Heaven & Hell in the Afterlife

Posted: February 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

For those who found my series on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) interesting, I wanted to provide a link to an article on Heaven & Hell in the Afterlife According to the Bible that I read this past week. The article goes into more detail on some topics than I did in my series, especially when it comes to the different ways Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna were often translated to fit the preconceptions of English translators. I agree with the author that it would have been better to have simply transliterated each since they are, after all, what we would consider proper names. That would have been less misleading and ultimately clearer.

There are also details I didn’t know. The section on the “burning stone” (sulfur) and the way it was seen and thus named was new to me, though it fits perfectly with everything I already knew of the ancient cultures involved. The often heard English phrase “fire and brimstone” would thus be better translated “divine fire” which makes a lot more sense. And, of course, since light and fire were inseparable concepts before the advent of electrical lights, it could also be understood as “divine light.”

The history of Origen is more complicated than the author of the article takes time to explore. Unlike most heretics, he was not condemned until well after his death and it’s unclear if his followers took his teachings farther than he ever intended. Also, I think it’s important to speak clearly on one matter. The Church condemned the assertion that everyone would ultimately be saved as heresy. As far as I can tell, the incredulity expressed by those like St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac the Syrian that the love of God would not eventually win over the even the most twisted and cold human heart is not rejected out of hand. Pious hope and prayer for all human beings is allowed.

It’s a very good article on balance, I think. I don’t hesitate to recommend it.


Ancient Texts 7 – New Testament

Posted: January 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament did not develop over a long period of time nor were the books in it primarily concerned with capturing oral tradition in writing. That’s why there isn’t a Christian version of Leviticus or Deuteronomy outlining in detail the forms of Christian worship. Those were left primarily as an oral tradition and though that tradition was, to one extent or another, captured in writing in the early centuries, those writings weren’t considered Scripture. The books of the New Testament were written by specific people over the relatively short span of a few decades and consist essentially of the surviving written teaching or tradition of the apostolic witness to Jesus of Nazareth.

The preeminent books have always been the Gospels throughout most of Christian history. They are accorded a special honor in liturgical worship and reading. They have often been bound together in one volume, separate from the other books. They are kissed. They are held high. They are processed. And Christians stand when the Gospels are read. At least, that describes most Christians over most of Christian history. Today that might or might not be the case. It’s a very mixed bag. I will note that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were primarily viewed as the announcement of the good news of conquering king who has saved his people to those who were not necessarily yet Christians, though of course Christians read them as well. In the early days of the Church, John was considered to be more reserved for Christians.

Most of the other books are called letters and they were written by the Apostles mostly to deal with specific issues in Churches they could not visit at the time of the writing. The key exceptions are Romans, Hebrews, and the Apocalypse. Paul wrote Romans to try to address some issues and lay the groundwork before his first visit. It appears that he planned to use Rome as a base for a missionary journey through Spain and was concerned about divisions between Jewish and Gentile believers in the city after the Jews had been allowed to return. Hebrews is a detailed theological treatise interpreting much of the Old Testament as types in light of Christ. The Apocalypse is, well, the Apocalypse. It’s in a category by itself and for that reason was one of the relatively few books in dispute as the canon was developed in the late fourth century CE.

The books called letters are mostly not letters in the ancient sense. They may or may not have the normal beginning and end that a letter had, but the body is little like ancient letters. Ancient letters tended to be brief and factual. (Remember these were oral cultures, not literate ones.) The “letters” of the New Testament are, in fact, mostly homilies and other forms of rhetorical speech that the person sending would have delivered in person had they been able to be present. The one carrying the “letter” had to know how to deliver the rhetoric as the apostle intended.

Of course, very little, if anything, in the New Testament was considered “scripture” when it was written. It was highly respected, of course, as capturing a part of the apostolic witness and tradition. Paul writes to the Thessalonians to hold fast to the traditions they received from him in word (orally in person) or by epistle. And the fact that they survived some intermittent but pretty severe periods of persecution shows the care with which they were copied and preserved. The awareness of those writings as scripture mostly developed over the course of the second century and early third century.

The first known list of the New Testament canon as we have it today was Athanasius’ list in the early fourth century, but that list was not accepted formally by the Church as the canon until late in the fourth century. I’ve noticed a lot of people seem to have some confusion about the canonization process today. It was a lengthy process. The canon didn’t just magically appear by the end of the first century, but it was also not a major source of debate. Other than some scattered heretics, the four gospels as we have them were always the gospels accepted by the Church. The so-called gnostic gospels that garner attention today were not suppressed (though they were rejected) and were never seriously considered for inclusion in the canon. Books that were seriously debated were books that did actually incorporate the true tradition of the church and which were highly respected. They were books like the Shepherd of Hermas, and what came to be called the ProtoEvangelion of James. Ultimately those books were not included in the canon because they were not believed to have been of apostolic origin. Although not Scripture, they were still valuable and recommended for reading — unlike the “gnostic gospels.”

All Christians do accept the same New Testament canon even if (like Luther) they don’t like parts of it. But that canon cannot be separated from the Church that decided it was indeed Scripture. And it seems to me that a lot of people today try to separate the two. Historically and rationally, that just doesn’t work — or at least I don’t see any way to make it work. I’ve read and listened to quite a few people on the topic, both academic and popular, who try to separate the NT canon from the Church that produced it. And their arguments seem to me to always end up chasing their own tail.


Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

Posted: January 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

At this point in the series, I want to apply the things already discussed to some aspects of modern biblical interpretation. I have at times encountered people and studies that delved deeply into the etymology, tense, or alternate usages of a specific individual word or phrase found in the text. In and of itself, there’s nothing particularly wrong with doing that. I have a love of language and its nuances myself. It’s not the sort of thing that many people necessarily find enjoyable, but I do and I understand others who do.

Nevertheless, it’s important to realize that when you break the text down to a specific word, there are potential problems. First, we don’t actually know for certain if the word we believe was used was precisely the one actually used. It could be a simple scribal error or it could be that as punctuation developed, a later scribe made a more subtle interpretive error like picking the wrong gender for a word. However, the original text itself was likely developed in synergy between an apostle who was not a native Greek speaker and a scribe who was more proficient at Greek. It’s the text as a whole that is most important, not the individual words chosen. Finally, we are all far removed from that culture. Language is always a dynamic interaction with the culture in which it was embedded. Words and phrases are not always used to mean what they would normally mean in another context.

None of that should detract from the joy some find in studying words and language, but it should raise a cautionary flag. When such study simply illuminates or expands the historic teaching and interpretation of the Church, it’s beneficial. It’s like St. John Chrysostom drawing a spiritual point from two variant renderings of a text. There isn’t really even a problem with such study providing a novel interpretation as long as that novel interpretation remains consistent with the historic framework of Christian faith and practice.

However, I have seen such word study used — both historically and in the present — to promote an interpretation that contradicts the historic framework of Christian belief and interpretation. At that point, you have to make a choice. Will I believe this new thing I have discovered — either directly or through a teacher? There is and has always been an attraction toward special knowledge for most human beings. You can trace the thread of that temptation through many Christian heresies and schisms over the centuries. We like the feeling that we have special knowledge or insight that others lack. I tend to be suspicious any time I can track a specific belief or practice to an individual or group who broke from the larger Christian strand over that belief or practice with their own unique interpretation supporting it.

Christianity cannot be constructed (or reconstructed) from the Holy Scriptures alone. I’m not sure any faiths can simply be constructed from scratch using nothing but their sacred texts, but I’ve never delved deeply into some of the other religions like Islam, so I’ll reserve judgment. But Christianity cannot be so constructed. Christianity flows from an oral culture and is centered around the experience and proclamation of the singular event of the Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus of Nazareth and the coming of the Holy Spirit. (Some Fathers describe the Word and the Spirit as the two hands of God.)

Some of that oral tradition is captured in the texts of of the New Testament, but much of it is not. Moreover, what Christians call the Old Testament is almost useless apart from that tradition. In the teachings of Jesus, the first sermon of Peter, and continuing all the way through to the second century Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching by St. Irenaeus of Lyons we see the Old Testament radically reinterpreted in the light of the fullness of the revelation of Christ. St. Justin wrote to the Rabbi Trypho that the Jews read the Scriptures without understanding because they do not acknowledge Christ. The tradition of that reinterpretation must be transmitted because it cannot be reconstructed from the text alone.

Either the Apostolic tradition of interpretation has been continuously maintained or it is lost and the Church failed. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing against the gnostic heretics, made the following point about their use of the Scriptures, which is worth always keeping in mind.

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.

How, then did the Church maintain the proper and beautiful image of the king? He wrote about that as well.

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,” and 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.

In other words, the Church in its unity of faith has received the apostolic preaching and carefully preserves it. All the churches in every country and in every language do not believe or hand down anything different. Whatever else we might say about it, one thing is clear to me. Protestantism has failed to do that. Completely, utterly, and it seems to me beyond all argument or dispute. And much of that disintegration has hinged on interpretation. People have taken a tile or a group of tiles from the mosaic and they have arranged them in a different way. The more charismatic or otherwise convincing ones have been able to get others to accept their new arrangement of the tiles as the true mosaic.

Trace the threads of the interpretations you believe whether you received them from others or have found them for yourself. If you cannot trace those interpretations and the beliefs and practices they support back to an apostolic origin, I would suggest you consider why you believe that particular interpretation. It doesn’t matter how well you can logically support your interpretation. The texts of the Holy Scriptures are a mosaic and can be fit together to teach a great many things quite reasonably. (If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t have had so many heretical and schismatic groups from the early first century on nor would Protestantism have splintered into more than thirty thousand separate denominations and non-denominations.) Can the thread of that interpretation be supported historically or not? If not, you have a mosaic, but not necessarily the true mosaic of Christ.


Thirsting for God 5 – Sola Scriptura

Posted: December 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 5 – Sola Scriptura

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

One of the fundamental tenets of Protestantism is sola scriptura. Actually, that’s not exactly true — at least to my eyes. I would push a little deeper than Matthew Gallatin does at this point in his book. The fundamental tenet of Protestantism is that each individual can and must decide for themselves what is or is not true. Whether a particular strand says they depend on Scripture alone or whether they say they depend on some combination of scripture, reason, and tradition, that tenet holds. Sola Scriptura is one way of asserting individual interpretation over against any other interpretive grid.

Now, in practice, every Protestant sect tries to teach its members its own interpretation of Christian faith and practice. But since every strand began by asserting that the group from which it splintered was wrong in some way, there isn’t really any way for it to keep the views of its own members from also diverging over time. As we’ve seen over the past five hundred years, that inevitably happens in every single Protestant group. And it happens pretty quickly. That’s how we’ve gotten to the point of having tens of thousands of denominations and non-denominations who all claim to worship the same God even as they hold wildly divergent and often contradictory beliefs about that God. Why?

The Scriptures alone can never show us what the objective truth about God is.

That’s not a new realization. One of the early Christian apologists wrote that the Scriptures (speaking primarily of what we call the Old Testament, of course) were like a mosaic showing us the face of Christ. However, the heretics took the tiles of the mosaic and formed them into a picture of a wolf or a fox instead. Christians have always recognized that you could assemble Scripture to argue for many different ideas, but most of those were not true. In fact, the heretics were often masters at that task. Arius, for example, had a convincing interpretation for every Scripture with which he was challenged. Ultimately, his interpretation was not rejected because it could be proven wrong, but because it was not what the Church in all places had believed since the time of the Apostles.

So what’s important to a Protestant believer is not just “the Scriptures alone.” What he actually puts his faith and trust in is his interpretation of “the Scriptures alone.”

It’s axiomatic to me that no text says anything without interpretation. So that’s not the revelation to me that it was to Matthew. The normal response, of course, is to assert that the Holy Spirit is guiding our individual interpretation. But can that be the case?

Is the Holy Spirit directing both of us? If He is, then that leaves us with a most disconcerting picture of the Spirit of God. For the Spirit, whom Christ calls the Spirit of truth, is busily at work sabotaging the longings of the Son! (that we be one)

Is the truth about God settled? Is there an underlying reality? Or is it up to each of us individually to determine the truth and reality of God? The foundation of Protestantism rests wholly on the individual. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m not up for the task of being the ground of truth.

Matthew has a funny quote from one of his Catholic friends that, I think, strikes true.

We Catholics have an old saying: ‘Protestants believe that everyone is infallible, except the Pope!’


Evangelical Is Not Enough 2

Posted: January 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 2

The second chapter of Thomas Howard’s book focuses on symbolism. He recounts a childhood encounter with much richer Christian symbols than those typically found in evangelicalism and the impact it had on him. After reviewing the myriad ways symbols are intertwined and interwoven throughout our lives, including but hardly limited to our faith, he makes the observation: “It is difficult to eliminate symbolism.” Indeed.

I’ve never acquired the aversion to the material, to the physical, and to symbols that Thomas Howard describes. My formation was very different and if anything the question has always been, “Which symbols?” But I’ve been within the context of evangelical Christianity for many years and I know they have a deep aversion to some symbols. Mind you, evangelicals use a variety of recognizable, material symbols themselves. It’s not a rejection of all symbols, just some of them. I believe I understand the reasons for the selection and the rejection of a handful of symbols, but I won’t pretend to understand more than the little I do. This aspect of the evangelical mindset largely remains opaque to me.

As he moves into the heart of the matter, Howard points out that dividing the world into physical and spiritual is not and has never been Christian in origin. We are not Buddhists or Platonists or Manichaeans. We are also not like the early Christian gnostic heretics or other docetists who denied the materiality of the Incarnation. And, in fact, that’s what much of this chapter explores. He does a good job in a small number of pages connecting the rejection of the material to a rejection of Jesus accomplished in the Incarnation. I just recently completed the series stepping through Athanasius’ work on the Incarnation, so I won’t spend much time rehashing that here. At the end of the chapter, he points out that evangelicals are right to affirm the Incarnation, but in their rejection of the physical, the sensory, and the symbolic, they actually reject much of what Jesus accomplished in and through it. I’ll end with the closing paragraph of the chapter.

The religion that attempts to drive a wedge between the whole realm of Faith and the actual textures of physical life is a religion that has perhaps not granted to the Incarnation the full extent of the mysteries that attach to it and flow from it, and that make our mortal life fruitful once more.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 14 – Irenaeus Concerning Sacrifices and Oblations

Posted: July 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Baptists, Eucharist, and History 14 – Irenaeus Concerning Sacrifices and Oblations

Today we’ll look at a small excerpt I’ve chosen from Book IV, Chapter XVIII of Against Heresies. If you have not read the full work, some of the things he says may not make much sense. Remember, the primary purpose of this writing was to refute specific heresies and heretical groups — thus the title. As a result, Irenaeus  is often referring to the heretics, their beliefs, and their practices. I’ve chosen for today a few quotes that I think are helpful for our topic in this series.

But how can they be consistent with themselves, [when they say] that the bread over which thanks have been given is the body of their Lord, and the cup His blood, if they do not call Himself the Son of the Creator of the world, that is, His Word, through whom the wood fructifies, and the fountains gush forth, and the earth gives “first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.”

The ones who are not being consistent with themselves here are the heretics. The interesting thing is the assumption that if they attend any Christian worship, they will have to confess that the bread is the body of Jesus and the cup his blood. In other words, Christians and the heretics among them alike know that is precisely the confession made in Christian worship. Irenaeus is using that to accuse the heretics of inconsistency.  Then he expands this theme with the following.

Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.

Remember, the gnostics thought the flesh (and all things material) was evil and only the spiritual would ultimately persist. Irenaeus refutes that argument by saying that our bodies are nourished by the body and blood of our Lord and thus partake of life. Our bodies, rather than remaining corruptible, receive the hope of resurrection to eternity. Does that sound like the operation of a mere symbol to you? Because it doesn’t to me. Again, though, this is utterly consistent not just with the Holy Scriptures (especially in John 6), but with everything else we have so far examined.

Definitely food for thought.


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 9 – Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans Redux

Posted: July 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I decided to open and close the posts in this series reflecting on St. Ignatius with different chapters in his letter to the Smyrnaeans. In my first look at this letter, I focused on chapter 8. In this post I’m going to consider chapter 6.

Let no man be deceived. Even the heavenly things, and the glory of the angels, and the principalities, both visible and invisible, if they believe not on the blood of Christ, for them also is there condemnation. Let him who receiveth it, receive it in reality. Let not high place puff up any man. For the whole matter is faith and love, to which there is nothing preferable. Consider those who hold heretical opinions with regard to the grace of Jesus Christ which hath come unto us, how opposite they are to the mind of God. They have no care for love, nor concerning the widow, nor concerning the orphan, nor concerning the afflicted, nor concerning him who is bound or loosed, nor concerning him who is hungry or thirsty. They refrain from the eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father of his goodness raised up.

One of the things about any ancient faith grounded in a predominantly oral culture that is difficult for many in a modern literate culture to truly “get inside” is the fact that they don’t tend to “document” normal practice and belief. For instance, you won’t really grasp Hinduism simply by reading the Vedic literature. You won’t penetrate very far in understanding Buddhism simply by reading the life of Siddhartha Gautama or any of the scriptures or traditional texts. In order to advance in understanding either path, you must find a guru or teacher or school that will then communicate to you the practice of this way of life. (In the West today, a number of these paths actually have been reduced to writing, so you can follow a guru to some extent without actually working with them in person. But that is not the preferred means of communicating their way.)

When we read the New Testament canon and ancient Christian writings, we encounter a similar dynamic. Nowhere does anyone actually write down in a formal structured manner all that Jesus opened the eyes of the disciples to see and understand following the Resurrection. We are told in several places that he did so, but frustratingly are not told what he taught. Similarly, we are never actually given details of the practice of worship in the Church in any organized manner. Instead, we get snippets here and there as the NT authors write letters to be delivered by trusted coworkers in the faith who would convey them accurately in order to resolve problem situations that the author could not, for whatever reason, resolve in person. Sometimes we’re told what the problem is. Sometimes we aren’t.

However, rather than expecting people to learn from individual gurus or within schools that preserved a particular piece of the teaching, new Christians were expected to learn the traditions of the faith from the bishops installed and taught first by the apostles and then by the later bishops in turn. The knowledge of the practice of the faith was thus conveyed from generation to generation in the predominantly oral cultures of the era. I think some of our English translations have something of an agenda behind them in this regard. For instance, the nine occurrences or so of a negative usage of the Greek paradosis (or variants) are typically translated tradition, as in the tradition of the Pharisees.  (Cue somber, warning music.) However, in the three or so instances where paradosis is used positively in the NT, it is translated teaching instead in some translations. Personally, I think that somewhat distorts what Paul is saying when he, for example, tells the Thessalonian church to hold onto the traditions they were taught, whether orally or in writing (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

I’ve prefaced my thoughts on today’s letter excerpt with these reflections because once again we are not seeing a formal written Confession, Statement of Faith, or written rule of worship. Those will be as uncommon in the ancient writings as they are in the New Testament itself. In the first century, the Didache comes as close as we get to such a written statement and even it is more the confession of the tradition intended to be recited by catechumens at their Baptism than something broader or more comprehensive. As in the NT, the ancient Christian writers were typically writing to address a specific problem or counter a specific heresy the author could not deal with in person.

And we see that here with Ignatius. From the description, he was clearly writing to address some variation of gnostic belief and practice that was apparently gaining some traction in Smyrna. Gnostics generally believed in special knowledge rather than the practices of love common to Christians. And they believed the physical was evil and the spiritual good. So they often did not believe Jesus ever actually had a body or was really a human being at all. (We also call that heresy docetism.) Gnostics loved lots of levels and ranks of powers. In the first sentence, Ignatius dismisses all such structures, however powerful they might appear to be, by asserting that all reality rests on the blood of Jesus. And he stresses that he who receives that blood needs to receive it in reality.

Finally, in the last sentence, St. Ignatius notes that the heretics refuse to receive the eucharist because they will not confess it is the flesh of Jesus. By contrast then, those who do receive the eucharist must confess that it is the flesh of Jesus. Naturally a gnostic, with the deeply engrained belief that all physical bodies are evil would be particularly repelled by the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood. (It was generally understood as a strange belief among Christians by those completely outside the faith as well.) Yet even by the close of the first century Christians not just believed that in the eucharist they were consuming Christ, but actually confessed it was his flesh before receiving it. That image stands in sharp juxtaposition with the modern Baptist belief and even with the 1689 London Confession.

This is why the Baptist perspective has a fundamental historical problem. As we proceed, we will see the Christian liturgy better described and the understanding of the Eucharist more deeply explored. But the basic idea that the bread is the flesh of Christ and the wine is the blood of Christ and that we consume Jesus in order to receive life is not something dreamed up in the 4th century, or in the 8th century, or in the 13th century, or even in the mid to late 2nd century. The thread of this belief can effectively be traced all the way back to the start of the Church. It’s impossible to find a point where this belief ever changed from one thing to something different in the ancient church. In order to say that Baptists (or Zwingli or Calvin) have the correct perspective on the Eucharist, you virtually have to say that the Apostles got it wrong — or at least that they weren’t able to teach anyone following them the “correct” understanding.

Now, don’t misunderstand me on this point. Nothing we’ve looked at means you have to or even should accept the 13th century theory of transubstantiaton, which is one attempt to explain the mystery. You don’t need to know Aristotle or believe that Aristotle correctly describes the nature of reality. In fact, the list of things you don’t have to believe is pretty long. The two beliefs that are not supported historically, though, are the belief that it is “just” a symbol (whatever that may mean) and the alternative belief that while more than a mere symbol it remains a “purely” spiritual feeding.

Gnostics had no problem with symbols or with the spiritual. In fact, they had something of an overabundance of both.


Beyond Justification 5 – What does deification mean?

Posted: May 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 5 – What does deification mean?

First, I think there is one sentence from the article, Beyond Justification, that highlights the proper place within our understanding for this discussion.

Theosis is not just the “goal” of salvation; it is salvation in its essence and fulfillment.

In other words, if we are not united with God, if we do not come to live and share and move – to dance – in the communal life of the triune God that I tried to outline in my earlier post, then in what sense have we been saved at all?

This is where the largely juridical categories most often used in the Christian West tend to break down. While the details will vary, most in the Christian West tie salvation to some legal declaration by God that one is not guilty. This declaration tends to be labeled justification and thus salvation is largely equated with being justified. Once salvation itself is linked to whether or not you have attained a certain legal or forensic status, the preeminent question becomes how one attains that status. Thus, the Western categories of thought about God’s work with humanity through Christ tend to be as follows (with salvation predominantly tied to the first category):

Justification ==> Sanctification ==> Glorification

However, with only a few exceptions among primarily the early Latin Christian writers, this sort of perspective on salvation and these categories in particular did not come into being until the rise of Western scholasticism, marked most notably by Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas. The Protestant Reformation (and later Radical Reformation) disputed the mechanics for achieving these categories but largely accepted the categories themselves. This is a central reason why the Orthodox will often comment that in their eyes Roman Catholicism and Protestantism seem more like two sides to the same coin. Justification, understood as a legal status, is associated with salvation itself. Sanctification is seen as a process of moral improvement over time, as the development of personal righteousness in reality, a progressive development in our condition. Glorification is then seen as the final state freed from the influence and presence of personal sin. The specific category names may vary, but that is generally the perspective today of the Christian West.

This perspective is not even vaguely similar to that of the Christian East. Justification is not much discussed at all and when it is, it is typically discussed in an existential rather than a juridical sense.

God’s initiative and action in the creation of humanity according to his image, and in the incarnation, Cross, and resurrection are of universal significance to humanity and cosmic significance to creation as a whole. Orthodoxy understands justification in Christ as restoring to all humanity the potential for immortality and communion with God lost in the Fall. This is because all human beings share the human nature of Jesus Christ, which was restored in the resurrection. … Salvation does not consist in an extrinsic “justification” – although this “legal” dimension is fully legitimate whenever one approaches salvation within the Old Testament category of the fulfillment of the law (as Paul does in Romans and Galatians) – but in a renewed communion with God, making human life fully human again.

Salvation is not the declaration of a legal change in our status. Rather, drawing deeply on John 14-17, the letters of John, Hebrews, and much of Paul that is underemphasized in the West (especially Ephesians and Colossians), salvation is seen as union with God. God desires us to join and participate in the perichoretic dance of the Trinity in total union with God and with each other. This is the telos of humanity. The Fathers of the church explicate this beautifully. St. Irenaeus of Lyon writes (Against Heresies):

So, then, since the Lord redeemed us by his own blood, and gave his soul for our souls, and his flesh for our bodies, and poured out the Spirit of the Father to bring about the union and communion of God and man—bringing God down to men by [the working of] the Spirit, and again raising man to God by his incarnation—and by his coming firmly and truly giving us incorruption, by our communion with God, all the teachings of the heretics are destroyed.

For when the mixed cup and the bread that has been prepared receive the Word of God, and become the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, and by these our flesh grows and is confirmed, how can they say that flesh cannot receive the free gift of God, which is eternal life, since it is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and made a member of him? As the blessed Paul says in the Epistle to the Ephesians, that we are members of his body, of his flesh and his bones. He does not say this about a [merely] spiritual and invisible man, for the spirit has neither bones nor flesh, but about [God’s] dispensation for the real man, [a dispensation] consisting of flesh and nerves and bones, which is nourished by his cup, which is his blood, and grows by the bread which is his body.

And, of course, we have the words of St. Athanasius (On the Incarnation):

Much more, then, the Word of the All-good Father was not unmindful of the human race that He had called to be; but rather, by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred, and corrected their neglect by His own teaching. Thus by His own power He restored the whole nature of man. The Savior’s own inspired disciples assure us of this. We read in one place: “For the love of Christ constraineth us, because we thus judge that, if One died on behalf of all, then all died, and He died for all that we should no longer live unto ourselves, but unto Him who died and rose again from the dead, even our Lord Jesus Christ.” And again another says: “But we behold Him Who hath been made a little lower than the angels, even Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He should taste of death on behalf of every man.”

He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. He Himself was unhurt by this, for He is impassable and incorruptible; but by His own impassability He kept and healed the suffering men on whose account He thus endured. In short, such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves. One cannot see all the waves with one’s eyes, for when one tries to do so those that are following on baffle one’s senses. Even so, when one wants to take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, one cannot do so, even by reckoning them up, for the things that transcend one’s thought are always more than those one thinks that one has grasped.

The Word, the eternal Son, assumed humanity that we might become God. Or, in the more commonly heard English translation of the statement. God became man that we might become God. This is salvation in the Eastern Christian mind. Yes, we are freed from the penalty of our sins. We are forgiven. But that is merely the starting point. That frees us to receive grace, that is to receive the life and energies of God, so that we can grow in communion with God and with each other. We are not saved until we fully participate in the life of the Trinity and in the life of every other true human being.

Salvation is thus utterly synergistic, but not in the merit-based sense that the term typically has in the West. Rather, since salvation is at its core relational in nature, it is synergistic by nature. A relationship, by definition, is two way. A monergistic relationship is an oxymoron. Our participation is empowered by God through the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus, through the gift of the presence of God within us in the seal of the Holy Spirit, and through the intertwined physical and spiritual mystical communion with God and with each other in many forms, but exemplified and rooted in the Eucharist. When you understand this, you understand why the Orthodox say things like, “The only thing you can do alone is go to hell.

But what a glorious vision of salvation this is! At it’s best in the Western sense, salvation still leaves us outside God, at most observing God. We are closer, of course. We can observe something of the dance of the Trinity. But we do not participate within it. We do not become one with God and with each other in the sense that Jesus taught. Sadly, as N.T. Wright has noted, the West has become so dualistic that often what is presented as the ultimate condition of salvation looks a whole lot more like Plato’s happy philosophers than anything recognizably Christian. We’ve reduced it to something small and ultimately boring. And that is truly sad, for the Christian story of what it means to be human and of our ultimate salvation is the best one you will ever find. I’ve explored many such stories and they pale in comparison.

In truth, as in my post on the Trinity in this series, my words here barely scratch the surface of this topic. It is just that deep and that rich. I’m at best an infant in my understanding. But hopefully I’ve exposed some of the beauty. I think there are a few more things I want to say in this series. We’ll see how many more posts that will entail.