Speaking of God – Trinity

Posted: April 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking of God – Trinity

In Speaking Carefully About God and continuing in How to Speak of God I explored some of the things I try to keep in mind about God whenever I speak or write. In this final post, I want to explore what it means that the uniquely Christian God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God. We cannot speak of the God made fully known in Jesus of Nazareth except in a fully Trinitarian manner.

But what does it mean to speak in a Trinitarian manner? How does one do that? There are many directions the answer to those questions could take. It’s a deep subject and there’s no way I can do more than address a very few aspects of the answer in this post. So this is not a comprehensive treatise, just a few things I try to keep in mind when I think of God.

First, there are three distinct Persons in the Trinity. That’s critically important. It’s not God presenting different faces to creation in different situations, but three Persons acting in concert. However, it’s three Persons so unified in love and will and action that they can said to be of one essence — one God. And that is the mystery. It’s out of the overflow from that deep and utterly self-sufficient uncreated communion of love that all creation subsists.

But that reality constrains our language. One way I have heard it presented that makes a great deal of sense to me goes something like this. Absolutely everything we can possibly say about God applies either to all three persons of the Trinity or uniquely to one — never to two and not the other. So the Father is uniquely Father. The Father is the font or source. The Son is the only begotten of the Father (begotten not made). The Son is the unique logos of God, the Debar Yahweh, the Word and strong right arm of God. The Holy Spirit, the  Ruach Yahweh, the breath or wind of God proceeds eternally from the Father. Those are some of the things we can say uniquely about each Person. These are some of the things that make them unique Persons.

But almost everything else we can possibly say about God applies to all three Persons. We say that God is love. By that we mean the Father is love, the Son is love, and the Spirit is love. And there is no break, division, or separation in their love. They are all the same love. One way to think of it is that the Father always acts in and through his Word and Spirit. And his Word and his Spirit never act apart from the Father and each other. Perfect union. Perfect harmony.

And this brings up a common problem today. In an attempt to find gender neutral references to the Persons of the Trinity, some people today try instead to reference the Persons by different activities of God. A commenter on Sarah Moon’s post, Our Mother who art in heaven, mentions referring to the Persons of the Godhead as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer rather than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are other “activities as names” I’ve heard over the years, but the ones above are a good illustration and every such attempt shares the same flaw.

When we name the Persons of the Trinity by an activity of God, we necessarily ascribe that activity to that one Person and not to all three. The above implies that it’s the Father who creates, the Son who redeems, and the Spirit who sustains. A hermeneutical move like that effectively reduces the Trinity to three separate Gods (as some of the Christian critics have long asserted) acting independently from each other. And it also fails to accurately describe the God revealed to us.

The Father is not the Creator. No, it’s better to say that creation flows from the Father spoken by his Word and nurtured by his Spirit. We see that pretty clearly even in Genesis, but explicitly in places like the prologue to John and Colossians.

The Son is not separately the Redeemer. Rather the Son acts together with the Father and the Spirit as the agent of redemption — as one would expect of the Word or Arm of God. But it’s the Son acting in concert with the Father empowered by the Spirit redeeming creation. We could as easily say the Spirit redeems or the Father redeems.

Similarly, the Spirit alone is never the Sustainer. Colossians tells us that all creation subsists or is sustained each moment by the Son. Jesus tells us he is with us always, even to the end of the ages. The Father, as the font of life, also sustains all that is.

Virtually every action of God is an action of the Trinity, not of a single Person of the Trinity. It’s in that sense we have one God. So if we want to speak about the activity of God and we do not see how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all involved in that activity, we should be exceedingly cautious indeed.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, Amen.


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.


Reflections on Resurrection 4 – Reincarnation

Posted: November 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I confess I was quite surprised when a recent Pew study revealed that 22% of American Christians believed in reincarnation. In fact, that’s probably one of the things that has been percolating in the back of mind leading to this present series. I don’t have a negative view of a belief in reincarnation in any of its forms. As I explained in the introductory post of this series, reincarnation was a significant facet in my childhood spiritual formation. And as an adult, before I found myself drawn into Christian faith, it was also a central component of my own belief system. For me, the view of reality (and what it means to be a human being) embedded within the concept reincarnation is better than all competing views with the notable exception of resurrection. If I ever ceased believing in the Christian narrative of resurrection, I have no doubt I would return to some belief system that incorporated reincarnation.

At it’s core, reincarnation presupposes that some essence of who and what you are (let’s call that your soul) existed and lived before your body was conceived and that same essence will endure after the death of your body. In some perspectives, that constant cycle is a central part of the problem and the goal is to bring the cycle to an end, typically through the release of your sense of individual identity and reunification with the greater whole. In other perspectives, the cycle of rebirth is positive and beautiful. However, this view requires some concept of the preexistence and the immortality of the soul. Something that is truly you must have existed before you were born and be independent of your physical body, so it can persist and animate a future body.

While I hold no animus toward the narrative of reincarnation and, indeed, think highly of it, I also recognize that it is utterly incompatible with the Christian narrative of resurrection. Christianity holds that we were created — body and soul — upon our conception. We had no preexistence and thus no former lives. Christianity shows us that we are integrated beings, that we are, in fact, our bodies — even if we also transcend our bodies in some sense. And Christianity proclaims that we will all be resurrected bodily in a manner continuous with the person we now are. Obviously, if we have had many lives and many bodies, such a proclamation is nonsense.

I don’t grasp what the 22% of American Christians who say they believe in reincarnation think Christianity teaches. I don’t see how they could believe in bodily resurrection unless, perhaps, they believe they get to pick which of their many bodies will be resurrected? That particular statistic baffles me. Resurrection and reincarnation just don’t mix.


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 14

Posted: October 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 14

38. Scripture says that seven spirits will rest upon the Lord: the spirit of wisdom, the spirit of understanding, the spirit of spiritual knowledge, the spirit of cognitive insight, the spirit of counsel, the spirit of strength, and the spirit of the fear of God (cf. Isa. 11:2). The effects produced by these spiritual gifts are as follows: by fear, abstention from evil; by strength, the practice of goodness; by counsel, discrimination with respect to the demons; by cognitive insight, a clear perception of what one has to do; by spiritual knowledge, the active grasping of the divine principles inherent in the virtues; by understanding, the soul’s total empathy with the things that it has come to know; and by wisdom, an indivisible union with God, whereby the saints attain the actual enjoyment of the things for which they long. He who shares in wisdom becomes god by participation and, immersed in the ever-flowing, secret outpouring of God’s mysteries, he imparts to those who long for it a knowledge of divine blessedness.

The only true wisdom lies in union and communion with God. That strikes me personally as the most important point of all. There is, however, a clear progression toward that true wisdom and the first step is to begin to choose to abstain from evil. Unfortunately, it seems to me that many modern Christian groups get stuck in that first step (perhaps with brief forays into the second — the practice of goodness). To grow in union with God it is important to learn to stop doing evil and start doing good. Moreover, we have to learn to desire what is good over what is evil. But that’s just the starting point, not the destination or goal. It’s important not to lose sight of that point.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 26

Posted: August 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

94. A man writes either to assist his memory, or to help others, or for both reasons; or else he writes in order to injure certain people, or to show off, or out of necessity.

In this age where we have made publication easy for all, the above text is perhaps more relevant than ever. Why do we write?

For me, there is an element of necessity. I have always written, though I have not and do not always choose to publish. Sometimes it’s the only thing that will stop a train of connected thoughts from constantly bouncing around my head. Sometimes it’s the way I figure out what I think or believe about something.

At other times, especially at work, writing is a way to construct a perception of a problem that leads to a solution. Even if the discussion ends up being in person or via conference call, I find that writing a paper beforehand tends to frame and shape the discussion. Providing something written in our literate culture accomplishes something that words alone do not.

Why then do I blog? As I’ve written elsewhere, I decided to start my blog when I was diagnosed with celiac disease. I believed and still believe that capturing my thoughts, discoveries, and experiences with the disease could possibly help others. Although celiac related posts are only a part of what I choose to publish (and then only when I have something I believe is helpful on the topic to post), I do notice that most of the search results that land on my blog are food or celiac related searches. I think my original goal of helping others remains valid.

Once I decided to start my blog, I also decided not to limit what I post. I hardly post everything I write, much less everything I think, but I’m not looking for a niche. I have no desire to focus my blog in a single area. I also have no desire to gain readership. I deliberately chose and customized a very plain and boring theme and most of my posts tend to be little more than text. Both decisions were and are intentional. If you read what I write, it’s either because you already know me personally or you find something I write either interesting or helpful.

I’m aware that the things we write can injure others and I have no desire to injure anyone. I’m cautious in the things I choose to say. I know that words have power. As children we say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” not because we believe the refrain is true, but because we know it isn’t and we are seeking to ward off injury. Words can damage and change us in deep and lasting ways. Physical injuries heal. Words can stay with us a lifetime.

If you’re reading this and you write, why do you write?


Walking In My Shoes

Posted: November 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’m going to attempt to translate to words something that has long been coalescing in my heart and mind. As such I’ll probably express aspects of it poorly or in ways that are unintentionally difficult for anyone but me to grasp the intended meaning. My thoughts will probably also meander a bit, which I’m sure will be no surprise to those who know me.

Since I often find that my thoughts are spurred by music, I’m going to weave these thoughts around a fairly old Depeche Mode song, Walking In My Shoes, that at least to me relates to the thoughts revolving around and through my mind. Take a moment to watch the video. If you aren’t familiar with the song, I’ve also included the lyrics at the bottom of this post.

We all have a story and no two stories are the same.

That may seem obvious, but we often act as though it were not true. We recast those we meet into roles in our drama. We see them through the lens of our own narrative. We make them more like us than is often true. And when people fail to act according to the roles in which we have subconsciously place them, we tend to become angry and judge them accordingly. Less often do we recognize what we have actually done and the pain we have inflicted as a result.

That is one theme I hear resonating in this song. It’s the cry of one judged by others for failing to live out their assigned role. We all do that to people at times, even when we strive for something different. We are bound more tightly than we think by the lens of our experience. On the one hand, we can claim little right to judge unless we truly ‘walk in the shoes’ of the we are judging. And on the other, we are never able to truly do that. We are the product of our journey, not that of the other, and we can never escape that reality.

Would you have made better choices if you had lived my life?

Would you be a better person than me if you had experienced all that I have experienced?

Who are you to judge me?

These questions echo in the song and to one degree or another in the hearts of us all. These and the others like them are perfectly valid questions. And when raised, they must be answered. It seems to me that they are too often dismissed, instead.

I know that in many of my interactions with Christians over the course of my life, those questions formed at least a part of my reaction. I may not have expressed them verbally, but they were certainly in my heart. And there were times when those questions were twisted in knots of anger, especially when I would hear stories (whether real or not) of what seemed by my standards idyllic and peaceful lives from people who then condemned those who did not rise to their standards of (untried) “moral” excellence.

I’m hardly immune from our tendency to judge, though. For instance, to use just one prominent example, I hear John Piper’s public statements on things ranging from the I-35 bridge collapse to thoughts on divorce and abusive relationships and I am appalled. While I automatically reject such things and have no problem seeing the evil in them, there is always a part of me that thanks God that I was not shaped by my life and experience into someone like Piper.

It’s true that I don’t make the mistake of assuming I would have somehow turned out “better” if I had lived his life instead of mine. Nevertheless, when I do that, I know as I do it that in some way I am standing in the place of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, who thanked God that the circumstances of his birth and life were not those of people he judged to be in a worse state than his. As I am truly grateful that I did not experience whatever it was that made people like that who and what they are, I am left with no option but the prayer of the publican, “Lord have mercy!”

God, however, did offer a response to those cries of our soul. It’s one of the most beautiful facets of the gem of Christianity. In the Incarnation, the only begotten Son of God walked in our shoes. He kept the same appointments we keep, even the appointment with death. He experienced the pain we’ve been subjected to. He experienced the temptations of the apparent “feasts” laid before us. And through it all, he remained the faithful Man, the faithful Israel, the Man of Thanksgiving, the eucharistic Man.

Yet, from the vantage of his faithfulness where we are unfaithful, Jesus did not judge or condemn us. He ate with sinners. He offered love. He sought those who were discarded and lost. He made himself the least and the servant of all.

And Jesus commanded us to do that same.

That’s an uncomfortable place to be. We prefer to denounce and to distance ourselves from those we reject. We prefer to focus on things like the prophetic woes Jesus proclaimed on the scribes and pharisees. And yet, even here, if you dig below the surface things become a little harder to fit into a particular compartment. For instance, while it seems that Jesus used ‘hypocrite’ as an epithet, it did not commonly have that meaning at the time. Rather, a ‘hypocrite’ was one who spoke or acted in order to affect a crisis of decision in the audience. And neither actor nor speaker should be understood in modern terms. Both were connected to religious activities and rituals. The pharisees were attempting to live and speak in such a way that they provoked a crisis in Israel and bring the people to return to faithful adherence to the Law of Moses. In practice, they were doing something not dissimilar from what the pagan hypocrites of their era did. And that was not considered  a bad thing or an insult. It was noble. Dwell on that the next time you read the prophetic woes and see if you can find any modern parallels.

Having walked in our shoes, Jesus invites us to walk with him in his. He tells us that as we walk with him, love with him, consume him, we too can become faithful. We too can still participate in the life of God. He doesn’t try to make us good. He gives us life and offers us an opportunity to become truly human.

And that brings us to the last theme in the song I’ll explore. It’s something I think much of modern evangelicalism gets wrong. It’s the theme of repentance and absolution. The song says it well. “i’m not looking for absolution, forgiveness for the things I do.” Modern evangelicalism seems largely to assume that most people are looking for forgiveness or have some understanding of their need of repentance. Everything seems focused on the attempt to make people feel bad about themselves, provoke a crisis in their audience, and thus bring them forward toward proffered absolution.

I suppose that’s fine for those shaped in such a way that they do feel shame or guilt and a need for forgiveness. But that simply does not describe as many people today as it perhaps once did in a culture predominantly shaped by Christianity. But now? Even today, I echo the somewhat defiant words, “Before we talk of any repentance, try walking in my shoes.” Of course, Jesus did walk in our shoes. When he calls us to repentance, he is not trying to make us feel bad about who or what we are. He is trying to get us to release our burdens. “Come to me all you who are heavy laden.” I heard that call. I hear it still today.

Once I began to try to follow Jesus, once I was captured in his embrace, I began to understand repentance. I began slowly to see places I did not walk with him, places I was burdened and heavy laden, and I began (very, very slowly) to turn from one destination toward a destination of life in Christ. That’s repentance, not some passing feeling of sorrow or remorse. Of course, when we do cry out for mercy and forgiveness, God is overflowing with all the mercy and forgiveness and embracing love we could ever need. Unlike us, God has no forgiveness problem.

“i’m not looking for absolution…” And yet, absolution is all that so many churches seem prepared to offer. I would never say there’s no place for that. There is. But if someone’s not looking  for forgiveness, then such churches have nothing at all to offer. The questions today more often revolve around the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being. Christianity has the most wonderful answers to those questions, but you almost never hear them.

When you interpret repentance as remorse and expect it as some sort of precondition, you also begin to enter some twisted territory. For instance, when I became a teen parent, I remember there were people who thought I should be remorseful about my choices. And I never was nor ever expect to be. Why? The answer lies in the face of that infant girl I held in my arms for the first time one night in a hospital almost twenty-eight years ago. That memory has never faded. I believe to my core that the world is a richer and better place with my daughter in it than it could possibly be without her.

Do I recommend teen parenthood? Of course not. It’s a hard and often painful path to walk. But I have never and will never regret my daughter’s existence. I even got thrown out of a Christian worship service because I refused to hide her away. They correctly felt that I was in no way ashamed about my daughter and the circumstances of her birth. I’ve recently seen that the same sort of attitudes persist among some Christians today.

Like a moth to a flame, I’m drawn to life in Christ even if the fire consumes me. But I’m still not sure I’m looking for forgiveness for the things I’ve done. Some I regret, especially where I have hurt other people. And if God is truly who we see in Jesus of Nazareth, then I do believe I regret worshiping other gods. But I don’t regret my life. I don’t regret my children. And I can’t honestly say I regret the choices that helped make me who I am.

I do, however, want to be fully and truly human.

Depeche Mode
Songs Of Faith & Devotion
Walking In My Shoes

I would tell you about the things
They put me through
The pain i’ve been subjected to
But the lord himself would blush
The countless feasts laid at my feet
Forbidden fruits for me to eat
But i think your pulse would start to rush

Now i’m not looking for absolution
Forgiveness for the things i do
But before you come to any conclusions
Try walking in my shoes
Try walking in my shoes

You’ll stumble in my footsteps
Keep the same appointments i kept
If you try walking in my shoes
If you try walking in my shoes

Morality would frown upon
Decency look down upon
The scapegoat fate’s made of me
But i promise now, my judge and jurors
My intentions couldn’t have been purer
My case is easy to see

I’m not looking for a clearer conscience
Peace of mind after what i’ve been through
And before we talk of any repentance
Try walking in my shoes
Try walking in my shoes

You’ll stumble in my footsteps
Keep the same appointments i kept
If you try walking in my shoes
If you try walking in my shoes
Try walking in my shoes

Now i’m not looking for absolution
Forgiveness for the things i do
But before you come to any conclusions
Try walking in my shoes
Try walking in my shoes

You’ll stumble in my footsteps
Keep the same appointments i kept
If you try walking in my shoes

You’ll stumble in my footsteps
Keep the same appointments i kept
If you try walking in my shoes
Try walking in my shoes
If you try walking in my shoes
Try walking in my shoes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 17 – St. Cyprian of Carthage to St. Cornelius of Rome

Posted: August 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Baptists, Eucharist, and History 17 – St. Cyprian of Carthage to St. Cornelius of Rome

Now we move right to the middle of the third century with St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage. Today, we’ll look at his letter to St. Cornelius, Bishop of Rome. (As an interesting side note that I’m not sure many Protestants know, the Latin papa (or pappa) meaning ‘father’ is the word that Romans in particular used when addressing bishops. In another of the letters written to St. Cyprian, we see him called Pappa Cyprian. That word, transliterated into English, is Pope.) This letter is short, so you may want to read the entire letter rather than just the excerpt I’ve chosen for this series.

In this letter, St. Cyprian is actually writing in order to convey a conciliar decision of the entire synod of African bishops. All their names are in the salutation. The context of this decision is important. In the previous cycle of persecution some years earlier, some Christians had lapsed under torture or threat of torture and made sacrifice to other gods. A number of those lapsed Christians repented when persecution waned and sought to rejoin the Church. Earlier conciliar decisions had held that they first must undergo a lengthy period of penance, though it could be abridged if they became sick and were in danger of death.

At the time of this conciliar decision, another wave of more intense persecution was beginning. The African council had decided that lapsed Christians who repented and sought reconciliation should be fully received immediately without delay so that they would be strengthened and prepared to stand if need be in the coming persecution. It’s in that context that an entire synod of Bishops, not just one man, says the following.

For we must comply with fitting intimations and admonitions, that the sheep may not be deserted in danger by the shepherds, but that the whole flock may be gathered together into one place, and the Lord’s army may be arrived for the contest of the heavenly warfare. For the repentance of the mourners was reasonably prolonged for a more protracted time, help only being afforded to the sick in their departure, so long as peace and tranquillity prevailed, which permitted the long postponement of the tears of the mourners, and late assistance in sickness to the dying. But now indeed peace is necessary, not for the sick, but for the strong; nor is communion to be granted by us to the dying, but to the living, that we may not leave those whom we stir up and exhort to the battle unarmed and naked, but may fortify them with the protection of Christ’s body and blood. And, as the Eucharist is appointed for this very purpose that it may be a safeguard to the receivers, it is needful that we may arm those whom we wish to be safe against the adversary with the protection of the Lord’s abundance. For how do we teach or provoke them to shed their blood in confession of His name, if we deny to those who are about to enter on the warfare the blood of Christ? Or how do we make them fit for the cup of martyrdom, if we do not first admit them to drink, in the Church, the cup of the Lord by the right of communion?

Those consuming the bread and wine are fortified with the protection of Christ’s body and blood. The Eucharist itself is a safeguard. Those who might end up shedding their blood as martyrs confessing Christ must not be denied the blood of Christ. Physical blood of real human beings is directly related in the thought of these Bishops to the blood of the cup of the Eucharist. Personally, I don’t know how you get more physical and tangible than that.

I’ll point out the obvious. A simple memorial or mere symbol has no power and could not do what they expected the Eucharist to do. The language and usage also doesn’t feel like a fit with Calvin’s purely spiritual meal. Coming as it does in the context of preparation for torture and execution on behalf of Christ, there is something deeply visceral in their usage of body and blood.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 13 – Irenaeus of Lyons on Unity

Posted: July 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I’m now going to move forward a few more decades to a period around 170-180 AD as we focus on Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. We know that when Irenaeus was young he knew Polycarp. Polycarp, as you may recall, was a disciple of John the Beloved. So there remains a close, direct connection between the one writing and the apostles. I mentioned the emphasis of Justin on the Trinity and gave one example. That same perspective permeates the writings we have of Irenaeus. I strongly recommend a recently recovered treasure by Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. Not only will you find much on the Father, Son, and Spirit, you will also find an in depth exploration of the many ways Jesus was prophesied and prefigured in what we commonly call the Old Testament. For the purposes of this series, I will be focusing on the books of his most famous work, Against Heresies. But I do commend the above for your own personal reflection.

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus is chiefly writing against various groups of gnostic heretics. In fact, his works are one of the sources from which we’ve gleaned much about them. They were many and diverse. Unlike a heresy like Arianism, there was no single teaching in ancient Christian gnosticism. But all the groups did share some common strands. Among those were an emphasis on secret knowledge, a dualism between the material as evil and the spirit as good, and typically many hierarchies or levels of celestial beings, often called Aeons.

I’m going to start our series today with what Irenaeus writes in Chapter X of Book I of Against Heresies, Unity of the Faith of the Church throughout the whole world. He is specifically making this point because the gnostic heresies are so varied and diverse by contrast. However, it does have particular bearing on this series as well. Recall Ignatius’ emphasis on “one eucharist”. Recognize that what Irenaeus will be writing is not merely his sole opinion. Rather, the faith is so coherent and unified that he can write the following words and expect them to be recognized as manifestly true.  Then compare what Irenaeus says to the modern Western landscape of extreme, individualistic Christian pluralism in which the various theologies and sects are even often named for the one who invented them. If you can find any commonality between the two visions of the Church, you have a more discerning mind than mine. Here are Irenaeus’ own words.

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

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


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 12 – Justin Martyr on the Eucharist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So say we all.