Ancient Texts 2 – Nature and Composition

Posted: December 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 2 – Nature and Composition

Before we can explore the way texts were used in ancient, oral cultures, it’s important to understand their physical nature and the manner in which they were constructed. I’ve discovered over the years that something which is obvious or well-known for one person may not be known for another, so I’ll try to briefly cover all the main points. If you already know most of this, bear with me.

First, the two ancient media for texts (if you discount clay or stone engravings) were papyrus and parchment. Papyrus was developed in ancient Egypt from the pith of a plant that grew in the Nile region and became widely used across that region of the ancient world. Parchment was constructed from thin layers of animal skin (calf, sheep, or goat). Both tended to be somewhat fragile and subject to damage by the elements and both were expensive. The higher the quality, the more expensive they were.

Longer texts were originally maintained on scrolls. Scrolls tend to damage the material, especially at the ends where they were attached as they were rolled and unrolled. And scrolls were not necessarily easy to access. You couldn’t just flip to a particular page the way you can in a modern book. There was also a physical limit on the size of a scroll. (When we look at the development of what Christians call the Old Testament, there’s an interesting historical tidbit that flows from that fact.)

Around the first century BCE or CE, the idea of folding or stitching papyrus or parchment in a rectangular form called a codex developed. That form was widely adopted by early Christian writers and is obviously the predecessor of the modern book. A codex, however, was not as large as a modern book. The form wouldn’t physically support that size. That will be important to remember, especially when we consider the New Testament.

At least in part because of the expense, space was not wasted on ancient texts. Unlike your average Rob Bell book, most of the available material was typically covered in writing. Niceties like lower case and punctuation were also relatively late developing. So an ancient text typically was in all one case, with no punctuation, and no spaces between the words. (Ancient Hebrew didn’t even have vowels in its written form.) An overly simple example I’ve seen used to illustrate that point follows.

GODISNOWHERE

What does the above say? Does it say “God is now here?” Or does it say “God is nowhere?” Now that’s ridiculously simple and with any context at all, it wouldn’t be hard for any of us to figure out. But now imagine a large, complex text written like the above from edge to edge with no spacing, no breaks, no marks to indicate how it should be read and understood. Imagine this very post written in all caps with no spaces and no punctuation. Could you read it?

So how did texts work in the ancient world? It’s pretty straightforward, actually. Remember, these were oral cultures. The text was never meant to stand by itself. Instead it captured something that had been delivered orally or which was intended to be delivered orally. A person who knew how it was supposed to be read would orally present it to others who would learn the correct reading from the oral presentation. The text was not the delivery mechanism itself the way it is in a literate culture. Rather the text essentially formed the crib notes for the oral presentation. And the tradition of that oral presentation was then passed along with the text.

I don’t remember who it was, but there was one ancient Christian saint who was known in part because he could read the Holy Scriptures without his lips moving, that is without sounding it out as he read. Now, that seems unremarkable to those of us shaped within the context of a literate culture. But that was highly unusual in an oral culture. People were not shaped to think that way. And the texts themselves did not support it.

So when you pick up a Bible, there are some things you should now recognize about it. First, it was never a single book until pretty recent times. Instead, it was a collection of separate scrolls and codices. Those scrolls and codices were not divided into chapters and verses for easy reference for many years. Their early or original forms did not have any spaces between the words or any punctuation. When you read a modern Bible, even before you get into the issue of the way interpretation influences word selection in translation, it’s important to recognize that all of the punctuation, sentence structures, and paragraph breaks form an attempt to translate an oral tradition into a literate form.

As you can see, it’s a little silly to try to distinguish oral from written tradition. In the ancient world, it was all fundamentally oral tradition. The texts serve to capture part of the oral tradition in which they were embedded. Typically they formed a very important part of that tradition, else they would not have been preserved. But it’s important to place them in their proper ancient context.


Thirsting for God 8 – Love Beyond Reason

Posted: December 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 8 – Love Beyond Reason

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

There is nothing reasonable about God’s love. Matthew begins by describing the closeness of his love and bond with his wife in order to make the point that God’s love transcends even that.

But in the great Mystery of Love, my bond with Alice is a pale and impoverished shadow when compared to the oneness that I can share with Christ. He illumines my soul and drives me to my unworthy knees in repentant gratitude and joy.

Of course, over the years of his life, he had experienced moments of that joy and love. If he hadn’t, he probably wouldn’t have remained Christian.

The truth is, most sincere Protestants I know have had similar experiences. They recall them with unique fondness and joy. Unfortunately, what makes those times so special is the fact that they are so rare. They are not part of the everyday routine of evangelical life.

We know that the earliest Christians lived lives of such love, joy, and devotion that even as they were tortured and killed — joyfully while forgiving those who were killing them — they converted an empire. The experience of the love of Christ and union with him was not an occasional thing. It was their constant reality. In Orthodoxy, Matthew found the simple, humble, and quiet path toward an ever-deepening experience of Christ — one available to any and all.

So what does Orthodoxy have that Protestantism doesn’t? Why can’t Protestant faith consistently Christ in the way it so devoutly desires? In becoming Orthodox, I discovered the problem with my Protestant faith lay in the fact that the way it taught me to relate to God just didn’t work.

You see, the Protestant way of living in Christ is thoroughly rooted in a system of thinking known as rationalism.

Now rationalism does not mean simply thinking in a lucid, intelligent, or sensible way. Rather, rationalism is a particular system of interpreting reality.

Its essential tenet is that truth is discovered through reasoning, not through experience (that is, through observations, feelings, or actions).

While a bit over-simplified, that’s actually a pretty good summary of the heart of rationalism. It’s actually hard to convey a complex idea in simple language, so I can really appreciate the elegant simplicity of that definition. Matthew illustrates the point with a pretty good example, though rationalism infects different streams in different ways.

For instance, in one of the first sermons I can remember, the preacher held his Bible high over his head, waved it for emphasis, and cried, “When it comes to your faith in God, you can’t trust in your eyes. You can’t trust in your ears. You can’t trust in your feelings. All you can trust in is what you know from the Word of God!”

He relates other examples. For instance, at one point some of his pastor friends were considering taking courses in logic and critical reasoning. The felt that when most people struggled spiritually, the problem lay in their thinking, so they thought such courses would help them in their pastoral duties. The list of the ways such attitudes permeate Protestantism is endless. Faith is approached primarily as a matter for study.

Matthew came to realize what was glaringly obvious to me from the beginning and which I’ve heard others, such as Conversion Diary, mention in their journey toward faith. The standard mode of Protestant practice and experience through bible study has no connection to the early life of the Church. Those believers initially had limited access to the books that eventually became the New Testament. They also had limited access to what we now call the Old Testament. Moreover, the Old Testament scriptures had been radically reinterpreted by the apostles in the light of Christ. Scrolls (and later the earliest books) were extremely expensive. And many people were functionally illiterate anyway. The Protestant approach to Christian faith is highly anachronistic. It doesn’t fit in the context of the ancient world and you can’t make it fit.

But instead, the Church held to a sacramental view of Christian life. Sacramentalism is the belief that truth is discovered by experiencing the living Presence of Christ, by participating with Him in specific acts of worship that He Himself ordains.

It’s important to note that feelings and actions are still considered to be important within Protestantism. Some strands emphasize them more and some less. But most of Protestantism would agree that right actions and right feels have to start with right understanding. The problem is that, even in the context of Scripture, that’s simply not how God works. It also leads to the problem of how you get from theological knowledge of God in your head to love for God.

Well, a Protestant takes it for granted that knowledge somehow becomes love. What’s in the heart must first be in the head. That’s rationalism, pure and simple.

….

You see, anyone who will stop for a moment and simply consider what love is will realize that turning knowledge into love is an impossible endeavor. Head knowledge cannot become heart knowledge! Knowledge cannot produce love. It may direct us toward love. But it is not the same as love, nor can it serve as a substitute.

St. Paul is so clear about this fact that I don’t know why I didn’t see it long ago. I’ve discovered, though, that my modern mindset often kept me from seeing the obvious. St. Paul tells his spiritual children that the love we experience with Christ “passes knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19). The word “passes” is the Greek word that means “to transcend, surpass, or excel.”

Matthew illustrates that point with a thought exercise. He imagines that his wife and he have been separated by a door their entire lives. At some point, someone tells him about the lovely creature on the other side of the door and he becomes enamored with the idea of that person. He acquires knowledge about her and constructs a mental image of her. Even if he develops a completely accurate picture of her over time, he can’t be said to have a love relationship with her.

The simple fact is that I can’t have a real loving relationship with a mental image of someone I have not actually experienced — no matter how accurate that image may be. True love requires a live encounter with another person. It demands an interaction with that person that encompasses heart, soul, mind, and body.

I must open the door and embrace Christ as a Person, not as an object of my theological imagination.

Matthew Gallatin points out that it’s that desire that leaves many Protestants constantly seeking revival, seeking the next experience, seeking to be “fed” (a strange term I’ve heard that took me a while to understand), and essentially subsisting from one experience of Christ to another with long dry spells in between. Of course, God is not trying to hide. He is seeking to be known. Jesus has joined his nature wholly and completely to ours so that we might know him and have union with him. We construct the door that keeps him out, but he is always trying to get through it to us. As a result, anyone honestly seeking God will have some experience of him.

It’s at this point that Protestantism typically stalls. Those experiences remain occasional. And people get stuck trying to relate through a door to their own mental image of Jesus. It didn’t surprise me at all when Willow Creek discovered that the most dissatisfied among their membership were the most “mature” Christians (by typical Protestant measures). Reason can only get you so far.


Thirsting for God 6 – History

Posted: December 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 6 – History

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

It seems to me that in his journey, it took Matthew Gallatin a lot longer than it took me to turn to history. That’s really something that continues to surprise me in all facets of life — how little most people seem to look to history. I’ve had a love of history of all sorts — especially ancient history — for virtually my whole life. When I explored a religion or practice within a religion, it had always been normal for me to dive into its history. So my encounter with modern Christianity was always two-pronged. On the one hand, as I learned what modern groups taught and practiced, anachronisms — things that could not have fit in the context of the ancient world — tended to leap out at me. At the same time, I was reading and discovering what the actual ancient beliefs and practices were.

As Matthew Gallatin began to study the ancient Church, rulership (in the form of Bishops) was obvious. But the rulership of one man (the Pope of Rome) can’t readily be found. That was a problem for him when he considered Catholicism. (The actual basis for it flows from the fact that the West was largely frontier and was all part of one ancient See — that of Rome. As politics and other circumstances began to divide the See of Rome from the rest of the ancient patriarchates and as increasing chaos developed in the West, the Pope became a rock of stability in that patriarchate. Even though Rome was not the oldest patriarchate or even the oldest associated with Peter and Paul, it had always been accorded a special honor because of the importance of the city in geopolitical terms. From the hindsight offered by a historical perspective, it’s fairly easy to see the interplay develop over centuries.)

However, his main problem with all Western churches, Catholicism included, was the same one I always had. Love had drawn me inexorably into Christianity. And I felt powerfully drawn to the Jesus I read in the New Testament. But I was always repelled by the various Western doctrines of the atonement. As a rule, they all hold that Jesus was offering some sort of payment to the Father on the Cross — that for one reason or another, God had to be paid off. God had a problem with the very forgiveness he demanded from his followers. But at the same time that I was hearing these modern ideas, I was reading St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius — who offer a very different picture of what Christ was doing. I read St. Gregory the Theologian who flatly rejected the idea that Jesus was offering payment to either the Devil or to the Father. I believed in their God, not the one I was hearing from both the Protestant and Roman Catholic sides of the debate. For me, it would be years before I discovered that Orthodoxy actually still believed what the ancient Church had believed, so I largely set that to one side. I refused to accept the picture of a God who had to paid or satisfied, but I didn’t really know what to do with that rejection.

Beyond that, by studying history Matthew quickly discovered several things about the ancient Church.

  1. From Pentecost on, the worship of the Church was liturgical, not spontaneous of free-form.
  2. Early Church worship centered on the Eucharist or Communion. … In fact, one of the earliest heresies in the Church was the teaching that the bread and wine were not the real Body and Blood of the Lord.
  3. The early Church honored departed saints as members of the Church who are alive and worshiping in heaven.
  4. Infant baptism was the standard practice in the Church and was recognized as a doctrine received from the Apostles.

There is much more you can discover, of course. But the above are clearly true. We can even trace much of the first part of the liturgy leading up to the Eucharist to the liturgical synagogue worship from which they were adapted.

In the New Testament, Paul exhorts “the believers in Thessalonica to stand fast and hold to the traditions that they had been taught — those that came through epistles, and the many that came directly from the mouths of the Apostles.” In Ephesians, he says the Apostles (not Scripture) form the “foundation” of the Church. Paul writes to Timothy that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. Either the proper worship, practice, and truth about Jesus of Nazareth has been preserved in the historical Church, or it’s lost and like a mosaic shattered into a pile of tiles, I see no way to somehow reconstruct it.

To know what is the truth, therefore, does not first require theological interpretation of the Book. Rather, it simply takes looking at the actual beliefs, practices, and experiences of the Church of which Christ is the Head, which the Apostles served, lived out on the pages of history.


Rebaptized?

Posted: November 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Last week @writingjoy tweeted the following question.

Theology ? of day: What is baptism? If U R baptized very young & decades later awaken to genuine faith, should U B re-baptized?

In response to a question, she followed it up with the following explanation of genuine faith.

I mean more than acknowledging facts, actually loving God & living what those facts demand of a person.

I didn’t respond at the time since from my perspective it’s an extraordinarily complicated question in this day and age and I couldn’t think of anything vaguely meaningful I could say in 140 characters or less. But the question has been percolating in the back of my head ever since. Hopefully Joy won’t mind me using her tweet as the basis for a post on the topic. This won’t be a developed essay or theological analysis. I do, however, have a hodge podge of thoughts and reflections on the subject.

Most of my children and I have been baptized once, though the actual circumstances are a lot more complicated than that simple statement makes them seem. In my case, I was baptized at a young age (though old enough to remember my baptism) in a Baptist church. However, my formative experiences and movements into and decidedly away from Christianity were complex enough that I typically date my conversion (whatever you might take that to mean) to sometime in my early thirties when I found my identity actually being shaped as something like a Christian. It doesn’t mean that any prior encounter or experience of Christian faith was somehow inauthentic (or that my embrace and experience of other religions was inauthentic either), just that life is often more complicated than any simple formula can compass. Although, within the Baptist narrative, it would have been reasonable and acceptable to be rebaptized, I never embraced the idea that Baptism meant nothing more than getting wet.

My wife, however, had been baptized as an infant within the Roman Catholic Church and we had had my younger son baptized as an infant in a Lutheran Church. Both of them were rebaptized in our Baptist church, each at the appropriate time in that context. I don’t think that introduces any deep crisis or problem. While I wouldn’t say that such things make no difference, I also find that this strange Christian God I’ve found is relentlessly loving and willing that none should perish. He is working constantly for our salvation and especially in our deeply confused and confusing age, I don’t see such particulars posing any real problem.

Nevertheless, baptism matters and it matters deeply. One cannot read the New Testament without encountering that truth again and again. It does not represent a commitment or symbolize repentance (though if you are an adult, repentance is necessary and the forgiveness of sins is certainly part of what is accomplished). The Orthodox question in the Baptismal rite drives right to the heart of what is happening: Dost thou unite thyself unto Christ? In baptism, that is what we do and why, from the pages of the New Testament until the modern era, most Christians have baptized their infant children. Why would anyone deny their children union with Christ and the seal of the Holy Spirit in this dangerous and perilous world?

There is also a conceit in saying that a child cannot be baptized (be Christian) that often goes unnoticed. After all, we can all relate to a baby. We can love a baby and the baby in turn can love and relate to us. So we can do something that God cannot? Are we perhaps saying that until a child can verbally express their thoughts, God cannot possibly relate to that child and that child cannot be filled with love for God? I’ve seen such faith and love especially in my youngest daughter. I cannot point to any time when she did not know God and love Jesus. We were in a Baptist church so her baptism was delayed, but there was no change when she could finally express her faith and love enough in words to satisfy the adults in the church. She was simply expressing what she had always known and lived. Was there any gain for her in a delayed baptism? I think not.

Of course, as the child grows and develops, that faith and love also need to grow and develop. Life is not static and so faith can never be static. I’ve been amazed at the core of faith and love my daughter has maintained now into her teenage years, but I also know that life is hard and I pray for her. We can grow in faith. We can also grow away from Christian faith and place that faith in different places.

And that begs the question of genuine faith. I am growing in faith or I am falling away. There is no standing still. As Molly Sabourin so eloquently put it, I was saved 2,000 years ago, I am in the process of being saved, and I pray that I will be saved. If the measure of my love for God is my love for my enemies (St. Silouan), then I’m not sure I love God very much at all. I want to love him, but love is a hard thing and I have to be healed so I can truly love. If we waited until we had genuine faith, until we were fully converted, until we were truly Christian, I’m not sure any of us would ever dare be baptized. That is not the measure. Baptism unites us with Christ so that one day we might become Christian.

When you perceive baptism through those lens, only a Baptism undertaken with deliberate deceit or a Baptism other than one in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, could be considered invalid. Have you been united to Christ? I’ve always understood Luther’s declaration, “I have been baptized!” In the end, what more can we say? Either Jesus is who we believe he is and we are united to him in Baptism, or he’s not and we just got wet somewhere along the way.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 5 – Hades

Posted: June 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Anyone familiar with Greek Mythology will instantly recognize Hades as both the name of the Greek god of the underworld or the depths and the name of the abode of the dead over which he ruled. As such, it was the natural word for the Septuagint translators to choose for Sheol when the Jewish Scriptures were translated into Greek a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ. Moreover, it’s one of the words used in the Christian Holy Scriptures of the New Testament that is translated Hell.

In both instances, Hades should also be understood as referencing the abode of the dead or even death itself. That’s an important distinction. I would also suggest that “hell” is the appropriate english word for translating both Sheol and Hades. Hell (in various spellings) entered Old English through its Germanic influences. The words from which it came described various pagan concepts of an underworld or abode of the dead. The pre-Germanic languages may have also been influenced by Old Norse, in which Hel was both the goddess of the abode of the dead and sometimes one of the names for the abode itself (though “misty places” was its more common name).

Death holds a prominent place in the Christian understanding of reality, as I’ll explore later in this series. As such, it’s important to understand that Sheol (or Hades in Greek translation) was understood almost as a synonym for death itself. Hold that thought for the next post.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 1

Posted: May 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 1

1.  He who truly loves God prays entirely without distraction, and he who prays entirely without distraction loves God truly. But he whose intellect is fixed on any worldly thing does not pray without distraction, and consequently he does not love God.

I’m reminded by this text of another saying: A theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian. I think prayer is more important and deeper in meaning than many Christian traditions allow. I don’t think it’s merely a way to praise God or ask for intercession, however important it is to praise God and to intercede in prayer. Neither of those adequately account for the repeated emphasis the New Testament places on constant, unceasing prayer.

St. Maximos ties love of God to undistracted prayer. And I think it’s safe to assume he meant constant, undistracted prayer. I find his words describe me accurately. My love of God is always wavering. I have to keep returning to love of God just as I have to keep returning to prayer. Sometimes it’s all I can to do to pray for mercy.

In his centuries of love, St. Maximos peels back the lies we tell ourselves as though they were layers of an onion. It’s uncomfortable at times, but we can only love God in Spirit and Truth.


Amen! Amen!

Posted: February 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This post is a reflection on something I’ve heard or read a number of times over the past several months from some pretty different sources. Although I wouldn’t say that any aspect of it was something I didn’t know beforehand, it’s been bouncing around my head now for some time. It’s time to express those thoughts in writing.

We know some things about the rabbinic strand of Judaism that began during the exile and continued into the second temple period in which the Christian gospels are rooted. The things we learn about that period historically sometimes cast a particular light on something in the gospels. For instance, there was and is a rabbinic teaching (Berachot 6a) that wherever two or three are gathered together studying Torah, the shekinah of God (the presence and glory of God that, for example, filled Solomon’s temple) is with them. When you understand that teaching, it sheds a deeper light on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20 (originally written, remember, for a Jewish audience): “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

When a rabbi taught or spoke, those listening would say “Amen” when he finished if they concurred. “Amen” is the transliteration of an aramaic word that means, in essence, “I agree. I accept it.” Those listening to the rabbi would thus give their “amen”, their agreement after the rabbi had spoken.

That becomes significant as you read the accounts of Jesus teaching in the New Testament. Again and again, Jesus starts his teaching with “verily” (KJV), “truly” (many translations), or “I tell you the truth” (a lot of the more modern translations). We’ve gotten so used to it, I’m not even sure we tend to notice the phrase as we read the gospels. The phrase being translated, though, is “Amen” or “Amen Amen”. When Jesus says that at the start of something he is saying, it stands in sharp contract to typical rabbinic practice of the time. Basically, he is not only giving his own “amen” at the start, he is telling those listening that their “amen” is unnecessary. Jesus doesn’t need it. He is saying that his words are truth whether or not the hearers agree. When people said that he did not speak as other teachers did, that he spoke with authority, that’s certainly a part of what they meant.

That can be a difficult concept for me in many ways. Of course, on one level, it’s obvious that if God is who we find in Jesus of Nazareth, then many things we can imagine about the nature of reality are necessarily ruled out. If reality is resurrection, then reincarnation is ruled out. If reality is love and mercy, then at some level we have to let go of our ideas of karmic retribution. If reality is unfailing love, then we have to let go of the capricious gods that have dominated human history. And yet, the idea that reality is a particular way and does not require my “amen” still at some level bothers me. “Everybody wants to rule the world” as they say — or least their little slice of reality.

And, of course, not only does Jesus need no “amen”, not only does he give his own “amen” before he speaks, we see in Revelation that he is even named the Amen. I sense in that name that Jesus is the Amen of man. He is the true man, the faithful man, the man who gave to God his Amen. And as the faithful man, he recapitulates our story, joining our nature once again with God’s. We withheld our “amen” from God. Jesus stands as the Amen of man to God.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sola Scriptura 5 – Yanking On Those Bootstraps

Posted: August 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Yesterday I briefly touched on the complex manner in which the canon of Holy Scripture we often call the Bible developed over time within and as part of the tradition of the church. Scripture is not something which somehow stands apart or separate from the church and its tradition. Rather it is a product of the church and one of the foremost repositories of its tradition. This strange role in which many seem to place Scripture, as somehow in opposition to tradition and as somehow separate from and over the church, is an exceedingly distorted and unhistorical place. In some ways it really is a lot more similar to what Islam would say of Qur’an, which is even described at times as somehow with Allah from the beginning and engaged in the process of creation.

Moreover, as a philosophical idea, it has the proverbial problem of trying to tug itself up by its own bootstraps. A central assertion of sola scriptura in its various forms to the extent that I understand them is that every central or essential belief or practice of the Church must be found in the Bible. However, the concept of sola scriptura itself cannot be found anywhere in Scripture. Further, while there isn’t much related to that particular philosophical idea in the New Testament (since it’s not an idea that the first century church would have encountered in a predominantly oral culture), the things that are most closely related actually contradict the idea of sola scriptura. For instance, in 1 Timothy 3:15, it’s not Scripture that is the pillar and ground of truth, but the church. And in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Paul exhorts the church to “..stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” The church, the pillar and ground of truth, is urged to stand and hold to the oral and written traditions it has been given. There are a few other places with somewhat related ideas, but they all express that same general theme.

And that, of course, begs the question. If sola scriptura is not itself found in Scripture, and it’s not found in the historical life and practice of the ancient church, and it’s not part of the tradition of the church anywhere until it was invented in the 16th century, why believe it?


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 25 – Conclusion

Posted: August 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This seems like a good place to bring this series to a close. I believe I’ve demonstrated what the Internet Monk called “the historical problem” with the Baptist understanding of the Eucharist. I’ve meandered through the writings of the early church, the church under persecution, from the first century to the third century. Consistently, from the writings of the Holy Scripture in the New Testament, to those taught by the apostles, those taught in turn by them, and onward from generation to generation, all those we would consider in any sense “orthodox” confess that the bread and wine are the body and blood of our Lord. It was a matter of great mystery and power. The Eucharist equipped the people of God so that they might stand under persecution. Even those like the early gnostics, who rejected the goodness of the material world and the Incarnation itself, understood the confession of the Church and so refused to partake of the Eucharist.

There is simply no place from the foundation of the Church and the writing of the Holy Scriptures, to the end of persecution in the fourth century where the teaching and practice of the Eucharist changed from one thing into something else. There is no point in time where the early Church believed anything different, taught anything different, or practiced anything different. Instead, there is a deep unity and consistency.

After this period, of course, Christianity became a legal religion and we have many more preserved writings, all of which maintain the same tradition. The oldest Christian liturgy still in use today is the liturgy of St. James the Just. We know it was certainly in use by the fourth century and may date much earlier in the Apostolic See of Jerusalem. This is the liturgy that St. Basil somewhat shortened and which St. John Chrysostom further abbreviated. This liturgy is thus the source for the Divine Liturgy most commonly used in Orthodox Churches. Spend time with the whole text (and remember that it is sung), but this tiny excerpt leaves no doubt about what those participating believed about the Eucharist.

Your same all-holy Spirit, Lord, send down on us and on these gifts here set forth, that having come by his holy, good and glorious presence, he may sanctify this bread and make it the holy body of Christ, and this Cup the precious blood of Christ, that they may become for all those who partake of them for forgiveness of sins and everlasting life. For sanctification of souls and bodies. For a fruitful harvest of good works. For the strengthening of your holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, which you founded on the rock of the faith, so that the gates of Hell might not prevail against it, delivering it from every heresy and from the scandals caused by those who work iniquity, and from the enemies who arise and attack it, until the consummation of the age.

A great mystery? To be sure. Nevertheless, this was the confession of all Christians from the first century through to the sixteenth. Yes, in the thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas used the language of Aristotle in an attempt to rationally explain the mystery. And because most people don’t really approach the world through the lens of Aristotle, the theory of “transubstantiation” has certainly been poorly understood and ill-used at times. St. Thomas was himself simply trying to make rational sense of the mystery of the Eucharist using terms and symbols with which he was familiar. Transubstantiation actually says that the substance or the true reality becomes the body and blood even while the accidents, that is the parts we can see, touch, smell, and taste, remain sensibly bread and wine. St. Thomas would probably have been better served to leave it a mystery beyond explanation.

As we observed earlier in this series, of the sixteenth century reformers Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, only Luther maintained a perspective of the Eucharist at all consistent with the entire preceding history of the Church. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, Luther probably would have been better served leaving the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood a great mystery. But he was a product of both medieval Roman Catholicism and the early modern era and felt constrained to attempt to rationalize it in his theory of consubstantiation. Nevertheless, he locates the body and blood of Christ with the bread and wine of the Eucharist in a real way.

Calvin and Zwingli? They both essentially invented new ideas about the Eucharist. Their ideas are sixteenth century innovations that didn’t exist before they conceived them. Unfortunately, they ended up having more influence over Protestantism than Luther did. Luther’s teaching remained largely limited to Lutherans. Calvin’s had broader influence. While some version of Zwingli’s teaching on the Eucharist has become the norm for most of Protestant belief and practice. It can be fairly said that those who follow Zwingli or Calvin in their teaching of the Eucharist are practicing a faith that is less than five hundred years old rather than one that is more than two millenia old.

Is that a historical problem?

I would call it one.