The Jesus Prayer 21 – The First Stage of the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 21 – The First Stage of the Jesus Prayer

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

For this section, Khouria Frederica draws from a treatise, About the Jesus Prayer and the Lord’s Grace,  by Archbishop Anthony Golynsky-Mihailovsky (AD 1889-1976). Abp. Anthony suffered greatly under Communist rule. He was sustained by the Jesus Prayer and was unfailingly kind and forgiving. His treatise was circulated in handwritten copies and was only published legally after the fall of the Soviet Union. He explains that the Philokalia intentionally skips the first levels of the prayer. Those who are ready for it find it helpful and it will not harm those who are not yet ready.

Abp. Anthony describes first the beginner’s experience, that of saying the Prayer simply as an act of will, a phase variously called “verbal,” “vocal,” or “oral.” He prescribes how many prayers should be said as what times, interspersed with physical gestures. After each ten repetitions, he says, one should make a metania (pronounced “meh-TAN-yah”), making the sign of the cross and bowing, reaching the right hand to the floor. After thirty-three repetitions, one should make three prostrations, kneeling and then touching the forehead to the floor. You don’t have to perform those gestures, of course, though you may well benefit if you do. They are a standard part of a monastic’s prayer life.

This is thus the Verbal or Oral Stage of the Jesus Prayer. In the beginning, it’s hard work. Our minds wander constantly and we have to keep bringing our attention back to the prayer. Gradually it becomes easier as the peace and beauty of God’s presence begins to draw the mind’s attention. Abp. Anthony notes that because true prayer is hard work, we should get adequate rest, speak less, express opinions less, and avoid controversy. I’m not very good at any of the things in his list. I’m rarely shy about expressing opinions and I seem to be constantly busy.

At this stage, we also need to be careful not to be deceived by any supernatural or visionary experiences. In my own mind, I’ve long contrasted the modern charismatic movement with the stories of the ancient monks. While charismatics often embrace any supernatural or ecstatic experience or visitation, the ancient monks were much more cautious. Even when visited by a true angel, they would initially reject the idea that an angel would visit anyone as unworthy as they perceived themselves. They remembered always that the devil can appear as an angel of light and that every spirit is not the Holy Spirit.

Khouria Frederica also shared a brief historical aside on prostrations. I wanted to share it as well.

Prostrations sometimes occur during Orthodox worship services, particularly in Lent. When I was first introduced to this practice I said, “Like the Muslims?” and my friend replied, “The Muslims got it from us.” To be more precise, much of the Muslim Middle East used to be Eastern Christian. Christians and Muslims both got the practice from Judaism. A Bible concordance will show many Old Testament references to “They fell on their faces.”


Ancient Texts 6 – Old Testament

Posted: January 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 6 – Old Testament

I’m going to end this series by looking specifically at the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Holy Scriptures. They are very different collections so I’m going to approach each in a separate post. The obvious place to begin is with what is often called the Old Testament. Now the Old Testament as a whole is an enormously complex topic and I obviously can’t even cover its development comprehensively in a single post. Instead, I’m just going to cover some of the things I find interesting and perhaps some of the things which seem to often be popularly misunderstood today.

First, the books of the Old Testament represent the accumulation of many centuries of oral tradition. There’s no indication and no reason to believe that any of it was produced in written form concurrent with the events described or near the start of that particular part of the oral tradition. The Torah was pretty clearly the first part of tradition transcribed in a written form. That does not appear to have happened at once, but by the time of the Kings of Israel, it does appear to be in a more or less settled state. Certainly it changed the least in the post-exilic period.

The Torah actually appears in places to incorporate somewhat different oral traditions. That’s why there are two creation narratives and why Leviticus and Deuteronomy don’t necessarily line up perfectly. But as I’ve explored earlier in this series, such things simply didn’t create any tensions or problems in the ancient cultures in question. When we turn those facts into problems, we are anachronistically superimposing a modern, literate mindset on the ancient cultures. Personally, I try to avoid creating problems that didn’t and couldn’t have existed in the ancient world.

Ancient Israel was not text-centered. That’s another fact that seems to often be missed by people today. That’s not to say that texts (once they existed) were unimportant. At one point, for example, the scroll of Deuteronomy was recovered and its public reading marked a turning point for the people. But Israel was fundamentally Temple-centered. That’s a huge difference. You can see that emphasis shifting among some quadrants of Israel as we get closer to the first century CE, but it did not become universal until the shift to Rabbinic Judaism after the final destruction of the Temple and the failure of the last Messianic movement. The shift from Temple to Torah (or Tanakh) really belongs in the second century CE. Again, that’s not to say that the texts (and certainly the tradition behind them) were ever unimportant. It’s just that if you try to interpret and understand ancient Israel primarily or exclusively in, through, and around the text, you will miss the larger picture.

Moreover, as was pretty common across the ancient world, Israel was not particularly concerned about establishing a canon or keeping texts static. I think it’s Jeremiah, for instance, of which they’ve found four pretty different versions preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls. We also see other development in the texts. The Septuagint (LXX) was created from Hebrew texts because Hebrew was no longer spoken. It provided a Greek translation of the Torah initially and later other books as well. By the time of Christ, many writings were commonly associated with the LXX. However, the LXX was always something of a commentary on the Hebrew and so it changed as the Hebrew text changed and evolved. The book of Daniel provides a good example of that sort of evolution. The current Hebrew and Greek versions of Daniel track pretty closely. The Greek version still includes Bel and the Dragon and the song of the youths, but otherwise pretty much follows the Hebrew. But we’ve found an older Greek version of Daniel that is quite a bit different. It apparently tracked an older Hebrew form of the book that would have otherwise been lost to us.

The LXX is also significant for Christians. Although it was created for Jews before the time of Christ, Greek was the lingua franca of the Empire. That’s why all of the New Testament is in Greek. And since the Church very quickly went out to the nations, that is to what the Jews called the Gentiles, the Church used the LXX. We can see that in the NT text. In almost every place where there is a difference between the Greek and the Hebrew text of the OT quoted in the NT, even if it’s just a minor count of some sort, the NT quotation tracks the LXX. And that simply makes sense. If you’re going to preach to people who speak Greek (even if it’s not their native tongue) you’re going to use the Greek text. If even the Jews didn’t speak Hebrew anymore, the nations certainly couldn’t be expected to understand it.

Now some will go so far as to say that Protestants have the wrong Old Testament. But I find that statement still too centered on the text itself. You have to ask the wrong Old Testament for what? Now, it is true that the LXX text (or a translation of it such as the Latin Vulgate, the text in Russian, or any of the other translations as the Church spread to the nations) is the text read in Church and used in liturgy from the beginning of the Church until the Protestant Reformation. So in that particular instance, I think Protestants do have to provide an explanation for why they have changed the OT that Christians have always used in Church worship.

But the truth is that Christians have always been aware of the Hebrew texts and have used them for other purposes. Sometimes they opposed changes to the Hebrew text as the Masoretic Jewish canon was developed beginning in the second century CE. But across all centuries, some Christians have learned Hebrew and compared the texts. There’s relatively little variation, for instance, in the Torah itself. Moreover, Christians have always been aware that many of the books in the LXX are a translation from Hebrew (some of the later ones were originally written in Greek) and at places the Hebrew text makes more sense than the Greek text. Now the Greek text is still read in Church, but points often are drawn in recorded homilies and other Christian writings from both the Greek and the Hebrew forms of the text. Once again, variation in the text just wasn’t a problem in the ancient world for Christians.

Of course, there wasn’t a single version of the LXX any more than there was a single version of the Hebrew text in the first century. Again, that wasn’t seen as a problem in the ancient world. People used whichever version they had and with which they were familiar. That means some of the versions of the LXX used today by different traditions that were separated geographically and culturally aren’t exactly the same. The Latin Church (long before the schism) didn’t have as many books translated in the Vulgate as the Churches we now call “Eastern Orthodox” had in their OT. And in some places like Ethiopia and Egypt (again well before any schism) their versions of the LXX had more books included. Again, variations like that were not important in the ancient world. Although Marcion, who rejected the whole Old Testament, was soundly refuted by all, I don’t recall any council trying to nail down a precise OT canon. It just wasn’t an issue.

As a rule, if something didn’t bother ancient Christians over the course of centuries, I’m hard-pressed to find a reason it should bother me.

One interesting fact about the Protestant OT is that although it uses the books of the Masoretic canon, it mostly uses the LXX names for the books. For instance, the first book is “Genesis” rather than “In the Beginning.” That’s always struck me as curious. I’m not entirely sure why, but it was probably to maintain some connection and familiarity with the Holy Scriptures as Christians had learned them.

If you compare the LXX, a Catholic Bible, or a Protestant OT with the Jewish canon, you will see that Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are each one book in the Jewish canon, but are two books each in any Christian Bible. (Samuel and Kings are 1 Kingdoms, 2 Kingdoms, 3 Kingdoms, and 4 Kingdoms in the LXX and 1, 2, 3, & 4 Kings in a Catholic Bible rather that 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings the way there titled in a Protestant Bible.) The reason for that difference are rather prosaic. In earlier posts, I mentioned that a scroll could only hold so much. I also mentioned that ancient Hebrew didn’t use vowels. Ancient Greek did include vowels. Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were too long to put on a single scroll when they were translated from Hebrew to Greek. So they were each split into two scrolls. The Hebrew versions of each did fit on a single scroll so they weren’t divided.

At least, that what I’ve read. But it does make sense when you think about it.


Ancient Texts 4 – Textual Variation

Posted: December 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 4 – Textual Variation

There is a great deal of attention and concern given today to textual variation in the Holy Scriptures. There are even books written by people who have lost Christian faith because they held to anachronistic and ultimately unsustainable views about the Bible. So I wanted to devote a post to the manner in which ancient texts were transmitted and preserved, placing the development of what we call the Bible in its proper context.

First, it’s important to recognize that unlike some sacred texts (the Qur’an is one good example) our Holy Scriptures were not written by one person at one point in time. The development of what we call the Bible today is a complex topic, but it certainly has many authors and developed over a long period of time. All of it captures a significant part of a larger oral tradition. Basically, the text of the Holy Scriptures functions as an integral piece of that oral tradition. Some parts, especially from what we call the Old Testament, developed over time — sometimes centuries. The New Testament, by contrast, was largely written by specific individuals and did not particularly develop over time. However, it all fits within a larger tradition and loses its meaning if removed from that tradition.

Next, as we’ve discussed before, these texts were all written and copied by hand. We have a difficult time grasping the difficulty of that task. It was extremely labor-intensive. And the materials were fragile and degraded over time, especially if handled and read frequently. Nor was there any sense in the ancient world that absolute verbatim accuracy in the copy was required. It’s not just a case of scribal error — though that certainly occurred. For instance, it’s possible that John did not originally include the story of the adulterous woman in John 8. It’s possible that a scribe a century later or so, living within a community immersed in the Johannine oral tradition decided that story also needed to be preserved. If so, by accepting the revised Gospel, the Church accepted that story as well. It’s not somehow of lesser importance or reliability. In fact, we would owe a debt to that scribe for preserving that piece of the tradition for us in the text.

However, variations in the text were simply not seen as a problem by anyone in the ancient world. We have homilies preserved by, for example, St. John Chrysostom where he encounters variations in a text. He simply notes that he has also seen it rendered this other way. Sometimes he’ll draw a spiritual point from both variant readings. But it doesn’t bother him when it happens. Now, there is a great deal of fidelity in the Christian manuscripts of the New Testament. Obviously care was lavished on their preservation. But they are a synergy between man and God both in their production and in their preservation. Like the Incarnation itself, the Holy Scriptures and the Church that provides the context for them are as fully human as they are divine — with all which that implies.

I’ll close with one more observation on textual variation. If you read the notes in a modern Bible, you’ll see comments that say things like “the oldest manuscripts do not include this.” Sometimes implied in that is the idea that the older a manuscript is the more accurate it is. But the truth is that we simply don’t know. As I’ve mentioned, the more a text was handled, the more it deteriorated. So it’s equally reasonable to assume that an old, variant manuscript survived because it was recognized as a poor copy and thus wasn’t used. We just don’t know. The only real guide we have lies in the reading or readings that the Church has accepted as valid or useful for edification.

If you ask the wrong questions, you’re unlikely to find the right answers. And a lot of the modern discussion on textual variation in parts of Christianity seems to flow from the wrong questions.


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 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!’


Thirsting for God 2 – What is Truth?

Posted: December 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 2 – What is Truth?

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

It seemed to me that truth, for a Protestant Christian, is whatever you interpret it to be.

The turning point in Matthew’s journey hinged on this realization. That was obvious to me. My formation (whether you call it postmodern or something else) left me acutely aware that we perceive everything around us through layers of interpretation. Whenever somebody has proclaimed, “The Bible says,” I’ve always heard, “I interpret the Bible to say.” That’s been as obvious and as natural to me as breathing. I’m reminded of one of the second century Fathers who wrote that the Scriptures (primarily speaking about what we call the Old Testament at that point, of course) are like a mosaic. Interpreted correctly they form a picture of Christ. But the heretics takes the tiles and rearrange them to form the picture of a wolf or a fox instead.

The question then becomes a different one. Is God simply whatever we interpret him to be? Or does God have a reality that is independent of our interpretation? You might think the answer is obvious, but be careful here. If you equate truth with your own interpretations and belief, then in essence you are saying you get to define God. I’ve done that sort of thing before I began to be drawn into Christianity. I know its taste. And when you dig down deeply, the foundations of what we label “New Age” these days are a whole lot different from what lies beneath Protestant Christianity. Both ultimately depend on me.

And here we get to the realization in Matthew Gallatin’s life that forms the basis for the title of the book.

To me, Protestant faith had shown itself to be a great dream that cannot find its fulfillment, a deep question that cannot answer itself, an eternal thirst dwelling in a land of shallow wells.

And that led him to the question, “Who is the Jesus I trust?”

No, the question What is the Truth? is unavoidable. For unless I’m sure I know the truth about Christ, how do  know that my Christian faith isn’t just an illusion? The human mind and emotions are powerful things. It’s absolutely possible to create a mental picture of someone and have an intense relationship with him or her, even though he or she isn’t real. Think about the imaginary friends many of us have as children. If I’m not absolutely certain that I know the truth about who Christ is, my Christian life could simply be a love affair with an imaginary Friend. … So I could not sidestep issues of truth merely be saying, “I just trust in Jesus.”

Matthew then began to wonder if the problem was not in the distinctive teachings of different Protestant strands, but in what they all held in common. He came up with three common traits.

  1. They are all willing to invent the church.
  2. They all believe that the Holy Scriptures are the foundation of truth. While it is shaded in different ways, they all embrace some aspect of the idea of sola scriptura.
  3. Truth is a rational thing.

Those all ties together. Scriptures are the only reliable foundation. We can use our rational abilities to analyze scripture and by doing so we can uncover the truth. That truth will then show us the correct way to worship and live as Christians. To one extent or another, every Protestant strand of Christianity depends on those three ideas.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 7 – Gehenna

Posted: June 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The third and last word translated “hell” in the NT is Gehenna. It’s also the trickiest one to interpret. We see it used most often in prophetic (and often apocalyptic) pronouncements by Jesus. (I think we can also assume the “lake of fire” in St. John’s Apocalypse is intended to be understood in similar ways.) I personally find Jewish Apocalyptic a very dense and difficult form to wrap my head around. So I don’t promise any significant insight in this post. But I do want to outline the few things I believe I do understand about it.

First, I think it’s important to note that Gehenna describes an actual place – the place outside Jerusalem that was used essentially as the dump. Imagine a constantly smoldering and burning place where refuse is flung. Obviously, when Jesus uses Gehenna in his prophetic imagery, he’s not talking about that actual place, but drawing on its awfulness.

When you study the way Jesus uses Gehenna in his prophetic statements, it seems clear that at least in some sense many of them were fulfilled when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. However, Jewish prophecies in our Holy Scriptures often have meanings and applications that go well beyond their immediate fulfillment. We see a lot of that in the way Old Testament prophecies were interpreted in the Apostolic teaching as speaking about Jesus. So this fact does nothing to eliminate the eschatological sense of Gehenna.

Both of those images, though, reinforce the idea of Gehenna as deeply unpleasant. When we speak of a future hell, then, we’re speaking of Gehenna, not Hades. We’re talking about something other than death.


Original Sin 20 – Job 14:4-5

Posted: March 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 20 – Job 14:4-5

I left for last an examination of the texts from Scriptures used by St. Augustine to support his idea of original sin as the inherited guilt of all mankind. It has always seemed to me that St. Augustine developed his framework from the other sources and for the reasons I’ve examined in this series and then found texts he could use to connect those ideas to the Holy Scriptures. St. Augustine uses just five texts to support his idea of original sin, so we’ll look at each of them in turn. I will note that St. Augustine wrote and read in Latin and appears to have either been uncomfortable with Greek or outright disliked it. A couple of the verses on which he relies are actually mistranslated in the Latin text on which he relied.

The first text we’ll examine is Job 14:4-5. This also seems to be the first mistranslated text. It appears that the Latin version St. Augustine used was translated to read (in part) as follows.

Who is clean from sin? Not even a child whose life on earth is of one day.

I will note that the LXX (which is the traditional Christian Old Testament) and the Hebrew Masoretic text differ somewhat on this text. However, neither reads like the above. I’ll start with the LXX (quoting in full from the OSB).

For who shall be pure from uncleanness? No one. Even if his life is but one day upon the earth, his months are numbered by You. You appointed a time for him, and he cannot exceed it.

Within the context of Job’s prayer to God, he is saying that we are bound by mortality and with just a day amid the struggles of this life, even the most righteous would sin. St. John Chrysostom had the following to say on the passage.

You see Job taking refuge again in his nature, because it is impossible, he says, to be pure. [He implores God] not only because of our weakness or our ephemeral nature or the disheartening that fills our life, but because it is also impossible to be pure. … Job expresses again the ephemeral, miserable, and unhappy character of life. … Then Job demonstrates that human beings are the unhappiest of all, more than trees, rivers and the sea.

The Hebrew Masoretic text is translated as follows in the NKJV.

Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one! Since his days are determined, The number of his months is with You; You have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass.

The gist of verse five, looking at both texts, is clearly the idea that our days are numbered. We are limited. St. Gregory the Great writes the following.

God sets bounds to our spiritual attainments. We learn humility by the things we are unable to master, that we may not be exalted by those things we have the power to do.

With this text, it seems obvious to me that it does not say anything like what St. Augustine thought it said. His exegesis of this text was led astray by a flawed translation. That leaves four more texts to examine.


Original Sin 12 – God & the Nations

Posted: March 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 12 – God & the Nations

So God doesn’t eternally condemn or separate from his people, but he called a specific people because he does condemn the nations, right? After all, they don’t worship him, but other gods instead. They are mired in practices God condemns and it seems like God completely rejected them when he called his own people. And whether we call the people of God ‘Israel’ or we call his people the ‘Church’, they are still his people. He loves them and condemns the nations, right?

That is actually a valid question. And even if it’s not expressed exactly in those terms, how often do you hear things in Christian churches today that fall somewhere along those lines? I think you’ll find that the sentiment is broader than you might have imagined. Does it help if we call the nations the ‘world’?

In the Old Testament, I find one of the clearest answers to that question in Jonah. God loved the nations, even then, so much that he sent a prophet to them. That was a highly unusual act. After all, as far as everyone was concerned, he wasn’t the God of the Ninevites. They had their own gods. Moreover, they weren’t even a friendly nation. They were enemies of the people of God.

We usually reduce the story of Jonah to one about trying to avoid doing what God wants us to do. And while it’s true that we should not fail to do what God would have us do (even though we really don’t like much of what the NT has to say on that topic), that’s not really the point of Jonah. The focus is less on Jonah trying to avoid acting as God’s prophet and more on why he was trying to avoid that call. Jonah is running because he hates the Ninevites and wants them to be destroyed. And, as he says again and again, he knows that God is “compassionate and merciful, longsuffering and abundant in mercy, and willing to change your heart concerning evils.”

Jonah knew God better than many Christians seem to know God. He knew God had no problem with forgiveness. And he was thoroughly ticked at God for that precise reason.

The story in the Old Testament is never about inherited guilt. It’s about what people (or collectively nations) choose to do or not do. And God is first and foremost a God of patience, compassion, and mercy. That makes sense, of course, if Jesus really is God because that is one of the things that marks the Gospels so distinctively.