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 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.