Thursday, June 11, 2009

Update on my Romans 11 piece

Posted by Ogden (I am doing it this way, because I realise not everyone is going to go all the way to the end of the post to see who posted. And I have tried everything to get this template to let the author's by-line appear at the top. This will have to do until I can figure that out)

I'm completely rewriting it. Now that Pr. Lehmann and I have made peace, it seems petty to do a yeah-boo piece. So instead I am rewriting it to show forth my methodology in reading the Pauline Corpus in general (with the chapter being the specific instance). Fear not, copious reference to Scripture abounds.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Let us have an end to Dispensationalism

Among Protestants, there has arisen a dangerous and foolhardy school of thought known as dispensationalism, which has morphed from a known radical theology accepted only by the most radical anti-tradition, anti-clerical, anti-denominational versions of protestantism into a a cause celebre of the non-denominational-loving, pithy worship music playing, cheesy pre-school like slogan using, and soon to be all tongues-speaking "evangelical" movement.

Dispensationalism consists of meaningless speculation on past events, combined with downright dangerous speculation of future events. It originated with the Plymouth Brethren, a group that, like most dispensationalist groups that followed, lacked historical perspective and theological grounding. The Plymouth Brethren were a restorationist group, believing that they could, somehow, recreate the atmosphere of the 1st century church by ignoring everything but the Bible, believing that a 1st century book could be understood by an 18th and 19th century people without any kind of hermeneutical training. The restorationists quite frequently devolved into heresies, often similar to heresies that were already discussed and defeated.

They rejected salaries ministers, meaning that their teachers lacked theological training. It is out of this atmoshphere of ignorance that dispensationalism(and later Pentecostalism) arose.

Let us then, take up (rhetorical) arms against the dispensationalists, infiltrate their schools and places of learning, and teach them theology that makes sense! Let us remind them that the book of Revelations was written, largely in code, to the Christians of the 1st century, not as a guidebook for believers in some sort of apocolyptic future, that the antichrist referred to is Nero, not Nicolai Carpathia.

Protestant opponents to dispensationalism typically fall under what is called covenant theology(although I believe Anglicans and Lutherans have slightly different beliefs), but this is not emphasized in Reformed churches the way dispensationalism is in "Evangelical" ones. Covenant theology is not some complex order of things, but simply an acknowledgement of the different pacts that God has made with various human beings and groups of human beings throughout time. It is not supersessionist (belieiving that the church has in effect replaced Israel), but instead simply teaches the truth that Rabbinical Judaism is different than Old Testament Judaism, as there is no atonement, no shedding of bloods and thus no communion with God.

It is long past time for the Evangelical movement to reject the influence of the semi-heretical radicals and embrace the church's rich tradition, reason, and a more thorough reading of scripture.

Some verses, their context, and what that means

Passages discussed: 1 John 2, especially 1 John 2:22-23; and John 8, especially John 8:44; and others

Anyone who reads this blog will know that recently there was a huge bust-up over whether or not Scripture claims that Jews (indeed any non-Christians) worship Satan. Now anyone who reads the combox will know I utterly reject that. But several passages of Scripture were used to justify this view. So it makes sense to consider them in context, and to scrutinise them carefully to see if the cited Scriptures really do say this.

The main verses cited are 1 John 2:22-23:

22 Who is the liar? Whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Whoever denies the Father and the Son, this is the antichrist.

23 No one who denies the Son has the Father, but whoever confesses the Son has the Father as well.

and John 8:44

44 You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies.

These are by no means the only ones that are damning in this vein. On the face of it these two verses, and similar ones seem to say that the Jewish people are Satanic in the Gospel verse, and worshiping a false God in the Epistle (since they don't even have the Father).

But is that what these are really saying? Let's discuss 1 John and its second chapter in detail.

1 John was written to the Churches of Asia Minor, who were under the jurisdiction of the Apostle John. This letter was likely written around the same time as the Gospel, because they use so many of the same ideas and turns of phrase as to be indisputably by the same hand. And one of the purposes of the Gospel of John was to dispute the notion of that Christ was not Divine and consequently belief in Him was not essential to the Faith. The letter was similarly addressed to this theme, among others. In the second chapter John discusses these people who were clearly in the Asia Minor community and sought to lead people away from believing in Christ. In verse 19, just a few verses before the verses in question, John mentions that these deceivers proved they were never truly members of the community to begin with.

Then he goes on to explain that the reason he is writing is to help explicate the lies that were recently in their midst, not because they are ignorant, but because they are in fact knowledgeable. And now we come to the verses themselves. In helping them to see this then he gives a rubric. What was the lie? In its nutshell, it sought to deny Christ, and since the Father wouldn't be a Father without the Son, by denying the Divinity of Christ they also denied the Divinity of the Father! Thus they were true enemies of Christ, even though they said that they were not. A few verses later (verse 26), just in case people forgot, he reminds again that he's speaking specifically of the lie that was dividing them.

When we read it in context we realise there's nothing about the Jews, Muslims, Hindus or anyone else. This is about people trying to undermine Faith from within. The letter discusses the idea that sin can be deadly, can cut us off from the Salvation offered by God. Thus warning against the Deceivers is critically important, because if their deception is believed, they cut the believer off from Salvation. But, and again John says it twice, these are the lies of people who were within the community, not people from any other Faith. So this verse cannot safely be used to accuse the Jews or anyone else of worshiping Satan. What these verses can be safely applied to, even today, are the sorts of people who say Jesus was the founder of our religion, you know, if he even existed, but if he did he was most likely a hippy communist revolutionary, or something...but God? Rose from the dead? We're too educated for that! ... Those are the people today against whom these verses can be applied. Because their denial is considerably more pernicious.

But what about the verse from John 8? It says that Jews have Satan for a father! That's much more damning, isn't it? Is it?

The 8th Chapter of John, after the Pericope Adulterae, is a long argument Jesus has with people the Gospel identifies simply as Pharisees; it's not more specific. But during the course of this argument, Jesus rather deliberately explains that He is the same God they have always worshiped. These people to whom He is speaking cannot claim invincible ignorance, since they know the Scriptures. They know the prophesies, they know the signs, and here Jesus explicitly tells them repeatedly, at least three times, that He is the I AM of the Theophany to Moses (aka the Burning Bush). Just as in Chapter 6, Jesus does not back down from the incredulous, instead He becomes ever more specific. In Chapter 6, the people became indignant that Christ would command people to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. Cannibalism they cried! But rather than reassure them it's all just symbolic, He presses on and uses term like "gnaw" that He really means it/ It's so hard a teaching that people reject Him. Well, the same thing goes on in Chapter 8. He slowly but deliberately gets more and more forceful in His language. When verse 44 has come around, it is at the point where, in spite of their constant word-plays and rejection, He is offering them one last chance, but to shock them into understanding this, He accuses them of being no Sons to Abraham (who looked for and would rejoice in the sight of Christ), but rather they have handed themselves over by their rejection to being "Sons of the Adversary."

What is important to understand about this passage is that nowhere does it say that the people simply called Pharisees were ever deputised to stand in for all Jews then and now. Jesus says this shocking thing to the people He's speaking to, because this group of specific people rejects Him (they actually make to stone Him in the last verse of the Chapter). But it cannot be inferred that these people to whom He specifically addressed were made by God to speak for all Jews ever. The only Sons of the Adversary were these specific people. Why? Because they should have known better, but they hardened their hearts and refused to see what was before them. Out of sufficient knowledge and consent of the will, they rejected Christ. So, this verse too, cannot safely be used against the Jews of today or anyone else. It can however be used for those who have sufficient knowledge and are presented with Christ and then reject Him.


I think one of the reasons this view is "necessary" for some people is the fear on their part that my view somehow is a slippery slope to Universalism. It isn't. My affirming that the Jews of today worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not in any way a soteriological statement (soteriology is the theology of salvation). It is simply a statement of fact. Nor is this meant to imply that Christ is not the way to salvation, and that belief in Him is essential to that. Nothing that I affirm takes anything away from this. Finally, nothing in what I have said is meant to exonerate people from being saved or hindering missionary mandates, etc. In fact, in my next post, I will discuss how this view of mine is little different from St Paul's in Romans Chapter 11.


Before I close, I want to say a few things about this practice that so annoys me about certain Christian approaches to Scripture; the penchant to slice out verses completely absent their context. But hold on! Isn't St Paul a repeat offender on this front? It only appears that way. In fact, the common practice at the time was to use certain verses as a kind of short hand, a code if you will. By citing a single verse, they intended their interlocutor to reflect in his or her mind on the whole passage from which it came.

A good example of this is Romans 9:8-13:

8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.

9 For this is the wording of the promise, "About this time I shall return and Sarah will have a son."

10 And not only that, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one husband, our father Isaac -

11 before they had yet been born or had done anything, good or bad, in order that God's elective plan might continue,

12 not by works but by his call - she was told, "The older shall serve the younger."

13 As it is written: "I loved Jacob but hated Esau."

If one looks at that, or even in the wider context of Romans 9 (which I urge you to do), you see that it doesn't really flow very well. What do these verses really have to do with his point in and of themselves? Well, that's the point, they by themselves do not. Rather, one is supposed to consider the whole episode from which each verse is excerpted. Another more famous example of this, by the way, is Christ's "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" which is the opening line from Psalm 22. If one reads and reflects on the whole Psalm it is a song of suffering that leads to later triumph and vindication. That is calling us to reflect on, and when we see it like that, the words themselves take on a much different meaning, don't they?

Therefore, it irks me to no end when people take verses out of context, because this whole idea is not just poor exegesis, but is also alien to the very authors, under the Inspiration of the Holy Ghost, who are so abused by this methodology. They didn't do it, and neither should we. When they cited verses, they expect you to know the context (although sometimes the contemporary exegetical understanding of that context is not always immediately apparent). We should be doing the same.

Friday, June 05, 2009

On Teaching the Trinity

This post is dedicated to Pr. Charles Lehmann

Trinity Sunday is coming up, and I do not envy the task of those who intend to preach on the topic for two reasons. One, the Trinity isn't the easiest of concepts to explain. And two, having explained it, it isn't that easy to apply that lesson to one's congregation.

Now I should stop and say I have no right to tell anyone how to preach, of course. But in musing about this, I think there might be an elegant and rather straightforward way of solving both. And I offer it as a suggestion to consider.

First, let me step back and tell you my own experience with this annual exercise. Most priests, with a few very notable exceptions, begin by explaining that understanding the Trinity is very hard and it's ok if we don't get the Trinity as many Saints didn't. Ok, fair enough, but after a while this sounds like a cop out.

It is true that the Trinity over the years has developed very specific terminology. This partly because we began to really understand the Trinity by telling Arius, Nestorius and others what the Trinity is not. Indeed, Eutyches got so carried away with his passionate defence that his defence itself slipped into heresy. So very specific terminology has been developed to describe the Trinity. This can make the subject intimidating to the people in the seats, as well, I am sure, to those doing the edifying.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a wonderful section on the Trinity, and this is certainly one approach to teaching it:

The dogma of the Holy Trinity
253 The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the "consubstantial Trinity".83 The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: "The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God."84 In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), "Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature."85

254 The divine persons are really distinct from one another. "God is one but not solitary."86 "Father", "Son", "Holy Spirit" are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another: "He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son."87 They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: "It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds."88 The divine Unity is Triune.

255 The divine persons are relative to one another. Because it does not divide the divine unity, the real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in the relationships which relate them to one another: "In the relational names of the persons the Father is related to the Son, the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both. While they are called three persons in view of their relations, we believe in one nature or substance."89 Indeed "everything (in them) is one where there is no opposition of relationship."90 "Because of that unity the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Son is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son."91

256 St. Gregory of Nazianzus, also called "the Theologian", entrusts this summary of Trinitarian faith to the catechumens of Constantinople:

Above all guard for me this great deposit of faith for which I live and fight, which I want to take with me as a companion, and which makes me bear all evils and despise all pleasures: I mean the profession of faith in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I entrust it to you today. By it I am soon going to plunge you into water and raise you up from it. I give it to you as the companion and patron of your whole life. I give you but one divinity and power, existing one in three, and containing the three in a distinct way. Divinity without disparity of substance or nature, without superior degree that raises up or inferior degree that casts down. . . the infinite co-naturality of three infinites. Each person considered in himself is entirely God. . . the three considered together. . . I have not even begun to think of unity when the Trinity bathes me in its splendour. I have not even begun to think of the Trinity when unity grasps me. .92

Some of the best ways I have heard priests preach the Trinity is to start, essentially, with this and perhaps put it in simpler language if necessary (although I do think that sometimes things are too simplified at times.)

The next step is to proceed with the Catechism and highlight the Trinitarian Mission in the world.

In other words, this is a good and adequate way of proceeding; no one could find fault with it unless is strayed a little too far into technical jargon.


All of this though, it seems to me, can be even more easily summarised (perhaps after one goes through a similar exercise as above). God is love and God is koinonia. There has never been a time in which those statements have not been true. And they are not two separate things in so far as, in many ways, they are true because of each other. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit exist completely and entirely in a perfect communion (koinonia) with one another, because they are all the same God (think of the implications of 2 Cor 13:14: "the grace of Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the koinonia of the Holy Spirit be with you all"), and it is a koinonia of love, because God is love (1 John 4:8). The most powerful homily I ever heard was delivered by a visiting Dominican priest on this very line.

The strength of this summary is that it is then easy to apply to the congregation. We were all created in God's image. What does this mean? Well, the implication is clear, we were created to be creatures of His Love and to seek out koinonia, koinonia of love. The Trinity is therefore something we should seek to emulate in our lives: the perfect love the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit have for each other, and the perfect communion/fellowship that exists between the Persons because they have the same ousia, that is, because they are all equally God, the God who is Love.

UPDATE 1: As I was on the bus home tonight I realised that I had completely forgotten other important elements.

1. The Catechism's approach before those quotes is important too:

234 The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the "hierarchy of the truths of faith".56 The whole history of salvation is identical with the history of the way and the means by which the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, reveals himself to men "and reconciles and unites with himself those who turn away from sin".57

236 The Fathers of the Church distinguish between theology (theologia) and economy (oikonomia). "Theology" refers to the mystery of God's inmost life within the Blessed Trinity and "economy" to all the works by which God reveals himself and communicates his life. Through the oikonomia the theologia is revealed to us; but conversely, the theologia illuminates the whole oikonomia. God's works reveal who he is in himself; the mystery of his inmost being enlightens our understanding of all his works. So it is, analogously, among human persons. A person discloses himself in his actions, and the better we know a person, the better we understand his actions.

2. And this then brings to mind the necessity of the Trinity. A good teaching moment is to point out that this economy of the Trinity in Creation is a necessity, and not just for belief. If we seek to emulate the love and communion of the Triune God, we must also appreciate the way in which this love and communion turns into the economy of Creation, and especially the Economy of Salvation.

UPDATE 2: Pr. Lehmann, to whom this post is dedicated, asked me in the combox (and in before that when I was musing but not posting) to assess his sermon. Now, normally I read Pr Lehmann's sermons as they are posted. But this time I did not. I am even more glad of it now than before, because my post would have devolved into a "response" to his sermon rather than a general statement.

I do quibble with one thing rather stridently. I am sorry Pastor, but the God the Jews worship is not a false god. For this would mean that Christ was presented to a false god in the Temple, and when he celebrated the Passover, He did so in the name of a false god and so on. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob is my God too. Now, I happen to believe their understanding of Him is incomplete, but that doesn't mean they worship Baal, or Odin, or Amaterasu or anyone other than the same God I do.

I also find it a little sad that he must explain "catholic" to Confessional Lutherans. Now, while I have my own view on their "catholic" status, it is a fact that Luther taught that their movement was, literally, more catholic than the Pope. I'm sorry, Pastor, but I couldn't help but pick up on that.

I also think he spends too much time dwelling on things that are "off-topic," such as his long footnote on the deeds of which we will be asked to make an account. It seems to me that while the Athanasian Creed is by far the greatest explication in prayer form of the Trinity, it might not be doing all the job he wants it to, if a good third of his sermon is devoted to defending it.

As an aside, I pray the very same Creed at every Mass during the Offertory.

If I seem to be saying his sermon was bad, forgive me. There is much to admire in his sermon when he actually gets back to talking about the Trinity itself. Against this rubric he seems to do a pretty good job of explaining the Trinity. There's also an application to the lives of his congregation by way of love. And so, I think, as I said, when it gets to the actual point, he does a good job.

I end this update by apologising to Pastor Lehmann for my harsh words. But I hope he will understand that in order to give him my assessment it must be honest. Still, at the end of the day, who am I to assess anything of his? He's perfectly free to answer correctly: nobody.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Acts: The Gospel of the Holy Spirit?

This post is dedicated to my good friend KeyStroke

At Mass on Sunday I was struck by the reading on Pentecost. I began to think a great deal about Acts as a whole. I realised that Acts is to the Holy Spirit what Luke's Gospel is to Christ; it is Luke's Gospel of the Holy Spirit, if you like.

What struck me most about the pericope is that it forms the real beginning of Acts. There's a transitional bit where Christ ascends, and then the Apostles pray together. Before the Holy Spirit can descend on them though, they have to do one more preliminary thing, let the Holy Spirit pick Judas' successor. The the Spirit descends on them, and then the rest of Acts narrates the effects on this descent; the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the Church as a whole and individuals in the Church.

Reading Acts it is clear the Spirit is present from the very beginning. Christ speaks of Him, Peter refers to Him as having moved the prophet David to predict things about Judas. He obviously dramatically comes upon them at Pentecost. He is almost always depicted afterwards as prompting, leading, and filling up the various different people mentioned in the bible. The Protomartyr Stephen is filled with the Holy Spirit when he gives his apologia. An angel is sent by the Holy Spirit to lead Philip to the Ethiopian Eunuch, and it is the Holy Spirit who whisks Philip away. It is interesting that in the episode before this, when Philip goes to Samaria, the other Apostles go to Samaria after him to Lay Hands (the primitive way of describing what we call Confirmation in the West and Chrismation in the East) on the baptised. This is repeated later in 19:2ff Why? So that they could be completely filled with the Holy Spirit. I'll discuss some ramifications of this in a moment. The Spirit also prevents Paul from going places, instead directing him to other places (such as in 16.7, 20.22, and 21.4). When the Apostles hold the Council of Jerusalem and dispatch their letter, they make very clear that their decision is in reality the decision of the Spirit, much as all subsequent Oecumenical Councils have done.

Sometimes the Spirit's role is subtle. Consider the very troubling and striking episode of Ananias and Sapphira at the beginning of Chapter 5. Here the role of the Holy Spirit seems a little less obvious. They commit fraud, lie about it and are struck dead by Peter? The scene strongly reminds me of the story of Susanna and the Elders. In that too, the elders are tricked into admitting the truth they would have concealed even before God. But what this story really illustrates is that in doing what they did, sinning against the Holy Spirit, they have committed a sin "that leads to death" (cf 1 John 5:16-17), and that by sinning against the Spirit who gives life (cf John 6:63) they demonstrate they have no life in them ... and so they die. Not that Peter killed them, but that they killed themselves by rejecting the life given them by the Spirit.

It is clear that while the Spirit leads individuals, He is also intimately connected with the Apostolic mission of the Church. When Paul comes to the believers in Ephesus (Chapter 19), he found that hey had become believers, but like in Chapter 8, their baptism needed to be accepted by the Apostolic Witness on behalf of the Church, in effect the Church endorsing and sealing their belief in the Spirit. Paul, as Peter and John before him, lays hands on the believers and completes the action of the Spirit by conferring Him completely. Thus it is not enough for the believers to have come to Christ on their own, they had to receive the Confirmation of the Church, of the high Apostolic Witness to complete the action of the Spirit.

And this brings me to the action of the Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles. The Spirit both works in the Church as a whole and on individuals, but at the same time and not in contradiction to one another. That is by working on individuals and working on the Church the same action of the Holy Spirit is evident. We see plenty of evidence of the corporate action of the Spirit. Consider the three transitional paragraphs 2:43-47, 4:32-37 and 5:12-16. These transitional paragraphs are also examples of the Spirit's subtle work. Th reason all the people share their possessions and so on, again, is because they are filled with the Holy Spirit who is helping them live out the Gospel. Their sharing of possessions isn't a political statement of some embryonic communism, but rather evidence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. We also see it in the Council of Jerusalem. As I said before the Council Fathers make it clear it is the decision foremost of the Spirit that they relay to the believers. We also see the work in individuals, such as Philip and Stephen.

And when we get down to it, the Acts of the Apostles is proof beyond question that Christ really did give a discourse or discourses on the Paraclete (i.e. the Holy Spirit), because everything Christ promised about the Holy Spirit didn't come true slowly over time, but were immediately realised in the Earliest Church. Christ promised that the Spirit would give us the words to speak when the time was right, now read Stephen's martyrdom again. Christ promised that the Spirit would lead the Apostles to all truth. Read the Council of Jerusalem again. And on and on it goes. rather than some made-up discourse years later, as some scholars allege, these promises clearly were made by Christ before Luke wrote Acts, because Acts clearly lays out how these promises were fulfilled.

In any case, this idea of how present the Holy Spirit was in the Church, and the fact that Pentecost is not just the birth of the Church, but the beginning of the work of the Spirit in the life of the Church and our lives. But it is important to learn the lesson of Acts. The Spirit is not just for individuals acting alone. The Spirit gives His gifts to people because He is at work in the Church. The gifts are for our Good, sure, but that Good is not in isolation, like John Donne's "island;" it is for our Good, so that it can also be for the Good of the Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ (cf Col 1:24). This is the lesson of the Holy Spirit and the lesson of Acts.