Thursday, August 31, 2017

Thy Rod and Thy Staff: Discipline in Church and State

Recently I read George Every's work on the "High Church" party in the Church of England, dating from the Restoration (1660/62) to the mid-eighteenth century. One thing that makes Every's account compelling is how he frames the issues. He marks the issue of discipline, and how it functions, a key issue in ecclesiastical debates. Laud had attempted to weld the church to the state as a self-regulating branch. However, he did not define the position of the king's party, the Royalists, during the Civil Wars. Rather, when the Commonwealth and Protectorate under Cromwell collapsed, the Restoration brought back both king and a national church established by law, but there was hardly unity on what either of these institutions meant. While almost all Royalists were glad to see the re-establishment of the Church of England, there were stark divisions on what role the church had in terms of authority. The beginnings of the High-Church party were those, primarily ordained ministers but also lay people, who believed the church ought to have authoritative power, though even in this position there were divisions on how, exactly, the church was to relate to the state, including the crown.

I think Every's work touches on a fascinating question of ecclesiastical policy and power that is often overlooked. Many focus on questions of doctrine and orthodoxy, primarily debating in the realm of ideas. There are also many recent approaches that focus on liturgy, looking at cultural formation and practice. These approaches are not bad, but lack answers to institutionally formative questions, namely who is in and who is out, with questions of how and why following. Very few analyze church discipline in any sustained, comprehensive, or critical way. 

In the twilight of voluntary associations, we don't think much about discipline because it almost doesn't exist. The phenomenon of "sheep-stealing" is rampant and, generally, a joke. Whatever one thinks of denominations and church-membership, they are almost broken concepts. Disciplinary mechanisms that do exist mostly don't function. One can easily point to dozens of pro-abortion Papists who still receive communion from dutifully negligent priests. And if an individual congregation decides to sanction someone, to require an account or deny a claim, a good many people would shrug their shoulders and walk out the door, go across the street, and worship with others who don't ask any questions of where they came from and why. Quite a few ordained authorities are happy enough to bolster their numbers and see a few more dollars fall into the collection plate.

Now, voluntary associations are not necessarily the problem, but they aren't the solution either. This story begins with the confusion and conflation of church and secular authorities beginning in the Latin church's spread into Europe. The Constantinian shift began a process of putting the burden of ecclesiastical institutions on political will. There was a subtle confluence between the political power of the emperor and the church's communal disciplinary actions. It wasn't so much that a bishop, like St. Augustine, used his episcopal throne to adjudicate court cases. Rather, it was when the adjudications of the bishop gained legitimacy as courts of the empire. Again, this credibility is not itself wholly problematic, but there began a certain expectancy that the Roman state would back the decisions of the church. St. Augustine, in the midst of dealing with Donatists, called down the governor to suppress them. The bishop mingled unity in the church with civic peace in the city. A number of the great ecumenical councils' aftershocks involved all parties looking to the emperor to enforce the policy.

The Latin church took the same expectation as it converted barbarians, even, at times, using it as an enticement. The rise of the imperial papacy was linked to a relative captivity of the church, where "barbarian" princes had assumed the sole right to appoint bishops and abbots, usually from their own families. The bishops of Rome sought to unite the churches of western Europe under its ecumenical clout, creating an institution that could fend off the decisions of secular princes. It was the ecumenical bishop of Rome, more and more reflecting the contemporary papacy of infallibility, who had the final word on the ministers of the church. And even more, since the princes of Europe claimed to be Christian, the bishop of Rome decided the good-standing of royalty, especially when crowned heads sought to dispute or reject papal missives. The Investiture Controversy was, in a sense, a long time coming, a culmination of political frustration in a distinctly non-Roman Roman empire. The whole controversy involved the question of institutional discipline, over who had authority in the church, of including, promoting, and excluding. The papacy won a resounding triumph as the emperor begged, knee deep in snow, at Canossa.

However, the bishop of Rome wielded a heavy hand, as he still was very much within the confines of the Constantinian shift. The Latin church did not merely gain autonomy over its own affairs, but subjugated princes to its affairs. The career of Julius II, il papa terible, who led armies in the complex game of Italian politics, testifies to the claim that Renaissance Popes had become a princes with an awesome power to delegitimize and destablize all who opposed them.

In many ways, the Reformation succeeded, spread, and flourished because many flocked to an anti-papal banner. Martin Luther was not exactly an adept politician, but much of his theological career had the subsidiary effect of binding German princes together. While I don't deny the sincerely theological aspects of his revolution, Luther sold himself as the balm for princes. Part of this pitch was to enforce doctrinal commitments. Luther was quite ready to meet intransigent and halting church authorities with the secular sword. If the bishops and abbots won't reform the church, then the princes will. Luther was not so naive as to believe that secular authority could be wielded cleanly. While he appointed princes and magistrates as "emergency-bishops", he was also ambivalent about secular authorities meddling in theological matters. The Peasants' War was Luther's greatest challenge and a might triumph. While many took to his banner as a rejection of all imperial authority, from both pope and prince, Luther turned the event into proof that his doctrine was not only true, but truly salutary for all secular realms. Since the gospel only spoke to spiritual matters, temporal affairs, as long as they remained temporal affairs, were not to be meddled with. Luther went further than many of his Reformed compatriots, even placing the church, its polity and institutional maintenance, under the temporal heading. While princes may not alter doctrine, they may manage the church's institutional shape and staffing. 

This doctrine was the real meaning of adiaphora, things indifferent. Whatever was not clearly elaborated as necessary truth was left for secular authorities to govern. The Reformed wing of the Reformation had a mixed approach. Calvin's pastoral career was a grim reminder of magisterial powers. Contrary to the myth that Calvin was somehow a tyrant over an austere and dour Geneva, the council harassed and hounded the man and left very little of his disciplinary forms in tact. He spent much time frustrated with state authority, though he had never lost hope in a godly council backing his measures. The doctrine of the lesser magistrate grew out of frustration with primary authorities. If the Spanish crown persecutes the faithful, perhaps a Dutch prince can stand up against him in good conscience; perhaps if a king encroaches, the nobility and gentry may rise against him. This teaching was the political edge of the Genevan Bible and lay behind some of the Puritan agitation against the Stuarts, climaxing in the Civil Wars and the decapitation of Charles I.

Contrary to some accounts, the radical Reformation was not a precursor to associational societies, though it looks similar. Rather, the Vaudois underground and Lollardy left imprints. Both of them emerged during the Reformation as allies, dissolving into the different wings of the Reformation. Though historically invisible, I think it's fair to say discipline was a key touch the Medieval underground left. These groups needed to remain communally intact to survive; solidarity was a necessity. While generally the continental Reformed sided with a magisterial model, there were still outliers. While the Church of England, also within the Reformed stream, clearly opted for a princely mode, there were still those uncomfortable with the changes. While some Puritans merely wanted to retool the national church's liturgy, doctrine, and polity, there were others who were uncomfortable with the whole project, especially as it unfolded. 

The Anabaptists sought a way to recover a form of communal discipline without license from the state. Some saw(see) this idea as cultish, but it's no different than how civic-minded pagans of Rome viewed the early Christians. There are noticeable differences, especially the public face of the Apostles we see in the New Testament. But, the fact is that there is a resistance to become fitted into a larger body and that alone seems suspicious.

Unlike voluntary associations, the Anabaptistic conception of discipline did not depend on a primary definition of society. The rise of voluntary associations involved a decoupling of churches, or perhaps religion more generally, from the state. This move is itself a theological claim, delimiting the boundaries. However, drawing boundaries, bracketing out theological claims through a-theological theology, is the essence of liberalism, for good or ill. Voluntary association became one means of integrating churches, usually a plurality, into a society, perhaps under one large heading like "Religion" or "the Protestant Interest", into a distinct sector of private society. Churches were still a part of society, but had a distinct function separated from the state. The idea of a church court enforcing anything was abolished, but churches still could gather social influence and pressure to lead the charge to political reform.

As voluntary societies, churches found a place within a larger social matrix which bore them, along with the state, corporate businesses, etc. Society complexified under a diffusion of bodies. The state still guided the direction of society, but this society was composed of lesser voluntary associations which were grounded in this primary society. The rise of religious societies, within and without established churches (e.g. SPG and Clapham Sect, or Fetter Lane Society, respectively), coincided with the rise of political parties (e.g. Whigs and Tories). All contributed to an underlying social reality, usually grounded in nation or some other fictive foundation that lay beneath the state and all voluntary associations. All were beneath a wider umbrella that could draw them together and bind them, creating a diffusion of frustration and hostility.

In a way, these features made our contemporary liberal democracy (as it is in much of Europe and in North America) possible. Voluntary association undergirds both laicite and the vaguely religious state (found in France and the US, respectively), while also a distinctly "Christian commonwealth". The Neo-Reformed of Dutch Calvinism, especially Kuyper, show how this ecclesiology is both a part of the liberal tradition and the Constantinian shift. Kuyper might not think churches should adjudicate court cases, but he'd be fine with state imposed fines for sodomy or blasphemy. It's in a sense that the United States, in its foundation, is both a secular-liberal and Constantinian polity. Christianity, the Protestant Interest, religion, all were ways of phrasing the same grounding of church in a larger social matrix. No church is conjoined to state in an establishment, but all the churches must abide by the rules of the society which the state seeks to adjudicate.

Anabaptistic political theology, to the contrast, radicalized St. Augustine's vision of two cities. Contrary to Lutheran Two Kingdoms, Augustine saw the temporal world as the space where both the city of man and city of God manifest themselves. The very structures, both material and immaterial, reflected foundations, whether out of love for self or love for God and neighbor. Hence, Augustine had no problem with the materiality and visiblity of holiness (miracles associated with the bodies of saints) as well as deep pessimism involving political aspirations and social aspirations. One reading of Augustine would suggest the possibility, though tentative, of building non-ecclesial, civil, structures in the light of the gospel. Thus, princes and their thrones could become manifestations of the kingdom of God. This strain was dominant in Medieval political theology vis. the doctrine of two-swords. Another strain may be even more cautious, decrying attempts to build this civil edifice as foolish and a portal for the devil. There was not a denial of Augustine's visibility of the Kingdom of God, but it was not to be found in a world dominated by Satan, who remained "god of this age".

The major difference in Anabapstic theory was that the church was not apart of the larger society, but a distinct and removed. This separation did not imply quietism, sectarianism, or flight; however, for many Anabaptists under persecution, they separated into their own villages and communities, slowly building a German ethnic sensibility into the theological position. The Amish and Hutterites in America and Mennonites in Russia certainly enclaved in this manner. Yet, we must not blame them for this turn of events. The rise of nation-states and the violence of the 17th century helped fragment diverse peoples away from each other. Mennonites, for example, remained a distinctly German sect because their survival depended on quashing a missionary zeal and obeying civil demands to stay in their allotted blind-spot. This frigid temper followed the Mennonites as they migrated to Russia, along the Volga, and to Pennsylvania.

Unlike the Anabaptists, the Vaudois maintained a more international composition. Medieval Europe was rather fluid and porous; the Vaudois created networks across southern France, northern Italy, and the Black Forest region of Germany. Some regional differences surfaced, but different Vaudois remained in contact with each other. They remained within Medieval society, even as they maintained their secret ecclesial identity separately. Sometimes being underground helps maintain discipline, as it is an issue of survival. Primitive bishops, called "Uncles", traveled circuits to preach, receive confession, and solve communal problems. Historically accounting for an underground movement is difficult, as we only know of their comings and goings when they get caught. Much about the Vaudois is cloaked in secrecy, though their surprising appearance in the heady days of the Reformation testifies that they indeed survived and left some impression. One of Calvin's first experiences in ecclesiastical politics involved his travel, with William Farel and Olivetan, to Northern Italy, where the Vaudois joined forces with the Franco-Swiss Reformed at Chanforan in 1532. This union was not one-sided capitulation; it's clear that Calvin's cousin and crypto-Vaudois Olivetan had an influence on the budding scholar's theological development and thirst for the Bible.

The point of all of this history is to highlight a genealogy of many churches' dependence upon external instruments to survive. The Constantinian shift involved a move towards depending on civic society, whether in the form of the monarch, the state, or upon a larger, and more general, social matrix, to survive. In our day, we live in what Phillip Bobbit has deemed the dawn of the market-state. Here, the global market is the matrix of society, where places like New York and London share a stronger common bond and affinity than New York and, say, Nowhere, Kansas. Capital is the growing prime source of power, and legitimacy is more and more tied to this resource.  In the US, we still live in the age of voluntary associations, but these have become more and more detached from some socio-civil matrix of "nation" and moved towards a global market. In a way, megachurches and mainline liberal Protestant denominations share a very similar method, which is activating discipline and maintaining survival through a fusion with market trends. The Episcopal Church is vile and wretched, yet still has power through seizing property and even as its pews empty will continue to exist through its capital investments. Megachurches as fully constituted corporate entities grow through tapping into streams of capital, functioning like start ups.

Contemporary ecclesiological trends, beyond liberal Protestantism and megachurches, are equally enmeshed in global Constantinianism. Radical Orthodoxy has hope in transfiguring the global market away from neo-Liberal imperial capitalism towards a virtue economy. These theorists hope to salvage the universalism of the Middle Ages in a new form. Milbank despises global capitalism, but he was rather angry with Brexit and its ethos of revanchist nationalism. Per Schmitt, the Medieval universalism in the Ius Publicum Europaeum became the foundation of Grotius' Ius Gentium. Britain leaving Europe, viz. the EU, involved Britain's move away from the Global; parochialism lashing out at a potentially catholic order. If Constantinian theory is in fact true, Milbank offers, perhaps, the most comprehensive, catholic, and contemporary form.

As a shadow, Rod Dreher's Benedict Option reflect a pessimism with all current options and turning inwards towards the local. Of course, rather than the possibility of institutionalizing the Medieval dream, where the Church becomes the fount of the global order and can direct it against heresy and immorality, the Ben Op turns toward the local church, hidden in the wilderness of a barbaric and hostile society. Dreher's option certainly sounds more like the radical Reformation, but it has a different conception of its place in time. The Ben Op is strategic retreat, a lonesome time where Christians practice fidelity until civil leaders call upon the church, once again, to help restore society. But the Anabapstistic theory, to the contrary, never sees a time where civil society can be fitted into the church's role. Rather, the Ben Op possesses a foolhardy expectation of a return to glory, when only the cycle of secular abuse will continue. Per Revelation, the whore will once again mount the beast and fornicate with the kings of men, only to be thrown down and burned with fire.

I don't know what to do, but it ought to be clear that discipline is a key factor in assessing the health of the church. The Reformer were absolutely right to insist upon it as a mark of health, for a church can only maintain through discipline. Doctrine will escape into a historical slumber or hide in a university, and liturgy can lose its formative hold and devolve into peculiar custom. On the latter point, I agree with Jamie Smith that liturgy is formative, but how liturgy is formative is hardly broached. Walking into an average, say, Roman parish ought to sober up anyone who expects a robust and traditional liturgy to have innately structuring power. It's not just that Papists, like every other American, engages in all other sorts of affective, and otherwise, secular liturgies. St. Paul, among all the other apostles, spend much more time in their letters talking about communal order and discipline than the shape of the liturgy. Both are important, but the former seems to give power to the latter; otherwise the church's worship devolves from the ecclesiastical to the merely aesthetic; it is no longer an assembly of Christ, but a mystical performance and experience.

Many churches are suffering a nearly total collapse from the American social matrix's chilled relation. However, this fall is nothing new; churches will adapt to new Constantinian arrangements to manage discipline in whatever compromised and limited form available. We're certainly ages away from a Laudian dream of punitive church courts! But we live in a moment where we ought to assess the future. We see an alternative to the Constantinian polity in the first few centuries of the church, some patristic era skeptics (like Augustine in some ways), the Medieval underground among the Vaudois, the radical wings of the Reformed and the Anabaptists, among many other critics, pessimists, and pariahs. Sadly, most peoples' desire for an alternative depends on the horror and shock in front of them. But such, perhaps, is what it means for the church to be Christ's body: crucified and  hoisted before all the world. Perhaps our whorish dreams and desires must be joined to Christ, where our ecclesiology is crucified and thus cruciform, so becoming the pure and chaste bride promised to our heavenly bridegroom.

Discipline must be analyzed if we want to see the inevitable fate of all Constantinian arrangements. As said above, perhaps all reliance on such power will result in ultimate destruction from powers themselves. Defanged, toothless, and impotent, churches have little means to protect the sheep from wolves; a beast cast from one congregation easily fits into the next. The Church is not the spiritual kingdom, the right hand, the spiritual sword, or the religious department of state; but neither is it a club. Perhaps there's a place for Christian groupings within civil establishments, but such is not the church. Rather, we live in the City of God, and may we not forget it.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Luther is the Owl: Reflections on Holiness and Theology

In a collection of essay of essays on the state of the Anglican Communion, Ephraim Radner concluded the work with an admonition that the world is waiting for holiness. What he meant was that the Church's mission is primarily manifest in the bodies of Christians, and so is her teaching authority. Radner compares the broken bodies of bishops at the council of Nicaea with African bishops at Anglican gatherings. Both bore scars, mutilations, and emaciation, which were marks of faith. These bishops, both then and now, had authority to speak on account of their suffering. The voices of confessors and matyrs holds gravity over the untested and the untried. Thus, for the churches of Christ to possess a credible witness in the world is to put their faith to the test, to bear witness to Jesus Christ in times and places where harm may come. Fidelity to Christ comes with a price, and one becomes sanctified in doing so, being united to Christ in His sufferings. Holiness is both an apologetic for the faith as well as a testimony and converting witness.

Radner's work has pushed me to reconsider what it means for holiness to be visible. In another work on the Jansenist movement, he compares Augustine and Luther on their understanding of the holy. In his fight with Eramus, Luther goes as far to say that holiness is invisible and the saints unknown. What he means is that Christians, being as vile as anyone else, do not reveal anything different than the unbeliever. God's presence in the world is totally a matter of faith, nothing is evidentiary or tangible. Augustine, in contrast, saw unbelief as a cloud that marred God's witness in the world, but this presence was still accessible. So, for example, the Pharisees saw Jesus heal, but attributed it to the Devil; the crowds saw the Apostolic miracle of Pentecost, but they attributed it to drunkenness and madness.

Hegel said that philosophy is as Athena's owl, taking flight only at dusk. Hegel's meaning was that philosophy only comes alive at the end of an age and era. The owl, a typical symbol of wisdom, activates at the time of night. While all becomes awash in dark, the owl, unlike other creatures, can see. Philosophy thus represents the end of an epoch, the post-script of the times, rather than the beginning or as an enduring force.

Hegel's thesis might be applied to theological reflection, particularly Luther's. In some ways, Luther was a bright light, but he is more like Hegel's owl. Luther reflects the end of the Medieval Roman church more than anything else. His work must be understood in an awareness of the end; he believed himself to be living on the edge of the eschaton. While we might properly say that we are always in the Last Day, that's now how Luther saw his times. Perhaps, in such a context, one must see some of Luther's theological positions as dead-ends; he expected his discoveries to be a part of the return of Christ.

However, the Church may go through a period of cycles. God's judgement on one epoch may usher in another. Thus, despite his beliefs, Luther helped to usher in a period of critical reassessment, manifest in the more radical wings. Both the Reformed and the Anabaptists, to give vague labels to incredibly diverse wings within the Reformation, expected not the end, but a new beginning. Luther saw his world end, but didn't fathom the beginning of a new one. In many ways, this is how tradition works. Represtination of the old is nothing but the dead faith of the living (as Jaroslav Pelikan put it); but reforming, returning, rediscovering is hearing the voice of the past once again. Ad Fontes was the cry of the Renaissance, but in confessing Christian hands, it's the great legacy of the Reformation.

While I understand the reaction to monastic works-righteousness, the later Luther's corpulence contrasts with the wounded and martyred bodies of the Anabaptists. The latter wielded a gravity in the willingness to suffer threats and torture for a commitment to Christ's call to evangelize. Their blood remains a stain, a judgement, on Europe's so-called Christian princes. As the Dutch Reformed writer, Leonard Verduin, put it, in so many words: the main Reformers recovered Christ's justification of sinners, but failed, unlike the radicals, to reclaim an understanding of Christian holiness.

I write all of this with myself in mind. Despite all of the above, I would always caution pessimism as a virtue, a manifestation of wisdom and discernment in a world of sin. While Christ has accomplished salvation, He did so by dying on a cross. As the Apostles testify, the Devil is still god of this age. However, I am prone to cynicism, to a jaded rejection of all of God's works in the world. Christ's question, "When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on Earth?", reveals the hearts of men in how they answer. Some days I want to answer that question with a no, but my response only reveals a heart that grows colder. Indeed, Christians pass through Winter seasons, when it seems that the seed of God's Word is obliterated. Yet, just as in Winter, the seed is not gone but hidden, growing and awaiting the coming of Spring. Thus, even in desolation, the Christian has eyes above, hoping in the Lord who can make things, all things, new.

All pessimism, if it is to be wise, must be tempered with the hope of the Word of God, who never comes back void. There may be theology that functions in the dark, but let us not listen too long, lest we forget that the light is always coming. It is only the light, and its manifestation in Human life, that provokes crisis for this age, whether to repent and believe unto life, or to reject and not believe unto death. Indeed, even as we are sinners, afflicted by sin, holiness becomes ever the more miraculous.  Such witnesses not to the power of man, but the power of God.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Flesh and Blood will Inherit the Kingdom of God: Doctrine, Biblical Text, and Regula Fidei

The great bishop and holy apologist Irenaeus spent a considerable amount of his writing career combating what he coined as the "Gnostic" heresy. He created the category, lumping diverse groups into a single error. Irenaeus combined pseudo-Christian groups to the outright pagan in order to clarify the particular resistance to the Biblical doctrine of creation. Gnostics held to a novel cosmology that saw creation in an ontologically negative light. That is to say, whether it was an accident, the invention of an evil god, punishment, or something else, the material world was, by nature, vile. This was not to deny corruption. Instead, Irenaeus combated those who saw corporeality itself as evil.

The bishop goes even a step further. In his Against Heresies, Irenaeus boldly stated that flesh and blood inherits the Kingdom of God. This contradicted, flatly, St. Paul, who wrote exactly the opposite: flesh and blood do not inherit the Kingdom of God. Now, Irenaeus knew this and explains as much. He qualifies his statement by explaining that what he and St. Paul mean are two different things, that the Apostle attacked corruptibility, not corporeality. Against the gnostics, Irenaeus inverted Paul's phrase to get at the truth of Paul's phrase. With their strange cosmic myths and Hellenistic metaphysical attachments, Irenaeus had to defend St. Paul from becoming a tool in the Gnostic arsenal.

Perhaps I'm too skiddish to do as Irenaeus did, or perhaps I'm rightly cautious, but it's interesting to note that one of the first major church fathers and apologists directly misquoted the text to affirm the meaning of the text. According to Fr. John Behr, this strategy was not wholly uncommon, as many voices of the Church appealed to the regula fidei, the canon, the rule of faith. The regula fidei was not alien to the text, or separable into an "unwritten oral tradition" that flowed alongside Scripture, but rather a sense of the whole of Scripture as a single book. Thus, against individual proof-texts, there was a grammar and pattern guiding the entirety of Scripture, namely the shape of Christ Jesus, His birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and promised parousia. The idea of a baptismal creed was not separable from the text, as if all you needed to do was memorize the creed, but rather see the creed as a form to organize our entry into the text, and the text as filling out the meaning of the creed. There's a deep interconnectedness between the regula and the Scripture; the former emerges out of the latter and reengages it. Thus, for Irenaeus who strongly held to the bodily resurrection, not only of Christ but all of Humanity, Gnostic proof-texting distorted Paul's words against themselves.

It's for the above reasons that one may appreciate that Luther added the (in)famous 'alone' to St. Paul's words. In doing so, Luther was trying to communicate how Rome had warped the meaning of the text. Luther was not against good works, but the sacramental-industrial complex the Medieval church had created. Faith alone was a means to detonate the entire system of penance and works which kept Christians in bondage to the traditions of men, no longer seeing Christ as savior. The semi-Pelagianism of Luther's day threatened to destroy the entire meaning of the faith, warping it into a syncretistic apparatus of magic and fear. Sola fide was an attempt to save Christian theology from becoming a tool of anti-Christ.

Perhaps, I make all of this sound more dramatic than it was. Certainly, Luther's solution is highly problematic. It's one thing to purposely misquote to regain the truth, but it's another to add to the Scripture itself. Now, I believe 'faith alone' is true and good, but I have no problem with St. James' statement that we are not saved by faith alone. It all depends on what you mean, just as both apostle Paul and bishop Irenaeus are both right, even as on the surface they contradict each other. Again, Luther's decision to put it in the Bible is not an error, per se, but reflected a growing systematic commitment. Hence, Luther was always frustrated with the Letter of James, considered removing it from the canon, though reverenced the tradition enough to never do it. It wasn't merely because of James' statement above, but because Luther thought the letter had no gospel. Here, a systematic commitment to a paradigm of law-gospel, while, again, not exactly wrong, begins to organize theology. For Lutheran theology, both law-gospel and sola fide can become a new regula, and, to put it harshly, warp the Scripture. In proportion, they're both true, but only so. Like some contemporary readers of Irenaeus, the bishop's emphasis on corporeality and matter can be warped to insist upon a love of the sensual and a near physicalism. Irenaeus, who lived a pretty ascetic life, would've found such beliefs totally alien to the church.

To the point, Irenaeus' and Luther's misquoting of the Bible was a means to preserve the actual teaching of the Scripture. Both handled the text with an awareness of the actual patterns of Scripture against what was being imposed upon it. While we might say Luther went beyond Irenaeus, to his detriment, we might still appreciate both as faithful expositors of the text, despite the appearance of abuse. The Devil can quote Scripture flawlessly, and the Pharisees and Temple Hierarchy knew their Torah well. Yet, Christ Jesus is the key to the whole of Scripture, and to Him we must turn again and again to learn how to understand the wonderful Book He placed us under. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Regnavit a Ligno Deus

I recently came across this post, which was proof to me that many Evangelicals lack understanding about Luther's greatest, perhaps only, contribution to Christian grammar: theologia crucis. The article basically documents, through a personal anecdote, the validity of Jenson's recent work on the cross in Christian art. Jenson's claim, filtered through the blogpost, is that early Christian art didn't use the cross for a few centuries. However, when Christians started using the cross, it was an empty one. The point is that early Christians focused more on the victory of Christ, which included an empty cross. It was in the Middle Ages where a piety formed focusing on Christ the victim. This sucked the victory out of Christ's work and turned worship into a piety of contemplation, sorrow, and suffering.The implication is that Christian theology warped, becoming more introspective, fixated on suffering an death, filled with bleakness, passivity, and tears.

I don't know enough about specific claims, but this account might generally true. However, this account of the crucifix as an art piece mistakes what else besides this sort of pietas dolorosa that one finds in the Middle Ages. In comes Luther's contribution at the Heidelberg Disputation. The theology of the cross, that he contrasts with a theology of glory, emphasizes a difference of approach, not a difference of narrative or event. No one denied Christ was crucified and no one denied Christ rose from the dead. But how those two events were related is key. It's easy to mistake a theology of the cross as somehow a reveling in suffering and death, but that's not the point. Rather, it's focusing on how God's work happens within a world of sin. The cross was not a step on the way to glory, rather the cross was the means of glory.

Evangelicals tend to flip between different aspects of a theology of glory. On the one hand is the above author, who is following a cavalcade of evangelicals who want to focus on Christ's resurrection. I was one of them, and it's a legitimate concern. The weepy, and frankly effete, piety of gazing on the womanish Jesus, passive, dead, broken, is disturbing, though not in the right way. It's perverse because it demotes God's ultimate presence in the world into something passive. For this reason, I despise those stupid and sappy Christmas hymns about the babe Christ in the cradle, as if God were merely passive as man felt bad about his actions. My soul hates the depiction of a god who like some weak beggar merely pleads for his rebellious children to come to him. There is a part of this which is true, but its overemphasis makes the Christ Pantocrater into a dumb doting grandfather. There are many of a Lutheran bent who would confirm my near-strawman, but they are blasphemers and lovers of men.

The other aspect is, as I described above, embrace the focus on the passive Christ of the cross. If you want to see a really perverse outworking of this theology, read traditional Moravian hymns. Zinzendorf, the chief theologian during their heydays, had a love of the dead Christ. Hymns refer to Christians as little maggots and corpses bees, hovering around the corpse of God, making a home in His wounds, eating Him and rolling around in His blood. This sort of thing is enough to be Zwinglian in regards to the sacrament! Moravians promoted a freakish liturgy that distorted the Lord's Supper into something evil.

I understand the Evangelical reaction that the above post reflects. However, it still mistakes the cross in the role of salvation. A theology of the cross sees the crucifixion not as a moment of brokenness, but of victory. But this vision is only accessible to the eyes of faith. It is why Fortunatus, a 5th~ century Latin, wrote the hymn Vexilla Regis Prodeunt, or 'The Royal Banner Goes'. In it, there's a line that goes, Regnavit a ligno Deus, or "God reigned from the tree". Here, one sees the cross not as a tragedy, but the instrument by which God incarnate judged, condemning sin, the world, and the devil. Thus, the passion account is a victory procession. It's why all the Gospels account a strange mix of exaltation and denigration. Christ's coronation takes place not in the center of the holy city, but outside. In purple, His crown is of thorns, and He is processed by thronging crowd of mockers and weepers. The account is truly bizarre because of the jarring images. Royalty and filth are brought together in a wonderful paradox: the King of Glory crucified.

What Luther articulated so succinctly in theologia crucis was this strange reversal. Christians since the Apostles have saw the paradox and marveled. God's ultimate presence in a sinful and corrupt world takes place dying on a cross; the fullest manifestation of blessing appears in the form of a curse. The crucifix is not, necessarily, a symbol of saccharine piety, but rather the stark revelation of God in victory. Art that depicts the crucified Christ may indeed be a hymn of conquest. To eyes of faith, one sees God's saving work; to the eyes of unbelief, one sees failure, mistakes, stupidity, or tragedy. Yet, as St. Paul tells us, the cross is the foolishness of God that is wiser than the wisdom of men. It is through such a prism that Christians should not only see God's ultimate work, but all subsequent works as well.

To conclude, I quote Pascal on the shape of natural theology through a theology of the cross. He understood that Scripture reveals the shape of the world, which enlightens the elect and blinds the reprobate. May you reflect on it:

"If the world existed to instruct man of God, His divinity would shine through every part
in it in an indisputable manner; but as it exists only by Jesus Christ, and for Jesus Christ,
and to teach men both their corruption and their redemption, all displays the proofs of these
two truths. All appearance indicates neither a total exclusion nor a manifest presence of divinity,
but the presence of a God who hides himself. Everything bears this character."

Sunday, August 13, 2017

From the Arms of Robbers: Divine Violence and Salvation

Many people have deep unease, to put it lightly, over the violent sections of the Old Testament. There God seems to be the war-master, bearing the title Lord of Hosts. Well, that's because He is. God is a warrior who has no problem entering into the thick of combat, getting His robes bloodied fighting for Israel against her enemies, enemies that resist not Israel per se, but Israel's God.

Now this unease arises not only from current sensibilities, a mix of philosophy and custom, but also from the New Testament's peace ethic. As I noticed elsewhere, there is a new work by Greg Boyd on the theme of divine violence in the Old Testament. I like Boyd, but the work is not worth a penny. Ten years of intellectual fervor and wrestling for incoherence and stuttering. All of it trying to run away from the plain reality of the text; all of it rooted in stupid indignation. For it is the same Jesus that brings life, restores, forgives, heals, and takes the sword from St. Peter who killed the rebellious Israelites in the Wilderness (ala. St. Jude). Scholarship can be a form of institutionalized, engraved, madness.

Yet it is clear that divine violence does not go away in the New Testament, but it is fulfilled. As St. Paul will notice, we wage war not against flesh and blood. This Greg Boyd understands, without knowing the sense of Scripture's unity. Boyd knows that we are in a cosmic war, but fails to appreciate how this violence is in fact pedagogical. Christian saints ought to be as violent as the Israelite saints. Yet our violence is given a fulfilled form, revealed in the life of Christ. We have better weapons than the Israelites; bronze swords and chariots do not attack the true evil. The wars of the Lord in Canaan were meant for us, as everything in Israel's history. Those who invoke just-war, realpolitik or crusades are Judaizers; while those who despise all violence are gnostics. Neither understands Christ as Lord of Hosts. And at least theonomists believe God is the proper authorizing force to usher war. I can't understand those who herald war, but rightly see Christ as not bringing a sword. These people are half-converted at best; at least in the crusades, one thought he killed for God, but what worth is it to kill for prince, country, or state? That is sheer lunacy or disguised Paganism. If one sees the abundance of American paraphanalia in churches, and keeps in mind that the Romans believed Rome herself, the city and its government, was a god, one can sadly say the latter is prevalent.

Peacemaking is a form of warfare. Baptism is the drowning of judgement upon the sons of Adam, the soldiers of Pharaoh's army. Prayer and fasting is to wear the armor of God to combat Satan and his forces. Apologetics is taking all thoughts captive for Christ. Repentance is a daily battle. The victory is guaranteed on account of Christ, who like holy Moses keeps his arms raised for us to crush our sinful passions, inner demons, and selfishness.. This is all the form of love in a sinful world. I conclude with some words from Blaise Pascal:

498. It is true there is difficulty in entering into godliness. But this difficulty does not
arise from the religion which begins in us, but from the irreligion which is still there. If our
senses were not opposed to penitence, and if our corruption were not opposed to the purity
of God, there would be nothing in this painful to us. We suffer only in proportion as the
vice which is natural to us resists supernatural grace. Our heart feels torn asunder between
these opposed efforts. But it would be very unfair to impute this violence to God, who is
drawing us on, instead of to the world, which is holding us back. It is as a child, which a
mother tears from the arms of robbers, in the pain it suffers, should love the loving and legitimate
violence of her who procures its liberty, and detest only the impetuous and tyrannical
violence of those who detain it unjustly. The most cruel war which God can make with
men in this life is to leave them without that war which He came to bring. "I came to send
war," He says, "and to teach them of this war. I came to bring fire and the sword." Before
Him the world lived in this false peace.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

"To the Pure, All Things are Pure": Belief and Unbelief in the Shadow of the Cross

Discourses on humility are a source of pride in the vain and of humility in the
humble. So those on scepticism cause believers to affirm. Few men speak humbly of humility,
chastely of chastity, few doubtingly of scepticism. We are only falsehood, duplicity, contradiction;
we both conceal and disguise ourselves from ourselves.

The above quote is from Blaise Pascal in reference to philosophy. For Pascal, the ultimate utility of philosophy is that it reveals the confusions and contradictions of man. All schools of philosophy are valid, because each tells a certain point. To quote another brilliant insight: "If he exalt himself, I humble him; if he humble himself, I exalt him; and I always contradict him, till he understands that he is an incomprehensible monster." Philosophy at its best reveals the Gordian knot with desperation; it has no answer besides chopping at it with a sword, mutilating mankind in the process.

However, more to the point, Pascal as a Jansenist believed that fundamentally Scripture reveals two categories of man: belief and unbelief. We might say that all of mankind is revealed when Jesus is on the cross between the two thieves. There is one who repents and throws himself upon the mercy of Christ, the other scoffs and mocks. In the moment of crucifixion, both die, but both see radically different worlds. To the one, there is translucence, Light that is shining through all, even the horror; to the other the world is opaque, fully enthralled to the devil and oriented only towards suffering, confusion, and death.

Pascal's Jansenist vision is stark, but helps make sense of St. Paul's sense that "to the pure, all things are pure", and that while all things are not beneficial, all things are lawful, according to the law of Christ. Libertines like to quote these without appreciating the Apostle's qualifiers. This is not merely according to some utilitarian purpose, but how all of created life exists through proper sight. Per the example above, in unbelief, a story of humility involves the two-sides of pride, arrogance and despair. One reads these and is stirred towards competition, sneering, or complacency, the other turns to tears, fear of judgement, and horror. Both reject a life of faith. Thus, one can hold together both the life of Antony, the first desert monk, and Luther's Reformational breakthrough, a total rejection of monastic life. While Antony can reveal a life turned against lust for wealth and prestige, Luther does the opposite, showing how a monastic life based in pride (in his case the despair side) becomes a tool of Satan.

Protestantism has a tendency to downplay many "monkish" practices. Fasting is mostly disdained, celibacy as anything but a precursor to marriage is seen as freakish, among other practices. Yet these are firmly advocated within the New Testament canon. I understand the whiplash of the Reformers, even if this pendulum swing has become institutionalized into both worldly asceticism (the Bourgeois practices of restraint documented by Weber) and a conscientious rejection of restraint. Fasting in unbelief is arrogant and vile, and so is feasting. All things not of faith are sin. The Jansenists understood the radical dichotomy in the wake of the Messiah. This is key to unlocking both a Christian sense of anti-thesis, and also a Christian sense of being, and remaining, firmly within the World.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Let the Queen Rest: Mariology, Biblical Theology, and Leaps of Logic

I've been reading a lot of great Biblical theology over at "Apologia Pro Ortho Doxa", which is a great source that I've linked to the sidebar. It's definitely worth checking out and soaking yourself in. However, I find it interesting that there are some gaps that one is almost swept across without noticing it.

For example, on a recent post on Mariology, he goes through a list of titles. There's a lot that's solid biblical connecting that has been enlightening. He does a good job connecting numerous Scriptural passages, with their concurrent types, patterns, themes, and logic, to argue that the Bible presents a pretty developed high Mariology. On this, I think he's right. There's sufficient warrant to call Mary Queen-Mother of Heaven, the Ark, Theotokos, etc. It's even warranted to consider Mary as the Ever-Virgin. All of this reflects early piety and ought not to scandalize biblically minded Christians. On the last point, a number of Reformers maintained a belief in Mary's perpetual virginity.

However, right in the middle of the article is the question of Mary's Dormition. The Orthodox do not go as far as Rome: though Mary lived a sinless life, she still was under the curse and was in-sin and had to die. Yet, after three days of laying in uncorrupting slumber, she was raised to life and assumed into Heaven to join her Son. The author makes a weak appeal to a reference in Revelation referring to the presence of the Ark. While, yes, it may be a reference to Mary, it's much more probably a reference to Christ. While there are references to Mary as the Ark carrying God's Glory, namely Christ, it is also equally valid to see how Christ, who was the Image of the Father, was Himself the Tabernacle as well. The classic opening lines of John 1, "The Word took flesh, and tabernacled amongst us", is proof enough. Even if this is a reference to Mary, since Christ bears her humanity, her flesh, this would still only mean that Christ, in the flesh, was present in the Heavenlies, centered in the throne of God's temple.

Of course, the cash-out for our friend is that this affirms Orthodoxy and (partially) Rome's doctrine. While I'm not opposed to post-facto reasoning as a jump start to a question, there is danger in it. There are several other posts that make other hops (or leaps) from certain biblical constellations to certain doctrines. One can see this similar leap appear over other doctrines. Yes, even God commands Abimelech to ask Abraham to pray for him in order to lift impending judgement, and yes the saints replace angels in God's divine chambers in Revelation. There may even be a distinction between greater and lesser prophets. Yet, nowhere in Scripture is it clear that God's people communicate with the reposed, or should call on their name for help. Considering this was strictly prohibited in the Old Covenant, one would expect some treatment of this. The same with iconodulia of the Orthodox variety, with canonical standards and rubrics. I understand the logic, employed most powerfully by John Damascene. But considering how crucial they are to proper worship, it makes sense that the legend of St. Luke as a painter must exist if Orthodoxy wants to remain grounded in Scripture. If the New Testament Church lacked icons, then the worship was, at best, improved upon, if not, at worst, inferior. These are a few examples of the leap.

Of course, this negation does not offer a strong and grounded alternative. Many Protestants may not pray to, or invoke, Mary or the saints, but they do not offer reverence for their holy lives lived and offered to God as a sweet incense, turning to smoke and becoming that great cloud of witnesses that surrounds Christ. In other words, there needs to be a robust biblical theology, but one that remains within the logic of the text. While Scripture may draw together a picture of Mary, the humble-but-exalted Queen-Mother of the Heavenly Man, there is little warrant to beseech her throne. The pattern ends there; we are turned to Christ as our mediator, our greatest prophet.

The blog is still brilliant. It's a good place to cut your teeth on biblical patterns and canonical reasoning. However, even so, it's easy to be swept across a gap to something else. Indeed, as many Fundamentalists know, the prophets excoriate the offering of sweetcakes to the Queen of Heaven. Perhaps that's a typological warning.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Felling the Donar Oak: A Personal Allegory

The story of the Donar Oak is a fascinating one. In it, St. Boniface, a missionary among pagan Germanic peoples, came to a challenge of faith. The pagans held that a certain tree in the village was holy, consecrated to Thor. Boniface offered a challenge to their god: if he cut down the tree, or at least attempted it, Thor in his fury would crush him. This would be proof of the god's power and mastery. However, if Boniface's God was true, then no such harm would befall him. As the story goes, Boniface swung at the tree, making a deep cut, which was followed from a gale force that blasted the tree down, splitting it into four pieces, forming a cross. These pieces were used for the construction of a church, which many Pagans, in awe, renounced their god and turned to Christ.

I don't know if this story is true, though on historical grounds, not because I don't believe the Spirit works miracles. However, I enjoy the story a lot, and have a picture of it I like to ponder. As I was looking at it, I had a flash of insight about it. I recognized the story as an allegorical reflection of my own life.

I've always found the Norse gods interesting. First and foremost, the gods are mortal; they suffer pain and can die. In fact, they not only can die, but are ultimately doomed to die. The gods, among their many allies, including the honorable dead allowed into Valhalla, know they will perish. They know the prophesy of Ragnarok, where the Ice Giants will rise up against Asgard. The gods and their allies will put up a valiant fight, but they will lose. All of the worlds will be consumed in ultimate destruction, and the Giant Serpent, coiled around the World Tree, on which all worlds dwell, will be destroyed.

I've been drawn to the kind of existential dread this cosmic view produces. There's a kind of stoic nihilism about it. Similarly to the Stoics themselves, there is the belief that one day the entire world will be engulfed in a conflagration. However, unlike the Stoics who believed this was the end point of an endless cycle, where out of the ash the entire process would begin anew, the Norse had no such belief (though there are some glosses that a new humanity would be born from the ashes). There was a hard-faced determination to face death, despising it as it claims you. It's not that the gods or the warriors of Valhalla wanted to perish, but there was, perhaps, a kind of grim glee in knowing that one died without giving an inch. At least that is the warrior's illusion.

In someways, this Pagan view of things was the seed of the German Enlightenment. This began with Kant, but sprouted truly with Fichte and Romanticism, with its blending, twisting and turning, within the rationalism left over from the French and Scottish Enlightenments. Herder, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger. These men and many others, in diverse and sometimes contrasting ways, produced the mood of what we might call the neo-Pagan, or perhaps the post-Christian. It was less about explicit rejection of Christ (though there was sometimes that), but it was more proceeding through Him to something new. Beginning in the German Enlightenment, continental philosophy is a kind of rebirth of something old and ancient.

I'm constantly lured to continental philosophy, a veritable labyrinth and maze for the mind. It is forgotten that philosophy has almost always never been severed from some larger holistic project. Rather, philosophy has always been attached to cult, not as something standing outside of it. While Socrates lampooned the foolish devotions of the prols and their justifications, he believed himself possessed of a spirit that spoke to him. Plato turned Socrates into a cult-leader, seeing man's origin and end, and lifting him up. While Plato did believe in the utility of false myth, this was for the purposes of double-doctrine, a manufactured street religion exists for pedagogy while the philosophers worship at the true cult. Elites of all times and places have set a part mystical and magical rites to seek the secrets of the cosmos. Neo-Platonism was not a mere philosophy, but a religion. The Renaissance revival of antiquity studies came with a revival of Hermeticism and esoteric cult rites. Again, this is not necessarily hostile to Christianity, but it reconfigures Christian doctrines, symbols and rites into a different picture.

One must keep all of this in mind when one examines continental philosophy. It occurs to me that perhaps the style of writing is so strange, verbose, and winding for its experiential weight. It has a sacred aura; the word has some goal to accomplish, and to grasp the word, one must study, not merely read, the text. The Bible is similar, and one has to enter into it, wrestle with it, be present within it, to gain understanding. Of course, the Bible leads to Christ. The post-Christianity above rather leads to anti-Christ. One emerges through a torch lit labyrinth to find men wearing animal masks, naked virgins, and a bloody altar. At the center stands the oak, adorned with symbols of the god.

All of this has led me into sins, of both arrogance and cowardice. I've polluted my mind with foolish readings, I've compromised time and again in social settings, I've neglected weighty things for vain conjuring. In the depths of my heart there is a Donar Oak, consecrated to those pathetic, nihilistic gods of yore, full of madness and lust.

But I'm not this oak. Rather, by the blood of Christ and radiant light, I am Boniface. The Christian's life is a life of repentance, every day turning to our God and King. Everyday Boniface must lay an axe to the root of the Donar Oak. Everyday I have to drive out these dispositions. A fool like Schliermacher tried to etch a cross on the Donar Oak; Christ hands us an axe. The only answer for these things is destruction. The inner druid, the harrying of Satan, must be humiliated by the Gospel everyday. And victory belongs not to my swinging, but to the bolt of Divine fire which blows apart the tree. The Lord lifts my hands, and supplies me with heavenly aid.

And as the tree fell, it formed the shape of a cross. The wood was collected and repurposed to build a house for the church. Thus, continental philosophy is not totally useless, it can serve a purpose. But to a purist, for someone who reads the texts as a devotee, who builds their career as a philosopher, expositor, and builder, this is anathema. The reading I have done is not a waste, it can be split open, ripped apart, mutilated, losing all shape and form of its organic beginning, and turned to the comfort of God's purposes. Indeed, Ragnarok has come, but it is in the form of the cross, and I find myself not with the gods and their Asgardian allies, but against them, breaking their teeth, triumphing over them. Worship and praise must be erected in my heart, and the demons banished. My existential constitution is turned inside out, and the core of it is radically undermined. For the axe is laid to the root.

This is an allegorical interpretation of a saintly story. It may sound odd and seemingly conjectured. Rather, while it is a post-Biblical hagiographical story, it parallels with numerous Scriptural themes (namely holy Elijah versus the Baal priests). In addition, the flash of insight connected a lot of dots in my mind. Much of the details of my struggles have been left out, though I will say, being mostly of Germanic heritage, this story has a certain fittingness for me. It marks the struggles I've had and, time and again, God's gracious aid especially in times of darkness. May this story bless you as well as it has me.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

"Be we as heroic as we like": Eternal Questions and Human Vanity

I don't have much of a gloss to add to this. Pascal responds to those who have no desire to understand eternal questions, those Dawkins-types who shout, "There's probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life". Here, Pascal's thought radiates with fire and clarity. It is concise, full of power and grace, the perfect twinning of intellect and emotion. It's worthy of reflection.

In order to attack [doctrine of God's existence, they should have protested that they had made every effort to seek Him everywhere, and even in that which the Church proposes for their instruction, but
without satisfaction. If they talked in this manner, they would in truth be attacking one of
her pretensions. But I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I
venture even to say that no one has ever done so. We know well enough how those who are
of this mind behave. They believe they have made great efforts for their instruction when
they have spent a few hours in reading some book of Scripture and have questioned some
priests on the truths of the faith. After that, they boast of having made vain search in books
and among men. But, verily, I will tell them what I have often said, that this negligence is
insufferable. We are not here concerned with the trifling interests of some stranger, that we
should treat it in this fashion; the matter concerns ourselves and our all.

The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us and which
touches us so profoundly that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing
what it is. All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there
are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and
judgment unless we regulate our course by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate
end. Thus our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject,
whereon depends all our conduct. Therefore among those who do not believe, I make a vast
difference between those who strive with all their power to inform themselves and those
who live without troubling or thinking about it.

I can have only compassion for those who sincerely bewail their doubt, who regard it
as the greatest of misfortunes, and who, sparing no effort to escape it, make of this inquiry
their principal and most serious occupation.

But as for those who pass their life without thinking of this ultimate end of life, and
who, for this sole reason that they do not find within themselves the lights which convince
them of it, neglect to seek them elsewhere, and to examine thoroughly whether this opinion
is one of those which people receive with credulous simplicity, or one of those which, although
obscure in themselves, have nevertheless a solid and immovable foundation, I look
upon them in a manner quite different.

This carelessness in a matter which concerns themselves, their eternity, their all, moves
me more to anger than pity; it astonishes and shocks me; it is to me monstrous. I do not say
this out of the pious zeal of a spiritual devotion. I expect, on the contrary, that we ought to
have this feeling from principles of human interest and self-love; for this we need only see
what the least enlightened persons see.

We do not require great education of the mind to understand that here is no real and
lasting satisfaction; that our pleasures are only vanity; that our evils are infinite; and, lastly,
that death, which threatens us every moment, must infallibly place us within a few years
under the dreadful necessity of being for ever either annihilated or unhappy.

There is nothing more real than this, nothing more terrible. Be we as heroic as we like,
that is the end which awaits the world. Let us reflect on this and then say whether it is not
beyond doubt that there is no good in this life but in the hope of another; that we are happy
only in proportion as we draw near it; and that, as there are no more woes for those who
have complete assurance of eternity, so there is no more happiness for those who have no
insight into it.

Surely then it is a great evil thus to be in doubt, but it is at least an indispensable duty
to seek when we are in such doubt; and thus the doubter who does not seek is altogether
completely unhappy and completely wrong. And if besides this he is easy and content,
professes to be so, and indeed boasts of it; if it is this state itself which is the subject of his
joy and vanity, I have no words to describe so silly a creature.

How can people hold these opinions? What joy can we find in the expectation of nothing
but hopeless misery? What reason for boasting that we are in impenetrable darkness?

[...]

Nothing reveals more an extreme weakness of mind than not to know the misery of a godless man. Nothing is more indicative of a bad disposition of heart than not to desire the truth of eternal promises. Nothing is more dastardly than to act with bravado before God. Let them then leave these impieties to those who are sufficiently ill-bred to be really capable of them. Let them at least
be honest men, if they cannot be Christians. Finally, let them recognise that there are two
kinds of people one can call reasonable; those who serve God with all their heart because
they know Him, and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know Him.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Apostles were Fishermen

Sometimes I'll hear the refrain that the Apostles were fishermen, blue-collar toughs, who went out into the world with no education and turned it inside out. This is usually an anti-intellectual barb, thrown out at professional theologians and seminarians. The apostles lacked education, so why waste time with so much nonsense? The Holy Spirit gave the Apostles all that they needed. Instead, Christians ought to focus on missions and evangelism.

Now this concept has ancient pedigree, going back to St. Gregory of Nazianzus. And I would agree with the concept on the surface of it. Indeed, seminaries can be all too worldly, fitting comfortably within the education-industrial complex that is imploding all around the United States. Ministry has become perverted into a "career" or "profession" that one gains skills in. In a way, this a particular problem spawned from the Reformation's concept of vocation. However, I despise the anti-intellectual bent of this phrase, and its mechanical and misanthropic view of Human being and development. Here are some points on why the Apostles were not merely fishermen.

1) They were Jews. What this means is that they were immersed in the Scriptures from birth. Especially for those living in the Hellenic age, Jews felt a particular type of defensiveness and anti-thesis; the world they lived in was foreign and strange. The system of synagogues helped inculcate living as God's chosen people. The average Jew would memorize large portions of the Torah, even if they were illiterate, from congregational readings. Thus, the Apostles would've been deeply sculpted by the Scriptures and possess great familiarity with them, even if, as the Gospels testify, they did not understand them. Sadly, the same can not be said for many Christians of all stripes. There are many who are biblically illiterate, not having any basic sense or grasp of chronology, signification, pattern, or logic. While the Apostles were not formally educated, their minds were not foreign to the Scripture, but were rather molded by it.

2) They were taught by Jesus. When Christ rose from the grave, He remained for forty days before His Ascension and the coming of the Spirit. In this time, the Gospels repeatedly testify to the fact that Jesus instructed the disciples on the meaning of Scripture, teaching them that the Christ was to die and rise on the third day. Obviously, this does not mean that Christ Jesus merely taught them this as cipher or a code. Rather, He taught the Twelve to see with new eyes, not how to apply an alien fact on top of the text, but to see how this very truth emerges from the entire body of Scripture. I think it's fair to say that Christ did not sit down, have one Bible study with the Twelve, and they never needed to think about it again. Rather, they spent the rest of their lives in the text, growing, learning, perceiving. What we have left of their teachings in the gospels and letters of the New Testament is Spirit-breathed, infallible, the manifestation of what Christ had taught the Apostles, worked out through their lives and in their own pens.

Pursuing a healthy and strong life of the mind is key to good teaching in Christ's Body. This does not mean formal, accredited, academic instruction (though that's not necessarily a bad thing). However, it doesn't mean an unreflective, anti-intellectual, turns towards pride. What I mean is that one must not only sit down with the Bible, but learn how to read and see. This is the benefit of tradition, particularly a living tradition. Teachers of the faith teach us, who in return teach others, and so on. The perspicuity of Scripture is not in opposition to the fact that one needs guidance in understanding it. This is clear in the number of atheist blogs that claim to have all sorts of proof-texts for the incoherency, immorality, ineptitude, and inadequacy of the biblical text. In some ways, this is God's judgement on unfaithful mutilation of His holy writ.

While you may not need to read philosophy, literary theory, biology, etc. to become a faithful teacher of the flock, you need to be an intellectual, mentally captive to the Word of God. You must be learned, and to do so is not a self-proclaimed task or title, but done by sitting at the feet of those who've gone before, whether living or dead, preserved in writings. Part of learning is purgative, a purification process which helps drive out our own vanities and conceits to make room for hearing another voice. Learning is a receptive activity, involving submission and patience. These are necessary virtues. While the Spirit gives teaching as a gift to His church, I have no idea why some would presume to think this is in opposition to temporal striving and struggle. Instead, may we listen for the Shepherd, in the midst of His flock, teach us, and may we devote our whole mind to loving God to His glory, and our good.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Illusion of a Vocation So-Called

A most important thread in American life is work. It's usually one of the first things people ask you after your name, "Where do you work?", "What do you do?" etc. And this is not inherently bad, work is a part of creaturely life. However, the mistaken is to confuse God's calling, our vocation, with this sort of thing.

To even use the word "vocation" is to conjure up an evil theological ghost, created during the Reformation and mutated to the present day. Many of the Reformers wanted to abolish the secular-religious distinction for peoples, where the latter were the truest Christians and the latter submitted to the Church and followed a watered-down ethical code. This was just as evil, and why many Reformers blasted monkery as a grave error. However, due to maintaining the structure of Christendom, the Holy Society, Church and State formed into a single nation, this began to mutate into the idea of a certain sort of professionalism. It's not that you happen to be a merchant, but God called you to be a merchant, in a special way, and not in His general providence.

While the idea is that God cares about you in all your pursuits, it turns into a sanctification of worldliness. It's not as much a calling for you to follow Christ in your mundane and normal affairs, or to act according to the truths of the faith in all that you do, from the home to the worksite. Rather, one's religion becomes attached to a certain profession, whether it's "blue-collar" or "white-collar" type of work. This only continued the problems of Medieval society. It's part of the reason, or so I think, why "Sunday-Christian" is a phenomenon and why men are many times absent from devotional and ecclesiological life. But I digress.

For reflection, here are some words from Pascal, on the illusion of finding some purpose or transcendental meaning in our common labors:

97. The most important affair in life is the choice of a calling; chance decides it. Custom
makes men masons, soldiers, slaters. "He is a good slater," says one, and, speaking of soldiers,
remarks, "They are perfect fools." But others affirm, "There is nothing great but war; the rest
of men are good for nothing." We choose our callings according as we hear this or that
praised or despised in our childhood, for we naturally love truth and hate folly. These words
move us; the only error is in their application. So great is the force of custom that, out of
those whom nature has only made men, are created all conditions of men. For some districts
are full of masons, others of soldiers, etc. Certainly nature is not so uniform. It is custom
then which does this, for it constrains nature. But sometimes nature gains the ascendancy
and preserves man's instinct, in spite of all custom, good or bad.

98. Bias leading to error.—It is a deplorable thing to see all men deliberating on means
alone, and not on the end. Each thinks how he will acquit himself in his condition; but as
for the choice of condition, or of country, chance gives them to us. It is a pitiable thing to see so many Turks, heretics, and infidels follow the way of their fathers for the sole reason that each has been imbued with the prejudice that it is the best. And that fixes for each man his condition of locksmith, soldier, etc. Hence savages care nothing for Providence.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Successors to the Apostles: An Apology for the Figure of the Bishop

This post is an argument for necessary role of bishops, as the common English translation for the Greek, in the life of the Church. However, I think how many have argued for bishops is woeful. This is an initial sketch, so bear with me. Part of this is post facto reasoning, based on the longevity of the separate role of bishops throughout Christian history. Yet, I hope to open up new avenues of discussion. Now, on with the show.

My position depends on figuration, seeing the words and concepts of Scripture as being Real, finding their universal ground in Christ Himself, in an almost naively surface sense. That means, contrary to Platonizers, there is no hidden Real behind the text of Scripture. The very words of Scripture reflect this Real. However, they do this because they find their referent in Christ Jesus, who is both Author and Subject of the totality of Scripture. All the diverse forms, arcs, and models of Scriptures are found in Christ, either as reflections of His glory or as shadows cast in a sinful World. Thus, our discussion of bishops refers not a monarchical principle, but to the fact that Christ is our ultimate bishop (c.f. 1 Peter 2:25).

Now I also believe that Scripture, in its totality, has purpose. There are no mere loose bits, even if the authors of Scripture did not intend much by them. Thus, there's a reason why St. Paul ends his letters the way he does, even to ask St. Timothy to bring him pen and parchment. I don't know what this means or why it's included, but I take that if, indeed, all of Scripture is inspired, then this too fits within the canon of Scripture.

Given the above, I assume explanations of Apostolic authority, and St. Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus are significant. As some research has postulated, Timothy and Titus were not merely elders of the Church, but had a special warrant, from Paul himself, to act in his authority. Thus, as Christ commissioned Paul, thus Paul commissioned Timothy and Titus with Apostolic authority (see this for some more details). However, I am not a dispensationalist. Yes, there are two covenants, but I believe as much because Scripture testifies between a temporary form and an eternal fulfilled form. However, I do not believe that there is a distinct Apostolic period which closed at the death of St. John. Rather, we are still living in the age of the Apostles, though indeed there are no more Apostles. In similar vein, the Israelites in, say, 10 BC, lived in the age of holy Moses, being still under the Torah, and awaiting the Christ to come. Moses was dead, there was not another law-giver, but it was still Moses' age. As an aside, it is perhaps fitting to not think that the age of Moses ended, as much as it was eclipsed or swallowed up, the way Moses and Elijah vanished before the three Apostles on Mt. Tabor, leaving only Christ.

Thus, I go even a step further to say that the bishops are successors to the Apostles. But what I mean by this is different than what Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox mean by this. I do not claim that there is an unbroken chain of bishops that organizationally preserve Christ's Church. I also do not believe in Augustine's mechanical theory of grace being passed along through ordination. Rather, it is that bishops function in the Apostolic role, not as direct emissaries of Christ, but as emissaries of the Apostles, whose writings have been preserved as Scripture. Thus, I say more than some who advocate bishops as merely good government, or fitting to a particular time and place.

What role did the Apostles play? If we look at the life of  Paul, we see someone not shackled to particular place as the head of a community. Rather, he circled a region, expanding in its mission, where he maintained oversight of the communion he shepherded. As an Apostle, he received a distinct and special commission from Christ, as did the rest of the Apostles. Bishops, as successors to the Apostles, possess a vocation similar to the Apostles, given the task of oversight, maintaining communities' health in worship, teaching, and sociability. The role of the bishop involves pastoring pastors,  watching over a multiplicity. Christ, the Bishop of bishops, exercises this role when he commends and rebukes the churches of Asia.

It should be obvious that the development of bishops as princes or provincial governors is an abhorrent mutation of the Biblical figure. Rather, I take the Waldensian "Uncle" as a good example. The Waldensians were "heretics" during the Middle Ages. While groups of them existed across the south of France, the Cottian Alps, and into the Black Forest, Uncles, distinguishing themselves from the Roman titular "Father", traveled to support these groups. The Uncle would preach, recite Scripture, solve communal difficulties, and report news from the faithful. In recompense, some groups of Waldensians offered food and money to the Uncle, as he traveled, in a circuit, to other congregations. This particular circuit, to put it crudely, was his diocese.

The bishop has a distinctly missionary role as well. In someways, the modern circuit preacher, from the Wesleys to the Revivalist living out of his car, fulfill a similar function. Of course, self-appointed authority can be dangerous, and lead to personality cults. However, the circuit preacher inadvertently provides oversight in his visits, bringing the community together and shaking up its constitution. Even groups without bishops recognize the need for this outside accountability to diverse congregations connected together. Presbyterians have enacted the role of bishop through bureaucratic mechanisms and panels of elders who oversee a certain geographic region. Sometimes a session elder pops in to make sure the preaching meets an orthodox standard or the community is not in pure anarchy.

In a similar way to the countryside, many early bishops had a role in smaller geographic circumference of the city. They exercised oversight over the many churches of a city, too big to gather as a single corporate entity. Of course, with the creation of specific areas and buildings for worship, the bishop's wandering style was reduced to a "throne", from which he preached and exercises his role over the Christians of the city. This is not exactly a bad thing, but its contingently static form morphed to permanency as bishops were considered ecclesiastical governors. From this, the diocesan structure emerged as a parallel to Imperial provinces. Again, not in an of itself a bad thing, but easily a slip into thinking Christ's churches are conjoined to particular temporal government, which is but the City of Man, doomed to frustration and failure, and manifesting the Devil's reign over this present age.

Oversight is key to the functioning and health of Christ's Church. It is a means of missionary expansion and the unity of multiple congregations. The insider-outsider life of the bishop exercises a key check against congregational inbreeding, stagnation, and corruption. The bishop is both close enough to form discerning judgements, but distant enough to not be sucked into local politiking. In addition, the personal nature of the office helps curb denominationalism, the dying modus vivendi of most of modern Christianity. Oversight is contained in an office inhabited by a man, not a superstructure of clerks and bureaucrats, many times lost in stacks of papers, and wrapped into the mindset of a corporation.

Now, not all bishops fulfill their role, some function very well as higher ranked bureaucrats with fancy robes. But Christ's many churches, as they are becoming His Bride, fail in many forms they are to inhabit. Offices exist for a function, and their abuse does not signal their uselessness. Rather, as Christ was Bishop, Presbyter/Priest/Elder, and Deacon of His people, fulfilling these roles in their diverse forms, they remain indestructible against Human corruption, vanity, and sin. These three roles are not essential for a church to be a church, but they are crucial to the well-functioning of the church, especially as it grows and connects with others.

This was a brief, tentative, and incomplete sketch of why I think Christians ought to reconsider the office of the bishop, as many assume it in its grotesque Medieval form as the norm. As long as Christ reigns, such will never be the norm. And, as it has appeared through some of my historical examples, the office of the bishop continues to be exercised, even if it lacks the explicit name. I hope to recover such a glorious name to keep such roles within a biblical grammar. The Father's purposes cannot be stopped, even in the face of Human weakness, which many times becomes the very means the Spirit brings them about.