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.

Monday, October 23, 2017

“Stop Making My Father’s House a Marketplace”: The Dangers of Commodifying Worship

This is the first in a series of theological reflections based on the Gospel according to St. John.
In modern society, the market is everywhere. In past generations, people took on the role of consumer when they physically went to the marketplace. Now, the market is almost omnipresent. We act as consumers on our cell phones, televisions, and computers from the comfort of our own homes.
Unfortunately, the market is seeping into sacred space as well. Megachurches are being built to look like big box stores or warehouses. Some of them may even have a Starbucks. If there’s a bookstore, you can purchase a Joel Osteen book or a tacky Christian shirt that plays on contemporary brands (my personal favorite is the red and yellow shirt with a golden “n” that says “Noah: I’m floodin’ it”).
Even in the services, too many modern churches are shifting away from any sort of traditional liturgy. Parishioners sit in theater-style seats in drab, neutral colored auditoriums devoid of significant religious symbolism. The time of worship is really more of a concert, complete with a light show that would make many bands jealous. The sermon looks more like a stand-up comedy special or a motivational speech.
I realize I am painting with a rather broad brush. Not every contemporary church has a Starbucks and they may have really genuine times of worship. However, this is the current trajectory many mainstream Evangelical churches seem to be on. The point is not to say these features are inherently sinful. Rather, it is to say they are unwise because they are commodifying worship.
Jesus encountered a similar problem in his own day. John 2:13-25 recounts his visit to the Temple in Jerusalem where he saw merchants inside selling animals to be sacrificed to the crowds who were visiting to worship. Jesus’ reaction might seem extreme to us (vv. 15-16; NRSV), “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’”
Jesus is not just angry that the traders are being exploitative in their practice, a problem the Israelites had as far back as the Old Testament (see Amos). Jesus’ problem with the merchants in the Temple is that they were there at all.
In fact, he may be alluding to Deuterocanonical Wisdom literature. Sirach 26:29 states, “A merchant can hardly keep from wrongdoing, nor is a tradesman innocent of sin.” Or maybe he has Sirach 27:2 in mind, “As a stake is driven firmly into a fissure between stones, so sin is wedged in between selling and buying.” Either way, Jesus’ point is clear: commodification does not belong in sacred space.
Robert Webber, former professor of worship at Wheaton, sees this problem in the modern Church, “Evangelicals face a crisis in worship and theology. Evangelicals, who have a high regard for a theology that is biblical, need to be particularly concerned about their worship. If worship shapes believing, then evangelicals, of all people, should be committed to a worship that is biblical.”
Instead of viewing our worship as a commodity, we should view it as a means to be in relationship with our Creator who took on flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). How are you viewing your worship? Is it a commodity that only serves to entertain you? Or is it a way of being in intimate relationship with the same Lord who strongly seeks to be in relationship with you?

Monday, September 4, 2017

Against Theological Minimalism

Modern Christians like to clearly distinguish between "nonessential" and "salvation" issues. Certainly this dichotomy does exist. Divisions in the Church grieve our Lord (John 17:11). Still, the tendency of minimizing the importance of some issues can be described as "theological minimalism." Maybe some issues aren't essential but they are important.

There are great Christians who are Calvinists and great Christians who are Arminians. There are great Christians who practice paedobaptism and great Christians who practice credobaptism. Yet these are mutually exclusive positions that cannot be simultaneously correct. Theological minimalism is the inclination to paper over these discussions as "nonessential" issues. The question then becomes which is our priority: unity or truth? The answer has to be truth because without it, we only risk "unifying" around falsity.

All truth flows out of God. As a result, one of the main goals for Christians is to pursue that truth with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. Theological minimalism dilutes our theology by creating a hierarchy of "important issues" versus "non important issues," ignoring the fact that all theology is interconnected. For example, one would be hard pressed to divorce their ecclesiology and sacramentology. All these issues reflect fundamental convictions about the nature of reality.

So in the end, we shouldn't be so eager for unity that we downplay the vitality of truth. More than that even, we should oppose any sort of theological minimalism that tells us these are unimportant discussions.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"Making Nothing Into Words": Perelandra's Anticipation of Progressive Theology and the Loss of Meaning

C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was recently used to defend Eugene Peterson's recent public discussion of openness to performing LGBT weddings (which has subsequently been retracted). As a giant of the faith, C.S. Lewis is claimed by both liberal and conservative Christians as a champion of their ideals, much like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Pope Francis.

This raises an interesting question: would Lewis' underlying philosophy and theology allow him to travel the same road as former conservatives who become leaders of Christian progressivism like Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Peter Enns, etc.?

Anyone familiar with Lewis' grounded classical worldview would, in fact, see him as mutually exclusive with the progressive mentality in general though there are certainly some issues where he could most likely find some common ground. However, in Perelandra, the second installment of his Space Trilogy, he provides an explicit warning against progressive thinking in the character of Weston.

According to apologist Alisa Childers, there are five symptoms of progressivism in theology: a lowered view of the Bible, emphasizing feelings over facts, essential Christian doctrines are open to renegotiation, historic terms are redefined, and there is a paradigm shift from sin and repentance to social justice.
All of these markers appear in Weston's character in Perelandra which is the second installment of The Space Trilogy. In it, the main character, Ransom, is taken to the newly inhabited edenic world of Perelandra (what we call Venus). He is tasked with preventing Weston, the returning nemesis from the first book Out of the Silent Planet, from perverting this new world by causing a "fall."

In Out of the Silent Planet, Weston espouses a kind of vulgar and transparently bombastic modernity that is intent on exploiting Malacandra for the progress and preservation of humanity, ignoring its hnau, sentient and conscious lifeforms that, while not human are persons:  
"To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race. Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and bee-hive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization—with our science,     medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower."
He exemplifies the utilitarian secular scientific progressivism so prevalent before the violence of the 20th century. 

However, there is a switch in Weston’s ideology between the first book of the Space Trilogy and the second. See how Weston explains his new-fangled philosophy to Ransom:
    
“all my life I had been making a wholly unscientific dichotomy or antithesis between And and Nature—had conceived myself fighting for Man against his non-human environment…I had been content to regard Life as a subject outside my scope. The conflicting views of those who drew a sharp line between the organic and the inorganic and those who held that what we call Life was inherent in matter from the very beginning had not interested me. Now it did. I saw almost at once that I could admit no break, no discontinuity in the unfolding of the cosmic process. I became a convinced believer in emergent evolution. All is one. The stuff of mind, the unconsciously purposive dynamism, is present from the very beginning…The majestic spectacle of this blind, inarticulate purposiveness thrusting its way upward and ever upward in an endless unity of differential achievements towards an ever-increasing complexity of organization, towards spontaneity and spirituality, swept away all my old conception of a duty to Man as such. Man in himself is nothing. The forward movement of Life—the growing spirituality—is everything. I say to you quite freely, Ransom, that I should have been wrong in liquidating the Malacandrians. It was a mere prejudice that made me prefer our own race to theirs. To spread spirituality, not to spread the human race, is henceforth my mission. This sets the coping-stone on my career. I worked first for myself, then for science; then for humanity; but now at last for Spirit itself—I might say, borrowing language which will be more familiar to you, the Holy Spirit…I mean that nothing now divides you and me except a few outworn theological technicalities with which organized religion has unhappily allowed itself to get incrusted. But I have penetrated that crust. The Meaning beneath it is as true and living as ever. If you will excuse me for putting it that way, the essential truth of the religious view of life finds a remarkable witness in the fact that it enabled you, on Malacandra, to grasp, in your own mythical and imaginative fashion, a truth which was hidden from me…I have no doubt that my phraseology will seem strange to you, and perhaps even shocking. Early and revered associations may have put it out of your power to recognize in this new form the very same truths which religion has so long preserved and which science is now at last re-discovering. But whether you can see it or not, believe me, we are talking about exactly the same thing.” 

Also, when Ransom brings up the difference between God and the Devil, Weston simultaneously decries and redefines dichotomous thinking: 

“Now your mentioning the Devil is very interesting. It is a most interesting thing in popular religion, this tendency to fissiparate, to breed pairs of opposites: heaven and hell, God and Devil. I need hardly say that in my view no real dualism in the universe is admissible; and on that ground I should have been disposed, even a few weeks ago ,to reject these paris of doublets as pure mythology. it would have been a profound error. The cause of this universal religious tendency is to be sought much deeper. The doublets are really portraits Spirit, of cosmic energy—self-portraits, indeed, for it is the Life-Force itself which has deposited them in our brains…Your Devil and your God are both pictures of the same Force. your heaven is a picture of the perfect spirituality ahead; your hell a picture of the urge which is driving us on to it from behind. Hence the static peace of the one and the fire and darkness of the other.  The next stage of emergent evolution, becoming us forward, is God; the transcended stage behind, ejecting us, is the Devil.”

So what parallels exist between Weston’s thinking and the definition of progressive theology? All five standards are present but some are more prevalent than others. One can certainly see a lowering of the Bible in Weston’s train of thought even though he never explicitly claims it. However, if you really read what it is he’s arguing for, there’s no way to reconcile it with the Scriptures unless you begin to play fast and loose with them. He doesn’t discuss feelings and facts though his argument is more contingent on a kind of sophistry that has to twist Reason to be effective. There’s no discussion of social justice per se either. The strongest parallels between Weston and progressives lies in the fact that essential Christian doctrines are open to renegotiation and historic terms are redefined. 

For example, take Weston’s definition of the Holy Spirit juxtaposed against an orthodox understanding of him. To Weston, the Spirit is, "The forward movement of Life—the growing spirituality—is everything.” There’s no real creature/creator distinction. Everything is the Spirit and the Spirit is everything. It’s the forward movement of Life, the catalyst for progress and progress itself. Of course, this is just a misappropriation of the classical Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity who is, according to the Nicene Creed, “The Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeded from the Father [and the Son]; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spake by the Prophets.” There’s also a redefinition of heaven and hell. Heaven is a vision of progress. Hell is the driving force. God and Satan being to look scarily alike


The point is this: orthodox theology recognizes the objectivity of Truth. It sees Truth as engrained into the very fabric of reality. It comes from God and points us back to God. In Progressive theology, there is a redefinition of these truths. It becomes nominalist. Those words laden with meaning for the historic Church become placeholders for trendy fads and ideas. Theology is not a way to relate to God so much as a way to individually and culturally construct the world. When the very core of our beliefs become subject to constant revisionism, there is a serious loss of meaning. Ransom diagnoses the problem with Weston (and with progressive theology in general, one might add): “You had nothing to say about it and yet made the nothing up into words.” 

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Double Bind for Determinists: Escaping Piper's Theodicy

There are some tough passages in the Old Testament. A good example is Joshua 8:16-25 (NRSV):
So all the people who were in the city were called together to pursue them, and as they pursued Joshua they were drawn away from the city. There was not a man left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel; they left the city open, and pursued Israel.
Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Stretch out the sword that is in your hand toward Ai; for I will give it into your hand.” And Joshua stretched out the sword that was in his hand toward the city. As soon as he stretched out his hand, the troops in ambush rose quickly out of their place and rushed forward. They entered the city, took it, and at once set the city on fire. So when the men of Ai looked back, the smoke of the city was rising to the sky. They had no power to flee this way or that, for the people who fled to the wilderness turned back against the pursuers. When Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city and that the smoke of the city was rising, then they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. And the others came out from the city against them; so they were surrounded by Israelites, some on one side, and some on the other; and Israel struck them down until no one was left who survived or escaped. But the king of Ai was taken alive and brought to Joshua.
When Israel had finished slaughtering all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and when all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai, and attacked it with the edge of the sword. The total of those who fell that day, both men and women, was twelve thousand—all the people of Ai.
 Christians have been wrestling with these passages and the tension they create with some of Jesus' teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Some Christians, like Peter Enns, have straight up denied the historicity of these conquest accounts and made claims that Israel was merely projecting these commands onto God. Others, like Greg Boyd, have taken a "missionary God" approach paired with a "cruciform" hermeneutic that subverts violent imagery in the Old Testament through the cross (sort of a Barthian reading on steroids).

While both those attempts are severely lacking, deterministic theologian John Piper has an interesting way to handle this issue that may fail harder than the other two: 
It's right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.
God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God's hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.
So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing.
To a determinist, whatever happens occurs because God willed it to be so. The problem is that there is no real stable basis for the categories "good" and "bad" (a critique I have made elsewhere).  On that basis alone, Piper's theology is problematic. However, this specific issue creates a double bind in which this lack of coherence in the nature of God is only one of the potential failures of his system.

In order to understand the problems, first, let's take a look at some of the surrounding facts of the conquest narratives:
  • God sends signs and plagues ahead of Israel to drive the pagans out of the land (Exodus 23). 
  • The rhetoric in most of the promises pertaining to the conquest seems more concerned with driving the other nations out of the land rather than extermination.
  • Rahab clearly responds to the revelation of God through his actions (Josh 2:11). 
True to his nature, God communicates to the pagan nations and gives them plenty of time to turn from their wicked ways. Of course, if you keep reading into the book of Joshua, it becomes evident that the people in the land did not listen to God and experienced his judgment as a result.

So here's the double bind. First, if Piper is right and God's eternal will before the foundation of the world was to "slaughter" the occupants of the land, he risks failing the Euthyphro dilemma because God willing mass killing is arbitrary. To reconcile this, one has to create an extra-biblical "hidden will" of God which can contradict his revealed will.

Second, if one avoids the arbitrariness argument, then it raises some issues for a doctrine like irresistible grace. God communicates to the people of the land through a series of warnings, expressing his desire that they need not be killed. The people fail to respond, however, creating serious cognitive dissonance.

If you're interested in getting a good answer to many of the problematic passages in the Old Testament, a good place to start might be Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan's book Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. There's lots of good Christian responses to these issues. Don't fall into the Piper (or Enns or Boyd) trap.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Prevenient Grace According to Leo the Great

I have been discussing the concept of prevenient grace some on this blog. As a reminder, prevenient grace in non-Calvinistic soteriological systems is how God initiates relationship with humans. He enables them to accept his gift of salvation. One of the arguments levied against those who advocate prevenient grace is that it is unbiblical and a late invention. While the biblical debate is an important one, it is also important to establish a catholic foundation for prevenient grace through the writings of the Church Fathers. Today, we will look at an example of prevenient grace in a sermon by Leo the Great.

St. Leo the Great (400-461) was the Bishop of Rome. One of his major accomplishments was dissuading Atilla the Hun from invading Italy. He is also considered by Roman Catholics to be a Doctor of the Church and was an important rhetorical combatant against a number of heretics.

In his Sermon 22.5, he discusses the benefits of the Incarnation and Atonement for the Christian. Here is what he says (emphasis added):
Whoever you are, if you devoutly and faithfully boast in the name of Christian, value this atonement rightly. You were a castaway, banished from the realms of paradise, dying of your weary exile, reduced to dust and ashes, with no more hope of living. But by the incarnation of the Word, you were given power to return from far away to your Maker, to recognize your parentage, to be free when you had been a slave, to be promoted from an outcast to a son. Now you, who were born of the flesh, may be reborn by the Spirit of God. You may gain by grace what you did not have by nature, and--if you acknowledge yourself as the child of God by the spirit of adoption--you may dare to call God Father.
Leo sees that Christ's Incarnation and death provides the means for God to make the first move towards us. Yet, according to Leo, this is a possibility, not an inevitable reality. One may not accept the gift but God gives us the ability to.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Sacraments Aren't Valid Because of Me...And that's the Most Comforting Thing Ever

As a newly ordained priest, I'm still getting used to the whole concept of alter Christus. Priests stand in the breach between the congregation and God, as Moses stood in the breach between Israel and God (Ps 106:23; NRSV):
Therefore, he said he would destroy them--
had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him,
to turn away his wrath from destroying them.
Not only that, but the minster represents Christ in the liturgy. He prepares the feast of the Lord's Supper and invites the people to participate.

This raises some interesting theological questions. Christ is perfect. Priests are very imperfect. Does this invalidate the Sacrament? What if a priest secretly doubts the Gospel or is in some serious, unconfessed sin? Can they still administer the Sacraments or is the congregation "duped" into receiving something invalid?

One of the reasons relationships often fail is because of unrealistic expectations. Friendships, marriages, and many other relationships fall apart because one of the participants in the relationship expects perfection from the other allowing no room to be human. Assuming that the priest "makes or breaks" the validity of the Sacrament is just another unrealistic expectation. The priest is not the reason a Sacrament is effectual, Christ is.

One of the most relieving parts of the 39 Articles of Religion is in "Article XXVI: Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments":
Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty, by just judgment be deposed.
 Did you catch that? God has chosen to work through the Sacraments to bestow upon his people grace. He uses the common to convey the sacred. This is true of his ministers too! The imperfect is used as a vehicle for the perfect. During the Mass, the sinful, broken, wounded priest can be used by a holy God. What a picture of grace!

This isn't an excuse for priests to be immoral or lack doctrinal commitments required of orthodox Christians. This is, however a powerful reminder that God's grace prevails. Thank God it's not contingent on me and that the parishioners at our church don't have to wring their hands and hope I live a worthy life.

Even for priests...especially for priests, Luther's words ring true: simul justus et peccator. I am simultaneously righteous and a sinner. It is comforting to know the objective reality of grace in the sacraments. It's objective not because of any effort on my part but because Christ is so loving that he has bound himself to pour out grace through the Sacraments, even if the priest isn't perfect.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Prevenient Grace in St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation

In order to understand the concept of prevenient grace, one must first be aware of the history behind the doctrinal debates surrounding it. Pelagius (360-418) was an advocate of a radical theology of human freedom. To Pelagius, humans were inherently able to choose to do good. His view came with a rejection of the catholic idea of Original Sin. Pelagius was opposed by St. Augustine (354-430) who, in reaction to Pelagius, stressed the fallen nature of humanity and God's initiative in salvation. In the writings, of Augustine and the Council of Carthage, the doctrine of Total Depravity began to be codified. The Council of Carthage (418) affirmed nine beliefs in response to Pelagianism:
1. Death came from sin, not man's physical nature.
2. Infants must be baptized to be cleansed from original sin.
3. Justifying grace covers past sins and helps avoid future sins.
4. The grace of Christ imparts strength and will to act out God's commandments.
5. No good works can come without God's grace.
6. We confess we are sinners because it is true, not from humility.
7. The saints ask for forgiveness for their own sins.
8. The saints also confess to be sinners because they are.
9. Children dying without baptism are excluded from both the kingdom of heaven and eternal life.*
The doctrine of Total Depravity became the first point in the Calvinistic soteriological system of TULIP (Total Depravity/Unconditional Election/Limited Atonement/Irresistible Grace/Perseverance of the Saints). The Calvinist takes Total Depravity, that man's natural orientation is away from God and is unable to turn to him, and builds a soteriology that becomes inherently deterministic: man is unable to come to God so God, through his sovereign grace, has predestined some to receive grace. This Elect group is who Christ died for, not the whole world.

Wesleyan-Arminian theology opposes the determinism of Calvinistic soteriology but it does accept the doctrine the idea of Total Depravity. As humans, it acknowledges, we are unable to turn to God of our own accord. We are all born into original sin. Romans 3:10-12 (NRSV) points this out, "There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one."

But how do Wesleyan-Arminians acknowledge Total Depravity and claim people have free will? Answer: the doctrine of Prevenient Grace. According to the Roman Catholic Catechism (§2670), "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit. Every time we begin to pray to Jesus, it is the Holy Spirit who draws us on the way of prayer by his prevenient grace."

Prevenient Grace is distinct from saving grace and sanctifying grace. According to the United Methodist Church:
"[John] Wesley understood grace as God's active presence in our lives. This presence is not dependent on human actions or human response. It is a gift--a gift that is always available, but that can be refused. God's grace stirs up within us a desire to know God and empowers us to respond to God's invitation to be in relationship with God. God's grace enables us to discern differences between good and evil and makes it possible for us to choose good...God takes the initiative in relating to humanity. We do not have to beg and plead for God's love and grace. God actively seeks us!" 
The result of Prevenient Grace, according to John Wesley (Sermon 85) is, "the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning His will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against Him." 

Some deny the reality of Prevenient Grace because they claim it lacks biblical foundation (that's a post for another day) or because it's a new doctrinal development. However, we can see the concepts of Total Depravity and Prevenient Grace in the writings of St. Athanasius (296-373), though since he preceded Pelagius and Augustine, his categories on this topic were not as developed (heresy was the mother of invention to the Church Fathers).

Athanasius clearly acknowledge a proto-Total Depravity (On the Incarnation, I.4):

But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion...when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing.
Athanasius claims that humans are helplessly losing their essential identity as humans. He believes that God, then was placed in a "Divine Dilemma": he could either let humanity continue on its trajectory to non-existence (which he could not do on account of his love for humanity) or he could forgive humanity's sin without any kind of sacrifice (which would violate his justice). Neither alternative being doable, God sent his Son to take on flesh and take our punishment from us, "He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us" (On the Incarnation, II.8). Through this act of revelation, God has made himself knowable, providing what would later be described as Prevenient Grace (VII.43):
The Lord did come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men...for Him...the way was not merely to dwell here, but to put  Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him, and to be manifested according as they could bear it, not vitiating the value of the Divine appearing by exceeding their capacity to receive it....men could not recognise Him as ordering and ruling creation as a whole. So He takes to Himself for instrument a part of the whole, namely a human body, and enters into that. Thus He ensured that men should recognise Him in the part who could not do so in the whole, and that those who could not lift their eyes to His unseen power might recognise and behold Him in the likeness of themselves.
God makes the first move. Through the Incarnation and by grace, he has made himself intelligible to us.

Tradition is important and a vital tool which helps us understand God's Word. Here, Athanasius articulates a soteriology that has much more in common with Wesleyan-Arminianism than competing soteriological systems. Prevenient Grace is not novel. It fits much better with a catholic soteriology.

*Point 9 from the Council of Carthage is included to complete the list. It has little bearing on the discussion at hand.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Tomb as Tabernacle



If there is indeed a God, it seems the next logical question would be whether that God is knowable to us. If he is knowable, does he care about us? The Christian tradition provides us with answers to these questions. He is knowable. He does care about us. This care is not a distant kind of caring in the sense that I may “care” about whether my sports team wins their game or not. It is an intimate care that stands in solidarity with his Creation. A care that takes on real, human flesh. A care that bears our sins to make us right with our Creator.

If all this is true, we should expect to see evidence of it throughout Scripture. Over and over, God takes residence among his people. One unexpected instance of this dwelling, or tabernacle-ing, is Christ’s tomb. 

Jesus’ Birth: The Tabernacle  
 
At different points in the Old Testament the Ark, the Tabernacle, and the Temple are all vital to the Jewish faith because they contain the Divine, they are the locus where Heaven and Earth intersect. God was sacramentally present with his Covenantal People through those channels.

The New Testament opens with another important instance of God taking up a dwelling among his people: the Blessed Mother. According to Catholic Thomas Howard, “she alone had been chosen for a cooperation with the Most High that went far beyond bearing witness to the Word, as had been the office of the patriarchs, the law-giver Moses, and the Prophets. She was to bear the Word.”[1] Nevertheless, Mary’s womb continues the biblical pattern of God taking up residence among His people. Mary’s womb anticipates what is to come: the Incarnation.

In Matthew’s birth account, the author relays the angel’s words to Joseph, “[Mary] will bear a Son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save the people from their sins” (Matt 1:21; NRSV). He then offers this analysis, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us’” (Matt 1:22-23). In St. John’s Gospel, he adds a profoundly simple statement to this Incarnation event, “And the Word became flesh and lived [“tabernacled”] among us” (John 1:14). The Divine taking on human flesh is the ultimate act of solidarity and the epitome of love. Jesus’ last words in Matthew’s Gospel remind us that the Incarnation is a perpetual, history-altering reality, “I am with you always to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). 

Death and Resurrection

In the Gospels, Jesus’ birth and burial are treated as literary parallels. At Jesus’ birth, he is wrapped in linen bands (Luke 2:7). At his death, he is wrapped again in linen bands (Matt 27:59; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53). At his birth, they “laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7). At his burial, they took his body and “laid it in a tomb” (Matt 27:60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53). In Luke’s nativity narrative, an angel makes an announcement of Jesus’ birth to a group of shepherds who make a pilgrimage to Jesus’ birthplace (Luke 2:8-20). An angel also announces the resurrection to a group of women visitors at the tomb (Matt 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-10). John’s description of the two angels standing by the tomb resembles the Ark of the Covenant as well (20:11-12). If Jesus’ birth story and Incarnation alludes to the idea of “tabernacle,” could his death and burial story too?

Interestingly, Jesus was laid in a tomb that looked somewhat like a cave. Elsewhere in literature, caves are closely associated with wombs. Odysseus in a cave with the Cyclops claims he is “no-man” (Gk: oudeis). After bursting forth from the cave, he has a name (Odysseus). It is a picture of birth and clever wordplay (note how similar oudeis and Odysseus sound).

From a pre-resurrection perspective, the tomb of Christ was not a womb but an end. Some Jewish factions in Jesus’ day believed in a resurrection in the distant future (Pharisees and Martha in John 11:24). Other Jews (the Sadducees) rejected it outright. Gentiles also rejected the concept of resurrection. In Greco-Roman mythology, N.T. Wright points out, there is only story, Orpheus and Eurydice, dealing with even the possibility of resurrection and it ends on a pessimistic note.[2] The disciples themselves are pessimistic too. The two Jesus encounters on the road to Emmaus appear none too hopeful, resignedly admitting, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21a).

However, from a post-resurrection perspective, the tomb is very much like a womb. An incubator. It is, to the Christian, the last tabernacle, the last container of divinity. It is a place of waiting and, at the right moment, Christ burst forth from the grave. Rebirth is a vindication, a proclamation that He accomplished the Father’s will and destroyed death entirely (1 Cor 15). Like other tabernacles that came before it, the grave is not sufficient for holding the Divine, something the Church picked up almost immediately, as Stephen proclaimed, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (Acts 7:48). The tomb, death’s womb, was the final barrier preventing humanity from access to the Divine.

God With Us

God cannot be contained in statues or images, they are dumb and mute and crafted by human hands (Pss 115:4-8; 135:15-18; Isa 2:8; Hos 13:2). Furthermore, God cannot be contained in any building made by human hands. The Tabernacle and the Temple are obsolete, the curtain rend asunder (Matt 27:51). Not only that, but God cannot be bound to only a particular ethnicity. The Gospel has been taken to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and all the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) and now, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Ultimately, God cannot be contained by any of these things and even more, the grave. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55).

Only one thing can “limit” God. God is only constrained by love, not as an external boundary but an essential part of his nature (1 John 4:8). He cannot be what he is not. Because of his aseity, he will never cease to be love and because he is love, he will never cease to be “with us.” As Paul confidently states, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39). The whole world is, in a sense, a tabernacle. He is with us always. By reflecting on the former tabernacles, we are reminded of the universal truth that God is with us, even in the grave and that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).


[1] Thomas Howard, On Being Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 186.
[2] N.T. Wright, “The Surprise of Resurrection,” in Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened, ed. Troy A. Miller (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 77.