Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Canon Question

“I would not have believed the gospel, unless the authority of the Church had induced me.” (St. Augustine, Contra Ep. Fund., V, 6.)


As Christians, how is it that we know we are saved by the death and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God? For those raised as Christians, the Sunday School sing-song answer “for the Bible tells me so” may come to mind, and this fairly well summarizes the Protestant teaching on the communication of saving truth. The Belgic Confession, an historical expression of the Reformed faith used widely in Dutch denominations, asserts that we know God by the beauty of creation, and “more openly by his holy and divine Word.” Continue reading...

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ecclesial Deism

Please do check out our most recent article at Called to Communion, by Bryan Cross: Ecclesial Deism.

It's worth the read, so if you've developed a patience that limits you to blog-post length reads, I suggest printing it out and reading it piecemeal.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Conditional or Unconditional Assurance?

I find reading the Apostle John's letters especially beneficial for the simple reason that they are non-Pauline; they allow for a contrast, a reading of a different tenor or tone. John opens his first epistle by explaining that he preaches the word which he had seen and which was "made manifest" to him (1 John 1:2). He shares what he saw so that his audience might have "fellowship" with him, who is himself in fellowship "with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ." (v. 3.)

To have fellowship with one another, an ambition that is (in my finer moments) quite dear to me, we must walk in the light, which is Christ. And in that case, the blood of Christ "cleanses us from all sin." (v. 7.) This serves as a preface for the beginning of 1 John 2, a recent liturgical reading. John says that "we may be sure that we know him" by "keep[ing] his commandments." (1 John 2:3.) This is reminiscent of John's own Gospel, in which he records the words of Christ, that "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." (John 14:15.)

Is the keeping of Christ's commandments a required step to validate and vest one's claimed love for Christ, or is it mere evidence of election? In other words, from John's letter does it appear that obedience is a sign of or an agent in achieving unity with Christ's propitiatory work? Is there a condition or not?

1 John 2 reads as if there may still be a condition. "He who says 'I know him' but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to talk in the same way in which he [Christ] walked." (1 John 2:5-6). The disobedience doesn't seem to undo (on its own) one's possession of truth, but rather to evidence that the person is "a liar." But on the other hand, some action really flows from the keeping of commandments -- it is not mere assurance, mere evidence of prior election. In whoever keeps Christ's word, truly love for God is perfected. (As a matter of interpretation, this has to differ from a text that would say, "already perfect love is made known.")

It could be that, upon appreciating our having received the grace to obey divine commandments, we both find assurance in what has been done, and cooperate in the perfection of this love. If this is objectionable, I suspect the objection arises from a predisposition to a monocausalistic view.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

[Four Corners] Scriptura?

There is a classical dispute in the law of contracts, the underlying problem of which also bears on the doctrine of sola Scriptura.  

Suppose you enter into a contract to purchase a home from a seller, and at some point the other party refuses to sell, claiming that a term of the contract allows them out of the deal.  If you disagree with their interpretation of the disputed clause, and take it to a judge, what should he consider in resolving the matter?  Should he only consider the "four corners" of the contract that you and the seller signed (i.e., nothing beyond the written page itself), or should he also consider extrinsic ("parol") evidence, such as testimony that the seller assured you orally that the clause meant the opposite of what he now claims?   

The underlying issue, then, is whether courts can consider something more than the contract, when the parties are bound only by the contract document they signed.  The traditional position has been that only the written contract could be considered by the courts, not testimony about oral promises made outside of the writing.  If we wax theologic, this is sola pactum, if you would.  But a rift started to emerge in the courts, prompted, as is often the case, by bad cases and clear scoundrels benefiting from a 'bright-line' rule.  

A fairly philosophical view appeared: a contract is never in fact interpreted by its four corners alone because every judge's mind comes pre-loaded with normative or interpretive biases.  Anyone reading it would filter the words on the page through their own preexisting understanding of language, or of the matters being agreed upon in contract.  Specialty terms from a particular field related to the contract (e.g., construction terms) may have a different meaning to the contracting parties than they would to a lay judge.  Language is never a perfect medium for underlying thought, it seems.

Analogously, if our authority for faith and morals is the Bible alone, may we look only to the four corners of Scripture, or do we admit extrinsic sources to our interpretation as well? Some will insist upon a negative answer: "no book but the Bible, no creed but Christ."  

The Reformer opposed to 'biblicism' will be quick to note that his authority is sola Scriptura interpreted with the church (see here).  That is, some measure of deference to others' interpretations or to a traditional vein of interpretation is due.  This view, which I admire for its humble respect for tradition, is the analog to the liberal trend in contract interpretations admitting extrinsics.  But in choosing our extrinsics, in selecting whose or which traditional vein's interpretation receives our deference, we, like judges and anyone else handling text, do not start with an interpretive tabula rasa.  We add our own extrinsic.  And like the specialty terms in contracts worsening the problem of four corners alone for judges, specialty terms, period-specific terms and the like, in the Bible worsen the problem when attempting to interpret Scripture without the influence of pre-loaded biases.

How is the term sola proper when it is not [Four Corners] Scriptura, but Scriptura + Interpretive Extrinsics?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Onward Christian Soldiers: Armies of One?

The Bible tells us that we, as Christians, are types of soldiers. For instance, Paul tells the Church at Philippi that he has decided to "send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier." (Phil. 2:25.) In 2 Timothy, we are reminded to "[e]ndure a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer." (2 Tim. 2:3-4.) And of course there is the well known passage from Ephesians 6 exhorting Christians to "put on the full armor of God." (Eph. 6:11.)

Today's army wrestles with the working out of individualism and the 'liberating' ideology of the previous centuries. Headlines from a few years ago savored the excitement generated by a U.S. Army junior officer who refused to deploy to Iraq. His reason: he believed that the Iraq war was immoral and illegal, so he would not participate.

In the same year, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church ruled to petition the U.S. President to allow soldiers to selectively conscientiously object to conflicts "on the basis of just-war criteria."  The Synod noted the Christian's obligation to obey national authorities, but saw this obligation as being trumped by "our ultimate God."  By "our," the Synod meant "each individual Christian's."

This has me wondering about private judgment and effective warfare, both in the context of military soldiers fighting military wars, and in the context of Christian soldiers fighting a spiritual war.

Are we the Army of Christ, or many armies of one?  Armies are effective when they amass a stronger force than their enemy.  Strength comes from obvious things: size, training, discipline, and cohesion.  But if each soldier can privately determine the rectitude of the commander's course, cohesion and discipline evaporate.  Would Col. Chamberlain have been able to send his 20th Maine Regiment on a daring charge, thereby holding Little Round Top and saving the Union flank at Gettysburg, if private dissent was allowed?  Could Gen. Eisenhower have thought to take the beaches at Normandy with an allied force in which individual conscience could trump military orders? (And I note that the individual's conscience and judgment are far from clear when facing the prospect of incoming hostile fire.)

The sine qua non of successful warfare is an obedient soldier. Every military needs him before it can hope to have cohesion and unity.  Even guerilla forces, irregular militia, and insurgent rebels abide by this modus operandi; they have leaders and subordinates, rules of obedience and enforcement of disobedience.

So for what reason might we conclude that the Army of Christ would be any different? The concept of obedience is hardly a minor tangential characteristic of soldiering, so I do not think this is an instance where 'all analogies break down.' To the contrary, if anything is derived from our being characterized as armor-wearing "soldiers," it should be that we are part of the whole, with the whole depending on its parts. We are not Wrestlers for Christ, after all. And we are not an army of one. We should be one Army of Christ. It is--and has been since time immemorial--the soldier's to obey, and the commander's to lead.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Prayers for the Scottish Dead

At the conclusion of St. Adomnan's Life of St. Columba, about which I previously wrote, a transcriber appended a fascinating note:

"Whoever may read these books about St. Columba's miraculous powers, pray to God for me Dorbbene that after death I may have life eternal."

Adomnan's work was written c. 690 AD.  I don't know when Dorbbene made his transcription, but he was a successor of St. Adomnan, not more than nine years after the latter's death.  That means that in early Celtic Christianity, often noted for its development free and clear from Roman influence, prayers for the dearly departed were firmly in place -- so much so that a transciber would seek out the prayers of his readers.  

The Catholic apologist will note that prayers for the dead are recorded within the deuterocanon, and that may very well be true.  So I don't raise this point to surprise anyone at the ancient pedigree of such prayers.  I'm just [b]logging my interest in the note concluding the transcription, and the Protestant's inability to attribute this to "papish" influences.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Bryan Cross on Two Ecumenicisms

I highly recommend, and am quite enthused about, Bryan Cross's recent blog post: Two Ecumenicisms. He makes an artful distinction between the kind of ecumenicism that doctrinally conservative Christians reject and the kind that they can embrace. But more interesting than that, he explains why having this latter kind of dialogue is worthwhile even with an opponent who, as a rule, will not compromise. No easy task, that.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Called to Communion

Please visit a new website project in which I am enthusiastically engaged: Called to Communion: Reformation Meets Rome.

We have just launched, choosing Ash Wednesday as our kick-off. Spread the word with all those who may be interested in engaging in the discussion. The contributors are all Catholics who converted from Reformed protestantism (plus me). Among them are several seminary graduates, notable Reformed seminaries at that.

I can attest to the group's sincere desire to have a charitable discussion in the pursuit of Truth, for the sake of our obedience to God's will. Our aim is to write in a more thoughtful, more carefully edited way than blogs typically allow. This is our small contribution to the pursuit of unity among Christ's followers, that we may be truly one body, one vine. I believe this to be the end of properly oriented ecumenism.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

RCIA and Discernment

I have been enrolled in a local Catholic catechises class since last September. This class, known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA, is designed to train unbaptized people who wish to become Christian, as well as baptized Christians who wish to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. By design, it culminates in the Easter Vigil, at which the appropriate initiatory sacraments are administered: Baptism if not previously administered, Confirmation, and the Eucharist.

Enrolling in the class was a difficult decision, but staying un-enrolled seemed no easier. I wanted to enroll because I believed I needed to be put in a more consistent pattern of training for my own discernment about the Christian Church. Prior to that point, studying Catholicism had been too easy to walk away from, then rush back into, only to walk away again upon becoming desolate over some foreign teaching or other. It was difficult to enroll, though, because I had anxiety that the momentum of the class toward the Easter Vigil would make the outcome all but inevitable.

How has it turned out? Well, I'm not even sure. I do know that there is a certain momentum toward the Vigil. But several fellow candidates are not intent on joining, so the momentum is not inescapable. The consistency of weekly study of Catholic teachings has been beneficial, even if I had previously exposed myself to most of those teachings. There has been less of a focus on the discernment process itself than I had hoped, but given that this is a one hour / week class, my hopes were misplaced.

I have been able to focus particularly on discernment itself, i.e. reflecting on God's will and calling for His people and for me in particular, through other means. Meeting with my protestant pastor and with the priest who teaches RCIA has been challenging and enriching. Best of all was a three-day silent 'retreat' I was able to attend, taught by a priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, which used the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. There is nothing quite like shutting up for a few days, and committing oneself completely to prayer. Staring Catholicism, particularly Marianism, in the face for that weekend was a struggle. Here, like with my RCIA class, I did not walk away with a clean and easy answer. Discernment, like movement, is a process, and I have had to accept the necessity of patience.

So here I am, a day away from Lent and a few weeks away from the Easter Vigil, uncertain of what I will do. As a baptized Christian, I could enter at another time by making proper arrangements, so I needn't have a "now or never" perspective. I have a growing perception of how difficult Faith is, and how easy Doubt is: I can call all foreign truth-claims into doubt, and huddle in my little corner of familiarity, ignoring the forces pulling me out. Faith is so easily shattered, ever vulnerable but for the Grace of our exceedingly gracious God.

No one said this would be easy.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Miracles of Saint Columba

I recently finished reading Life of St. Columba (Richard Sharpe trans., Penguin Classics ed.) by St. Adomnan of Iona.  Iona, as I have previously described, is an unmistakably "thin place" where one can go to reflect upon, and hopefully hear, the Lord.  It is a tiny isle (1 mile wide by three miles long) ruggedly lying exposed to the high seas off the west coast of Scotland.  It is here that St. Columba brought Christianity to the Pictish people from Ireland.  St. Adomnan, his biographer, was a later successor to the Abbacy of Iona.

The Iona Abbey, from the Iona Community Website

St. Adomnan's biography of St. Columba (d. 597), by far the most complete offered by antiquity, was written a century after the holy missionary's death.  It is particularly noteworthy for its descriptions of the prophetic and miraculous powers that he possessed.

When I picked up the book, I did not know whether to believe the nearly 100 miracles described. St. Columba is said to have walked on water, raised the dead, and described future (as well as contemporary but distant) events with great accuracy. So many and profound were the miracle accounts that I came to think they had to be embellishments. But still, there were simply far too many of them for me to think they were wholly baseless.

Two accounts from the book seemed worth highlighting here.  The first caused the speculation that St. Columba himself encountered the Loch Ness Monster:
On another occasion also, when the blessed man was living for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Nesa (the Ness); and when he reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water; his wretched body was, though too late, taken out with a hook, by those who came to his assistance in a boat. The blessed man, on hearing this, was so far from being dismayed, that he directed one of his companions to swim over and row across the coble that was moored at the farther bank. And Lugne Mocumin hearing the command of the excellent man, obeyed without the least delay, taking off all his clothes, except his tunic, and leaping into the water. But the monster, which, so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and, giving an awful roar, darted after him, with its mouth wide open, as the man swam in the middle of the stream. Then the blessed man observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, "Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed." Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.
(Medieval Sourcebook: Adamnan: Life of St. Columba; Penguin, at II 27, p. 175).

The second tells of his raising a boy from the dead:

At the time when St. Columba was tarrying for some days in the province of the Picts, a certain peasant who, with his whole family, had listened to and learned through an interpreter the word of life preached by the holy man, believed and was baptized the husband, together with his wife, children, and domestics.

A very few days after his conversion, one of the sons of this householder was attacked with a dangerous illness and brought to the very borders of life and death. When the Druids saw him in a dying state they began with great bitterness to upbraid his parents, and to extol their own gods as more powerful than the God of the Christians, and thus to despise God as though He were weaker than their gods. When all this was told to the blessed man, he burned with zeal for God, and proceeded with some of his companions to the house of the friendly peasant, where he found the afflicted parents celebrating the obsequies of their child, who was newly dead. The saint, on seeing their bitter grief, strove to console them with words of comfort, and exhorted them not to doubt in any way the omnipotence of God. He then inquired, saying, "In what chamber is the dead body of your son lying?" And being conducted by the bereaved father under the sad roof, he left the whole crowd of persons who accompanied him outside, and immediately entered by himself into the house of mourning, where, falling on his knees, he prayed to Christ our Lord, having his face bedewed with copious tears. Then rising from his kneeling posture, he turned his eyes towards the deceased and said, "In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, arise, and stand upon thy feet." At the sound of this glorious word from the saint, the soul returned to the body, and the person that was dead opened his eyes and revived. The apostolic man then taking him by the hand raised him up, and placing him in a standing position, d him forth with him from the house, and restored him to his parents. Upon this the cries of the applauding multitude broke forth, sorrow was turned into joy, and the God of the Christians glorified.

We must thus believe that our saint had the gift of miracles like the prophets Elias and Eliseus, and like the apostles Peter, Paul, and John, he had the honour bestowed on him of raising the dead to life, and now in heaven, placed amid the prophets and apostles, this prophetic and apostolic man enjoys a glorious and eternal throne in the heavenly fatherland with Christ, who reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Ghost forever.

(Medieval Sourcebook: Adamnan: Life of St. Columba; Penguin, at II 32, p.179).

Maybe we don't see such miracles today because our modernist minds lack the broad faith that these ancient, new converts possessed. Also, perhaps the missionary nature of St. Columba's work was an element of God's providentially willing to make miracles happen through this man. It was interesting for me to finish this book around the same time that I read Fr. Amorth's book on exorcism, as it helped to remind me of spiritual realities that lie beyond the perception of my own senses. 

Why start from the premise that Adomnan was a liar? I give him the opposite presumption. St. Columba, ora pro nobis.