Ancient Texts 4 – Textual Variation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thirsting for God 10 – The Right Ritual

Posted: December 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 10 – The Right Ritual

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

Love cannot exist without ritual.

Think about the above statement in the context of anyone whom you have loved. Are there not myriad little traditions and rituals that embody and sustain that love? Matthew provides an example with his wife in the book, but it shouldn’t be hard for any of us to think of our own personal illustrations. In fact, to one degree or another ritual behavior permeates all our relationships. Even at the most casual level, we shake right hands, or we bow, or we salute.

Of course, I’ve never had the strange aversion many Protestants have to ritual worship and practices. I’ve explored and practiced an array of religions and all of them provide practices that you follow both individually and corporately. As a result, the title of this chapter immediately caught my eye. It’s not about whether or not you follow certain ritual practices in worship. It’s a given that you will have some form of ritual practice. Rather, the question is whether or not you follow the right rituals.

For here’s the dirty little secret of the anti-ritualistic side of Protestantism. Every single one of them employ rituals in corporate worship and prescribe ritual practices for individual use. It’s simply an unavoidable aspect of being human. Even if you sit together in a bare room waiting for the Spirit to move someone to speak, that’s still a corporate ritual practice. A daily “quiet time” is a personal ritual practice.

And that’s natural, especially in those aspects of life that are the most important to us. It’s not something to fight against. Think about your closest relationships of love. As Matthew Gallatin puts it, what makes love real is its “predictability and constancy” not its “spikes and flutters.”

Once you recognize that truth, the real issue becomes one of discerning between the myriad ritual practices that are presented as Christian worship today. And this is where it seems natural and obvious to me to turn to history. Sure, there are things I like and things I may not like as much, but I’ve spent the past decade and a half trying to understand what it means to be Christian. Given my relativistic formation it’s a constant temptation for me to find the things I like and gravitate toward them, but I’ve been down that road. I’m not particularly interested in continuing to pursue it with a Christian veneer.

As Christians, we are not sacramental because that’s the way we like to worship. We’re sacramental because this is the path God has revealed and commanded His Church to follow.

Most of the modern Protestant practices are, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, completely anachronistic. Moreover, they not only didn’t exist in the ancient world, many of them couldn’t have existed. They simply don’t fit. They can also generally be traced to a specific origin in the last few hundred years.

Matthew Gallatin also makes the point that the diversity in ritual practice that fragments Protestantism and keeps Protestants from being truly one with each other also keeps them from attaining true union with God. And that’s an important point. We love God as much as we love the human being that we hate the most. And we can only be one with God to the extent that we are one with each other.

My SBC church has reached the point where its two styles of worship have become a point of divergence. It’s a church whose members cannot worship together. Significant numbers on both sides have made it clear they would leave before yielding even a small degree. In what sense is that Christian? Sure, it’s not hard to accommodate both groups with two different worship services, but it illustrates the lack of oneness.

(For the record, while I do have personal preferences, I don’t really have a dog in the fight. The two services look to me like slightly variant expressions of the same modern form of ritual worship. Neither of them have much thread of connection to any historical pattern of Christian worship. But the fact that many are so deeply entrenched does illustrate how important our rituals are to us.)


Thirsting for God 8 – Love Beyond Reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thirsting for God 7 – Truth is a Promise

Posted: December 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 7 – Truth is a Promise

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

In this chapter, Matthew Gallatin begins by reflecting on Jesus’ own words about his church in Matthew 16:18.

The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.

Do you believe that is true? Really? Because the vibe I get from many of the modern Protestant strands is that we can”t simply take Jesus at his word. Paul believed it was true. It’s why he did what he did the way he did it. It’s why he calls the church the “pillar and ground of truth” when he’s writing to Timothy. The early Christians did. They wrote of the Church as the ark of salvation and the end of religion. We now knew the truth. Pagans charged them with being atheists.

Jesus’ statement in Matthew’s Gospel is one of his clearer ones, but you wouldn’t think that was the case if you were to read most of the English language commentaries we have available for us today. Many of them explain at some length how Jesus really didn’t mean what he said, but meant something else instead. Matthew Gallatin’s reaction to that question, once he was able to ask it honestly, was straightforward.

First of all, I perceived this would mean that those teachings and practices I had previously dismissed as “Catholic” and “unscriptural” might actually be Spirit-inspired. The Faith as it was understood and practiced everywhere by millions of believers for at least a millennium would embody the truth Christ gave to the Apostles — if I believed that Jesus had the power to live up to His promises.

And that’s really the core of the matter. Do we believe that Jesus has the power to do what he said he was going to do or don’t we? It seems to me that’s the question most people never ask themselves.

How could I have thought my Lord to be the most powerless God ever worshiped?

That’s the point at which Matthew Gallatin found himself. It’s an honest and revealing question.

Now, that is not to say that the Church is or has ever been some perfect, utopian ideal. But then that’s not what Jesus founded. He was starting a hospital. As Jesus said, he didn’t come for the healthy; he came for the sick. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Moreover, the Apostles recognized from the outset that the principalities and powers were organized against them and that part of that threat would be from within. John wrote against the docetists in the Church and called them antichrists. Peter wrote about ravening wolves masquerading as shepherds. Jesus himself said that the wheat and the tares had to grow together and would only be separated in the end. Attacks from the outside have usually made the Church stronger. The powers have long recognized that it’s most effective to attack it from within.

And even absent outright attack, the Church is a continuation of the Incarnation. (Paul’s image of body is quite apt.) Jesus emptied himself and became wholly and fully one of us in order to rescue and heal mankind. His victory is manifest and worked out not from a throne, but from a body build from broken, imperfect, and often corrupt humanity. As such, the Church has often done great evil as well as great good. We must acknowledge and confess those wrongs, not excuse them or hide from them. Nevertheless, it’s in our weakness that we are made strong. Jesus has overcome and continues to overcome and he is the cornerstone on which the Church rests. Do we or do we not believe that he has the power to support and maintain that church — even with all its marred and broken stones?

Ultimately, Matthew Gallatin had the following thought.

By the mercy of Christ, I’d always somehow known that when I found the real truth, I would find real love. After all, Truth is no a thing; it is a Person. And that Person, the Incarnate Son of God, is infinite Love.


Thirsting for God 6 – History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thirsting for God 5 – Sola Scriptura

Posted: December 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 5 – Sola Scriptura

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

One of the fundamental tenets of Protestantism is sola scriptura. Actually, that’s not exactly true — at least to my eyes. I would push a little deeper than Matthew Gallatin does at this point in his book. The fundamental tenet of Protestantism is that each individual can and must decide for themselves what is or is not true. Whether a particular strand says they depend on Scripture alone or whether they say they depend on some combination of scripture, reason, and tradition, that tenet holds. Sola Scriptura is one way of asserting individual interpretation over against any other interpretive grid.

Now, in practice, every Protestant sect tries to teach its members its own interpretation of Christian faith and practice. But since every strand began by asserting that the group from which it splintered was wrong in some way, there isn’t really any way for it to keep the views of its own members from also diverging over time. As we’ve seen over the past five hundred years, that inevitably happens in every single Protestant group. And it happens pretty quickly. That’s how we’ve gotten to the point of having tens of thousands of denominations and non-denominations who all claim to worship the same God even as they hold wildly divergent and often contradictory beliefs about that God. Why?

The Scriptures alone can never show us what the objective truth about God is.

That’s not a new realization. One of the early Christian apologists wrote that the Scriptures (speaking primarily of what we call the Old Testament, of course) were like a mosaic showing us the face of Christ. However, the heretics took the tiles of the mosaic and formed them into a picture of a wolf or a fox instead. Christians have always recognized that you could assemble Scripture to argue for many different ideas, but most of those were not true. In fact, the heretics were often masters at that task. Arius, for example, had a convincing interpretation for every Scripture with which he was challenged. Ultimately, his interpretation was not rejected because it could be proven wrong, but because it was not what the Church in all places had believed since the time of the Apostles.

So what’s important to a Protestant believer is not just “the Scriptures alone.” What he actually puts his faith and trust in is his interpretation of “the Scriptures alone.”

It’s axiomatic to me that no text says anything without interpretation. So that’s not the revelation to me that it was to Matthew. The normal response, of course, is to assert that the Holy Spirit is guiding our individual interpretation. But can that be the case?

Is the Holy Spirit directing both of us? If He is, then that leaves us with a most disconcerting picture of the Spirit of God. For the Spirit, whom Christ calls the Spirit of truth, is busily at work sabotaging the longings of the Son! (that we be one)

Is the truth about God settled? Is there an underlying reality? Or is it up to each of us individually to determine the truth and reality of God? The foundation of Protestantism rests wholly on the individual. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m not up for the task of being the ground of truth.

Matthew has a funny quote from one of his Catholic friends that, I think, strikes true.

We Catholics have an old saying: ‘Protestants believe that everyone is infallible, except the Pope!’


Thirsting for God 4 – Christian Relativism

Posted: December 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 4 – Christian Relativism

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

The fragmentation of truth and confusion about God within Protestantism has led it to a curious place. The following captures it well.

You don’t have to be concerned that other people have a different understanding of the truth. You just have to be true to your own convictions. One’s relationship with God is an entirely personal thing. Just live up to “the light that you have,” to what you believe the truth to be. That’s what God expects.

Initially, that laissez-faire approach to God suited me pretty well. My thoroughly pluralistic formation combined with the inclusive nature of Hinduism had shaped me into something like a hard relativist. However, I remember one day hearing someone talk about “their” Holy Spirit speaking to them and guiding them and I remember thinking, “Wait. Isn’t there one Holy Spirit? Who is so united in essence with the Father and the Son that they can be spoken of as one God?” I was recognizing the problem with Christian relativism that Matthew Gallatin outlines.

First of all, such thinking makes sincerity of conviction the key to salvation. … We can be at once sincere, and sincerely wrong!

That’s not an idle point and I like the way Matthew Gallatin draws it together.

After all, how can I think that an Arminian and a Calvinist can both have a valid relationship with the true God, unless Jesus Christ can be a different Person to different individuals? St. James is quite clear, however: in God there can be no such “variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17). The Apostles Paul assures us there is only one God, one Lord, one faith, one hope (Ephesians 4:4-6). How can there be room in the Christian faith for spiritual relativism?

Now, I feel again that it’s important to say that God is a God of love who wants to be known as he knows us. He is seeking to save, not to condemn. The Incarnation makes that as clear as it could possibly be made. It would not surprise me at all if Plato and Lao Tzu were among the first to believe when Christ preached to the spirits in Hades as he destroyed death. Within every faith, I believe there are those like Emeth in The Last Battle, who have served Aslan even as they thought they followed Tash. How much more must there be many like that in the modern fragmentation of Christianity?

But God is who he is and not who we imagine him to be. To the extent that we are trying to relate to the God we imagine rather than the God who is, we might as well be relating to an imaginary friend. Most Protestants today are Christian relativists. The core ideas of Protestantism demand precisely that result, even if it’s not immediately evident. And while that was initially comfortable for me, it became less so fairly quickly.


Thirsting for God 3 – Who is God?

Posted: December 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 3 – Who is God?

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

How can people who are so clearly divided in their beliefs possibly claim to be “one”?

Matthew was standing between friends who he knew had completely contradictory beliefs as they sang “In our hearts, we’re undivided,” when the above question dawned on him. It’s the introduction to the next section of the book. The following explores the nature of belief and trust.

After all, it is absolutely impossible for a person to place real trust in a doctrine that he believes to be false, or even just possibly true. When it comes to matters of my Christian faith, saying “I believe this” is clearly the same thing as saying, “This is the truth.”

Think about that for a minute. Isn’t that true? Or can you think of a time when it’s not? And that leads to a very important question.

The fact that people jointly claim “Jesus is the Son of God come in the flesh” is not the true test of unity. To be one in their confession, they must mean the same thing by their words. … What specific part of this statement generates the variations in meaning? The most important word of all — God.

What sort of God do people envision when they use that word? And, assuming there is some actual reality behind whatever they envision, how closely does the God they imagine conform to the reality of God? This is not an idle question and is the underlying source for the ever-splintering nature of Protestantism. They do not imagine the same God.

For instance, when I say, “Jesus is Lord,” do I mean the Lord who reveres human free will, or the Lord who has no room for free will in His Kingdom? After all, they can’t both be the same God. When I say, “I’m saved by grace,” am I talking about a salvation and a grace that extends to every human creature? Or am I referring to a salvation and a grace that God will grant only to some restricted, foreordained group?

These are not idle questions if there is, in fact, a real God. And that led him to the following realization. It was somewhat earth-shattering for Matthew, but have always been an obvious conclusion to me. After all, Christianity claims that the fullness of the Godhead is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. That means that the extent to which we know Jesus as he truly is and not as we imagine him to be is the extent to which we know God. Christianity is not like Hinduism, within which there are many paths and not even a single view of the goal. (I hesitate to use the word “salvation” as Hinduism doesn’t really follow that perspective.) No, Christianity is much more like the conclusion to which Matthew came.

If God is not who I believe Him to be, then I have no God. … At last, I understood that the monumental question I needed to answer was not, “Am I right about my doctrine?” It was, rather, “Am I really a Christian?” … If the God I love and worship is not real, I am no different from the fervent, kind-hearted heathen or the pious, morally upright pagan.

Those questions matter. It’s not that God cares so much what I believe about him or that his love is conditioned by what I do or don’t believe. God loves us all and is not willing that any should perish. But love does not coerce. Fervently relating to my own mental image of God rather than the actual person of Jesus is as effective as a relating to an imaginary friend. Of course, it is possible to believe the wrong things about God and still know God. You can find those in every Christian denomination who clearly know and love God even though they have contradictory images of him. But I would tend to say those people have found God in spite of the divergence, not because of it. I don’t underestimate God’s ability to break through. But the splintering of truth makes that ever harder. We see that manifesting in a lot of different ways today.


Thirsting for God 2 – What is Truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 23

Posted: November 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 23

65. Self-esteem is the replacing of a purpose which accords with God by another purpose which is contrary to the divine. For a man full of self-esteem pursues virtue not for God’s glory but for his own, and so purchases with his labors the worthless praise of men.

As a rule, the Fathers have little positive to say about self-esteem, which seems odd when compared to most of what we hear everywhere around us today. Of course, they would also consider the destructiveness that often flows from what we call a low self-esteem today an illness of the soul that needs to be healed. But the balm would not be to replace it with a high self-esteem, which carries its own destructive patterns. Rather, it seems to me that they would characterize the central problem as self-esteem itself. Whether that esteem is high or low, it is still focused on ourselves and that is the true problem.

We need to learn to esteem Christ and through him, learn to see the truth about ourselves. Both are very difficult things to do.