Friday, July 27, 2007

of water and spirit

Four months ago, I started something and then quickly dropped it. I said I was going to spend time critiquing some of my own past writings, from my seminary days, when things seemed much more cut-and-dried. I think I got through one paper, on the canon of the Old Testament, and then dropped the project. I think what probably happened was that I just never got around to pulling up other materials. They're mostly stored on a different computer from the one I use to do my blogging, so it's rare that I think about it enough to look for them when I have the chance. The pace of life has slowed down a bit, while I'm taking some time off of work to help out with the new baby. I finally went through everything and decided there's really only one other subject I want to address. (There's certainly other stuff that could be covered, but most of it's not quite so directly controversial between Evangelicalism and Orthodoxy. Besides, I frankly get bored reading my own writing.)

In my first semester of seminary, I took a required class on "methods of biblical research." One of our assignments (I believe it was the big assignment for the semester) was to write a paper on John 3:5 and the meaning of "born of water." As with the other, I have no idea how long I'll leave the paper online; and once again, I apologize for the formatting. I've tried to clean up the Greek and Hebrew scripts (I wasn't doing them in Unicode back then); otherwise, I pretty much left it as Google docs rendered it.

Much like the OT canon paper, a major bias that stands out is that I never really took seriously the traditional view. I paid some lip service to the possibility that the passage could be talking about baptism, but I wrote it off with some pretty flimsy arguments and instead spent most of my attention on the choice between "born of water" as a reference to physical birth and "born of water and spirit" as more or less redundant. The whole discussion has a feel of, since it's not about baptism, what does it mean? The other overriding assumption is the typical bottom-up interpretive ideal of Evangelical hermeneutics. The meaning of the passage can only extend to what was going on at the moment between Jesus and Nicodemus, which can only be based on their shared background in OT Scripture. The life of the Church in which John wrote is more or less irrelevant.

Not to be too hard on myself, I think I was on the right track with the idea that Nicodemus's initial assertion about Jesus was earthly, fleshly, and could only be correcting through a total rebirth. I failed, however, to extend the idea to its logical conclusion, that Jesus was not really explaining things for him (at least, not as he was) but for those who already saw with the eyes of the Spirit. This is, I think, a common flaw in Evangelical reasoning--that although the importance of being born again is emphasized, and particularly in more Reformed circles, the incapacity of fallen man to receive the things of the Spirit prior to regeneration, when it comes to interpreting Scripture, methods are applied that assume clarity is possible prior to the presence of the Spirit. In this case, the contradiction is obvious (once you know where to look for it)--Jesus plainly told Nicodemus that he had to be born again before he could understand, but I assumed with many Evangelical interpreters that whatever Jesus's meaning, it must have been something Nicodemus could grasp.

Toward the end of the paper, I marshaled my specific objections to the sacramental view:
  1. If Jesus meant to convey baptism, he would have continued referring to it explicitly throughout the passage. I reasoned that, if this passage was talking about baptism, he was making it a means of regeneration and a condition for salvation. Since this idea is articulated nowhere else in Scripture, Jesus would surely have made his meaning explicit. I assumed, of course, an absurdly strong view of sola scriptura, that whatever Jesus would say here would be done with a view toward the eventual need that every doctrine could be clearly articulated and defended using only statements contained in Scripture. (I don't suppose I stopped to think that this line of reasoning runs counter to the expectation that Jesus's words gain their full meaning in their immediate context.) I also assumed that Scripture nowhere else suggests a sacramental view of baptism and that John's Gospel has nothing to say about Christian ordinances.
  2. Nicodemus was unlikely to have made the connection with baptism. Again, I missed the point that Nicodemus was not yet ready to receive the truth Jesus was getting at here, and I completely ignored the force his words would have had for the Christian community that would read John's Gospel.
  3. The topic was not Spirit baptism but regeneration. Perhaps even more absurd than my assumption that Jesus was intentionally constructing the New Testament as one might write a theology book, I also assumed that the theological categories I was studying in seminary had some relevance to the language of the NT. Clearly, Jesus would not have mixed up these two important and distinct doctrines. If he had in mind regeneration, there was no place for him to be talking about baptism, which is an altogether different ministry of the Spirit!
I don't know where I thought this silly notion came from, that Jesus was talking here about water baptism. I acknowledged that it was the majority view among commentators (and surely the only view expressed for the first several centuries of the Church, though at the time it wouldn't have occurred to me that such might be worth knowing), but I apparently wasn't bothered by the discrepancy. It wasn't even worth giving much consideration.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

"The Church's One Foundation"

Although the norm for Sunday worship at Bethany is contemporary, occasionally they do throw a more traditional hymn or two into the mix. This morning they sang for the first time "The Church's One Foundation." I'd sung it many times before and practically knew it by heart, but this was perhaps the first time since my interest in Orthodoxy. I don't know if it sent shivers down anyone else's spine--probably not--but to me it seemed so out of place, not just stylistically but perhaps more so lyrically:
1. The church's one foundation
is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is his new creation
by water and the Word.
From heaven he came and sought her
to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her,
and for her life he died.

2. Elect from every nation,
yet one o'er all the earth;
her charter of salvation,
one Lord, one faith, one birth;
one holy name she blesses,
partakes one holy food,
and to one hope she presses,
with every grace endued.

3. Though with a scornful wonder
we see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping;
their cry goes up, "How long?"
And soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.

4. Mid toil and tribulation,
and tumult of her war,
she waits the consummation
of peace forevermore;
till, with the vision glorious,
her longing eyes are blest,
and the great church victorious
shall be the church at rest.

5. Yet she on earth hath union
with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion
with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
like them, the meek and lowly,
on high may dwell with thee.
I don't recall ever hearing or singing the third verse, but even these five are shortened from the original version, written by S. J. Stone, a 19th-c. Anglican pastor. The hymn was part of a series he wrote, based on the Apostles' Creed, and was originally titled, "The Nature of the Universal Church, and the Fellowship of the Saints." My initial guess was that it was Anglican or pre-Reformation. Evangelicals these days may occasionally affirm the Apostles' Creed, but they
are not likely to sing songs about actual communion with the departed saints.

For me, it's hard to hear this hymn in an Evangelical context without some cynicism. I try to do everything I do in worship in the presence of the saints and with all the Orthodox sensibility I can muster, which is why it was such a moving hymn for me. But even as I sang, I could not make sense of it from an Evangelical perspective. They do not have one faith over all the earth, except in a very stripped-down, absolute minimum. If they partake one holy food, it is without a common understanding of what that even means.

Of course, there is also much in the song that Evangelicals can affirm without reservation, and that's what saddens me most in such situations. It would almost be easier to deal with an altogether non-Christian religion, where the boundaries are more clear-cut. With Evangelicals, I see the truth that they have, and often their enthusiasm for Christ. I see their love, their service, their outreach, and so many other things about their lives that are on the right track. And in their ideals, I see the Church--it's something that they long for, without knowing exactly what it is or why it seems such a distant reality.

Jesus told the parables of the dragnet and of the wheat and tares, where the Church is pictured by various means as including both the true and the false, the good and the bad, and at the end of the age, it will be sorted out. In the wheat and tares, the servants even ask about uprooting the tares right away, but the master explains that to do so would mean destroying much of the true wheat as well. I can't help but feel like Protestantism has been one big failure to heed these words. By trying to uproot the bad, earthly elements that were found in the Western Church, the Reformers threw out much that belonged. Later forms of Evangelicalism have continued this trend of purity through separation. Even the theology that makes the universal church an abstraction, free from any stain because of how it is defined, or relegates the purity of sainthood to the afterlife--these ideas preserve the truth in an ideal but in the process lose its power for the present reality. The result is something so close, yet so far from what the Church was meant to be.

Monday, July 16, 2007

welcome, Jenna Lorraine!

Ian finally gets a baby sister!

Jenna Lorraine was born July 15, 2007, at 7:49 p.m.
Weight: 8 lbs. 10 oz.
Height: 20.5 in.

Mother and baby are both tired but otherwise doing fine.

O Sovereign Master and Lord Almighty, Who heals every sickness and every weakness: do You Yourself heal this Your servant Julie . . . protect her, and this child Jenna which she has borne; shelter her under the covering of Your wings from this day to her last; through the intercessions of the all-pure Theotokos, of the holy Martyr Julia, of the Myrrh-bearer Joanna, of the Hieromartyr Eleutherius, and of all the Saints, for blessed are You to ages of ages. Amen.

Friday, July 13, 2007

if you remember only one thing . . .

Bishop Ignaty has a lot of good advice in The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism. Perhaps one of his most important instructions comes in the short section at the end, on "Rules of Outward Conduct for Novices":
27. In case of necessity, superfluous phlegm should be carefully gathered in a handkerchief and not spat on the floor with an indecent noise. One should not cough and blow one's nose loudly. These and other similar natural needs should be done quietly and decently. Snuff should not be used in church. . . .
It doesn't seem like these remarks need much comment. He does go on to say, "In fact, those entering the monastic order should give up the use of tobacco entirely," lest anyone think that he objects to it only in church.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

anathematizing Eutyches

Today on the new calendar we commemorate the miracle of St. Euphemia's relics, which according to Orthodox Tradition revealed the conclusion of the ecumenical synod at Chalcedon in AD 451. The teaching of Eutyches, that Christ has only a divine nature, was condemned as heresy, and subsequently the second ecumenical synod of Constantinople anathematized anyone who does not anathematize Eutyches (among other notable heretics).

It occurred to me last night at vespers, as I was listening to the account of this miracle, that I have never explicitly recanted my own formerly-held heresies in this area. I don't know whether it's strictly necessary that I do so--God knows what I believe now--but somehow it feels important. When I was in Bible college--my first semester, I believe--I studied the great Christological debates for the first time. The professor assigned our systematic theology class a book called Pilgrim Theology, by Michael Bauman. His main agenda throughout the book was to contrast two approaches that he labeled "pilgrim theology" and "fortress theology." In his scheme, pilgrim theology is what theology was meant to be--a journey of discovery, where we're constantly open to learning new things, refining our thinking, etc. Fortress theology is an aberration, where theologians stop exploring, settle down in one intellectual place, and build walls around their position. At the time, and for many years thereafter, it seemed a very sensible paradigm.

The chapters in Bauman's book were basically illustrative. Rather than developing a coherent argument throughout, he laid down the overall idea at the beginning, and then gave several examples throughout the book of how fortress theology rears its ugly head. One of the chapters had to do with the great Christological controversies, where Bauman felt that too much weight was placed on a few key Greek terms, so that the theological conclusions degenerated into absurdity--notably, the idea that Christ has two wills. (Keep in mind that Protestants generally ignore the seventh ecumenical synod, so two wills is basically the end of the line.) He described it as a multi-lane road that keeps losing lanes, and eventually it just ran out of pavement altogether. It was a theological dead-end. The conclusion that Christ had two wills signaled only one thing--that they were backed into a corner where they couldn't say anything else logically. Bauman's contention was that they'd had a good run, but they should have recognized that their method wouldn't take them any further, and moved on to something else. I'm not going to try to pick apart his argument here. I only bring it up to establish the context in which I drew my own conclusions.

At the same time, I was coming through a strong philosophical phase, mostly honed on Protestant apologetics, which (little did I know) had me thinking very much like the ancient heretics. (I'm not trying to make a direct connection here--this is how things played out in my head, not necessarily an accurate reflection of Protestant thinking.) I wanted theology to "make sense." Not that I was prepared to refute Scripture where it didn't fit my ambitions--I simply assumed that true theology, and therefore the true teachings of Scripture, would always conform with human logic. So, when we addressed the Chalcedonian teaching of two natures, I balked at the idea. How could anything have two natures? The nature of something is what it is, and if it doesn't strictly fit into one category or another, it must be something altogether different. So the notion that the two natures would simply merge into one appealed to me. More than that, though, I felt I had to inject some original thought into the debate, so I went on to articulate a heresy of a different sort, which I proudly labeled neo-Eutycheanism.

It went something like this. Paul's Christological hymn in Phil 2 is often referred to as teaching the kenosis--the self-emptying of Christ. This is explained in various ways, but the gist as I understood it at the time was that Christ, who was God the Son, somehow limited himself to become human. Now, if man was created in the image of God, and Christ is called the image of God, then wouldn't it make sense for the kenosis to have produced from actual God the image of God? I wouldn't have said that he actually stopped being God, but he voluntarily limited his divinity to the point that he became perfect man. One thing that I don't think I really processed at the time was what this would mean after his earthly life. Does he remain eternally limited, eternally nothing more (practically) than perfect man? Or does he return to being fully God and no longer man at all? Of course, if I'd pushed very hard on the idea it could have drifted into any number of heresies. Fortunately, I didn't; and fortunately, I ended up dropping the idea over time. I don't know that I ever explicitly decided it was wrong, and in fact when a few years later I encountered Oriental Orthodoxy, I didn't have to give their Christology a second thought. I just didn't feel like it was a very important issue. Whether Christ had one nature or two was all the same to me, in the sense that it didn't really affect anything else. It was an interesting question to play around with, but that was about it.

That was a problem for me with a lot of Protestant theology--it didn't seem particularly relevant. I think it's accurate to say that my wife thought so too, but our reactions were different. She was bored with it, while I turned it into a game. I didn't need it to be relevant, because it was fun to study regardless. In fact, as time went on, I learned to appreciate the irrelevance of theology, because it allowed the subject to become harmless data, available for whatever I wanted to do with it. I think to some degree that was the appeal of more left-wing Protestant varieties. They didn't have to worry about what implications the Bible might have for their theology or theology for their lives. They could just be scholars, playing with data and paradigms. But the fun only lasts so long. Eventually, I sensed something was missing, and the rest, as they say, is history.

One thing I appreciate about Orthodoxy is how theology remains so closely tied to the Christian life. The Orthodox experience only makes sense in the context of Orthodox theology. On the other hand, Orthodox theology is only justifiable on the basis of Orthodox experience. This was the major flaw in my own theologizing back when I started college and years after I'd finished seminary. You can't get there through pure logic. It's not always going to make great sense. That's not to say that God is illogical--it's more that he's beyond what our logic can reach. There's nothing wrong with using logic as part of the process, but we're fundamentally dealing with a personal God who is only known through relationship. Some of what that relationship has produced is in Scripture, more of it is in the whole Tradition of the Church, but until we get in there and live it, we're still just trying to work with data. We're missing the context for all this other stuff. It's the relationship that's key, and that's what the Fathers were trying to protect when they addressed these heresies. I see that now, in a way that never made sense to me as an Evangelical.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Bl. Theophylact on John available!

I don't do too many book promotions on here, and I assure you up-front that I'm not making anything off of this endorsement. (That is, unless someone wants to make it worth my while . . . ) But I just have to say how excited I am that The Explanation of the Gospel of Saint John by Bl. Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria, is finally going to print. Chrysostom Press is in the process of publishing an English translation of Theophylact's (11th c.) commentary on the New Testament. (A very slow process, but what isn't in Orthodoxy?) I mentioned several months ago on here that I'd bought the first three volumes, on Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I suppose a more patient man would have waited for John to come out, since its release was already on the horizon. A more patient man also would have saved some money on the deal, because now you can order all four in hardback for a little more than twice the cost of John by itself. But a more patient man might also have spent less time in Scripture over the succeeding months, so I'm not kicking myself too hard.

I had a professor in seminary who once gave the strongest recommendation he could for a book--"if you don't own it, sell your shoes and buy it." I'm pretty sure I couldn't get $30 for my shoes--for all of them, I mean, let alone any single pair. But if you have $30 worth of used shoes lying around, by all means, sell them! Better yet, if you have $70 worth and don't already own the first three volumes, get busy. (As for me, I wonder if there are still places around that will pay for blood?) Theophylact incorporates the best of Orthodox Tradition in his concise explanation, and the format of alternating bite-sized chunks of Scripture with running commentary makes it easy to use. The translation is in good English, although I haven't read the Greek text, so I can't speak to its accuracy. Even if you have time to plow through John Chrysostom's homilies on every passage of Scripture, you still won't get the breadth of Orthodox Tradition contained here. It's little wonder that Bishop Ignaty recommended to his monks that they read Scripture with Theophylact. Not to disparage the efforts of the good people working on the Orthodox Study Bible, but arguably we've already had one for the past 900 years. It just needs to be translated into English.