Saturday, July 4, 2015

Once again, there's a good healthy discussion on baptism going on here in Internetworld. And once again its the Presbyterian "children of believers are part of the covenant and so should receive its sign and be affirmed when they ask about their membership" against the Baptist "you shouldn't intentionally baptize unbelievers or let them be members of your church." This debate even has some of the same players--at least Mark Jones is a part of it. On the Baptist side it's Jonathan Leeman (in the interests of full disclosure: Leeman is a friend) and Tom Chantry. You can find the latest piece in the debate and all the necessary links here. I've weighed in on the earlier version of the debate here, wherein I make up my own terms and say everyone is wrong about everything but me.

Since better writers/thinkers than me have already weighed in, I thought it might be useful to bring up a real-world historical example dealing with the problem of just when we might affirm someone's faith. This is a longish section out of Jonathan Edwards' excellent little work known as A Faithful Narrative where he tells the story of a small revival that broke out in his town. In this section, he relates the conversion of a four-year-old girl.

"But I now proceed to the other instance that I would give an account of, which is of the little child forementioned.6 Her name is Phebe Bartlet, daughter of William Bartlet. I shall give the account as I took it from the mouths of her parents, whose veracity none that know them doubt of. 
She was born in March, in the year 1731. About the latter end of April, or beginning of May, 1735, she was greatly affected by the talk of her brother, who had been hopefully converted a little before, at about eleven years of age, and then seriously talked to her about the great things of religion. Her parents did not know of it at that time, and were not wont, in the counsels they gave to their children, particularly to direct themselves to her, by reason of her being so young, and as they supposed not capable of understanding: but after her brother had talked to her, they observed her very earnestly to listen to the advice they gave to the other children; and she was observed very constantly to retire several times in a day, as was concluded, for secret prayer; and grew more and more engaged in religion, and was more frequent in her closet; till at last she was wont to visit it five or six times in a day: and was so engaged in it, that nothing would at any time divert her from her stated closet exercises. Her mother often observed and watched her, when such things occurred, as she thought most likely to divert her, either by putting it out of her thoughts, or otherwise engaging her inclinations; but never could observe her to fail. She mentioned some very remarkable instances. 
She once of her own accord spake of her unsuccessfulness, in that she could not find God, or to that purpose. But on Thursday, the last day of July, about the middle of the day, the child being in the closet where it used to retire, its mother heard it speaking aloud; which was unusual, and never had been observed before. And her voice seemed to be as of one exceeding importunate and engaged; but her mother could distinctly hear only these words (spoken in her childish manner, but seemed to be spoken with extraordinary earnestness, and out of distress of soul): "Pray, blessed Lord, give me salvation! I pray, beg, pardon all my sins!" When the child had done prayer, she came out of the closet, and came and sat down by her mother, and cried out aloud. Her mother very earnestly asked her several times what the matter was, before she would make any answer; but she continued exceedingly crying, and wreathing her body to and fro, like one in anguish of spirit. Her mother then asked her whether she was afraid that God would not give her salvation. She answered, "Yes, I am afraid I shall go to hell!" Her mother then endeavored to quiet her, and told her she would not have her cry; she must be a good girl, and pray every day, and she hoped God would give her salvation. But this did not quiet her at all; but she continued thus earnestly crying, and taking on for some time, till at length she suddenly ceased crying, and began to smile, and presently said, with a smiling countenance, "Mother, the kingdom of heaven is come to me!" Her mother was surprised at the sudden alteration, and at the speech; and knew not what to make of it, but at first said nothing to her. The child presently spake again, and said, "There is another come to me, and there is another; there is three." And being asked what she meant, she answered, "One is, 'Thy will be done'; and there is another, 'Enjoy him forever'"; by which it seems that when the child said, "There is three come to me," she meant three passages of its catechism that came to her mind. 
After the child had said this, she retired again into her closet; and her mother went over to her brother's, who was next neighbor; and when she came back, the child, being come out of the closet, meets her mother with this cheerful speech, "I can find God now!" referring to what she had before complained of that she could not find God. Then the child spoke again, and said, "I love God!" Her mother asked her how well she loved God, whether she loved God better than her father and mother; she said, "Yes." Then she asked her whether she loved God better than her little sister Rachel. She answered, "Yes, better than anything!" Then her elder sister, referring to her saying she could find God now, asked her where she could find God. She answered, "In heaven." "Why," said she, "have you been in heaven?" "No," said the child. By this it seems not to have been any imagination of anything seen with bodily eyes, that she called God, when she said, "I can find God now." Her mother asked whether she was afraid of going to hell, and that made her cry. She answered, "Yes, I was; but now I shan't." Her mother asked her whether she thought that God had given her salvation. She answered, "Yes." Her mother asked her, when. She answered, "Today." She appeared all that afternoon exceeding cheerful and joyful. One of the neighbors asked her how she felt herself. She answered, "I feel better than I did." The neighbor asked her what made her feel better. She answered, "God makes me." That evening as she lay abed, she called one of her little cousins to her that was present in the room, as having something to say to him; and when he came, she told him that heaven was better than earth. The next day being Friday, her mother asking her her catechism, asked her what God made her for. She answered, "To serve him," and added, "everybody should serve God, and get an interest in Christ." 
The same day the elder children, when they came home from school, seemed much affected with the extraordinary change that seemed to be made in Phebe: and her sister Abigail standing by, her mother took occasion to counsel her, how to improve her time, to prepare for another world: on which Phebe burst out in tears and cried out, "Poor Nabby!" Her mother told her she would not have her cry, she hoped that God would give Nabby salvation; but that did not quiet her, but she continued earnestly crying for some time; and when she had in a measure ceased, her sister Eunice being by her, she burst out again and cried, "Poor Eunice!" and cried exceedingly; and when she had almost done, she went into another room, and there looked upon her sister Naomi: and burst out again, crying "Poor Amy!" Her mother was greatly affected at such a behavior in the child, and knew not what to say to her. One of the neighbors coming in a little after, asked her what she had cried for. She seemed at first backward to tell the reason: her mother told her she might tell that person, for he had given her an apple: upon which she said she cried because she was afraid they would go to hell. 
At night a certain minister, that was occasionally in the town was at the house, and talked considerably with her of the things of religion; and after he was gone she sat leaning on the table, with tears running out of her eyes: and being asked what made her cry, she said it was thinking about God. The next day being Saturday, she seemed a great part of the day to be in a very affectionate frame, had four turns of crying, and seemed to endeavor to curb herself and hide her tears, and was very backward to talk of the occasion of it. On the Sabbath day she was asked whether she believed in God; she answered, "Yes." And being told that Christ was the Son of God, she made ready answer and said, "I know it."
From this time there has appeared a very remarkable abiding change in the child: she has been very strict upon the Sabbath; and seems to long for the Sabbath day before it comes, and will often in the week time be inquiring how long it is to the Sabbath day, and must have the days particularly counted over that are between, before she will be contented. And she seems to love God's house, is very eager to go thither. Her mother once asked her why she had such a mind to go, whether it was not to see fine folks. She said no, it was to hear Mr. Edwards preach. When she is in the place of worship, she is very far from spending her time there as children at her age usually do, but appears with an attention that is very extraordinary for such a child. She also appears very desirous at all opportunities to go to private religious meetings; and is very still and attentive at home in prayer time, and has appeared affected in time of family prayer. She seems to delight much in hearing religious conversation: when I once was there with some others that were strangers, and talked to her something of religion, she seemed more than ordinarily attentive; and when we were gone, she looked out very wistfully after us, and said, "I wish they would come again!" Her mother asked her why: says she, "I love to hear 'em talk!" 
She seems to have very much of the fear of God before her eyes (Psalms 36:1), and an extraordinary dread of sin against him; of which her mother mentioned the following remarkable instance. Some time in August, the last year, she went with some bigger children to get some plums in a neighbor's lot, knowing nothing of any harm in what she did; but when she brought some of the plums into the house, her mother mildly reproved her and told her that she must not get plums without leave, because it was sin: God had commanded her not to steal. The child seemed greatly surprised, and burst out in tears, and cried out, "I won't have these plums!" and turning to her sister Eunice, very earnestly said to her, "Why did you ask me to go to that plum tree? I should not have gone if you had not asked me." The other children did not seem to be much affected or concerned; but there was no pacifying Phebe. Her mother told her she might go and ask leave, and then it would not be sin for her to eat them; and sent one of the children to that end; and when she returned, her mother told her that the owner had given leave, now she might eat them, and it would not be stealing. This stilled her a little while; but presently she broke out again into an exceeding fit of crying: her mother asked her what made her cry again; why she cried now, since they had asked leave. What it was that troubled her now? And asked her several times very earnestly, before she made any answer; but at last [she] said it was because—because it was sin! She continued a considerable time crying; and said she would not go again if Eunice asked her an hundred times; and she retained her aversion to that fruit for a considerable time, under the remembrance of her former sin. 
She at some times appears greatly affected, and delighted with texts of Scripture that come to her mind. Particularly, about the beginning of November, the last year, that text came to her mind, Revelation 3:20, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and sup with him, and he with me." She spoke of it to those of the family with a great appearance of joy, a smiling countenance, and elevation of voice, and afterwards she went into another room, where her mother overheard her talking very earnestly to the children about it, and particularly heard her say to them, three or four times over, with an air of exceeding joy and admiration, "Why, it is to sup with God." At some time about the middle of winter, very late in the night, when all were abed, her mother perceived that she was awake, and heard her as though she was weeping. She called to her, and asked her what was the matter. She answered with a low voice, so that her mother could not hear what she said; but thinking that it might be occasioned by some spiritual affection, said no more to her; but perceived her to lie awake, and to continue in the same frame, for a considerable time. The next morning, she asked her whether she did not cry the last night: the child answered, "Yes, I did cry a little, for I was thinking about God and Christ, and they loved me." Her mother asked her whether to think, of God and Christ's loving her made her cry: she answered, "Yes, it does sometimes." 
She has often manifested a great concern for the good of others' souls: and has been wont many times affectionately to counsel the other children. Once about the latter end of September, the last year, when she and some others of the children were in a room by themselves, a husking Indian corn, the child after a while came out and sat by the fire. Her mother took notice that she appeared with a more than ordinary serious and pensive countenance, but at last she broke silence and said, "I have been talking to Nabby and Eunice." Her mother asked her what she had said to 'em. "Why," said she, "I told 'em they must pray, and prepare to die, that they had but a little while to live in this world, and they must be always ready." When Nabby came out, her mother asked her whether she had said that to them. "Yes," said she, "she said that, and a great deal more." At other times, the child took her opportunities to talk to the other children about the great concern of their souls, sometimes so as much to affect them and set them into tears. She was once exceeding importunate with her mother to go with her sister Naomi to pray: her mother endeavored to put her off; but she pulled her by the sleeve, and seemed as if she would by no means be denied. At last her mother told her that Amy must go and pray herself; "but," says the child, "she will not go"; and persisted earnestly to beg of her mother to go with her. 
She has discovered an uncommon degree of a spirit of charity; particularly on the following occasion. A poor man that lives in the woods had lately lost a cow that the family much depended on, and being at the house, he was relating his misfortune, and telling of the straits and difficulties they were reduced to by it. She took much notice of it, and it wrought exceedingly on her compassions; and after she had attentively heard him a while, she went away to her father, who was in the shop, and entreated him to give that man a cow: and told him that the poor man had no cow! that the hunters or something else had killed his cow! and entreated him to give him one of theirs. Her father told her that they could not spare one. Then she entreated him to let him and his family come and live at his house: and had much more talk of the same nature, whereby she manifested bowels of compassion to the poor (1 John 3:17). 
She has manifested great love to her minister: particularly when I returned from my long journey for my health, the last fall, when she heard of it, she appeared very joyful at the news, and told the children of it, with an elevated voice, as the most joyful tidings; repeating it over and over, "Mr. Edwards is come home! Mr. Edwards is come home!" She still continues very constant in secret prayer, so far as can be observed (for she seems to have no desire that others should observe her when she retires, but seems to be a child of a reserved temper), and every night before she goes to bed, will say her catechism, and will by no means miss of it: she never forgot it but once, and then after she was abed, thought of it and cried out in tears, "I han't said my catechism!" and would not be quieted till her mother asked her the catechism as she lay in bed. She sometimes appears to be in doubt about the condition of her soul, and when asked whether she thinks that she is prepared for death, speaks something doubtfully about it. At other times she seems to have no doubt, but when asked replies "Yes" without hesitation."

Now, what are we to make of this? And you'll note I'm dodging around the "baptism" issue, as Edwards was a Congregationalist and so such the girl would have already been baptized. But we still are faced with the question of what a church should do when faced with this kind of situation? Of course, on the one hand we might note that this is an exceptional circumstance--most four-year-old girls aren't giddy over the WSC, mournful over their sins, and desperately worried about the safety of the local preacher.

We should note that whatever decision is made about affirming or not affirming children, some flexibility for exceptional circumstances should be allowed. Children with terminal diseases (God forbid!), war time situations, places where persecution is rife, all of these need to be considered and accounted for by the church and given maximum flexibility in the rules and in our thoughts.

But even with our exceptions for exceptional circumstances, what about normal circumstances? In the regular course of events when your child barely out of toddler-hood says "I'm a Christian, can I take communion/be baptized/attend member's meetings?" we are going to have to answer both as parents (non-authoritatively) and as members of the church (authoritatively). Edwards in this case responded with a "yes, you can", though he admitted that such was not the normal course of events. I think the answer is... I don't know.

I mean, in one sense the answer as a parent is pretty easy. Well, "easy", at any rate. The correct response if my four-year-old (not that I have one of those right now) to "daddy am I a Christian?" is "we'll have to wait and see what you think when you're older and what the church says about your application for membership, my job is to teach you not to make final judgments on whether it takes or not." I say that's the easy answer because it's the right answer of course ;) but also because it kicks the responsibility off onto the church. Of course it's not really "easy" because telling someone you don't know if they're a Christian does carry certain implications with it, since there are implications for not being a Christian, and that can be hard when that someone is your own offspring.

It's as a church member where we are obligated to speak with some authority where it gets difficult. As those with the authority to admit someone into membership and so make a public declaration about the state of their faith, this is something we need to do carefully and seriously with each individual. We need to be sure that we are giving full consideration to each request, including judging the sincerity of the applicant and the possibility that a few years down the road they will be equally sincere. Here is probably where most people are going to struggle with toddler-faith. Sure, they claim to believe in Christ now, but ten years from now will they have to be excommunicated for apostasy or simply stripped from the rolls as never having been believers in the first place. (Though we could also say the same about someone who has a history of bouncing back and forth between belief and unbelief.) What do we do?

We ask Jonathan Leeman, that's what :)

Friday, July 3, 2015

ANF VI: Gregory Thaumaturgus Canonical Epistle

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Gregory Thaumaturgus: Part I: Acknowledged Writings: Canonical Epistle

Well, my plan to regularly go through each of the readings in this volume was offset by work, current events, family, and all those other things that regularly drag us down ;)

But I'll keep plugging away at it, even if it means that by the time I actually post these reviews it may have been so long since I read the work that my memory of it isn't all that great. [shrug] What can you do?

The "Canonical Epistle," for example. Isn't really what it sounds like. It's not so much an "epistle that everyone admits is a part of the canon of Gregory's works" as it is a "list of guidelines and doctrines the same as we see released by councils and such." For example, there's Canon VIII:
Now those who have been so audacious as to invade the houses of others, if they have once been put on their trial and convicted, ought not to be deemed fit even to be hearers in the public congregation. But if they have declared themselves and made restitution they should be placed in the ranks of the repentant.
In other words, what are we to do with criminals who claim to be Christians? If they have been tried and convicted by the state, they don't even get to show up at the church meeting. But if they admit their sin and repent of it, they should be allowed back in to enter into the process of reconciliation that others have to go through.
Or, what about Christians who have been pressed into military service by marauding barbarians? If they forget their Christian obligations not to kill or pillage, again they must be expelled from the assembly--at least until a council has made a final decision about what to do in such instances.

This is worth reading to get a sense for how the church fathers thought about church life and the relationship between the general culture and the body of believers.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Same Sex Marriage and the Christian Future

With the recent Court decision, it seems that the law of the land now recognizes the legalization of same-sex marriage. There are political, institutional, and ethical ramifications of this decision that need to be hammered out, but that's not my goal here. Here, my purpose is to offer a few thoughts to help individual Christians navigate these new social waters.
[Note: As of now, Christians are not legally being required to endorse same sex marriage. If that ever changes this post will require significant modification. For some reflection on the trend in that direction, check out this article by Jonathan Leeman.]
Before getting into the nuts-and-bolts of our response to this situation as Christians, we need to be sure to remember the great overarching truth that defines the place of the church in the world: in the long run, we are going to win. This is not to say we are going to have a personal victory in Hollywood-esque sense of some last minute hero riding to save the day; and this is certainly not to say that we will win the cultural battle in this nation at this time, or convince the Supreme Court or Congress or the states or what-have-you that they are wrong. This is rather to say that the Christ has already won. There are two sides of His victory that we need to remember.

On the one hand, Jesus achieved all the victory over sin, death, and the world that any of us will ever need when He paid for our sins on the cross. When that great substitution took place, the defeat of all the enemies of God was at hand and the vindication of His people was complete. He has won the victory for the church over the world, not through the church in the world, and as a result we can be confident that we are reconciled to God despite whatever happens in the halls of power in Washington DC. There is nothing that can can undo this triumph. (Romans 8:38-39)

On the other hand, Jesus will win even these worldly victories which appear to be losses now. I don't mean this necessarily as a Political Scientist--though I could say something about birthrates and how only Evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics, and immigrants are reproducing in any noticeable numbers (though admittedly even that is declining), so that in a generation or two this social and cultural pendulum will swing the other way. And I don't even mean this as someone who has studied quite a bit of history (though I'll talk more about that below). Once again, I mean that as a Christian, whatever happens in the world right now is at the very best temporary: Jesus is going to come back and put all of this right when he sets up His own kingdom--the City of God:
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:3-8)
In this coming eternal city, unrepentant sinners will be removed to judgment and God's people will live with Him forever. Jesus will win even what He appears to have lost now; until then we are merely in a holding pattern while we wait.

So what should we do while we are waiting?

Between the "already" of what Jesus has won on the cross and the "not yet" of His return, how are Christians to react to something like the Obergefell v. Hodges decision? Here are six suggestions:

1) Pray for non-believers:

The supporters of gay marriage, and especially homosexuals themselves, are in for a very, very miserable time--and we must feel a deep pity for them because of it. They are trying to steal satisfaction and happiness by combining their own sinful hearts and wills with a fallen natural institution that was never meant to bring ultimate fulfillment to anyone--let alone those who would use it wrongly and try to remake it in their own image. As a result they are going to find that this victory only makes them more miserable, more discontent, and more filled with anger and hatred. When the joy they thought they would receive from the legalization of their sinful behavior does not materialize, they will howl all the louder as they expand their demands. Proof of this discontent will follow on this decision immediately, as a stream of "this is not enough" statements will begin to flood the culture just as this movement for gay marriage followed on the decriminalization of homosexuality in Lawrence v. Texas (2003).
[This came out eve before the decision was released, which tells us that these authors were discontent with their victory before they even had it.]
We cannot help but feel great pity for a discontent that we can understand from our own experience. You and I even as Christians still from time to time catch ourselves trying to be happy with even the good things this world offers--family, friends, work, nature, and anything else you care to name. We know and have felt how ultimately hollow these things are when they are put at the center of our lives even when we use them as they are meant to be used, let alone when we make idols of them. As Christians, we can hope to recognize this hollowness and come to the joy that follows repentance and turning from our sin and embracing Christ. And so we must pray fervently for those who have never experienced true joy and who do not have the occasional respite from the emptiness of the world that is found in a relationship with God. We know the grace and mercy of our Lord and have been shown both the way out of the misery in the world and the truth that we will be wretchedly unhappy unless we find our joy in God and the life that comes through knowing Him. Once we have this joy we can understand that legislation, executive action, and court decisions will never make anyone happy, nor will being able to do whatever you want whenever you want regardless of what others think. The peace with God that comes through Jesus Christ alone is what enables us to echo Augustine in saying "our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee." (Confessions, I.1)

So pray regularly and deeply for those we are about to see become more miserable than ever.

2) Pray for individual believers:

We don't know what all the societal and political repercussions of this decision will be, but we can assume based on the last few years that the immediate future will be extremely difficult for certain individual believers. We need to pray that Christians who find themselves in these difficulties would remain faithful to the Gospel even as they think carefully about how to love God and their neighbors. They are going to be at the forefront of figuring out how to balance our obligations as Christians with the demands of Caesar, and how to picture well the Gospel in the eyes of the watching world.

3) Pray for the church:

At the end of the day, Christians are to value and support the church more than any other institution. It is more important than florist's shops, bakeries, and governments, and so we ought to spend much time begging for mercy and for holiness for the body of believers that God Himself died for. We are going to see increasing pressure on churches to conform to the new standard set by the culture, and so the church is going to have to develop a backbone such as it has never really needed in the United States before now.

4) Pray for families:

Christians in the past hundred years have not necessarily been models of what families ought to be--though it's not quite so bad a situation as the conventional wisdom suggests. Nevertheless, as the culture changes Christians will increasingly be models of what proper marriages ought to be, which in turn means we need to remember why it matters--the family is a temporary institution designed to teach about the relationship between Christ and the church. And so we ought to pray that we will continue to be a faithful picture of the Gospel to the world and that this institution will be strengthened rather than weakened, despite the culture's assault on it.

5) Cultivate faith by remembering the Gospel:

It is the Sunday School answer, yet it is the correct one nonetheless: our very first response to any situation should always be to remind ourselves that we are sinful rebels against God, and that rather than condemn us for our sins God sent His Son to become a man, live the life that we should have lived, and take our punishment when he died the death on a cross that we should have died. This life and death becomes counted as ours not because we are good people, but because we have believed Him. Faith is the foundation of the Christian life and what enables us to live in a world where we face such trials. What we will find is that as this faith grows, so too will grow our ability to live well in a hostile world, particularly in three areas:

a) Patience

Here is the promised nod to the history I've spent some time studying. When we look at the current Supreme Court decision it would seem to be a big one. But when we look at it in the overall context of history, it shrinks in size and proportion until we can begin to see how very very insignificant this really is in the grand scheme of things.
One hundred years from now there may or may not be homosexual marriage in the world, and you and I will be dead. But there will still be Christians and the church will live on.
One thousand years from now America as we know it will no longer exist. And no I'm not claiming to be a prophet or read the Bible as an exact map of the future or anything like that, I'm just telling you as a professional Political Scientist there is zero historical evidence that allows us to assume that any nation will last that long. But whatever happens to the United States in the next millennium, there will almost certainly be no homosexual marriage if it follows the historical pattern of other sinful institutions. The city of man will have progressed into other rebellious forms and shapes, racing it's debauched way to judgment. Yet there will still be Christians: the City of God will still be faithfully plodding its way along the pilgrim trail in a mixture of faithfulness and sin that will continue until the return of Christ. And if you want to reflect more on that, take up and read (slowly) Augustine's City of God.
So be patient, because we will win in the end however difficult things get for us right now.

b) Humility

At no point must we think that we are the innocent victims of a wicked culture. As Christians, the primary difference between us and the world is that we know we are sinful rebels against God. The fact that as Christians we have been forgiven for our rebellion is a difference that begins in God's character, not in ours. If we start playing the "who's more moral?" game, nobody wins. The proponents of homosexual marriage are not the "super-wicked!" of the world to be resisted by us virtuous saints. Those of us who correctly understand marriage are not the "super-virtuous champions of all that is good and right!" riding into battle against the forces of darkness. If that's your perception of Christianity's place in the world, you've radically failed to understand the Gospel. Whether we're thinking about ourselves individually or the church as it exists in this world, we must remember that we are saved despite our depravity, not because we are good and worth saving. We would do well to remember this absolutely every time we speak to this issue publicly--and I certainly include myself in that "we", since humility is not one of my strengths.

c) Love

Love forms the First and Second greatest commandments of the Christian life, and is the primary sign that we have truly believed God's promises in the Gospel. If we are not growing in our love for God and our love for our neighbors--including those who are working against what we believe politically--we simply have no claim to be true followers of Christ. Jesus died for us who hated Him; to fail to love is to publicly suggest that we still hate Him and want nothing to do with His sacrifice.

But in this context, what does it mean to love those who support gay marriage? There will be those who try to tell us that if we really love our opponents in this issue, we would support the opening of the institution of marriage to homosexuals. However, as absolutely any decent authority figure (perhaps especially parents) will tell you, "love" does not universally mean "let the other person do whatever they want." In this case, what is loving is for us to be respectful, kind, compassionate, and generous in our disagreement. The time has come for Christians to say "no" to the culture, and being loving means at the very least doing so as gently as possible.

6) Finally, Christians are to continue to evangelize:

Whatever the effects of this decision on our society, the reality is that we alone still have the Word of Life to share with the world; we alone can offer the way to achieve the hope, comfort, fulfillment, and happiness that all human beings long for. As Christians, we want above all else to see God glorified, and one of the ways we are told to pursue that desire is to share this message with others so that they too can become our brothers and sisters in Christ.

To that end we are to preach forgiveness through the cross. However vicious their assault on marriage, on the church, on God Himself has been, there is no one so sinful as to be beyond the mercy of Christ. Every Christian should say to himself "if I can be forgiven, anyone can." So don't stop telling others the good news--that God has opened up a way to salvation for all who will repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

ANF VI: Gregory Thaumaturgus Metaphrase

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Gregory Thaumaturgus: Part I: Acknowledged Writings:  A Metaphrase of the Book of Ecclesiastes

If a "paraphrase" is a summary of a longer work, a "metaphrase" takes a shorter work and lengthens it. In this case, Gregory's Metaphrase of Ecclesiastes is related to, but not exactly the same as, a commentary. (The word "metaphrase" itself means a "literal translation," but that's clearly not what Gregory is doing here.) Gregory summarizes each idea in each chapter of Ecclesiastes in his own words, offering slight expansions and extensions where he thinks appropriate.

Does he succeed? Is this a good interpretation of Ecclesiastes? Well, yes and no. I think he does a good job with each individual idea in the book. You can take any single verse and compare it with Gregory's metaphrase of that verse and get a pretty good interpretation. Not that I've done this, mind you, just that nothing particularly jumped out at me as crazy wrong or off.
Yet, I think the overall feel of the text is somewhat misleading. It's true that Gregory seems to handle each individual idea well, but the whole picture he makes out of them has a different feel from Ecclesiastes itself. When I'm done reading Ecclesiastes, I walk away with a sense that life sucks and then you die, and the only small bright part might be that you can worship God, but there's the sense that even that might deep down be meaningless (but probably not, though everything else is). The sense Gregory gives us is that darn it, this is a pretty attractive lifestyle that you and I can live with a little bit of faith in God and hard work. Which I'm pretty sure is not the point of this bleakest of books of the Bible. It is wisdom literature, but in this case I think Gregory has confused Ecclesiastes with Proverbs.

With that said, it's still an interesting and worthwhile read. Just take it for what it's worth.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

ANF VI: Gregory Thaumaturgus Declaration of Faith

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Well, on the Volume 6 of this long, long series. And I think I'm not going to bother going every day through this, though I might start by hitting every individual text in the book--or at the very least every author. Then again I might not, we'll have to see how they hold up...

Gregory Thaumaturgus: Introduction; Part I: Acknowledged Writings:  A Declaration of Faith

Apparently, Gregory's title "Thaumaturgus" is not really so much a last name as it is a descriptor, just like John's "Chrysostom" means "silver-tongued," it's not a family name. He's no relation to the pagan orator Dio Chrysostom, other than in sharing his eloquence. Apparently a series of legends about Gregory as a miracle-worker grew up in the century or so after his death, and so the name "Thaumaturgus" got attached to this student of Origen. And while we (with the editors in the introduction) might question some of the stories about him, we can be thankful there's a fairly easy way to distinguish him from all the other Gregories in the ancient church--and of course we can be thankful for his faithfulness and skill in thinking carefully about the faith.

The Declaration of Faith is a pretty clear precursor to the later Creeds, and to that end it's worth simply citing in full. There's no reason not to read this and every reason to appreciate the solid orthodoxy of this part of the early church. (Source)
There is one God, the Father of the living Word, who is His subsistent Wisdom and Power and Eternal Image: perfect Begetter of the perfect Begotten, Father of the only-begotten Son.
There is one Lord, Only of the Only, God of God, Image and Likeness of Deity, Efficient Word, Wisdom comprehensive of the constitution of all things, and Power formative of the whole creation, true Son of true Father, Invisible of Invisible, and Incorruptible of Incorruptible, and Immortal of Immortal and Eternal of Eternal.
And there is One Holy Spirit, having His subsistence from God, and being made manifest by the Son, to wit to men: Image of the Son, Perfect Image of the Perfect; Life, the Cause of the living; Holy Fount; Sanctity, the Supplier, or Leader, of Sanctification; in whom is manifested God the Father, who is above all and in all, and God the Son, who is through all.
There is a perfect Trinity, in glory and eternity and sovereignty, neither divided nor estranged.
Wherefore there is nothing either created or in servitude in the Trinity; nor anything superinduced, as if at some former period it was non-existent, and at some later period it was introduced.
And thus neither was the Son ever wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son; but without variation and without change, the same Trinity abideth ever.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Medieval Reading Recommendations

In good anti-Hipster fashion, I discovered this piece long after it was published over at the Gospel Coalition. In it, Gavin Ortland notes the occasional trend of Evangelical Christians to swim the Tiber and covert to Roman Catholicism, or the Bosporus and convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. Although it's not the point of the piece, he asks why this is happening:
What's causing this shift? While leaving room for the complex theological issues inevitably at play, I think one significant factor is the sense of rootlessness and restlessness many younger postmoderns feel today. At the heart of my generation is a profound emptiness—a sense of isolation and disconnectedness and consequent malaise. We're aching for the ancient and the august, for transcendence and tradition, for that which has stability and solidity and substance. And it's driving many of us out of evangelicalism.
I think that perhaps he's being too generous. While this may be the publicly-stated reason, the root cause of all apostasy driving those who reject the Gospel is sin and there's no reason not to just say so in the first place. Yes, of course we have to go on a case-by-case basis when discussing individual salvation. And yes the Eastern Orthodox churches are not monolithic in the same way Roman Catholicism claims to be, so we can't make quite the same sweeping generalizations about them (check out Timothy Ware's book for a good overview of Eastern Orthodoxy). And yes this isn't the point of the original post. But it still needed saying...

Anyway, the point of my post is to quibble just a bit with Ortland's list rather than with his explanation. So I should probably get to that...

Ortland provides a place to begin reading theology from the Middle Ages, specifically he mentions the following works:

There is absolutely no doubt that this is a representative list of some of the best theology available between Augustine and Luther. You will certainly be well served by reading these slowly and carefully and being blessed by the wisdom of these Godly men.

But I would suggest that none of these are really ideal works to start with if you're truly new to the Middle Ages. And again to be fair, the category he outlines is that of books he believes "deserve a wider readership among contemporary Protestants." I certainly can't argue that Gavin Ortland thinks these are books that deserve wider readership--and I'm happy even to agree with him that they do need wider readership among Protestants and Catholics alike. Catholics after all have their own problems knowing history (I know less about the Orthodox, so I can't speak to how well they know their own traditions.)

That said, these books are all to some extent more advanced than I'd really be comfortable suggesting as a place to begin learning Medieval theology. Boethius and Anselm are both somewhat dense, arcane, and challenging in their subject matter; while Gregory's subject matter is something most modern Christians aren't used to handling. So as preparatory reading for Ortland's list, I offer this list of (mostly) easier and more accessible Medieval works.

  • The Venerable Bede: Especially his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, as in addition to being as much narrative as anything, it is a wonderful display of how two church structures of equal authority in the Middle Ages peacefully resolved their differences. (More here.His commentaries are also worth a look, though I really recommend starting with the History.
  • Bernard of Clairveaux's On Loving God. This is a devotional classic that stands the test of time very, very well. And while Bernard certainly made some serious theological blunders in his life (who of us hasn't?), this book is not one of them. 
  • John of Damascus: This is the point where my recommendations are subject to the same criticisms I gave to Gavin Ortland's above. If you're trying to catch up on your Medieval reading, you certainly shouldn't ignore the Eastern church. The problem is, most of the writings you'll come across there are just as dense, arcane, and obscure than anything Anselm ever wrote. What's more, they're often so hyper-spiritualized that they can end up being either useless or openly heretical. Really your best bet is to find a good history of the Eastern Church and read that, mining it for good writers and suggestions. (Leo the Isaurian has always been a favorite of mine--for his theology, not so much for his methods.) Nevertheless, with some caution and effort John of Damascus' On the Orthodox Faith is a possible starting place for learning about the Medieval Eastern Church. 
  • Photios: Like John of Damascus, Photios needs to be read with caution and care. But his Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit is a good guide to one of the biggest divides between the Eastern and Western churches.
    And again, I'll add the disclaimer that these need to be read with a good deal of discretion. A good rule of thumb is to read Timothy Ware's history (linked above) and latch on to the names and writings he lists as "Orthodox" but "too Lutheran" or "too Calvinist" or "loosely Anabaptist" as your best sources. But of course, all of those are long after the Middle Ages and so beyond the purview of this post...
  • Christine de Pizan: Treasure of the City of Ladies. This book is not strictly theological, so in that sense it doesn't fit the original post's goal of finding the Gospel in the Middle Ages. And yet, the author is clearly concerned with living well, and we can see that the root of the proposed lifestyle is morality clearly derived in part from Scripture.  
  • Heloise and Abelard: The Letters between these two individuals are spectacular--especially those written by Heloise after she realizes Abelard isn't interested in her. There's really no summary that can do justice to these two individuals, so I'll leave it to you to pick this up and read it. 

So there you have it. My own list of recommended readings from the Middle Ages. Hopefully no disrespect was shown to Gavin Ortlund--I am a fan of the Gospel Coalition and most of what they do, and his work in particular. And I am certainly a fan of encouraging exposure to church history, I just have some suggestions for places to start that differ from his...

Friday, April 17, 2015

ANF V: The End!

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5


So month later, I've finally finished the fifth volume in this beast of a series. Which means I've got what, 42 left to go? Something like that, anyway. This volume is mostly Cyprian, with a good deal of Hippolytus and Novatian thrown in (Caius gets a nod too). Since I went through this whole volume a few pages at a time, I won't make extensive commentary or quotation here. Instead you can click the link below if you want to see the whole thing, or the names above to see the individual writers.


I don't know if I'll perform an exercise like this again. This kind of daily reading/blogging takes a lot of time and I have several other writing projects I'm working on (including a bi-weekly series on Machiavelli and Hobbes available here). So this and the City of God of last year may have been a one-of. If I do come back to daily blogging through the church fathers, it will be this summer. But no promises.

Oh, and a review of the book itself. This volume is worth reading, just maybe not all of it. While these authors are by and large more accessible than those of previous volumes (which I assume is caused by a combination of translation and manuscript availability), the content gets a bit repetitive. And of course as with any of these volumes the theology and exegesis aren't always as great as they could be. Still, there is gold to be mined here as we watch these faithful Christians try to obey Scripture and stay faithful to the Gospel. Though we don't always agree with their interpretations or actions, we can always benefit from their wisdom and example.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

ANF V: Appendix on Re-Baptism

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Appendix: A Treatise on Re-Baptism by an Anonymous Writer

Once again we're faced with a work by that most prolific of writers, "anonymous." And once again we're back to the question of legitimate baptism. This time the dispute is over whether or not those who were baptized into the "true" church, and then left for a schismatic church (Novatian's, for example), and then return, need to be re-baptized. If not, will a simple "laying on of hands" by the pastor and elders suffice?
The author in a long passage points out that this question has really been settled, but because of contentious human nature we refuse to acknowledge the authority of the church and so once again the Scripture arguments need to be brought up. Which is a great thing to notice: even though the decision has been made, force is not the recourse. Instead the authority of Scripture and persuasion are the tools in question, and remain so for centuries yet to come in the church.

By and large, this treatise can be skimmed. There's nothing here that wasn't also in the letters from Cyprian, other than some more explicit expositions of Scripture on baptism (which were largely only hinted at in Cyprian's letters). As there, we might not be able to go along with the exegesis or some of the theological conclusions--especially those that dance near baptismal regeneration and the idea of a single, unified church as the only legitimate one--but we can certainly go along with the submission to Scripture and the idea that we ought to be doing church and administering the sacraments correctly. Interestingly, here baptismal regeneration is explicitly rejected, "lest on this principle we should believe that even Gentiles and heretics, who abuse the name of Jesus, could attain unto salvation without the true and entire thing [that is, without faith]."
The overall point is that in baptism we have a great deal of flexibility, so long as we are being faithful and solemn in our administration of the sacrament. In answer to the specific question, no re-baptism is required, since the water does not save and is not necessary in the strictest sense...

So, this is a fine one to read but not because there's anything new to be picked up here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

ANF V: Appendix Against Novatian

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Appendix: Anonymous Treatise Against the Heretic Novatian

As the introductory notice points out, it's unclear who wrote this treatise (hence the "anonymous" bit in the title). It probably wasn't Cyprian but probably was a like-minded pastor, probably from North Africa.

I'm tempted to say that there's nothing new here that we haven't already seen in the letters of Cyprian and so you can go ahead and skip it. And that's true, so far as it goes. But although there are no new theological arguments in this short treatise, there are some turns of phrase that are simply too good not to read. Such as this one:
lo, there appeared opposed to me another enemy, and the adversary of his own paternal affections--the heretic Novatian--who not only, as it is signified in the Gospel, passed by the prostrate wounded man, as did the priest or the Levite, but by an ingenious and novel cruelty rather would slay the wounded man, by taking away the hope of salvation, by denying the mercy of his Father, by rejecting the repentance of his brother. 
As with Cyprian's letters, I'm on board with his concern for the integrity of the church. And I'm certainly on board with his respect for Scripture. But I just can't go along with either his exegesis (which: ugh) or his extreme view of church unity. You can split off into different local church and still be a part of the true church. I would rather that not happen, of course, but I would not condemn a body that holds to the Gospel just because it formed its own institution. This, for example, is simply too far: "For ye who were some time Christians, but now are Novatians, no longer Christians, have changed your first faith by a subsequent perfidy in the calling of your name." The fact is we have no record of them rejecting any of the core tenets of the Gospel, and so they are still Christians. That said, the author was there and I am not, so to some extent we should also give something of the benefit of the doubt to our sources.

So is this worth reading? Yes, but not because you'll get anything new out of it. Only because of the author's excellent way with words and imagery.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

ANF V: Appendix Baptism Controversy Records

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Appendix: Acts and Records of the Famous Controversy about the Baptism of Heretics

This passage can be read quickly, since it really is just a mini-table of contents pointing the reader to other places in this volume where this subject is dealt with.

Monday, April 13, 2015

ANF V: Novatian on the Meats IV-VII

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Novatian: On the Jewish Meats IV-VII

In addition to each forbidden animal providing a sermon on sin (see the previous chapters), Novatian argues in the conclusion to the treatise that the OT dietary laws were provided to teach us self-restraint and the dangers of luxury.
Luxury is inimical to holiness. For how shall religion be spared by it, when modesty is not spared? Luxury does not entertain the fear of God; since while pleasures hurry it on, it is carried forward to the sole daring of its desires...
And although the specific tenets of those laws have now been overturned by the coming of Christ, the basic principles underlying them remains in effect. Now we understand that these laws are not fulfilled by a proper diet, but are fulfilled 1) in Christ and 2) in the holy life of a Christian, for "the meat, I say, true, and holy, and pure, is a true faith, an unspotted conscience, and an innocent soul." And again "God rejoices in our faith alone, in our innocency alone, in our truth alone, in our virtues alone. And these dwell not in our belly, but in our soul..."

The Gospel, at the end of the day, should call us to be temperate in a way that is consistent not with the external observations of the OT law, but with the life it called OT believers to live. That is, a life of moderation, generosity, and holiness dedicated to war against sin and love of God and neighbor.

This treatise is excellent, so read it!

Friday, April 10, 2015

ANF V: Novatian on the Meats I-III

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Novatian: On the Jewish Meats I-III

Whatever we ultimately conclude about either Novatian or the specific theology of this treatise, we can't deny that he simply drips with pastoral concern. He encourages the congregation to hold to the truth of Christ as found in Scripture, rather than being caught up in customs, superstitions, or other false beliefs imported from modern Judaism--which itself does not even know what its purer predecessor was about.

In these first three chapters, Novatian gives us a delightful little Biblical theology of food, walking through the development of God's plan for our palette. He begins with the tree of life, explains how sin led to first toil and cultivated grains, and then death and flesh. But then the law for the restraint of sin and the development of civilization and religion and the cultivation of worship of God divided flesh into "clean" and "unclean," not because of the inherent qualities of the animals themselves but because of the rational nature of man made in God's image.

Now, I do think Novatian's overall point is probably a good and accurate one. But I don't know that we need to join him in walking through the unclean animals and suggesting the vices they each represent that we are to avoid. Don't get me wrong, it's a lot of fun to do that, but it's hardly good exegesis.
Thus in the animals, by the law, as it were, a certain mirror of human life is established, wherein men may consider the images of penalties; so that everything which is vicious in men, as committed against nature, may be the more condemned, when even those things, although naturally ordained in brutes, are in them blamed.
Still, these chapters are fun, so don't skip them!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

ANF V: Novatian On the Trinity XXIX-XXXI

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Novatian: Treatise Concerning the Trinity XXIX-XXXI

Moreover, the order of reason, and the authority of the faith in the disposition of the words and in the Scriptures of the Lord, admonish us after these things to believe also on the Holy Spirit, once promised to the Church, and in the appointed occasions of times given.
So simple a summary of the faith regarding the Holy Spirit, and yet full and rich and applicable to the more-charismatic and less-charismatic alike. In the last section Novatian defends the doctrine and Deity of the Holy Spirit, with a simple interpretation that manages to contain much truth while avoiding the errors that some of his contemporaries (*cough* *cough* Tertullian) fell into. The Holy Spirit is the Person of the Trinity who is with us now, strengthening, supporting, and sanctifying.

And yet, to say that the Godhead is three persons is not to say that there are three gods. Novatian ends his treatise by defending the unity of God as One rather than as three divinities. The last chapter on the relationship within the Trinity makes me wish I knew Greek, because while it makes sense and has some depth in English, I'm sure the Greek words and phrases have a theological depth that may not quite be carried into English. Of course if it was written in Latin, then I've no excuse but my own laziness... [shrug]

Overall, this treatise is worth reading, although as I've said along the way part of it at least can be skimmed.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

ANF V: Novatian on the Trinity XX-XXVIII

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Novatian: Treatise Concerning the Trinity XX-XXVIII

These chapters continue the defense of the nature and person of Christ from Scripture, arguing against specific heretical claims and interpretations (mostly the Sabellians) and giving his own read. These chapters are fairly interesting, but again can be skimmed in good conscience. Novatian again defends the full Deity and the full humanity of Christ, balancing well these aspects of His person without wandering into any of the heresies that would later develop:
For we know that the Word of God was invested with the substance of flesh, and that He again was divested of the same bodily material, which again He took up in the resurrection and resumed as a garment. And yet Christ could neither have been divested of nor invested with manhood, had He been only man: for man is never either deprived of nor invested with himself.
Novatian really is an excellent apologist, whatever his ecclesiastical proclivities.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

ANF V: Novatian On the Trinity IX-XIX

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Novatian: Treatise Concerning the Trinity IX-XIX

Continuing his discussion of the Trinity, in chapter IX through XXVIII, Novatian discusses the second Person,  the Song of God. He begins by clearly articulating the full Deity and humanity of Christ, contrary to the claims by pop-religious books that this wasn't settled until nearly a century and a half later.
For this Jesus Christ, I will once more say, the Son of this God, we read of as having been promised in the Old Testament, and we observe to be manifested in the New, fulfilling the shadows and figures of all the sacraments, with the presence of the truth embodied. 
Novatian is especially clear that Christ was fully a person, who came to redeem our bodies as well as our souls:
it is not the substance of the flesh that is condemned, which was built up by the divine hands that it should not perish, but only the guilt of the flesh is rightly rebuked, which by the voluntary daring of man rebelled against the claims of divine law. 
Novatian likewise argues powerfully for the Deity of Christ, largely using OT proof-texts. And while this has some value as an apologetic approach, it has more for us as Christians in showing us how the early church regarded the authority of the Bible. Specifically, to deny that Jesus is God is to deny the Scripture, while to deny the Scripture inevitably leads to denying the divinity of Christ. Which of course we see both truths in our own day as well.
But Christ promises to give salvation for ever, which if He does not give, He is a deceiver; if He gives, He is God.
He finds these arguments in both the New and Old Testaments, arguing that they are veiled in the Old Testament because humanity just wasn't ready to receive that truth yet--just as you want to wake up in dim light rather than in the full light of day...

While you could probably technically skim these sections without too much loss, I wouldn't recommend it. Novatian has some interesting arguments and fascinating reads on Scripture (which I don't always agree with, but so far have been always intrigued by). So I'd say skim it if you must, read it if you can.