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 1

Posted: October 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Throughout this blog and in my comments elsewhere, I often focus on resurrection. In many ways, it is the Christian teaching of resurrection which drew me deeper into this faith and it is certainly one of the linchpins that keeps me in it. I can say with certainty that if I did not believe in Christ’s Resurrection and that it was the first fruit of our own resurrection, then Christianity would hold no interest for me. As Paul writes, if Christ is not risen then we are of all men the most pitiable.

However, there seems to be a great deal of confusion today, even among Christians, about Resurrection. Since it dawns on me that it is not possible to really understand some of the things I write without understanding what is wrapped up in that one word, I thought it might be wise to write a short series outlining my perspective on the subject. I’ll write, as I normally do, from a personal perspective. If you’re more interested in a comprehensive academic treatment of Christ’s Resurrection, I would recommend N.T. Wright’s big book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. That sort of exhaustive treatment is not my goal.

When pressed, I normally describe my background and childhood formation as pluralistic. In order to understand what is behind some of the things I plan to write in this series, I think I need to explain what I mean when I use that term. First, I need to say that my childhood was not shaped within the context of a single non-Christian religion nor was it particularly non-theistic or atheistic — though there were certainly aspects of a number of different religions and non-theistic or loosely theistic influences. However, my childhood, whatever else it may have been, was not anti-Christian at all.

In fact, while I’m not sure anyone growing up in the American South in the 70s could avoid exposure to Christianity, my experience of it was, while pretty varied, largely positive. I was baptized in a Baptist Church at a pretty young age. At different times I attended both Episcopal and Catholic schools. (I also attended a bunch of different public schools, a nonsectarian private school, and was even home-schooled for a few months in Mississippi when my mother discovered the local schools were still segregated.) Over the course of my childhood, I also experienced a wide array of other Christian traditions and denominations. Ironically, though not raised strictly Christian, I probably encountered more of the diversity which constitutes Christianity in America than most of my peers.

I could, if I wanted, frame a relatively typical Baptist conversion narrative. I don’t do so because that does not truthfully capture the reality of my experience. Yes, my encounters with and scattered experiences within a Christian context were authentic (whatever that means), but they were hardly my only spiritual influence. Moreover, my rejection of what I understood about and experienced from Christianity as a sixteen year old teen parent was just as authentic as any of my earlier experience. These were markers on my journey of conversion, but I don’t consider myself to have finally converted to Christian faith and practice until my early thirties when I unexpectedly reached a point where that label described something central to my identity.

Christianity, though, was just one aspect out of many in my formation. My family and thus our extended circle of family friends includes many involved in the scientific and academic community. Although, of the many things I’ve been or practiced, I never felt any pull toward atheism or even classical enlightenment-style deism, that perspective and manner of approaching life and reality has certainly been a part of my formation. I don’t find it threatening. I also do not find it antithetical to belief. I do find that this part of who I am is the part that’s mostly likely to make the determination that a particular religion (or one of the many different Christian Gods proclaimed today) is not worth believing or practicing, and its deity not worth worshiping.

The other most significant and formative spiritual perspective from my childhood was Hinduism. Why Hinduism? The simplest answer is that we had Indian friends and my mother was at least dabbling in it. It was just part of the air I breathed as a child, as present to me as was Christianity. Now, it’s important to recognize that the term itself is a broad label encompassing virtually any religious practice rooted in the perspective found in the ancient Vedic texts. It’s not really a single religion in the sense of a single set of beliefs and practices, though there are a number of consistent underlying perspectives on the nature of reality. Rather, there are many gurus, past and present, who teach different things.

I never really followed a guru. I’m not sure why, exactly. I just didn’t. I did spend some of my late preteen and early teen years actively practicing transcendental meditation, which does have a particular guru, but I never formally engaged it. I just practiced privately using a book as a guide. Beyond that, I explored various published writings including, of course, the Bhagavad Gita.

Hinduism, however, was not the only other part of my childhood spiritual formation. I don’t remember ever hearing the term New Age in the seventies. However, many of the things lumped under that heading in the bookstore today were part of my experience. My parents ran a small press bookstore in Houston for a few years and that gave me easy access to books on numerology, runes, palmistry, astrology, tarot, and many related topics. Even before then, I remember sitting with my mother when I was as young as six or seven as she brought out her tarot deck and did readings. I also clearly remember participating in a past life regression workshop my parents hosted for a friend when I was eleven or twelve. I was captivated by the modern myths of Atlantis. I also recall some interaction with Wiccan and neopagan systems of belief. (In my twenties I also had a number of Wiccan friends.)

After being rejected by and in turn rejecting the Christian aspect of my formation, I tended to operate from a basic Hindu perspective of reality, but I explored a number of different options. I read a fair amount of the Qur’an at one point, but Islam never held any appeal to me. We had had some Jewish family friends growing up and there were aspects of modern Judaism that did appeal to me, but it’s not a direction in which I was particularly drawn. I did explore Buddhism and Taoism, but at the time they didn’t really appeal to me either. (Ironically, I find some elements of both more compelling now after being significantly shaped by Christian faith and practice than I did at the time. If I was going to be anything else other than Christian today, it would probably be one of those two.) I looked a bit at Wicca and neopaganism, but they were just too modern for me, if that makes sense. I have a deep sense of history. You may have noticed that in some of my writings.

For most of my twenties, I settled into a sort of lackadaisical Hindu belief and practice. I didn’t seek a guru. I didn’t actually attend anything. But those were the beliefs about reality I privately held and, to the extent I practiced anything, I practiced Hindu meditation. I also continued to privately practice tarot, but I abandoned most of the other practices in which I had dabbled over the course of my childhood.

Why does this matter for this series? It’s really pretty simple. When we discuss Resurrection and the nature of the human being, a lot of people today — including many Christians — seem to believe something more like the other perspectives in my spiritual formation than anything identifiably Christian. And it seems to me that many people don’t even realize that’s the case. Now, I’m hardly anything approaching a guru when it comes to Hinduism or any other religion. In fact, after the last fifteen years during which I have consciously and deliberately embraced and explored Christian belief and practice, I’m pretty certain I know more about Christianity than I do any other belief system. I absorbed a lot from those other systems and explored them all to some extent, but never with the commitment or to the depth that I have Christianity. Nevertheless, I am conscious of these other perspectives on reality and see their influence (or the influence of some of their cousins) in American Christianity in ways that many, perhaps, do not. And it seems to me that the central point of dissonance lies in the all-important Christian proclamation of resurrection.

I’ll continue this series next week, but if anyone is reading this over the weekend and is willing to share, what thoughts come to your mind when you hear resurrection?


The Jesus Creed 4 – The Jesus Creed as a Table

Posted: August 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The ones for this chapter are: Matthew 11:16-19; Mark 2:14-17; Luke 19:1-10.

Tables create societies.

That’s the provocative sentence which opens this chapter. Reflect on the statement. Read the gospel readings. (Those are three of my long-time favorites, but we don’t seem to talk about them very often.) Consider sociological contexts. Consider your own experience. Scot McKnight continues with an amusing example, but we should have little problem coming up with many of our own. There is something about the way we gather together in so many ways to eat and drink. Something light … and something darker.

Tables can create societies; they can also divide societies.

There is something intimate about sharing a table. We may have masked some of that in our American culture (though it’s not hard to see glimpses if you look), but other cultures still clearly expose that reality in their approach to the question of who could eat at the table and how the meal is conducted.

Jesus used his table to create an inclusive society. And it was a society his contemparies understood as dangerous. In his culture, table customs were often used to measure Torah commitment. And they denounced Jesus. ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard.’ The accusation is more than it first appears. It is a precise quotation of an ancient Israelite law book … and it is pinned to Jesus’ lapel because of his table customs.

Tables don’t become walls strictly through meanness or evil intent (though the laws/customs of segregation certainly contained both). The Pharisees cared so much about those with whom they ate, making their table into a very high wall indeed, because “they were zealous in their commitment to how they thought the Torah should be applied.” It was a wall between the observant and the non-observant, sometimes even the accidentally non-observant. They would often refuse to eat or drink with anyone but other Pharisees.

But for Jesus the table was to be a place of fellowship and inclusion and acceptance… Jesus’ attitude gave him a bad name. For his custom of including all at the table, Jesus was called a ‘glutton and drunkard.’ This expression points to a legal charge against Jesus. The accusers of Jesus use the specific language from a passage regulating how parents are to make legal charges against a rebellious son. Parents are to take the son to the elders and say, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then they are to stone the rebellious son to death in order to purge evil from the community. Yikes!

Yikes, indeed! Of course, I was already familiar with the law in question. It’s in that largish category of Old Testament things I don’t understand and have difficulty reconciling, but mostly don’t much worry about. I do know it’s abused still today as an excuse to cast kids out (perhaps not actually stoning them, but not dissimilar in some ways). But that does provide a certain gravitas to the charge, one that is otherwise completely lacking in our cultural context. It’s only as I have been increasingly able to better understand the table in Jewish society (and lots of sources have helped me in that regard), that I’ve been able to understand the depth and intensity of these exchanges. And reflections on this law help me better understand the father in the prodigal son. Given the treatment of sons like the prodigal, it’s likely the father’s urgent concern for his son and need to reach him before anyone else in the community that has him racing down the road to him in a manner most unbefitting his station. As a prodigal of sorts I’m grateful that was the Father’s reaction to me. As a father myself, that’s the response I deeply understand. It matters little what my children do. I would never be able to stone them.

We can now put together our first few chapters. Jesus teaches that the center of life before God is the Jesus Creed. When the Jesus Creed turns into prayer, it becomes the Lord’s Prayer; when it becomes a story, it becomes the Parable of the Prodigal Son. And when it becomes a society, it becomes the table of welcome around Jesus.

Hmmm. If that’s the measure of the society created around Jesus, how well do our churches hold up. Sometimes pretty good, but much of the time? I think less so.

The observant person’s table story: You can eat with me if you are clean. If you are unclean, take a bath and come back tomorrow evening. Jesus’ table story: clean or unclean, you can eat with me, and I will make you clean. Instead of his table requiring purity, his table creates purity. Jesus chooses the table to be a place of grace. When the table becomes a place of grace, it begins to act. What does it do? It heals, it envisions, and it hopes.

At his table, or by bringing them to his table, Jesus heals those who are spiritually or socially sick. He restores people to society. The table also envisions. “Jesus table fellowship actually creates a new vision of what Israel means and is to become. … ‘Israel’ now refers to those who love God by following Jesus. ‘Israel’ describes those who are spiritually attached to Jesus.” At the demonstrable, physical level, what our churches saying?

And finally, McKnight explores how the table hopes or anticipates the Age to Come. “sharing table with Jesus is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God for each of us.”


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 9

Posted: June 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 9

29. When our Lord says, ‘I and My Father are one’ (John 10:30), He indicates their identity of essence. Again, when He says, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father in Me’ (John 14:11), He shows that the Persons cannot be divided. The tritheists, therefore, who divide the Son from the Father, find themselves in a dilemma. Either they say that the Son is coeternal with the Father, but nevertheless divide Him from the Father, and so they are forced to say that He is not begotten from the Father; thus they fell into the error of claiming that there are three Gods and three first principles. Or else they say that the Son is begotten from the Father but nevertheless divide Him from the Father, and so they are forced to say that He is not coetemal with the Father; thus they make the Lord of time subject to time. For, as St Gregory of Nazianzos says, it is necessary both to maintain the one God and to confess the three Persons, each in His own individuality. According to St Gregory, the Divinity is divided but without division and is united but with distinctions. Because of this both the division and the union are paradoxical. For what paradox would there be if the Son were united to the Father and divided from Him only in the same manner as one human being is united to and divided from another, and nothing more?

I don’t actually have much that I think I can add to this text. But I wanted to include it because I think it’s an important reflection on the three Persons of the Trinity. “Divided without division” and “united but with distinctions” are phrases to ponder. The key thing to me seems to be that the division and unity of God transcends the sort of unity and division we as human beings know and experience with each other. We are theomorphic (made in God’s image) and it is toward something more like that union that we are moving in and through the work of Christ. But it is beyond our ken and without the work of God would have always been beyond our grasp.


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 4 – Clement of Rome

Posted: July 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Having already reflected on the Didache or Teaching in my previous series, I want to begin our exploration of the historical view of the Eucharist with the Letter of Clement, Bishop of Rome, to the Corinthian Church. This letter was written in the late first century. Some date it as early as 70 AD. Others as late as 96 AD, the last year of the reign of Domitian. The letter’s reference to persecutions would tend to indicate to me that it was written sometime during the latter part of the reign of Domitian (81-96).

This letter does not directly discuss the Eucharist, though it is referenced a number of times as “offerings”. However, it does contain an important look at church structure, order in worship, and the importance of unity and avoidance of schism. The issue in the Corinthian Church that Clement is writing to address is division and schism. It appears they were even trying to depose their Bishop! Of course, as we know from Paul’s letters to Corinth, with which Clement certainly seems to be familiar, schisms and divisions were apparently a recurring problem in Corinth.

I’ve realized as I’ve been rereading Clement that I probably need to briefly discuss the matter of the Holy Scriptures. There was no established “New Testament” canon for these first few centuries. Most people did not have access to all of the writings that the Church would later canonize, though the ones which would become canonical tended to become more widely read and available as the years passed. Clement obviously has at least one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Of all the other NT writings, he quotes or alludes to Hebrews the most. It also seems that he had James’ letter. Beyond that it’s hard to say from this one document how many of the writings he had read, though of course he would have been schooled in the oral tradition of the apostles and that shows most clearly in his interpretation and application of texts from the Septuagint in light of Christ.

Clement quotes extensively from the Septuagint (LXX) just as the NT authors themselves do. In the first century and in the Greek East to the present day the LXX was and is the canonical text of the Old Testament or what is referred to in the NT itself everywhere except for one reference in 2 Peter as the Scriptures. The LXX was the Greek translation of the Hebrew texts that were used in synagogues almost everywhere except in Jerusalem and Judea by the first century since Greek was the lingua franca of the diaspora and the Empire, even if Latin was used to conduct business. Since the earliest converts to the Church consisted of many Greek speaking Jews and later pagan gentiles, the Apostles and other early writers wrote entirely in Greek and quoted from the LXX. It’s clear from their texts and from surviving early liturgies that the LXX was what was read in Church. Over time, the writings that came to form the NT canon were also the texts that were read in the Church.

The entire letter is not very long and I do recommend that you take a few minutes to read it in its entirety. However, I’ll reflect on just a few excerpts. As I mentioned, the problem was that they were suffering from schisms and were trying to depose their bishop. Clement addresses the latter directly in Chapter 44.

Our Apostles, too, by the instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ, knew that strife would arise concerning the dignity of a bishop; and on this account, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed the above-mentioned as bishops and deacons: and then gave a rule of succession, in order that, when they had fallen asleep, other men, who had been approved, might succeed to their ministry. Those who were thus appointed by them, or afterwards by other men of good repute, with the consent of the whole Church, who have blamelessly ministered to the flock of Christ with humility, quietly, and without illiberality, and who for a long time have obtained a good report from all, these, we think, have been unjustly deposed from the ministry. For it will be no small sin in us if we depose from the office of bishop those who blamelessly and piously have made the offerings. Happy are the presbyters who finished their course before, and died in mature age after they had borne fruit; for they do not fear lest any one should remove them from the place appointed for them. For we see that ye have removed some men of honest conversation from the ministry, which had been blamelessly and honourably performed by them.

Clement refers here to the bishops who “blamelessly and piously have made the offerings”. That is pretty clearly a reference to the liturgy and eucharist as we saw outlined in the Didache and as Paul describes in his own first (surviving) letter to Corinth. It’s important to note that the Apostles installed bishops and deacons to care for the churches they started. We see that in the NT in a number of places. James was the Bishop in Jerusalem at the first council described in Acts 15 and officiated or facilitated that council, even though both Peter and Paul were present. Paul installed Titus and Timothy as bishops later and that’s reflected in his letters to them. After those initial bishops had fallen asleep, successors were chosen by “other men of good repute” by which we know from other sources referred to other recognized bishops (always at least two) and by the acclamation of the Church into which the successor was being installed as bishop. (Though it didn’t happen often, there are accounts of times when the people of a Church refused to accept a heterodox bishop — even if it meant gathering in the fields.) Historically, it appears that Clement may have been the first bishop of Rome installed by this method rather than directly by an Apostle.

The primary distinction, especially at this point in the life of the Church, between a presbyter (in English typically translated priest) and a bishop was that while there might be many presbyters according to the needs of the people and the size of the Church (which sometimes gathered in multiple locations in a city — Rome is a good example in Paul’s letter to them), there was never more than one bishop for any given place. Thus Corinth could have presbyters in the plural, but it only had one bishop. The presbyters helped the bishop while the deacons served the people.

I had thought I would touch on Clement of Rome in a single day with a relatively short post. As I’ve written, ideas, practices, setting, and culture on which I really need to lay some groundwork for future discussions have kept coming to mind. This post is already much longer than I typically write. So I’ll try to wrap up Clement in tomorrow’s post.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History – Series Intro

Posted: July 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

This past weekend a discussion with the Internet Monk, which began for me at least on twitter, emerged in two different posts. In the first, the iMonk posted a link to a sermon by David Chanski on the Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper and his own thoughts on the sermon. The second post responded to someone who asked what the problems are with the Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper. If you’re interested, you will find some comments by me on both posts. The first problem he listed was a problem he called “the historical problem”. He posed the issue this way:

How do Baptists relate their view of the Lord’s Supper to the ancient church’s far more eucharistic, real presence language? Do we believe the ancient church was wrong until the Baptist reformation? Yes? No? What?

It’s hardly a new issue to me. As a Christian (a clarification I have to make since I have been a lot of other things over the course of my life), I’ve only really been a Baptist sort of Christian. Oh, I’ve experienced many different flavors of Christianity from childhood on and know a pretty decent amount about many of them. But to the extent I’ve been anything in the midst of modern Christian pluralism, I’ve been a Baptist. I’m also the sort of person who enjoys history and who doesn’t just love reading, but for whom reading and breathing come close to being synonymous. And that combination means I encountered this issue sooner rather than later. I was able to set it aside for years to see if a resolution would emerge. I’m often able to do that when faced with tension in a belief. That worked for a decade or so. But it’s been increasingly ineffective over the last four or five years. Since there isn’t much in Christian life, practice, and belief that is and has always been more central than the Eucharist, that’s a problem.

I will point out that this is not uniquely a Baptist problem today. Many “nondenominational” churches (or denominations of one as they tend to be counted) have a perspective that is at least similar to the Baptist view. The Baptist, or more properly Zwinglian (Zwingli originated the memorial, symbolic theology of the Eucharist in the 16th century), view is also similar to the view held by many in the charismatic wing of the modern church. Presbyterian and other Reformed churches have a somewhat similar, though not identical, problem. As I consider the Protestant branch of the church, Lutherans and Anglicans have much less of a historical problem with the Eucharist than many. I honestly don’t remember what Methodists teach, but since they are offshoots of the Anglican Church, they may also have fewer historical issues. I can hardly claim to be familiar with the tens of thousands of distinct sects into which Protestantism has devolved, but I would wager that the majority of the larger Protestant tradition shares at least part of this particular problem with the Baptists.

In this series, I have no plans to resolve the historical problem. I don’t have any answers and I don’t expect a revelation. Instead, I plan to explore the nature of the problem itself. What is the history of belief about the Eucharist? What are the ramifications of that history? I’ll be exploring questions like that.

If it does not matter to you what your predecessors in the faith believed and practiced, if you are unconcerned about those whom Hebrews calls a great cloud of witnesses, then you don’t share this historical problem. If innovation in the faith, even in its most central aspects, is something that doesn’t bother you, then you will probably not find much of interest in this series. This is for those like me for whom such things do matter, and perhaps matter a very great deal.

In this series, I will be discussing excerpts from Christian writings throughout the first millenium. I’m not really fond of trying to “mine” those writings for a topical discussion. I’ve seen a lot of that done pretty badly over the years. Those writings don’t really lend themselves to that sort of approach. With much ancient writing, you have to try to understand the perspective, setting, culture, and situation from which someone was writing and then try to absorb the whole of what they are saying which will then illuminate the parts.  It’s very different from most Western scholastic works where you try to understand each piece in order to grasp the whole. The pieces often build on each other, but usually in a structured and orderly manner. I will always provide a link to the whole work from which I quote. And if you have any question about the way I am reading something, please go read the whole thing. Even better, read as much by that particular author as you can find.

I will caution readers up front that it is impossible to discuss the Eucharist from the writings of the first millenium without also running headlong into the issue of unity and oneness. That’s probably not what a Protestant wants to hear. But the two trains of thought tend to be deeply intertwined in most places. There are many writings over the centuries addressing schismatics (which is not the same thing as heretic) and there were schisms to address. Nevertheless, I don’t think any writer in the first millenium could have ever imagined schism on the scale that we’ve managed. So be warned.

I will generally assume that everyone reading this series has read, in their entirety, preferably multiple times, perhaps even using the techniques of lectio divina certain key portions of the Holy Scriptures. Of course, that includes the accounts of the last supper in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The other two passages are John 6 and 1 Corinthians 11. There are other scriptures, and I will provide specific references when needed. But the Scriptures above will permeate the discussion and sit in the background at all times.

Since my focus will be specifically on the historical problem with the Baptist perspective, the 1689 London Confession is as good a reference for that perspective as any. I immediately noted when I read it that it never references John 6. I’m not sure how you can develop a theological confession of the Lord’s Supper without ever referencing the Eucharistic chapter of the theological Gospel. But there you go. Perhaps that’s part of the problem.

In the series I recently completed on the Didache, you might want to read post 31, post 25, post 26, and post 27. I don’t plan to revisit the Didache in this series since I just reflected on the entire Teaching.

I had actually planned to write a series of reflections on the latest encyclical, CARITAS IN VERITATE, by Pope Benedict XVI next. But this cropped up and it somehow seemed like the series I should write at this time. I may still slip in some thoughts on the encyclical in additional posts.


The Didache 30 – Supporting Prophets

Posted: July 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

But every true prophet who wants to live among you is worthy of his support. So also a true teacher is himself worthy, as the workman, of his support. Every first-fruit, therefore, of the products of wine-press and threshing-floor, of oxen and of sheep, you shall take and give to the prophets, for they are your high priests. But if you have no prophet, give it to the poor. If you make a batch of dough, take the first-fruit and give according to the commandment. So also when you open a jar of wine or of oil, take the first-fruit and give it to the prophets; and of money (silver) and clothing and every possession, take the first-fruit, as it may seem good to you, and give according to the commandment.

Giving the first fruits resonates with the Jewish background of Christianity.  Though Paul did not use the language of first fruits, the sentiment here clearly echoes his teaching. We know that Paul and Barnabus mostly did not accept money or other support and worked as tentmakers. They did not want there to be any confusion or question about their motives. However Paul taught in no uncertain terms that a prophet is worthy of being supported by his community.

While Paul did not accept such support very often, we know that others certainly did. Among the apostles, Peter and John were supported by different churches. And many of the early bishops were as well.

I’ve noticed there has arisen today an idea in some corners that a “proper” minister should be bi-vocational rather than being paid. While there is certainly nothing wrong with it, and it can even be a very honorable thing to do, there’s nothing in either the NT or in early christian writings to support the idea that such an approach is either required or is somehow “better”.  Or so it seems to me.


The Didache 23 – Fasting

Posted: July 3rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday).

The “hypocrites” in this context would be those Jews who do not give Jesus of Nazareth their believing allegiance and obey his commands. The usage here echoes the way of using the idea of hypocrite in Jesus’ woes, which was a somewhat novel usage at the time. We know that some of the Rabbis around the time of Jesus (and the Teaching) had established Monday and Thursday fasts. While fasting in modern day Judaism has declined as it has in much of Christianity, sometime to little more than an observance of Yom Kippur, that was not the case when Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount or when the Didache was recorded.

I will note that pretty much only the Orthodox still fast as a community on most Wednesdays and Fridays. Most Protestants have little knowledge and less practice of fasting. And Roman Catholic practice in the U.S. has declined in my lifetime. However, it had already been reduced to a Friday fast of sorts long before the present era. I think we’ve lost a great deal and it truly shows when you explore something like fasting.


The Didache 22 – Baptize This Way

Posted: July 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

The first thing that jumps out at me in this part of the Teaching is the phrase “Having first said all these things”. Those of us who were raised within a literate culture sometimes have a hard time grasping the way in which an oral culture works. It was and is normal for someone in an oral culture to memorize large blocks of oral tradition and be able to recite it verbatim. Oral teaching tends to be trusted more than a written text because you know who is teaching you, but you don’t where a written text came from or who might have changed it before you received it. A literate culture tends to relinquish that capacity for memorization and tends to trust a written text over a purely oral teaching. This phrase, of course, means that the one being baptized was expected to recite the entire Teaching before their baptism. That seems surprising to us only because we were not shaped within an oral culture.

However, it does point out that from very early on the church tried to make sure when possible and reasonable that people had some grasp of what they were doing in baptism. Even in the case of the Ethiopian eunech, we see Phillip cramming as much teaching as he could beforehand. On balance, I think most Protestant traditions do less baptismal teaching than is healthy. The expectation seems to be that people can learn what it all means after they do it, which seems a little backwards to me.

Next we see the Trinitarian formula, already established in the first century. Today, I believe the Orthodox are the only tradition who continue the triple immersion, but most Christians do baptize in the name of the Trinity. Those who don’t tend to have deeper theological issues.

The focus on “living” or running water is very Jewish in its nature, as one would expect since Christianity, flowing from Judaism, is inevitably shaped by the Jewishness of its Lord. However, we see all sorts of accomodation for different situations even in this short section.

I have to confess that even after all these years among them, I still don’t understand the strange relationship modern Baptists have with baptism. On the one hand, it doesn’t “count” unless done by immersion following a “valid” (how do you know?) confession of faith. While on the other hand they insist that baptism doesn’t actually mean anything or accomplish anything, that it’s “just” a symbol and does nothing in reality. And most don’t even seem to see how odd those two assertions are when joined together.

Finally, we see that the baptizer, the baptized, and everyone in the community who could were expected to fast before the baptism. Fasting, an important topic obviously to me, permeated the early church. I’m trying to imagine everyone in my church fasting together before performing baptisms and I’m not having much success. Baptists are known for many things, but fasting is not one of them. 😉

Perhaps that’s our loss?