Wednesday, January 24, 2018

E.L. Mascall on Hell

E.L. Mascall was one of the most brilliant Anglo-Catholic theologians of the 20th century. In reading his book Christ, the Christian, and the Church: A Study of the Incarnation and its Consequences, one of his passages on hell really stood out to me. In fact, in the section highlighted red, he directly refutes a thought experiment I previously published where I attempted to apply the Ontological argument to the problem of hell. Hell is one of the doctrines I have always struggled with so I really appreciate his thoughts which don't compromise on orthodoxy but also maintain a strong emphasis on the love of God (VII.III):

From the Incarnation onwards the history of the world is the history of the Christian Church, and the end to which the whole process is moving is the remaking and gathering together of the whole human race through incorporation into Christ. It does appear that there will be at  the end of time some human souls who have rejected finally and irrevocably the gift of eternal life. In admitting this, I do not mean to imply that I find the doctrine of hell anything but terrible to consider; but, while we cannot say that any particular person is in hell, loyalty to the plain teaching of the Gospel compels us to recognize that the final separation of a human soul from God is a very genuine possibility. We need not hesitate to acknowledge that in the popular mind, as moulded by the stories of nursemaids of the last generation but one and the sermons of the less scrupulous type of preacher, the doctrine of hell has been so conceived as to make religion a matter of fear rather than of love, and that the torments of hell have sometimes been depicted in crude and even ridiculous ways. But, in its essence, hell simply means that a man's ultimate destiny is determined by his own decision, and in this sense we must surely agree with Mr. Eric Gill that the doctrine of hell 'implies the most stupendous compliment to man humanly conceivable.' To-day, he says, 'the doctrine of hell is not disbelieved because kind people have persuaded us that a kind God would not be so unkind, but because we have slipped down from the proud eminence upon which, with great pain and labour, religion had placed us--an eminence upon which we stood as men meriting to receive the uttermost praise or the uttermost blame--...into an easy place where we can grovel comfortably.' Hell does not, it must be repeated, imply a denial of the love of God; what marks it off from heaven is not anything in God, but the condition of the human soul. The joys of heaven, the joys and pains of purgatory, and the pains of hell all proceed from the love of God--in heaven from love returned to its fulness; in purgatory from love returned, but as yet only in part; in hell, from love rejected. 'It is terrible,' writes Martin, 'to fall into the hands of the living God, for those hands give to each man what his will has settled on.'
We are not concerned here to consider fully the doctrine of hell, but we are concerned to recognize that it is not incompatible with the truth of the Church's final perfection, the plemora which will be achieved when, after 'all things have been subjected unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subjected to him that did subject all things unto him, that God may be all in all'; the apocatastasis, or restitution of all things; the anakephaloaisois, or recapitulation of all things in Christ. For it is of the essence of the notion of hell that the damned are altogether excluded from the community of the redeemed. They do not form a kind of fringe or slum of the heavenly Jerusalem, whose presence is a perpetual reproach to it, as the depressed areas in England where a reproach to the national honor; they are not in it at all, they have ceased to count. And if it be urged that heaven will be numerically incomplete by the number of the damned, the answer must be that the perfection of heaven is not a numerical perfection anyhow. For even heaven is composed of created beings, and is therefore finite: to demand that it should be so perfect that nothing more perfect were conceivable is in effect to demand that it should not be finite at all; in fact, that it should be just God himself. There can be no a priori calculation of the number of the redeemed; that is a secret hidden with God. As de Lubac writes:
'The Church is, in fine, nothing else than humanity itself, vivified, unified by the Spirit of Christ. She was willed by God to animate creation.' Woe then to him who separates himself from her! If schism is the sin unto death, death itself, damnation, is a schism: the supreme schism, the total alienation, the decisive severance; and one which can be the lot of those who are to all appearance the most ardent enthusiasts for unity: for it many are within who seem to be without, some can be without who pass for the guardians of that which is within. Novit Dominos qui sunt jus. But, whatever may be in this respect revealed at the Last Day, one thing is certain: the Church will not enter the kingdom mutilated. In the Jewish legend, when Lot's wife had been changed into a pillar of salt, one limb after another was successively torn from her; however, by a miracle of immediate restoration, she always remained whole. So also the Church, the salt of the earth, is often maimed, but finds her limbs again. And so humanity itself: all its defections leave no void in it. They can do nothing against its fulness. As in our fleshly body the members are jointly involved in one another, so humanity will share in the destiny of him who took it as his body. Since the Head has triumphed, the whole Body, the Pleroma, will be saved.'

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Grace in the Midst of Judgment: A Lesson from the Pericope Adulterae

This is the third post in a series of theological excursions in the Gospel according to St. John. You can find the first post here and the second post here
A sobbing woman is thrown down to the dusty ground by the Jewish legal elite in front of Jesus. She knows her fate is likely going to be death by stoning. “Teacher,” the scribes and Pharisees say to Jesus, “this woman was caught in adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
The suspense is palpable. Her fate is hanging in the balance. Instead of relieving the tension of the moment, Jesus prolongs it by bending down and writing in the dirt. The crowd cranes their necks trying to see what this enigmatic Rabbi is doing. Some begin to grow restless, prodding Jesus to respond with a judgment.
In response to the badgering of the crowd, Jesus stands up. Looking at the crowd, he says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then, he bends down and begins writing in the dirt again.
Confused and ashamed, with their tales between their legs, the scribes and Pharisees begin to slink away from the scene. One by one, from eldest to youngest, they leave until the woman is alone with the doodling Jesus. Her temperament has evolved from hysterical to cautiously curious as she watches the Teacher drawing with his finger one the ground.
After what could only be described as a pregnant pause, Jesus stands up again and asks, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
Perhaps puzzled and confused, she looks around and responds, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus, with a glint of compassion in his eyes, tenderly releases her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
This brief, power-packed story is known in the academic literature as Pericope Adulterae. The preponderance of evidence points to the fact that it was not originally in the book of John. It isn’t in any of the original manuscripts. The Church Fathers do not offer any commentary on this story (and it doesn’t appear in any of the Eastern Church writings until around the 10th century). When it does appear in manuscripts, they mark it with asterisks as if to point out it may be out of place. In some manuscripts, it is placed in other parts of John or even in Luke. The language used in the story is out of place in John and may fit better with the Synoptic traditions, particularly St. Luke’s Gospel.
Despite its sketchy textual history, this story has been placed where it is for a reason. The Bible has been collected by the Church for the Church. It is part of the received traditions handed down by the Apostles. Canonical critic Brevard Childs explains the situation this way:
"In the fourth Gospel the reader is continually being instructed in the true significance of a statement of of an event, and thus put into a different position from the disciples from whom the mystery was still hidden. In this way the final redactional hand confirmed the explicit purpose of the author who wrote: 'these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name' (20:30)."
Since it has been added to Scripture, Christians should strive to understand it.
What this story conveys is a potent statement about grace in the midst of judgment. Jesus writing on the ground with his finger is important. Think about passages in the Old Testament that involve a finger writing. Perhaps the strangest and most memorable is the hand writing on the wall at King Belshazzar’s feast in Daniel 5. Another is Exodus 31:18 where Moses receives the Ten Commandments on stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God.
In John 7:53-8:11, Jesus is placed in this tradition because he also uses his finger to write. Except instead of his finger being used for judgment or legalism, he uses it to show mercy and grace. As Christians, we should be reminded of two important lessons from this story.
First, like the woman, we are all sinners who have been extended “grace upon grace” (Jn. 1:16). The Church, as Abigail Van Buren once recognized, is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.
Secondly, as recipients of this grace, we should be quick to follow Jesus’ examples and offer it to others. This is the lesson learned in 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.” By extending this to the world, we are embodying an Incarnational way of life. Are you extending this love to the people you encounter on a daily basis?

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Top 10 Books I Read (or Am Still Reading) in 2017

10) The Priest is Not His Own by Fulton Sheen

The Priest is Not His Own was required reading for me prior to my ordination to the priesthood. Archbishop Sheen was one of the most influential Roman Catholics of the 20th century and after reading this book, it is easy to understand why. This particular book reminds priests of their obligation to represent Christ in the world, living sacrificially (or "as victims," in Sheen's words).

One of my favorite quotes from the book: "Our faith is the satisfaction of the soul's desire, not the didactic presentation of a syllogism."

9) The Ninety-Five Theses and Other Writings by Martin Luther

I am fully aware of the irony of placing this book in between Fulton Sheen and G.K. Chesterton. Nevertheless, The Ninety-Five Theses and Other Writings is a valuable volume is a necessary addition to a theological library. It is a fairly straightforward presentation of some of the most essential pieces of Luther including The Ninety-Five Theses, The Heidelberg Disputation, the Preface to St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, among others. One reason this is worth reading is the hard-hitting and heart-wrenching introduction written by William R. Russell. Luther is much-maligned, being known especially for his bombastic way of speaking. However, one thing that has stuck out to me throughout this is the pastoral tone of Luther which can be quite tender and beautiful.

One of my favorite quotes in this collection can be found in Luther's letter to Melanchthon titled "Believe More Body than you Sin": "If you are a preacher of grace, then preach real and not fake grace. If grace is true, then you must bear true and not false sin. God does not save those who are only fake sinners. Be a sinner--believing and rejoicing in Christ more boldly than you sin. And do so because Christ has overcome sin, death, and the world."

8) St. Thomas Aquinas by G.K. Chesterton

This is a wonderful book about one of my favorite saints (the patron saint of my ordination in fact). It traces the details of his life as well as his theological and philosophical ideas which have been so important to the development of theology in the Western Church.

One of my favorite quotes from this book could be about some of the very social problems we are currently facing: "Chaotic negation especially attracts those who are always complaining of social chaos, and who propose to replace it by the most sweeping social regulations. It is the very [people] who say that nothing can be classified, who say that everything must be codified."

7) Silence by Shusaku Endo

Silence is a novel about Catholic missionaries who travel to Japan during the mid-1600s to bring the Church back to the people who had been deprived of their religion by the government as well as to rescue their mentor who is rumored to have apostatized his faith. It wrestles with questions about faith and doubt and how a transcendent Gospel can be changed to fit particular social contexts. The film is also worth seeing but warning: it is not for the faint of heart. This article "Empathy is Not Charity" in First Things by Patricia Snow is a great discussion of the movie.

6) The Christian Priest Today by Michael Ramsey

Michael Ramsey was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961 through 1974. He was known for being very ecumenical, making great strides in the Anglican Communion's relationship with the Roman and Eastern Churches. This book was also required reading for me leading up to my ordination. It does a wonderful job inspiring and encouraging those who are or feel called to the priesthood.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: "the Church is both divine and human. It is human, inasmuch as its members all share in our sinful and fallible human nature...It is divine, inasmuch as the principle of its life is the risen Jesus and the Holy Spirit, whose presence the sins of Christians never prevent being somewhere at work."

5) Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

This was my first time ever reading anything by Willa Cather. I loved her descriptive prose and interesting characters. It is the story of a newly consecrated Catholic Bishop who goes to the New Mexico territory of the United States in order to build a diocese.

4) Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat is a conservative Catholic columnist for the New York Times. This book is about the decline of American Christian thought from the great religious resurgences in the 1900s headed by such figures as Billy Graham, Fulton Sheen, Karl Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr to the modern pop theology of Prosperity Gospel preachers and touchy-feely "spiritual but not religious" books like Eat, Pray, Love. Even though it pre-dates Rod Dreher's Benedict Option, the two should be read in conversation with each other.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: "The secular mistake has been to assume that every theology tends inevitably toward the same follies and fanaticisms, and to imagine that a truly post religious culture is even possible, let alone desirable. The religious mistake has been to fret over the threat posed by explicitly anti-Christian forces, while ignoring or minimizing the influence that the apostles of pseudo-Christianity exercise over the American soul."

3) Christ, the Christian, and the Church by E.L. Mascall

Cranmer. Andrewes. Hooker. Jewell. Newman. Pusey. Thornton. Wright. Williams. All names exalted within the Anglican tradition for their theological acumen. Fortunately, largely thanks to Gerald McDermott, there seems to be a renewed interest in E.L. Mascall, a 20th century Anglo-Catholic Thomist whose writing is sheer brilliance.

I'm still working through this book which, according to McDermott, is effectively Mascall's systematic theology which centers on the Incarnation but delves into soteriology, sacramentology, and ecclesiology.

One of my favorite quotes thus far from the book: "There is in Christ a new creation of manhood out of the material of the fallen human race. There is continuity wit hate fallen race through the manhood taken from Mary; there is discontinuity through the fact that the Person of Christ is the preexistent Logos. In Christ human nature has been re-created by the very God who was its first creator; and the new creation is effected, not like the first creation by the mere decree of omnipotent will -- 'Let us make man in our image' --but by the Creator himself becoming man and moulding human nature to the lineaments of his own Person. Christ is this quite literally the Second Adam, the Man in whom the human race begins anew; but while the first Adam was, for all his innocence, only God's creature, the Second Adam is the Creator himself. In him human natures made afresh, and in him the mysterious distortion which succeeding generations have inherited from the man's first disobedience, and which theology knows as original sin, has no place."

2) A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

This is the most emotional book I read all year. It is the story of an old curmudgeon named Ove (whose personality I identify with). After the death of his wife, he struggles to find a sense of belonging until a family who moves in down the street changes everything. I'd go into more detail but I don't want to spoil anything. I absolutely cannot recommend this story enough.

1) The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher

How do orthodox Christians live in an increasingly secularized world? This is the question Rod Dreher answers in The Benedict Option by arguing that robust catechesis is an a priori to effective cultural engagement. Christians have long been worried about engaging the political (a la Moral Majority-esque movements) at the expense of passing on a robust faith tradition to the next generation of believers. Unfortunately, the results of this crumbling are being made evident as more people are leaving the Church than ever before and those who stay are being attracted to churches that seem to have lost their way theologically. Christians who are serious about maintaining the orthodox tradition need to read this (and not the many shoddy reviews out there by those who do not grasp its fundamental thesis).

Honorable Mentions

Saepius Officio (This isn't really a book, per se. It was the response by the Archbishop of Canterbury named Frederick Temple and William Maclagan, the Archbishop of York to Pope Leo XIII's Apostolica Curae, a papal bull which "invalidates" Anglican Orders. Not only does it teach what classical Anglicans should believe about Eucharist, ordination, and other important topics but it also shows serious deficiencies in the Roman Catholic position against Anglicanism)

Norms and Nobility by David Hicks 

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper by Brandon Pitre 

Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism by R.C. Sproul

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Bread of Life: Communion and the Christian Journey

This is the third post in a series of theological excursions in the Gospel According to St. John. You can find the first post here and the second post here

Depending on your background, the words Communion, the Lord’s Supper, and Eucharist may conjure up different images for you. If you grew up in a non-denominational church like I did, my first thought might be something like a golden plate being passed around the congregation of the church with little crackers of bread and little cups of grape juice. If you were raised Catholic, you may think of a priest in robes standing at an altar distributing Eucharistic Host and wine in a chalice.
No matter what Christian tradition you hail from, hopefully we can all agree that Communion is vital for the life of the church. In John 6:43-51, Jesus lays a foundation for the significance of the Lord’s Supper.
Now, many commentators from Protestant backgrounds see Jesus’ reference to his “body” in these verses as symbolic and some even reject that this is a reference to Communion at all.
There are some reasons to think otherwise. Jesus’ audience takes him literally and Jesus never corrects them. When Jesus speaks metaphorically in other places in John, this misunderstanding does not occur. Plus, at the end of the account, after many people have left, Jesus turns to the Disciples and asks (6:67; NRSV), “Do you also wish to go away?” Jesus does not correct any misunderstanding on this topic.
Interestingly, John’s Gospel does not contain an Institution Narrative (see Matt. 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:19-20). Perhaps, this passage and Jesus’ monologue about being the True Vine (John 15:1-17) are meant to “fill in the gaps” for the missing account.
But who cares if this passage is somehow anticipating the Christian ritual of the Lord’s Supper? Does it really matter?
I think it does. In 6:49, Jesus makes a profound contrast: in the Old Testament, the Jews were fed mana to gain physical sustenance. Jesus points to himself as a fulfillment of this event and thus the ultimate provider of spiritual sustenance. Nevertheless, there is no reason to think Jesus is “spiritualizing” here. In fact, he sees the physical (i.e. his flesh) very much integrated with the spiritual.
Communion is a time when we, as the Church, remember Christ’s death (1 Cor. 11:23-26) and present ourselves as living sacrifices at the altar (Rom. 12:1-2). It’s also a place of sustenance where we receive food for our journey.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sam and Frodo are two unlikely heroes tasked
with destroying the evil ring. As they trudge across Middle Earth to accomplish their task, they are given an Elvish bread called Lembas. In the book, it is noted that this type of bread gives more sustinence than any other food.
As they progress on their journey, and their food supply begins to dwindle, Lembas becomes their primary food, the only way for them to move forward.
Christians are also given a special food: the Body of Christ. Like Frodo and Sam needed Lembas on their quest, Christians must feed on Christ to gain strength for their pilgrimage through this life.
Too often, Communion is de-emphasized in the Church. Some congregations do it once a month. Others, once a quarter. In some places, it is even done as little as once or twice a year. This creates spiritual anemia.
The longest known period of time a human has ever gone without food was Irish political prisoner Terence MacSwiney whose hunger strike ended up lasting 74 days before dying in 1920. As humans, it is difficult for us to function without physical sustenance. Why would we try to go that long without being sustained spiritually?

Monday, November 6, 2017

“Worship in Spirit and Truth”: Lessons from Jesus’ Encounter with the Samaritan Woman

Ruins of the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim.
Photo by Carino Casas
This is the second post in a series of theological excursions in the Gospel According to St. John. You can find the first post here

My last post was about the danger of commodifying worship in which I used the story of Jesus clearing the Temple as a way to critique innovative forms of worship which seem to bring the market into the sacred space of the Church. Today, I want to spend some time looking at an example of what worship should look like using the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 where he emphasizes the importance of worshipping “in spirit and truth.”

The fact that Jesus is willing to engage the Samaritan woman is significant. The Samaritans were descendants of the peoples who were imported by the Assyrians into Central Palestine after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (721 BCE). Over time, they intermarried with Jews, which caused tension between the two groups. While they worshiped the God of Israel, Samaritans only viewed the Torah as Scripture and believed worship should take place at the Temple on Mt. Gerizim rather than Jerusalem. And it’s this underlying conflict which sets the stage for Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman.

After she dialogues with Jesus about the living water, he tells her things about her tumultuous personal life a normal stranger couldn’t possibly have known. These things make her acknowledge Jesus as a prophet but she also admits there is a problem: she is a Samaritan who believes in worshipping on Mt. Gerizim and Jesus is a Jew who worships in Jerusalem.

Instead of trying to convert her to the Jewish position on the question of Temple worship, Jesus looks forward by telling her (4:21, 23; NRSV):
Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.
God can’t be contained in human structures (1 Kgs 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6; 6:18; Acts 7:48; 1 Cor 3:16-17). The point is not where one worships but that they worship the Father through the Son. Instead of attempting to resolve the theological debate, Jesus tells her to worship in spirit and truth.

According to commentators Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV:
As the incarnate Word, Jesus himself is “the truth” (14:6), the revelation of God (18:37; see 8:40). To worship in Spirit and truth means to worship God as revealed in Jesus, who is the Truth, and animated by the Holy Spirit, who imparts new heavenly life and understanding of Jesus’ revelation.[1]
Jesus is not demeaning the importance of form and intentionality in worship. Rather, he is emphasizing that he, as the Messiah (see verses 25-26), should be the object of worship and that the Spirit must be an integral part.

Personally, there are some Sundays where I would rather sleep in or watch football instead of going to church. Even though I go every week, there are rare occasions where I’m not all there when I walk in the door.

Fortunately, through the hearing of God’s Word and participating in the liturgy, the Holy Spirit rouses me from my spiritual slumber and brings me back into focus so that I can worship in spirit and truth.

In this unexpected encounter between Jesus and the unnamed Samaritan woman, we are all taught a valuable lesson about worship. Are you worshipping in spirit in truth? Is Jesus the object of your worship? Does the Holy Spirit animate your worship? Or are you just going through the motions?
1. Francis Martin and William F. Wright IV, The Gospel of John, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 88.