another story for another day: I'm hoping to *eventually* publish an article about this theological snafu).

But...what if, when we are brought into a right relationship with God (whether you want to call that salvation or justification or just plain bliss), the stranglehold of sin is broken and we can, theoretically, live without sin's domineering presence in our lives?  I'm not arguing for perfectionism, that is, a human's ability to totally conquer sin this side of the general resurrection so that there is no spiritual or moral struggle.  I am arguing for a Christian's power to conquer temptation and sin through great striving in the Spirit (for starters, it takes "praying without ceasing" -- something very few have been able to accomplish), a striving that, if Ephesians 5 is to be believed, will continue on with us until the time of our mortal demise: that is, we have changed sides in the cosmic war, but that doesn't mean the war is over.  Rather, the war, for us, is now just begun, or at least our part in it.

And one of the things that happens is that sin, even though its power has been effectively broken by the Cross, still calls to us.  To change sides, to change allegiances (that is, to change pistis, faith), and to come back over.  A life of repentance, then, is one in which we recognize which side we are on and stay put.

I find this martial imagery to be very illuminating, especially when counseling students.  Many, and this once included myself, belived that once you sinned, you are, effectively, out of the family.  You are condemned where you stand.  For some, this means that any sin constitutes a need for a "new" salvation, since the old one has been irrevocably lost.  However, if you are shot at during a war, that doesn't mean you work for the enemy.  If, once you've been shot at, you have a change of heart and realize that the other side is "in the right" and you defect, then, yes, you do work for the other side.  There is a technical theological term for this: apostasy.  This is what is condemned, for example, in Hebrews 6.  Being shot at, though, or even taking a hit and falling down, or not carrying through an order ("transgressing the command," as it were), does not constitute apostasy.  Just sin.  Something to avoid next time, to ask the Commander for clarification, for help, for assistance, for (sometimes) reassignment.  Sometimes, alas, the shots wound us deep, shrapnel cuts and we wonder why we must live with this (I have students who struggle, valiantly, with same-sex attraction: I often think this might be a helpful heuristic category, but I'd have to ask them first): but this is not apostasy -- it is possible to be a faithful soldier and struggle with some deep wound.

Strangely, or maybe not, this isn't what I originally set out to write.  I wanted to write about how death is what we repent from, that is, from the lifestyle and works of death, which characterize the old world, the old self.  This is what produces sin in us, but something else came out.  At any rate, may it be to the glory of God and may He forgive me where I've misstepped.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

On Consumerism

I've heard a lot of sermons about finance and consumerism.  I've spoken a lot about consumerism and economics (although, methinks, that my economics is decidedly different from my earlier stint with the Austrians).  We all know it is a problem.  We all know greed is a sin.  But we cannot seem to do anything about it.

Take, for example, your fairly typical evangelical church in America.  At least stereotypically speaking (and I think this mostly bears out, at least from my experience), the folks are at least middle class, sometimes upper, sometimes lower, sometimes a mix.  There is, even if middle class folks are often worried about their financial status, a lot of money floating around in there.  Enough to supply the salaries for an eccleisal bureaucracy (not quite as formal as a hierarchy, but probably exerting more control): senior pastor, associate paster, worship pastor, children's pastor, youth pastor(s), secretaries and support staff for all the above.  This is not necessarily a bad thing -- sometimes it is necessary to do the work that the Church has set out to do.

More than this support of an ecclesial structure that could rival medieval Rome, most of these folks live middle class lifestyles: cable tv, cable internet, house large enough for at least 1.5 familes, stuff stored in a storage facility (for a monthly fee), kids in umpteen sports with umpteen expenses, etc.  Fairly normal Americana.  In other words, we live consumerism.

A few sermons, or even a sermon about it every week, aren't going to change that.

It must be lived.  Rather, we must die to it.  We must be martyrs to the world, even though it is the good gift of God.

In other words, we must be monks.  Or, at least some of us should be.  All of us need some ascesis, some discipline in our lives, but not all of us can be monks.  Or can we?

The question really is: what is a monk?  Of course, the historical image is that of a self-mortifying, poverty-striken, silent celibate with a funny haircut (I've had that haircut).  But that isn't a monk.  To fall into Aristotelian categories: those are the accidents of a monk, not the substance.  Rather, the substance is someone whose allegiances have been firmly and (theoretically) finally shifted away from the transient to the eternal.  Someone who can let go of, say, a number of meals so that hunger will not control their actions -- someone who can teach the hungry not to steal, but rather to pray for those who have, but whose hearts are closed up and whose souls are in much more peril for their inhospitality to the "least of these."  Also, with the money saved from not eating, a meal (or two or three) can be bought and served to these "least of these" -- saying "be warmed and filled" without warming and filling is a capital sin: it is saying that the words we speak have no bearing on reality, that is, that the Word is not in our words.  Let the speaker beware.

A monk is one who can give up earthly prosperity so that the world can be rich with the Spirit of Christ through prayer.  Think with me, for just one moment, about what would happen in our world if we all gathered for prayer before work, during lunch, and after work.  The workday would either have to get prohibitively long or, more likely, much shorter: work would be subservient to prayer.  The Almighty Dollar would be dethroned and put in its proper place: as a tool in the service of the Prince of Peace, the healer of the blind, the lame, the deaf, the sick, and the dying.  Plus we would see what the truly important work is: mercy.

In other words, I see no reason that we cannot have married monks, single monks, communities of monkish delight, and regular old monasteries doing the work of God.  Everyone is called to this sort of monkish sacrifice: this is because monkery is simply martyrdom in a peaceful time.  We still need witnesses to Christ in the world, but (God be praised) we aren't actively persecuted for our faith, nor are we (in America, I'm speaking of here) put to death for our confession.  That means, if we want to share in the death of Christ, we need to put to death all those things that distract our attention from Him: so that we might receive them again, transfigured, glorified, filled with the Spirit, for the good of the world.

This means we are going to need a Rule of Life.  That is what I am beginning to work on with my family and my church.  Pray for us.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

An all too brief thought on Theodicy

Theodicy is the question of how God and evil can coexist.  Or, why do bad things happen to good people?  Or, how can a good God allow so much suffering?  The questions are hard, especially since they put God in the dock, and then Christians are asked to divine what God might say in response (He did respond in Job -- but His response is notoriously dense).

The response, though, is the Cross of Jesus Christ, God Himself partaking of the degradation, the oppression, the injustice of the world, so that life, His Life, might reing through the resurrection.  This Life is to be lived out through the Church, which has notoriously failed in very public ways (May God have mercy on all!).

So, the only response from a Christian, as far as I can tell is this: there is a lot of suffering in the world.  We have been given the job of addressing and correcting it -- that is what it means to be a Christian, practically.  Often we don't do it or we do a poor job of it.  But the calling remains.  We are to be God's hands.  Would you like to help me get food to the hungry?  Clean water to the thirsty?  Justice to the oppressed?  Let's talk to others who are already doing those things and support them in any way we can -- even if it means suffering ourselves.  We need to actually do the work, just like Jesus touched and healed lepers and dead people, and even was put to death so that we could have life to share with others.

Obviously, I've left much out.  Forgive me for that.  Sometimes it is better to work than to talk.  Sometimes faith can only be understood through action: Christ died and rose again for the life of the world.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

"Who is God? The Son Reveals the Father": Sermon on Luke 15:11-32

Here is the sermon text from today's message at Washington Union Alliance Church (CMA) in New Castle, Pa.  I'll have the audio uploaded soon.  There are differences between the text and the audio, as I felt free to leave my notes and extempore or tell a joke here and there.  To God be all the glory.

I do want to thank the church for their kind and generous reception of my family and me.  May God bless their efforts to live His Kingdom out in New Castle.
Text: Luke 15:11-32 (The Prodigal Son)

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, we meet two children who, although they are in the same family, do not know their father. The first hates him enough to wish his death; the second assumes he is miserly and selfish. This is an important lesson for all Christians, since we claim to know the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit.

When we come to Church, we assume that we are worshipping the right God, the “only true God,” as Jesus puts it in John’s Gospel. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. But, how do we know that the God we have assembled here to honor and serve is the God, the Creator of the universe, the one worthy of our acclamation and our lives? I raise this question because it seems that within the Christian world there are “many gods and many lords” (as the Apostle Paul speaks about it), but “for us there” should be “one God, the Father…and one Lord Jesus Christ.” The Christian God is often seen as either for all American wars, regardless of their justification, or against any wars, no matter how just they might actually be. We are told that God is vengeful and angry; yet He is Love. Placards, splayed over the evening news, read “God hates…” whatever group is not like the protestors, whether that is homosexuals, or soldiers, or even the Amish. There seems to be great confusion as to who God is and how we are to live in light of that. However, there is only one God and He is not the author of confusion: we must wade through this quagmire, this miry clay as Psalm 40 calls it, to the point where we can say not only that we believe in God (which James tells us even the demons do), but that we know Him and, more importantly, that He knows us.

Why, though, is it important to know God? Wouldn’t it just be easier to offer up some sacrifice, whether an animal or some prayer, to an all-powerful Being that we just don’t understand? Most of human history, it seems, has functioned this way. Luke tells us the story of Paul’s encounter with the “unknown god” in Acts 17: this ‘god’ had delivered them from plague and floods when all the other gods of the Grecian world had failed. Paul, though, will not let them stay in ignorance, for “God now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom He has ordained.” Maybe it would be easier to offer to some “unknown God” that all spiritual paths lead to, but in the reality of the situation, it is certainly not safer. Justice is coming – the Judge is at the doors!

But judgment isn’t the only reason that we should seek to truly know God. One genuinely true law of spirituality is that “we become like what we worship.” That is, whatever god we worship, we take on their traits. If we worship a god who is always wrathful and angry, we ourselves will become wrathful and angry. We see that with the “God hates…” crowd. If we worship a god who is kindly and benevolent, without any sense of justice or truth, we become soft and easily taken advantage of: it is a sad story of our country that many mainline Christian denominations have followed this path. The Apostle Peter, in his second epistle, says that we are to be “partakers of the divine nature.” We must ask who God is because we’re going to be like Him.

The language of “partaking of the divine nature” may sound strange. We talk much more often of salvation or redemption and even sanctification; however this language is very close to what God intended in the very beginning. In Genesis 1:26, the Word says “Let Us make man in our Image, according to Our likeness.” Somehow, in a very mysterious way, we partook of God’s image, His very nature. That image involved being in God’s likeness as well. We were supposed to act like God Himself. The Genesis passage continues, explaining this: “let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Adam and Eve were set up as lords of the world; however there was a proviso: they could not eat from one of the trees in the midst of the garden God planted for them. The reason given was that “on the day you eat of it you will be liable to death.” This divine warning is very important: if you disobey, Adam, you will be cut off from what makes you live – right now, you have perfect communion with Me and I have given you every good gift, including the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden, so you will live forever in peace and joy. God knows that this will be a struggle for the newly formed image-bearers, yet He entrusts the task to them.

We may be surprised, then, to learn that when the serpent deceives Eve, he does so through their desire to be like God. This desire to partake of the divine nature is not a bad thing: man and woman were made in the image and likeness of God. However, the serpent tells Eve (and the text tells us that Adam was with her, silent the whole time: she was deceived, Adam went in with full knowledge) that they have yet to become like God, knowing good and evil. The reason that God withheld the tree was not to grow them in obedience, but rather to separate Himself from them, the ones created in His very image and likeness! The serpent’s condemnation is just. Why did Adam and Eve, who should have known better, take the bait and eat from the tree? The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 1:21-22: “although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools.” It started with false worship in which they became unthankful. Then they became futile in their thoughts and started to believe in another god, not the God who had selflessly made them and entrusted them with the Garden, but a petty, miserly god who selfishly kept back secrets all to himself. They became like what they worshipped: Adam selfishly blames Eve and God Himself for the predicament, instead of repenting and seeking God’s mercy. Because of this we are trapped in the “corruption that is in the world through lust,” as Peter puts it, summarizing the effects of Adam’s sin. When we have a wrong knowledge of who God is, we worship wrongly and become corrupted at our cores.

Who God is matters because we are to be like Him, in both the here-and-now, and in eternity when “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (I John 3:2). So, to the question at hand: who is God?

A few provisos on our quest would be helpful. I am an academic by training, so I apologize that a seemingly simple question as “who is God” takes a million years to arrive at. Things must be made somewhat convoluted, otherwise how would we turn these sorts of questions into articles and books?

The first proviso is that when we are attempting to answer “who” someone is, whether that is God or our spouses or ourselves, we are asking “how” that person thinks and acts. I know my wife because of the way she acts towards me and towards God and towards our community. My wife knows me the same way: my hope is that I portray a consistent image of who I am. Here is where faith comes in: we must trust that the actions are true revelations of the other or ourselves. We project an image of who we are by our actions, so if we know God’s actions, we know what it means to be made “in His image” and can act accordingly.

The second proviso is like the first: we cannot understand God without considering the action that is Jesus Christ. John’s Gospel says “No one has seen God at any time – the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has interpreted Him.” If we want to speak truly of God, and even more importantly to know Him and thus have eternal Life, we must speak of and know Jesus Christ. This means that looking at the actions of and listening to the words of Jesus Christ will show us the “who” and “how” of God. All the stories about God in the Bible make sense in the light of Jesus Christ. So anything we read in the Bible, whether the judgment of Sodom or the Conquest of Canaan must be read with a single question in mind: “how does this story prepare for or teach about the Incarnation, the Suffering, the Death, and Resurrection of Jesus the Christ?”

We do not have time, alas, to go through the whole Scriptures to uncover this God, although if you wanted to get a start on it this afternoon, might I recommend meditating on 1 Corinthians 10? For our purposes now, though, we must concentrate on Jesus Himself as the revealer, the interpreter for us, of God. Let us briefly speak of Jesus’ teaching, his parables, and the way in which he acted as entrances into the knowledge of God the Father.

At the end of Matthew 5, in the middle of the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus says something very striking and challenging: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” What does it mean to be perfect as God is perfect? Jesus explains a few verses earlier, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you: that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?” What is God’s perfection? It is loving your enemies. While often our reading of the Old Testament is overwhelmed by the scenes of judgment, here Jesus puts a spin on it that we might not have expected: even the wrath of God is meant to bring salvation. God brings judgment, most often it seems on His people, not because He is vindictive or controlled by anger (these are human ways of wrath); but as a loving Father who disciplines in order that Israel might turn from death to Life, from Satan to God. This can be seen clearly, and poignantly, in the book of Ezekiel.

In the midst of the people’s most egregious rebellion, which is detailed in the early chapters of the book, God decides to leave the Temple – to forsake it and allow evil forces to overrun it. The people have started worshipping other gods there, which the only true God cannot abide. So, in chapter 10, the glory of God departs from the Temple. It seems that God has finally forsaken His people. They have become His enemies, so He has left them. Where, though, has He gone? Ezekiel makes it a point to mention that the cherubim, the angels, that carry the glory of God out of the Temple are “the living creatures I saw by the River Chebar.” In Ezekiel 1, he has the vision of these cherubim carrying God’s glory in Babylon, with the exiles who mourn there. God has left the Temple, that is true; God has judged His people with exile, that is true; but God has followed them into exile. “Thus says the Lord God: ‘Although I have cast them off far among the nations, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet I shall be a little sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone” (Ez. 11:16). The Apostle Paul puts it in these words, “God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…for…when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son…” (Rom. 5:8, 10). While we were enemies, opposed to God, with the “wrath of God revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness” upon us, God sent His Son to be incarnate, to lead us to truth, to die for us, to rise for us, and to go prepare a place for us. Who is God? The One who loves His enemies. “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” We must ask, then, who are our enemies? And how can we treat them with justice, mercy, and love – which always involves calling them into a transforming relationship with the One who is justice, mercy, and Love. Then we shall be like God.

While there is much more to be said about Jesus’ teaching, we should shift our focus shortly to His parables. These stories, at once very simple and complex, continue to speak to us, to disarm us, and to remake us, even though we do our labor in a context that often seems far away from fishermen, slaves, and banquet-inviting kings. The Prodigal Son, a well-known and beloved parable, acts in such a way, especially as it reveals to us God the Father through the Son.

The outline of the parable is well-known. A brash and arrogant son says, in effect, “I wish you were dead, dad; can I have some money?” The father, oddly, agrees and sends his wayward boy off with half of his largesse. The son wastes his living on “riotous living” and prostitutes, ending up in the worst place a young Jewish boy could: a Gentile pig farm, begging the pigs for food, “and no one gave him any” (Lk. 15:16). At this point the boy “came to himself” and decided to be but a mere slave in his father’s household. However, the father sees him coming afar off and runs out to him, welcoming him, waving away his self-deprecation, and restores him to full sonship, complete with a homecoming feast. The older brother, whom we have not heard from so far, protests that the father has treated him – the “good boy” – as a slave; never even supplying him with a goat so that he and his friends might party. The father replies, “Son, you are always with me and all that I have is yours.”

This story, in the midst of a few parables about finding that which was lost, is poignant and tender. This is a father that, even in the midst of utter rebellion, loves his son: he daily watches for his repentance, not so that he can be made to feel guilty or ashamed (the son takes that role on himself), but rather so that he can be fully restored to the household. He is also the father that loves the son who never leaves – but that son never really knew his father! He assumed that he was cold and miserly, rather than open-hearted and generous. “Son, you are always with me and all that I have is yours” is something no Christian should ever forget.

This story is told in response to the grumbling of the religious leaders over Jesus’ acceptance of tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners and outcasts. How could he bring these unclean into God’s fold? Jesus’ response, about his work, is the story of the father. Jesus here is explicitly linking his own work of welcome to the work of the Father God. The sinners were the younger brother; the religious leaders were the older brother. Jesus takes the role of the welcoming, running, embracing Father. The Son truly reveals the Father. Whatever we see Jesus doing is what God is doing. Since Jesus makes us sons of God, both males and females sharing in this status, what the world see us doing should lead them to see what God continues to do. This is a challenging charge, but God promises us that He is “conforming us to the image of His Son” as Paul says in Romans 8.

Many other parables could be multiplied to show who God is: often stories convey truth better than propositional statements. It is one thing to be told, “God is Love,” it is another thing to hear the story of a father running to embrace his son that, at their last meeting, had wished his premature death. Let us go on, then, to the ultimate revelation of God the Father: the life of Jesus Christ.

In John 14, Jesus is speaking very deep truths to his disciples. He is about to depart to the Cross and the tomb: it is time for him to reveal who he truly is. He says, “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.” His disciple Philip retorts, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.” I find that a strange thing to say. Let us remember Exodus 33, where God tells Moses “no man may see My face and live.” Philip saying, “it is sufficient for us” seems an odd request. Yet listen to Christ’s reply: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father…” To know God, we must know Jesus Christ. If we know Jesus Christ, we have seen and know the Father. If we know the Father, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent, we have eternal life. What does the life of Jesus, then, reveal to us about God the Father?

The ultimate event in Jesus’ life, which all the Gospels speak about, is his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection. The Gospels differ on many things, some stories are told here and omitted there, some parables are highlighted there, while others are neglected here, and so on. But all of them address the suffering, the crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the Son reveals the Father, then this is the most important piece in the puzzle. God the Father cannot be known without the Cross and Resurrection – these events are the fullest revelation of His character. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself…” “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as the mercy-seat by his blood…” and so on. God is revealed as One who went through death for His creatures, that they might be brought back to Him. This is one step further than the father in the Prodigal Son: whereas that father waited for the son to come to his senses, this Father goes while we were “ungodly, sinners, and enemies” to do what we didn’t even want to do. We preferred darkness to the light of God, as John 1 says, and so crucified our God who wanted only our resurrection. Yet what we intended for evil, God intended for good. By going through death, but not deserving it as He never sinned, He trampled down death and raised us up with Christ on the third day. Now we wait for the fullness of that resurrection, expectantly and joyfully, even in the midst of the continuing pain and suffering we face. We can have full assurance of this because God has already done it. Believing this is faith: this is knowledge of the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.

Through this faith, which is nurtured and guarded by the Church, which is the Body of Christ Himself, we are being remade into the likeness of God, partaking in the divine nature. Time fails us to go any deeper into this, but one thing must be said. If we know God, we know that we must be like Him – we must do the works of God. But, how can we, who are still so weak and prone to sin, do this? God has already done it: we have spoken of the Father and the Son, let us close with a moment on the Spirit, the Breath of God. Our natural breath is our life: if we cease breathing, we cease living. God’s Spirit is His Life, given to us – we have the very Life of God within us, guiding us, loving us, making us more like Christ. All the ways of God are found in Him – we must submit ourselves daily to this Spirit, ask to be filled to the fullest brim with Him, that we might be who and what God has made us to be: in His image and likeness. Paul, in Ephesians 5, lays this out clearly: he talks of how wives should treat husbands and husbands wives, children and parents, parents and children, slaves and masters, masters and slaves. His description breaks down unjust social patterns that these folks living in the Greco-Roman culture would have found second nature. [Extemporaneous about how Ephesians 5 does this – you’ll have to listen to the audio recording] But how is this possible? Note verses 15-21: “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time for the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of God is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God.” We can live out a godly life, reflecting and showing forth His image and likeness, if we are filled with the Spirit, which Paul connects to living a life of worship: singing to God, giving thanks, and mutual submission. This is how God Himself lived while on earth and this is how He calls us to live as well: to do so is to partake of His divine nature and to truly be sons and daughters who reveal the Father to a world that must “come to its senses,” just as the Prodigal Son did. The Life, lived and given to us by Christ, reverses what Adam did. Through one man came death, through Christ came Life and he has entrusted us to bring this Life to the world, to the glory of God the Father, who so loved the world. May God do this in and through us to the glory of His Name and the salvation of the world. Amen.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Theotic Politics

I was talking to a friend tonight about the sad state of local politics here in Beaver Falls. I won't go into details, for they are already well known to any observant local here. Things do not change with any ease. One of the features, though, that stuck out in our discussion is that the goal or telos of government (local or otherwise) is quite murky as of late. Possibly, although I am no expert or pundit on matters political, this is the reason that I have seen neither Obama nor Romney signs in peoples' yards: the finish line being represented by either of those candidates is chilling.

I digress, though. When speaking of ends, or goals, we are necessarily speaking theologically, for a goal assumes a structure, and a structure assumes an Architect (I am aware that this is a controversial thing to say, however the chaos of modern Evolutionary theory is self-referentially incoherent, so I have no reason to countenance it as a viable option). The telos of all life, whether we are speaking of the specifics of "the art of living together" or not, is to be united to God, to have God's Life work in and through us: to be filled with His light and love to the utmost brim. In a word, theosis. We are to be by grace what Christ Himself is by nature. I have argued that elsewhere on this blog. While I initially chaffed at the doctrine, I have come to see that it is the Chestertonian "Golden Spike" that fits the hole in the world, perfectly.

If theosis is the ultimate goal, that God might be "all in all" (I Cor. 15) for Christ "fills everything in every way" (Eph. 1) already, then that has political implications, especially at the structural level. Our "art of living together" is supposed to work towards the filling of our social and civic life with God's Life. Our societas is to be an outpouring and indwelling of the holy Spirit. All levels of government, from the basics of self-government (ascesis) to magisterial government, are to be oriented (and Romans 8, I think, can be argued to assert that they are already oriented: "predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son") towards this telos.

The cash out of this (and I do realize that I am painting with broad brush strokes -- this is a blog, after all) is that our local life together here in Beaver Falls is oriented wrongly. It is not theotic. And if something is not theotic, not oriented towards filling the world with God's Life, then it is oriented towards death. There is no other option. Death, certainly, doesn't happen in a day at the civic level, but I think it would be hard -- if not impossible -- for any denizen of Beaver Falls to argue that we are not in a state of civic death. Part and parcel of this must be the realization that holding onto the past, the "good old days" of steel mill prosperity and abundance, must stop. They were not "good old days" because they were not theotic: they partook of human avarice (let us not forget that greed is still a capital sin), a debasement of the human person via industrial drudgery, and a destruction of the necessary natural capital of the area (the water, the air, and the land still bear scars and are choked with poisons of various sorts). If Beaver Falls, and anyplace, is to be full of life, it must be full of Life. Our old way of life, that life that pines for material prosperity at any cost, must be put to death on Christ's cross. God forgive us for not doing that as of yet.

The first rule of theotic politics is "love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind and strength"; the second is like unto it, "love your neighbor as yourself." How shall we love God and neighbor politically? It involves putting our political aspirations, both individual and corporate, to death: do we want the "good old days"? This dream must be forsaken. Instead, we must "do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God." We cannot bring Beaver Falls to life, or to Life; God must do that through His Body, the Church. However, the politicos and concerned citizens can take two concrete actions for that to happen: join the Church and clear away the impediments to the Church's work. In the midst of that, they will see that taxes do not need to be what they are, nor do we need to kill business proposals through a thousand qualifications, but rather we must trust that the Spirit is working in our political freedoms to start businesses, to raise families, to clean up our environs, and to worship God.

Theosis does not happen in a day, it is a constant struggle: but we are called to nothing less.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Coming full circle

It really seems, given some recent developments in the "Reformed Catholicity" camp (see here and here, that this post isn't far off the mark, even though certain things I said in it have to be matured or rejected. Authority, or more properly the multiple authorities with which Christians have to do, continues to be the touchstone issue of Protestantism.

More rethinking is needed, but more on this anon.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Review: Early Christian Attitudes Towards Images

Steven Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes Towards Images (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute), 2004.

Dr. Steven Bigham has done the theological world a great service with his readable, concise, and well-argued little book. One does not have to go far on the internet, especially if one is associated with the "Reformed Catholicity" movement that sprang out of the defunct "Federal Vision" movement in the Reformed Christian world, to see back-and-forth on the question of early Christian (and therefore normative) attitudes and views towards the use of images liturgically. This seems to be because some (many?) who tred the Mercerburg-Moscow road end up crossing either the Tiber or the Bosphorus, both locations having well-developed iconographic traditions. Responses by the leading theologians of the movement (such as Peter Leithart or James Jordan) often include statements to the effect that early Christians were universally opposed to figurative art being used liturgically, as that would constitute idolatry. If that is what the early Christians believed, this would be a linchpin argument for Reformed scholars over against the Tradition of both Rome and the Orthodox. Bigham, however, puts the lie to this line of argumentation: every Reformed scholar should carefully consider this book and the argument presented.

Bigham's argument is simple enough: determine whether or not early (from AD 33-313) Christians were aniconic and iconophobic; that is, whether they had any images (whether liturgical or not) and, if not, was it because imagery was viewed as essentially idolatrous. He does this by examining two major parts of any iconoclastic argument: the "hostility theory" and a "rigorist" (a favorite word of Bigham's) interpretation of the 2nd Commandment.

The "hostility theory" states "that the early Christians had no images and were hostile to them because their religion forbade figurative art" (1). Most scholars, especially those from Protestant backgrounds (although Bigham notes various Roman Catholic scholars who also hold to this point), hold to some form or other of the "hostility theory." This raises the question: if the early Christians were uniformly and universally anti-image (aniconic), then how did the iconic tradition, codified in the 7th Ecumenical Council, get such a strong and enduring footing in the Church of Jesus Christ? The dominant theory, which one can see in much Reformed scholarship on Church history, is that the conservative clergy (who were more loyal to the Jewish aniconia that they inherited) bowed to popular pressure from the laity, which was unwilling to jettison their pagan ways upon entry into the Church. After time, especially after the linking of Church and Empire with the conversion of Constantine (and its aftereffects), the clergy joined the party and even came to defend and promote the use of liturgical images.

However, Bigham notes, "The strength or weakness of the modern form of the hostility theory, as well as of Byzantine iconoclasm itself, depends on whether an icon is distinguished from an idol, veneration from worship" (9). An icon is honored (or venerated) due to the role of those pictured in redemptive history (in which I include Church history, since Christ is still redeeming the world through His people); God alone is worshipped. Veneration is visual, worship is not (since God the Father is invisible); Christ is venerated and worshipped together, since He is theandros -- this, of course, is one of the more controversial claims of any iconodule, a lover of icons. If an icon is an idol, then the clergy-laity split not only is the only workable theory, but also one of the greatest tragedies of Church history. This raises the question of whether or not the holy Spirit is actually guiding Christ's Church into all truth. Bigham rejects this theory based on the close differentiation between an icon (to be honored because of who is pictured) and an idol (which claims to at least represent a god or God the Father). The early Christians (or, at least, the bishops and lay teachers: the run-of-the-mill lay Christian did not leave writings for us, but they did leave Church art) were implacably opposed to idolatry, which all parties (Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic) agree on. However, and this is the brunt of Bigham's work, they were not opposed to "non-idolatrous figurative art" (as Bigham normally describes it), even in the context of the Church's liturgy. He argues this by going through all relevant early Church sources, both written and non-written (painting, mosaic, sculpture), and determining the attitude towards art being presented. In each case, with the possible exception of one possibly inauthentic letter in Eusebius' corpus, the early Christians either are silent concerning non-idolatrous art or speak positively concerning it. Part of the problem, Bigham argues, is that "hostility theorists" come to the table with a set of errant presuppositions that color their reading of the evidence.

By the end of the book, it is obvious that non-idolatrous art was not a major concern of early Christian writers. Idolatrous art, of course, is and will continue to be till the establishment and conquest of Christendom. To argue that early Christians uniformly were aniconic or iconophobic is a misreading of the evidence based on faulty presuppositions. Where, though, do these faulty presuppositions come from? Bigham argues a falsely "rigorist" interpretation of the 2nd Commandment.

"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them..." Thus speaks the 2nd Commandment, which seems to forbid any figurative art, not just idols ("or any likeness..."). However (and Bigham doesn't argue from the Masoretic or Septuagintal text grammatically here, which would only bolster his case), the Old Testament itself should give pause to any such "rigorist" interpretation: five chapters of Exodus later, God Himself commands golden cherubim ("in heaven above") to be crafted for His glory, cherubim to be woven on the tabernacle linens, a bronze serpent to be made for the healing of His rebellious people, and so on (25-32). For adherents to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), which many Reformed people are, this should give pause. The point of the 2nd Commandment isn't the forbidding of images, whether liturgical or not, but rather the forbidding of idols, that which is worshipped instead of God. God Himself, in the Old Testament at least, is not to be figured artistically, but (and this is the point of St. John of Damascus) since God has appeared in the flesh, giving His own icon (or image, as in, "He is the image of the invisible God" from Colossians 2 and elsewhere), we are now allowed to make liturgical use of it. Bigham does not get into what the proper liturgical use of non-idolatrous art is (a debate that I, at least, consider far from over, at least as far as Protestant-Orthodox dialogue goes), but does set the stage for fruitful dialogue. Early Christians did not have a problem with non-idolatrous figurative art, nor did they interpret the 2nd Commandment in a "rigorist" (RPW-like) way; rather, there are more questions and further research that needs to be done, especially on how such images should be "used" in a liturgical context.