Friday, December 08, 2006

For What the Law was Powerless to Do

This past Monday on campus we had a well attended public debate between two students on campus. The debate centered on the role of Christians in American politics. One student asserted that we ought to promote Christian values through government, while the other student argued we should not. As I sat listening to the debate the thought suddenly popped into my head, “what the law was powerless to do.”

Those of you who are Christians are probably quite familiar with this verse. It is found in Romans 8:3 and in full says, “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:3,4)

This passage comes on the heels of Paul’s discussion in chapter 7 about the experience of a Jew under the Law. Romans 7:15-25 is often misused to assume that what Paul describes here is what he expects of Christian experience after conversion. I call this a misuse of the passage because the larger context makes clear that Paul believes Christians are set free from the sinful nature and are no longer slaves to sin. So in order for 15-25 to be an expression of Paul’s current experience would make Paul sharply contradictory with himself. Paul here undertakes the persona of a Jew under the Law using a rhetorical device in which out of context it appears as if Paul is speaking about himself.

The point I’d like to draw out is that Paul affirms that the Law is unable to free his fellow Jews from their slavery to sin. In fact, Paul says that in a sense the Law produced more iniquity. But, “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,”(Rom. 7:25) since “through Jesus Christ the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Rom. 8:2) It is the Spirit of life who sets us free. The Law does not have the capability to do so. This is one of Paul’s prominent points in this passage.

Interestingly, many Christians fully affirm Paul’s statements in these passages but pragmatically they don’t believe them. Some Christians have still decided that the way to change the world is by use of law. We have transported the first century debates into our culture and decided that through American government and law we will advance the Christian cause. So, many evangelicals vehemently fight for legislation that appears to reflect Christian values. We attempt to put “Christian” political leaders into office with the hope that they will fight for us and America can become a Christian nation. In all these efforts such evangelicals are unfortunately promoting the idea that people and society can and will be changed by use of law.

It baffles me why any Christian would not immediately see Paul’s admonitions relevant to these Christians’ current political agenda. Do we really think American law is more powerful than the Jewish law? If the Jewish law was “powerless” how can we think American law will be more potent? The fruit of these attempts has shown that our culture is not being changed by these efforts but is becoming more resentful towards Christianity. It is of no surprise that when Christians attempt to use contra-Gospel means to advance the Gospel the results are disastrous.

I believe Paul’s words ought to a great warning and we ought truly to affirm the powerlessness of law to enact the salvific change necessary in our culture. “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man.” Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

IWU and ROTC - Compatible?

This is a letter I'm submitting to my campus newspaper. It may have to be trimmed but any feedback would be welcomed.

A rather dramatic shift took place on campus this semester that many students never even felt. It was the initiation of the ROTC “Roaring Lambs” chapter on Indiana Wesleyan’s campus. This shift went unnoticed by many because we never questioned its ethical implications. The willingness of IWU to implement an ROTC program manifests the disconnect between Christian faith (theology) and Christian living (ethics) that has been established on campus. With the recent visitation of a Blackhawk Helicopter, which many students received jubilantly, this disconnect was further aggravated.

Within Christianity the spectrum of perspectives on war ranges from Just War theorists to Christological pacifists. Neither of these are extremist views but constitute a framework in which to discuss war. The presence of ROTC on campus ought to be difficult to justify from a Just War paradigm. The essence of Just War theory is reluctance towards military action, although when certain criteria are met war can be “justified.” Yet military action is never promoted in Just War thinking. It is instead considered a necessary evil to employ when all other avenues have been exhausted and all the established criteria are met. In this sense, Just War theorists support the military minimally and, again, reluctantly. The ROTC is by no means a reluctant acceptance of the military. Quite the contrary, it promotes military action. Considering the newly instituted Bush-doctrine of pre-emptive war, the military can hardly be said to function solely in self-defense. In this ethical paradigm the presence of ROTC is unjustifiable.

Yet even further, as Christians our ethics ought to be derivative of our theology. Our ethics are distinct from secular ethics because ours are informed by our theological convictions, primarily our Christology (understanding of the person of Christ). If we ought to imitate Christ, in what sense can we ever justify the use of violence? The primary arguments against non-violence tend to be based in what is considered the irrationality of pacifism. But Christological pacifism is not grounded in whether it “works” (as is liberal pacifism), but in the person of Christ. The bottom line is we are non-violent because Christ was. To predicate Christ as violent becomes incredibly difficult in face of the Sermon on the Mount. For what else can “turn the other cheek” mean but that we do not return violence for violence? Can we take Jesus seriously here? Why is it that Christ does not militaristically oppose Rome but instead submits to her? Why in the vast majority of the places in the New Testament where we are told to imitate Christ it is in his suffering and his submission? How can we reconcile “love your neighbor” with the slaughter of our neighbor, regardless of circumstance? It is the arguments against Christological pacifism that have pushed me closer to it. There is no justification for using the tools of the devil to accomplish Christian means. Cleary, in this paradigm the presence of the ROTC is in every way contrary to Christian ethics.

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, Christian ethics do not allow for a unilateral support of military action. We are called to imitate Christ, and the ROTC is simply inconsistent with that imitation.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

When Schism is Unjust

Schism has been considered perhaps the second most griveous sin in the history of the Church, second only to heresy. No other mortal sin is as dangerous as these two. Yet as it pertains to schism the Protestant Reformation has instigated a variety of opinions and evaluations of what it truly means to be schismatic.

Schism, broadly defined, is breaking away from the Church. The ominousness of such an act is that one who is involved in schism is broken off from the vine; they are not connected to the nourishment of the vine. The Church is God's primary means of grace to the world, and she conceives, births, and nourishes Christians. There can be no "power of the keys" outside of the Church, for Christ entrusted the keys to Peter and the apostles, and the power is retained within the Church. In short, one who commits schism finds oneself in a very deleterious position.

The Church, being the body of Christ, becomes in a sense the very person of Christ. The Church truly is the visible presence of Christ on this earth. There can be no division within Christ, therefore to leave the Church is to leave Christ. However, one must wonder if there are any justifiable reasons for schism. Are there extreme cases or circumstances in which schism may be necessary?

The only potential justification for schism is heresy. Specifically I am thinking here of the Protestant Reformation. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church at the time was teaching some things which cannot be considered Christian. This Protestant split could be justified by one saying that due to the heresy promulgated by the Catholic Church, schism was necessary. However, even in this case an argument could be made that due to the heresy, at this time the Catholic Church could not have been considered the Church in all its fullness. In this sense, the Reformation would not as much be a schism as a return to orthodoxy.

Regardless of how one chooses to view the above, most would agree that at least to some extent the Protestant split can be justified (although this could move into area in which we have to discuss whether even this schism can be justified due to the split from the Church as institution; we won't address that at the moment). While we may be able to justify the Protestant schism, I am left to wonder if there are any true grounds upon which we can justify any subsequent schism. Protestantism is defined by its innate affinity with division. The thousands of denominations present in our world represent the slippery slope that was opened when the Reformers put forth their critiques. While ameliorations have been made to some divisions, and some denominations have even merged, there still remains the autonomous rights for Protestants to divide if need be.

BUT....if it's true that the only justifiable grounds for schism are heresy (in which case one is not truly dividing the Church but realigning her), then can any Protestant divide following the initial split be justified? I'm not convinced any can. If this is the case then it puts Protestants in a very precarious position. Has Protestantism, to an extent, put itself in danger of being outside of the fullness of the Church? Are there parallels between Protestantism and the Novatian schism?

This is a very troubling thought and the ramifications are worthy of consideration. I am not implying that any Protestant denomination which finds its origins after the initial reformative split is not part of the Church, or that the grace of God is not flowing there. But I am somewhat concerned about the unjustifiable nature of Protestant schism. Have we, to an extent, forced God's hand to work in unordinary ways?

I don't know. What do you think?

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Academy as Service

This weekend I went to a fantastic conference funded by the Lilly Foundation. Although I was somewhat apprehensive initially about attending, I could not have been more pleased. The conference, largely, served to provide the attendees with information about graduate school. Although seminary is not completely concordant with process undertaken for typical graduate studies, the conference nonetheless was incredibly informational and beneficial.

One of the central topics of the conferences was vocation and calling: both what they mean and how we ought to pursue them. Dr. Patrick Byrne (of Boston College), in agreement with the theologian Bernard Lonergan, asserted that our first vocation is that of being human. Our "vocations" (father, husband, doctor, plumber, etc.) are subsets and participate in the fulfillment of our primary vocation to be human.

Dr. Byrne suggested three criteria that ought to be evaluated in discerning vocation:

1) Joy: what brings me joy (not necessarily what makes me happy, but what elicits true joy)?
2) Talent: what am I gifted and talented doing?
3) Service: does this serve the needs of others? Is this a service to humankind?

Perhaps the most difficult criteria to evaluate is the third; does what I'm gifted at and what I love truly serve others? In what ways does it do so? Dr. Byrne said this was the most difficult aspect for him to discern in his own life experience. As we dialogued together I began to realize how significant this specific aspect of his presentation was to my own life and that of the students present at the conference. Considering the conference was concerned with Christian higher education, the question Dr. Byrne posed was in what way academics are a service to others.

As we deliberated we saw the necessity for distinguishing between the various needs humans have. One of the graduate students, who attends Northwestern University, insightfully commented that we tend to elevate the basic human needs as the sole human needs. Food, shelter, clothing, etc. are undeniably basic human needs that must be met. When we ask whether something serves humanity, typically we are thinking along these lines. Yet, as this graduate student pointed out, the needs of humanity are multi-faceted and much more broad than just basic needs. While poverty is by all means a monumental human dilemma, bad philosophy can be incredibly destructive as well. Similarly, bad theology can wreak havoc upon one's relationship with God and others. Political perversity breeds consequences throughout an entire polity. The academy recognizes the multiplicity of human needs and exists to fulfill those needs through the efforts of its scholarship and research.

I would not be so naive as to declare that those in the academy always operate under this construct. But I believe it is an important qualification for those of us who sense academics to be our vocational fit. I grow weary of the still prevalent notion among many evangelicals that intellectualism is neither profitable nor necessary. "How can you consign yourself to the ivory tower when people are dying on the streets?" Or so the argument often will go. But this operates under the assumption that the only needs that ought to be addressed are the ones most readily apparent. Certainly we should be concerned with those needs; we must be. It is a part of Christian charity that all of us are called to serve the basic needs of such people. But it is not everyone's vocation to serve such needs. Some vocationally find their talent and joy best manifested in such a role; others do not.

Similarly some may say that to confine oneself to academics is to become too specialized. Yet, truthfully, all service is narrow and only relevant to a particular group. Knee replacements are a valuable service, but only to those who actually need them. Cancer treatment is necessary, but only for those who suffer from such a disease. In similar fashion, academics are necessary, but may only be relevant to a particular need of a particular people. That doesn't make them any less valuable, simply they are part of the solution to the vast fabric of human need. The destruction of people intellectually can at times be more pandemic than their physical destruction (ex. heresy can steal the Gospel of its power to heal the sin sick soul, potentially leaving a person with eternal damnation). At times we too quickly look to the immediate needs present in our world without realizing the long-range debilitation accompanied by some intellectual errors.

So before you condemn those who seek to serve the needs of the world by purusing knowledge and scholarly endeavors simply because they "aren't in the trenches," recognize those in such positions truly are in the trenches; they simply are serving in a different capacity. The academy is not a place removed from the very real needs of this world; rather, it is a place of service, whether that service is properly acknowledged or not.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Scarcity of Posts

I apologize for my large delay in posting. Currently I am disconnected from the internet as I await the installation of my connection in my new house. Jen and I are again in Marion and we have begun another academic year. I hope to engage in the theological dialogue on this blog once again soon. Thanks.

-Ben Robinson

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Why I hate Evangelism

It's true; I have had an animosity towards the way evangelism is conducted and explained in many evangelical churches. This animosity has pushed me at times to shy away from engaging in evangelistic efforts. Only recently have I realized my primary problem with common evangelistic methodology: it is so deeply rooted in an exclusively forensic understanding of atonement and salvation.

I grow weary of those who declare peremptorily to others that they ought to accept Christ to gain their ticket to heaven. Accept Christ and avoid hell. We are told that the purpose of this life is to prepare for the next and therefore we ought to be myopically focused upon eternity. Any mention of salvation as a process or way is done so in a cursory manner with quick qualifications that the primary aspect of salvation is that we are forgiven of the many sins we commit daily.

What is ironic to me is that those who so emphasize our need for pardon due to our great depravity so often ignore the necessity for the healing of such depravity. I recall doing "Door to Door" ministries early in my undergraduate education. The main focus was whether these people we met had a relationship with Christ or not. If they did we moved on. If they didn't we stayed and tried to explain why they needed to be forgiven. I cannot recall a single discussion about how God desires to empower us for holy living. How God not only declares us righteous but makes us righteous. How responding to God's pardoning presence opens us up to further empowering presence of grace to move us further on this way of salvation towards likeness with God.

Perhaps this is why we have devalued integritous theology. Perhaps this is why we have superciliously ignored orthodox sacramentalism. Who needs the Eucharist as a means of grace when the most important aspect of the Christian life is our initial justification? Who needs the nourishment of the empowering presence of the Spirit when sanctification is a tag-on to justification?

By no means do I intend to make mordant claims against the necessity for pardon in our lives. We need Christ to exculpate us; but salvation cannot be so narrowly defined as pardon from sins. If we are to truly evangelize it must be done with germane attention paid to the transformative element of salvation. Salvation is being healed of our distored nature. Salvation is being brought into the very life of God by the divine energies. The Greek theologians call this theosis. Salvation is therapeutic and we must understand the forensic language within the context of the larger therapeutic dimensions of salvation.

To be fair, I love evangelism. The Church is called to evangelize and to bring people into the Kingdom of God. What I disdain is the common distored manner in which we evangelize. Perhaps the most important questions is not, "Are you saved." Rather, perhaps the most important question is not a question at all but the reality of the people of God being sanctified and made holy. Sure it's tougher to measure; but at least it's more biblically faithful.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Church and Politics?

You've probably seen this in the news but I thought I'd post a link to the article here. The reality that this has made national news shows this is a significant issue that too many of us would like to run away from or mitigate. The current and future leaders in the Church will be forced to deal with this head on. Check it out.

Here's a video.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Eastern Christian Soteriological Distinctive

Unfortunately we in the West have at times viewed salvation only in forensic or legal terms. We summarize the significance of the cross by saying that Christ died to forgive us of our sins and that by his death we are declared righteous. Our emphasis has been that Christ relieves us of our guilt and that he calls us righteous even though we are sinful and unclean. The problem with only speaking of the cross in this way is that we miss an integral and necessary component to salvation; that of healing. This is what I mean when I mentioned at the beginning the primary aspects of salvation being pardon and power. Yes, by Christ’s death we are pardoned and forgiven of our sins. But we are also freed from the power of death and sin. And we are not only declared righteous, but we are made righteous. This transformation that the Holy Spirit enacts in our lives by the work of Christ is not something that necessarily happens instantaneously; in fact, most of the time it does not. We are gradually being restored and brought to perfection by the continuing work of the Spirit in our lives and our continual response to that grace.

Eastern Christianity has much better captures this aspect of salvation. The Eastern Church Fathers taught that even if there had been no fall, the Son still would have had to take on human nature. Let me say that again: the Eastern Fathers taught that even if there had been no fall, the Son still would have to take on human nature. Let me explain. The Eastern Church has understood that when God created humanity, he did not created humanity in the ultimate state that we ought to be. We were created corruptible. We could fall and did. So even initial created humanity was not perfected. In order for humanity to become like God, which is one of the central aspects of salvation that we are to be made holy and changed unto the very likeness and image of God, God would have to become like us. Even without the fall the incarnation would still have to occur because we could not participate in the divine nature unless God participated in human nature. In other words, we could not be made like God unless God was made like us. The Eastern Church has considered one of the most serious consequences of the fall to be mortality. When Adam and Even sinned, death entered the world. So, because the fall introduced death into the world, Christ now had to die in order to fully participate in what it means to be human.

For this reason the Eastern Church has understood the therapeutic aspect of salvation much better than we in the West typically have. They understand that salvation is about setting us free from the bondage of death and is about healing our corrupted moral nature. It is not just about being forgiven, it is about being made into persons who so reflect the character of God that our future need of forgiveness is minimal. As the Church Father Athanasius said, “God became like man, so that we could become like God.”

Perhaps there would be no more fitting way to close than by quoting John Wesley himself, who understood the necessity of integrating both the pardoning aspect of salvation as well as the transformative aspect.

“By salvation I mean, not barely merely deliverance from hell, or going to heaven, but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth. This implies all holy and heavenly tempers, and by consequence all holiness of conduct.”

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Nukes In North Korea

Last night I watched a special on "Nightline" regarding North Korean sentiment towards the United States and the North Korean nuclear programs. As I turned the TV off my mind was swirling and all I could think was, "what a sad world in which we live." Typically I desire to abstain from politically loaded discussions. For one, I only have remedial knowledge of politics. Secondly, more often it is necessary to emphasize the distinction between Church politics and American politics and therefore rarely do I compose pieces surrounding the U.S. political arena. But last night I was prompted to reflect upon this great country in which I live and the decisions we have made in recent years.

It seems to me that going to Iraq was wrongheaded from the get-go. Certainly the war can not be justified from a "just war" perspective and those of us who are more inclined toward the pacifistic end are even more skeptical of our invasion there. My concern, though, is not so much with whether we should have gone but rather with what our going has produced. The aftermath is what we will have to deal with for generations. After watching the program last night the inescapable conclusion is that much of the world hates America; and our going to war in Iraq has only further infuriated them. North Korean propaganda teaches that the U.S. were the initiating invaders in the Korean war and that North Korea stepped in to defend the Koreans. The Iraq war is simply another example of the United State's war-mongering (in their mind).

Of course, we haven't done much to detract from this perception. Bush's labeling of North Korea as part of the "Axis of Evil" was idiotic. This phrase is of course resonant of the Axis powers of World War II and who would not be enraged for being associated with those countries? So much for diplomacy. As childish as it sounds, the North Koreans were incredibly hurt by that labeling and it is not rolling off their backs. Bush's charge against them repeatedly surfaced in the interviews with North Koreans. They're deeply insulted; can we really be surprised?

Now I would never want to place the mantle of fault on Bush. In all honesty I do think he is generally a "good" guy. I do think he's been a part of some terrible decisions. Much of the Middle East hates us, and Iraq has not helped. We've given the terrorists further motivation for seeking to hurt us. We've ticked off countries who had no association with Iraq except that they despise the fact we invaded. Our arrogance will be our downfall; and North Korea has active short-range nuclear weapons on their launch pads. It takes most empires hundreds and hundreds of years to increase in arrogance to the point that they think themselves invincible. Let's be honest, we're already there after 230 years. We think we're the greatest while much of the world hates us.

As an American citizen this disturbs me. Yet I am thankful that my primary identity is not that of an American, but that of a Christian. As I have reflected upon our precarious political position with the rest of the world, my theological bearings have swung me around to reflect once again upon the American Church's alignment with America. This fourth of July also was a representation to me of the underlying problems that we create when we fail to distinguish between the Church and the United States.

I always have to be careful when I tread upon this slippery surface. I love the fact that I'm an American. I love that I live in a country where I have freedoms inaccessible to much of the world. I love that I can worship God without fear of persecution. But while I love the opportunities and freedoms awarded by this country I would be forsaking my true identity if I allowed myself to be so defined by this country. I think many of us Christians have forgotten this. We truly are American Christians rather than Christians who find their place of residence in America. The distinction is significant. American Christians are defined by the adjective American. Their identity as Christians is defined by their identity as Americans. Christians who live in America are ones who realize that their identity is defined by the Church and is expressed in the geographic area known as the United States. We blur this distinction when we allow so much of America into our churches, especially on days such as the 4th of July.

Some say that this is not that big of a deal. It's really a non-issue. Do we really do any harm by saying the pledge of allegiance in church? Do we really do any harm by inisting on having the American flag so central in our sanctuaries? I wonder if those questions would be answered differently by a German who still had the memories of the Nazi swastikas plastered in German churches. Perhaps they understand better the very real and significant dangers of so closely associating the Church with any political unit. Now I'm not suggesting that America is in anyway similar to the Nazi regime. However, what truly lies behind this issue is that of ecclesiology. What is the nature, identity, and mission of the Church? One of the reasons many American Christians fail to even question the aforementioned items in churches is because our ecclesiologies are greatly diluted or completely absent.

The Church is itself a polity. How can we stand inside a local church and proclaim allegiance to another polity that really is only related to the Church in the sense that the Church is located within its borders? Does anyone else see this as a conflict of interests? I feel the blood rush through me as I think of pledging allegiance to the American flag, in a church, while knowing that the political mess that America has made worldwide in recent years is nothing I want to condone or affirm. It is not our duty as Christians to place a blanket of confirmation on all that our nation does and stands for. It is our duty to visibly distinguish ourselves from our nation when our nation acts in ways that oppose the politics of the Church. Even when we attempt to qualify by saying that we truly are allied to the Church first, and the U.S. second we still have the tendency to not truly understand that. Making such a statement before pledging allegiance to the flag seems perhaps even humorous. The very presence of such an act is already evidence that we refuse to view the Church as autonomous from the nation in which we preside.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that we place such a great value upon celebrating our nation's "birthday" in our churches while we ignored the date marked by the Church as its own "birthday." We have truly lost our perspective.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Principle of Integration

John Wesley was a fascinating man. The more I read about him and by him the more I come to appreciate his theological methodology and particularities. Wesley shares my great love for the church fathers, particularly the Greek fathers. Their influence on Wesley is often quite apparent. Wesley's affinity for the Eastern fathers contributed to his task of integration. Wesley was one of the few theologians who have seen the need to integrate Western and Eastern Christian distinctives and do so in a way that compliments those distinctives.

Certainly even a theological novice could ascertain that there are significant differences and orienting concerns that accompany Western and Eastern theology. At times these difference have come into vicious conflict with one another. Yet Wesley was one who saw value in both traditions and, to an extent, melded the gold from each. One of the primary reasons that Wesley had this flexibility is because he did not so much endeavor to take up the task of theology systematically, his theology flowing from an idea or system. Rather, Wesley primarily was formed by what Maddox calls his orienting concerns. This subtle shift allowed for Wesley to pay greater attention to integration.

I have found that churches and individuals often err in extremes. For example, I am one who decries the theological bankruptcy of many contemporary worship songs. However, I am not opposed to the contemporary worship style. Quite to the contrary I enjoy it. Beyond this I have found that it is not always necessary that a worship song be filled with theological content. A well rounded service can contain songs that simply bring congregants into the intimate presence of God without deep theology. What becomes a problem is when extremes are adopted as norms. It seems we are often better at over-correcting than balance and integration. No, I don't want to sing a ton of songs that make Jesus sound like my "boyfriend," but I also see the value in some songs that are less than theologically integritous.

In essence, the principle I desire to see highlighted more often is that of integration. But, interestingly while this principle is often one which people respect and discuss it is rarely practiced. Western Christians continue to highlight only the pardoning aspect of salvation while Eastern Christians may highlight only the power of transformation and fail to speak of pardon. Evangelicals bemoan liturgy as rote and meaningless, while liturgical folk see evangelical worship as shallow and meaningless. Of course these are gross generalizations, still the spirit of integration is often espoused but not practiced.

What is it that makes integration so difficult to actualize?
Do you have any ideas how we could begin to make changes in our local churches?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Neglecting Pentecost

While I did not intend to compose another piece similar to the former, I have been compelled by a renewed interest in the importance of the Church calendar. One Sunday ago from this past Sunday was an incredibly important day for the Church. In fact, what the day commemorates is what some have considered to be the “birthday” of the Church. Yet for many of us in the evangelical tradition not only was this day hardly celebrated, but in some of our churches in may not have even been mentioned.

The day I speak of is the day of Pentecost. Pentecost Sunday came and went unbeknownst to many in our churches. We can debate the importance of some of the Church holidays or some of the days which the Church has conspicuously marked as having importance. Yet I am compelled to ask, of all the days to minimize or exclude what reason can we give to justify neglecting Pentecost? Pentecost, for those of you who unfortunately have never been exposed to it, celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostles in the book of Acts. Some consider this the visible beginning of the Christian Church. Regardless, it is an incredible significant day to celebrate as Christians because the Christian conception of God is by necessity Trinitarian. Not only is this distinctly Christian, but the necessity of the Holy Spirit in the life, existence, and sustenance of the Church and individual Christians is paramount. Pentecost is the seminal day for Christians to celebrate the Holy Spirit, and many of us missed it.

Why, of all the Church days to refrain from celebrating, do we neglect Pentecost? Perhaps the mitigation of the Holy Spirit in Western theology contributes to this, or perhaps the implicit anti-Catholic bias has once again reared its ugly and ignorant head. Whatever the case we ought to feel ashamed. We celebrate Christmas, we celebrate Easter, and although we don’t really celebrate many more Church days how dare we miss Pentecost. Yes, Christianity is Christo-centric and the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ ought to be commemorated and celebrated. But Christianity is also staunchly Trinitarian and without the concept of the Trinity Christianity is incomplete at best and horridly heretical at worst.

As Christians we rely on the Holy Spirit daily. The ancient fathers associated the communication of grace primarily with the work of the Spirit. Perhaps we forget the necessity of grace to both will and perform the good and to aid us in our daily efforts because we so easily forget the Holy Spirit. This ought to change, and perhaps it can begin with simply recognizing the incredible profundity of Pentecost.

What do you think?

Did your church celebrate or mention Pentecost?

How crucial is the recognition of the Holy Spirit to the existence and mission of the Church?

Friday, May 19, 2006

A Reflection on Mother's Day

It was not too long ago when virtually every American celebrated Mother's day. We all went out to store the night before or the day of and bought our moms something special (usually potted flowers, hanging flowers, or some other assortment of flowers). We bought cards and wrote sappy, but sincere, messages about how much our moms mean to us and how they have influenced our lives. For many Americans, there was another way to commemorate Mom: a Mother's Day service at church.

Mother's Day services are expected. The worship leader will typically mention something in his chatter or prayer about moms. Someone will usually pray and mention all the mothers, and the service culminates in a sermon that revolves mainly around the topic of mothers. Most of you reading this have gone to such a service and probably went to one just a matter of days ago. Let me be clear: I am not attempting to malign such services, discredit them, or discuss whether we ought to even have them at all. The question of whether Mother's Day services are appropriate will have to wait for another day. In this post I am raising the question: why do we (evangelicals) follow the secular or civil calendar staunchly, but fail to follow the Church calendar?

Granted, we celebrate Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and perhaps we'll throw in a few other "Church" days. Yet predominantly we ignore the larger calendar that the Church has historically followed. This post is not an attempt to convince us, either, that we ought to be following the Church calendar. Rather, I wonder what it is that has pervaded our churches to the point where we value the civil religion of this country over the traditions and ceremonies of the Church?

I think perhaps the question may be answered by many evangelicals affinity to associate themselves first as Americans, and subsequently as Christians. Oh, don't get me wrong. We say that we are Christians first, but our praxy often proves otherwise. So we become overly politicized and hold up a particular political party as being the "Christian party." For many evangelicals, this is manifested in their utter devotion to the Republican party. For others, it shows through in their insistence on having the American flag on the church platform alongside the Christian flag. Ultimately, we American Christians have to ask ourselves who is our true ally: the Church or the American nation? I am not saying that we have to divorce ourselves from our American identity. But we do need to reevaluate where we have placed our priorities.

Can we faithful be members of two antithetic polities? Can we be faithful Americans and faithful Christians? Perhaps we are members of the Church who happen to live in a certain locality and in a sense, subversively influence it. Not by scare tactics or political platforms; but by love. Perhaps we remember that we are the manifestation of Christ's presence and love. Perhaps we do castrate our American identity for a while, only in order to recognize that we are loyal to a much greater polity: the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

What do you think?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Congrats to Matt!

Congratulations to my brother, Matt, who has just graduated from Michigan State University! We love you and are proud of you Matt!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Friendships of Convenience

I lived off campus for the first time this past school year. It was an interesting phenomenon. I learned very quickly that in the IWU community, if you are not a part of the immediate (on campus) portion you are quickly forgotten. This is not the fault of any individuals in particular nor am I saying this to elicit pity. It is the reality of the beast. When things happen at IWU, they happen on campus. If you're not on campus, you miss things. People don't see you everyday and in some ways they forget you're still around. Yet I have had some fantastic interactions/conversations with some of my friends and have grown in friendships despite my social-disability due to off-campusness. Interestingly, this year has also allowed me to reflect upon the relationships that are formed at this university, and to an extent, how relationships are formed in general.

I have expressed my ostensibly cynical attitude to some about the basic life pattern that many of us find ourselves upon. We spend our early life growing up and being educated with people who become close friends. Yet when high school graduation arrives, people go their seperate ways and most of the friendships formed there will be radically altered in some way. Some students enter university life, where they spend another four years being educated, forming bonds with others, and then leaving to pursue jobs or graduate school. Many lose touch with their college friends and only a few close contacts remain regular. For those of us who opt for graduate school, we settle down in another educational atmosphere and begin the process anew of creating meaningful relationships. As the cycle becomes incredibly repetitious, we graduate and lose contact with many of the people we became quite close to.

Granted, that is a vast generlization of the pattern which ensues in many of our lives. But it is a pattern that perhaps ought to be considered seriously. The question which has arisen for me is what type of relationships are we forming? Has the sporadic course of our early lives truncated our ability to form relationships which last beyond our circumstances? In other words, are we merely founding friendships of convenience? I have noticed at the WU (and I'm sure other collegiates could give similar experiences) that the web of friendships shifts somewhat dramatically from year to year. Certainly people retain the most significant of these friendships and those friends grow gradually closer as the four years of university life progress. But as housing arrangments change, so do friendships. The people you live with become your closest friends. This is perfectly understandable and natural. Those who I lived with last year and those on the RA staff quickly became my steadfast and loyal friends. As corny as it sounds, we laughed together, we studied together, we held each other accountable, we stayed up late talking about girls, or most often, problems with girls. We even (literally) cried together. My friends and I were truly a band of brothers, brought together in a bond that is closer than some siblings.

I cherish those people to this very day, and those experiences. The normative shifts, though, have occured and people go their seperate ways. Some connections are still strong. Other are waning.

Life, it seems, is consumed by relationships. It is relationships that hold cultures and societies together. It is the relationship God has initiated with his Church that promises hope for this world. Even the Triune God by nature is relational. What it seems to me is that relationships are a large component of what it means to be a human; created in God's image. Then why do so many of the relationships we form become obsolete? Why does this cycle of life changes draw us apart? As we become busy with the next aspect of our life we tend to forget how we even arrived there in the first place. As aforementioned, there are many exceptions to this. Many friendships will indeed last a lifetime, and continue into eternity. But why do so many relationships errode and dissipate? Do we truly rely upon convenience as the basis for our relationships? If so, I'm surprised we keep any deep relationships; and I am as guilty as anyone.

I want my life to impact others. I want the relationships I form to be ones which are continuously efficacious even amidst seperation. I want relationships to last longer than my housing vicinity.

Perhaps this post seems odd. It does not follow the typical subject matter or writing style that accompanies me. These are my random thoughts and do with them what you will.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Really? Theology is Irrelevant?

I'm a student of theology. My entire undergraduate education is focused in the area of theology and biblical studies. I live and breathe theology. The primary subject of the books I read is in some way related to theology. I love theology and no subject is of greater interest to me both in literature and in conversation (whether casual or particular). Yet sometimes I am presented with the question, "Why theology?" Does theology really matter?

I have had a number of persons tell me they don't believe theology is all that important. "Christians don't need to be acquainted with the theological minds of the Church Fathers. Christians don't need to read Oden's Sytematic Theology. The writings of Wesley are largely inconsequential. When it comes down to it, all we need to know is the basics." Or so the argument goes. Evidently, theology is for the academics and has relevance for the ivory tower but not for the local church. So what are we budding theologians to do? Are we a dying breed? Is our art insignificant?

This issue has truly been one that I have spent countless hours ruminating upon. If the average Christian doesn't care about theology, what am I doing? Why am I spending hours upon hours of my life studying and researching this subject? A rather radical insight came upon me as I read the Credo of Thomas Oden's first volume of Systematic Theology. In it he states: "Christians have a right and a responsibility to know the meaning of their baptism. This is the purpose of Christian theology and of this study: to clarify the ancient ecumenical faith into which Christians of all times and places are baptized. It is expected of all who are baptized that they will understand what it means to believe in God the Father Almighty, in God the Son, and in God the Spirit (Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catech., prologue, NPNF 2 VII, p. 474; Luther, Sermons on the Catech., ML, p. 208)."

Why do we study theology? It is the right and the responsibility of all Christians to understand the faith they adhere to. Understood this way, the teaching of Christian theology is not an option, it is necessary to the very definition of what it means to be a Christian. To be a Christian requires one to seek greater understanding about the entirety of their faith. It is not just a responsibility, but it should be celebrated as a beautiful right that we are able to even speak of these things concerning the Almighty God. We have been given a great gift in this right yet unfortunately many American Christians have forsaken this opportunity. Instead, they have chosen the route of "all I need to know is the basics." Here ought to be the shocker for the average American Christian: You don't know the basics. The basics are what is contained in a series such as Thomas Oden's "Systematic Theology." At least, that is what the basics has been for the majority of Church history. Catechumens were delivered fascinating lectures that followed the pattern of the Creed throughout the Lenten period leading up to Easter. Cyril's Catechetical Lectures are a fabulous expression of the depth and sincerety with which the Early Church undertook the task of theology. Augustine's lectures "On Faith and the Creed" are beyond the capacity of most laypersons.

What has created this vast chasm between the theological integrity of the Early Church and our current theologically bankrupt churches? Clearly there are great differences in the cultural influences. Modern society does seem, in a sense, "dumb downed" by the prevalence of television and video games (not that either are bad things but merely they have occupied our minds and intellectual stimulation has been pushed to the background). But it seems to me this regression has been occuring for much longer than simply the technological revolution. At some point, the Church forgot one of its primary responsibilities: to teach and preach theology in the context of the Church.

Perhaps you remain unconvinced. "So what. Just because the Early Church considered theology important doesn't mean we ought to." Considering the often myopic tendency of some evangelicals to completely reject any source of authority but the Bible, let me point you to a biblical example of this.

In the letter to the Hebrews, in chapter five the author begins one of his central arguments: Jesus is a priest of the order of Melchizedek. While he desires to discourse upon what this means and the ramifications for his audience, he first says the following. "We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." (Hebrews 5:11-14)

The author wishes to teach the audience things they ought to be able to apprehend by this point in their Christian maturity. However, they have failed to mature and require the "elementary truths" again. He then continues with the following. "Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so." (Hebrews 6:1-3)

May I be so rash as to propose the following: The majority of American Christians do not have a solid understanding of what the author of Hebrews considers to be "elementary truths." If this was something worthy of chastisement in the first century, it is even more worthy in our current age. We have literally had centuries upon centuries to mature in our theological understanding. Not only have many failed to do so, but many fail to care that we ought to be maturing!

This has put the developing Christian leaders in a precarious position. We see the need and the value of theological integrity but we are concerned that our congregations will refuse to press forward. It has also greatly weaked the impact of Christianity in America. I will boldly proclaim that the claims of hypocrisy leveled against the American Church, the lack of "authentic" Christians, and the negation of Christianity's efficacy are rooted in the devaluing of theology. We are not changed by what we proclaim because we don't truly apprehend what we proclaim. We preach false gospels of wealth, prosperity, and material blessings because we do not grasp the Kingdom ethics. We do not understand the depth of salvation because we are content with believing that all that happens when a person converts is that they are forgiven of their sins.

I used to think that what has consumed my life for the past three years may be irrelevant. I don't believe that anymore.

So what do you think?
Do you value theology?
Does your church value theology?

Let's hear what you have to say.

(Take a look at this newly posted related blog by Kevin Wright.)

Friday, April 21, 2006

That Time of Year Folks

Dearly beloved readers. It is once again finals time for me at the ol' WU. I am immersed in my work and blogging has been relegated to after finals. But don't worry. I will return soon and I have some most engaging blogs coming. For the time being, may the grace of Christ be with you.

Pax Christi,

Your blogging buddy Ben

Friday, April 14, 2006

Good Friday

Mark 15

Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate. "Are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate. "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him, "Aren't you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of." But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.

Now it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did. "Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate, knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead. "What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?" Pilate asked them. "Crucify him!" they shouted. "Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!" Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, "Hail, king of the Jews!" Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get. It was the third hour when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left.

Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, "So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!" In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. "He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe." Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him. At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of those standing near heard this, they said, "Listen, he's calling Elijah." One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. "Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to take him down," he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!" Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.

It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Maundy Thursday

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom."
Matthew 26:26-29

As the sacrament series finishes, what better day to reflect upon this passage.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

It Has Run Its Course

I am encouraging discussion to proliferate on the previous post but am noting that the last post will be the final post in the series regarding sacraments. Please return to them to continue the discussion but also look forward to a shift in gears as I will once again take a look at different topics.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

4: A Continuation...

Joshwall made some extremely pertinent comments on the last post. I thought it would be easier to post a new blog to address some of the issues rather than address them in the limited comment space.


Thanks for the comment! Your post strikes upon a number of issues which I think we would all consider quite important.

1. How do we know what is correct theology pertaining to the sacraments?

2. Who has the authority to dictate what is orthodoxy in this regard? (Does having an orthodox interpretation of the sacraments even matter?)

3. And (although implicitly) what is the Church?

I certainly cannot attempt to comprehensively address all those questions, but let me begin by addressing some of the specifics in your post.

My question is who has decided over the years that sacramentality was part of the church, or what constitute sacraments, or the nature and role of sacraments?

The Church has decided, based upon the trajectory set by Scripture. While certainly the most advantageous and rich place for us to go would be the writings of the Church Fathers, we would do well to understand that the development of doctrine and Christian orthodoxy was never done outside of the context of the Church. These decisions were not made by the Bishops and then imposed upon the laity but the laity had an integral part in the acceptance and proliferation of these universal decrees.

I think its a great way to understand the transmission of grace but I think we run into issues when we make hard and fast rules on sacraments, does a full immersion need to be done or just dropping water enough for it to constitute a sacrament, with both being held in a traditional high view?

I'm not as concerned about the "hard and fast" rules you describe here as much as I am with the theology of the sacraments. Can baptism be considered sacramental whether its praxy is by means of full immersion or sprinkling? Yes.

Furthermore, while we have the example for the sacraments laid out in the Bible, their fully formed theological conceptions don't happen till later. Its only later on in the church, after several hundred years of ecclesial existence do we start to gather enough of a consensus to agree on sacraments.

You're exactly right. The fully formed sacramental theology is by all means a development within the Early Church. Yet I must contest the notion that these were developments which occurred "several hundreds years" later. The earliest literature we have available to us from the Fathers of the Church develop this sacramental theology. The understanding of the communication of grace through the sacraments is something that occurs very early in ecclesial history, not a rather late development.

But let's suppose it was a late development. Although inaccurate, let's say sacramental theology did not come to full development until the 5th century. If this had been the case the grounds for dismissing sacramentalism would still not be firm. After all, this century holds the great Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) in which the official statements regarding the hypostatic union are made.

You mention that after Augustine this higher view of the sacraments “takes off.” This is not true. An incredibly high view of the sacraments is held by Fathers before the time of Augustine. Cyril of Jerusalem posits a view which is quite similar to that of transubstantiation. Much before Cyril the Eucharist was seen as a central and necessary component of the worship of the Early Church. It was the means by which God communicated grace but also the way in which the Church expressed thanksgiving and gratitude to God.

But again, let’s suppose that it is not until Augustine’s era that the sacraments take a prominent role in the Church. We must also then realize that it is not until the council of Constantinople in 381 that the Holy Spirit is officially declared to be God. It must be clearly understood that decrees of the Ecumenical Councils were never decisions that had arisen in a vacuum or suddenly appeared. The decisions of the Councils were the result of years and years of debate and discussion about the doctrines which are absolutely essential to the nature of Christianity. In the same way, the beliefs concerning the sacraments did not suddenly emerge but are the result of development that begins extremely early in the history of the Church.

If so wouldn't we have seen Jesus talk about them more?

There is much that I wish Jesus would have discussed in greater detail. But the reality is Jesus also left us with some ambiguity regarding the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Church, the deity of the Holy Spirit, and even his own ontology. But that is one of the reasons that he promised to send the Spirit, who would guide the Church in all truth. Some of the vital aspects of the Christian faith simply are not fully addressed in Scripture. The discussion begins but does not always end with Scripture.

On final thought, you also ask if "does a church which does not practice the sacraments run the risk of eventually moving towards what can be inexpressibly called outside of the Church?"

Yes, I think it does. But to follow up (and come full circle), your questions is (near as I can tell) asking if by ceasing practicing sacraments there is a risk that churches may function outside of the broader ecclesial domain... and think that's a possible outcome and I don't know if that's a bad thing.

I think it might be helpful to have you clarify what you believe the Church to be. What I am asking is does a church (local body) which refuses to practice the sacraments run the risk of no longer being a part of the Church (holy, catholic, apostolic)? To be outside of the broader ecclesial domain is to no longer be Christian. One cannot exist as a Christian while being divorced from the Church. Perhaps you will have to define what you mean by “broader ecclesial domain.” Because historically the sacraments have been considered a part of the ontology of the Church (that is the sacraments constitute a component of the very nature of the Church), a local church which does not practice them runs the risk of ceasing to be in the Church. This is to cut that local body off from the primary means of God’s grace. That is why I am so concerned with orthodox teaching of the sacraments.

Friday, March 31, 2006

3: Sacraments as They Pertain to the Ontology of the Church

The significance of the sacraments pertaining to the ontology of the Church is what I would like to most fervently address. This aspect of sacramentalism has been placed upon dusty bookshelves by some evangelical theologians but many are re-thinking the role of sacraments in the identity of the Church.

"So what really do you mean Ben?" For those of you who are not familiar with the theological/philosophical verbosity of that previous paragraph let me bring forth clarity as I expound upon this. In order for one to understand the significance of the sacraments we must first begin with ecclesiology (the study of the Church). Most pertinent to this discussion are what are called the "Protestant Marks of the Church." These marks are 1) the preaching of the Pure Word of God; 2) the community rightly ordered; 3) the due administration of the sacraments.

The question of the place of the sacraments is intimately tied to the question of what is the Church. I am working from the assumption of the historical position of the Church that the sacraments are a component of the very identity (ontology) of the Church. Augustine and other Church Fathers were very clear that if in a local church body the sacraments were not properly administered then that "church" was not operating from the identify of the Church. It lacked a necessary component of what it means to be the Church.

It was understood from the apostolic age and throughout the Patristic period that the Church is the primary agent of God's grace to the world. The danger, therefore, of not being immersed in a local church body is paramount because by being disconnected one has cut him/herself off from the primary means of God's grace (this is one of the great dangers of the ideology of Barna's Revolution). But what happens when a person is connected with a local church body but that body does not regularly partake of the sacraments nor hold them in high esteem?

This is where we get to the crux of the question: does a church which does not practice the sacraments run the risk of eventually moving towards what can be inexpressibly called outside of the Church? I believe so. If the sacraments are essential to the ontological essence of the Church then to ignore them would be to truncate the grace dispersed by the participation in them. To voluntarily choose to not partake of the sacraments it to voluntarily choose to deny oneself of the means of grace. It should be noted that I am not saying that the sacraments are the only means of grace. In order to avoid distracting tangents I should also note that when I say the Church is God's primary means of grace to the world I mean exactly that. The Church is the primary means of grace, but not the sole means.

But back on track. Here comes the pertinent question for many evangelicals and especially for me and my Wesleyan sisters and brothers. While we partake of the sacraments, do we run the risk of gradually moving away from the "center" of the Church by the low view held in our praxy and the rarity of the participation in the sacraments? I believe so. If the Augustinian distinctive mentioned in the previous post is correct (which I perhaps should not even label as the "Augustinian" distinctive considering it appears other Fathers may hold to it as well; i.e. Cyril of Jerusalem), then it is not enough for a pastor to believe in the efficacy of the sacraments and hold a high view on his/her own. The faith of the community must also be present in order to co-operate with the grace offered in the sacraments.

How many evangelicals do you know that hold a high view of the sacraments? How many sermons have you heard on the sole purpose of communion being that of remembrance? How many messages have been related to you on the importance of "believer's baptism (which I mention only because such sermons are usually accompanied by a low view of baptism)?" Are we at risk of losing some of the essence of what it means to be the Church? I think we might be.

But what about you? What do you think?
Are the sacraments a central and necessary component of the Church's ontology? Why/why not?
If the faith of the community must be present, how can we go about changing the low view of the sacraments predominantly held by lay-people?

I would also love to hear the thoughts of those of you who may not be studying theology/Church history/biblical literature and gain your perspective.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

2: In What Manner is Grace Communicated?

I apologize for the lengthy delay of this second post. Even with Spring Break, these past few weeks have been incredibly hectic for me.

In the last post I laid out four basic views of both Baptism and the Eucharist. Emphasis was put on the mysterious reality that grace is in some way communicated through these sacraments. Inevitably the questions arises, "In what manner is this grace communicated?" There are three views I would like to put forth for discussion. I acknowledge the fact that there are other understandings and certain nuances present with each view but for the sake of brevity I have decided to post merely three.

1. Ex opere operato

This view essentially asserts that grace is guaranteed to be communicated through the sacraments. The flow of this grace is not contingent necessarily upon the faith of the individual participating in the specific sacrament but is assumed by the very nature of the sacraments. The sacraments in a sense become channels of constant flow; one must enter into this channel in order to participate in the grace thereby dispersed.

Perhaps the most prominent proponent of this view would be the modern day Roman Catholic Church. However, it can be argued that certain aspects of the praxy of evangelicals carries connotations of this view while redefining the locus of this guaranteed grace. For some evangelicals, if an individual comes to the altar and recites the "sinner's prayer" there is the assumption of the assured communication of grace. The semi-pelagian idea that one can choose to accept Christ at any moment they so delight actually bears striking resemblance to the Catholic understanding of the communication of grace through the sacraments.

2. Ex opere operantis

The basic difference in this view is that the communication of grace through the sacraments is dependent upon the faith of the individual receiving the sacraments. While St. Cyril of Jerusalem may not categorically fall here, he gives stern admonitions to those who would enter the waters of baptism with malignant motives. If one persists in these motives the regenerative effects of baptism do not accompany the person. The motives and faith of the person are paramount. It is Luther who adopts this view and emphasizes the individual aspect of participation in the sacraments. It is the faith of the individual that the efficacy of the sacrament relies in part upon.

While it will have to wait for another discussion, it should be noted that theologians such as Wesley did not believe that grace was guaranteed to be distributed by means of partaking of the sacraments. The same measure of grace is not always given to each person whom receives the Eucharist in the same service. But this digression will have to wait for another post, another day.

3. Ex opere operantis

Do not worry, I realize this is identical with the aforementioned view. However, I have seperated this perspective from the former because of an Augustinian distinction. Augustine held to this specific understanding while placing the emphasis of belief on the community rather than the individual. In other words, while faith had to be present it did not by necessity have to be the faith of the specific individual. The congregation could believe on behalf of the individual partaking of the sacrament. Not that the faith of the individual was not important to Augustine, but equally important was the faith of the accompanying gathering of believers. Faith must be present, but its locus need not solely be that of the individual.

So what do you think?
What additions would you make to these three views?
Is there any particular view not mentioned that you find insightful or important to bring to the discussion?
What might be the varying consequences of each of these views?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

1: What Does it Mean to be a Sacrament?

I think it would be appropriate to discuss the sacraments by first defining what they are. Various Christian groups interpret the sacraments differently thereby opening the door for much confusion if we were not to make clear definitions beforehand. Theopedia defines a sacrament as "a rite or ceremony instituted by Jesus, and observed by the church as a means of or visible sign of grace." The reader should understand that what I consider to be important about this definition is that a sacrament by definition communicates grace (I vehemently oppose the idea that the sacraments are merely ordinances). While the finer points of this definition can be debated and discussed, essentially this series will be operating from the theological conviction that a sacrament communicates grace. This is the orthodox position of the Church and to reduce the sacraments to ordinances is not something I'm willing to entertain.

Protestants accept two sacraments while the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church hold to seven. For the purpose of this series, the focus will be upon the two sacraments which almost all of Christians accept: baptism and the eucharist (debate over whether Protestants should accept more than the traditional two will have to wait for another day).

As it pertains to baptism and the eucharist, there are four views which predominate (thanks to Dr. Chris Bounds for the work which follows is his categorization).


Roman Catholic: "By either awakening or strengthening of faith, baptism effects regeneration." This occurs with the workings of the sacrament itself. Faith does not have to be present. The work is solely God's work in the person. Infants and adults are baptized.

Lutheran: In order for baptism to be effectual, saving faith must be exercised by the one baptized. Salvation is imparted potentially to infants, actually in adults. This position differs from the Catholic view only with respect to faith.
Infants and adults are baptized.

Reformed: Baptism is an act of faith by which we are brought into the covenant and hence experiences its benefits. Grace is imparted, but the type of grace is a mystery.
Infants and adults are baptized.

Memorial: It is simply a testimony - a profession of faith that a believer makes. The rites shows the community that the individual is now identified with Christ. There is no objective effect upon the person. Only believing adults and/or children are baptized.

The Eucharist

Roman Catholic: Through consecration of the bread and the wine, the bread changes into Christ's body and the wine changes into Christ's blood. Christ is truly and substantially present in the elements themselves. This is called transubstantiation. Communion is spiritual food for the soul and strengthens the participant.

Lutheran: The elements do not change into the presence of Christ, but he is actually present in, with, and under the elements. This is called consubstantiation. The recepient has the forgiveness of sins and the confirmation of his faith. Participation must include faith or the sacrament conveys no benefit.

Reformed: Christ is not literally present in the elements. He is spiritually present in the partaking of the elements. This is a commemoration of Christ's death that bestows grace to seal partakers in the love of Christ. The meal gives spiritual nourishment and brings a person closer to the presence of Christ.

Memorial: Christ is not present in the elements either literally or spiritually. It is a commemoration of Christ's death that reminds the partaker of the benefits of redemption and salvation brought about in Christ's death.

There certainly are various views which fall amongst these but this gives a good range for us to begin to articulate these concepts. I find it important to note that the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed view of each of these sacraments falls within orthodoxy. The memorial view does not. Considering the prevalence of the memorial view in the praxy of many evangelical churches, I find this an important point to accentuate.

Do you agree that a sacrament communicates grace? Why or why not?
Where do you fall in the spectrums delineated above?
Why is your sacramental understanding even important?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Real First Series Ever

I can honestly say that I am actually beginning the real first ever series on The Orthodoctor. The series will pursue the question of the sacraments. What is a sacrament? Why are they important? Is grace really communicated through them? Sacramental theology is by no means something to be put aside as irrelevant. The ontology of the Church is partly defined by its practice and use of the sacraments. Therefore, to dimiss them as unimportant is to reduce one's ecclesiology to less than orthodox. I am interested to see the variety of opinions that will be expressed and the reasons supporting them. Sacraments, here we come.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Feeling Inspired?

I had a wonderful conversation tonight with a peer of mine who has an incredibly bright mind. The struggle which he expressed to me is quite similar to my own struggle as I attempt to craft my theology.

Essentially, the crux of our discussion was the meaning of inspiration as it pertains to the Bible. The subject is certainly one of great significance and also one which brings forth strong reaction from those accustomed to being told that any discrepancy within the biblical text is merely alleged. To suggest otherwise would certainly make one out of sync with the typical evangelical layman's theology. My friend believes that, especially since the time of Luther, the Bible has been elevated to this place where it has assumed authority based upon the claim that it is inerrant. What is interesting to me is the manner in which my friend is wrestling with this whole issue.

There are those who would declare that what it means for the Bible to be inspired is that God dictated the text word for word to the biblical authors. Thus, any apparent discontinuity within the text is cause for alarm. I cannot imagine any reputable scholar making this claim, but this is where things begin to get hazy. The Church has, at times, used the Christological analogy when speaking of the dynamic inspiration of Scripture: just as Christ is both fully human and fully divine, so is the Bible both fully human and fully divine. How, though, is this inspiration different from the inspiration given to a pastor preaching a sermon on a given Sunday?

Here's the basic argument from my friend. We say that God inspired Scripture but we also say that God inspires preachers to preach Scripture. After preaching a sermon, a congregant can come to the pastor and say, "You were really inspired today. What you said about the hypostatic union was right on. But, what you said here was incorrect." The pastor could listen to this comment and upon studying his alleged error find that he truly is incorrect. How is it that a person can be inspired to deliver a message, and while the core of the message is good, still error therein? Why is this not also the case with the inspiration of Scripture? If Scripture is fully human as well as divine, can it not err? And do we not then run the possibility of constructing our theology upon the errors rather than the truths?

Upon investigating the clear development within both the Old and the New Testament my friend has also been left to say that much of what is recorded in the Old Testament is man's inability to correctly understand the workings of God. Does the Old Testament give us a completely distorted view of God because of the conceptual categories which the ancients were drawing from? James Dunn argues that it is quite likely that Paul potentially had semi-Arian views pertaining to Christ. Is it okay for Paul's Christology to be incomplete, and if so, is it not possible that much of what he says is in fact incomplete?

The result for my friend is placing his trust in a theological dialectic: what the Church has said throughout the ages is most trustworthy. There is certainly a true tension which exists here, one which I'm not entirely sure what to do with. I do find that the best appropriation of Scripture is seen through the eyes of Church Tradition. But important to this discussion is the value the Bible loses when large portions of the text can be seen as irrelevant and the result of man's incapacities.

So what do you think? How are we to understand the inspiration of Scripture?

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Call to Reform?

This is a "Focus Paper" for Church History II. It's another one of those assignments where you have to "fall off the log" and make statements that you may not fully agree with. Nonetheless, there is a lot in here that I like.

It is undoubtedly true that the Protestant principle which Paul Tillich speaks of is indeed a pervasive reality. Since the time of the Reformation Protestants have appealed to both Scripture and conscience almost exclusively in determining what is to constitute the Christian faith. The result is thousands of fractured, autonomous sects declaring themselves to teach the truth based solely upon Scripture and individual convictions. The damage accrued is not irreparable but requires a renewed adherence to the historical Christian narrative in order to rediscover the truths that lay at the center of Christian orthodoxy. As unfriendly as it sounds to the often myopic Protestant ear, a system of councils is preferable to the inherent dangers of the Protestant principle.

One of the central problems facing Protestant biblical interpretation is that of the locus of authority. Protestants have rejected the type of ecclesiastical authority represented by Roman Catholicism. This has resulted in a vacuum where periodically an individual will arise and determine his/her interpretation to encapsulate real Christian truth. Dissensions carry weight when there is no authority to appeal to beyond personal interpretations of the Bible. While certain levels of ecclesiastical authority remain (i.e. denominational boards) there is no central and unifying authority for Protestant Christians. This poses a problem without precedence considering historically the Church has appealed to its leaders to identify orthodoxy.

While the possibility of complete ecumenical unity is perhaps infeasible, if the Protestant Church desires to eradicate schism it may need to consider an ecclesiastical reform which would bring Protestantism into greater continuity with the Church structure of Roman Catholicism. Many of the doctrines central to the Christian faith were debated and agreed upon by Church councils in the Patristic period. The bishopry was best suited to handle matters of theology and was balanced by the number of bishops who contributed to debate. Theologians from the West and the East conjoined to participate in the development of the most monumental decisions in Christian history. In many ways we owe the orthodox interpretation of Scripture to the ecclesiastical structure of early Christianity.

The ecclesiology of the Patristic period is not immune from corruption. The gradual development of papal authority, while by no means inherently evil, leaves itself open to the abuse of power. When final authority is predominantly placed in leaders, a hierarchy forms in which the followers become victim to intentional deception. However, such structure is by no means a guarantee for eventual corruption and such an argument is not terrible effective. If Church authority remains in the univocal consensus of hundreds of Church leaders the danger of exploitation becomes significantly minimized. More concerns arise when final authority is placed in a single man. Most Protestants would use this concern as a critique of the Roman papacy without realizing that inherent within the Protestant principle is the placement of authority within individual men.

The ecclesiology that best preserves the integrity of the Christian community is one which finds consistency with the Patristic period. If the Protestant Church endeavors to eliminate useless schism and endless debate it would do well to seek to reform its own ecclesiastical structure. In reality, that which began as a call to reform has become a mandate for division.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Revision: Introduction to First Series Ever

It's a monumental moment for the history of The Orthodoctor. I am beginning, for the first time, a three part series entitled, "Why Mainstream Evangelicalism has the Power and the Potential to Become One of the Most Dangerous Heretical Sects in Christian History." It's a long title, but one with a punch. Essentially, I am going to briefly evaluate mainstream evangelicalism based upon the Protestant marks of the Church; 1) the preaching of the pure Word of God, 2) due administration of the sacraments, 3) the community rightly ordered. The three posts will be divided into these three categories. So, put on your theology caps and let's get underway as your input will be greatly appreciated.

After careful consideration I have decided to forego this series for the moment. I have decided that my initial intent was designed in such a way as to invite vast and varied misinterpretations and therefore unintended negative repercussions. Perhaps I will make some changes and return; probably not. Instead, I have some other ideas floating in my head. Bear with me, as I hope to articulate them soon.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Amazing Grace

Last week I read a book entitled "Honor, Patronage, Kingship, and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture," by David A. deSilva. He discusses at length the social-context of the word grace as well as the importance of honor, kinship, and purity in the first century culture. The book is incredibly accessible and readable yet is powerfully academic and provides much needed insight into the usage of grace in the New Testament.

We tend to think of the word grace as being a uniquely religious word. When we speak of grace it virtually always has overt religious overtones. But in the first century, and for the writers of the New Testament, grace was not primarily a religious word. In fact, grace was a word that was used in everyday life and one which found its most important significance for us in the system of patronage and reciprocity. A patron was a person who provided gifts to a client. Usually, but not always, a client was a person who did not have access to the means which the patron did. At times the client would seek a patron for help financially, other times a client would seek a patron in order to communicate with an even greater patron. The patron in between would act as a mediator between his client and the greater patron.

There were certain societal rules that dictated how the patron-client relationship operated. While there weren’t any legal ramifications for breaking these rules, there certainly were social consequences. Many ancient philosophers discussed in length how such a relationship was to be conducted. It is within this relationship that we find the usage of the word grace. A patron was to give a gift without expecting anything in return. The gift was to be given solely for the benefit of the client. If the patron gave with ulterior motives he gave dishonorable. Showing such generosity meant the patron was showing grace. He gave grace to a client. The client was expected to receive the gift, or grace, and respond in gratitude. This gratitude was called grace. The patron gave grace and the client who received this grace was expected to return grace to the patron. Of course, the return of grace would be different than the gift from the patron himself. The client was expected to spread the name and honor of the patron and also seek to repay the patron in whatever manner possible. An honorable patron would “forget” that he had given a gift and the client was to never forget, always knowing that he would never be able to repay the gift of grace from the patron.

If the client did not show gratitude he was deemed an ingrate and this was something to be greatly avoided in that culture which operated by means of honor and shame. It also meant that the client may have difficulty developing a relationship with a future patron. Patrons were advised by the philosophers to avoid entering a relationship with a client who had a history of ingratitude. The philosopher Seneca wrote, “Ingratitude is something to be avoided in itself because there is nothing that so effectually disrupts and destroys the harmony of the human race as this vice. For how else do we live in security if it is not that we help each other by an exchange of good offices? It is only through the interchange of benefits that life becomes in some measure equipped and fortified against sudden disasters. Take us singly, and what are we? The prey of all creatures.”

The New Testament authors use grace in such a way as to view God as our patron, and we as his clients. Grace, for the New Testament authors, does not operate differently than in the patron-client relationship, but rather it differs in degree and quality. God’s grace is wholly grander than any earthly patron could ever give. As clients, we are expected to return grace for grace.

Layman, pastor, professor, or student, all should read this book. Seriously, go buy it right now.

So what do you think? How does the social-context of grace illuminate the manner in which the New Testament authors used and understood the concept?
Is there any connection in our current doctrines of grace that resemble this context?
In what ways has the development of the doctrine of grace been beneficial or perhaps erroneous?