Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

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

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


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 16 – Tertullian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 7 – Ignatius to the Philadelphians

Posted: July 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Next, let’s look at the letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Philadelphians. This is a very short letter and I recommend reading the entire letter. For the purpose of this post, though, we’re going to focus on chapter 4.

Be diligent, therefore, to use one eucharist, for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup, for union with his blood; one altar, even as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons, who are my fellow-servants, to the end that whatever ye do, ye may do it according unto God.

One eucharist or thanksgiving because there is one flesh of Jesus. One cup in union with his blood. And the one eucharist and one altar are associated with the one bishop of a particular place.

Here in a single sentence forming a single section of his letter, we find the ideas of oneness with each other associated with the eucharist united to the body and blood of Jesus tied to the single bishop of a particular physical place. We find here the tangible physicality of our faith. It is not something invisible or ethereal. It is not something abstract. Rather, each aspect is tied to our physical reality and ultimately to the physical reality of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This sentence describes an experiential reality that is very different from what Zwingli described. Moreover, it’s extremely early and is consistent with what we find in the Holy Scriptures that we call the New Testament and the other writings of the first century such as the Didache. As we move forward, we’ll see that continuity maintained. Certainly there are refinements to the liturgical practice of the church. And it is influenced by and adapted to the cultures it meets as Christianity spreads. Nevertheless the differences are minor and the understanding of the church and of the eucharist remains largely uniform and consistent. There is no significant point of discontinuity where the belief or practice of the church changed in the ancient world. There are battles already with gnostics, judaizers, and schismatics. Nevertheless, the thread of the church is easy to find and follow through them. It continues. The other groups fade away and vanish.

The reason I wanted to start here at the beginning and move forward is in part because of the arguments of the restorationists. They generally claim that either after the Apostles died or after the first century or after Constantine (or pick your date or event) the whole church basically apostasized. The restorationists then claim they are restoring “true” Christianity. The problem is that there is no such point of historical discontinuity in the ancient church. We’ll see that as we continue. The more we learn about the ancient world and our ancient faith, the more that fact is confirmed. So basically, for the claims of the restorationists to be true, we have to say that the Apostles failed to either understand the teaching of Jesus or to communicate those teachings to those churches they established and those people whom they personally taught. However, if the faith could not even be communicated to those directly in contact with Jesus or with the apostles, how on earth are we supposed to rediscover it two thousand years later? If it was lost that early, it’s gone. We have no idea what the correct interpretation of our texts might be. And we have no hope as far as I can see of recovering it. It strikes me that the perspective of the restorationists is ultimately one of hopelessness.

I’ve noticed that Protestants don’t generally like Ignatius. You’ll find all sorts of attempts to dismiss him if you look for them. And I understand why. Ignatius is writing perhaps 60 to 75 years after the Church in Antioch, a Church that was home to Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, was established. There were likely people still around who had known one or more of them at least in their childhood. Does what Ignatius describes sound anything like the Protestant reality today? We have more of his letters still to read. Judge for yourself.

I want to close today’s reflections on this letter with another sentence from it. It’s one that sticks in my mind. Think on it.

For where there is division and anger, God dwelleth not.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History – Series Intro

Posted: July 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

This past weekend a discussion with the Internet Monk, which began for me at least on twitter, emerged in two different posts. In the first, the iMonk posted a link to a sermon by David Chanski on the Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper and his own thoughts on the sermon. The second post responded to someone who asked what the problems are with the Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper. If you’re interested, you will find some comments by me on both posts. The first problem he listed was a problem he called “the historical problem”. He posed the issue this way:

How do Baptists relate their view of the Lord’s Supper to the ancient church’s far more eucharistic, real presence language? Do we believe the ancient church was wrong until the Baptist reformation? Yes? No? What?

It’s hardly a new issue to me. As a Christian (a clarification I have to make since I have been a lot of other things over the course of my life), I’ve only really been a Baptist sort of Christian. Oh, I’ve experienced many different flavors of Christianity from childhood on and know a pretty decent amount about many of them. But to the extent I’ve been anything in the midst of modern Christian pluralism, I’ve been a Baptist. I’m also the sort of person who enjoys history and who doesn’t just love reading, but for whom reading and breathing come close to being synonymous. And that combination means I encountered this issue sooner rather than later. I was able to set it aside for years to see if a resolution would emerge. I’m often able to do that when faced with tension in a belief. That worked for a decade or so. But it’s been increasingly ineffective over the last four or five years. Since there isn’t much in Christian life, practice, and belief that is and has always been more central than the Eucharist, that’s a problem.

I will point out that this is not uniquely a Baptist problem today. Many “nondenominational” churches (or denominations of one as they tend to be counted) have a perspective that is at least similar to the Baptist view. The Baptist, or more properly Zwinglian (Zwingli originated the memorial, symbolic theology of the Eucharist in the 16th century), view is also similar to the view held by many in the charismatic wing of the modern church. Presbyterian and other Reformed churches have a somewhat similar, though not identical, problem. As I consider the Protestant branch of the church, Lutherans and Anglicans have much less of a historical problem with the Eucharist than many. I honestly don’t remember what Methodists teach, but since they are offshoots of the Anglican Church, they may also have fewer historical issues. I can hardly claim to be familiar with the tens of thousands of distinct sects into which Protestantism has devolved, but I would wager that the majority of the larger Protestant tradition shares at least part of this particular problem with the Baptists.

In this series, I have no plans to resolve the historical problem. I don’t have any answers and I don’t expect a revelation. Instead, I plan to explore the nature of the problem itself. What is the history of belief about the Eucharist? What are the ramifications of that history? I’ll be exploring questions like that.

If it does not matter to you what your predecessors in the faith believed and practiced, if you are unconcerned about those whom Hebrews calls a great cloud of witnesses, then you don’t share this historical problem. If innovation in the faith, even in its most central aspects, is something that doesn’t bother you, then you will probably not find much of interest in this series. This is for those like me for whom such things do matter, and perhaps matter a very great deal.

In this series, I will be discussing excerpts from Christian writings throughout the first millenium. I’m not really fond of trying to “mine” those writings for a topical discussion. I’ve seen a lot of that done pretty badly over the years. Those writings don’t really lend themselves to that sort of approach. With much ancient writing, you have to try to understand the perspective, setting, culture, and situation from which someone was writing and then try to absorb the whole of what they are saying which will then illuminate the parts.  It’s very different from most Western scholastic works where you try to understand each piece in order to grasp the whole. The pieces often build on each other, but usually in a structured and orderly manner. I will always provide a link to the whole work from which I quote. And if you have any question about the way I am reading something, please go read the whole thing. Even better, read as much by that particular author as you can find.

I will caution readers up front that it is impossible to discuss the Eucharist from the writings of the first millenium without also running headlong into the issue of unity and oneness. That’s probably not what a Protestant wants to hear. But the two trains of thought tend to be deeply intertwined in most places. There are many writings over the centuries addressing schismatics (which is not the same thing as heretic) and there were schisms to address. Nevertheless, I don’t think any writer in the first millenium could have ever imagined schism on the scale that we’ve managed. So be warned.

I will generally assume that everyone reading this series has read, in their entirety, preferably multiple times, perhaps even using the techniques of lectio divina certain key portions of the Holy Scriptures. Of course, that includes the accounts of the last supper in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The other two passages are John 6 and 1 Corinthians 11. There are other scriptures, and I will provide specific references when needed. But the Scriptures above will permeate the discussion and sit in the background at all times.

Since my focus will be specifically on the historical problem with the Baptist perspective, the 1689 London Confession is as good a reference for that perspective as any. I immediately noted when I read it that it never references John 6. I’m not sure how you can develop a theological confession of the Lord’s Supper without ever referencing the Eucharistic chapter of the theological Gospel. But there you go. Perhaps that’s part of the problem.

In the series I recently completed on the Didache, you might want to read post 31, post 25, post 26, and post 27. I don’t plan to revisit the Didache in this series since I just reflected on the entire Teaching.

I had actually planned to write a series of reflections on the latest encyclical, CARITAS IN VERITATE, by Pope Benedict XVI next. But this cropped up and it somehow seemed like the series I should write at this time. I may still slip in some thoughts on the encyclical in additional posts.


The Didache 17 – Do Not Add Or Subtract

Posted: June 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 17 – Do Not Add Or Subtract

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

You shall hate all hypocrisy and everything which is not pleasing to the Lord. Do not in any way forsake the commandments of the Lord; but keep what you have received, neither adding thereto nor taking away therefrom.

Hate hypocrisy. Hate all that is an act. I’m not a huge Casting Crowns fan, but I do think they captured something important in their song, Stained Glass Masquerade. I’m not even sure if the group who did this video around the song even knew the origin of the masks they used or just how appropriate they were to a discussion of what it means when we become actors rather than true human beings with one another.

“Stained Glass Masquerade”

Is there anyone that fails
Is there anyone that falls
Am I the only one in church today feelin’ so small

Cause when I take a look around
Everybody seems so strong
I know they’ll soon discover
That I don’t belong

So I tuck it all away, like everything’s okay
If I make them all believe it, maybe I’ll believe it too
So with a painted grin, I play the part again
So everyone will see me the way that I see them

Are we happy plastic people
Under shiny plastic steeples
With walls around our weakness
And smiles to hide our pain
But if the invitation’s open
To every heart that has been broken
Maybe then we close the curtain
On our stained glass masquerade

Is there anyone who’s been there
Are there any hands to raise
Am I the only one who’s traded
In the altar for a stage

The performance is convincing
And we know every line by heart
Only when no one is watching
Can we really fall apart

But would it set me free
If I dared to let you see
The truth behind the person
That you imagine me to be

Would your arms be open
Or would you walk away
Would the love of Jesus
Be enough to make you stay

However, even worse than the way acting or hypocrisy has embedded itself in the church is the reality that it is extremely hard to find any of the many schismatic branches who have not either added to the faith or subtracted from it. At this juncture in my exploration, I’m willing to say that if Orthodoxy has not traditioned that original faith without addition or subtraction, then it’s probably completely lost to us. I can trace places where every other tradition and schismatic Protestant tradition has either added something or subtracted something. Usually it’s multiple instances. And I can trace it back historically to when they did it. So far, I’ve not found any example of that in Orthodoxy. I’m hardly through looking though.


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.