Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Meditations on Holy Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Tale of Two Ecumenisms?

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 13, 2015

Review of "The Bible Tells Me So"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Telos of the Creation

I'm currently rereading Al Wolter's Creation Regained (Eerdmans, 2005; second ed.), as it is a textbook in a class I'm teaching.  I chose it specifically because it was so instrumental in my becoming a Neo-Calvinist (or Reformational) in college and grad school.  I was a card-carrying Dooyeweerdian, fighting for the end of dualism, especially in theology (which, to tow the party line, was beholden to Platonic dualism or one sort or another).  Now that I'm teaching, I knew this was one book I wanted my students to read: it had been so formative for me, how could I resist?

You can never go home again.

Maybe it is the intervening years, maybe it is the changes that I went through in seminary, maybe it is my ever-deepening reading of the Fathers of the Church, I don't know.  But I find myself, over and over again, disagreeing with Wolters.  Some things I can heartily affirm: creation is good, even despite the ravaging effects of sin.  However, after that, things get dodgy.  Part of it goes to some of the tacit (worldview?) assumptions that go unexamined throughout the book.  One is that creation, as it stands, is meant to largely run as we experience it (not in its corruption from sin, but in its creational structure).  However, this opens Wolters up to the charge of an incipient deism, especially once we reach his thoughts on "salvation as restoration."  As he puts it, "redemption means restoration -- that is, the return to the goodness of an originally unscathed creation and not merely the addition of something supracreational" (69, emphasis original).  Redemption functions as a reset button, as it were, on creation.  However, this ignores the fact that the original creation was meant to run on "the addition of something supracreational," that is, God's Life.  God, who promises to be "all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28, Eph. 1:23, etc.), pours Himself out into His creation "deifying" it, to use the Patristic term.  Creation was meant to be filled by God from the beginning.  Salvation, then, cannot be about merely restoring the creation and then developing it along human lines (which is where Reformational thinking goes about its "culture making"); rather, salvation is about restoration and glorification.  Certainly, we can and should develop the creation to its potential, but if we do not realize that the point of its potential, the telos of its telos, is union with God, then we miss the point entirely.

I wonder, although I cannot prove this so do not take it as a rebuke or accusation, if all this might be the effects of the crypto-Nestoranism that plagues much of Reformed Christology (going back, some argue, to Calvin himself -- I cannot judge one way or the other).  In classical Nestorianism, the person of the Word takes on human nature without changing it or fulfilling it.  It is a "union of wills," at best.  Human nature is not raised up into theosis, or deification, or glorification (whatever you want to call it), but remains untouched by the indwelling of the Logos.  This means that, while Christ restores nature (for how could sin negatively affect His human nature after the resurrection), He does nothing else with it.  It is not a true, Chalcedonian union.  Rather, classical Christianity has held that creation is fundamentally incomplete -- and tends back to the nihil as both Sts Athanasius and Maximus the Confessor argue -- without the vivifying presence of God "everywhere present and fulfilling all things."  Creation is not enough; that doesn't mean it isn't good -- acknowledging creational limitation built into its very structure by God is not Gnosticism.  Restoration is not enough.

This gets to the second assumption that I must disagree with: sin is what is wrong with the world.  Don't get me wrong, though: sin is a problem.  But it is more of a symptom to the real problem, which is the corruption of death.  Again, St Athanasius speaks on this much more powerful than I can in his On the Incarnation.  God is Life, so to be separate from Him is to be in a state of death.  Mere biological existence (which is in line with the structural norms given by God) is now necessarily in death; something does need to be added back, which is God.  Now, death is brought into the world via sin, but, as St Athanasius says, you can repent of sin, you can't repent of death.  Christ, in His Incarnation (which includes the Cross, Resurrection, Ascension, and Session) not only defeats sin, but death as well.  It is only through His full union with human nature that this can be accomplished for us.  Death is the real problem.  Culturally, this means that mere "development" along the lines of redirected creational structures isn't enough; every discipline, every cultural endeavor, and so on must go through the Cross.  Each aspect of creation must partake of the death of Christ to be freed from the corruptive effects of sin and death.  This means that we will not, and cannot, "bring in the Kingdom" by our efforts, nor will we reach a sort of "principled pluralist" utopia.  Rather, we remain faithful in all aspects of life, bringing them again and again to the Cross, so that they might be raised on the last day (which is itself the fullness of the Crucifixion).  I haven't fully worked through the implications of this -- but it has changed the way I interact with cultural goods and norms.  One thing I know now, though, is that the fullness of the Kingdom will not be realized culturally or socially until Christ comes again -- I have officially left post-millennialism for a robust amillennialism.

More, of course, needs to be said and written.  But this brief introduction will have to suffice for now.

Apocalyptic Hopes

We will have the whole world fight against us
raise up a banner, bathe itself in our blood:
for what? to prove that it is strong, has reason
for its pride?  Oppressor and oppressed alike die;
from dust they come and to dust they return.
There is no hierarchy in the grave.

Let them beat the air, shadow-boxers all;
let us give ourselves bodily over -- the only power
they possess is to kill the body. When we cease to love
is when we kill the soul.  Fear that.  And repent.
Violence is the way of the world, the last dying gasp
and grasp upon a life we pretend to own:
filled to the brim with apocalyptic vision and heavenly hope
based on hate and subjugation.  This is not the Kingdom.

Let us dwell on the Cross, let us call out for the nails,
the scourge, the beatings -- call the thorns a true crown
true power, true prestige in mockery.  Conformed to his death
so that after a brief rest, we might rise in his light.