Parallels Between Calvinism and Islam

Posted: August 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ve been reflecting recently on the deep influence Islam had on the Renaissance. Much of the West’s recovery of classical texts, it’s numbering system, and a significant portion of what became the scientific method flowed into the Renaissance from Islamic sources and influences. And as I reflected on those influences, it struck me that medieval Islam had a significant impact on the Protestant reformation and that influence is most evident in Calvinism.

Hopefully my point won’t be misunderstood. I’m well aware of John Calvin’s publicly expressed opinion on Islam. (At one point, I believe he called it one of the two horns of the antichrist with the other being the Roman Catholic Church.) I don’t mean direct, conscious influence. Rather, Islam had for centuries helped shape the culture within which Calvin was born and lived and which formed the lens through which he perceived the world, but it was not an overt influence.  Culture tends to operate below the conscious level and the forces which shape culture are many and varied. But when I look at the church Calvin founded, I see a number of strands influenced by Islam.

First, the Reformers in general and Calvin specifically, made “the book” the foundation and core of their faith in a way that had never been true in Christianity. Christians never traditionally saw themselves as people of the book. That’s actually a phrase from within Islam describing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Rather Christians had always been the people of the living Lord, the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Scriptures, and the Gospels in particular, were always important in Christianity, but they were never at the center of our faith in the way Torah is in Judaism or the Qur’an in Islam.

And then I’m struck by Calvin’s fierce iconoclasm. Iconoclasm had risen within the Roman Empire in the eighth century and its rise at that point in time within Christianity is almost certainly connected to the influence of Islam on the emperor and other leading figures of the state. That led to a period of intense persecution that was ultimately ended only by the seventh ecumenical council condemning iconoclasm as heresy. That event is still celebrated today in the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” on the first Sunday of Great Lent and the matter was largely settled within Christianity until Calvin revived it. Again, as in the eighth century, the influence of Islam, even on a cultural or subconscious level, can be seen.

However, the most telling influence to me lies in the sort of God Calvin ultimately described. John Calvin emphasized the sovereign nature of God over creation. His belief in predestination accords more closely with the Islamic concept of preordainment than anything found within mainstream Christian tradition. For Calvin, as for Muslims, everything that happens has been preordained by God. And that everything is truly all-encompassing, covering good and evil alike. If an army pillages a town, that was ordained by God. If a drought leaves a country in famine, that was ordained by God. A hurricane striking a city inflicting death, loss, and pain was ordained by God. We can see Calvin’s influence today when Christians point to something horrible and describe it as an act of God. And that aspect of his theology shares much more in common with Islam than Christianity.

Of course, Calvinism is also different from Islam on many levels. My point is not that it’s simply some form of Christianized Islam. Rather, I see threads connecting elements within Calvinism (and spreading from there to a wide swath of Protestant Christianity) to the cultural influence medieval Islam had on the European culture that formed and shaped John Calvin. None of us ever stand in a vacuum free from outside influence and most of the time it’s even hard to see those forces that have shaped and formed us. And Calvinism along with the other Christian strands it in turn influenced, seems to have been shaped in part by Islam.


Mary 22 – Dormition of the Theotokos

Posted: February 22nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 22 – Dormition of the Theotokos

Dormition of the Theotokos

This feast, celebrated on August 15 following a fourteen day fast, is the last Great Feast of the Orthodox liturgical year. I find it interesting and fitting that their liturgical calendar begins and ends with a feast of Mary. Dormition means ‘falling asleep’ using the Christian term from the New Testament for death. The term reflects our belief that death has been defeated by Christ; the metaphorical gates of Hades or Sheol have been burst asunder and death no longer enslaves humanity.

Tradition holds that the apostles were miraculously summoned and, except for Thomas, were all present when Mary reposed. Thomas arrived a few days later and desiring to see her one more time, convinced them to open the tomb. When the tomb was opened, it was found empty. This event is seen as one of the firstfruits of the resurrection of the faithful.

The feast is celebrated as the Solemnity of the Assumption by the Roman Catholic Church and focuses on her bodily assumption rather than her death. In fact, the dogma is phrased in a way that leaves open the question of whether or not Mary experienced death at all and many Catholics believe she did not. Pope Pious XII made the Assumption a dogma of the Catholic Church on November 1, 1950 as follows.

By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

As with other such dogmas established in Catholicism as acts of Papal Infallibity, the Orthodox perceive this as another addition to the faith by the Catholic Church, widening the schism between the two. In this case, unlike the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Orthodox essentially agree on the event itself. But the Orthodox believe it is preserved in the faith through the liturgical life of the Church and not as a dogma.

Below is a recording of an ancient hymn of the feast in English.


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.


Praying with the Church 6 – Prayer Books: A Preface

Posted: July 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 6 – Prayer Books: A Preface

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

I don’t know how or why our tradition moved away from the practice of, as Scot McKnight puts is, ‘praying with the church in the basilica’, whether physically with other believers or not. I’ll be generous and assume they had what seemed to them to be good reasons at the time. However, whatever the forces that were once in play, we are in the midst of a massive cultural shift. And as someone who was shaped by forces somewhere further along the shift than, it seems, many in our church, I can only say that this strikes me as a more important discipline and practice today than perhaps any time since the days of the early church.

In this chapter, Scot shifts from looking into the scriptural underpinnings of the practice of set prayers at set times and moves into just a few of the specific examples of those practices and prayers. However, he opens with an overview of the idea of prayer books. I like the way he assumes his reader will have absolutely no significant background in the practice. That describes me!

The foundation of every prayer tradition, apparently, are the prayers in Scripture. We call the book of prayers Psalms. And from that all traditions draw a Psalter. Typically Psalters divide the Psalms into cycles of readings that allow you to read them all each month. Naturally, Psalms should be read aloud. Allow the rhythm to permeate your being. With the Psalms as a foundation, the different prayer books are designed to draw on scripture and the lengthy history of the church to pray in the manner Jesus modeled for us and instructed us to pray.

McKnight will take us through four prayer books in the ensuing chapters. He has ordered his presentation in chronological order, which is basically an arbitrary order. That means he will start with Eastern Orthodox, move to the Roman Catholic prayer book, then to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and finally to the modern Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle. There are, of course, many others. But from those, we can learn some of the flavors of this rich tradition and practice of the Abrahamic faiths in general and Christianity specifically. He does note that for those without experience in Christian prayer tradition, the ecumenical ‘Divine Hours’ is probably the most readily accessible.

To open, Scot attempts to distill a definition of ‘prayer books’. No single definition fits all, but this is the essence he comes up with. “Prayer books are an ordering of the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, and various passages of the Bible into worship.”

Scot also notes that prayer books are shaped by the Christian calendar. Do any of you know why we essentially ignore the ordering of time itself as part of our faith in our denomination? As I’ve learned more about the  Christian calendar, that choice has increasingly puzzled me. If there’s a reason, I would like to be able to consider it. But most of what I’ve found seems like essentially mindless reaction against anything that could be considered even vaguely “Roman Catholic.” And frankly, that strikes me as utterly insufficient reason to abandon such formative and central ideas and practices.

Scot then notes that the Psalms (and perhaps many prayers) should be sung or chanted rather than spoken. Paul assumes people will sing Psalms. Jesus and the disciples sang what were very likely Psalms after the Last Supper. Augustine said, “Whoever sings the psalms, prays twice.”  And most prayer books can be spoken, read responsorially, read antiphonally, or read responsively. Prayer books also indicate when the sign of the cross is appropriate, typically with the symbol (+). Christians have crossed themselves from the earliest days. Most Protestant resistance to it seems again to fall into the category of protest against anything the Roman Catholic church ever did. And that’s just nuts.

Scot ends this chapter with a reminder that set prayers do not in any way replace or detract from spontaneous prayers. Both are called for and reinforce each other.


Original Sin 17 – Blocked Transmission

Posted: March 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

In addition to the issue of Christ’s nature that I discussed yesterday, which I perceive as the central problem, the idea that all mankind naturally inherits guilt in a “sinful nature” but that Jesus didn’t tends to raise another question. How is it that Jesus did not inherit our nature of inherited guilt when he became human? It seems to me that many Protestants simply ignore the question. I could be wrong, of course. I’m hardly an expert on any Christian tradition. But that’s my impression. I am aware of two different ways this question is answered, though.

The first I remember hearing in a sermon from a Baptist minister when I was a teenager. It stuck in my head all these years because it sounded so strange to me at the time. I wasn’t sure at first if he was serious or not, but it quickly became apparent that he was. I have no clue how common or uncommon this idea might actually be. If anyone does know, feel free to add that information in the comments. Here’s the thread of the explanation as I recall it.

Because Adam ate knowingly and was not deceived like Eve, his offense was worse. Both ‘fell from grace’ with God, but it’s from Adam that the guilt of original sin is inherited. As a result, children ‘inherit’ their nature of original sin from their fathers, not their mothers. The guilt is transmitted through the male descendants to their offspring. Since Jesus did not have a human biological father, he did not inherit the nature of inherited guilt and was thus born free of original sin.

In my mind, even if I try to take the idea seriously, it immediately raises another question. It’s safe, I think, to assume that at some point in the future, we will be able to do in vitro fertilization from cellular genetic sources other than, strictly speaking, a female egg and a male sperm. Ignoring for the sake of this question the whole matter of bioethics and whether or not this is something we should do, let’s just assume it will happen. Does that then mean that a child conceived from the genetic material of two women would also be born without a nature of inherited guilt? And what about a child conceived from the genetic material of two men? Does that child get a double whammy of inherited guilt?

I might sound facetious. I’m trying not to be, but the idea still strikes me as absurd decades after I first heard it. But if that is truly what some people believe, they will need to face questions like that and figure out how they are going to answer them.

The other response to this question lies in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Roman Catholic Church. This is actually a more sophisticated dogma than the way it is sometimes portrayed by those outside the Church. It holds that Mary was miraculously preserved from the stain of the inherited guilt of original sin in order to provide a fitting womb for the infant Christ. It does not, as is sometimes said, that God could not have (or did not) simply preserved the infant Jesus from inheriting the stained nature of inherited guilt. It uses more the language of honor, reverence, and what was fitting. Also tied into this is the idea that Mary needed to be so preserved in order to offer her free assent to God.

I will note that the Immaculate Conception was fixed as dogma in the 19th century, so it’s a relatively recent Roman Catholic dogma. And I will also note that Eastern Christians, who certainly cannot be charged with a failure to hold the Theotokos in great honor and esteem, view it as unnecessary specifically because they do not agree that the state of sin for Adam’s transgression is transmitted to every human at conception. Although it retains much of the character of a mystery, it’s my understanding of the Roman Catholic teaching that though it is normal for human beings to inherit the guilt of Adam (which they do note is different in some sense from the guilt for acts we actually commit ourselves), God can intervene and prevent that from happening and he specifically did so with Mary and (I presume) Jesus.

The question that raises in my mind is probably different than the ones it raises for most people. My question is simple and direct. If God can choose to act to preserve people from inheriting some aspect of the guilt of their ancestor’s transgression without damaging their free will or their nature as his icons, why has he not chosen to do so for all people? After all, if the Christian God is truly a good God who loves mankind, we are under the curse of inherited guilt through no fault of our own, and he is able to simply free us from inheriting that guilt through a unilateral act, why hasn’t he done so for everyone?

If I were to accept any sense of original sin as inherited guilt, it would probably be the Roman Catholic version. It is the most nuanced and reasonable of all the variations. And yet it tends to collapse as well. In my mind the dogma of the Immaculate Conception does not alleviate that underlying tension. It makes it worse instead.


For the Life of the World 24

Posted: January 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The series now moves to section 3 of the fifth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter five.

We now can return to the sacrament of matrimony. We can now understand that its true meaning is not that it merely gives a religious “sanction” to marriage and family life, reinforces with supernatural grace the natural family virtues. Its meaning is that by taking the “natural” marriage into “the great mystery of Christ and the Church,” the sacrament of matrimony gives marriage a new meaning; it transforms, in fact, not only marriage as such but all human love.

Dn. Hyatt draws some observations about recent weddings he’s attended in this podcast and in the prior one. They are good illustrations. At their best, the symbolism in most of our modern marriages make marriage into something that is essentially between the individual man and woman before God. Basically, we are doing exactly what Fr. Schmemann points out above. We are adding a religious blessing to a natural marriage so God is somehow included. But there is no sense that we are speaking about Christ and the Church. The Church is not really even involved or engaged in any way. In some ways, I think that omission helps feed the rampant idolization of “family” in the circles in which I have moved these past fifteen years.

Fr. Schmemann also comments that as a separate rite or ceremony developed for marriage and as the Church gained the civil authority to perform legal marriages, marriage was gradually divorced from the Eucharist — the very thing which had formerly marked and transformed a marriage into a mystery of Christ and the Church. I find it significant that as forgiveness flows from baptism, and thus confession is linked to baptism, so marriage — or love — flows from the Eucharist. Fr. Schmemann weaves connections I had never considered before, but which seem obvious once he points them out.

From that history, the Orthodox rite of matrimony developed into two distinct services. The first service, the betrothal, is not performed inside the Church, but in the vestibule instead. This is where rings are blessed and exchanged. It’s the Christian version of the “natural” or “civil” marriage.

For the Christian, natural does not mean either self-sufficient — a “nice little family” — or merely insufficient, and to be, therefore, strengthened and completed by the addition of the “supernatural.” The natural man thirsts and hungers for fulfillment and redemption. This thirst and hunger is the vestibule of the Kingdom: both beginning and exile.

The “natural” marriage unites the couple, but they are not united in the Kingdom. They stand outside it, in the vestibule. The imagery is powerful if you stop and try to inhabit it.

Then, having blessed the natural marriage, the priest takes the bridal pair in a solemn procession into the church. This is the true form of the sacrament, for it does not merely symbolize, but indeed is the entrance of marriage into the Church, which is the entrance of the world into the “world to come,” the procession of the people of God — in Christ — into the Kingdom. The rite of crowning is but a later — although a beautiful and beautifully meaningful — expression of the reality of this entrance.

I’ve heard of the Orthodox rite of crowning before. The couple do not exchange vows in this wedding. They make no promises to each other or to God. Instead they stand together and are blessed and crowned as king and queen of creation. For that is what were created to be and we cannot escape our reality. We can abuse it. We can turn the world we touch into a little hell. But we were created to reflect God into creation.

Each family is indeed a kingdom, a little church, and therefore a sacrament of and a way to the Kingdom. Somewhere, even if it is only in a single room, every man at some point in his life has his own small kingdom. It may be hell, and a place of betrayal, or it may not. … This is what the marriage crowns express: that here is the beginning of a small kingdom which can be something like the true Kingdom. The chance will be lost, perhaps even in one night; but at this moment it is still an open possibility. Yet even when it has been lost, and lost again a thousand times, still if two people stay together, they are in a real sense king and queen to each other.

As we’ll explore shortly, marriage is not easy. If it were easy, it would not change us, and we desperately need to be changed. But I like the image above. However often you lose it, together you can keep fighting back toward the reality of Christ and the Church.

Fr. Schmemann then points out that in our culture the “icon” of marriage is typically a young couple. But then he tells a story to illustrate the fallacy of that perspective.

But once, in the light and warmth of an autumn afternoon, this writer saw on the bench of a public square, in a poor Parisian suburb, an old and poor couple. They were sitting hand in hand, in silence, enjoying the pale light, the last warmth of the season. In silence: all words had been said, all passion exhausted, all storms at peace. The whole life was behind — yet all of it was now present, in this silence, in this light, in this warmth, in this silent unity of hands. Present — and ready for eternity, ripe for joy. This to me remains the vision of marriage, of its heavenly beauty.

This year will mark our twentieth wedding anniversary. It is my hope and goal to one day reach a place not unlike the one Fr. Schmemann describes above.

Then secondly, the glory and honor is that of the martyr’s crown. For the way to the Kingdom is the martyria — bearing witness to Christ. And this means crucifixion and suffering. A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not “die to itself” that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of “adjustment” or “mental cruelty.” It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. This is expressed in the sentiment that one would “do anything” for his family, even steal. The family has here ceased to be for the glory of God; it has ceased to be a sacramental entrance into His presence. It is not the lack of respect for the family, it is the idolization of the family that breaks the modern family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow. It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it. In a Christian marriage, in fact, three are married; and the united loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. Yet it is the presence of God which is the death of the marriage as something only “natural.” It is the cross of Christ that brings the self-sufficiency of nature to its end. But “by the cross joy [and not “happiness!”] entered the whole world.” Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage. It is the joyful certitude that the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken “until death parts,” but until death unites us completely.

Wow. Read that a time or three. I confess that I could conceive of “doing anything” for my family. Lie (even in formal settings)? Steal? Kill? Curse Christ and offer incense to the emperor cult? I have no confidence that, if truly pressed, there’s a point beyond which I would not step. I may not be a particularly good husband or father, but I can’t recall any other serious or deeply held ambition I’ve ever had for my life. It’s not exactly the sort of Christian idolization that Fr. Schmemann describes and which I’ve certainly encountered, for it’s been my deepest desire even when I was as “anti-Christian” as they come. If the above does not trouble you, at least a bit, then you’re a better person than I’m ever likely to be.

The third meaning of the crowns in the Orthodox rite is that they are crowns of the Kingdom. Interestingly, as the priest removes the crowns from their heads, he says, “Receive their crowns in Thy Kingdom.” God alone is the end and fullness of perfected love.

The common cup given to the couple after the crowning is explained today as a symbol of “common life,” and nothing shows better the “desacramentalization” of marriage, its reduction to a “natural happiness.” In the past this was communion, the partaking of the Eucharist, the ultimate seal of the fulfillment of marriage in Christ. Christ is to be the very essence of life together. He is the wine of the new life of the children of God, and communion in it will proclaim how, by getting older and older in this world, we are growing younger and younger in the life which has no evening.

Even the Orthodox rite, apparently has been divorced from the context of the couple taking the Eucharist in communion with the gathered people of God. I know in the Roman Catholic Church, it remains an option (though often not taken) for the marriage to take place within the context of a full mass, including the Eucharist. I wonder if it remains an Orthodox option or not.

Marriage is one of the things that Scripture expressly and literally calls a mysterion or sacramentum. It seems like that would give the more “literal-minded,” “bible-believing,” anti-sacramental sorts of Christian pause. For some reason, though, it doesn’t. I’ve never quite understood why that is so.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 1 – The Reformers

Posted: July 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I decided that in order to explore this topic, I needed to spend a little bit of time to establish and define the history and shape of the modern Baptist view of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. That will provide a reference point for comparison as we then step back into the first millenium. In order to sketch the modern background, in this post I will briefly outline the perspective of the three main early Reformers on the Eucharist. I will not be looking here at Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation. That was really a different path with different goals and a different result from the Protestant Reformation. Anglicans are not exactly Protestant. Nor are they Catholic. By intent, they stand between the two traditions.

When it came to the Eucharist, Martin Luther‘s primary issue had to do with the abuses and odd practices and beliefs that had arisen in late medieval Roman Catholic Church from the specific theory called transubstantiation. The theory of transubstantiation itself had only been developed several hundred years earlier by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. He used Aristotle‘s terminology in his effort to explain the mechanics of the change. In those terms, the substance or essence, the true reality of the bread and wine were changed into the body and blood of our Lord even as the accidents or those parts available to our five senses remained bread and wine.

In hindsight, Luther might have been better served had he simply returned to the prevailing perspective in both the East and the West prior to Thomas Aquinas. However, he was a product of Western scholasticism himself and leaving things unexplained and in tension probably was not something he could have done. So Luther developed his own theory of how the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. Luther called his theory consubstantiation. I’m not going to delve into that theory here, since I’m primarily exploring the Baptist connection to history.

In stark contrast to Luther, Huldrych Zwingli held that the bread and wine signify the body and blood of Jesus and are a memorial to his sacrifice on the Cross rather than any sort of participation in it. Zwingli and Luther met a number of times, but were never able to come to any sort of agreement or find common ground. According to his own later statements, Zwingli did not believe the elements were mere bread and wine. Nevertheless, his view came very close to that perspective. Clearly, much of modern Protestantism draws their perception and understanding of the Eucharist from Zwingli.

John Calvin, the third of the early Reformers, tried to take a middle way between Luther and Zwingli. On the one hand he held that since Jesus is bodily at the right hand of God, there can be no material connection between between bread and body. However, the bread and wine do more than signify. In some sense, they are the body and blood, at least spiritually. So Calvin made it a spiritual meal and a spiritual feeding. His middle way had little effect on the other two. Calvin’s rejection of an actual material connection between the bread and wine and the body and blood of Jesus made his view unacceptable to Luther. And Zwingli would not accept that we even spiritually eat the body and drink the blood of Jesus. He insisted that the bread and wine have no connection to the body and blood, not even a spiritual one.

Those three men represent the three streams that shaped pretty much all of Protestant belief about and understanding of the Eucharist.


The Didache 14 – No Schisms

Posted: June 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 14 – No Schisms

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

Do not long for division, but rather bring those who contend to peace. Judge righteously, and do not respect persons in reproving for transgressions. You shall not be undecided whether or not it shall be.

Division here, of course, means schism. The Teaching simply echoes Jesus, Paul, John, James, and Peter. Somehow Protestants in general, and Baptists in particular, proclaim a theoretical idea that Christian faith should be shaped first by the Holy Scriptures even as they completely ignore one of the central tenets of what we call the New Testament. How bizarre is that?

Historically, schisms were rare and treated seriously. Most schisms were either healed or the schismatic sects died off. Before the Reformation there were really only three enduring schisms in the Church, mostly defined by geography and a healthy dose of local politics at the time of the schism. Those three are the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox (often improperly called monophysite, but actually miaphysite), the Chalcedonian Orthodox (often called “Greek” regardless of actual ethnicity) , and the Roman Catholic Church. That was it.

Enter the Reformation.

According to Pew Research, we now have something over thirty thousand identifiable sects, denominations, or more accurately, schisms – divisions in the church. It is routine for even a very small town to have at leasts tens of different types or flavors of “Christian” from which the discerning Christian spiritual consumer can choose. Larger cities will have hundreds if not thousands of choices. Where I live, there is no Church of Pflugerville. There are instead myriad “churches”. Since Jesus said that people would know and accept that he was Lord because of our love and our unity, it’s little wonder that Western Christianity is withering on the vine. Heck, I’m instinctually pluralist and still like aspects of Hinduism’s inclusive nature and I’m even turned off by the present day divisiveness of Christianity. If Protestantism has offered anything else of enduring value, I’m having a hard time seeing it.

The next sentence is one of those tensions in Christianity. We are not the final judge. We can never judge someone’s salvation. And really we can’t judge anyone’s heart. When we judge, we will be held to the same standard. And woe to us when we become the hypocrite or when we judge ourselves more highly than any other. Nevertheless, we are not just called, but actually commanded to love. And in order to love, we must judge what action would be for the good of the beloved. And sometimes the most loving thing we can do is reprove another. When we do, as James points out, we must be no respecters of person, of wealth, or of power. And we should proceed trembling, for we are treading on the most dangerous of soils for our own salvation.

And we must not be undecided. That’s probably the hardest for me. I tend to doubt much. I live within the whirlwind of deconstruction. Every belief I hold, every decision I make, every action I take is subjected to those forces. And a lot of my rationales fall apart. Jesus has held so far. If anything, he has become more real, more present, and more solid the longer I’ve tried to follow him. I act decisively at times. But I always do so in the recognition that my certainty is probably temporary and how I perceive this moment will probably change. And I know how limited my understanding in any given moment truly is. This one is hard. Really hard.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 3

Posted: May 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 3

I ended my first post in the series with the confession that I might never have chosen truly to fast. The reasons are many and complex and I’m not sure I even have them all worked out. It is true, however, that I am a product of our present American culture. And by and large, we do not fast. In this post, I’ll weave through aspects of my formation and journey that seem relevant to me at this moment.

I’m not certain, but I believe I first encountered something of the idea of fasting in practice (as opposed to literature) when I attended a Roman Catholic school a block from our home in Houston for 6th through 8th grade. Even then it had faded as the practice has faded across the board in Roman Catholicism in America. But there were some adults who, for instance, did not eat meat on Fridays. It was discussed in Religion class. And even though the practice of Lent had largely become one of each individual selecting something for themselves to ‘give up’ from Ash Wednesday to Easter, it was still a definite practice and fasting was discussed.

I was not Catholic and I did not participate in any of the fasts. In truth, my attention at that time, to the best of my recollection, was primarily focused on the practice of Transcendental Meditation, numerology, palmistry, astrology, tarot, and a number of similar avenues of spiritual exploration. But I did pay attention. I was interested in all things spiritual. I would not say I understood on any visceral level. But I was aware.

Flash forward now through the twists and turns of close to two decades, soon after the time when the idea that I was acknowledging Jesus of Nazareth as my Lord and my God and attempting to follow him had become a core piece of my identity. (The word ‘conversion’ always seems inadequate to me. Plus, in a sociological sense, I probably had many ‘conversions’ both toward Jesus and away from him over the course of my life. All were ‘real’. That’s the best way I can describe what finally happened to me.) A lot happened over those years, some of it probably tangentially related to this discussion, but not central to what I want to explore right now.

Given my longstanding interest in history, especially ancient history, it did not take me long to begin reading ancient Christian writings and history in addition to the Holy Scriptures. Most particularly, it did not take me long to run across the Didache, a teaching and apparent baptismal confession recorded in the late first century and likely capturing an established oral tradition spanning back decades, very likely to the period of time when Paul and Barnabas were engaged in their early missionary journeys both together and separately. It’s a rich and haunting document, but for the purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on this excerpt.

But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday).

The hypocrites is clearly a reference to Matthew 23 and those to whom Jesus was speaking. And we know it was the discipline in Judaism at the time to fast on Monday and Thursday. This is part of what Jesus is referring to in the Sermon on the Mount in the section when he discusses how not to act and how to act when (not if) you fast. The assumption was that everyone fasted and his point was not to act in a manner that you drew attention to your fasting or the recognition of men would be all you would receive. In order to distinguish themselves from the unbelieving Jewish communities (and for theological reasons) the church from a very early time moved its days of communal fasting from Monday and Thursday to Wednesday and Friday. They did not cease observing days of communal fasting. They moved them to days that related to Jesus.

The Holy Scriptures, of course, speak often of fasting. You encounter it everywhere in the Old Testament. Jesus speaks of it. James speaks of it. It’s littered throughout the New Testament, where it frequently seems to be almost taken for granted rather than explained. I saw how the communal form of the practice quickly developed in the church. But I hadn’t really seen fasting like that anywhere in my life. And I saw no fasting anywhere in my particular community of faith. Feasting? (Or maybe gluttony, since I’m not sure you can properly feast if you never fast.) Oh yes! So much so that it was a topic for jokes. (When we meet, we eat!) But no communal practice of fasting. The only place I had encountered something close was in the Roman Catholic church. But even there, it was more a memory of the recent past than a present practice in the form I encountered.

This brings us up to the mid to late nineties and this post is more than long enough. We’ll continue this journey in the next post in this series.