Monthly Archives: December 2005

The small steps to disloyalty

“Why Study The Past?: The Quest For The Historical Church” (Rowan Williams)

I was passing time on a recent plane flight by reading Rowan Williams’ book Why Study the Past and found it to be an interesting and worthwhile read. His discussion of the identity of the early church was particularly interesting given that so many of the debates in the current controversies seem to be, at their heart, debates over the identity of the Church or of a particular community of Christians. I was especially interested in this bit, when he’s discussing the martyrologies and the way the early Christians had to grapple with apostasy:

We tend to see this as an issue about rigorism over behaviour; but we need to acknowledge the deeper and more elusive motivations that had to do with fears about the loss of the Church’s sacredness. The holy body, like Polycarp’s body in the arena at Smyrna, must be one that is consumed by the divine; when other links and loyalties are at work, you cannot intelligibly argue about how the Church is really an assembly of the citizens of heaven and holy in virtue of its repudiation or relativising of other kinds of citizenship. (p 38-39)

I read this not long after watching the movie Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace for the first time–this writing on the lives of the martyrs and the meaning of their martyrdom led me to consider the issue of divided loyalties in our own day. It is clear that part of the radicality of the the Christian faith that it disallows or relativizes all other commitments. Anything that threatens to trivialize this commitment, to place it on a par to other loyalties, is in fact idolatry–whether it be commitment to material wealth, any number of voluntary associations or political parties–the idea that any ideology could challenge or over-shadow one’s obedience to Christ is antithetical to the Gospel.

Yet such a conviction is easier to explain than it is to keep and it may be that it is observed more in the breach than in the keeping in our own day. We live in a country where we are blessed to enjoy freedom of worship and gathering, the ability to read our Bibles and share our faith, a country where we are most likely not going to face the same dramatic choices that some of our brothers and sisters over-seas may have to face. Very few American Christians are going to face the choice between renouncing their faith and being beheaded–even those of us that come out of backgrounds hostile to the Christian message, such as Islam or some other religions, usually have only to worry about the repercussions of family negativity or estrangement. Yet, because our choices are so rarely extreme in the same way, the temptations facing us are subtle–the song of the siren rather than the club of the tyrant. Rather than being hauled before our accuser and offered the clear choice: “Do you continue to proclaim Jesus or do you relent and accept our alternative?”, we are faced with a series of small, seemingly insignificant choices every day that, when combined, can set us on our way toward apostasy. This may be the failure to pray openly because of fear of embarrassment, or to speak out against a clear evil because it might give offense. How many of us are willing to allow our values and actions to be shaped more by the surrounding culture–by movies, music, political platforms or self-help gurus than by the values of the Gospel and the authority of Scripture? In my own life I am continually amazed at how many habits I have and assumptions I make that I have never taken the time to examine in light of the gospel, to lay bare before the Lord and pray for correction, only to find when I do that I have been motivated by some sin or ignorance that has no place in Christ’s kingdom. It is in these small things that all-together amount to rejection that we find out path to Idolatry–and we’re under judgment for it whether we recognize it or not.

[Listening to: Siddhartha’s of Suburbia from the album “The Future That Was” by Josh Joplin Group ]

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Something to think about…

Ben Witherington writes about the Problem with Evangelical Theology:

What has concerned me as an exegete and NT scholar is that all of the major Evangelical theologies now on offer (Calvinism, Wesleyanism, Dispensationalism, Pentecostalism and sometimes several of these combined) have their exegetical weaknesses– some more glaring than others. What is most interesting to me is the fact that these weaknesses consistently show up when one or another of these theologies try to say something distinctive or different– something that distinguishes them from other Evangelical theologies. For example, the rapture theology of Dispensationalism, the predestinarian/eternal security theology of Calvinism, the charismatic gifts requirement tagged to some experience subsequent to conversion of Pentecostalism, or some forms of the perfection argument in Weslyanism. All of these ‘distinctives’ in fact are ideas that are very weakly grounded in Scripture. Indeed often one or another of these ideas seems to be supported in spite of what Scripture says over and over again.

This is probably a good general rule of thumb for theology: If it’s unique its probably either an error or a heresy. Just keep that in mind.

{read it all}

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What we leave behind. . .

Remains of the cathedral at Lisbon Remains of Lisbon Cathedral
I love old books as much for where they’ve been as what they contain. For example, I was recently looking at a little volume of prayers written by Robert Louis Stevenson that I picked up amongst a box of other books at an SPCK book sale in Cowan Tennessee (a little town close to Sewanee where the SPCK warehouse is). Inside the book I found this dedication, which made me pause to reflect a moment:

“For my good friend and faithful rector, Edgar T. Fennell, this little book is presented, because I love it, and he and I so often like the same things.”

I know nothing else about this priest–none of the other books in the box were formerly his it seems, and at any rate, the dedication was dated 1943, so one doubts there are a great many folks still active who might know of him or his story. And yet, there is a beauty and a truth to the status of this dedication–from it I learn that this man, a servant of God, made an impact in someone’s life, that he was a friend to at least one person, and that that friend thought he would appreciate a small collection of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson.

I’m sure, in our moments of weakness we all allow delusions of grandeur to enter our minds–what difference might I make, what minstrels might weave tales of my exploits–I know these sorts of ideas come all too often to my mind. And yet, how many of us, even those giants of the world stage, can be said to have truly impacted anyone in a deep way? Celebrity, fame, fortune–all these are fleeting–and, in the end, I think it is far better to be remembered in ways such as this, in the dedication of a friend on the inside cover of a worn book–for it is the small things we do that really matter.

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The Joys of Christmas

MM over at Theology of the Body has an interesting post about Christmas in the good ol’ US of A:

what are many Christians doing? They sulk about “commercialism,” “pagan solstice origins,” “seasonal stress,” “holiday blues,” and “Market Economy Exploitation of the Season.” Oh COME ON. In a world where one’s children may be slowly put to death for one’s mere confession of Christ, we get to rollick in His fame, and our very storefronts do it with us. This is a Winter Wonderland for Jesus’ followers. Its amazing.

{Read it all}

The Shadow of Abortion

baby From Orthodoxy Today, Dr. Albert Mohler discusses the Perverse Logic of Abortion. The following is a selection. Read it all.

According to Dr. Harrison, the moral status of the unborn child is entirely up to the woman herself: “It’s not a baby to me until the mother tells me it’s a baby,” he stated.

The stories of other women visiting the clinic are both heartbreaking and deeply troubling. A twenty-year-old administrative assistant, preparing to end her first pregnancy, assured herself: “It’s an everyday occurrence. It’s not like this is a rare thing.” She didn’t like having to pay 750 dollars for the abortion, but she demonstrated no doubt about her decision. “It’s not like it’s illegal. It’s not like I’m doing anything wrong.” Furthermore, “I’ve been praying a lot and that’s been a real source of strength for me. I really believe God has a plan for us all. I have a choice, and that’s part of my plan.”

That last statement represents one of the most convoluted–and yet revealing–comments made by any of the women interviewed in Simon’s article. The logic of “choice” finds its ultimate culmination in this young woman’s decision to abort her baby as “part of my plan.”

Another young woman has come to the clinic seeking to terminate her pregnancy so that she can fit into her wedding dress in coming weeks. A 32-year-old college student acknowledges that she has already had four abortions in the last twelve years. Abortion, she tells Simon, “is a bummer, but no big stress.”

Dr. William F. Harrison is one of the most outspoken abortion providers in the United States. In a statement provided to Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, Dr. Harrison commented: “I provide abortions because if I did not, my patients would have to travel anywhere from 90 to 200 miles to get this service in an abortion clinic from someone whose qualifications are totally unknown. I am firmly committed to the ideal that all people, male and female, should have as much autonomy as possible and that they should have the best medical care feasible. That means that some caring and competent physicians in each community should provide abortions.” He continued: “In my community, all the other physicians providing abortions from the early 1970s to 1984 were frightened away from their duty to their patients by pro-life militants. I have no intention of permitting extremists to dictate my morals, my ethics or my professional activities then, now or ever.”

{Read it all}

Helpful check from MM @ Theology of the Body


And finally, I just dont understand why well-intentioned critics dont spend their critiquing time going out to find young emergents in need of pastoral guidance, and then offer the services of the Older, Wiser, and Self-Consciously More Orthodox and Concerned About It to these communities of precious young souls. As far as I’m concerned, no one has the right to critique the Emerging Church until they have personally sought them out at Starbucks behind their Macs, complimented the Christian icon on their screen AND their great bag and shoes, and then attempted to build a relationship with them. Get real, critics. Shepherd, dont stymie.

{Read it all}

Now playing: [Casimir Pulaski Day~Sufjan Stevens~Illinois~5:53]

Why I’m not a Baptist or non-denominational pt. II


In an earlier post I mentioned briefly some of the reasons I felt compelled to leave the Baptist church. Primarily, I focussed on the realization I had that the rationalism inherent in some Baptist beliefs seemed to allow no room for the Spirit and to falsely restrict the miraculous. That said, there were also some other reasons, and reasons why I simply didn’t go to a pentecostal or charismatic or non-denominational church.

Primarily, at least at the time, my reasons for visiting the churches that did–i.e. Methodist, Lutheran, Orthodox and Episcopalian–had to do with a sense that I had that I wanted to find a church that understood the importance of history and respected the faithful who went before. Additionally, while I was inspired to return to church through Young Life, I didn’t feel that the spirituality, the relationship fostered with Christ, was as deep as it might be in other contexts. I had similar reactions when I returned to the Baptist Church. My sense of going to the Baptist church was that I was not so much going to worship or to Church, but instead going to Sunday School with a little singing. I don’t mean to bash the way baptists and non-denominational (mostly Baptists in denial) churches worship, I’m indebted to them, I just didn’t feel like I was really giving god my worship.

In contrast, when i attended liturgical churches–especially once I visited the Episcopal church–I felt like I was truly worshiping God without any interference or distraction. I didn’t have to worry about what someone was going to do next, what soloist was going to jump up and start performing etc… instead, I had the experience of praising God with one voice, as a body using the same words. Far from being dry and dead, the liturgy freed me up, it allowed me to participate in worship while freeing my mind up for internal prayer. When I worship in an Anglican service, I know the responses, and I appreciate the power of the words, the thoughts and images inspired by them–because of the picture they paint, the feelings and sense they evoke, I can move in that world, I can have my private prayers and then I can come back to the liturgy and find the Kingdom Present. And finally, during the Eucharist, we are lifted up to heaven to praise God “with Angels and Archangels and all the companies of heaven…” in worship we come before the throne of God and offer ourselves up–a feeling that I’ve not felt in quite as dramatic a way in a free-church style of worship.

The other realization that has gradually emerged in my thinking has to do with discipline and communion. When I was “shopping” for a church, I intentionally avoided those churches which I felt were too parochial in their view and intentionally looked for those churches that by their very identity felt a strong connection with other Christians throughout the world. Some folks from non-denominational backgrounds may argue that it is the “institutional” church that is disconnected, and in a sense this is true. Yet, in a sense, the connection fostered by non-denominational fellowships (probably loose denominations in all but name), is far too easily set aside. the possitive aspect of denominational structure comes in that it requires interaction with Christians outside the local congregation, rather than making such interaction optional, abstract and frankly, gnostic. The other criticism that is related to this is related to discipline: in a non-denominational structure there is no way to discipline a charismatic pastor except by voting with one’s feet. Granted there are numerous abuses that happen in denominational churches, yet there is a discipline. One only need look at the discipline being enacted on a reluctant Episcopal church, USA which remains in denial to see the truth of this. Discipline is being exercised from an international level, something that would never happen in the world of the non-denominational mega-church.

And if I might be allowed the space to charicature a swath of churches, I worry that many of the mega-churches are so “seeker friendly” that they have sold out to the culture in completely different ways from the moral collapse of the mainline churches. One way to think about it is in the use of completely secular techniques–one might think of the old statement of “The Medium is the Message.”

I think that there are more criticisms than I can possibly fit in this post so I’ll have to post more later.
but briefly, I’ll list my concerns, painting with a broad brush:

1. Mega-churches are often denominations in all but name and in fact many practice a form of episcopacy
2. They tend to lack accountability
3. They tend to lack connections with any possibility of discipline
4. They allow for consumerism and anonymity
5. many have sold their heritage for a bowel of pottage

{more to come}

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More from the Case for Protestantism

Martin LutherMore thoughts from Ithilien in “The Case for Protestantism.” I plan on expanding some of his arguments about church structures and holiness in the church in a few days (after exams and papers are in.)

Blessings and enjoy…

But enough of hypothetical cases. I am myself a scion of the holiness movement. My great-great-uncle and my great-grandfather left the Methodist Episcopal Church because they believed that it was apostate and that all true Christians should “come out” from existing denominations to form a holy community faithful to Christ. My grandparents, in turn, left the church in which they had grown up in order to minister to Christians who were outside that community. I grew up in what amounted to a house church, steeped in Scripture and in a piety focused on personal dedication to Christ. I was told over and over that we should be simply “Christians” rather than giving our loyalty to any human tradition. I was taught that we should seek for an experience of the Holy Spirit that led to our total consecration to God and hence to freedom from sin.

I now believe that much that I was taught was wrong. Our belief in the “invisible Church” led us to downplay the importance of actual, organized Christian communities. More seriously, our commitment to entire sanctification and “keeping ourselves unspotted from the world” led us to look down on the flawed and worldly Christians who make up practically every actual Christian community. Our belief that the Church had historically compromised with the world led us to despise much of the tradition of Christianity (especially since Constantine), hence insulating ourselves from the challenges posed by that tradition.

I have had to reject much of what I was taught. And yet I have only been able to do this because I was trying to be faithful to the things that I was taught were absolutely central. I was taught that above everything else I should follow Jesus Christ. I find that this leads me to treat with respect every manifestation of the Christian tradition in history, however compromised with the world it might be. I was taught that the pursuit of holiness is the only thing that really matters; I have found that the sacramental and liturgical traditions of Christianity kindle in me the desire for holiness. I was taught that the Church should be countercultural and challenge the world; I find that the Roman Communion often does so more effectively than Protestantism.

None of this is, on the face of it, incompatible with conversion to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Such converts (especially to Catholicism) often claim that they have simply come into the fullness of what they were always taught. But from my perspective this is true only in a highly theoretical sense. Allegedly all the good things of Protestantism are implicitly possible in Catholicism (leaving Orthodoxy aside for the moment). But that is not the practical reality I find. I find that the traditions of Wesleyan Protestantism foster holiness and Christian faithfulness in ways that the structures and traditions of the Roman Communion do not (the reverse is also true). The priesthood of all believers (with a consequent tendency toward democracy in church polity), the evangelical conception of saving faith as an inseparable unit (as opposed to the Catholic compound of faith and charity), the vernacular hymn-singing tradition, and the stress on the study of Scripture as a central means of grace are all valuable aspects of Protestantism to me. Perhaps everything true in them can be reconciled with Catholicism (this is more obviously true of the latter two items than the former two). But for a convert to do so implies that one is converting to a tradition in order to change it.

Why I am not a Baptist

First Baptist Church

I just re-posted two posts where I responded a little to the question of some classmates as to why I don’t become a Roman Catholic. Part of this question was inspired, no doubt, by my conservatism–to some mainline protestants, inheriting the penchant for defining themselves negatively contra the Roman Church, anything conservative must be Roman (or Fundamentalist, which is the most popular insult toward conservatives…. I sort of take it as a badge of honor myself.) At any rate, I thought I would write a series of posts to follow those up. One will be this, Why I am not a Baptist, since I was raised in the Baptist Church–what made me leave? I will follow this one up with a post on why I became an Anglican and finally I will attempt to summarize why I am a Christian–what does my relationship with Christ mean to me?

I first want to point out that I still find much to respect in the Baptist approach to the faith–indeed, unlike many people, I didn’t leave because of a conservative/liberal disagreement. In fact, I have shocked plenty of people by saying, in summation, that I decided I couldn’t be a Baptist any longer because they are too rational. stunned silence. :-p

Basically, I feel like some of the extremes of the Reformation made the same mistake that the Roman Church made: they attempted to codify and explain the things of God in too detailed a manner while excluding alternative ways of interpreting.

The point at which I realized that I couldn’t in conscience remain in the Baptist Church was during an Easter service in which we partook of the Lord’s supper. After the preamble in which the preacher explained that this was merely a memorial nothing happened in this except our remembering etc… I just felt that the weight of that rationalization killed the spirit for me. I didn’t feel God’s presence (contrast this with a communion service I went to at Church on the Way where, except for the passing of the tray rather than actually moving forward, I felt like I was in my own church, and I believe the Spirit was really present).

I believe that there is strength in the Zwinglian view that it is not the elements of bread and wine that undergoes “transubstantiation” but the body of the faithful people who gather. That being said, I think that this transformative power and grace is something that has been demphasized and not talked about in many contemporary Baptist and non-denominational churches. Additionally, I believe that, like in our understanding of the atonement, we need to have multiple ways of thinking about what happens during the eucharist in order to appreciate in any way the dramatic manner of Christ’s intervention in our lives, and there are multiple biblical foundations for the various views of communion, just as there are multiple tracks for the theology of the atonement, the error of too many churches is in prescribing and proscribing things that are neither prescribed or proscribed by scripture.

{more later}

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Repost: Why I will not Swim the Tiber: Theological reflections

The Chair of Saint Augustine
The Chair of St. Augustine

In my last post I mentioned that I have great respect for Roman Catholicism’s firm stance against much of the fashionable and mindless liberalism of our day. That said I still harbor many doubts and concerns about (what I would term) the innovations of the Roman Church, and in this, I am firmly within the Anglican tradtion. That doctrine can develop is beyond question–the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church is a sure guide if we submit ourselves to its authority. Such submission however, must also be undertaken with the understanding that iron sharpens iron and it may take many years of discussion and debate for the Church to resolve where the Spirit is leading. Despite the fact that Rome is famed for the length of her deliberations, in some instances they have pronounced as dogma to be believed by all innovations which, while not necessarily against Scripture, is an expanstion upon it which has no warrant as a doctrine of salvation. The promulgation of the Marian doctrines of the perpetual virginity and the assumption are examples: they may be believed, but they should not be incumbent upon all on pain of salvation.

The primary place where I find myself disagreeing with the Roman church, and agreeing more and more with the reformers, is in the basics of their anthropology. While the majority of Roman theology seems to begin from the assumption that before the fall humanity was by nature in perfect communion with the father, Protestants argue that even before the Fall grace was a necessary ingredient for human communion with God… i.e. we were not able even then to interact with God *by our nature without grace*… in a way then, the incarnation can be seen not simply as a remedy against the fall, but also as the means through which God continues to perfect and create. If this latter proposition sounds “catholic” in some respects, that is because it bears a resemblance to the “incarnation anyway” position of people such as St. Bonaventure. What in fact makes it a “protestant” view is its anthropology: we were never, by nature, holy or good enough to achive communion with God, and it is only by God entering human history in human form that this communion can be achieved. The Crucifixion and the Resurrection were necessitated by the Fall and the need for restoration… the incarnation opens the door to full communion with God, and this would have occured whether we lived in a fallen world or not.

Another aspect of theology that is affected by these differing anthropologies is in fact ecclesiology. I am in firm agreement with Article XXI of the 39 articles of Religion, which states:

“And when [councils] be gathered together (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God), they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining to God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture.”

The dissonance between my own view of the Church, which I once felt was fairly High, and that of many convinced Roman Catholics became apparent to me this summer when I engaged in some discussions with several impressive RC seminarians and graduate students at the Acton Institute conference I mentioned in my previous post. During some of our conversations between class sections, it became apparent that our views of the Church were not as close as I had imagined. The primary point of contention was over whether the Chuch can make mistakes. Now, as a member of the Episcopal Church who is in conflict with the decisions of our General Convention, and because I do believe that this body does in fact constitute a portion of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, I must believe that the Church can in fact err and make mistakes–at least in the short run. The Roman Catholics I discussed with adamantly refused to admit that the Church could, would or had made any mistakes in its past. The interesting thing about our discussions was that it seemed that we were each taking the term Church to mean something literal, but in different ways.

For my part, I don’t believe that the Body of Christ as an eschatological reality can err or be sinful–indeed, when we confess the Creed on Sunday and say that we believe in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, we are indicated that we believe the Church to be Holy. Yet, we also state that we believe the Church to be one, which on one level it fundamentally is not at this time… it is at this level that I believe that the Church can indeed be sinful or err. For my Catholic friends, they were clear to make a distinction between the Church and people within the Church, whom they did admit to be sinful. Yet, their rigorous defense of the institutional Church as one and the same as the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church gave me pause.

The reason for my concern with thier defense of the Church was that I believe that each Church institution–whether it be Roman, Antiochian, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran etc… is merely a cell within the wider organism of the Church Catholic (any definition of the “catholic” church that embraces less is well… not catholic). Each of these cells exists as hermeneutic through which to interpret the Scriptures and spread the Gospel. At one point in time, prior to the Reformation, each of these hermenuetics or their predecessors, existed within the Western Church. Doubtless some are closer to the Truth than others. Post Reformation, they exist in distinct organizational bodies, but they are no less valid for thier fragmentation. Each of these cells however, exists for the furtherence of the Gospel, and when they cease to further the Gospel they can die without remorse on the part of the Godly. Their function betrayed, God will cease to bless their cause and they will be merely shells of what they once were, if they exist at all (look at the mainline these days). Yet I feel that those of us who are faithful and remain in the rotting carcasses of the mainline churches, are called to be faithful to Christ, not to the institution… nor are we called to replace one institution with another for “ease of use.” Rather, we are called to live in the interim state until Christ calls the faithful remnant of these bodies together and reconstitutes an organization from which his Gospel can be proclaimed unimpeded (at least from within). In other words, the institution and the Church are separate… institutions may die, evolve, migrate, but the Church is always there, waiting in the saeculum for the return of her Lord.