Thirsting for God 4 – Christian Relativism

Posted: December 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 4 – Christian Relativism

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

The fragmentation of truth and confusion about God within Protestantism has led it to a curious place. The following captures it well.

You don’t have to be concerned that other people have a different understanding of the truth. You just have to be true to your own convictions. One’s relationship with God is an entirely personal thing. Just live up to “the light that you have,” to what you believe the truth to be. That’s what God expects.

Initially, that laissez-faire approach to God suited me pretty well. My thoroughly pluralistic formation combined with the inclusive nature of Hinduism had shaped me into something like a hard relativist. However, I remember one day hearing someone talk about “their” Holy Spirit speaking to them and guiding them and I remember thinking, “Wait. Isn’t there one Holy Spirit? Who is so united in essence with the Father and the Son that they can be spoken of as one God?” I was recognizing the problem with Christian relativism that Matthew Gallatin outlines.

First of all, such thinking makes sincerity of conviction the key to salvation. … We can be at once sincere, and sincerely wrong!

That’s not an idle point and I like the way Matthew Gallatin draws it together.

After all, how can I think that an Arminian and a Calvinist can both have a valid relationship with the true God, unless Jesus Christ can be a different Person to different individuals? St. James is quite clear, however: in God there can be no such “variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17). The Apostles Paul assures us there is only one God, one Lord, one faith, one hope (Ephesians 4:4-6). How can there be room in the Christian faith for spiritual relativism?

Now, I feel again that it’s important to say that God is a God of love who wants to be known as he knows us. He is seeking to save, not to condemn. The Incarnation makes that as clear as it could possibly be made. It would not surprise me at all if Plato and Lao Tzu were among the first to believe when Christ preached to the spirits in Hades as he destroyed death. Within every faith, I believe there are those like Emeth in The Last Battle, who have served Aslan even as they thought they followed Tash. How much more must there be many like that in the modern fragmentation of Christianity?

But God is who he is and not who we imagine him to be. To the extent that we are trying to relate to the God we imagine rather than the God who is, we might as well be relating to an imaginary friend. Most Protestants today are Christian relativists. The core ideas of Protestantism demand precisely that result, even if it’s not immediately evident. And while that was initially comfortable for me, it became less so fairly quickly.


The Jesus Creed 11 – John: The Story of Love

Posted: September 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 11 – John: The Story of Love

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Mark 10:35-45; Luke 9:49-56; John 13.

In John’s story we see the process of learning to love. John became the Apostle of Love, but he didn’t start that way. Not even close. In fact, not once during the gospels does John show any evidence of the love for which he would later be celebrated. Read them. They tell the truth. And the truth about John shows little love.

John does learn about love. He even ties loving God and loving others together, “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” But John had a long way to go before he learned to live lovingly. In the gospels, John fails when he is tested in love. His failures are less celebrated than Peter’s denials, but I’m not sure that should be the case.

First, there’s John and James ‘request’ to let one sit on Jesus’ left and the other on his right. “If love is service (which is what Jesus goes on to explain to the brothers), then John fails in love.

Then John fails to recognize someone exorcising demons in Jesus’ name. John tries to stop them and ‘tells on them’ to Jesus. “To which Jesus gives the agelessly valuable response, ‘whoever is not against us is for us.’ Anyone following the Jesus Creed would not denounce someone who is breaking down demonic walls. Except John.

And then finally there’s John wanting to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan town refusing Jesus hospitality because he was heading for Jerusalem.

John does eventually learn love. But key to that is that he was loved and loved deeply by Jesus. How does he describe himself? The disciple whom Jesus loved. John is a slow learner, but that constant exposure sinks in.

I probably empathize and connect more with John’s story of learning love than anyone’s, though Peter’s story of conversion is a close second.  I have always loved and desired family, but love of others was never my creed. At best, my perspective was that which fulfills the Wiccan Rede: An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will. At worst, my perspective was more along the lines of: Do unto others before they do unto you.

I still don’t think I would say that I’ve learned love.  I would say that I now desire to love — to truly love as Christ loves. While that’s quite a step for me, I don’t think it counts for all that much until I actually love. Until then, I pray for mercy as the least loving of all.

It occurs to me that scattered through my posts, I mention Wicca, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and other spiritual paths. It’s unlikely that many who read will be familiar with the many threads that shape my thoughts and thus my references. As a rule, I’m more drawn to the more ancient religions. Even so, though I have never been Wiccan, I have had friends who were and it’s one of the modern spiritualities that has to one extent or another shaped my life. I still remember how struck my wife was at the final line of a Wiccan handfasting of some friends of ours many years ago. You have been married since you met. She said that line described how she felt with me.

With that in mind, for those who may have never read or heard, I’m going to share the full Wiccan Rede. I do not believe it reveals the fullness of truth or I would be Wiccan rather than Christian. But there are ways to shape your life that are much worse.

The Wiccan Rede

Bide within the Law you must, in perfect Love and perfect Trust.
Live you must and let to live, fairly take and fairly give.

For tread the Circle thrice about to keep unwelcome spirits out.
To bind the spell well every time, let the spell be said in rhyme.

Light of eye and soft of touch, speak you little, listen much.
Honor the Old Ones in deed and name,
let love and light be our guides again.

Deosil go by the waxing moon, chanting out the joyful tune.
Widdershins go when the moon doth wane,
and the werewolf howls by the dread wolfsbane.

When the Lady’s moon is new, kiss the hand to Her times two.
When the moon rides at Her peak then your heart’s desire seek.

Heed the North winds mighty gale, lock the door and trim the sail.
When the Wind blows from the East, expect the new and set the feast.

When the wind comes from the South, love will kiss you on the mouth.
When the wind whispers from the West, all hearts will find peace and rest.

Nine woods in the Cauldron go, burn them fast and burn them slow.
Birch in the fire goes to represent what the Lady knows.

Oak in the forest towers with might, in the fire it brings the God’s
insight.   Rowan is a tree of power causing life and magick to flower.

Willows at the waterside stand ready to help us to the Summerland.
Hawthorn is burned to purify and to draw faerie to your eye.

Hazel-the tree of wisdom and learning adds its strength to the bright fire burning.
White are the flowers of Apple tree that brings us fruits of fertility.

Grapes grow upon the vine giving us both joy and wine.
Fir does mark the evergreen to represent immortality seen.

Elder is the Lady’s tree burn it not or cursed you’ll be.
Four times the Major Sabbats mark in the light and in the dark.

As the old year starts to wane the new begins, it’s now Samhain.
When the time for Imbolc shows watch for flowers through the snows.

When the wheel begins to turn soon the Beltane fires will burn.
As the wheel turns to Lamas night power is brought to magick rite.

Four times the Minor Sabbats fall use the Sun to mark them all.
When the wheel has turned to Yule light the log the Horned One rules.

In the spring, when night equals day time for Ostara to come our way.
When the Sun has reached it’s height time for Oak and Holly to fight.

Harvesting comes to one and all when the Autumn Equinox does fall.
Heed the flower, bush, and tree by the Lady blessed you’ll be.

Where the rippling waters go cast a stone, the truth you’ll know.
When you have and hold a need, harken not to others greed.

With a fool no season spend or be counted as his friend.
Merry Meet and Merry Part bright the cheeks and warm the heart.

Mind the Three-fold Laws you should three times bad and three times good.
When misfortune is enow wear the star upon your brow.

Be true in love this you must do unless your love is false to you.

These Eight words the Rede fulfill:

“An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will”


Original Sin 26 – So how did this idea come to dominate in the West?

Posted: March 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 26 – So how did this idea come to dominate in the West?

The question of how the idea of original sin as inherited guilt (along with other distinct differences) rose to dominance in the Western Christian world is actually a pretty interesting historical question. In order to begin to understand it, one has to step back into the ancient world within which Christianity formed and took root. For good reason, we tend to associate Christianity with the rise of Western civilization. The two are often so deeply intertwined in our minds, that we tend to unconsciously assume that Christianity is a Western religion.

But it’s not. And the world of those first centuries was a very different one. In that world, what we call the West was the frontier of the Roman Empire. Within the context of Christianity, only one Apostolic See was established — the one in Rome. In the East, by way of contrast, there were four Apostolic sees or patriarchates: Jerusalem (the oldest), Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. (According to tradition it’s said that the Apostle Andrew founded the church that eventually became the See of Constantinople, but the actual elevation of Constantinople to the level of the other Sees probably stems from the same reason that Rome itself was originally included. They were both capitol cities of the Empire. And as the status of Rome declined, that of Constantinople rose. If the realities of political and geographic realities had not played a part in the status and importance of some of the Apostolic Sees, then one would expect to see Ephesus, for example, among them.)

By the time of St. Augustine, the division of language between the Latin West and the Greek East had become more pronounced than it had ever been before. The days of a sole emperor were largely gone and the Empire itself was more strongly divided into a Western Empire under Rome and an Eastern Empire under Constantinople than it had generally been before. The East had Persia as its biggest rival; the threat that Islam became did not yet exist. While Christianity and trade still tied East and West together, those bonds were growing weaker.

In that context, we have to add the fact that St. Augustine stood head and shoulders intellectually above anyone in the Latin West while the East retained many equal voices. Moreover St. Augustine did not write in Greek nor did he like to read Greek. Thus he did not interact with the Eastern Fathers theologically and it doesn’t seem that any of those in the East ever read St. Augustine’s theological works. It doesn’t appear that they were even translated into Greek until many centuries later. St. John Cassian (who I believe is the only Western saint with writings included, for example, in the Philokalia) did try to mediate some of the places where St. Augustine went too far, but his efforts were less appreciated in the West.

As a result, St. Augustine became the dominant interpretive voice in the West in a way that no single person ever became in the East. His interpretations eventually became the normative base for all Western theology. Protestantism rejected some of the late medieval practices and theology of the Roman Catholic Church, but they remained rooted in an Augustinian perspective of reality. If anything, they went further along the path of that perspective than St. Augustine himself ever did. Thus we get ideas like ‘total depravity’ that certainly go beyond anything St. Augustine taught.

At any rate, those seem to be the primary factors in the tapestry of divergence to my eyes. Anyone think I’m missing or overlooking anything?


Original Sin 22 – John 3:5

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 22 – John 3:5

First, here’s the text of John 3:5 for us to consider.

Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

John 3:5 refers to Christian baptism. For almost the entire history of the Church, that has been its universal interpretation across traditions. Recently, of course, some sects of Protestantism (and much of what is typically labeled today as “evangelicalism”) have interpreted the verse to refer to physical birth (water) and some sort of inner, spiritual rebirth (Spirit). But if we’re discussing St. Augustine or almost anything recorded throughout the history of Christianity, then we must read the ‘water’ as the waters of baptism and ‘Spirit’ as the Holy Spirit. The waters of Baptism, accompanied by the seal of the Holy Spirit mark our entrance into the kingdom of God as manifested on earth in the Church.

As an aside, this even impacts the architecture of our churches today. Those of you who are “evangelical” are probably accustomed to seeing the baptistry at the front of the sanctuary, so that all those seated within the church are facing it. Traditionally, however, baptisms were performed at the back of the nave or in the narthex before the entrance of the nave. This was done because baptism marked the entrance of person into the Church. One was baptized and then one entered. Churches built in a traditional manner still reflect that design.

St. Augustine used John 3:5 to say essentially that if one had to be baptized to enter the kingdom, then there had to be something in the nature of the unbaptized — even infants who had committed no willful sin — that kept them out of the Kingdom. He, of course, defined that something as the inherited guilt of original sin. Both his exegesis of the verse and his assertion that unbaptized infants are condemned run contrary to the predominant interpretation of the ancient Church.

To illustrate that, I would point to St. Gregory of Nyssa in On Infants’ Early Deaths. It’s only one example, but a good one. He first takes the time to pose the question well, pointing out the flaws in quick or easy answers. He then constructs an analogy of life around the choices available to two men with a degenerative disease of their eyes. One follows the advice and way of the doctors and purgation, however painful that might be, and is eventually healed and able to enjoy the fullness of light. The other chooses to follow what seems to be a broad path of ease and comfort, declining the necessary treatments and spending his time in comfort in the baths and eventually ends up blind, unable to perceive the light at all. From that, he says the following of infants.

Whereas the innocent babe has no such plague before its soul’s eyes obscuring its measure of light, and so it continues to exist in that natural life; it does not need the soundness which comes from purgation, because it never admitted the plague into its soul at all. Further, the present life appears to me to offer a sort of analogy to the future life we hope for, and to be intimately connected with it, thus; the tenderest infancy is suckled and reared with milk from the breast; then another sort of food appropriate to the subject of this fostering, and intimately adapted to his needs, succeeds, until at last he arrives at full growth. And so I think, in quantities continually adapted to it, in a sort of regular progress, the soul partakes of that truly natural life; according to its capacity and its power it receives a measure of the delights of the Blessed state; indeed we learn as much from Paul, who had a different sort of food for him who was already grown in virtue and for the imperfect “babe.” For to the last he says, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it.” But to those who have grown to the full measure of intellectual maturity he says, “But strong meat belongeth to those that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised…” Now it is not right to say that the man and the infant are in a similar state however free both may be from any contact of disease (for how can those who do not partake of exactly the same things be in an equal state of enjoyment?); on the contrary, though the absence of any affliction from disease may be predicated of both alike as long as both are out of the reach of its influence, yet, when we come to the matter of delights, there is no likeness in the enjoyment, though the percipients are in the same condition. For the man there is a natural delight in discussions, and in the management of affairs, and in the honourable discharge of the duties of an office, and in being distinguished for acts of help to the needy; in living, it may be, with a wife whom he loves, and ruling his household; and in all those amusements to be found in this life in the way of pastime, in musical pieces and theatrical spectacles, in the chase, in bathing, in gymnastics, in the mirth of banquets, and anything else of that sort. For the infant, on the contrary, there is a natural delight in its milk, and in its nurse’s arms, and in gentle rocking that induces and then sweetens its slumber. Any happiness beyond this the tenderness of its years naturally prevents it from feeling. In the same manner those who in their life here have nourished the forces of their souls by a course of virtue, and have, to use the Apostle’s words, had the “senses” of their minds “exercised,” will, if they are translated to that life beyond, which is out of the body, proportionately to the condition and the powers they have attained participate in that divine delight; they will have more or they will have less of its riches according to the capacity acquired. But the soul that has never felt the taste of virtue, while it may indeed remain perfectly free from the sufferings which flow from wickedness having never caught the disease of evil at all, does nevertheless in the first instance partake only so far in that life beyond (which consists, according to our previous definition, in the knowing and being in God) as this nursling can receive; until the time comes that it has thriven on the contemplation of the truly Existent as on a congenial diet, and, becoming capable of receiving more, takes at will more from that abundant supply of the truly Existent which is offered.

Yes, I know that’s quite a bit to digest, but it captures more of the essence of the common patristic view than St. Augustine did. St. Gregory also admits his ignorance.

Whether, then, the early deaths of infants are to be attributed to the aforesaid causes, or whether there is some further cause of them beyond these, it befits us to acknowledge that these things happen for the best.

Ultimately we don’t know all the answers, but we trust that God is good and that he loves us. This is what Jesus showed us in his life and it is what he taught us about God. Death is not good, but we trust that God is working to transform all things, even the evil things, into good. (Romans 8:28) And that certain applies when we face the deaths of innocent infants, baptized or not. They are safe in the hand of God and I reject any teaching and any teacher who says differently.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 4

Posted: February 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 4

The fourth chapter of Thomas Howard’s book, Prayer: Random or Discipline?, is devoted to his encounter with the Christian discipline of corporate set prayers that began when he returned to the University of Illinois for graduate studies. He began attending the daily Office of Evening Prayer at a small chapel across the street. He describes the building and makes the insightful comment that all buildings are icons. Indeed they are. In fact, I would say that everything we make, to one degree or another, is an icon of something. It seems wired into our being. That, of course, is the doom of every effort we might make at iconoclasm, even if iconoclasm were not itself a denial of the Incarnation. Howard points out again the essentially Buddhist or Manichaean nature of iconoclasm in general and its Christian manifestations in particular. There is also a false dichotomy and an improper perspective of creation that is manifested when beauty is pitted against faith or against “works” or against humility and simplicity.

Before I continue with my thoughts on Howard’s writing, if anyone is looking for something to read on prayer written by an evangelical, there are two books I would recommend (and they are the only two evangelical books on prayer I’ve read that I would recommend). The first is Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight. The second is The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. (Obviously, the latter is on the spiritual disciplines in general and not focused solely on prayer, but it does cover the discipline of prayer well.)

Howard, flowing straight from the criticism of set prayer normally found in evangelicalism, immediately addresses the accusation that such repetition must become routine, bleak, and dead. I found myself nodded at the parallel he chose.

Yes, indeed it does dry up and die, if there is no taproot of life irrigating it. Just as the utter sameness of marriage dries up and dies if love departs, so will any routine. To the libertine accustomed to woman after woman, the man who returns day after day, year after year, to the same spouse, with no variety, appears unfortunate in the extreme. We must ask the man himself how things are. He will tell us that routine is the very diagram of peace and freedom …

Indeed. Interesting is a good term for describing far too much of my life. So much so that even when I was young I understood intuitively and immediately that the wish, May you live in interesting times!, first was a curse and then why it was a curse. This year my wife and I will celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. I’ve found tremendous “shelter from the storm” in the peace and freedom and safety of our marriage.

Howard then notes a fact that has long confused me. In their rejection of set prayers, evangelicals are rejecting the very practice of Jesus, the disciples, and the church as described in the Acts of the Apostles. As I delved into Christian belief and practice, I never was able to understand how they did so.

Evangelicalism, encouraging a spirit of individual responsibility before the Bible, had made it possible for me to discount centuries of Christian practice.

Basically, if an interpretation of the Scripture of the New Testament that shows the practice of set prayers is not obvious to an individual’s own interpretation (or that of their interpreter of choice), set prayer can be disregarded, even if that particular interpretation is at odds with the overwhelming majority of historical Christian teaching and practice. (Apparently, the practice in the Old Testament or even what Jesus himself practiced makes no difference since that’s “judaism” and as such has been abolished.) I have to confess that I still don’t really grasp the nature of the mental gymnastics required for that particular chain of reasoning. I do grasp that an overriding focus on individualism seems to be the culprit.

As Howard practiced a daily office, he came to a realization that is perfectly consistent with ancient Jewish and Christian practice.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that once a day, far from being too often for devotion, was not enough.

Indeed. I owe a debt of gratitude to Brother Lawrence myself.

Howard next reflects on the way the discipline of prayer (a rule of prayer as it is often called) actually enables a person to pray consistently. The structure and order of the rule frees us to pray. Inevitably, if we approach it as an individual practice, it becomes subject to our moods and whims. Almost all of us will not always feel like praying. And even if we try to make ourselves pray, we’ll find we have nothing to say. Making prayer a rule using set prayers does not ensure that we will pray. But it does not place the burden entirely on our own mood and ability. It helps us make prayer a habit rather than something we struggle to do.

Howard notes that some people can pray freely every day of their life. Some people truly can be consistent with a daily free form quiet time. He even says that as far as he knows, his own father was such a man. But, Howard says, “He was an extraordinary man.” Most of us are not so extraordinary. It’s not just Howard and me. I’ve listened to youth and adults both describe their difficulties praying regularly and consistently over the long haul. This is a problem that permeates evangelicalism and other “enthusiastic” movements. And we do people no favors when we keep prescribing the same solution — an approach that has already failed them multiple times. Instead, we place a crushing load on them.

Howard describes in some detail a particular order of prayer. It’s worth reading, but there are many prayer books available. The first thing is to begin to pray using some sort of prayer book. You’ll still slip in and out of the habit of prayer. The merciful Lord knows I constantly fall away from my own rule of prayer. It’s not some sort of magical panacea. Consistent prayer is hard. Perhaps that’s one reason it’s called a discipline. It requires much effort to pray when you’re tired, when you’re irritated, when you feel distant from God, when you’re angry at God, when life grows hectic, or in a host of other life situations. Set prayer does not make prayer easy. Rather, it makes prayer possible.

I am thankful to the ancient Church for its wise and earthy awareness that we Christians need all the help we can get and for supplying us with so much in its Office and in its other forms of set prayer.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 20 – St. Cyprian on the Necessity of Wine

Posted: August 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Baptists, Eucharist, and History 20 – St. Cyprian on the Necessity of Wine

We continue today with St. Cyprian’s letter on properly preparing the Cup of our Lord. I find it likely my reflections on this letter will need to be broken into several posts. Concerning the necessity of wine, St. Cyprian writes the following.

Know then that I have been admonished that, in offering the cup, the tradition of the Lord observed, and that nothing must be done by us but what the Lord first did on our behalf, as that the cup which is offered in remembrance of Him should be offered mingled with wine. For when Christ says, “I am the true vine,” the blood of Christ is assuredly not water, but wine; neither can His blood by which we are redeemed and quickened appear to be in the cup, when in the cup there is no wine whereby the blood of Christ is shown forth, which is declared by the sacrament and testimony of all the Scriptures.

Notice how St. Cyprian explicitly outlines the interpretation of John’s Gospel he was traditioned. When Christ calls himself the true vine, he is connecting his life (which as the Holy Scriptures say is in the blood) to the wine of the cup. As such, if there is no wine, Christ’s blood cannot appear in the cup. That would be a very odd thing to write if those to whom he was writing did not believe we drank Christ’s blood in the Eucharist for our healing and to receive life.

While I don’t believe we have any instances today in which anyone uses water in the Eucharist, I know my own tradition uses grape juice rather than wine. Of course, St. Cyprian would have had a hard time conceiving of unfermented grape juice preserved for any significant length of time past the harvest. But if he had been posed with that question, do we honestly think his answer would have been significantly different? I tend to doubt it. It’s not what the Lord used. It’s not what he taught. And it’s not what the Apostles taught.

Of course, when you don’t believe that the ritual of the Eucharist actually accomplishes anything in reality, then I suppose it doesn’t matter all that much how you do it or what you use for the elements. I’ve even heard of an Eucharist performed with Dr. Pepper and Oreos! Nevertheless, the replacement of wine with grape juice was a 19th century innovation in the practice of the faith. It incidentally made the Welches quite wealthy as they cashed in on the temperance movement. Unfermented grape juice is a technology enabled innovation in the practice of the Eucharist. It wouldn’t have even been possible before we learned how to safely preserve unfermented grape juice for extended periods of time.

It’s also a good illustration of the manner in which we innovate at will today. This contrasts sharply to the ancient church which here we seeing resisting innovation. As I wrote yesterday, I think we tend to project ourselves into the place of the ancient church and assume they must have done what we would have done in their place. But I don’t find that the evidence supports that conclusion. Rather, under sometimes tremendous pressure and persecution, they clung to the traditions, practices, and interpretations of the Holy Scriptures they had been given. I tend to think that many times the sort of gentle reproof we find in this letter was all that was necessary to correct an errant practice.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 15 – Irenaeus on Christ’s True Flesh

Posted: July 30th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

We’re going to examine most of Chapter II, Book V, Against Heresies in today’s post. Before we start, I will note that Irenaeus is refuting a specific group of those who held that our corruptible flesh is incapable of incorruption and resurrection. This was likely one of the gnostic groups, but I’m struck by the similarity of this issue to the one Paul faced in the Church of Corinth and which built up to the magnificent 1 Corinthian 15. The group Paul was addressing had no problem believing in the specific resurrection and glorification of Jesus. Rather, they did not believe our corruptible bodies would be resurrected. Irenaeus seems to be refuting a similar line of thought.

But vain in every respect are they who despise the entire dispensation of God, and disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration, maintaining that it is not capable of incorruption. But if this indeed do not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body. For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins.” And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies.

Basically, if our bodies cannot attain salvation, if they are not capable of incorruption, if they will not thus be resurrected, then the Lord did not redeem us with his blood, the cup is not the communion of his blod, and the bread is not the communion of his body. All of that comes only from a body like ours. Jesus, the Word of God, acknowledges the cup as his blood and establishes the bread as his body. And through both, he nourishes our body and our blood.

The interesting thing again here is that as Irenaeus makes his argument he simply assumes that everyone knows the Christian confession is that the wine and bread of the Eucharist are the body and blood of Jesus. I’m not sure, in our modern era, that the import is immediately obvious. St. Irenaeus, Bishop of the Church in Lyons, one-time student of St. Polycarp, who in turn learned from St. John and who was martyred, writing specifically against a raft of heresies the Church faced, apparently does not imagine and has not encountered any group that does not know that the Christian confession is that they consume life in the form of the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. He assumes everyone knows that point.

When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him?—even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that “we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones.” He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones,—that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body. And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection to the glory of God, even the Father, who freely gives to this mortal immortality, and to this corruptible incorruption, because the strength of God is made perfect in weakness, in order that we may never become puffed up, as if we had life from ourselves, and exalted against God, our minds becoming ungrateful; but learning by experience that we possess eternal duration from the excelling power of this Being, not from our own nature, we may neither undervalue that glory which surrounds God as He is, nor be ignorant of our own nature, but that we may know what God can effect, and what benefits man receives, and thus never wander from the true comprehension of things as they are, that is, both with regard to God and with regard to man. And might it not be the case, perhaps, as I have already observed, that for this purpose God permitted our resolution into the common dust of mortality, that we, being instructed by every mode, may be accurate in all things for the future, being ignorant neither of God nor of ourselves?

So we’ve not found any historical evidence to date for the modern Baptist view, the 1689 London Confession, and Zwingli’s view. In fact, the ‘mere symbol’ (or even not-so-mere) approach seems flatly contradicted. The above also seems to specifically negate Calvin’s idea of a purely “spiritual meal”. Irenaeus rejects the idea that when Paul speaks of us as members of Christ’s body he is speaking in a purely spiritual sense. And he grounds that rejection in part in the Eucharist.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 13 – Irenaeus of Lyons on Unity

Posted: July 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I’m now going to move forward a few more decades to a period around 170-180 AD as we focus on Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. We know that when Irenaeus was young he knew Polycarp. Polycarp, as you may recall, was a disciple of John the Beloved. So there remains a close, direct connection between the one writing and the apostles. I mentioned the emphasis of Justin on the Trinity and gave one example. That same perspective permeates the writings we have of Irenaeus. I strongly recommend a recently recovered treasure by Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. Not only will you find much on the Father, Son, and Spirit, you will also find an in depth exploration of the many ways Jesus was prophesied and prefigured in what we commonly call the Old Testament. For the purposes of this series, I will be focusing on the books of his most famous work, Against Heresies. But I do commend the above for your own personal reflection.

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus is chiefly writing against various groups of gnostic heretics. In fact, his works are one of the sources from which we’ve gleaned much about them. They were many and diverse. Unlike a heresy like Arianism, there was no single teaching in ancient Christian gnosticism. But all the groups did share some common strands. Among those were an emphasis on secret knowledge, a dualism between the material as evil and the spirit as good, and typically many hierarchies or levels of celestial beings, often called Aeons.

I’m going to start our series today with what Irenaeus writes in Chapter X of Book I of Against Heresies, Unity of the Faith of the Church throughout the whole world. He is specifically making this point because the gnostic heresies are so varied and diverse by contrast. However, it does have particular bearing on this series as well. Recall Ignatius’ emphasis on “one eucharist”. Recognize that what Irenaeus will be writing is not merely his sole opinion. Rather, the faith is so coherent and unified that he can write the following words and expect them to be recognized as manifestly true.  Then compare what Irenaeus says to the modern Western landscape of extreme, individualistic Christian pluralism in which the various theologies and sects are even often named for the one who invented them. If you can find any commonality between the two visions of the Church, you have a more discerning mind than mine. Here are Irenaeus’ own words.

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one, and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 12 – Justin Martyr on the Eucharist

Posted: July 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This post concludes my reflections on Justin Martyr’s First Apology. I saved for last Chapter LXVI which focuses explicitly on the Eucharist.

And this food is called among us Eukaristia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.

Justin begins by outlining three things that must be true of those who partake of the Eucharist among them. First, they must believe that the things taught are true. Since the person would actually be at the worship, this seems to be directed at those within the church who were adopting other beliefs. In other words, it’s not so much directed outward at the pagans, who would not have been present anyway, but inward at those like the gnostics.

Next they must have been washed — that is baptized.  (Washing was a common Jewish term for all their practices of ceremonial cleansings  that remained within the church for quite some time.) Although it’s not the topic of this series, I will note that Baptists also have a historical problem with our reduction of the mystery of Baptism to a mere symbol. Justin does actually speak more about it elsewhere in his apology, but it’s interesting to note that even here he describes it as for the remission of sins and unto regeneration. Both of those are, of course, what we would call biblical descriptions of baptism even though Justin did not yet have a New Testament Bible. Even absent the written texts, it is clearly part of what has been traditioned to him.

The requirement of baptism excluded those who were in the process of learning what it meant to be Christian. These came to be called the catechumens. The catechumenate developed as the church existed under persecution as an illegal religion under Roman law. The goal was to make sure that people understood what it meant to follow Christ and would be able to stand firm under torture and the threat of death. During this period it was still very much an unsettled question whether or not one who having turned to Christ, and then having denied Christ under persecution would ever be able to truly return to the faith.

And finally, those partaking must actually be living as Christ commanded us to live. In the words of the Holy Scriptures, they must obey his commands. And this, of course, is his command: That we love one another.

For the central purposes of this series, here is the key sentence.

For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.

There is quite a bit packed into this sentence, so I’m going to spend a little time unpacking it. First, Justin denies that we receive the elements as common bread and common drink. That certainly sets him at odds with the modern SBC Faith & Message. And perhaps sets him at odds with Zwingli. However, the next linkage is perhaps the most important. Justin connects the Eucharist to the Incarnation itself. Jesus took on flesh and blood for our salvation and as such we must consume his flesh and blood to receive it, to be nourished, and to be healed. This is the connection Jesus makes in John 6 fleshed out in practice. And then the very clear statement that the food which is blessed is the flesh and blood of Jesus.

I’ve been tempted at times to point out to my fellow Baptists that Bill Clinton was really just being a good Southern Baptist boy when he said, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” But I’ve always refrained because I’m not sure they would take it in the spirit intended. And yet that is exactly what those who take the “mere symbol” route are doing. History so far has been consistent with the usage of ‘is’ in Holy Scriptures regarding the Eucharist. The blessed bread is our Lord’s flesh. The blessed wine is our Lord’s blood.

I am going to continue stepping forward through that which we have preserved from the historical practice and understanding of the Church in this series. But right now, the oft-repeated liturgical phrase from Battlestar Galactica comes to mind about all we have examined to date.

So say we all.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 10 – Justin Martyr on Administration of the Mysteries

Posted: July 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Now we will move forward several decades and reflect on Justin Martyr’s First Apology. This places us right in the middle of the second century. There are few left alive at this point who personally encountered any of the apostles, but there are still those few. There are now many who have been taught by those who were directly taught by the apostles. Hopefully that places some perspective on where we stand in the thread of history. As always I recommend you read the entire apology. In this post, however, we will focus first on Chapter LXV.

But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to genoito [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

I want to focus here on the structure and order surrounding the thanksgiving or eucharist. It is only for the baptized. The one who presides over the assembly offers extensive prayers over the bread and wine. (The one who presides, consistent with earlier, contemporary, and later writings is probably best understood as the episcopos (bishop) or one of his presbyters (priests).) The people then all assent as their participation. Then the deacons hand out the eucharist, keeping some back to carry to those who could not be present, typically the ill and infirm.

If a person has had any exposure to any modern liturgical Christian practice, I feel confident they will recognize the connection to the above in the liturgy of the Eucharist. I have personally experienced Luthern, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic liturgies over the course of my life. And I have listened to a number of occurences of, but not yet been in, the Orthodox Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. And I immediately sense how the description above is continuous with all the liturgical traditions. There is much less connection to the non-liturgical traditions like my own SBC. Even before we delve into what we mean in the Eucharist itself, our practice around it seems … disconnected from history. We see that again in Chapter LXVII where the weekly worship practice is described.

And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.

Here we see even more strongly the structure of the liturgy. We see that first the Holy Scriptures are read and then the one who presides instructs and exhorts. Today this is often called the Liturgy of the Word. (It’s also interesting to note that the “memoirs of the Apostles” were being read. This almost certainly refers to the Gospels.) Following the Liturgy of the Word, we see the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This form is preserved to one degree or another within the liturgical churches. Among the non-liturgical churches? Not so much. It’s also worth noting that the Liturgy of the Word is similar in form to the synagogue worship. So basically we see an adaptation of synagogue worship in which the Gospels are read along with Torah and the Prophets and then the Eucharist — something new and not from Jewish synagogue worship at all in origin — is added as the focal point of worship.