Mary 6 – Brothers

Posted: January 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 6 – Brothers

In the comments to Elizabeth Esther’s post, there were primarily two objections from Scripture raised against the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The more common one asks about his brothers — two of whom are also considered to have written books of the New Testament. If Mary didn’t have any more children, how is it that Jesus had brothers? I think the fact that it’s such a common and sincere question illustrates how completely disconnected so many modern Christians have become from the historical tradition of the Church. It was my impression that most of the people who asked about Jesus’ brothers in the comments on EE’s post weren’t consciously disagreeing with the tradition of the Church; rather, they knew nothing about it.

The oldest, and I believe most likely, tradition is that Joseph was an older man, a widower, and a father. Thus the siblings of Jesus were Joseph’s children from his prior marriage. That feels right to me on multiple levels. First, we are told that Joseph had earned the name or reputation of tsadiq or righteous. In the context of an externalized honor-shame culture, that public name is even more significant. While I suppose it’s possible a young man could be numbered among the tsadiqim, it feels more like the sort of recognition an older, more established man would have earned — especially in a culture that already tended to respect age over youth.

Also, the snippets of encounters in the Gospels (Mark 3:31-32 and Matthew 12:46-47) have always felt to me more like older brothers trying to straighten out a younger sibling who isn’t doing what they expected him to do. But perhaps that’s just the eldest sibling (and eldest first cousin, for that matter) in me.

And finally, we know that Joseph died sometime after teaching Jesus a trade, but before the Theophany at our Lord’s baptism. While people can and could die at any age from many causes, this fact fits with the idea that he was an older man when he was betrothed to Mary.

A different tradition arose in the West, casting Joseph as a younger man closer to Mary in age. In that tradition, the brothers of Jesus are actually his cousins raised in close proximity to him and possibly even in the same household. (The nuclear family as we understand it is quite different from ancient households and families.) That’s certainly possible. It’s true that ancient Aramaic used the same word for all close male relations of a similar age or generation. And the Greek word used also does not necessarily describe a sibling relationship, though it can. From everything I’ve been able to discover, this tradition arises later and exclusively in the West. Jerusalem and the regions in the Gospels are all in the East and this tradition never took root there. For both those reasons, it seems less likely to me.

Finally there is John 19:25-27 to consider.

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.

I’ve only been a member of a Southern Baptist Church as a Christian, so I’m familiar with the modern, Protestant understanding of the above passage. Basically it goes that as the eldest son, Jesus was responsible for his widowed mother and since his brothers did not believe he was the Messiah and had rejected him (an assertion, I’ll note, for which there really isn’t any evidence), he chose to have John care for Mary. I suppose that makes sense to our modern sensibilities, but it’s completely anachronistic. First, all the sons of a widow were responsible for her care. And it was an automatic obligation on the eldest surviving son. It wasn’t something that had to be passed along.

Now, think back to my post on the way honor-shame culture works. In that culture, if others believe that I have done something wrong, even if I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong, I am still shamed and dishonored. So under the above interpretation of John’s gospel account, what’s really happening is that Jesus, John, and Mary are all colluding to publicly shame her other sons. I just don’t believe that’s the case. It doesn’t fit the character of any of them as captured in the gospels. It’s certainly difficult to imagine James, after being so dishonored by Jesus himself, becoming the first leading Bishop of the Jerusalem Church and such an influential early Christian figure.

No, the most reasonable interpretation of the text is that Jesus was Mary’s only son so he gave her into the care of John to ensure she didn’t suffer the fate of widows with no sons. (The ancient world was pretty harsh and there was no social safety net. Widows with no sons often did not survive long.) That’s not to say that his community of followers and extended family wouldn’t have cared for Mary anyway, but by doing this Jesus faithfully discharged even this last obligation. Remember, in Christian understanding, Jesus is the one, true faithful man and the fulfillment of faithful Israel.

Of course, John is known as the theological gospel and everything in it has multiple layers of meaning. This text is no different. However,  those layers of theology are grounded in an actual event. At least, most Christians agree it’s an actual event.


Once Saved, Always Saved Deconstructed

Posted: March 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I was quietly minding my own business the other day when the following thought abruptly popped, fully formed, into my conscious mind.

The dogma “once saved, always saved” is soteriological monothelitism.

Yes, the inside of my head is often a strange and sometimes frightening place. That’s just a small taste of what it’s like in there. However, as I turned the thought around and looked at it from various angles, I realized it seemed more true than not. There’s a lot of information packed into that short sentence. In this post, I’ll try to unpack it.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, “once saved, always saved” is a particular doctrine found among some modern Christian groups. I’m most familiar with it in a Southern Baptist context. Basically it’s a way of expressing the idea that once a person makes an authentic (and that’s a discussion in and of itself) commitment to Christ, you are sealed as a Christian and nothing you can subsequently will or do can change that status or your status as one of the saved.

In the history of Baptists in America, there are a number of strands which contributed to their development and formation over the years. Some of those strands were either outright Calvinistic or at least adopted some of the ideas of John Calvin, particularly the dogmas of total depravity and the perseverance of the saints. The latter is an intriguing, if misguided, dogma. It postulates a God who, for reasons known only to himself and which we can never know or understand, creates some human beings for salvation and others for eternal damnation. There’s nothing we can do to move from one category to the other one, but if we are in the group predestined for salvation, then we will be ultimately saved no matter what.

However, within this system there’s really no way to tell with which group you belong. Are you damned or are you saved? It’s within this context that the dogma of “once saved, always saved” seems to have developed over time. Basically, it holds that we’re all born damned. (Even so, most variations will give infants and small children a free pass from damnation. That free pass lasts until some uncertain age when the child is able to intellectually grasp the various doctrines and teachings about God.) Over the course of our lives, though, we always have the option to exercise our will and choose to commit ourselves to Jesus of Nazareth. Then, once we do so, we become a saint and cannot become anything else.

When you understand the context of this dogma’s development, it obviously is designed to address the uncertainty inherent in the somewhat older dogma of perseverance of the saints while retaining its preferred features. Since it first requires an exercise of will to become a saint, presumably one would know whether or not you’ve done so. In that way it removes the uncertainty. You can actually know whether you are in the damned or the saved group. (In practices, it doesn’t really work that way and very often those preaching or evangelizing will even deliberately try to instill doubt about your status.)

The dogma seems intended to provide assurance of a sort. You can actually know you are in the saved group and you can be certain that you’ll remain in that group as well. Until I understood that history, the way Baptists often talk about assurance and perceive a lack of assurance in other groups always seemed very odd to me. When you understand the context, it makes more sense.

Going back to my thought, soteriological is just the fancy English word we use for discussions about salvation. It’s really easy to talk right past each other if you assume that salvation automatically means the same thing to all people. It begs the question, what are you being saved from? And what are you being saved to? It even begs the question of what does it even mean that you are saved or are being saved? I’ve noticed that among Baptists, at least, salvation tends to be externalized. It’s something you possess rather than a process you are undergoing. In my mind, from the very beginning, I had an image of saving someone as an active process. That’s probably why I always felt like I understood the Fathers, who described the Church in various terms, but always as a vehicle for the ongoing process of salvation. The Church is an ark, rescuing us from destruction. The Church is a hospital for the healing of our souls and the restoration of our true humanity. Their metaphors describe a process you undergo rather than a thing you have.

And that conforms more to our normal experience of reality. Think about the times we might save or try to save others. If I save someone from drowning, it’s an action and a process. If I try to save someone from abuse, that implies a lengthy series of actions. If I try to save someone from an addiction that is destroying them, I’m committing myself to a long process with uncertain results. When you stop and think about it, salvation as a noun is really very odd. What’s the thing that it describes?

And that brings us to the last word in my thought, monothelitism. Monothelitism was the heresy that was finally resolved in the sixth ecumenical council. St. Maximos the Confessor, the one who wrote the texts of love I’ve been working through on my blog, was the great champion of that council, even though he did not survive to see it. He suffered greatly for the faith when it seemed all the powers stood against him. He had his tongue cut out so he could not speak and he had his hand cut off so he could not write. Nothing stopped him from teaching the truth about Christ, though, and his work kept the truth of Christianity alive from the ground up. Monothelitism is the teaching that Christ had only one will, the divine will. Basically, the divine will destroyed or overpowered his human will and guided him throughout his life without effort or opposition.

The problem with this view is that it makes Christ something other than fully human. If he had no human will that he had to align with the divine will, then he was not really like us. We have to struggle, and often fail, to align our will with God’s. If Christ did not share in that struggle, even though he never failed, then he cannot heal our own wills. It turns the Incarnation from something glorious and incredibly risky on God’s part into a sham.

Once saved, always saved” turns monothelitism on its head and applies it to us instead. Basically, it says that whenever we once commit to Christ, the divine will for all practical purposes obliterates our human will. Sure, we can still perform individual acts of evil, but we no longer have a will with which we can reject God. And whatever we may then be, I wouldn’t call such a creature human, much less capable of love. Moreover, if God simply wanted to turn us into subhuman creatures, what’s the point of the whole charade of history. He could have overtaken our will from the outset if such a thing were in his nature. Why would he wait until we had actually taken a step toward him to treat us so brutally?

No, I have to reject the idea that our wills mean nothing. God is truly not willing that any should perish, which means that it’s our wills that oppose his efforts. And it’s not God’s nature — it’s not the nature of love — to contravene or force the will of another, much less wipe it from existence. My struggle is to turn my will to God, who has already done everything necessary to save us all. I need to want God. It’s certain that he wants me.

But I retain always the power to turn my will away from God. It’s for that reason we pray for help, for mercy, which God offers in overflowing abundance.


Thirsting for God 15 – Liturgy

Posted: January 19th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 15 – Liturgy

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

One of the things that quickly struck me as I gave Christianity another and deeper look was the anachronism of worship in the Southern Baptist context to which I turned. It’s not uniquely Baptist, of course. It’s shared throughout the non-liturgical denominations and non-denominations. There’s nothing inherently wrong or evil in that worship style. Rather, the voice in the back of my head almost immediately complained that nobody in any culture in the ancient world would have ever considered that to be worship. I spent years trying to decide if that fact really mattered and trying to see if I could uncover even the slightest shred of historical basis for that modern worship style.

After living embedded in a non-liturgical worship context for a decade and a half, I’ve reached the conclusion that it does matter. Even in that period of time, I’ve seen the act and method of worship change, though subtly. It’s obvious to me how subject to whim and preference it is and how, as a result, it shifts with the wind of culture and preference.

And I never found any historical connection whatsoever. Mostly I found overtly anachronistic views which demonstrated little knowledge, for instance, of how an ancient Roman household was structured and ordered or even how worship was ordered in the Jewish synagogues within which the Apostles first preached.

Matthew has an interesting statement at the outset of this chapter. I would like to share it in full.

As someone who all my adult life was intimately involved in leading the worship experience, I know something about modern Protestant worship. What the Protestant is looking for, and what pastors and worship leaders are hoping to provide, is a worship experience that is “meaningful.” What does “meaningful” mean? First, the music needs to inspire people to feel love and devotion for God, and allow them the opportunity to express those feelings. Secondly, the sermon needs to give them something fresh and meaty to ponder — something that will inspire the congregation to follow God.

If I’m sitting in the pews, my goal is “to get something out of this” — to find godly joy and inspiration. What do I need in order for that to happen? Just what the leaders are trying to give me — good music and a good sermon.

It took me a long time to understand the above and, as a result, I sometimes had a hard time understanding some of the comments people made. Orthodox worship, by contrast, has not changed in any of its central details in some 1600 years and, just as importantly, its present form is consistent with earlier recorded forms. It’s basically the same worship fleshed out. (You can even still see the influence of first century Jewish temple and synagogue worship.) Matthew makes another excellent point.

When the primary goal of a worshiper is to gain inspiration, ritual worship may seem pointless. But when his objective is to give obedient reverence, ritual worship is the only type of worship that makes any sense. …

The Orthodox Christian worships in an environment where God Himself directs the acts of worship; the Protestant, on the other hand, must hope that God can somehow inspire people to create meaningful acts of worship. …

[In Orthodox worship] the service is always good, the worship is right, and whether I get inspired or not is entirely up to me.

In other words, the central object of worship is God. I’m sure that’s at least part of the reason that the only worship God has ever directly ordained has been liturgical, ritual worship. He knows we need to take the focus off ourselves and we need help in order to do so. Which leads us to Matthew’s final realization in this chapter.

I finally came to realize that when I was a Protestant, I judged the quality of worship by what it did for me, not what it did to exalt God.

And that pretty much sums it up.


Original Sin 5 – Evolution

Posted: February 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

As I began to record my thoughts for today’s post, it dawned on me that the route this series is taking might seem to be a strange and circuitous one to some of those reading it. In part, I believe that is due to the way I’ve chosen to develop it. I’m writing from the perspective of my own personal interaction with this idea as I journeyed into my present Christian faith. As such, even though I am compressing and abridging that interaction, the shape of the series necessarily follows something like the shape of my own journey. And that also means that the series will explore problems and questions first; answers come later for I began to discover them later. It also means the issues, problems, and questions I encountered may not necessarily be the same ones someone else encounters in their journey. Though I mentioned my approach at the outset, I thought I should clarify. I realized that yesterday’s post and today’s might seem like a strange detour to some reading.

Yesterday I briefly discussed karma to illustrate how I was unwilling to exchange a framework with which I was pretty comfortable for an inferior one. That was tinged by an early recognition on my part that I could not continue to hold both. At a very deep level, the narrative of Resurrection is very different from and incompatible with the narrative within which karma functions. I would not say I suddenly dropped one and embraced the other. It was a lengthier process than that. But it did become clear from an early point — St. John the Theologian’s Gospel had a lot to do with that illumination — that if I continued my journey into Christianity, at some point I would shift narrative frameworks. (Although it’s not exactly relevant to this series, I’m struck by the manner in which so many modern Christians don’t seem to realize just how revolutionary, transforming, and counter-intuitive the narrative of Resurrection is.)

I was shaped and formed within the context of an extended family of scientists and artists. (I’ll also point out those are not mutually exclusive categories. Many in my family are both scientists and artists of one sort or another.) While I’m neither, at least in any realized form, I’ve always lived and breathed within the framework of both. My father is a geneticist and spent his career doing research. While, as I outlined above, I foresaw the need and was not unwilling to exchange my narrative framework of the broader context of reality (some might call it a metaphysical framework, but I’m not entirely comfortable with that word as it means very different things to different people) for a Christian one, I was never willing to adopt a framework that sat in opposition to the scientific narrative of physical reality. (Nor is there anyone who reasonably should. The larger frameworks — Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Atheist, etc. — operate beyond the scope of the scientific narrative.) It’s an unfortunate reality that so many modern Christians have allowed their Christian narrative to shrink either to an alternative and opposing perspective or to one which is smaller than and fits inside the narrative of science rather than the other way around. But I was never tempted in either direction.

Why does that matter? Long before I found the root of the idea behind the notion of original sin as inherited guilt in ancient Greek philosophy, I recognized one key weakness in it from a natural perspective. If all human beings who presently or have ever lived have inherited the moral and juridical guilt of the first man who “sinned” against God, then that means that all human beings must be descended from a single pair of ancestors (or at least from the original “guilty” one). And we now know, with near certainty, that that is not the case. The science is beyond the scope of this series. Moreover, it’s not a field in which I can claim any sort of personal expertise and I don’t trust myself to communicate my understanding of it clearly. Nevertheless, the evidence is pretty convincing and I encourage anyone interested to explore it on your own.

I had ample reasons from my perspective to set aside the idea of inherited guilt without even considering this particular issue. Nevertheless, I did see this problem early and was unwilling to adopt a “faith” that stood in opposition to pretty clear natural evidence. I don’t particularly care myself whether or not humanity originated with a single couple nor do I know many scientists with a vested interest either way. But the evidence does not seem to support such an idea, and I’m not interested in making something so shaky a “linchpin” of my larger narrative framework. Mine already don’t tend to be as strongly held or constructed as they seem to be for many people. I’m not interested in deliberately weakening it with such comparatively fragile pieces.

As an aside, I will note that it’s my understanding that the Roman Catholic Church, which is the tradition within which the idea of original sin as inherited guilt originally flowered toward the end of the first millenium of Christianity, does in some way reconcile scientific evidence with the overarching idea of inherited guilt. Although I have had numerous interactions with Roman Catholicism over the course of my life and have Catholic family and friends, I wandered into Christianity myself in an evangelical Southern Baptist context. So I must confess I don’t know how the Roman Catholic Church reconciles this specific issue. If anyone does know, feel free to share that information in the comments.

Finally, though not really related to the topic of this series, I will note that I’m also not tied to the idea that within the context of created time, there was ever a specific point in time when creation was not disordered as a result of sin. According to Christian faith, human beings were created as eikons (icons or images) of the uncreated God for the purpose of reflecting God into creation and for communion with God. Time itself is a creation of God, not uncreated. If we were created, in part, to reflect the uncreated energies into creation, then it seems to me that normal perceptions of causal effect might not apply in this regard. I’m comfortable with the idea that creation has been disordered and groaning from the beginning as a result of our failure to fill our proper role within it. And I’m comfortable with the idea that even as we are born into a “fallen” creation, “inheriting” death, we also participate actively in the fall of Man and the disordering of creation when we each choose to abandon our eucharistic (thanksgiving) role. I tend to view being “in Adam” or “in Christ” in more active than passive or static terms.

I will also note, however, that we see a marked increase in the disordering of creation as soon as man took an active hand in it. Even with very primitive tools, we hunted entire species to extinction and contributed (although mildly by modern standards) to climate change. And those are just examples that can be measured from a perspective that is millenia removed. Paul’s analogy of creation groaning is an apt one, indeed.

Tomorrow I’ll touch on some of the problems the idea of inherited guilt creates within the Christian scriptural narrative.


Original Sin 3 – The Fate of Children Who Die

Posted: February 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I engaged and sometimes practiced a broad spectrum of Christian and non-Christian religions and spiritualities growing up. So I was not ignorant about popular Christian teachings. But I did not really begin to seriously engage those teachings until I turned toward Christian faith when I was roughly thirty years old. By then I was a parent and had been a parent for many years, so it was perhaps natural that the first issue I had with the idea of inherited guilt revolved around its impact on children. For if we are born with the inherited guilt of our ancestor before God, then that means that every child is born already condemned.

Since I was not preconditioned to accept this idea of original sin, I made no effort to fit it into my developing Christian understanding of man and the particular sort of God we find revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, my initial reaction, once I traced its implications, was that the idea itself could not be right. I did not believe that the God whose love had drawn me toward Christian faith was the sort of judge who would condemn infants, not for anything they had done themselves, but for a legal and moral guilt they had inherited. As I often do when something does not require an immediate answer or solution, I set the matter aside for later exploration and, perhaps, illumination. But I do not recall any point at which I was willing to accept the idea that children are culpable before God simply for being human. I suppose on some level, I recognized from the start that this God I was discovering was a “good God who loves mankind.”

Of course, most of us instinctively reject the idea that children inherit guilt. We reject the image of a God who would condemn an infant simply for his birth. And we are right to do so, for such a God would be abhorrent. (Yes, I know there are some hardcore Calvinists who do actually hold that infants are born guilty and that at least some of those who die are condemned by God to an eternity of punishment in hell. But their God is already abhorrent for many reasons. That’s just one more entry in a lengthy list.)

Different traditions resolve that underlying problem in varying ways. I won’t explore them all here. But one example from my own SBC denomination is the so-called “age of accountability.” Essentially, it says that although children are born with the inherited guilt of original sin, God doesn’t hold them “accountable” for that guilt. Basically they get a free pass in God’s court. At some undetermined point in each child’s life, if they develop normally, they become able to grasp their guilt before God and at that point they become “accountable” for both their own guilt and their inherited guilt.

While the “age of accountability” idea does work around the abhorrent image of a God who condemns infants for eternity for the actions of others, it creates its own problems. Not least of those is the strange way it leads people to speak of and to children. We raise the child to love Jesus and tell them over and over again how much Jesus loves them. We teach them to pray and to sing to Jesus. And then at some point we tell them they are separated from God and they need to tell Jesus they’re sorry and that they love him and that they want him in their lives. But haven’t we raised them loving Jesus? Why is Jesus suddenly requiring them to ask for his forgiveness? How have they truly wronged him to create such a sudden separation? Yes, at some point every person will have to make their childhood faith their own if they are going to continue in that faith. I have no argument on that point. But doesn’t that only seem like an exceedingly strange way to go about it? Or is that just me?

However, I digress. We all recognize that condemning descendants for the actions of their ancestor is fundamentally unjust. That was the point of the thought experiment yesterday. The injustice of the idea is simply magnified when we consider children. And it was on this point that I first rejected the idea of inherited guilt. But it was hardly the only reason I found to reject it or the only problem I found it raised. So we’ll continue this meandering series tomorrow.


Sola Scriptura 1 – Intertwined with the Modern Lens

Posted: August 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

No, this isn’t going to be yet another one of those apologies for or arguments against the idea of Sola Scriptura that you find littered across the blogosphere and in print. I’ve read and listened to quite a few from a variety of perspectives over the years and found the majority of them … less than helpful. I didn’t really interact with this idea until well into my adult life, but as a member of an SBC church for a decade and a half, as someone who attended BSF for a pretty good number of years, and as someone who has participated in a variety of other evangelical bible studies, I feel I’ve pretty reasonably worked to inhabit the perspective as best I could for an extended period of time. I’m not really planning this series, but I expect it to be some short posts reflecting various aspects of the deconstruction of the idea of sola scriptura from my particular perspective and experience.

The particular idea of sola scriptura, of course, grew out of the Western modern cultural lens which in turn reflected the flowering of scholasticism in its Western medieval form. The core concept that a text, any text, somehow has an objective meaning which can be discerned by some means and which is somehow independent from any interpretation or interpreter of the text is intimately connected to the modern lens. It began as a modern Western idea and thrived within the modern context.

I don’t particularly care what you call the cultural, societal, and sociological shift which we began to undergo in the 20th century, which is in full swing now, and which will likely continue to work itself out over the next century or so. Whatever labels or terms you prefer to use, I am more formed by those forces than by the modern forces which birthed and sustained the various sola scriptura ideas. And I don’t see any way that the different sola scriptura lenses will be able to persist in anything like their various forms outside what is often called the modern cultural context or modernity. I’ll explore some of the reasons I believe that to be true in this series.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 18 – St. Cyprian to the Church of Thibaris

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

This letter to the Church of Thibaris was also written to help prepare them for persecution, so it’s similar in context to the last one. And we see a similar theme and place for the Eucharist.

A severer and a fiercer fight is now threatening, for which the soldiers of Christ ought to prepare themselves with uncorrupted faith and robust courage, considering that they drink the cup of Christ’s blood daily, for the reason that they themselves also may be able to shed their blood for Christ.

Drink Christ’s blood daily so you will be able to shed your blood for Christ. It’s the same visceral connection. And it is interesting that a practice of daily Eucharist is mentioned.

Later in the letter, as St. Cyprian is writing about the full armor metaphor from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he certainly interprets the sword in a way I don’t think I’ve ever heard in a Protestant church.

that our mouth may be fortified, that the conquering tongue may confess Christ its Lord: let us also arm the right hand with the sword of the Spirit, that it may bravely reject the deadly sacrifices; that, mindful of the Eucharist, the hand which has received the Lord’s body may embrace the Lord Himself, hereafter to receive from the Lord the reward of heavenly crowns.

The right hand is armed with the Lord’s body in the Eucharist. It is consumed through our mouths and thus fortifies it and gives us a conquering tongue.

Normative baptist practice, at least in most SBC churches that I’ve heard about, is to hold the “Lord’s Supper” quarterly and every time stress that it is just a memorial remembrance and symbol and that nothing whatsoever is actually happening. The only reason we’re doing it at all is because for some obscure reason Jesus told us to engage in this ritual. So we’re going to do it even though we don’t believe it actually accomplishes anything whatsoever other than spur a moment of personal, private reflection and perhaps stir an internal emotional response.


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 12 – Justin Martyr on the Eucharist

Posted: July 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This post concludes my reflections on Justin Martyr’s First Apology. I saved for last Chapter LXVI which focuses explicitly on the Eucharist.

And this food is called among us Eukaristia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.

Justin begins by outlining three things that must be true of those who partake of the Eucharist among them. First, they must believe that the things taught are true. Since the person would actually be at the worship, this seems to be directed at those within the church who were adopting other beliefs. In other words, it’s not so much directed outward at the pagans, who would not have been present anyway, but inward at those like the gnostics.

Next they must have been washed — that is baptized.  (Washing was a common Jewish term for all their practices of ceremonial cleansings  that remained within the church for quite some time.) Although it’s not the topic of this series, I will note that Baptists also have a historical problem with our reduction of the mystery of Baptism to a mere symbol. Justin does actually speak more about it elsewhere in his apology, but it’s interesting to note that even here he describes it as for the remission of sins and unto regeneration. Both of those are, of course, what we would call biblical descriptions of baptism even though Justin did not yet have a New Testament Bible. Even absent the written texts, it is clearly part of what has been traditioned to him.

The requirement of baptism excluded those who were in the process of learning what it meant to be Christian. These came to be called the catechumens. The catechumenate developed as the church existed under persecution as an illegal religion under Roman law. The goal was to make sure that people understood what it meant to follow Christ and would be able to stand firm under torture and the threat of death. During this period it was still very much an unsettled question whether or not one who having turned to Christ, and then having denied Christ under persecution would ever be able to truly return to the faith.

And finally, those partaking must actually be living as Christ commanded us to live. In the words of the Holy Scriptures, they must obey his commands. And this, of course, is his command: That we love one another.

For the central purposes of this series, here is the key sentence.

For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.

There is quite a bit packed into this sentence, so I’m going to spend a little time unpacking it. First, Justin denies that we receive the elements as common bread and common drink. That certainly sets him at odds with the modern SBC Faith & Message. And perhaps sets him at odds with Zwingli. However, the next linkage is perhaps the most important. Justin connects the Eucharist to the Incarnation itself. Jesus took on flesh and blood for our salvation and as such we must consume his flesh and blood to receive it, to be nourished, and to be healed. This is the connection Jesus makes in John 6 fleshed out in practice. And then the very clear statement that the food which is blessed is the flesh and blood of Jesus.

I’ve been tempted at times to point out to my fellow Baptists that Bill Clinton was really just being a good Southern Baptist boy when he said, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” But I’ve always refrained because I’m not sure they would take it in the spirit intended. And yet that is exactly what those who take the “mere symbol” route are doing. History so far has been consistent with the usage of ‘is’ in Holy Scriptures regarding the Eucharist. The blessed bread is our Lord’s flesh. The blessed wine is our Lord’s blood.

I am going to continue stepping forward through that which we have preserved from the historical practice and understanding of the Church in this series. But right now, the oft-repeated liturgical phrase from Battlestar Galactica comes to mind about all we have examined to date.

So say we all.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 3 – The Baptist Faith & Message of 2000

Posted: July 18th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Baptists, Eucharist, and History 3 – The Baptist Faith & Message of 2000

Finally, we’ll look briefly at the current state of Baptist belief and practice as reflected in the SBC’s 2000 Baptist Faith & Message. It’s extremely brief, so I’ll just quote the entire thing.

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 would say we now take it further than even Zwingli intended. It’s a memorial ordinance. It’s purely symbolic. The bread and “fruit of the vine” (because Baptists became teetotalers in the late 19th century) are now mere bread and grape juice. No hint of the holy. No trace of even a spiritual connection to Christ. It’s not even a Thanksgiving (Eucharist) anymore. It’s a ritual we do out of obedience, as a memorial, and to anticipate the return of our Lord. This is a fairly common modern Western perspective today.

That completes my brief overview of the roots and development of the Baptist perspective on the Eucharist. Next we’ll step back into early Christian history and begin to explore how the Eucharist was understood and practiced by the early Christians. We’ll begin with the Ante-Nicene Christian period when Christianity was an illegal, though not always persecuted, religion in the Roman Empire.