Who Am I?

Original Sin 9 – The Adventures of Dumb and Dumber

Posted: March 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Let’s return to Genesis 4 and begin to consider the arc of the whole narrative. I think that’s important because often today, especially in modern evangelicalism, that arc is either abbreviated or almost entirely omitted.

If you listen carefully to the problem, the solution, and the narrative connecting the two in much of evangelicalism today, you will hear something like this. The problem, disobeying God’s inviolate and sacred Law, is established in Genesis 3. The story then jumps to Romans in the New Testament where, using a couple of sentences, the guilt for the sin of Adam is said to be inherited by all human beings and that guilt cannot (for reasons that are never really explained) be forgiven by God. Instead, someone has to pay the debt we owe, but since we are human and finite, we cannot pay an infinite debt. (Of course, the explanations for the manner in which either Adam’s single act or our finite acts become an infinite and unredeemable debt are a bit tenuous themselves.) And since we owe a debt we cannot pay, we are all condemned by God.

Therefore Jesus becomes human in order to die on the cross. As a human being, he can die. And as God he is able to pay the infinite debt we had no ability to pay. The resurrection demonstrates that God accepts Jesus’ payment. And finally, to the extent it’s considered at all, the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost marks the seal on that payment. It cannot be revoked.

Beyond its overly simplistic nature — reality, not to mention God, isn’t that simple — the fundamental problem with that particular narrative is that it omits most of the actual narrative of Scripture. It distorts the shape of that narrative significantly in an attempt to make it somehow fit within the confines of the above framework. Even the climax of Romans, the text in which much of this modern evangelical narrative tries to root itself, loses its context and thus most of its meaning. What should be the climax of the text of Romans becomes a parenthetical discussion. The Gospels themselves tend to be reduced to narratives that exist almost solely to establish the historical setting for the Passion of Christ.

However, the creation narratives are  in reality followed by the narrative of Genesis 4-11. There are varying ways to read these texts. I’ve found some intriguing insights at Just Genesis and if you are interested in such things commend that site to you. I’ve heard Scot McKnight describe Genesis 4-11 as “the adventures of dumb and dumber” and in some ways that seems like an apt summary description to me. But this narrative ends at Babel. That should not be overlooked. Instead of one people with one God, humanity consists of many peoples and nations with many gods. And this is the ancient state of man.

And though it’s a bit of an aside, that brings us to an important point regarding most of human history. Those of us in the modern West are highly conditioned today to regard faith or religion as an individual, private choice that each person must make for themselves over the course of their lives. But that image does not describe most of humanity. In the ancient world (and still to some extent in many parts of the world today) gods were largely tied to place and/or people groups and nations. If you were born in a particular place to certain parents, then your god or gods were largely determined by your birth. That was never an absolute, of course. From time to time, people did shift from one religion to another. And, of course, new religions did arise (though they too quickly became tied to some people or place).

Household gods (like we see in some of the early scriptures) were tied to the household and moved with the household. But if the gods were taken or if you left the household, then those gods were now removed from you and you needed other gods. It’s a very different lens for interpreting reality and if you try to read our Holy Scriptures through the modern, highly individualized spiritual lens, you will misread them.

If you have not read and understood one aspect of Pentecost as the healing of Babel, then I would suggest that you have missed an important part of the arc of the story of God and man. In fact, you may be too focused on the question of guilt and forgiveness and not enough on the themes of healing and restoration. I would suggest that the latter are actually more central to the narrative of the Holy Scriptures than the question of guilt. We’ll continue to explore the narrative arc of scripture tomorrow.


My Church History Perspective 5 – Translation and Textual Criticism

Posted: December 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments »

The two threads of the problem of translation and the impact of modern textual criticism strike me as interwoven with the work of history in different ways. Any work of translation, of course, is an intrinsically historical effort. Language is closely correlated with culture. So before an idea can be expressed in a different language, it must be understood in the setting of its original context. However, because different languages operate in different cultural contexts and historical settings, operating sometimes under very different assumptions, there is often not a clear expression of an idea from one language in another. Modern textual criticism, on the other hand, often seems to be used against actual historical evidence, as if working from texts alone one can somehow divine the “truth.” I wanted to touch on both topics, at least briefly, in this series.

The work of translation is, as I already mentioned, a fundamentally historical work. The success and accuracy of any translation effort depends on the correct understanding of the text that is being translated. Since idiom and cultural assumptions permeate any and every text, if you do not properly understand those assumptions and the idioms that flow from them, you will misunderstand the text being translated. Obviously, if you don’t correctly understand that which you are translating, the odds of correctly translating it are significantly worse.

But the task is even harder because it is impossible to approach any text without your own presuppositions. The more important the text is to you, the more your desires will influence your translation efforts. Modern translators of biblical texts into English try to overcome some of those biases by assembling teams of translators. However, that simply trades the individual bias for a group bias. No translation effort is ever free from that sort of bias. That’s why it’s always good to research a translation and understand which Christian tradition or group produced the translation. It’s a particular problem now due to the radical division and pluralism of belief that exists in Christianity today.

Sometimes translators simply ignore history. For example, there are those who decided that the Apostle Junia mentioned in Romans must have been a male named “Junias” despite the complete lack of any historical evidence that such a male name ever existed and over the clear historical tradition of the Church about Junia. Why did they reach that conclusion? Because they did not believe a woman could have been an apostle. The bias of the group drove decisions about the translation of the text in direct opposition to the overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary. However, translation bias is not usually as blatant as that. Typically, it’s more subtle.

Modern textual criticism, on the other hand, is much stranger and much more driven by the biases and goals of those performing it. I think I’m too “postmodern” in my formation to understand a perspective that believes you can “objectively” determine much of anything by studying texts. It’s this discipline, for instance, that has promulgated the widely held belief that the Gospel of Mark was written first and even that there is some mythical “lost” document that Mark and the other synoptics used as a source. There is no historical basis for either claim. Every patristic source we have states that Matthew was written first. Moreover, there would have been no motive for the ancient writers to lie or distort the truth. There is no evidence that the order itself was important to them. They were simply reporting the tradition they had received from the apostles themselves or from those who had known one or more of them.

The question then, is really why the modern textual critics wanted Mark to be the first gospel written? And when you ask that question, you begin to unravel a tapestry that allowed some in that group to place Mark in the second century, and remove all the gospels from an apostolic source. That’s not a widely held belief anymore from what I can tell, but the idea that Mark was written first, developed as a linchpin for that effort, persists nonetheless.

Bias also creeps in through variations in the ancient texts. If you read the notes in the translation of the Holy Scriptures you use, you might see notes to the effect that the “oldest” texts do not contain this or that bit of the text or that they say something different. Our initial reaction is to believe that the “older” texts are the more accurate, but that’s a reaction based on modern assumptions. In the ancient world, the texts were generally produced by hand. It was a long, laborious process and much depended on the skill of the transcriber. Given that texts were always less trusted in an oral culture, a poor text would be quickly identified and set aside while a good text would be used. Thus the oldest surviving texts are more likely to be poor copies that were little used while the better texts were much used and thus did not remain intact. If something exists in a broad array of old texts, there is no reason to reject those texts simply because one or two older ones have something different.

However, even among the best copies there are some variations in the text. But that doesn’t seem to have bothered anybody in the ancient world. They expected it and treated it as completely natural. If you read patristic sermons, you’ll encounter places where they note that the text they are reading says this, but they’ve read it differently elsewhere, and then they’ll tend to explore points in both variations. Later, as the texts were translated into other languages, you’ll see points made from the nuance of the language of the translation that go beyond the meaning in the original. Christianity has always believed that the Spirit speaks authoritatively through the text in any language and, as long as it is consistent with the tradition of interpretation, has had no problem with nuance arising from the translation itself.

The obsession with determining exactly what text is “right” is a purely modern one. And it most often seems to be a way of disputing or rejecting traditional interpretations and asserting novel interpretations instead. There is actually no such thing as a truly “conservative” (in the traditional sense of the word, not in the way it seems to be bandied about today) Protestant. But then, most people today (at least in the US) don’t use “conservative” or “liberal” in anything like their original sense. I’m not sure there is any consensus on what the new meanings of the words are because they don’t seem to be used in any consistent fashion at all. Most often, they seem to be used either as pejoratives or to describe the group with which you associate. If that group uses one of the words, then in that context, the word means the things that the group says and the other word describes everyone else.

Or at least, so it seems to me.


For the Life of the World 16

Posted: November 18th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 16

This post continues with my thoughts on sections 6-7 of the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  third podcast on chapter three.

Fr. Schmemann now explores the manner in which the cycle of services relates the Church and individual Christian to the time of day, and how the prayers and other liturgical acts, performed on behalf of the whole community, are an essential part of the Church’s redeeming mission. In the book and thus also in my post we’ll focus on the morning and the evening hours. In all traditions that join in the set prayers of the Church or are at all liturgical, these are the most prominent. In the podcast, Deacon Michael does an excellent job summarizing all of the hours. If you are not familiar with them, I recommend listening to the podcast even more strongly than I normally do.

Contrary to our secular experience of time, the liturgical day begins with Vespers, i.e., in the evening. This is, of course, the reminiscence of the biblical “And the evening and the morning were the first day” (Gn. 1:5). Yet it is more than a reminiscence. For it is, indeed, the end of each “unit” of time that reveals its pattern and meaning, that gives to time its reality. Time is always growth, but only at the end can we discern the direction of that growth and see its fruits. It is at the end, in the evening of each day that God sees His creation as good; it is at the end of creation that He gives it to man. And thus, it is at the end of the day that the Church begins the liturgy of time’s sanctification.

So as our day or work and play and rest winds down, the Church does not merely add an epilogue to the experiences of that day. It begins a new day characterized by thanksgiving, turning toward God, and sanctifying the new day.

There must be someone in this world — which rejected God and in this rejection, in this blasphemy, became a chaos of darkness — there must be someone to stand in its center, and to discern, to see it again as full of divine riches, as the cup full of life and joy, as beauty and wisdom, and to thank God for it. This “someone” is Christ, the new Adam who restores that “eucharistic life” which I, the old Adam, have rejected and lost; who makes me again what I am, and restores the world to me. And if the Church is in Christ, its initial is always this act of Thanksgiving, of returning the world to God.

However, contrasted with the beauty and wonder for which we give thanks, there is also the ugliness of sin. Repentance is another theme of Vespers.

In the face of the glory of creation there must be tremendous sadness. God has given us another day, and we can see just how we have destroyed this gift of His. We are not “nice” Christians come apart from the ugly world. If we do not stand precisely as representatives of this world, as indeed the world itself, if we do not bear the whole burden of this day, our “piety” may still be pious, but it is not Christian.

The third theme of Vespers is redemption. This redemption, of course, is Christ.

Now in the time in which we can thank God for Christ, we begin to understand that everything is transformed in Christ into its true wonder. In the radiance of His light the world is not commonplace. The very floor we stand on is a miracle of atoms whizzing about in space. The darkness of sin is clarified, and its burden shouldered. Death is robbed of its finality, trampled down by Christ’s death. In a world where everything that seems to be present is immediately past, everything in Christ is able to participate in the eternal present of God. This very evening is the real time of our life.

And the last theme of Vespers is that of the end announced in the words from the Gospels of the old man Simeon.

Vespers is the recognition that the evening of this world has come which announces the day that has no evening. In this world every day faces night; the world itself is facing night. It cannot last forever. Yet the Church is affirming that an evening is not only an end, but also a beginning, just as any evening is also the beginning of another day. In Christ and through Christ it may become the beginning of a new life, of the day that has no evening.

The day that has no evening. That image echoes in my mind. Fr. Schmemann then moves to Matins. I like his opening in section 7.

When we first wake up, the initial sensation is always that of night, not of illumination; we are at our weakest, at our most helpless. It is like a man’s first real experience of life in all its absurdity and solitude, at first kept from him by family warmth. We discover every morning in the amorphous darkness the inertia of life. And thus the first theme of Matins is again the coming of light into darkness. … The Church announces every morning that God is the Lord, and she begins to organize life around God.

As Vespers, rather than epilogue announces a new day of Thanksgiving, so Matins organizes our waking life around the God whom we thank.

These two complementary, yet absolutely essential, dimensions of time shape our life in time and, by giving time a new meaning, transform it into Christian time. This double experience is, indeed, to be applied to everything we do. We are always between morning and evening, between Sunday and Sunday, between Easter and Easter, between the two comings of Christ. The experience of time as end gives an absolute importance to whatever we do now, makes it final, decisive. The experience of time as beginning fills all our time with joy, for it adds to it the “coefficient” of eternity: “I shall not die but live and declare the works of the Lord.”

Fr. Schmemann reflects on the words from Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” That seems to capture the essence of the sameness of daily life. We get up, get ready, and head into a day of work, joining a rush of others doing the same. And in the evening, the rush is in the other direction as tired people head home. And the cycle, in the fallen world, repeats day after day in a blur of sameness, futility, and meaninglessness.

But we Christians have too often forgotten that God has redeemed the world. For centuries we have preached to the hurrying people: your daily rush has no meaning, yet accept it — and you will be rewarded in another world by an eternal rest. But God revealed and offers us eternal Life and not eternal rest. And God revealed this eternal Life in the midst of time — and of its rush — as its secret meaning and goal. And thus he made time, and our work in it, into the sacrament of the world to come, the liturgy of fulfillment and ascension. It is when we have reached the very end of the world’s self-sufficiency that it begins again for us as the material of the sacrament that we are to fulfill in Christ.

“There is no new thing under the sun.” Yet every day, every minute resounds now with the victorious affirmation: “Behold, I make all things new. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end…” (Rev. 21:5-6)

I love how he ends by contrasting the words of the Preacher and the words of our Lord. Indeed, Christ makes all things new, including time.


The Elements or Gifts of the Eucharist

Posted: November 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Elements or Gifts of the Eucharist

In other posts, I’ve looked at the Eucharist in history, at the mystery of the Eucharist, at its place in liturgy, and many other questions. A conversation with my youngest daughter this past week left me reflecting on the elements or gifts themselves or, to put it more prosaically, the bread and wine. There have been a number of practices regarding both over the course of the centuries. I would wager many modern Protestants are unfamiliar with all but the most recent.

One of the variations of practice that sometimes rose to the level of dispute was the use of leavened vs. unleavened bread in the Eucharist. Over time, the West settled into a practice of using unleavened bread and the East leavened bread, but that did not happen all at once. For centuries, there was a mixed practice in both East and West. All too often today, the concept of leaven is conflated with yeast. While scientifically accurate, it fails to capture the ancient mindset well. It would be more accurate to think of leaven as what we might call starter, if you’ve ever made bread in some of the more traditional ways.

Unlike much of what you might hear people in some corners say today, neither in the Holy Scriptures nor in the Fathers is leaven ever simply synonymous with sin or evil. Rather, leaven more describes a process of one substance permeating and changing the nature of another. Sin often acts that way. But, if you remember Jesus’ parable, so does the Kingdom.

The theology developed by proponents of either perspective is varied and rich. It’s worth spending time to explore if such things interest you. But, to summarize and over-simplify, there did tend to be some noteworthy trends.

Among those who favored unleavened bread, the primary point was the connection of the Eucharist to Passover because Christ is our Passover. And on Passover Jews ate unleavened bread. Why? Because on the night of the tenth plague, the Israelites prepared in haste to leave. You have to wait for leavened bread to rise, usually more than once whereas unleavened bread is prepared quickly. It is the bread of haste and the bitterness of departure.

Those who made this connection often also saw the meal at which Christ instituted the mystery of the Eucharist as a Passover meal at which they would have been eating unleavened bread. From very early on, you can see that this is a disputed point. And, indeed, if you read the gospels some things are clear. The connection to Passover is evident as is the fact that Passover is near. The room was one in which Jesus said he intended to eat Passover with his disciples. That is also certain. It is unclear whether or not the actual meal was a Passover meal and, if it was, whether or not Jesus was celebrating it on the “right” day. If you try to figure out exactly what day each event occurs you’ll give yourself a headache. Trust me, I know.

However, those who favored the use of leavened bread were not primarily concerned about whether or not the institution in the upper room happened in the context of a Passover meal or not. They drew from the parable of the leaven of the Kingdom and saw the leaven of Christ working itself into and through the people of God as the Kingdom spread into the nations. Although that last supper in the upper room was a night of departures, we do not eat in haste, ready to leave. Rather, we live in the Kingdom now and the Eucharist is as much about the Resurrection as it is the Cross.

I don’t have a strong opinion either way, though I tend to lean in the direction of the arguments for leavened bread. They seem to hold more weight to me. Of course, as a diagnosed celiac, it’s largely a moot point for me in practical terms. Leavened or unleavened, I can’t consume the bread. But it is still a very interesting aspect of the practice of our faith to explore.

The other ancient dispute over practice which continues to this day revolves around the wine of the Eucharist. No, it’s not the dispute that would probably immediately spring to mind for most of my fellow modern American Protestants. We’ll get to that one later. No, this one is the practice of using pure wine in the Eucharist vs. wine mixed with hot water. Nobody that I’ve read on this dispute argues that Christ used anything but pure wine during the last supper. And on that basis, it became the standard practice in the West.

In the East, however, it has long been the practice to mix hot water with the wine. There are many different reasons given. One (from St. Cyril of Alexandria, I think) was that the water was the Church and in the Eucharist we take Christ into our body and become part of his body. Another makes reference to the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side on the Cross, arguing that it is thus appropriate for our Eucharist to be wine and water. Another perspective, especially in the Armenian and Ethiopian Churches holds that the water represents the Holy Spirit, since water is normally connected to the Spirit.

This debate became so heated that at one point in time anathemas flew. Personally, I can see both perspectives and find them both not without merit. I am also certain that, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we receive either as the blood of our Lord, which is really all that matters.

The last dispute about the nature of the gifts themselves is the modern Protestant practice, connected to the 19th century temperance movement, of using grape juice instead of wine. I’ve heard and read myriad scriptural interpretations and theological circumlocutions to justify this particular innovation. If you think you have one that I’ve not heard, feel free to share it. This is a modern issue because it could only have arisen in our technologically advanced modern era. This is also where a dose of practical reality is needed more than theology.

In the modern West, we have become disconnected from the realities of food. We can have anything we want almost any time of the year. I know that personally, on those rare occasions I cannot find produce I desire at that moment, I’m irritated. But that is not how things have worked for much of human history. In the northern hemisphere, grapes are harvested in the fall. Oh, in some climates, like Cyprus, they might be harvested as early as late July and in Germany and some other places, grapes like icewine grapes might be harvested as late as January, but in general grapes are harvested in the fall. Passover is in the spring, all the way on the other side of the annual calendar. Moreover, there was no refrigeration or pasteurization in the ancient world.

What does that mean? It’s very simple really. That night in the upper room with Jesus of Nazareth, nobody had grapes or grape juice. Nobody in the city had grapes or grape juice. Nobody in the northern hemisphere had grapes or grape juice.

They had raisins and wine.

And the same realities carry through most of human history. There was not even the possibility of a question about whether to use grape juice or wine. All that anyone had available to use was wine. That’s why this is an uniquely modern dispute.

In 1869, Thomas Bramwell Welch, dentist, physician, and Methodist Communion steward, successfully applied the process of pasteurization to grape juice producing an “unfermented wine” with a long shelf life when properly sealed. He used the product for communion in his church. His son Charles, the enterprising sort, saw an opportunity and began marketing their “unfermented wine” for use by other Temperance Movement minded churches. It’s on that basis that the Welch company and fortune was built. Good, bad, or indifferent, the possibility of using grape juice in communion dates from 1869. Before then, it was not possible.

My perspective? I’m skeptical of the claim that only Christians in the last 150 years have been able to do Communion the right way. I tend to distrust modern innovations in a two thousand year old faith, especially when I can specifically locate the person and events responsible for the innovation. I just can’t drink that particular koolaid. This particular practice has no connection to anything in Scripture or the historic practice of the Church. It’s a very recent modern novelty. And it seems that it’s primarily churches who hold the Eucharist in relatively low regard, at least to judge by the frequency of their participation in it, that adhere to this modern innovation.

Those are the thoughts that have been bouncing around my head this week about the physical nature of the elements themselves. If anyone knows of any significant variation in the bread and wine which I’ve missed, let me know.


On the Incarnation of the Word 14 – How Could the Word Renew the Stained Image in Man?

Posted: September 6th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 14 – How Could the Word Renew the Stained Image in Man?

Athanasius next asks how the stained image in man could be renewed.

For as, when the likeness painted on a panel has been effaced by stains from without, he whose likeness it is must needs come once more to enable the portrait to be renewed on the same wood: for, for the sake of his picture, even the mere wood on which it is painted is not thrown away, but the outline is renewed upon it; in the same way also the most holy Son of the Father, being the Image of the Father, came to our region to renew man once made in His likeness, and find him, as one lost, by the remission of sins; as He says Himself in the Gospels: “I came to find and to save the lost.”

The damaged image was that of the Word. It could only be restored by the Son coming to renew man. And he could only do that as a man.

Whence, naturally, willing to profit men, He sojourns here as man, taking to Himself a body like the others, and from things of earth, that is by the works of His body [He teaches them], so that they who would not know Him from His Providence and rule over all things, may even from the works done by His actual body know the Word of God which is in the body, and through Him the Father.

The act of renewal, of recreation, is a deeper and more intimate work than the unrepeatable original creation. We know the Word in now not merely by his creation and rule over all things, but by the works done by his actual body.