Showing posts with label Liturgy and Life. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Liturgy and Life. Show all posts

Friday, February 28, 2014

Cheerful Givers: How the Early Christian Church Alleviated Poverty

In his book, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, Peter Brown, Rollins Professor of History at Princeton University, comments on Christian charity and their treatment of the "poor" in the early (pre-Constantinian) Church. Most fascinating is his description of the way Christians viewed themselves as a vital society within the world yet not of the world:
  The sharp pen of Lucian… is one of the first glimpses that we have from an outsider into the inner workings of a Christian community. ...
  A century before the conversion of Constantine, the Christian communities were characterized by a sharply "bifurcated" notion of the duties of the rich and the poor. Not one group, but two groups, claimed the support of the "cheerful givers" in every congregation. 
  First, of course, there were impoverished fellow believers--orphans, widows, the sick, the imprisoned, refugees, and the destitute. As far as we can see, Christian almsgiving at this time was a fiercely inward-looking activity. It did not include unbelievers. Rather, it strengthened the boundaries of the community, like solid rings of bark around a tree, by not allowing any fellow Christian to be forced by poverty to restore to help from nonbelievers. 
  Nor was it a random matter. The bishop and the clergy were supported by a share of the offerings of the faithful. But they received these offerings, in part, in the name of the poor: they were to redistribute what remained from their own upkeep to the widows, orphans, and destitute. The bishop was presented, above all, as the oikonomos, as the "steward," of the wealth of the church. This wealth was to be used by the clergy for the benefit of the poor. In some circles, even private almsgiving was discouraged: ideally, all gifts to the poor were to pass through the bishop and his clergy, for only they knew who needed support.
  This last was an extreme opinion. But the centralization of wealth in the hands of an energetic bishop could be decisive. The letters of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage from 248 to 258, are impressive testimony to his use of wealth for the care of the poor in order to reinforce his notion of the Catholic church as a closed, embattled community grouped around its bishop. Only those "poor" who were known to have stood firm in times of persecution and to have remained loyal to the bishop in the crisis that followed were to receive support. Local heroes who had endured imprisonment in times of persecution received allowances. Cyprian provided refugees out of his own private funds, thereby saving well-to-do Christians the shame of accepting alms as if they were members of the indigent poor. The boundaries of the Christian community were protected. Christian traders were given bridging loans. A convert who had made his living by teaching acting (a profession tainted by idolatry) was maintained by the poor fund of his local church. Cyprian advised the bishop to send him to Carthage, where the church, being wealthier, was better able to support him until he learned a new trade. A considerable sum--one hundred thousand sesterces, the equivalent of half the yearly salary of an Imperial secretary or of a month's wages for three thousand workmen--was hurriedly collected in Carthage to ransom Christians captured in a raid by Berber tribesmen. Unfortunately, the list of donors that was appended to this letter has not survived. Would that it had. With it we might have had evidence of a Carthaginian Christian community of unexpected wealth and social complexity. Altogether, in the words of Graeme Clarke, the translator of the Letters and the author of by far the best commentary upon them, Cyprian's letters provide "practical evidence of the Church constituting a society within a society, a regular tertium genus."
  Thus, a solid middle core of "cheerful givers" was called upon to support two sharply different groups of dependent persons, each of which was liable to considerable expansion--both the clergy and the poor, with the clergy claiming to act as distributors of the wealth of the church in the interests of the poor. Writing in 251, to the bishop of Antioch, Cornelius, bishop of Rome, emphasized the extent of this double responsibility. …In 303, we learn that a police raid on the premises of the church of Cirta, a provincial capital, found a storeroom with sixteen shirts for men, thirty-eight veils, eighty-two dresses and forty-seven slippers for women, along with eleven containers of oil and wine. Furthermore, we know that the church of Cirta had, besides its bishop, at least three priests, two deacons, two subdeacons, one grave-digger, and five readers. None of these were paupers. One reader was a schoolmaster and the other a tailor, a sartor--or, perhaps, even a skilled craftsmen in mosaic work, a sarsor: that is, he was exactly the same sort of skilled artisan as Lucian's uncle, the sculptor, had been and from whose trade Lucian had escaped to higher things. But all the clergy--that is, the priests and deacons--and possibly lesser personnel as well, would have received from their bishop regular sportulae. These were gifts derived from a weekly division of the offerings of the faithful. The offering itself was a major ceremony, performed each Sunday. It involved a procession toward the altar and the solemn dividing up of the contributions of the faithful at a table loaded with offerings in cash and in garden produce. 
  Thus, when Constantine deeded to patronize the Christian church in 312 he found a body committed to a double charge: a duty to give to the poor and a duty to support the clergy. He also found among the Christian laity many well-to-do persons who had long been alerted to the need to scrutinize the clergy whom they themselves supported, to ensure that their money was spent to good effect. An ideology that linked the wealth of the church to the "care for the poor" and that made the clergy responsible for that care was firmly established in Christian circles before the conversion of Constantine. It would have been what a lay person (such as Lucian) would have known about the new sect.1 

1.  Peter Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire [Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2002], pp. 23-6 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Review: The Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter & Matt Smay

The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community: The Posture and Practices of Ancient Church Now

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Reading entirely through The Tangible Kingdom is like eating toast smothered in strawberry-habanero jam. It’s sweet enough to hold your interest to the last bite, yet hot enough to make people regret it the next morning. The Tangible Kingdom claims to be a book about re-creating the mission of Jesus, his apostles, and the early Christian churches, when, in fact, it’s really about creating an intuitively dreamy fad for those who have been disappointed with organized Christian religion in America. This is not to say it doesn’t make many valid points about, or provide any helpful insights for, reforming ugly habits of American evangelicalism. What I am saying is that the “incarnational presence” portrayed throughout this book is more anecdotal than ancient in its presentation.
      This book can be divided roughly into four sections. The first section (chs. 1-5) is about identifying the church’s negative impact in society, and it begins with the author’s own life experiences, focusing especially upon God’s call for him to lead potential God-seekers into something new, but not something entirely new:

“This type of new is about a returning. Returning to something ancient, something tried, something true and trustworthy. Something that has rerouted the legacies of families, nations, kings, and peasants. ….What we’re returning to has always been and must still be revolutionary. What we need to dig up, recover, and find again is the life of the Kingdom of Jesus’ community… the church.” (p. 10)

      The claim is made that there is a culture war brewing between two camps of Christians, and this book is admittedly bias toward one side (p. 20). In order to recover the life of churches today, Christians need to start doing things which the Church has not been doing, and stop doing things they have been doing (p. 12). For example, churches need to stop being like “Jerusalem Christians” (p. 19) who view Jesus “through their traditions and the literal interpretation of doctrine.” These types rely too much on sermons that focus on behavior (e.g. sin) and programs to transform people (e.g. Billy Graham crusades, Promise Keepers, Alpha, etc.). Instead of holding “doctrine so tightly that …the life of Jesus gets obscured” (p. 19), they need to be more like the “Galilean Christians” who engaged the world and “interpret[ed] the Bible through the life of Jesus,” focusing especially on the atonement, justice, mercy, love, benevolence, and advocacy for the poor, oppressed, and sinners. This, allegedly, will keep people from becoming “idolaters of the Bible” who “prioritize head knowledge over heart life” (p. 20). Church, doctrine, “Bible,” and keeping hostile people out of the Church must not be the goal of the gospel anymore. Instead the goal of the gospel should be to “start identifying ourselves with [hostiles], and allow Christ’s redemption to flow over all.” (p. 31).
      The second section (chs. 6-12) is about removing traditional obstacles that get in the way of this healthy “reemergence” of ancient faith (p. 38), especially the problematic “postures” which offend the status quo of potential god-seekers in the world. Instead of focusing on “communicating a message of truth to the world” (p. 41), the “most important thing” is whether or not unbelievers are attracted to embodied truth first, so they can become more willing to receive the truth later. (p. 41). Christians need to go back to the “fringe movement” of the “pre-institutional church” (i.e. before Constantine; p. 50) which followed the ways of Jesus and practiced the “art” of not feeling any compulsion to feed people spiritually while still being willing to look after their spiritual formation (pp. 53-55). “Church” needs to become what it allegedly once was: a people you belonged with instead of a place you went to (p. 55), a place that “was unique, intriguing, and attractive primarily because it called for inclusion of all people” (p. 70), advocating “love of all people regardless of past mistakes, sexual orientation, or political bias.” (p. 88). Instead of arguing philosophy or debating alternative religious viewpoints, Christians should simply “live a different story” and invite people to observe (p. 76) so “sojourners” can feel or see aspects of the gospel lived out (p. 95-96). The truly “missional” way is to look like a church on the outside, yet be a place that “anyone can come to and not feel any pressure at any level.” (p. 116)
      The third section (chs. 13-17) is about implementing “incarnational habits” to live by once the basic obstacles to “incarnational mission” have been removed. The authors offer four neatly alliterated points: leaving, listening, living among, and loving without strings. Leaving involves replacing Christian activities with time spent building relationships with the surrounding secular culture. Listening means regarding no one from a worldly point of view and showing sincere regard toward an individual’s experience, background, heritage, through which they process faith and belief. Living among means integrating one’s self and family into the fabric of society while “participating in the natural activities of the culture around you, with whimsical holiness.” (p. 136). Loving without strings means blessing others without any coercion, and helping the unlovable feel loved without any catch.
      The fourth section (chs. 18-21) describes what “incarnational community” looks like so it can be duplicated successfully throughout future generations. It covers the “primary spheres of Incarnational Community” (Communion, Community, and Mission; p. 148) and some general barriers (like mandating a “tithe” or encouraging weekly corporate worship, p. 168) that hinder these spheres from working properly together.
      I think the “sweet” aspects of the book expose Church-life as having a genuine crisis on its hands. Secularism does not take the Church seriously, and a significant reason for this is because Christians are often not compassionate and forgiving “friends of sinners” like Jesus or his apostles. Much of their “friendship” is programmatic at best. Even worse, many are obnoxious for God, lording their doctrine over others because in their minds the truth is obnoxious and sinners need their nose stuck in it to remember it well. Their benevolence often has strings attached too. Christians are often not invested in their own neighbor’s welfare, or integrated into the fabric of their own local community, and therefore are not salt and light within it. More care is given to believing what is right than doing what is good, which I believe is a soul-damning dichotomy; this book exposes that.
      However, I’m not convinced that the program espoused in this book truly represents an “ancient” tradition, which is what really “burns” the next morning. With a mere 42 passing references from Scripture, more than half of which are anecdotal or attached to some sloganized eisegesis (the most notable one being from John 8; pp. 44-45), the biblical arguments actually seem subversive of some ancient foundation stones, possibly without even knowing it. Most subversive, in my mind, was the extremely casual approach toward corporate institutional worship, as though it’s really less important to God than sipping a signature coffee blend while listening to a porn-addicted “sojourner” talk about the good old days of high school football. Although it is true that Christians ought to embody a deep and sincere sacrificial love for their porn-addicted neighbor—especially on the Lord’s Day—they must not forget that corporate institutional worship is a public expression that they are His Body and Bride, and they cheapen His Supper if they exchange it for a pumpkin spice latte and cranberry scone. It is wishful thinking to believe, as the book claims, that without ever encouraging “sojourners” to obey truth, you will usually get them to obey truth (p. 67).

Monday, January 6, 2014

Epiphany Meditation: Isaiah 60:1-7

Ephiphany is a season of light, as reflected in a standard liturgical reading this day from Isaiah 60:1-7. As a season of light, it manifests that light that is seen in Jesus Christ. But the message surrounding and leading up to Isaiah 60 teaches us so much more. It teaches us what the righteousness of that light looks like and the tremendous privilege we have to worship that light, and be in that light, and to rejoice is having that light dwell in us, shining so bright that it glorifies our Father in heaven. 

In Isaiah 58:3, the people of God have a complaint against Yahweh, and this sets up the background for appreciating the message of chapter 60. They ask, "Why have we fasted and don't see it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you take no knowledge of it?" There are good reasons for Israel's concern. Threats of invading enemies and political alliances are against them, and Yahweh doesn't seem to care. Israel seeks Yahweh in prayer daily, awaiting His response. They profess with their lips that they "delight to know the ways" of Yahweh. They even ask for righteous judgments upon their enemies. And if that wasn't enough evidence, Israel is even said to have a posture of worship that "delights in drawing near" to Yahweh in sacrificial gifts to prove their faithfulness to Him (Isa. 58:2). Israel has a complaint against Yahweh because Yahweh is not responding to their cries or delivering them from their oppressors. They plead with God for deliverance, humbling themselves before Him in desperation. And to some degree He hears them too, but his perspective is quite different from theirs. 

Yahweh says they do all of these righteous deeds--all these prayers, petitions, fasts, and sacrifices--"as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God." (Isa. 58:2). While they humbled themselves before Yahweh in prayer, petitioning Him with righteous requests for His judgments upon their wicked oppressors, they themselves are oppressing their own workers (58:3). They fast so their voice could be heard on high, and they even prostrate themselves, spreading sackcloth and ashes under themselves (58:4-5). But this is not the type of fasting Yahweh wants from His people:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isa. 58:6-7)
The people are truly in distress, and they truly want Yahweh to deliver them from their oppressors. This is why they fast. This is why they cry unto Him. But the kind of fasting Yahweh wants from them is to loosen the shackles of oppression, let their own oppressed servants go free, feed the hungry with their own bread (not the bread which others work for), bring the homeless into their own home (not sending them off somewhere else), and clothing the destitute who are naked. When Israel does that, Yahweh says their light will shine forth like the dawn, and He will bring healing upon them speedily (58:8). 

Israel's enemies would often intimidate them by pointing out that Yahweh cannot save. If He could, He would, or so they thought. After all, His people were diligent in sacrifices and prayer according to Yahweh's own word. But He must not be able to save because He is not saving. His hand must be too short or his ear too dull that He cannot save them when they need Him most (59:1) That's Israel's perspective when things are looking dark and gloomy (59:9). 

The problem with thinking this way is that Yahweh is not weak at all. If he wanted to rescue them from oppressors, his arm is long enough to do that. Yahweh ears are not dull either. He hears every cry, but their iniquities have ruptured His relationship with them. Their sins have hidden Yahweh's face from them so that He does not hear (59:2). Their "hands are defiled with blood" too (59:3), but the blood they have shed is not from murdering others. It's the blood shed by unjustly suing others, going to law against their neighbor for dishonest gain, relying on empty pleas and slanderous lies in their favor, and conceiving mischief which, in turn, gives birth for further iniquity (59:3-4). Their courts are thoroughly corrupt, not just the judges sitting on the bench. The way of peace is not truly known by the people, and there is no justice in the path they have chosen to walk. They think they're pursuing peace. They think they're faithfully active in social justice. But they have made their roads crooked, and therefore "no one who treads on them knows peace" (59:8). Justice is inverted, righteousness stands far away in the distance, truth stumbles in the public squares, uprightness isn't even allowed to enter the gates of the city, and those who flee from evil make themselves a prey (59:14-15). Yahweh saw all of this, and it displeased Him that there was no justice to be found in the land, and no man willing to intercede on behalf of the oppressed (59:15-16a).

Then we find these amazing words of Isaiah's gospel:
...then His own arm brought him salvation, and His righteousness upheld him. 

He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head.
He put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. 

According to their deeds, so will He repay, wrath to His adversaries, repayment to His enemies; to the coastlands He will render repayment. 
So they shall fear the name of the Yahweh from the west, and His glory from the rising of the sun, for He will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the Yahweh drives. 

“And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord.  “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.” 
Yahweh's gospel is to those in Zion, where He dwelt in the midst of His people. And the gospel message to those in Zion was that even though Yahweh had justly left Israel to suffer from their own wicked devices for a time, Yahweh would not abandon Zion entirely. He would return and deliver "those in Jacob who turn from transgression." He would even come like a rushing stream, driven by the wind of His spirit, to redeem them. This would be for the purpose of having His name feared and His glory shown from east to west. This would be accomplished by the Word and work of His Spirit. He would place His Spirit upon them and put His words in their mouth, and in their children's mouth, forever, so they would glorify Him. At the time of Isaiah's prophecy, Zion was suffering under darkness and gloom because of their sins, but Yahweh promised to come and be their light. By coming and being their light, He would place His Spirit upon them so His light would shine through them. This is the good news for the nations in Isaiah's prophecy. This is the message of Epiphany. This is the background that sets up the message of Isaiah 60:1-7:
Arise! Shine! For your light has come, and the glory of Yahweh has risen upon you!

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you and His glory will be seen upon you!
And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Lift up your eyes all around and see: They all gather together, they come to you.
Your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be carried on the hip. 
Then you shall see and be radiant.
Your heart shall thrill and exult, because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you.
The wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah.
All those of Sheba shall come. 
They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of Yahweh.
All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you. The rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you.
They shall come up with acceptance on my altar, and I will beautify My beautiful house.
When Yahweh comes to redeem His people, He sends His Spirit to illumine their darkness, and they become objects of His shining glory as a result. When they turn away from transgression, the glory of Yahweh returns to his house and His glory shines through their worship. When they turn from their own greed and selfishness, feeding the poor with bread of their own, His light shines through their good deeds. When they clothe the naked with their own clothes and shelter the homeless in their own homes, then the light of Yahweh is seen in them. When their hands stop shedding blood through lying, slander, injustice, and dishonest gain, then the nations will be attracted to their light, precisely because it is Yahweh's light that illumines them. 

As I said in the beginning, Isaiah 60 gives us a glimpse as to the kind of glorious light we walk in, the kind of light that Israel eventually saw in Jesus the Messiah. That Light is worthy to receive "the wealth of nations" from all over--from the far south-eastern lands of Midian, Ephah, and Sheba with their gifts of gold and frankincense (Matt. 2:1-2, 9-11), and from the local pastures of Kedar and Nebaioth with the shepherds and their flocks (Luke 2:8-20). That Light is worthy to receive our worship. That light is the true light which gives light to everyone (John 1:9). Whoever does what is true comes to that Light, so that it may be clearly seen that their works have been carried out in God (John 3:21). In that Gospel, the gospel lived in and through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining (I John 2:8).

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Feast of the Holy Innocents

It's December 28th and it's still Christmas. Christmas is a season, not a singular day of unwrapping presents under a tree. Christmas is about the incarnation of the Messiah and the events surrounding his early childhood as recorded in the Gospels. December 28th is a day of celebration within this Christmas season that celebrates the memory of the innocent saints who were cruelly slaughtered by Herod as recorded in Matthew 2:13-18. In commemoration of that event, and in spirit with this season, I can think of no better reminder of it's importance within the Christian tradition than to cite a homily from St. Augustine on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Augustine writes:
Today, dearest brethren, we celebrate the birthday of those children who were slaughtered, as the Gospel tells us, by that exceedingly cruel king, Herod. Let the earth, therefore, rejoice and the Church exult — she, the fruitful mother of so many heavenly champions and of such glorious virtues. Never, in fact, would that impious tyrant have been able to benefit these children by the sweetest kindness as much as he has done by his hatred. For as today’s feast reveals, in the measure with which malice in all its fury was poured out upon the holy children, did heaven’s blessing stream down upon them.
“Blessed are you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah! You suffered the inhumanity of King Herod in the murder of your babes and thereby have become worthy to offer to the Lord a pure host of infants. In full right do we celebrate the heavenly birthday of these children whom the world caused to be born unto an eternally blessed life rather than that from their mothers’ womb, for they attained the grace of everlasting life before the enjoyment of the present. The precious death of any martyr deserves high praise because of his heroic confession; the death of these children is precious in the sight of God because of the beatitude they gained so quickly. For already at the beginning of their lives they pass on. The end of the present life is for them the beginning of glory. These then, whom Herod’s cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers’ bosom, are justly hailed as “infant martyr flowers”; they were the Church’s first blossoms, matured by the frost of persecution during the cold winter of unbelief.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Misconceptions of Mosaic Law

In his book, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World, James Jordan comments on the misconception that the Mosaic laws were so tough, so demanding, and so stringent that nobody could ever keep them. He writes:
  Why do people think the Mosaic law was hard to keep? In general, it is because they do not know what the law really commanded, and because they have the Mosaic law confused with the rabbinical traditions of Judaism. The rabbinical traditions were  a "heavy yoke" (Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23; Acts 15:10; Matthew 23:4). Jesus called the people back to the Mosaic law, making it his own, and in doing so said that He was offering an "easy yoke" (Matthew 5:20-48; 11:29-30). We should, then, briefly look at the Mosaic law. 
  What about all those sacrifices, you may ask? There were the Burnt, Meal, Peace, Thank, Votive, Sin, Reparation, "Heave," and "Wave" Offerings, for starters. Some used salt, and some did not. Some used oil, and some did not. Some required a lamb; others, oxen; others, birds. Leavened bread  was used with some, unleavened with others. Some parts of the animal were burned up, others given to the priests, and others were eaten by laymen. These things differed for each sacrifice. It was an awful lot of detail to master. The Israelite citizen, however, never offered any sacrifices himself. Only the priests were allowed to do the sacrifices, and they did them every day. They soon became familiar with all these details. 
  Compare the details of the complicated sacrificial system with the details of auto repair, and it suddenly becomes clear just how simple the priests's job was. How many different kinds of cars are there? Add on the fact that they change from year to year. Now consider all the different parts and aspects that can go wrong. Next time you take your car in, look at all the volumes of "Chilton" auto repair manuals that your mechanic keeps on hand, and compare their size and detail with the book of Leviticus. If your mechanic can learn to fix cars, and enjoy it, obviously the priests of Israel had no trouble managing the sacrificial system.
  What about the sabbath? Wasn't that a burden? No, it was a time of rest. But weren't they forbidden to cook on the sabbath? No, they kept the sabbath as a feast. But weren't they forbidden recreation on the sabbath? No, the Bible nowhere says this. Well then, what did they do? They went to church to worship God (Leviticus 23:3), and relaxed the rest of the day. The sabbath was not an "impossible burden."
  What about all those cleansing rules in Leviticus 11-15? Well, in the first place, becoming unclean only meant one thing: You were not permitted to go into the forecourt of the Tabernacle and bring a sacrifice. Since most forms of uncleanness only lasted a day or a week, it was no real burden to be unclean. Second, if you were seriously unclean, you could make other people unclean for a few hours (until sundown) if you touched them; but again, that was only a matter of concern if the other person were on his way to offer a sacrifice. At the most, being unclean was an inconvenience. Of course, if you were unclean for months on end, and could not attend festivals, it became a more serious matter.
  The laws of uncleanness were not hard to keep. You were to wash out a pot if a lizard fell into it and died. We would do the same today. You were not supposed to marry your sister, aunt, or child. Few of us would be tempted to. You were not supposed to eat dog-burgers or salted roast roaches. Most of us wouldn't either. That is because these are our customs, and we don't find them burdensome. If we were used to eating dog meat, as some cultures do, then the restriction would be temporarily burdensome until we got used to it. The Jews were not to eat pork either, but that was not hard for them. They were no more tempted to eat pork than we are to eat roaches. 
  So, the Mosaic law was not horribly complicated or impossible to keep. Of course, in the New Covenant we are not under the Mosaic law. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ replaces all the sacrifices of Moses. Christ has cleansed the world once and for all in His Resurrection, and so the laws of uncleanness no longer apply to us. That is, they no longer apply as laws. In terms of their symbolism, they still provide wisdom.1

1.  James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World [Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999], pp. 199-201

Monday, July 29, 2013

What Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans once had in common

On April 27th, 1541, the Diet of Regensburg began. This Diet (i.e. legislative assembly) was an attempt to restore unity between the divided churches,  generally recognized today as Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Calvinists. The representatives at this Diet are particularly noteworthy, especially considering that they volunteered their efforts to publicly unify, to the best of their academic abilities, with the Roman Catholic Church. Philip Melanchthon represented the Lutherans, Cardinal Contarini and John Eck both represented the Roman Catholics, while Martin Bucer and John Calvin represented the more general "Reformed" crowd. 

From this meeting arose a fascinating letter which post-reformation theologians have aptly dubbed The Regensburg Book. This book was divided into 23 articles, all of which together expressed a unified confession among the parties represented. In other words, the language of the book was such that the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Roman Catholics were all generally represented as agreeing with each other on cardinal doctrines; but even more importantly, the specific doctrinal views of Melanchthon, Calvin, Bucer, and two reputable Roman Catholic authorities agreed, as Calvin said, on "the substance of the true doctrine" of the Christian faith.

This was quite an accomplishment among the heated debates of the Protestant Reformation, and in a letter to William Farel on May 11th, 1541, John Calvin expressed the joy which this agreement brought to everyone assembled. Calvin wrote:
The debate in controversy was more keen upon the doctrine of justification. At length a formula was drawn up, which, on receiving certain corrections, was accepted on both sides. You will be astonished, I am sure, that our opponents have yielded so much, when you read the extracted copy, as it stood when the last correction was made upon it, which you will find enclosed in this letter. Our friends have thus retained also the substance of the true doctrine, so that nothing can be comprehended within it which is not to be found in our writings. You will desire, I know, a more distinct explication and statement of the doctrine, and, in that respect, you shall find me in complete agreement with yourself. However, if you consider with what kind of men we have to agree upon this doctrine, you will acknowledge that much has been accomplished.1

Regarding the doctrine of justification which Calvin noted as being vital to their joint confession, a portion from that section, translated into English, has been provided by Dr. Peter Lillback, adjunct professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. That section can be seen below; and as many calvinists who read this will probably notice, the lack of tension between law & gospel, and imputed & subordinate-inherent righteousness is striking. I suspect that the majority of American "Calvinists" or "Reformed" Christians today would not agree with this confession:
Therefore that living faith which apprehends mercy in Christ and believes the righteousness which is in Christ has been graciously imputed to him, and which simultaneously receives the promise of the Holy Spirit and love. So then, that faith is justifying faith which is efficacious by love....
Moreover, although he who is justified also receives and has through Christ inherent righteousness, as the Apostle says, you are washed, you are sanctified, you are justified, etc., wherefore the holy fathers used the word "to be justified" for receiving an inherent righteousness. Nevertheless, the believing mind does not rest upon this righteousness, but upon the righteousness of Christ alone given to us, without which there neither is nor can be any righteousness. And so we are justified by faith in Christ, or we are accounted righteous, that is, accepted through the merits of Himself, not on account of our worth or works. And we are called righteous because of inherent righteousness, because we do those things which are righteous, according to that passage in John: he who does righteousness is righteous.
And although the fear of God, repentance and humility, and other virtues must always increase in the regenerated, since renovation is imperfect and great infirmities cleave to them, nevertheless it ought to be taught, that those who truly repent may always be sure by a most certain faith, they are pleasing to God on account of Christ the Mediator, because Christ is the Propitiator, High Priest, and Advocate for us, Whom the Father gave to us, and all good things with Him....
Moreover, he who says we are justified by faith alone must at the same time teach the doctrine of repentance, of fear of God, of the judgment of God, of good works, in order that the whole sum of preaching might stand firm as Christ says, "...preaching repentance and remission of sins in My name," and that, lest this form of speaking be understood otherwise than it has been preached.2

Needless to say, Martin Luther, who was not present at this Diet, was not pleased with this joint confession, and so he spoke out against it. As a result of his scathing reaction, no further progress and unity was formed among the Reformed-Calvinists and the Roman Catholics.

1.  Peter Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin's Role in the development of Covenantal Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2001], pp. 190-191. Italics mine.
2.  Ibid. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Wisdom prepares a feast

Commenting on Proverbs 9:1-6, Saint Ambrose of Milan teaches an interesting connection between the feast which "Wisdom" prepares in her house and the feast which the Church of Christ prepares in her house:
You wish to eat, you wish to drink. Come to the feast of Wisdom which invites all men by a great proclamation, saying: 'Come, eat my bread and drink my wine that I have mingled.' Do not fear that in the Feast of the Church you will lack either pleasant perfumes, or agreeable food, or varied drink, or fitting servants. There you will gather myrrh, that is to say, the burial of Christ, in such a way that, buried with Him by Baptism, you also will arise from the dead as He Himself is arisen. There you will eat the bread that strengthens the heart of man, you will drink the wine so that you may grow to the full stature of Christ.1

1.  Jean Danielou, S.J., The Bible and the Liturgy [Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press; reprint 2011] p. 158

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Prayer of a Living Sacrifice: Psalm 119:169-176

There are two translations below. The first comes from an ESV Bible. The second is my own "wooden" translation of the same verses, organized according to its own literary structure (without verse numbers). Following that is my commentary on this portion of Psalm 119.

Psalm 119  (ESV)
169  Let my cry come before you, O Lord;
give me understanding according to your word!
170  Let my plea come before you;
deliver me according to your word.
171  My lips will pour forth praise,
for you teach me your statutes.
172  My tongue will sing of your word,
for all your commandments are right.
173  Let your hand be ready to help me,
for I have chosen your precepts.
174  I long for your salvation, O Lord,
and your law is my delight.
175  Let my soul live and praise you,
and let your rules help me.
176  I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant,
          for I do not forget your commandments.

Psalm 119:169-176
A)  Let my cry draw near before your face, O Yahweh.
B)  According to your commanded-word, give me discernment!
A’)  Let my plea enter before your face.
B’)  According to your spoken-word, rescue me!

C)  My lips will burst forth a song of praise because you instruct me in your written-laws!
C’)  My tongue will shout jubilantly of your spoken-word because all your regulations are just!

D)  Let your hand be to my succor, because I have chosen your directions.
E)  I long for your deliverance, O Yahweh, and your Law is my delight!
D’)  Let my soul revive so that it can praise you, and let your judgments succor me.
E’)  I have wandered like a lost sheep; so search for your servant because I do not forget your commandments

The first line of the first verse (in the ESV) says, "Let my cry come before you," whereas the first line of the second verse says "Let my plea come before you." Clearly those two statements parallel each other. And at first glance, the only noticeable difference between the two is the word cry and the word plea. But the ESV translation is actually misleading. According to the more "wooden" translation above, what King David actually wrote in the first verse (and yes, I do believe King David wrote this Psalm) was "let my cry draw near...". In the second verse, David wrote something different. He wrote, "let my plea enter...". And so, the difference is not merely between crying and pleading (as the ESV suggests), but also between drawing near and entering.

At a second glance, you might be thinking that there still isn't much of a difference between drawing near and entering; but according to the culture in which King David was raised, such distinctions were profoundly important. The word for "drawing near" is קרב (qrb), and has a peculiar importance within the Law of God, particularly because it is frequently used throughout the book of Leviticus. Just to show a small sample of how frequent qrb is, below is another "wooden" translation, only this one shows the first few verses of Leviticus. Notice the frequency of the qrb root: 
Now he called to Moses. Yahweh spoke to him from the Tent-of-Congregation, saying: "Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: 'When anyone among you brings-near (qrb) a near-offering (qrb) for YHWH, from domestic animals, from the herd or from the flock you may bring-near (qrb) your near-offering (qrb). If an ascension-offering is his near-offering (qrb) from the herd, then a male, without blemish, let him bring-it-near (qrb) to the entrance of the Tent-of-Congregation, let him bring-it-near (qrb) as acceptance for him, before the presence of Yahweh.'"

According to God's Law, certain boundaries were set by God for worshiping-laymen such as David. David understood that once he entered the courtyard surrounding the Lord's house (the tabernacle), that would be as far as he could "draw near." If he desired to draw near further, and enter into the Lord's holy presence, he would die. And not by his own choice, of course, but because God's Law taught him so. God's Law taught him how polluted he was because of sin, how holy God was, and how pure one needed to be in order to enter the very presence of God. But the Lord, full of grace and mercy, placed Himself in a covenant with man and allowed an animal without blemish to represent everyone who desired to draw near. In order to draw near, that animal would have to die in his (or her) place and be carried by a priest before the altar. In doing so, that animal-representative would draw near before Yahweh. If David were offering an animal without blemish, that animal would die and draw near before the face of Yahweh in David's place. And so, when King David asked Yahweh for his cry to draw near before His face, David was using sacrificial terminology. David was, in essence, saying, "Let this cry of mine be received as a sacrifice, brought near before you according to your Law."

Similar but distinguishable terminology is also used in the second verse, when David describes the entrance, the בוֹא (b'wa), of his plea. Just as Moses alone entered (b'wa) the cloud of Yahweh at the top of Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:18) and the cloud of Yahweh covering the Tabernacle (Ex. 33:9), so the High Priest only entered (b'wa) the Most Holy Place of Yahweh in the Tabernacle (Lev. 16:17). David's plea, therefore, is distinguishable from his cry. David wants his cry, his wailing, to draw near as a sacrificial offering without blemish, and he wants his plea to actually enter the most holy presence of God. While acknowledging the holy boundaries of access to God, David embraces God as one to whom he can draw near and actually enter before. Through faith, David embraces the gracious character of God revealed in his Law.

But for what does David cry? And for what does David plea?

Again, we find another misleading translation in the ESV. The ESV doesn't distinguish what "word" David trusts in. In the second line of the first two verses, the ESV says "according to your word," with no distinction between either verse. But in Hebrew, the first verse says "according to your commanded-word" (דָבָר  dbr), whereas the second verse says "according to your spoken-word" (אמרה  imrh). The first "word," dbr, is very common. It's most familiar use is with the ten commandments, the ten commanded-words, the ten dbr's. The other word, imrh, refers to that which God has spoken, which is why it's often translated as God's "promise" throughout the Scriptures. Elsewhere in this Psalm, it is translated as "promise" (119:38, 41, 50, 58, 76, 82, 116, 123, 133, 140, 148, 154; ESV). I have only translated it as God's spoken-word to distinguish it from God's commanded-word.

And so, what David cries out to Yahweh for is understanding, or discernment, according to Yahweh's commanded-word.  And what he pleads for is deliverance, or rescuing, according to Yahweh's spoken, or promised, word. Two important principles for Christian living can be deduced from this: First, it teaches us not to presume upon God's deliverance in all circumstances, but to find assurance in those promises which God has spoken. And secondarily, it teaches us David's priorities in prayer. 

Let's look at both of these principles in more detail.

According to the first principle, we learn that David was not pleading for deliverance apart from something God had spoken to him--something God had promised him. Such a promise, in the context of David's life, is obviously that which was spoken in 1st Samuel 16, when God provided for Himself a king among the sons of Jesse, David by name. From that time on, David was the Lord's anointed, not Saul, and Saul treated David's anointing as a threat to his own throne. This means that within the historical setting behind the scenery of Psalm 119:169-176, David is pleading for the Lord to rescue him at a time when David felt his life and throne was in jeopardy. God had anointed him and filled him with His Holy Spirit, yet David was on the run from King Saul who was trying to kill him and keep him from ever ascending the throne of Israel. This time is generally understood to be around the events recorded in I Samuel 23. 

The second principle we learn involves David's priorities. Here we see a pattern of thought in David. If these historical circumstances are true, as I have argued them to be, notice carefully that David does not simply plea for God to rescue him. Nor does David plea for rescuing first. Ordinarily, when a Christian finds himself in extremely stressful and even dangerous circumstances (like David's), the first desire of the heart is for God to get us out of trouble. Ordinarily, we don't want any more stress, which means we don't want the headaches of learning to endure trials. We want out! We want deliverance from our troubles. We don't want to learn what to do next as we endure trials. But that was not David's first priority. David's first priority was to learn discernment according to God's commanded-word. David's first priority was to learn more about what he could do to please God through his trials. David's first priority was to understand what he ought to do (and not do) through in his present trial, as he awaited deliverance. David's other priority--his plea--was for deliverance, and that was a secondary priority because he trusted, by faith, in God's promise; which means he trusted God's faithfulness. He trusted in God's faithful character because he learned God's holy character from His Law. It was God's holy Law which gave him hope and taught him to fear God and His holy boundaries. It was the work of God's Holy Spirit that ennobled his heart to trust and obey faithfully, and maintain such holy priorities, even through such difficult trials. 

David's great confidence in the Lord is made clear in the central section of this Psalm (sections C and C'). David knows the day is coming when his own lips will burst forth with a song of praise. David looks forward to shouting jubilantly before all of Israel about God's spoken-word, i.e. God's promise to him. Yet notice carefully that David's confidence is grounded in God's written laws (section C). David knows that all of God's regulations for living are just (C'), and therefore he has nothing to fear. If God is for him, who would be so foolish as to be against him? Historically we know that King Saul was that foolish.

In sections D and D', David refers to God's "hand" and His "judgments" succoring him. This brings us back to David's first priority--David's cry. David is being hunted by Saul, but David knows that God has spoken to him, promising him the throne of Israel; and David cries for discernment according to God's commanded-word. David cries for such discernment because he doesn't want to displease the Lord and foolishly presume that God's hand would not be against him too, especially if he chose a path of lawlessness and sinful behavior (like Saul did) to get out of his troubles. David understood that God's covenant involves both blessings and curses--blessings of God's hand for faithful obedience and the curses of God's hand for disobedience. And here we learn that David sees God's hand of judgment as a good thing for him. It's a good thing for him because his first priority is to discern God's commanded-word and obey it. Why should David fear God's hand of judgment if he is doing those things which please God? David should have nothing to fear because he had chosen Yahweh's directions and his delight was in Yahweh's Law (sections D and E).

Finally, David closes with these words: "I have wandered like a lost sheep; so search for your servant..."

Many commentators suggest that David is confessing his private, and even ignorant, sins. That is to say, David is pouring out his heart and soul, confessing every possible sin imaginable, even secret sins which caused him to wander away from the faith. This, allegedly, is what he meant by wandering like a lost sheep. But is that really what's being taught here? Is David acknowledging that he has wandered, however slightly, from the faith? Such an interpretation would be odd and unnecessary. It would be odd because David's final words are "search for your servant because I do not forget your commandments." If David was confessing that he had wandered from the faith, however slight, that would seem to conflict with his confidence that he has not forgotten God's commandments. It also would conflict with the many other repeated statements about loving and keeping God's commandments. 

Instead, what I believe David is expressing is his vulnerability. David is describing a familiar scene to shepherds like himself. The scene is of a "lost" or "perishing" sheep in unfamiliar territory--a territory where enemies surround him and where he is not safe. Therefore David cries out, "I have search for your servant." This fits well within the historical setting described above. David is in distress and danger, on the run for his life from king Saul. Nevertheless, David trusts in God's promises concerning his kingdom. David finds comfort in the Lord's anointing. David draws near before the face of God in prayer, and because his pleading actually entered the Most Holy Place, the Lord sought his servant. That God of peace and Great Shepherd of the sheep made him complete in every good work to do his will, working in him what was well-pleasing in his sight. To Him belongs the glory for ever and ever. Amen.