Who Am I?

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 26

Posted: December 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 26

74.  If God is essential knowledge, then God is subordinate to the intellect, for clearly the intellect is prior to all knowledge that it embraces. Therefore God is beyond knowledge because He is infinitely  beyond every intellect, whatever the knowledge it embraces.

It seems to me this is a central failing that permeates many of the fragments within the Protestant tradition. There is a sense that knowing God is the same as acquiring knowledge about God. Thus, infants are not baptized or considered to be able to be Christian because they have not attained the level of cognitive development required to grasp the essential knowledge of God. The primary discipline for knowing God is bible study. God is subordinate to the intellect.

Now, that’s not to say that reading and studying the Holy Scriptures is unimportant. St. John Chrysostom often chided his wealthy parishioners in Constantinople for failing to spend their wealth on a copy of the Scriptures (or at least the Gospels if they couldn’t afford the whole Scriptures), or if they had, for failing to read them. But God is beyond all knowledge, even the knowledge of the Scriptures. In some ways, we might even be better served if we could continue to know him as uncritically as an infant does. Jesus seems to say something like that at times.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 20

Posted: November 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 20

62. Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.

We do not tell the truth — even to ourselves. (Perhaps especially to ourselves.)

That is a universal truth and unless it is healed, we have no way to move forward in our faith or in our love. One weakness in most of Protestantism is its failure to recognize this truth. Our Holy Scriptures and tradition speak plainly of the need of confession and the inadequacy of private, internal confession. If we do not learn to speak the truth about ourselves out loud in the presence of another human being, we cannot and will not change. It does not seem to me that the primary purpose of confession is penance. Roman Catholic practice and teaching over the last thousand years varies a fair degree on this topic, but to the extent it has focused on doing penance, I believe it has somewhat missed the mark. Rather, we need to learn to see ourselves truly (but slowly since too much truth at once is more apt to destroy us than not) so that we can change. And we do not fundamentally need to simply change our behavior. We need to change who we are. (Behavior changes usually follow such transformations, but they are not the goal as much as one tool toward that goal.)

There is tremendous power in the act of speaking a truth about ourselves aloud and in the hearing of another.

Original Sin 20 – Job 14:4-5

Posted: March 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 20 – Job 14:4-5

I left for last an examination of the texts from Scriptures used by St. Augustine to support his idea of original sin as the inherited guilt of all mankind. It has always seemed to me that St. Augustine developed his framework from the other sources and for the reasons I’ve examined in this series and then found texts he could use to connect those ideas to the Holy Scriptures. St. Augustine uses just five texts to support his idea of original sin, so we’ll look at each of them in turn. I will note that St. Augustine wrote and read in Latin and appears to have either been uncomfortable with Greek or outright disliked it. A couple of the verses on which he relies are actually mistranslated in the Latin text on which he relied.

The first text we’ll examine is Job 14:4-5. This also seems to be the first mistranslated text. It appears that the Latin version St. Augustine used was translated to read (in part) as follows.

Who is clean from sin? Not even a child whose life on earth is of one day.

I will note that the LXX (which is the traditional Christian Old Testament) and the Hebrew Masoretic text differ somewhat on this text. However, neither reads like the above. I’ll start with the LXX (quoting in full from the OSB).

For who shall be pure from uncleanness? No one. Even if his life is but one day upon the earth, his months are numbered by You. You appointed a time for him, and he cannot exceed it.

Within the context of Job’s prayer to God, he is saying that we are bound by mortality and with just a day amid the struggles of this life, even the most righteous would sin. St. John Chrysostom had the following to say on the passage.

You see Job taking refuge again in his nature, because it is impossible, he says, to be pure. [He implores God] not only because of our weakness or our ephemeral nature or the disheartening that fills our life, but because it is also impossible to be pure. … Job expresses again the ephemeral, miserable, and unhappy character of life. … Then Job demonstrates that human beings are the unhappiest of all, more than trees, rivers and the sea.

The Hebrew Masoretic text is translated as follows in the NKJV.

Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one! Since his days are determined, The number of his months is with You; You have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass.

The gist of verse five, looking at both texts, is clearly the idea that our days are numbered. We are limited. St. Gregory the Great writes the following.

God sets bounds to our spiritual attainments. We learn humility by the things we are unable to master, that we may not be exalted by those things we have the power to do.

With this text, it seems obvious to me that it does not say anything like what St. Augustine thought it said. His exegesis of this text was led astray by a flawed translation. That leaves four more texts to examine.

Original Sin 18 – Seminal Reasons

Posted: March 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 18 – Seminal Reasons

I want to begin this post in the series with a disclaimer. I have had a deep love for the history of ancient and classical Greece, its gods, its plays, and its literature for most of my life. By the time I finished fourth grade, I remember having read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Bulfinch’s Mythology, the Illiad, the Odyssey, and Antigone. I was hooked. (That was also a somewhat more … interesting … year than some of the others growing up, so I may have buried myself in books a bit more than usual that year. And the reading wasn’t all on one topic. I know I read King Lear for the first time that year — and performed a scene from it in a talent show. Oh, and I have a memory of reading a ton of the Hardy Boys books that year as well.)

With that said I have to confess that that love never translated into a love for Greek Philosophy. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Over the course of my life I’ve read some of their work and have some general understanding of their frameworks. But in all honesty, I can’t think of any time I wouldn’t have preferred spending time with Lao-tzu or the Bhagavad Gita over any of them. I can usually tell the Stoics from the Epicureans from the Neoplatonists, but I hardly know much beyond the basics about any of them.

I say all that in order to say that when I speak about them, which I have to do in order to do justice to any series on the topic of Original Sin, I’m doing so from a state of qualified ignorance. I will undoubtedly make mistakes at some points. Hopefully they will be fairly minor. I believe I grasp the important points as they relate to my topic fairly well. But if you know more on this subject than I do and you notice a mistake, please let me know. It was probably made from ignorance not malice.

In this post I’ll begin to explore the history behind the idea of original sin as inherited guilt. And such a discussion has to begin with St. Augustine, and thus it also has to begin the Stoic and Neoplatonist perspective that shaped his perception of reality and from which he drew pretty heavily in his works. And one of the central ideas from which he constructed his view of original sin was the Stoic philosophy (also adopted by the Neoplatonists, I believe) of seminal reasons. That’s basically the idea that indeterminate matter has in itself the principles of all future manifestation and development. St. Augustine used that concept in a number of places, especially when it came to creation. But for the purposes of our series, this idea held that all future generations were present in the seed of Adam and, when he sinned, all future generations sinned with him.

That idea by itself is not exactly the same thing as inherited guilt, but in its effect it’s largely indistinguishable. When you combine it with the fact that St. Augustine appears to have held to some form of traducianism, which asserted that the soul as well as the body is derived in its generation from the parents and you can see how the idea that we all share the guilt for Adam’s act developed.

As far as I can tell, these philosophies — not anything specifically Christian — provided the structure and form to the idea of original sin as inherited guilt. I’m certainly not one to say that truths cannot be found in other religions and philosophies. I absolutely believe that they can be — and as Christian, when they are, I attribute their revelation to Christ. However, a lot of people seem to strongly believe that these ideas are rooted in the Holy Scriptures or were developed entirely from the tradition of the Apostles. And they weren’t.

I will look at the other driving forces to St. Augustine’s approach and the way he connected these ideas to the Holy Scriptures. But I wanted to tackle the philosophy behind the idea first. Hopefully I’ve done so in an understandable fashion.

Original Sin 14 – The Two Natures of Christ

Posted: March 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 14 – The Two Natures of Christ

Whether through the hands of another human being, in the narrative text of the Holy Scriptures, or through some sense of direct connection, it has always been Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ, who draws me toward Christianity and who keeps me circling in a whirlpool of love with Jesus at its center. But I wasn’t interested in knowing just any Jesus of my imagination (or the imagination of others). I wasn’t interested in buddy Jesus. I’ve always been repelled by white, suburban, American, Republican Jesus. No, I wanted to understand (to the extent possible), learn to worship, and grow in communion with the actual man.

On the one hand this Jesus was a specific historical human being, a seemingly failed revolutionary gruesomely executed by one of the empires most gifted at instilling fear. The Christian scriptures themselves tell us that Jesus was tempted in every way we are tempted, he endured everything that we endure, he is truly one of us. When we turn toward Jesus, we do not find some supernatural, divine avatar who is something other than human. We find a human being in the fullest sense of the word.

And yet … he did not sin.

Sin is a word that is full of modern, often awful, connotations, but the way I have come to understand it is that Jesus did not miss the mark. He remained faithful where we all have been faithless. He lived and died as the true man, the Son of Man, the sum total of all that humanity was meant to be.

And here is where Christianity takes an amazing turn. Death could not contain Jesus. Death thought it had swallowed a man and found it had swallowed God instead. For the one human being, Jesus of Nazareth, was both man and eternal Logos — the Word or Act of God. Everything that could be said of the Father or had ever been said of the Father, could also be said of the Son. Somehow the one who created all things and in whom everything subsists became a part of his creation.

And all humanity is healed in that union. We are no longer in bondage to death. It is no longer the nature of man to die. Moreover, since our nature has been joined to God’s in Christ, we can move out of our bondage to death and sin and into communion with God. We are able to participate in the divine energies of God.

This discussion may not seem directly related to the topic of original sin as inherited guilt. But it seems to me that many people today often have a somewhat truncated vision of Christ. I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case, but if what I’ve described in this post does not lie somewhere near the center of what you consider to be salvation, then you may have only just begun to wrap your head around the immense implications of the Incarnation. I feel this post lays necessary groundwork for the next thing I want to discuss in this series.

Original Sin 13 – What Does Scripture Directly Say About Inherited Guilt?

Posted: March 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 13 – What Does Scripture Directly Say About Inherited Guilt?

I’ve spent a lot of time walking through the narrative of our Holy Scriptures and the way I see them interacting with the idea of inherited guilt. I imagine at this juncture, though, at least some readers are probably wondering if the Scriptures say anything directly about inherited guilt. And actually, they do. Personally, I know of only one place where the Scriptures directly address the idea.

(Ironically, it’s like the doctrine of sola fide or faith alone. There is actually only one place in the entire text of the Holy Scriptures where we explicitly find the idea of “faith alone” discussed, but those who hold to sola fide don’t really like to focus as much on that text and it’s one where they have to struggle for “alternative” readings of the text. Similarly, you won’t find much focus on this particular text among those who hold to the idea of inherited guilt.)

For that text, we’ll turn to our final prophet, Ezekiel. As a rule, I dislike placing too much emphasis on individual verses or short segments of the text. But there’s always a tension since you can’t just read or quote the entire text in every discussion. I encourage anyone following this series to go read all of Ezekiel or at least the entire flow of the narrative around chapter 18. But here is Ezekiel 18:20.

“But the soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the wrongdoing of his father, nor shall the father bear the wrongdoing of his son. The righteousness of a righteous man shall be upon himself, and the lawlessness of a lawless man shall be upon himself.”

We bear the guilt for our own actions, not for any other person’s actions. As with James, I’m sure there are any number of ways you can choose to read the text that negate its meaning. That’s why I don’t generally find that simply quoting texts has much value. The meaning of a text lies not in the text itself, but in its interpretation. That’s one of the reasons Christianity has over 30,000 schisms today all of which claim to ‘faithfully’ interpret the text of Scripture.

Ezekiel is an intriguing book. I’ll also note that a little later the text calls into question an idea that is usually closely tied to the idea of inherited guilt — that God condemns us to death for our inherited (and actual) guilt. Death and sin are intertwined in Scripture and its rarely a straightforward cause and effect relationship. We are mortal because humanity has turned from its only source of life. But then we are more strongly inclined to sin because we are mortal and because we experience the consequences of the sin of others. “Do I ever will the death of a lawless man, says the Lord, since my will is for him to turn from the evil way and live?” Is it God who wills death? Or is it ultimately us?

Just something more to think about. We’ll move on to other topics in the series tomorrow.

Original Sin 10 – God Calls a People

Posted: March 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 10 – God Calls a People

It’s within the context of a humanity divided into many peoples with many gods, that we see God’s next move in Genesis 12. And unless you grasp the context of Babel, the dominion of death over humanity, and something of the depth and breadth of the healing and restoration we required, God’s moves looks exceedingly odd. Out of the nations of the earth, God calls a people. Think about it for a bit. Humanity is fractured. Not only have we turned from our only source of life, but we have turned from one another. We’ve abandoned communion with God and thus we also have no communion with each other. And every nation and even household is ruled by its own god or gods.

It’s in that context that God calls one man and tells that man that He will make him into a great nation. But there’s more there than promising him land and many descendants (essential components for a nation). God also promises that he will “be God to you and your descendants after you.” In our ears it sounds strange to hear God promising to be God. But in the ancient context where every nation had its gods, the promise makes sense. You can’t have a nation without gods. And for the nation God will form from Abraham, God promises he “will be their God.”

On the surface, it looks like God is doing little that is different from the surrounding landscape. He will have his people while the other gods have their peoples. But there is a difference that at first is easy to overlook. God promises right at the start that in Abram “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God is creating a people certainly. But the purpose of that people is to bless all the nations. That theme steadily develops over the course of the narrative, though by the time of Jesus it is unclear how it will ever be fulfilled.

One thing, though, is clear. This is not the reductionist narrative I mentioned yesterday. From Genesis 12 on to the end, our Holy Scriptures form the story of the people of God. And it’s a complex and rich story that in the Old Testament speaks of Christ in shadow and in the New Testament is illuminated in and through Christ. It’s not the story of a people among many peoples, of a nation among many nations. No, it’s the story of a people that spreads through all the nations of the world like yeast in dough, incorporating them into one people of one God.

It’s hard to fit the idea of inherited guilt into that story of healing and the restoration of communion. It doesn’t fit anywhere in the natural flow of the narrative as we have it in scripture. Rather, it sticks out like something that has been jammed into it, but which forms a jarring note. Tomorrow we’ll look specifically at just a bit of the Old Testament narrative. There are a few things about God I want to draw out and emphasize.

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.

Original Sin 8 – Job

Posted: March 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 8 – Job

In this post I want to turn to Job. It’s probably the oldest text in our Holy Scriptures and it has always been fascinating to me. I don’t think modern Christians spend enough time with this ancient poem or song (which is the form in which much oral tradition was preserved). For that is its literary form and it has always felt to me a lot like other ancient texts in this genre. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like it so much. It’s one of the relatively few texts with which I immediately felt at home, as it were. (John’s gospel, by contrast, was at once almost comfortable on the one hand and deeply disturbing on the other.)

Sometimes people try to trot out Job in discussions of theodicy (the problem of evil). But that’s not really what Job is about. And that’s good, actually, because Job never actually gets the answer for why evil happens to righteous people and evil people often flourish. He does get the chance to ask God directly at the end, but he never does so. And God never answers that question. No, there are a lot of themes going on in Job, but that’s not one of them.

Obviously, I can’t explore all the themes in Job in a single post. And most of them don’t have much to do with the topic of this series. Still, I urge you to go back, read Job, and look for prefigurations of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Jesus. They are very much present in this earliest of works. In fact, this is fundamentally a narrative of resurrection. I know we tend to leap to the Psalms and to Isaiah for such things. But take some time to suss them out in Job as well. It’s worth the time and effort.

In Job, we stand as the external observer. We know from the outset that the accuser has been allowed to test Job specifically because of his righteousness. And that’s a fact nobody in the narrative knows. Obviously, our knowledge of that fact is meant to condition the way we hear the story. One of the things I noticed right away is that Job’s friends raise many of the more sophisticated ancient explanations for suffering over the course of the story. Job sometimes replies that they do not apply to him and other times he rebuts them completely. It’s interesting, for example, that Job notes at length that evildoers often prosper.

Bildad approaches something like the concept of inherited guilt when he asks, “Or how may he who is born of a woman purify himself?” Of course, he is speaking more in ritual and ontological terms than in the strict legal sense of inherited guilt, but it is close enough that we should not overlook it. Job, in response, defends his righteousness — a defense which seems justified since God himself calls Job righteous.

God, of course, ends by expounding how far beyond the ken of man he is. And notably, God tells Job’s friends they were wrong. God never explains why Job suffered in particular or human suffering in general, but he does reject the ancient explanations. Like those ancient explanations, the notion of the inherited guilt of all mankind shares their same ‘pat’ nature. It’s simply too neat and too simple an answer, and therefore too small to be the truth.

God and reality are more complicated than that. Job, I think, teaches us to never lose sight of that truth. When we think we have the answer all wrapped up in a neat little package, we need to be especially wary. It’s a lesson most of us don’t want to learn — and I definitely include myself among those who tend to disregard it. God is larger than our minds can compass. We need to constantly remind ourselves that anything we think we know about God is at best incomplete. This is one of the reasons the center of Christian faith has always revolved around communion with God over knowledge of God.

Evangelical Is Not Enough 10

Posted: February 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 10

The tenth and final chapter of Thomas Howard’s book, Envoi, stresses that all Christians engaged in this discussion are, or should be allies, and not enemies. While some embrace modern Christian divisions and pluralism (unfortunately including my own SBC denomination as illustrated in a recent issue of the SBTC Texan), most Christians recognize the wrongness of the place in which we find ourselves. We know what the Holy Scriptures say about divisions, about love, and about communion, and we recognize that we’ve fallen so far that it’s hard to even tell how to begin to heal all that we have done. Howard suggests three things that must be accomplished if we are ever to return to something like what we should be as the Church.

First, Howard suggests we must return to the episcopate. “Pastors need pastors.” Having largely been a part of loosely association congregational churches, I sense a great deal of truth in that. As you study the history of the Church, you cannot help but be struck by the way the bishops held us together through their communion with each other. Oh, there were bad bishops. And there were times that the people (the laos) had to stand against and reject heretical bishops — even meeting in the fields rather than in the church. But those form the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time the bishops were the glue. St. Ignatius of Antioch’s vision of the fullness of the Church (it’s catholicity) centered on the bishop surrounded by his presbyters, deacons, and people largely held true for many centuries. Until we all begin to return to that vision, catholicity will certainly remain out of reach.

Second, Howard insists the Eucharist must return as the focal point for Christian worship. Again, I think he’s right. That has always been the center of Christian liturgy. Always, that is until recently when some turned the liturgy of the Word into the focal point. That was an error of enormous proportions and impact. It turned our worship into something like the synagogue worship of rabbinic Judaism or the mosques of Islam while simultaneously making it less than either.

And third, Howard suggests that a return to the Christian year would be beneficial. It would put us back on the same ground, telling and living the same story, redeeming time and making it present. And we would all be doing it together.

Howard’s book has been a good, easily read introduction to the deep history and practice of the Christian church. I have a hard time judging how well he speaks to his target audience of evangelicals. Even though I’ve lived among the evangelical tribe for years, I’m still often surprised by them. I suppose I am one since I can’t really say that I’m anything else, but I’m still often bemused.