Once Saved, Always Saved Deconstructed

Posted: March 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I was quietly minding my own business the other day when the following thought abruptly popped, fully formed, into my conscious mind.

The dogma “once saved, always saved” is soteriological monothelitism.

Yes, the inside of my head is often a strange and sometimes frightening place. That’s just a small taste of what it’s like in there. However, as I turned the thought around and looked at it from various angles, I realized it seemed more true than not. There’s a lot of information packed into that short sentence. In this post, I’ll try to unpack it.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, “once saved, always saved” is a particular doctrine found among some modern Christian groups. I’m most familiar with it in a Southern Baptist context. Basically it’s a way of expressing the idea that once a person makes an authentic (and that’s a discussion in and of itself) commitment to Christ, you are sealed as a Christian and nothing you can subsequently will or do can change that status or your status as one of the saved.

In the history of Baptists in America, there are a number of strands which contributed to their development and formation over the years. Some of those strands were either outright Calvinistic or at least adopted some of the ideas of John Calvin, particularly the dogmas of total depravity and the perseverance of the saints. The latter is an intriguing, if misguided, dogma. It postulates a God who, for reasons known only to himself and which we can never know or understand, creates some human beings for salvation and others for eternal damnation. There’s nothing we can do to move from one category to the other one, but if we are in the group predestined for salvation, then we will be ultimately saved no matter what.

However, within this system there’s really no way to tell with which group you belong. Are you damned or are you saved? It’s within this context that the dogma of “once saved, always saved” seems to have developed over time. Basically, it holds that we’re all born damned. (Even so, most variations will give infants and small children a free pass from damnation. That free pass lasts until some uncertain age when the child is able to intellectually grasp the various doctrines and teachings about God.) Over the course of our lives, though, we always have the option to exercise our will and choose to commit ourselves to Jesus of Nazareth. Then, once we do so, we become a saint and cannot become anything else.

When you understand the context of this dogma’s development, it obviously is designed to address the uncertainty inherent in the somewhat older dogma of perseverance of the saints while retaining its preferred features. Since it first requires an exercise of will to become a saint, presumably one would know whether or not you’ve done so. In that way it removes the uncertainty. You can actually know whether you are in the damned or the saved group. (In practices, it doesn’t really work that way and very often those preaching or evangelizing will even deliberately try to instill doubt about your status.)

The dogma seems intended to provide assurance of a sort. You can actually know you are in the saved group and you can be certain that you’ll remain in that group as well. Until I understood that history, the way Baptists often talk about assurance and perceive a lack of assurance in other groups always seemed very odd to me. When you understand the context, it makes more sense.

Going back to my thought, soteriological is just the fancy English word we use for discussions about salvation. It’s really easy to talk right past each other if you assume that salvation automatically means the same thing to all people. It begs the question, what are you being saved from? And what are you being saved to? It even begs the question of what does it even mean that you are saved or are being saved? I’ve noticed that among Baptists, at least, salvation tends to be externalized. It’s something you possess rather than a process you are undergoing. In my mind, from the very beginning, I had an image of saving someone as an active process. That’s probably why I always felt like I understood the Fathers, who described the Church in various terms, but always as a vehicle for the ongoing process of salvation. The Church is an ark, rescuing us from destruction. The Church is a hospital for the healing of our souls and the restoration of our true humanity. Their metaphors describe a process you undergo rather than a thing you have.

And that conforms more to our normal experience of reality. Think about the times we might save or try to save others. If I save someone from drowning, it’s an action and a process. If I try to save someone from abuse, that implies a lengthy series of actions. If I try to save someone from an addiction that is destroying them, I’m committing myself to a long process with uncertain results. When you stop and think about it, salvation as a noun is really very odd. What’s the thing that it describes?

And that brings us to the last word in my thought, monothelitism. Monothelitism was the heresy that was finally resolved in the sixth ecumenical council. St. Maximos the Confessor, the one who wrote the texts of love I’ve been working through on my blog, was the great champion of that council, even though he did not survive to see it. He suffered greatly for the faith when it seemed all the powers stood against him. He had his tongue cut out so he could not speak and he had his hand cut off so he could not write. Nothing stopped him from teaching the truth about Christ, though, and his work kept the truth of Christianity alive from the ground up. Monothelitism is the teaching that Christ had only one will, the divine will. Basically, the divine will destroyed or overpowered his human will and guided him throughout his life without effort or opposition.

The problem with this view is that it makes Christ something other than fully human. If he had no human will that he had to align with the divine will, then he was not really like us. We have to struggle, and often fail, to align our will with God’s. If Christ did not share in that struggle, even though he never failed, then he cannot heal our own wills. It turns the Incarnation from something glorious and incredibly risky on God’s part into a sham.

Once saved, always saved” turns monothelitism on its head and applies it to us instead. Basically, it says that whenever we once commit to Christ, the divine will for all practical purposes obliterates our human will. Sure, we can still perform individual acts of evil, but we no longer have a will with which we can reject God. And whatever we may then be, I wouldn’t call such a creature human, much less capable of love. Moreover, if God simply wanted to turn us into subhuman creatures, what’s the point of the whole charade of history. He could have overtaken our will from the outset if such a thing were in his nature. Why would he wait until we had actually taken a step toward him to treat us so brutally?

No, I have to reject the idea that our wills mean nothing. God is truly not willing that any should perish, which means that it’s our wills that oppose his efforts. And it’s not God’s nature — it’s not the nature of love — to contravene or force the will of another, much less wipe it from existence. My struggle is to turn my will to God, who has already done everything necessary to save us all. I need to want God. It’s certain that he wants me.

But I retain always the power to turn my will away from God. It’s for that reason we pray for help, for mercy, which God offers in overflowing abundance.


Thirsting for God 16 – Formal Prayer

Posted: January 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 16 – Formal Prayer

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

In this chapter Matthew tackles another issue which is a common objection raised among some particular groups of Protestants, including Baptists (with whom I am most familiar). As with most of the other issues he tackles in this section, I have to confess this is one I’ve never really understood on a visceral level. The issue itself is straightforward. The non-liturgical churches largely do not use set prayers in either their corporate worship or individual discipline of prayer and consider such formal prayers a form of vain repetition. (It sometimes seems as though they believe there can exist no sort of repetition that is not somehow vain.)

Of course, there’s a bit of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say-no-more involved in that statement. In truth there is an expected structure and order to the extemporaneous prayers and it takes little time or effort to discern that structure in any church. And that, as much as anything else, reveals something about human beings which God and His Church have always known. We learn from those around us, we absorb tradition almost unconsciously at times, and we are creatures of habit — for good or ill.

There is not and never has been anything wrong with extemporaneous prayers. Prayer is one of our primary means of mystical connection with God. If we have something to say, we should say it and strive to learn to speak honestly. But prayer consists of so much more than merely talking to God. It is a means by which — both individually and corporately — we fill our lives with God. In and through prayer, we order time and days with the fullness of Christ. As we work to keep the connection of our true mind — our heart or nous —  centered in Christ, he is able to heal and transform us. If salvation is union with Christ, then true prayer is surely one of the means through which we achieve that union.

And extemporaneous prayers are not enough. They never have been. And when you look beneath the surface, those who advance in the Christian life all know it. Billy Graham mentioned in an interview I read that he works through all the Psalms and the Proverbs every month. The Psalter has always been at the heart of the Jewish and Christian tradition of set prayers.

I think many people are confused about the fundamental purpose of prayer. While we should intercede for others before God every day, prayer is not primarily about asking God to act or to do something specific. And yet, that seems to be a common understanding today within certain groups of Christians. We pray so that we can stand aware of the presence of God and be transformed and renewed by him. Prayer operates on levels we do not necessarily perceive. Even when we don’t feel like praying, we need to pray. In fact, it’s probably most important to pray when we don’t feel like it. And stopping to pray at set times will begin to alter our perception and experience of daily life.

It’s slow going. The reality is that I often don’t want God, not at the deepest levels of my heart. I want to order my days as I see fit. I don’t pray without ceasing because I often want to keep God at arm’s length. Set prayer slowly chips away at that wall and more than anything else, I think that’s why we all resist it.

Historically, of course, liturgical prayers for corporate worship and the practice of set prayers at set times flows straight from ancient Jewish practice into the life of Jesus and his followers as captured in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and through them into the life and practice of the Church. It’s one of the easiest historical threads to trace and permeates Christianity in all places and at all times until the modern era.

Personally, I was exposed to Roman Catholic prayers when I attended a Roman Catholic school growing up. I also practiced Hindu meditation and had some exposure to Buddhism. As an adult within Christianity, I’ve explored the tapestry and tradition of Christian prayers. And one thing I can say with certainty is that the goal of chanting or other repetition in the Eastern religions is vastly different from the purpose of set prayers in the Christian tradition.

Neither of those, though, are what Scripture have in mind when it refers to many words or vain repetitions. In many of the ancient pagan religions, flowery and grandiose language was used and often repeated in an effort to gain the god’s attention and, hopefully, favor. Even in the texts of the Holy Scriptures, examples of that specific sort of pagan prayer abound. One of the clearest examples can be seen in the story of Elijah versus the priests of Baal. The priests were chanting, dancing, and even cutting themselves in their efforts to gain Baal’s attention.

Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are different. Repetition, either in group chanting or private meditation, is intended to clear or empty your mind in order to open your consciousness. In Christian set prayers (and particularly in short, repetitive prayers like the Jesus Prayer), you are trying to place your heart with Christ. Connecting yourself to Christ may be many things, but it is rarely vain.

In fact, I would say that in this particular instance, Hinduism and Christianity share more similarity with each other than they do with the sorts of ancient pagan prayers that are called ‘vain repetitions.’ Hindu chanting and meditation is the shape prayer takes if there is a transcendent, panentheistic ‘God‘ who is the ground of reality, but who is not personal (for lack of a better term). We need to free ourselves from the illusion which binds us and learn to perceive the divine within ourselves and which permeates everything and everyone. (I am not and have never been a guru, so I apologize in advance for mangling the concept.) The deep tradition of Christian prayer — from the liturgical prayers to the daily personal discipline to prayers like the Jesus Prayer — is the shape prayer takes when there is a transcendent, panentheistic God who is as personal as a perfect communion of ‘persons‘ or hypostases who have created each of us to join in that divine communion. (Never forget that in God we live and move and have our being and that He is the Creator God in whom all that is created subsists every single moment. If God were to withdraw himself from any part of creation, it would simply cease to exist.

With that said, Matthew Gallatin makes some intriguing points in this chapter in ways that I had not really considered. Some of those points, however, require a deeper understanding of what Christianity calls the nous. Nous is a Greek word that does not easily translate into English. It’s the word used, for instance, in Romans 12:2. Among modern Protestants of certain stripes, it’s common to see that verse referenced as evidence that we need to think the right things about God. While it’s true that holding wrong ideas about Christ — wrong images of God — in our intellect does interfere with our ability to truly know God, that understanding does not reflect the actual Christian understanding of nous. I’m not sure I can clearly express the concept, but I will do my best.

First and foremost, our nous is the center of our being created to live in communion with God. And it is our nous which is darkened by sin. It is our nous, as the foundation of our whole selves, that was dead and to which Christ came to give life. If our nous is not healed, nothing about us can truly be healed. With that in mind, Christianity normally divides our inner being or consciousness into two levels. One is often called our intellect. It is the seat of our rational thought and emotions. It’s of the same essence as the minds of the animals, though we tend to have more capacity. We now know this function is inextricably intertwined with our physical brains. The nous, sometimes also translated as heart, is the mind we do not share with the other animals. It’s that deeper level in which we stand before God in mystical communion. Formal prayers help us descend through our intellect into our nous. When we are “conversing” and formulating our prayer as we proceed, we are necessarily bound to our intellect speaking to our mental construction of God. Extemporaneous prayers are ultimately too noisy to allow us to meet God face to face.

Matthew opens with an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters which I’ll include at the end of this post, but first I want to cover some of the other points he makes. The first is so obvious that I had never even noticed it. The same sorts of Christians who reject the set prayers and the prayer tradition of the Church think nothing of memorizing and singing hymns and choruses. Especially in corporate worship, there is a deep Christian tradition of chanting or singing prayers. While the tradition of hymns and choruses may not be as deep (though some hymns are ancient indeed), they do form a type of corporate liturgical prayer using memorized or written prayers. For surely if our songs are not ultimately prayers, what meaning can they hold?

Spontaneous prayers also tend to be an expression of self. The more passionate and heartfelt they are the more that is true. And while there is benefit in exposing ourselves to God, that benefit lies primarily in learning to see and know ourselves truly. God already knows us. We need to know God, not the other way around. Moreover, we deceive ourselves more than we care to admit. When our prayers consist merely of expressing ourselves to God, we can deceive ourselves and turn our own selfish desires into “God’s desire” for our life. When we pray the prayers of the Church, including the Psalter, those prayers lay bare our self-deceit.

Matthew relates the following, which touched me deeply, though I’m not entirely sure why. The emphasis is mine.

The holy ones who pray in silence are those who, by the grace of God, have transcended even the need for the bridge of words. These blessed ones simply dwell in the nous, beholding like the Apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration the glorious Light of God (see Matthew 17). Since I’ve become Orthodox, I’ve had the very humbling privilege of meeting some of those mystically sweet and eminently quiet souls who by the grace of Christ have entered that place. Their eyes seem as deep as the universe.

I struggle with even the simplest rule of prayer. I cannot imagine my meager efforts ever approaching such a point. But I recognize my heart’s desire in the description above.

And finally, I’ll close with the words Matthew quotes from old Screwtape. (For those who are unfamiliar with the book, Screwtape is an older demon writing advice to his nephew, a younger demon with his first charge.) I’ll include the emphasis Matthew adds. I find it strange that so many evangelicals today love C.S. Lewis. He writes a great many things that must be uncomfortable for them to hear.

The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. When the patient is an adult recently reconverted to the Enemy’s party [ by “Enemy,” of course, the demon means God], like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised … in which real concentration of will and intelligence  have no part … That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practiced by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time.


The Jesus Creed 2 – Praying the Jesus Creed

Posted: August 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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 ones for this chapter are: Luke 11:1-4; Matthew 6:9-13.

Sometimes prayer is like
     dry lima beans
          in a dry mouth
              on a dry day.

That’s how McKnight opens this chapter. I really like the imagery.

Why? Prayer is hard, it gnaws into our schedule, and it can be as much a source of frustration as satisfaction. Brother Lawrence, who has probably encouraged more people in prayer than anyone in the history of the Church, found routines in prayer dry and dull. He was bluntly honest about his own perplexity with prayer. Such honesty about prayer by a champion of prayer encourages us all in our own struggle to pray.

Of course, nobody who knows me would be surprised that the reference to Brother Lawrence struck a chord with me. Still the statement is true. McKnight continues:

At the bottom, prayer is simple. It is loving communication with God. All we need for prayer is an open heart.

All? How easy for any of us is a truly open heart?

The good news for us is that it was struggle with prayer that gave rise to the Lord’s Prayer. The disciples were struggling with their own prayer lives. After observing Jesus pray, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” To help them with prayer, he gave them a prayer…

McKnight then provides the ancient Jewish prayer Jesus amended through the lens of his modified Shema. This is that prayer (which we know was present and widely used at the time of Jesus) call the Kaddish (Sanctification).

Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world He created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future. And say Amen.

This prayer bears striking similarities to the Lord’s Prayer and McKnight proposes that Jesus makes it his own. And this connection, while not as obvious or clearcut as the amendment of the Shema, makes a lot of sense within its context. Jesus amends the central creed and then he amends a sacred prayer, reshaping them both in dramatic ways. McKnight examines the parallels between the two in several tables. When you lay them out side by side, the correlations are pretty obvious.

There are three basic changes: First, the Lord’s Prayer begins with ‘Father’ (Abba). [I also want to note that in an appendix, McKnight the linguist, bible scholar, and theologian notes that ‘Daddy’ is an inappropriate interpretation of ‘Abba.’ It’s a form adults used and so ‘Father’ (or I would also suggest ‘Dad’) is appropriate. I’ve typically used ‘Dad’ myself, but have heard others promote the ‘Daddy’ version. Minor note, really, but I wanted to mention it.] Second, Jesus adds three lines. Third, the additional lines shift from ‘your’ to ‘us.’ As a result of these changes, the Lord’s Prayer has two parts (you petitions and we/us petitions). The ‘You’ petitions are ‘Love God’ petitions and the ‘We/Us’ petitions are ‘Love Others’ petitions. (Notice that none of them are me/I requests.)

Next, I will note that Judaism is deeply symbolic, creedal, and essentially what we call ‘liturgical.’ Further, it is the only system of worship that, in its original form, was directly established by God. At least, it’s the only one recorded. And God established a highly liturgical form of worship. In our ‘low worship’ style, it’s important that we remember and acknowledge that reality because McKnight’s next point is one I’ve noticed many Baptists (and others) struggle with. McKnight even confesses his own struggle. This is an important note for his next section, titled “The Lord’s Prayer as a Gift for Liturgy.”

When the disciples asked Jesus for a prayer, he said, ‘When you pray, say.” Literally, ‘say’ means ‘repeat.’ I already knew that, but I’ve watched people go to great lengths to make it mean something else. Further, contextually it makes no sense for Jesus to do anything else. The disciples ask for a prayer. Given their liturgical setting, they would expect a prayer they could repeat. Like the Kaddish. Like others. Surely that’s what Jesus would have given them?

Of course, liturgical prayers *can* become mindless rote. But frankly, non-liturgical prayers easily become just as mindless, shallow, and empty. The problem lies not with the prayer or the form, but with us. If prayer, any prayer, is actually loving communication with God, it’s real prayer whatever form it takes. If it’s not, it’s nothing but empty words.

The advantage of liturgical or structured prayers is twofold (in my mind). By their content, even if we start in a place of mindless repitition, they always have the ability to capture our attention and shape our thoughts toward God. And if we start with God in mind, they contain many ‘hooks’ that can lead us into conversational prayers. Neither liturgical churches nor Jesus suggest that *all* prayer should be structured. But structured prayers give us a routine and a place to begin when we don’t otherwise ‘feel’ like praying, when the ‘dry lima beans in a dry mouth on a dry day’ experience descends upon us.

The Lord’s Prayer focuses us on the priorities (loving God and loving others) and does not allow us to easily descend into what McKnight calls ‘self-saturated prayers.’ He quotes Lauren Winner (a convert from liturgical Judaism to liturgical Christianity), “Liturgy is not, in the end, open to our emotional whims.” Maybe it’s the ‘postmodern’ (or whatever) within me, but that statement resonates deeply.

McKnight then relates the personal impression the Lord made on his heart about this prayer as he studied and reflected on it. Now he concludes each of his Jesus classes with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (and begins it with a recitation of the Jesus Creed).

McKnight explores four things which we can learn when we permit the Lord’s Prayer to mentor our Prayer to mentor our prayer life.

We learn to approach God as Abba….This is the signature term of Jesus and it marks the center of his teaching about God.

We learn what God really wants… God’s love plan is for his glorious Name to be honored and his will to become concrete reality on earth. Earth is Abba’s frontier; heaven is already his. In pondering God’s Name, kingdom, and will, we are prompted (daily) to yearn for what God yearns for. Love always prompts yearning.

We learn to think of others… As Jesus didn’t leave the Shema to be a God-only thing, so he didn’t leave the Kaddish to be a God-only thing. And he doesn’t want it to be an I-only thing either.

We learn what everyone needs. Hanging our prayers on the framework of the Lord’s Prayer will lead us to yearn that all will have provision, be granted forgiveness, and be spared temptation. … We need to think our way back into Jesus’ world by recalling that we have just petitioned the Abba about his Name, Kingdom, and will. Our concern is with God’s breaking into history to make this world right for all of us. And that means praying for others so that they will have adequate provisions, spiritual purity, and moral stability. I don’t know about you, but I tend to begin my prayers for others with what I know about them and what they need. Jesus offers another path: We can begin with what he wants for them. By using the Lord’s Prayer, we join his loving prayer for them.

Do you get those things from the Lord’s Prayer? I’m starting to. Prayer is a big issue. As I’ve related in other posts, in my search for how to pray and especially what it meant to pray without ceasing, and my dissatisfaction with the things most evangelicals seem to write and say, I turned to Brother Lawrence. And through, at least in part I believe, his intercession, the Jesus Prayer came to me. I’ve never confused set prayers with “vain repetition” probably because I have a sense of history and first-hand experience with other religions. In the ancient context, people would use many words and take other actions in an effort to get their god’s attention. We see that recorded in our Scripture as well. One excellent example is the encounter between Elijah and the priests of Baal. I’ve also meditated with mantras whose purpose is to clear your mind of thought and activity. That’s neither the goal nor the result of praying Christian set prayers.

McKnight concludes with the note that the Lord’s Prayer is a “gift for action.” It’s “a commitment of the pray-er to the values of the Lord’s Prayer.” He then includes a quote from Frank Laubach. (I don’t know who that is, but I really like the little excerpt here.)

It [the Lord’s Prayer] is the prayer most used and least understood. People think they are asking God for something. They are not — they are offering God something.

… the Lord’s Prayer is not a prayer to God to do something we want done. It is more nearly God’s prayer to us, to help Him do what he wants done… He wanted that entire prayer answered before we prayed it…. The Lord’s Prayer is not intercession. It is enlistment.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 23 – St. Cyprian on the Importance of Holding Fast the Tradition

Posted: August 7th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

We conclude today our reflections on St. Cyprian’s letter on properly preparing the Cup of our Lord. I want to end by looking one more time at the strength and passion with which St. Cyprian writes we should hold to the truth we have been given.

There is then no reason, dearest brother, for any one to think that the custom of certain persons is to be followed, who have thought in time past that water alone should be offered in the cup of the Lord. For we must inquire whom they themselves have followed. For if in the sacrifice which Christ offered none is to be followed but Christ, assuredly it behoves us to obey and do that which Christ did, and what He commanded to be done, since He Himself says in the Gospel, “If ye do whatsoever I command you, henceforth I call you not servants, but friends.” And that Christ alone ought to be heard, the Father also testifies from heaven, saying, “This is my well-beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him.” Wherefore, if Christ alone must be heard, we ought not to give heed to what another before us may have thought was to be done, but what Christ, who is before all, first did. Neither is it becoming to follow the practice of man, but the truth of God; since God speaks by Isaiah the prophet, and says, “In vain do they worship me, teaching the commandments and doctrines of men.” And again the Lord in the Gospel repeals this same saying, and says, “Ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.” Moreover, in another place He establishes it, saying, “Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.” But if we may not break even the least of the Lord’s commandments, how much rather is it forbidden to infringe such important ones, so great, so pertaining to the very sacrament of our Lord’s passion and our own redemption, or to change it by human tradition into anything else than what was divinely appointed! For if Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, is Himself the chief priest of God the Father, and has first offered Himself a sacrifice to the Father, and has commanded this to be done in commemoration of Himself, certainly that priest truly discharges the office of Christ, who imitates that which Christ did; and he then offers a true and full sacrifice in the Church to God the Father, when he proceeds to offer it according to what he sees Christ Himself to have offered.

And this is the testimony of the sort of people who added to or changed the faith taught by the apostles? Color me unconvinced. I’ll close the reflections on this letter with St. Cyprian’s own closing.

Therefore it befits our religion, and our fear, and the place itself, and the office of our priesthood, dearest brother, in mixing and offering the cup of the Lord, to keep the truth of the Lord’s tradition, and, on the warning of the Lord, to correct that which seems with some to have been erroneous; so that when He shall begin to come in His brightness and heavenly majesty, He may find that we keep what He admonished us; that we observe what He taught; that we do what He did. I bid you, dearest brother, ever heartily farewell.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 22 – St. Cyprian on the Inebriating Cup that Returns Us to Spiritual Wisdom

Posted: August 6th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Baptists, Eucharist, and History 22 – St. Cyprian on the Inebriating Cup that Returns Us to Spiritual Wisdom

We continue today with St. Cyprian’s letter on properly preparing the Cup of our Lord.

Since, then, neither the apostle himself nor an angel from heaven can preach or teach any otherwise than Christ has once taught and His apostles have announced, I wonder very much whence has originated this practice, that, contrary to evangelical and apostolical discipline, water is offered in some places in the Lord’s cup, which water by itself cannot express the blood of Christ. The Holy Spirit also is not silent in the Psalms on the sacrament of this thing, when He makes mention of the Lord’s cup, and says, “Thy inebriating cup, how excellent it is!” Now the cup which inebriates is assuredly mingled with wine, for water cannot inebriate anybody. And the cup of the Lord in such wise inebriates, as Noe also was intoxicated drinking wine, in Genesis. But because the intoxication of the Lord’s cup and blood is not such as is the intoxication of the world’s wine, since the Holy Spirit said in the Psalm, “Thy inebriating cup,” He added, “how excellent it is,” because doubtless the Lord’s cup so inebriates them that drink, that it makes them sober; that it restores their minds to spiritual wisdom; that each one recovers from that flavour of the world to the understanding of God; and in the same way, that by that common wine the mind is dissolved, and the soul relaxed, and all sadness is laid aside, so, when the blood of the Lord and the cup of salvation have been drunk, the memory of the old man is laid aside, and there arises an oblivion of the former worldly conversation, and the sorrowful and sad breast which before was oppressed by tormenting sins is eased by the joy of the divine mercy; because that only is able to rejoice him who drinks in the Church which, when it is drunk, retains the Lord’s truth.

So it’s the testimony of not just Jesus and the Apostles, but the Holy Spirit that water alone should not be offered in the cup. The list of things the Lord’s cup accomplishes in its “inebriation” is quite impressive. It makes us sober. It restores our mind to spiritual wisdom. We recover the understanding of God. We receive respite from the oppression of sin in the joy of divine mercy. Why would we desire to settle for something less?

But how perverse and how contrary it is, that although the Lord at the marriage made wine of water, we should make water of wine, when even the sacrament of that thing ought to admonish and instruct us rather to offer wine in the sacrifices of the Lord. For because among the Jews there was a want of spiritual grace, wine also was wanting. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts was the house of Israel; but Christ, when teaching and showing that the people of the Gentiles should succeed them, and that by the merit of faith we should subsequently attain to the place which the Jews had lost, of water made wine; that is, He showed that at the marriage of Christ and the Church, as the Jews failed, the people of the nations should rather flow together and assemble: for the divine Scripture in the Apocalypse declares that the waters signify the people, saying, “The waters which thou sawest, upon which the whore sitteth, are peoples and multitudes, and nations of the Gentiles, and tongues,” which we evidently see to be contained also in the sacrament of the cup.

I love the way St. Cyprian marvels that whereas Jesus made wine from water, we are making water from wine. How absurd! But we live in similar absurdity today.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 19 – Intro to St. Cyprian on Preparing the Cup of Our Lord

Posted: August 3rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

In this letter St. Cyprian of Carthage addresses an issue on the proper preparation of the Eucharistic cup. I believe it would be extremely beneficial for anyone interested in this topic to read the entire letter. Some were preparing a cup with only water rather than water mixed with wine. However, in his fairly gentle reproof, St. Cyprian lays out the fullest preserved, written theological explanation of the Cup that we have from the early church. (It appears that the Eucharist itself was not often the central topic of controversy in the early centuries.)

As with most Eastern writings (including the whole of the Holy Scriptures, I might point out) it can seem to leap from point to point in ways that jar our Western scholastic inclinations and formation. It makes use of the Holy Scriptures in ways very much like the way Jesus and the Apostles used Scripture, which fits the claim throughout that it was received from them. However, it is not the way we typically read the Holy Scriptures in the West, so that too can be jarring.

St. Cyprian stresses repeatedly the importance of holding to the teaching and practice of Jesus and the Apostles. We’ve seen that same thing expressed in much that we have so far explored, of course, but nowhere as clearly and as often as in this letter. Protestants often seem to imagine an early church running wild with innovations of the faith, adding things, and changing things willy nilly over a relatively short span of time. In truth, I think we Protestants are taking the reality of our approach to the faith and superimposing it on the early church. We innovate and change wildly, as our ever-increasing schism and fragmentation illustrate. Something is considered “old” if it was done two generations ago.

There is not really any evidence that the early church acted in that manner at all. Rather, they seem to cling to what has been traditioned to them in even some of the smallest details. They stand repeatedly against those who do introduce innovations and denounce those innovations in belief and practice. We know through study that oral cultures are remarkably effective at conserving oral tradition over long periods of time, especially in matters of belief and religious practice. Why would we believe that early Christians would be any less effective, especially if we believe they were empowered by the Holy Spirit, which is to say that they were empowered by God?

I see no reason to disbelieve St. Cyprian when he states repeatedly that what he writes is what was traditioned by Jesus and the Apostles one hundred and fifty to two hundred years earlier. That’s just not a very long time when we’re talking about the oral tradition of a core religious perspective on the nature of reality — one for which people were willing to die. That’s right up there near the top of the things you want to be sure you have right. And it was self-correcting. St. Cyprian points that out in the beginning of his letter.

Although I know, dearest brother, that very many of the bishops who are set over the churches of the Lord by divine condescension, throughout the whole world, maintain the plan of evangelical truth, and of the tradition of the Lord, and do not by human and novel institution depart from that which Christ our Master both prescribed and did; yet since some, either by ignorance or simplicity in sanctifying the cup of the Lord, and in ministering to the people, do not do that which Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, the founder and teacher of this sacrifice, did and taught, I have thought it as well a religious as a necessary thing to write to you this letter, that, if any one is still kept in this error, he may behold the light of truth, and return to the root and origin of the tradition of the Lord.

The tradition does not pass through any single line of individuals. It is maintained by the many bishops set over the churches, lest any one of them go astray. This broad practice of traditioning makes it even less likely that the oral tradition was significantly altered in two centuries or less. This is how the faith taught by the Apostles was transmitted. Remember, there still was no New Testament canon. Churches had the septuagint and by this point in time it’s reasonable to assume every Church had the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Beyond that, it’s still hit and miss what letters a particular church did or did not have.

But they all had over them a Bishop who had received the oral tradition of the Apostles and who taught it to his presbyters, deacons, and people. And the Bishops did not act in isolation, as we saw in the letter to Rome from the whole African synod. To the extent possible, the met together and corrected each other. As necessary, they acted more strongly. We see St. Cyprian expressing the strength with which he held to the tradition he was given.

Nor must you think, dearest brother, that I am writing my own thoughts or man’s; or that I am boldly assuming this to myself of my own voluntary will, since I always hold my mediocrity with lowly and modest moderation. But when anything is prescribed by the inspiration and command of God, it is necessary that a faithful servant should obey the Lord, acquitted by all of assuming anything arrogantly to himself, seeing that he is constrained to fear offending the Lord unless he does what he is commanded.

The only way that we can assume that the faith radically changed in this environment over a short period of time is to assert that the process of oral transmission of tradition radically failed.

But if it did fail, how can we even trust that the New Testament canon we have is the correct one? After all, the NT is also a product of that oral tradition, not the other way around. I think many of my fellow Protestants seem to have a somewhat confused perspective on the Bible. That’s one of the reasons I like Ben Witherington III so much, though I don’t always agree with his conclusions. I have nevertheless learned a lot from him.

As we’ve seen so far in this very focused look at the Eucharist, the Church did consistently preserve and conserve what it had been traditioned on this one topic. Why would we not believe it retained the whole of the faith under duress without innovation or radical change? I’ll go all Western here and bring out Occam’s famous razor. We know that in oral cultures the process of oral tradition conserves rather than innovates, especially in matters of faith and religious practice. Even in the things that were reduced to writing and to which we have access (a tremendous amount has been lost, though we do sometimes have an archeological find and recover something previously thought lost) we see consistency. We do not see radical innovation and change. So which is more likely? The only reason I can discern to conclude that the early church innovated and changed the faith is because you don’t like the answer if you say they did not.

Well. Clearly my reflections on this letter will involve at least two posts. See you tomorrow!


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 18 – St. Cyprian to the Church of Thibaris

Posted: August 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This letter to the Church of Thibaris was also written to help prepare them for persecution, so it’s similar in context to the last one. And we see a similar theme and place for the Eucharist.

A severer and a fiercer fight is now threatening, for which the soldiers of Christ ought to prepare themselves with uncorrupted faith and robust courage, considering that they drink the cup of Christ’s blood daily, for the reason that they themselves also may be able to shed their blood for Christ.

Drink Christ’s blood daily so you will be able to shed your blood for Christ. It’s the same visceral connection. And it is interesting that a practice of daily Eucharist is mentioned.

Later in the letter, as St. Cyprian is writing about the full armor metaphor from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he certainly interprets the sword in a way I don’t think I’ve ever heard in a Protestant church.

that our mouth may be fortified, that the conquering tongue may confess Christ its Lord: let us also arm the right hand with the sword of the Spirit, that it may bravely reject the deadly sacrifices; that, mindful of the Eucharist, the hand which has received the Lord’s body may embrace the Lord Himself, hereafter to receive from the Lord the reward of heavenly crowns.

The right hand is armed with the Lord’s body in the Eucharist. It is consumed through our mouths and thus fortifies it and gives us a conquering tongue.

Normative baptist practice, at least in most SBC churches that I’ve heard about, is to hold the “Lord’s Supper” quarterly and every time stress that it is just a memorial remembrance and symbol and that nothing whatsoever is actually happening. The only reason we’re doing it at all is because for some obscure reason Jesus told us to engage in this ritual. So we’re going to do it even though we don’t believe it actually accomplishes anything whatsoever other than spur a moment of personal, private reflection and perhaps stir an internal emotional response.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 17 – St. Cyprian of Carthage to St. Cornelius of Rome

Posted: August 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Baptists, Eucharist, and History 17 – St. Cyprian of Carthage to St. Cornelius of Rome

Now we move right to the middle of the third century with St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage. Today, we’ll look at his letter to St. Cornelius, Bishop of Rome. (As an interesting side note that I’m not sure many Protestants know, the Latin papa (or pappa) meaning ‘father’ is the word that Romans in particular used when addressing bishops. In another of the letters written to St. Cyprian, we see him called Pappa Cyprian. That word, transliterated into English, is Pope.) This letter is short, so you may want to read the entire letter rather than just the excerpt I’ve chosen for this series.

In this letter, St. Cyprian is actually writing in order to convey a conciliar decision of the entire synod of African bishops. All their names are in the salutation. The context of this decision is important. In the previous cycle of persecution some years earlier, some Christians had lapsed under torture or threat of torture and made sacrifice to other gods. A number of those lapsed Christians repented when persecution waned and sought to rejoin the Church. Earlier conciliar decisions had held that they first must undergo a lengthy period of penance, though it could be abridged if they became sick and were in danger of death.

At the time of this conciliar decision, another wave of more intense persecution was beginning. The African council had decided that lapsed Christians who repented and sought reconciliation should be fully received immediately without delay so that they would be strengthened and prepared to stand if need be in the coming persecution. It’s in that context that an entire synod of Bishops, not just one man, says the following.

For we must comply with fitting intimations and admonitions, that the sheep may not be deserted in danger by the shepherds, but that the whole flock may be gathered together into one place, and the Lord’s army may be arrived for the contest of the heavenly warfare. For the repentance of the mourners was reasonably prolonged for a more protracted time, help only being afforded to the sick in their departure, so long as peace and tranquillity prevailed, which permitted the long postponement of the tears of the mourners, and late assistance in sickness to the dying. But now indeed peace is necessary, not for the sick, but for the strong; nor is communion to be granted by us to the dying, but to the living, that we may not leave those whom we stir up and exhort to the battle unarmed and naked, but may fortify them with the protection of Christ’s body and blood. And, as the Eucharist is appointed for this very purpose that it may be a safeguard to the receivers, it is needful that we may arm those whom we wish to be safe against the adversary with the protection of the Lord’s abundance. For how do we teach or provoke them to shed their blood in confession of His name, if we deny to those who are about to enter on the warfare the blood of Christ? Or how do we make them fit for the cup of martyrdom, if we do not first admit them to drink, in the Church, the cup of the Lord by the right of communion?

Those consuming the bread and wine are fortified with the protection of Christ’s body and blood. The Eucharist itself is a safeguard. Those who might end up shedding their blood as martyrs confessing Christ must not be denied the blood of Christ. Physical blood of real human beings is directly related in the thought of these Bishops to the blood of the cup of the Eucharist. Personally, I don’t know how you get more physical and tangible than that.

I’ll point out the obvious. A simple memorial or mere symbol has no power and could not do what they expected the Eucharist to do. The language and usage also doesn’t feel like a fit with Calvin’s purely spiritual meal. Coming as it does in the context of preparation for torture and execution on behalf of Christ, there is something deeply visceral in their usage of body and blood.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 16 – Tertullian

Posted: July 31st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I hesitate to include Tertullian in my series. He is not, strictly speaking, a Father of the Church since he is not recognized as a saint and actually ended his life as a schismatic. I tend to tread carefully and mostly stick to the recognized Fathers. That’s why you won’t see me referring to Origen very often except for those parts of his works that were used by actual later Fathers. However, I have read a great deal of Tertullian. He is the first notable Latin voice in the Church. And much of his preserved writings are, in fact, within the mainstream of the belief and practice of the ancient church. And he marks both the period of the transition from the second into the third century in the Church and the voice of the West. As such, I think it is helpful to see that in the matter of the Eucharist, there remains continuity with all that we have already examined.

I’ve selected an excerpt from Chapter 8 of On the Resurrection of the Flesh. Interestingly, Tertullian also seems to be defending the faith against those who deny the general bodily resurrection of the dead and the Eucharist comes into play again in that context.

Now such remarks have I wished to advance in defence of the flesh, from a general view of the condition of our human nature. Let us now consider its special relation to Christianity, and see how vast a privilege before God has been conferred on this poor and worthless substance. It would suffice to say, indeed, that there is not a soul that can at all procure salvation, except it believe whilst it is in the flesh, so true is it that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges. And since the soul is, in consequence of its salvation, chosen to the service of God, it is the flesh which actually renders it capable of such service. The flesh, indeed, is washed, in order that the soul may be cleansed; the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the flesh is signed (with the cross), that the soul too may be fortified; the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands, that the soul also maybe illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may fatten on its God. They cannot then be separated in their recompense, when they are united in their service.

Our human nature, our bodies, our flesh are such that our salvation hinges on them. It is our bodies which embody the decision of our spirit to serve God. It is the flesh which is washed (in baptism) and it is the flesh of our bodies that feeds on the body and blood of Christ.  The other instances are interesting too. It sounds to me like he is speaking of the anointing oil of chrismation, which in the West came to be delayed and called confirmation. He notes that it is our bodies upon which the sign of the cross is made. I remember Bishop NT Wright commenting once that we know how to curse others with our hands, but many of us don’t know how to bless them with our hands. That remark stuck with me.

As you can tell, this sounds very similar to everything else we have read together to this point. How much does any of it sound like this?

The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.

I have a friend who says, “I’m not saying, I’m just saying.” It seems oddly appropriate at this juncture.


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.