Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Nestorian Principle

John McGuckin's assessment, in his magisterial work on St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus, was that Nestorius was not really Nestorian. That is to say, Nestorius did not teach a doctrine of Two Sons, where Christ was both a fully Human person and a fully Divine person. The technical language of person did not quite exist yet, but principally, the Syrian church, with such luminaries as Theodore of Mopsuestia, taught doctrine that came close to saying that there was a functioning dualism in the life of Christ. It was not adoptionism, where Christ was a regular Human who, on account of His life, was granted divine privilege and/or status, but Two-Sons doctrine took on certain elements of it. It held that there was some sort of coming together of the fully Human Jesus, and the divine Word. This doctrine was never fully embraced, though it was skirted around and implied quite frequently, and therefore the obvious flaws (e.g. how is the one Christ not schizophrenic? How do the two relate? Was there a moment when the Human Jesus was without Divine Word? Is that conceptually possible?) were never ironed out. Since the technical language of person, whether hypostasis or prosopon, was not developed, these debates have a strange flavor when looking back.

Nestorius was a Syrian who succeeded to the office of archbishop of Constantinople, and carried his theological training with him. Constantinople was still theologically undefined, there was no "Byzantine" theology in the 5th century. However, because the Emperor of the surging Eastern Roman Empire resided there, it took on an artificial importance. Unlike other ancient sees, such as Rome or Alexandria, which gained its authoritative influence through a well established church, brilliant teachers, and blood of their martyrs, Constantinople was decreed influential through Church council. Thus, it did not develop its own unique brand, and because of its sudden rise to power, became a contested ground between other theological schools (e.g. Greco-Rome, Asia Minor, Egypt, Syrian etc.).

However, just because Nestorius was not Nestorian, does not mean he did not deserve condemnation. McGuckin is Russian Orthodox, and his colors show occasionally in the work. But the point he makes quite well is that Nestorius was not a helpless victim before the ecclesiastical politics of Cyril. Rather, Nestorius was brash and arrogant, and his main problem was that he sneered upon common people. Nestorius taught a doctrine that was hard to understand, unless you follow carefully the twists and turns of his logic. And this was something he was proud of, he did not think theology was something that belonged to the prols, but something for the well-educated.

The basic crime of Nestorius was that he introduced a split between the liturgical life of the Church and its dogmatic center in the teaching authority of her elders. The former was a residue of the latter. Thus, when Nestorius wanted to banish the grammar of Theotokos, Mother of God/God-Bearer, from the liturgy in describing Mary, he did not intend to give proper explanation. The phrase Christotokos, Mother of Christ/Christ-Bearer, was more fitting for Nestorius' system, which wanted to keep a strict division between the created and the Creature. Nestorius' primary concern, reflecting his Syrian origins, was to not diminish Godhead with the taint of creatureliness. Calling Mary the Mother of God sounded like Pagan myths, with gods who dwell among men and act like men. However, when it came to dealing with the facts of the Incarnation, Nestorius struggled to keep the Divine and Human together.

It was his convoluted theological system that the many unlearned bishops at Ephesus struggled with. Nestorius wanted the council to be a scholastic debate, where he expected to easily crush Cyril and condemn him as a Sabellian. However, Cyril had attempted to make this a catholic debate, where as many bishops throughout the world could attend. In these days, most bishops were not much more than the local pastor of a village. They were still many times chosen from the local area. For the well-heeled Nestorius, he was offended by the dozens of Egyptian and Asian bishops who had little formal education and some who were illiterate. Contrary to myth, this was not a battle between the distraught Christian bishop and the legion of quasi-Pagan pastors from the countryside. This is an elitist story, assuming that the schools of the city made better Christians than the rural hicks who passed on their training at a personal and communal level. Rather, it was a mass of perplexed pastors who could not grasp Nestorius' nuances, who he began to grow increasingly frustrated with. Yes, the council involved underhanded politiking. It's not clear why the Syrian delegate never arrived to bolster Nestorius, whether Cyril was trying to crush Nestorius with a consensus he forged, or if the Syrians were trying to run out the clock, and purposefully delayed. Nestorius promoted the former account, while Cyril pleaded the latter.

The main hinge of the debate involves a question of "sound words". Nestorius was rightly condemned, not in spite of his doctrine but because of it. The problem with Nestorius is not exactly about glorifying Christ indirectly through His mother. Rather, it's about the relation of theology to the life of the congregation. Should theological formula only make sense to the educated, those who go to schools? Or how should liturgy and worship reflect the common faith of all, both the ordained and the lay? What is the role of the teacher in the congregation? He is the public defender of the common faith, or does he hold the keys to the actual truth that lies behind the strange, possibly barbaric, words of the vulgar grammar employed in the liturgy? Nestorius is a perfect example of Clericalism, and his controversy opens a debate over the teaching office in the Church.

I generally like Carl Truman, both as a historian and a Christian teacher. But I was highly disturbed when he conceived his role as teaching elder as keeping to the Westminster Catechism, which was not a standard that the congregation was held to. I'm not accusing him of clericalism, but there was a shadow cast. It seemed that there was the true doctrine which the ordained held, and there was a lower bar for the congregation. The former could only be grasped through formal education, and thus helps prop up the Seminary-Educational complex; the latter was for the common peoples. Milton said that Presbyter is Priest Writ Large. This approach sounds little different than the moral tiers of Rome, between the monks who obey the Councils of Perfection and the lay people who are given a lesser, more reasonable standard. There is much about the Westminster Confession which is unintelligible to those uninitiated into the complexities of Reformed dogmatics, and barely reflects the worship of the congregation. Perhaps the most grievous problem with moving a doctrine of election from a doctrine of salvation to a doctrine of God is that it fundamentally annihilates an impetus to worship. I've heard song about God's glorious choice of us for salvation, but I've never heard a rousing song about God electing the saints in eternity past in His inscrutable councils.

Nestorius ought to be a warning for all theological discourse. The role of the teacher in the Church is to be of, not above, the Congregation. The common faith of the Church is exactly that, common. The problem is not schooling or education, the problem is that the seminary has become a part of a caste system. Reformed circles can be worse than Rome in creating a dividing line between preacher and congregation, where an intellectual indelible mark is placed upon the ordained. This ought to govern how we think about doctrines of God (especially the fact of Triunity), doctrine of salvation (and thus the meaning of election in the drama of salvation), among many others. If for nothing else this is why we should give honor to that great Cyril, for he remains a firm shield against attempts to divide the congregation. For all his pesonal faults, his legacy speaks to the role of bishops being one of, and among, the people that they lead in worshiping our only hope, Christ Jesus, the savior of the world. Amen.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Egypt: A Spiritual Harbor?

This is an interview of an Egyptian Evangelical explaining Egypt's political, social, and church environment. Contrary to myth, and despite the turbulence of Arab Spring and the US' support to eject Mubarak, Egypt has become calm. al Sisi is not a military dictator, but a widely popular leader who stabilizes Egyptian life. Again, contrary to establishment narratives, al Sisi did not overturn the "democratic" Morsi, but represented a popular revolt against the Muslim Brotherhood from seizing the reigns. Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood had a solid base of popular support, especially among rural Muslims. But it was dependent upon Qatari money and the Obama administration's attempt to reshuffle the Middle East through a corruption of the Arab Spring. Against American ignorance, politics is in fact complicated. There is a race for zone control between the Saudis and the Iranians, with the US playing puppet master.

The American ideal of democracy is mostly a fiction, and used as a disingenuous tool to hypocritically sermonize and morally justify horrendous action. Most people across the globe, even peasants, appreciate geo-political realities, even if in crudely pragmatic, even Machiavellian ways. They may or may not like it, but most appreciate it's a fact. But being in America is to be subjected to hypnotyzing propaganda of the worst kind. Many Americans really believe we're different, and not because we've mastered the game of neo-imperial global politics. If America is exceptional, it's because we're like the Mongol Horde, we bring unprecedented power to bear upon the world in deeply oppressing, humiliating ways. But at least Ghengis Khan never had to convince the Mongols that they were conquering the Chinese for their own good!

The piece comes off a bit flowery, but it does represent a reality Christians ought to consider. The point and purpose of the state is to restrain evil, and Sisi is doing that. Even though he may be an evil man, he represents what Christians should actually hope for. It's not romantic, there's not deep infatuation or loyalty, but there is a sense of respect and honor paid to one who allows, even unwittingly and against his direct intention, for the Church to grow and perhaps flourish. Like Assad before, many Christians support Sisi because he is trying to keep the peace and allow for an open society. Granted, conversion may officially be illegal for Muslims, but this is not the point. The existence of this antagonistic law has the indirect benefit of reminding Christians that the state is not their hope, nor is it machinery to take over.

For these reasons, Egypt is a much safer space, spiritually speaking, than the United States and even much of Europe. While Egypt was predominantly Christian in the later period of the Roman Empire, before the Muslim Arab conquests in the 7th century, it is a legacy that is no longer operating upon the imagination of the Coptic people. There is no sense where nationalism and state control can seep into the Church without a trace. A sense of antithesis exists. While Christians like the author and others like him may enjoy the benefits of living in Egypt and value the policies of the al Sisi government, they do not become a part of the Church's liturgy. There is no equivalent to "God Save the Queen" or "God Bless America" belted in the churches. The threat of erecting the golden calves of nationalism and statecraft in the Church retains a foreignness which one is pressed to find in America. No one bats an eye when American flags decorate churches in a near cultic fashion.

There are many benefits to the formal pluralism of America, at least on paper, but like Brave New World, they are useless. That is to say, no one is putting a gun to anyone's head to buy into the Establishment, love the Empire, murder for our way of life, and include national mythos in the civic religion that is represented throughout both so-called theologically liberal and conservative churches a like. Everyone embraces the system rather willingly, even if ignorantly. Falwell and Niehbuhr, the Southern Baptists and the United Methodists, neo-Social Gospel SJWs and the Moral Majority, they hate each other, but share the same common ideology. The benefits become corrupting. No one forces churches to function as corporations, at least not directly, but a little carrot-and-stick with tax breaks, and churchs start behaving like little corporate entities, with managed stock portfolios, pension plans, and a corporate leadership structure. These things become corrupting because whatever financial benefits become a means to get people to buy into the program. Like a Trojan Horse, the church becomes infected with a virus and is rewritten to become a satellite of the civic religion, even if unconsciously. These benefits become harder to let go of.

It's in this way the interviewee is correct to say that Sisi is more friendly to churches than Western governments. He leaves them alone and covers them under the umbrella of a comprehensive national policy.

In addition, the mixed historical legacy of Egypt is helpful for a growing sense of Church unity. I'm not sure about his numbers for "denominations", but there is some truth. While the Oriental Orthodox church remains committed to its interpretation of the Alexandrian theology of Athanasius and Cyril, opened a split which has kept the Egyptian church from the delusions of comprehensive catholicity. Byzantine orthodoxy remains present, along with churches established by British and French missionaries.  This is fertile space to work together. I don't know enough to weigh in on the interviewee's statement about the Copts being a Bible loving and thirsting church, but it's good news to hear if it's true. It also clears ground for theological conversation and dialog. I hope this is not towards milquetoast ecumenism, but towards healing of wounds through cooperation and mutual recognition, in fasting and in prayer, where real theological discussion may occur.

May God bless the churches of Egypt with growth, both numerically and spiritually. May the Lord Christ give the home of such saints and teachers as Origen, Athanasius, Didymus, and Cyril a revival. Amen.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Imperial Bread: Christ's Sovereignty and His Supper

St. Paul warned the Corinthian Church to not unworthily partake of the Lord's Supper because, if they did, judgement would come upon them. In fact, as the Apostle highlights, some had already died because for their misuse. How many Christians consider these facts when thinking about the Lord's Supper? However, this ought not be a moment of fear and trembling, but a recognition of God's sovereign power even in passivity, which is something often missed.

Peter Chelcicky, that blessed Czech saint, understood the stakes of the debate before the Reformation reignited controversies over the Lord's Supper. Peter was a contemporary of the Hussite Wars, where the majority of the Czech people rose up against Rome after the martyrdom of Jan Hus. Various factions arose, but their common cause of unity was communion in two kinds, bread and wine.

Rome had placed sanctions on the laity partaking of the Cup. There was fear and dread wrapped around communion that not only did not many people partake of the cup (they both denied participation and were denied participation), but wouldn't partake of the bread. New justifications, with supposed miracles, allowed a form of communion by merely watching the Host being raised up. There were also fears related to the use of Communion. The "Heretics", some of whom either rejected the Real Presence or rejected Rome's clerical monopoly, would refuse communion, and would spit it out or throw it away when the priest was not looking. Others kept the elements for the purposes of what might be considered magic. People used the elements for charms and wards, trying to keep evil spirits away, create a love potion, or make a field fertile. There was also the fear of mishandling, where crumbs of the Lord's body would drop on the floor, where they could be stepped on or eaten by bugs or rodents. The Roman church attempted to crackdown through liturgical practices, such as placing the elements directly on the tongue.

On the other hand, a group of Hussites, known as the Taborites, were a nationalistic, Puritan faction (to put it anachronistically), who sought to purge the Czech church of corruptions. They were iconoclastic and attacked hierarchy. The Taborites also held to a theology that would become the mainstay of Calvinism. They believed that the Eucharist was only the Body of Christ if it was received in faith. If an unbeliever partook of the elements, they would only be eating bread.

Chelcicky, who sympathized with the Taborite wing, rejected their nationalism and their violence. But he also rejected their doctrine of the Lord's Supper. However, he also rejected the Roman variety as well. Both sides, though diametrically opposed, depended on a view of the Supper that saw the Lord as thoroughly passive, and made the power of God's word dependent upon those who would receive.

Rome, through refined doctrine of ex opere operato, had moved in a direction of what Charles Taylor described as "white magic". The church is the font of Christ's Body, whose priesthood is ordained with the power and the authority to worship God through the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the elements of the Lord. Chelcicky found this distasteful because it made God passive before Human words. It was not that the Lord was not present in the bread and wine, but that He was weak before Human schemes and designs. The emphasis was less on God, fulfilling His promise, than on His being summoned. This turned a Christian rite into a Pagan one, where the deity was summoned, dragged out of Heaven for Human need. However, as is clear from the entirety of Scripture, the true God sets the terms. He finds us before we seek. The Roman model put God in the backseat.

The Taborites, as proto-Calvinists of a sort, did the same through a different means. Rather than a proper priesthood and words of institution, the Taborites dragged God down through faith. It was now an internal, not external, medium to bring about God's fulfillment.

However, the key similarity was that both the Taborites and the Romanists both viewed divine presence in passiveness as weakness. The former articulated a theology that kept God away from the unclean and polluted. Thus, man could not impiously eat of the Body of God, because God would not allow such to take place. There's a sense where it would be shocking and disturbing to think God could be manipulated in such a way, and so it is clearly blasphemous. The latter, on the other hand, feared the possibility of misuse, whether for the purposes of practical witchcraft or by accident. Lest you think this is in the past, I read a Roman Catholic form post where a woman had a severely troubled conscience because her son, after eating the elements, threw up a couple minutes later. She didn't know if she committed a mortal sin by not trying to fish the remains out of the vomit. There's a sense that God will punish the abuse of His Son's flesh.

However, none of this is conveyed in St. Paul's warning. In fact, it was because, as he puts it, if one eats and drinks unworthily, he does so unto his own judgement. While the Roman view captures part of this, it does so in such a way that the Body of Christ is not the agent of judgement. Is Christ not supreme conqueror of death in His body? Then why would He be anxious if a witch took hold of Him, or a mouse came to nibble? Christ is not the one in danger, nor is there any possibility that His elements can be abused for other purposes. There is no promise to mice partaking of the Supper, nor is there a promise that if the bread is dropped in a potion it will make a girl fall in love with you. Christ is firmly in control of His own elements, acting in the way He sees fit to declare. For it is only because He tells us to celebrate the Lord's Supper, and declares that He is present in His Body and Blood, that we know to both celebrate it and to do it with care and reverence. It's this context Paul rebukes the Corinthians, for they scorned the poor in practicing the Supper, and by unworthily eating Christ brought the Judge straight into the depths of their inner bowels, both literally and metaphorically. They who abused the poor invited the Avenger of the Oppressed into their innermost home, and suffered the consequences.

Even as the Lord is present in unassuming bread and wine, it does not mean He is weak or powerless. In fact, He is made manifest as powerful when He is clothed in weakness. This is the plain witness of the gospel. When we draw near to Christ, partaking of His Body and Blood, we should know truly, we are in the presence of the King, and for those who have cast themselves before Him, we should find it a moment of exceeding joy. He has come to make His work known again, killing our sin and raising us to glory and honor.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Law is the Prophets?: The Future Oriented Nature of God's Commands

When Pelagius was in Rome, he heard a public reading from Augustine's newest book of the Confessions. Augustine had penned a prayer, "Give me the grace to do as you command." This enraged Pelagius, who saw an attack upon the goodness of God. Why, Pelagius would argue, would God give us commands that we can't follow? Pelagius criticized Augustine, and began the Pelagian controversy in the Latin church.

This controversy opened questions, some that continue to fester, over the definition and relationship between law and grace. Contrary to polemics, Pelagius believed in grace, he even articulated a variety of sola fide, so it's not enough to merely wave the word grace or faith around as a shibboleth to defend from charges of Pelagianism. The primary errors of Pelagius were anthropology and the relationship between law and grace. Pelagius was not the happy optimist that one sees in bizarro fiction like the B movie King Arthur. Pelagius believed the Fall resulted in a cloud of ignorance and evil mimesis. God's grace is His republication of His Law, a revelation of what man must do, which God taught us freely, and primarily, through the sacrifice of His Son. This is an incredibly pessimistic and fretful perspective, because if people could merely turn through the revelation of the right things to do, and they don't, how determinedly evil were mankind? Pelagius was a rigorist and he believed it was people like Augustine who contributed to laxity in the Church through their lazy and immoral teaching.

Pelagius had collapse law and grace into each other and had argued that man's Fall was not drastic, nor that Mankind had an ontological health tied in with divine communion. There was little sense that Man to be Man required communion with God, lest we slip back into the void from whence we came. But Pelagius is a ghost that hangs around, and not only because people turn to works-righteousness for their salvation. Rather, his initial anger with Augustine and sense of injustice with such a teaching is not adequately addressed. If Augustine's prayer is the right kind of thing to ask (and I think it is), then what does this mean? How do law and grace actually relate to one another?

Luther is right to insist that rightly dividing law and gospel is crucial for the ministry of the Word. However, an emphasis on the law as terror to reveal sin can miss the point that the Scriptures speak highly of God's Law, and the Psalmist revels in the idea of fulfilling it. Yes, Christ fulfilled the Torah, but this did not abolish the Law and take it away from Man. Rather, it reconfigured it.

In Hebrew (both modern and classical), the imperative of a verb is the same as future-tense in the second person. Thus, "Run!" is literally translated as "You will run!" I think this syntax tells us something about the nature of the Law. What if the command is in fact a kind of promise, a typological shadow of the future state of the Christian? This is done all of the time with the so-called Ceremonial and Civil aspects of the Law, where Christ is seen as a fulfillment of the Temple system, the kingship of Israel, etc etc. Are these not Torah as well? What if the Ten Commandments, for example, are promises made real in the life of Christ? We the One who has no gods before Him, who keeps the Sabbath holy; we see what Man looks like without murder, lies, and covetousness.

Now the Law as terror still remains. The Ceremonial and Civil laws reveal our fragile state, always bordering on a state of sin and violence. The Ten Commandments show us, as St. Paul says, our own inadequacy; for we did not know covetousness until the Law told us that we shall not covet. The Law is a promise awaiting fulfillment, and recognition of this emptiness drives us toward God who will fulfill, or will harden our hearts, as we try to justify ourselves or sear our consciences as they are stung, again and again, with the emptiness of the Law.

Yet, as the Law lays out the form of the promise, the Gospel presents its fulfillment. The Law leaves us empty, suspended in hope and expectation. Thus the glorious celebration of the Torah in Psalm 119 represents a prophetic aspect. While the Law is like a dry riverbank or an empty honeycomb, it signals the place where God's abundance will meet us. One day the river will run with milk, and the honeycomb will be rich with honey. Christ, as the fulfillment of the Torah, is the gift that fulfills the whole of the Torah. This is why when Christ teaches, He reveals not a new Law, but explains the spirit of the Torah. Christ Himself gives the true understanding of the Law, and also stands to bring it to its fulfillment. Christ's word, "You will be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect" sets out the empty form which Christ, as the Perfect Man, fills and lays before us.

It's only in this context that Augustine's prayer makes sense. The commandment, especially the Commandment of Commandments, to love God with whole mind soul, body, and strength and neighbor as self, cries out for the day when it becomes a reality. The Commandments stands over us as a stark reminder of what life is actually about, and the Person and Work of Christ is that gracious gift that makes true life possible.

In these Last Days, as we are further grafted into Christ, the more real this reality becomes for us, with the Commandments becoming the natural movement of our bodies. Through faith, we cling to the promise and receive the gift, namely Christ Himself, who gives Himself for our salvation. May we eagerly pray alongside Augustine, asking for grace, that is Christ, so we may make obey the commandments, and have our lives bearing the sweet fragrance of those being saved.