Wednesday, January 28, 2015


While having a chat with a student and friend today, it started to dawn on me why the Christian life is necessarily cruciform, that is, why we must daily share in the death of Christ.

The power of the enemy (Satan and the demons, and by extension those who are under their influence) is death: they can kill the body through sin; this is what happened in the Garden and is the reason why our Lord calls Satan the "first murderer" (instead of Cain).  However, since Christ voluntarily took death onto Himself (instead of being under its dominion through sin), He was able to show who He truly was by destroying that power through resurrection.  We share in that death through baptism, as St Paul says in Romans: his means death has no power over us and, if this is the case, then neither does sin, since "sin is the stinger of death" (1 Cor. 15:56).  However, since we have only the first fruits of Christ's life, the Holy Spirit who is God, and God is not yet "all in all" (God has defeated death on the Cross, but defeat in war doesn't mean pacification: the last enemy to be destroyed is death), we can -- voluntarily -- come under the power and dominion of death once again through sin.

How shall we escape this body of death?  The Lord renews us in our baptismal death, in our sharing of His Cross, through repentance.  In other words, when we die to self in baptism or repentance, we defeat again in Christ the power of the enemy.  Death can have no claim on us who repent, but rather God "will shortly trample Satan under your feet" (Rom. 16:20).

Repentance is our freedom from the oppression of death, of demons, of sin; let us join again today in the death of Christ.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Range of Inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Limits of Sola Scriptura

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

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 10, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, again, I'm stuck.