Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Marvellous mixture of well-being and woe

    During our lifetime here we have in us a marvelous mixture of both well-being and woe.  We have in us our risen Lord Jesus Christ, and we have in us the wretchedness and the harm of Adam's falling. Dying, we are constantly protected by Christ, and by the touching of his grace we are raised to true trust in salvation.  And we are so afflicted in our feelings by Adam's falling in various ways, by sin and by different pains, and in this we are made dark and so blind that we can scarcely accept any comfort.  But in our intention we wait for God, and trust faithfully to have mercy and grace; and this is his own working in us, and in his goodness he opens the eye of our understanding, by which we have sight, sometimes more and sometimes less, according to the ability God gives us to receive.  And now we are raised to the one, and now we are permitted to fall to the other.  And so that mixture is so marvellous in us that we scarcely know, about ourselves or about our fellow Christians, what condition we are in, these conflicting feelings are so extraordinary, except for each holy act of assent to God which we make when we feel him, truly willing with all our heart to be with him, and with all our soul and with all our might.  And then we hate and despise our evil inclinations, and everything which could be an occasion of spiritual and bodily sin.  And even so, when this sweetness is hidden, we fall again into blindness, and so in various ways into woe and tribulation.  But then this is our comfort, that we know in our faith that by the power of Christ who is our protector we never assent to that, but we complain about it, and endure in pain and in woe, praying until the time that he shows himself again to us.  And so we remain in this mixture all the days of our life; but he wants us to trust that he is constantly with us, and that in three ways.
    He is with us in heaven, true man in his own person, drawing us up....And he is with us on earth, leading us....And he is with us in our soul, endlessly dwelling, ruling and guarding...."

                             - Julian of Norwich, Showings (long text), 14 Revelation, Ch. 52

Saturday, 14 October 2017

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well...

On one occasion our good Lord said: Every kind of thing will be well; and on another occasion he said: You will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well.  And from these two the soul gained different kinds of understanding.  One was this: that he wants us to know that he takes heed not only of things which are noble and great, but also of those which are little and small, of humble men and simple, of this man and that man.  And this is what he means when he says: Every kind of thing will be well.  For he wants us to know that the smallest thing will not be forgotten.  Another understanding is this: that there are many deeds which in our eyes are so evilly done and lead to such great harms that it seems to us impossible that any good result could ever come of them.  And we contemplate this and sorrow and mourn for it so that we cannot rest in the blessed contemplation of God as we ought to do.  And the cause is this: that the reason which we use is now so blind, so abject and so stupid that we cannot recognize God's exalted, wonderful wisdom, or the power and the goodness of the blessed Trinity.  And this is his intention when he says: You will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well, as if he said: Accept it now in faith and trust, and in the very end you will see truly, in fullness of joy.

                              - Julian of Norwich, Showings (long text), 32nd Chapter

Friday, 6 October 2017

The shape of Christ's life is the shape of the Christian's life - St. Augustine

All the events, then, of Christ's crucifixion, of His burial, of His resurrection the third day, of His ascension into heaven, of His sitting down at the right hand of the Father, were so ordered, that the life which the Christian leads here might be modeled upon them, not merely in a mystical sense, but in reality.  For in reference to His crucifixion it is said: "They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh, with the affections and lusts" (Gal. 5:24). And in reference to His burial: "We are buried with Him by baptism into death" (Rom. 6:4). In reference to His resurrection: "That, like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:5). And in reference to His ascension into heaven and sitting down at the right hand of the Father: "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your live is hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:1-3).

                                     - St. Augustine, Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love, LIII.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Bernard of Claivaux on 'present day' lukewarmness about Christ...

"When I reflect, as I often do, on the ardor with which the patriarchs longed for the incarnation of Christ, I am pierced with sorrow and shame.  And now I can scarcely contain my tears, so ashamed am I of the lukewarmness and lethargy of the present times.  For which of us is filled with joy at the realization of this grace as the holy men of old were moved to desire by the promise of it?"

                                    - Bernard of Clairvaux,  
                                      Sermons on the Song of Songs, 2.I.1,
                                      preached between 1135 -1153 AD

Friday, 29 September 2017

Two things accomplished by Christ's sacrifice

"For by the sacrifice of His own body [Christ] did two things: He put an end to the law of death which barred our way; and He made a new beginning of life for us, by giving us the hope of resurrection.  By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made Man death has been destroyed and life raised up anew.  That is what Paul says, that true servant of Christ: 'For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.  Just as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive' [1 Cor. 15:21ff], and so forth.  Now, therefore, when we die we no longer do so as men condemned to death, but as those who are even now in process of rising we await the general resurrection of all, 'which in its own times He shall show' [1 Tim. 6:15], even God Who wrought it and bestowed it on us."

                          - St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation, II.10

Friday, 15 September 2017

Irenaeus on Patient Maturing

Irenaeus, writing to refute the Gnostics who sought perfection and godhood through secret "knowledge" based on their false myths and false interpretations of Scripture, encourages instead that the clay allow itself to be shaped by the Potter into a form which displays the character of the Potter:
"How can you be a god when you have not yet become a man?  How can you be perfect when you have only just been made?  How can you be immortal when, in your mortal nature, you do not obey your Maker?  You must hold the rank of man before you partake of the glory of God.  You did not make God; God made you.  If you are the handiwork of God, await the Craftsman's hand patiently; He does everything at a favourable time, favourable, that is, to you, whom He made.  Offer him your heart, pliant and unresisting.  Preserve the form in which the Craftsman fashioned you.  Keep within you the Water which comes from Him; without it, you harden and lose the imprint of His fingers.  By preserving the structure, you will ascend to perfection; God's artistry will conceal the clay within you.  His hand formed your substance; He will coat you, within and without, in pure gold and silver; He will adorn you so well that 'the King himself will delight in your beauty' (Ps. 44:12).  But if you harden and reject his artistry, if you show Him your displeasure at being made a man, your ingratitude to God will lose you both His artistry and His life.  Making is a property of God's generosity; being made is a property of man's nature.  If, therefore, you hand over to Him what is yours, faith in Him and subjection to Him, you will receive the benefit of His artistry and be God's perfect work of art.  If, on the other hand, you resist Him and flee from His hands, the cause of your imperfection will lie in you...The light does not fail because of those who have blinded themselves; it remains the same, while the blinded are plunged in darkness by their own fault.  Light never forces itself on anyone, nor does God use compulsion on anyone who refuses to accept His artistry."
                                                            - The Scandal of the Incarnation, IV 39, 2-3

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

God can only be known through God

Irenaeus (b. circa 130 AD), writing to refute the Gnostic heretics in The Scandal of the Incarnation, says:
"No one can know the Father without the Word of God, that is to say, unless the Son reveals Him, nor can one know the Son without the good pleasure of the Father (cf Matt. 11:26ff).    IV 6,3
"The Son leads men to the Father, but the Father reveals to them the Son."    III 13,2
"...Lavishly, ungrudgingly, He has granted men to know God the Father through adoption and to love Him wholeheartedly..."  IV 16,5
"Read the prophets carefully, and you will find that all the actions, all the teaching, all the sufferings of the Lord have been foretold by them.  Now it may be that the question will come into your mind: Did the Lord bring us anything new by His coming?  The answer is this: He brought us all newness by bringing Himself, who had been foretold."    IV 34,1
"Everything became new when the Word, in a new dispensation, came in the flesh to win back to God man who had gone off from God.  Thus men were taught to worship, not a different God, but the same God in a new way."    III 10,2

Monday, 24 July 2017

Being and becoming the Beloved

In his book, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, Henri Nouwen speaks of the words the Father spoke of Jesus at his baptism:
"No sooner had Jesus come up out of the water than he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit, like a dove, descending on him.  And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you.'"
This has been historically recognized as the same thing God speaks in the baptism of all Christians: "You are my beloved daughter/son; my favour rests on you."  But Nouwen notes that, while this is true - God's children are his beloved - there is also a process by which we must become the beloved, become what we are.
"Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply.  It is like discovering a well in the desert.  Once you have touched wet ground, you want to dig deeper." 
"Being the Beloved is the origin and the fulfillment of the life of the Spirit.  I say this because, as soon as we catch a glimpse of that truth, we are put on a journey in search of the fullness of that truth and we will not rest until we can rest in that truth.  From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are.  Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make.  Augustine's words: "My soul is restless until it rests in you, O God," capture well this journey.
Becoming what we are sounds very Pauline, like knowing we are justified but leaning into that justification by keeping in step with the Spirit on the pilgrimage of sanctification.  The first half of most of his epistles remind us who we are in Christ and the second half encourage and exhort us to become who we are by putting off who we used to be and putting on and living out our new life in Christ, the new life of the Spirit.
"Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say or do.  It entails a long and painful process of appropriation or, better, incarnation.  As long as "being the Beloved" is little more than a beautiful thought or a lofty idea that hangs above my life to keep me from becoming depressed, nothing really changes.  What is required is to become the Beloved in the commonplaces of my daily existence and, bit by bit, to close the gap that exists between what I know myself to be and the countless realities of everyday life.  Becoming the Beloved is pulling the truth revealed to me from above down into the ordinariness of what I am, in fact, thinking of, talking about and doing from hour to hour."
"When our deepest truth is that we are the Beloved and when our greatest joy and peace come from fully claiming that truth, it follows that this has to become visible and tangible in the ways we eat and drink, talk and love, play and work.  When the deepest currents of our life no longer have any influence on the waves at the surface, then our vitality will eventually ebb, and we will end up listless and bored even when we are busy."
James would agree with this sentiment, for our faith is no real faith if it is not lived out in the things we do, the words we say and the thoughts we think.  John would say that we cannot claim to know God unless we love each other.  In other words our relationship with God must manifest in how we interact with people in all of life.  As Paul would say, "whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."  We must grow into the fullness of who we are in Christ and that means manifesting that fullness in the little everyday things during which we often don't really think about or realize our status as God's Beloved.

"...I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith--that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."  - Ephesians 3:14-19
"To identify the movements of the Spirit in our lives, I have found it helpful to use four words: taken, blessed, broken and given.  These words summarize my life as a priest because each day, when I come together around the table with members of my community, I take bread, bless it, break it and give it.  These words also summarize my life as a Christian because, as a Christian, I am called to become bread for the world: bread that is taken, blessed, broken and given.  Most importantly, however, they summarize my life as a human being because in every moment of my life somewhere, somehow the taking, the blessing, the breaking and the giving are happening....these four words....are the keys to understanding not only the lives of the great prophets of Israel and the life of Jesus of Nazareth, but also our own lives."
 "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God."  - Ephesians 5:1-2

Thursday, 20 July 2017

"Federal Vision" theology and practice

A few people have asked me lately what "Federal Vision" theology (FV) is and is not. 

Below are some links that I hope are helpful.  FV is not monolithic.  There are probably as many variations of this form of Reformed and Covenantal theology as there are people within it.  It also ought to be noted that the critics of so-called FV theology do not themselves agree with each other on their own positions (what they consider to be confessional orthodoxy) or always on the aspects of FV that they agree or disagree with.  And it also should be noted that many of these debates (like the nature of the covenant, the nature of the sacraments, etc.) have been going on for a very long time - some since the Reformation and some since way before that.  FV proponents are, in my estimation, Evangelical and Reformed people who are engaged in and learning from the historic and present conversations of  the broader universal Christian church. 

Here is a joint statement on the major tenets of FV theology.
Here is some helpful context on the broader motivations of FV theological conversation.
And here is wikipedia's entry.

Note:  FV is not the same as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) though there would be some within the FV perspective that would agree with some aspects of the NPP.  Anyone who continues to say these two things are necessarily linked does not understand either one of them.  Most proponents of NPP have never heard of the Federal Vision since the NPP is primarily an academic conversation among New Testament scholars on 2nd Temple Judaism's understanding of Torah and God's covenant relationship with Israel (among other things).  Incidentally, the NPP is also widely variant and should probably be called instead the New Perspectives (plural) on Paul. 

Friday, 9 June 2017

Paul on sin, from Romans

...Sin, as Paul speaks of it, is not first of all a moral category but a religious one.  He does not suggest that every pagan and Jew is locked in vice.  He would grant - if pushed to it - that both Jews and Greeks could be virtuous.  Immorality is a sign and consequence of sin, but it is not sin itself.  The opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.  Thus, sin and faith are the two fundamental responses of a human being to God: "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (14:23).  In such contrasts, Paul speaks of sin in the singular, because it is a rebellion found not in multiple acts of moral failure, but in a basic disposition, or orientation, of human freedom.  It is a turning away from God. 

     At root, sin is the disposition that strives to establish one's own existence and value apart from the claims of the creator God.  It is a refusal to acknowledge contingency and dependency on an absolute other; it is idolatry.  This disposition is what Paul terms "life according to the flesh," for it measures reality apart from the transcendence of the spirit.  He calls it boasting, for it involves a self-aggrandizement that asserts the value of the self at the expense of others.  Refusing that side of contingency that is the gift of being from another, idolaters seek to construct life and worth out of their effort, in effect establishing themselves as the god of their own lives.   This requires such ceaseless toil and vigilance that, combined with the darkening of the mind that results, it leads to slavery.  If the human person is locked in this orientation, then morality, virtue, and even the observance of Torah's commandments can be an expression of sin.  They all can articulate the human attempt to establish life and worth on one's own terms.  Virtue can therefore be a source of boasting over another person who is immoral.  But such judgment is itself a hostile expression of the flesh, and an expression of sin (2:1-3).  Likewise, observance of God's commandments can become a form of boasting (2:23), as one attempts to achieve righteousness apart from God's granting of it. 

     Through all this Paul virtually makes sin into a personified entity, giving it at times an almost mythical coloration (see 5:12-14).  This is because he views human freedom as being inevitably in allegiance with, and in service to, some greater spiritual force, either the spiritual systems of idolatry or of the one true God (6:15-23).  But the capacity for choice remains as a potential, even when the human being is "enslaved" by the "power of sin."  If liberated by the gift of knowledge and love from the Other who was once refused, the human being can be made truly free in faith.

            - Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 3rd ed., p. 309

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The reorientation of worship

Common worship, the congregation gathered in worship on the Lord's Day, is the fundamental structure for the nurture of spirituality and the practice of prayer.  But in North America we have experienced a century of subversive anti-worship: the sacred time and place have been subverted to religious entertainment, to the cultivation of pious narcissism, to a staging platform for messianic do-goodism.  But the fundamental need is to attend to God.  Christians are assigned the responsibility of meeting with their brothers and sisters regularly at a time and space set apart for that purpose, and that only.  If we use this precious hour for other purposes, however well intentioned, we betray our friends, our community, and our calling.

     The single most important thing I did for thirty-five years was stand before a congregation each Sunday morning and say, "Let us worship God."  I loved doing that, loved the hours spent getting ready to do it, loved entering into the action that followed.  And then my vocation took an unexpected turn and I wasn't doing it any longer. 

     What I've done for others all these years, I'm now having done for me -- and how I do appreciate it.  Every call to worship is a call into the Real World.  You'd think that by this time in my life I wouldn't need to be called anymore.  But I do.  I encounter such constant and widespread lying about reality each day and meet with such skilled and systematic distortion of the truth that I'm always in danger of losing my grip on reality.  The reality, of course, is that God is sovereign and Christ is savior.  The reality is that prayer is my mother tongue and the eucharist my basic food.  The reality is that baptism, not Myers-Briggs, defines who I am.

     Very often when I leave a place of worship, the first impression I have of the so-called "outside world" is how small it is -- how puny its politics, paltry is appetites, squint-eyed its interests.  I have just spent an hour or so with friends reorienting myself in the realities of the world -- the huge sweep of salvation and the minute particularities of holiness -- and I blink my eyes in disbelief that so many are willing to live in such reduced and cramped conditions.  But after a few hours or days, I find myself getting used to it and going along with its assumptions, since most of the politicians and journalists, artists and entertainers, stockbrokers and shoppers seem to assume that it's the real world.  And then some pastor or priest calls me back to reality with "Let us worship God," and I get it straight again, see it whole.

         -Eugene H. Peterson, Take & Read: Spiritual Reading:  An Annotated List, 27-28.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

On using Prayerbooks and Hymnbooks

     I was reared in a tradition that scorned written and read prayers.  Book prayers.  Dead prayers.  Reading a prayer would have been like meeting an old friend on the street, quickly leafing through a book to find an appropriate greeting suitable for the meeting and then reading, "Hello, old friend; it is good to see you again.  How have you been?  Remember me to your family.  Well, I must be on my way now.  Goodbye."  And then closing the book and going down the street without once looking my friend in the eye.  Ludicrous.  The very nature of prayer required that it be spontaneous and from the heart.

     But along the way, I began to come across books of prayers that gave me words to pray when I didn't seen to have any of my own.  I found that books of prayers sometimes primed the pump of prayer when I didn't feel like praying.  And I found that, left to myself, I often prayed in a circle, too wrapped up in myself, too much confined to my immediate circumstances and feelings, and that a prayerbook was just the thing to get out of the brambles and underbrush of my ego, back out in the open country of the Kingdom, under the open skies of God. 

     In the process of discovering, to my surprise, alive and praying friends in these books, I realized that all along the prayers that had most influenced me were written (in the Bible), and that the lively and spirited singing we did in church was, for the most part, praying from a book, the hymnbook.  My world of prayer expanded.

             - from Eugene H. Peterson, Take & Read: Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List, 22-23.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter Sunday, 2017

Once again, from Peter Leithart at Theopolis.

Easter Sunday, 2017
At twilight on the first Easter, two disciples of Jesus were traveling on the road toward the town of Emmaus. They had fled Jerusalem to escape the Jews. They talked excitedly about the strange things they had heard and seen.
Suddenly, Jesus joined them and asked what they were talking about.
They told Jesus His life story – how He was a prophet mighty in deed and in the sight of God, a new Moses; how they hoped He would redeem Israel; how He had been seized and executed. They even told Jesus the story of the resurrection.

They knew the entire gospel story, but they were still too dejected and frightened for mission. They knew the whole gospel story, but they didn’t recognize Jesus.
Jesus started telling Bible stories, from Genesis, through all the Prophets and Psalms. All the way through, He taught them that everything in the Scriptures was about His suffering and glory.
The word wasn’t enough. Jesus’ presence wasn’t enough. They recognized Jesus only when He broke bread. Then, like Adam and Eve, their eyes were opened and they saw Jesus.
Then everything changed. They were fleeing Jerusalem, but now they return. They had left the other disciples, but now they rejoin them. They were perplexed about the resurrection, but now they become witnesses.
If we want to join the mission of the Risen Jesus, we need the whole Bible burning in our hearts. And we need the broken bread, the tree of life that opens our eyes to see that the risen Jesus is with us.
                                                                         - Peter Leithart
...HE is RISEN.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Holy Saturday

Collect for Holy Saturday:
Grant, O Lord, that as we are baptized into the death of thy blessed Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, so by continual mortifying our corrupt affections we may be buried with him; and that, through the grave, and gate of death, we may pass to our joyful resurrection; for his merits, who died, and was buried, and rose again for us, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
-  With 1 Peter 3:17-22 and Matthew 27:57-66

"Easter Even or Holy Saturday," From the Anglican The Book of Common Prayer, 1962 Canada, p. 180-181, 

Friday, 14 April 2017

Good Friday, 2017

Again, from Peter Leithart at Theopolis...

Good Friday, 2017

From the cross, Jesus cries, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s from Psalm 22, but the Jews say He’s calling for Elijah. Are they so dull they can no longer recognize Scripture?
More likely, they mean it in mockery. Our Old Testament ends with a promise of a new Elijah who brings “the great and terrible day of Yahweh” (Malachi 4:5). The Jews pretend that Jesus cries for Judgment Day and new creation. “Let’s see if Elijah comes,” they joke.
Does Elijah come? Is the cross Judgment Day and new creation, the “great and terrible day of the Lord”? You bet it is.
When Jesus dies, He hands over His Spirit, fulfilling the promise of the prophets. When He dies, the veil of the temple is torn, fulfilling the Jewish hope to enter God’s presence. When He dies, there’s an earthquake, a sign that God will shake until only permanent things stand.
Israel has been hoping for resurrection, and as soon as Jesus dies, graves open and dead saints appear in Jerusalem. Israel has been hoping for the conversion of the nations, and when Jesus dies a centurion confesses Jesus as the Son of God.
Everything the Jews have been hoping for begins to happen, or happens in symbol, at the cross. “Let’s see if Elijah will save Him,” the Jews say. “Let’s see if His death will bring in the end times.” It did. And it does.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Maundy Thursday, 2017

Peter Leithart's thoughts on Maundy Thursday:

Christians often focus on the intense physical suffering Jesus endured on the cross. During crucifixion, a victim’s body was torn with nails and his limbs stretched, as he slowly suffocated. Think of Matthias Grunewald’s angular, contorted Jesus.
The gospel writers pay little attention to Jesus’ pain. They understood that Romans reserved crucifixion for slaves and rebels. Crosses displayed Roman power while humiliating anyone bold enough to challenge it. Jesus’ suffering is social and political, not merely physical.
Luke’s account of the crucifixion is organized to highlight just this point. He places the mockery of the crowd at the center of a chiasm:

A. Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus' cross, 23:26
    B. Women follow Jesus, beating their breasts, 23:27-31
            C. Criminals crucified with Jesus, 23:32-33
                      D. Jesus forgives mockery and abuse, 23:34-38
            C’. One criminal mocks Jesus, the other
                  believes, 23:39-43
    B’. Events of Jesus’ death lead crowd to beat their breasts;
          women stand at a distance, 23:44-49
A’. Joseph of Arimethea puts Jesus in his own tomb, 23:50-56
The mockery doesn’t stand. At Jesus’ trial, “the people” joined the rulers to demand His death. At the cross, though, Simon and Joseph take Jesus’ side. One of the crucified criminals believes. When Jesus dies, “the multitudes” return to the city beating their breasts in fear and sorrow.
By forgiving His abusers, Jesus shatters the alliance of Romans, people, and chief priests. By showing mercy, He turns political shame into triumph and turns mockery into repentance.
(I received this meditation via email from Theopolis Institute as I am on their mailing list...otherwise I would have linked to it.)

Monday, 27 March 2017

Do you have a 'boring testimony'?

I used to think that being raised in a Christian home and not having had a time in my life when I went (outwardly, openly) AWOL gave me a 'boring testimony.'  I was always amazed at stories of people who had been drug-dealing, gun-running, bank-robbing, biker gang members (or even just had given up on the faith and walked away from God), but then God's grace reached down and grabbed hold of them when they had sunken to their lowest and brought them back, like forlorn prodigals returning to the loving father.  Thanks to some mature mentors in my life, I long ago quit seeing the testimony of those whom God's grace has preserved from straying as any less an act of mercy than God's many dramatic rescues of out-and-out rebels.  Of course, in neither case can people take credit for their walk with or return to God.  It is God's gracious love for both the wayward son who returns and the older son who has always had the father's love and blessing that gets the credit.

Reading St. Augustine's Confessions a few years back, I came upon a passage that says it so well.  (The Confessions are written as an extended prayer to/conversation with God.)
What man who reflects upon his own weakness can dare to claim that his own efforts have made him chaste and free from sin, as though this entitled him to love you the less, on the ground that he had less need of the mercy by which you forgive the sins of the penitent?  There are some who have been called by you and because they have listened to your voice they have avoided the sins which I here record and confess for them to read.  But let them not deride me for having been cured by the same Doctor who preserved them from sickness, or at least from such grave sickness as mine.  Let them love you just as much, or even more, than I do, for they can see that the same healing hand which rid me of the great fever of my sins protects them from falling sick of the same disease.
                                                                                     - Confessions, Book II, Chapter 7

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Doctrine of Original Sin, or: "If we are lost, then we are lost together"

When Blue Rodeo wrote the lyrics to their song, Lost Together (quoted in the title to this post), they likely weren't thinking about the Christian doctrine of original sin, although considering a couple of the other lines, it does seem to fit quite well.  What "perfect world" is the singer referring to when he looks into his lover's eyes?  The world is broken somehow, for "so much [is] controlled by so few," and we are all "stumbling from one disaster to another."  It makes one wonder if the "shooting star" the singer sees near the end of the song, the sight of which makes him conclude that, "somehow it all makes sense," might actually be Satan plummeting from heaven.  Could the fact of these lover's relationship indicate that love is the force that ultimately does overcome sin?  "And I want all the world to know, that your love's all I need, all that I need.  And if we're lost, then we are lost together."  Nah, that's probably not what they were thinking when they wrote the song.  It was a fun thought experiment, though.

Alan Jacobs is talking about original sin, however, and its leveling or equalizing effect.  While not denying the equally biblical doctrine of humanity as created in the image of God, Jacobs posits an interesting theory: "that a belief in original sin serves as a kind of binding agent, a mark of 'the confraternity of the human type,' an enlistment of us all in what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy called the 'universal democracy of sinners.'" 
 “By contrast [to the doctrine that all of humanity is created in the image of God], the doctrine of original sin works with the feeling that most of us have, at least some of the time, of being divided against ourselves, falling short of the mark, inexplicably screwing up when we ought to know better.  It takes relatively little imagination to look at another person and think that, though that person is not all he or she might be, neither am I.  It is true that not everyone can do this:  the Duchess of Buckingham couldn’t.  (“It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth.”) [Responding to evangelical teaching that everyone, regardless of class, is a sinner in need of repentance.]  But in general it is easier for most of us to condescend, in the etymological sense of the word—to see ourselves as sharing shortcomings or sufferings with others—than to lift up people whom our culturally formed instincts tell us are decidedly inferior to ourselves.  If misery does not always love company, it surely tolerates it quite well, whereas pride demands distinction and hierarchy, and is ultimately willing to pay for those in the coin of isolation.  That the doctrine of a common creation in the image of God doesn’t do more to help build human community and fellow feeling could be read as yet more evidence for the reality of original sin.”
                                    -   Alan Jacobs, Original Sin: A Cultural History, p. 200-01

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Gospel, according to the gospels and the epistles...

If you can see past the Wrightian over-generalizations, there is a good corrective here:
     Christians, particularly in the Western world, have for a long time been divided between "epistles people" and "gospels people."  The "epistles people" have thought of Christianity primarily in terms of Jesus's death and resurrection "saving us from our sins."  The "gospels people" have thought primarily in terms of following Jesus in feeding the hungry, helping the poor, and so on.  The "epistles people" have often found it difficult to give a clear account of what was going on in Jesus's kingdom-announcement and his call to his followers to be "perfect."  The "gospels people"--or perhaps we should say the "beginning-of-the-gospels-people," since the line of thought they embrace usually screens out the last few chapters--have often found it difficult to explain why the Jesus who was doing these remarkable things had to die, and die so soon.  They have often found it difficult, in consequence, to relate to the central themes of Pauling theology. 
     This either/or split does no justice, in fact, to either the epistles or the gospels.  Still less does it do justice to Jesus himself.  For him, the kingdom which he inaugurated could be firmly established only through his death and resurrection.  Or, to put it the other way around, the main purpose of his death and resurrection was to establish the kingdom he had already begun to inaugurate.  The way the gospel writers tell the story of Jesus's death, with prolonged sections of preliminary teaching followed by quite detailed accounts of the "hearings" before the chief priests and the Roman governor, was chosen not for the sake of "local color" or mere historical reminiscence tacked on to the front of an event (the actual crucifixion) whose theological "meaning" must be culled from elsewhere.  The "meaning" of the cross, in the gospels, is that it is the execution of the kingdom-bringer, the one who gathers up the "royal" and "priestly" vocations of Israel and of all the human race, the one who at the same time embodies Israel's God coming to establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven.  The famous passages which encapsulate what later writers have thought of as "atonement theology" (such as Mark 10.45: "The son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many") are interpretive clues to understand one key dimension of what the whole story is about, not the superimposition of a supposedly "Pauline" theology (about Jesus "dying for our sins") on a narrative which is basically "about" something else.
     Likewise, for Paul the death and resurrection of Jesus did not accomplish merely a "supernatural" salvation having nothing to do with God's rescue of creation....for Paul the whole point of the achievement of Jesus and his death and resurrection is that, through Jesus, a redeemed people has come to birth, and that through this people the creator will ultimately set the whole world to rights. The point of it all is "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5.17; Galatians 6.15).  The gospels, the epistles, and Revelations itself "work" only when you see them as detailed elaborations of the large, complex, but utterly coherent story we sketched earlier: the call of Human to be God's image-bearer into creation, the call of Israel to be the rescuer of Human, and the vocation of Jesus to be the one who, completing Israel's task, rescues Human so that, through redeemed humankind, the whole creation can be liberated from its corruption and death and the project of new creation decisively launched.  Shrink this narrative, or leave out one or more key stages within it, and you will never understand the New Testament as a whole, still less its call to learn the habits of heart and mind that anticipate the final goal.
                                                                - N.T. Wright, After You Believe, p. 110-12.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Soul formation and care in the Psalter

"...the anatomy of all the parts of the soul, for not an affection will anyone find in himself whose image is not reflected in this mirror.  All the griefs, sorrows, fears, misgivings, hopes, cares, anxieties, in short all the disquieting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated, the Holy Spirit hath here pictured exactly."

                           - John Calvin, from the preface to his commentary on the Psalms

"The canonical shape of the Psalter assured the future generations of Israelites that this book spoke a word of God to each of them in their need.  It was not only a record of the past, but a living voice speaking to the present human suffering.  By taking seriously the canonical shape the reader is given an invaluable resource for the care of souls, as the synagogue and church have always understood the Psalter to be."

             - Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 523

"...the psalms have much to say about behavior, about what actions please God and what he hates, so that anyone praying them is simultaneously being taught an ethic.  Those who use the psalms as prayers are often not aware of this aspect, but...this is one of the most potent forms of ethical indoctrination."

         - Gordon J. Wenham, Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically, p. 2

"In the other books we are taught by both precept and example what we ought to do.  This book not only teaches but also gives the means and method by which we may keep the precept and follow the example."

                                                     - Martin Luther, from his Preface to the Psalter

"Whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill."

               - from "The Letter of St. Athanasius to Marcellinus on the Interpretation
                          of the Psalms," in On the Incarnation

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Bonhoeffer for our cultural/political moment

"Through all this [his resistance to Nazism and the compromising German church], Bonhoeffer wrote theology - sermons, lectures, circular letters, and books.  In a very great degree his writing is characterized by beautiful iterations of doctrine, a sort of visionary orthodoxy:  'History lives between promise and fulfillment.  It carries the promise within itself, to become full of God, the womb of the birth of God.'  To understand his method, one must remember his circumstances.  He is asserting the claims of Christ in all their radicalism in order to encourage and reassure those drawn to what became the Confessing Church.  At the same time, he is chastising those who use Christianity as an escape from the evils of the world and from the duties those evils imply, and he is chastising those who have accommodated their religion to the prevailing culture so thoroughly as to have made the prevailing culture their religion.  His object is to make core beliefs immediate and compelling, to forbid the evasions of transcendence and of acculturation.  He is using the scandal of the cross to discover the remnant church among the multitudes of the religious."

                                            -   Marilynne Robinson, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer", from
                                         The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought,  p.115-16

Who is doing this today?   How are they doing it?   If no one is, who will and how ought it be done?

Saturday, 28 January 2017


“Post-Christendom is the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence.”  
                                                                                                             - Stuart Murray

I would add a potential alternative reading:

Post-Christendom is the culture that emerges as the Christian beliefs and convictions upon which a society was based are consciously rejected, even while that society retains the institutions built by Christianity and even many (or most) of the moral presuppositions of Christianity, but retains them at such a subconscious level that they are not apparent to that society.  The post-Christian society consciously reacts to and rejects the Christian foundations upon which their functioning society was built and to which they ultimately and originally owe their existence, but doesn't see that what they are replacing that foundation with won't support the weight of their society.  Something like an angry teenager yelling at their parents, "I don't need you", but continuing to receive an allowance while they live in the security of the house their parents built.  Its only a matter of time before the teenager leaves home or the parents die and the brutal truth dawns upon them:  homes like that don't build themselves. 

Friday, 20 January 2017

Darkness and Light

"There is sufficient light for those who wish to see, and sufficient darkness for those of the opposite disposition.  Enough clarity to illumine the elect, and enough darkness to keep them humble.  Sufficient darkness to blind the reprobate, and sufficient clarity to condemn them and make them inexcusable."
                                                                                     - Blaise Pascal