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The Commandments Keep Us: Some Wisdom from the Philokalia

In teaching the 10 Commandments, Christians often speak of “keeping” the commandments – but what if it’s the other way around?

The classic Orthodox collection of spiritual writings called the Philokalia contains writings from saints and monks spanning centuries.  Outside of St. Maximos the Confessor, no one contributed more to this collection than the mysterious St. Peter of Damaskos.  Little is known of St. Peter except that he was a monk, living before the hesychast controversy, most likely in the 11th or 12 century.  In his “The Seven Forms of Bodily Discipline,” he has a unique take on the commandments:

…the evil that we commit ourselves is our own responsibility and arises from our own laziness with the help of the demons. On the other hand, all knowledge, strength and virtue are the grace of God, as are all other things. And through grace He has given all men the power to become sons of God (cf. John 1:12) by keeping the divine commandments. or, rather, these commandments keep us, and are the grace of God, since without His grace we cannot keep them. We have nothing to offer Him except our faith, our resolution and, in brief, all the true dogmas that we hold with firm faith through the teaching we have heard (cf. Rom. 10:17).

Note the synergism that marks the Orthodox view of salvation.  It is only by cooperating with God than we can obey God, and we return to God our faith and will, which themselves are gifts He gives us that we might keep the commandments.

Or, rather, “these commandments keep us.”  As Chesterton remarked centuries later, doctrine and discipline are walls, but they are the fence around the playground.  They are the guard rails that keep us on the road that leads to life.

The commandments, then, are not arbitrary rules imposed on use from the outside.  They are, instead, the form that grace takes in our daily lives, a means through which God orders our lives so that we might grow in Him. As St. Paul tells the Philippians, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13, NRSV)

Sin distorts us, our egos betray us, our hearts deceive us, but the commandments keep us. Thanks be to God.

 

 

Source: The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Volume III, p. 89 (emphasis added). The biographical information on St. Peter above comes from the introductory note at the beginning of this volume.

 

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Bonhoeffer & the Empty-Handed Christmas

At Christmas, we typically think about all the things we’ll get our hands on: wrapping paper, bows, gifts, egg nog, gift cards, etc. In other words, Christmas is a time of accumulation, at least for most 21st century Christians in the West.  But in a letter from prison in 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests a Christmas with empty hands is all the more powerful:

I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant by his dying words: “We’re beggars; it’s true.” The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.

The Christmas story is, at its core, a story of God’s grace – that is, His unmerited favor and goodness to us.  Christmas is the ultimate a gift – the gift of God’s very self not only to us but as one of us – a gift for which we did not ask, a gift more grand than we could have imagined.  Bonhoeffer discovered, behind bars, that with nothing else to hold onto, the gift was that much more wonderful. “Now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us…will seem all the more glorious.”  It was Paul Newman who first told us that nothing can be a “cool hand.”  Perhaps Bonhoeffer was right that a kenotic Christmas – a self-emptying, like Paul describes in the hymn of Philippians 2 – is more powerful, and true to the gospel narrative, than how we typically experience the holiday.

At Christmas, how can we approach the manger with empty hands? How can we remember, in the midst of so much consumerism and conspicuous consumption, to try to be content with only the essentials?  Bonhoeffer, and the church in chains around the world, illustrates the truth of the old preacher’s quip: the one who has God and everything else has no more than the one who has God and nothing.

P.S. I highly recommend this Advent/Christmas devotional built around Bonhoeffer’s writings (pictured above) titled God is in the Manger. The above quotation is dated December 1, 1943 and is found on p. 6.

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A Graceless Apocalypse: Thoughts on “Slabtown” (The Walking Dead)

Beth in "Slabtown," courtesy IGN's excellent review.

Beth in “Slabtown,” courtesy IGN’s excellent review.

[Warning: serious spoilers below. You’ve been warned.]

“Everything costs something, right?”

Season 5, episode 4 of The Walking Dead takes a departure to catch us up on a character we haven’t seen in quite a while.  Last we saw Beth, she was carted off by mysterious forces in a vehicle sporting a white cross.  In last night’s episode, “Slabtown,” Beth wakes up in an unexpected place: a hospital, which we later learn is Grady Memorial in Atlanta.  In a throwback to the pilot episode, she awakens in a strange location unsure what has happened.   The woman in charge of the hospital, Dawn, sets the tone immediately.  Because we used our resources to save you, she says to Beth, “You owe us.”

Beth soon learns that the abandoned hospital is run by survivors who have been rescued (kidnapped? kidrescued?) and then repay their debt by working various tasks inside the hospital.  Outside is nothing but zombies walkers/biters/rotters, so even those at the top of the hierarchy are basically trapped.  But in this inhumane place, the male guards abuse the female workers, and those who want to leave are threatened.  Anyone who questions the system is reminded what it took to rescue them.  “Everything costs something, right?” as one character says.  Beth even refuses food at first because she realizes it will only run up her tab faster.

“Slabtown,” aside from being the kind of interesting, creepy, and suspenseful episode viewers have come to expect from The Walking Dead, also offers the perfect picture  of life without grace.  Everything costs.  Nothing is simply given.

Thanks be to God that the Divine Economy works differently.  With God, nothing is earned, all is given.  As Ephesians 2:8-9 (NRSV) says,

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

As Tim Keller points out in The Prodigal God (and the parable of the sower further suggests), our God is not stingy in doling out grace.  When we meet God, His first word is not “you owe me” but, like the loving father in the story of the prodigal son, “all that I have is already yours.”

Icon of Christ the Sower

Icon of Christ the Sower

My church recently started a weekly meal for the community; anyone who wants to come in for a meal gets fed, at no cost. When people ask us if they can pay, we tell them no, that there are other ways they can show gratitude if they wish but the meal is free.

We call this ministry Table of Grace, because the food, like God’s grace, is free of charge.  “Slabtown” gives us an excellent view of a world (or at least a half-operative apocalyptic hospital) that has forgotten grace.  Too often Christians, though, act exactly this way.  We only recruit new church members with “resources.”  We plant churches in wealthy neighborhoods and only befriend those who can enhance our status and help us reach our goals.  We ask our community to pay our bills (with incessant fundraisers) but never give anything back to our neighbors.  The temptation of mammon remains, and always will.

But followers of Jesus are at our best when we remember that God is not miserly with His grace.  Though we capitalist North Americans so often hate to receive for nothing, though it is antithetical to the world we live in, that is the Kingdom economy that we meet in the Bible.  Unlike the apocalypse-stricken Grady Memorial in Atlanta, the truth of the cosmos is an economy of grace.

That which matters most is free; God writes no bills, and we could not buy His love with any amount of money.  Thanks be to God.

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Salvation in Three Tenses

by Drew 0 Comments

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We often speak of salvation as if it is only an event in the past.  A robust, Biblical look at salvation reveals something much more wonderful, though.  Tom Oden points this out in his massive systematic theology Classic Christianity:

“There are three tenses in the vocabulary of salvation: We have been saved from the penalty of sin for our justification.  We are being saved from the power of sin for our sanctification.  We will be saved from the remnants of sin for God’s glorification.  Salvation includes the whole range of divine activity on behalf of humanity in past, present, and future history.” (Oden, 566.)

The Bible speaks of these tenses in many places, of course, but as Oden points out sometimes it speaks of all three at once.  Note, for instance, all three tenses in Titus 2:11-13 (NRSV):

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Salvation is not only something that we once received at the altar years ago, or a hope we can only look forward to.  Salvation is past, it is present, and it is yet to come.  Thanks be to God.

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A Prayer From Libya: Dancing With the Angels

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St. Thalassios the Libyan

St. Thalassios was the abbot of an Orthodox monastery in Libya and a contemporary of the great 7th century figure St. Maximos the Confessor.  In volume II of the Philokalia, we find a stirring prayer included in his treatise On Love, Self-control and Life in accordance with the Intellect:

“Christ, Master of all, free us from all these destructive passions and the thoughts born of them. For Thy sake we came into being, so that we might delight in the paradise which Thou hast planted and in which Thou hast placed us.  We brought our present disgrace upon ourselves, preferring destruction to the delights of blessedness.

We have paid for this, for we have exchanged eternal life for death.  O Master, as once Thou hast looked on us, look on us now; as Thou becamest man, save all of us.  For Thou camest to save us who were lost.  Do not exclude us from the company of those who are being saved.  Raise up our souls and save our bodies, cleansing us from all impurity.  Break the fetters of the passions that constrain us, as once Thou has broken the ranks of impure demons.  Free us from their tyranny, so that we may worship Thee alone, the eternal light, having risen from the dead and dancing with the angels in the blessed, eternal, and indissoluble dance.  Amen.”

As a Wesleyan, I am quite drawn to the Orthodox language of “those who are being saved” (and of course, such language is Pauline also).  The emphasis on salvation as a path rather than an achievement is sadly overlooked in much of the Western church.

I also love the image of Jesus victoriously dancing after the resurrection, and bidding all to join in his “blessed, eternal, and indissoluble dance.”  I know many Christians for whom Jesus and dancing are opposites!

I was reminded of one of my favorite hymns, The Lord of the Dance, which I was blessed to hear in worship this past Sunday. No, not the Irish dancing guy.  But here are some Irish guys, not dancing, but singing it quite well:

It also seems appropriate to offer a prayer from Libya asking for deliverance from destructive passions, which have been on display so tragically in Libya and across the Middle East.  May Christ, the Lord of the Dance, free us from love of self and slavery to sin, and may he teach us instead to join in the blessed, eternal, life-giving dance.

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What if God Gets What God Wants? Thoughts on Rob Bell’s ‘Love Wins’

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Minus bathroom breaks, I read Love Wins in one sitting.  I wouldn’t say this is because it is engrossing, but rather because the 200 pages is made up of such short, choppy sentences and large print that it reads more like 100 pages.  Compare this, for instance, to the considerably shorter, but much more difficult Nature of Doctrine.  Lindbeck’s classic was one of the densest tomes I’ve read; Bell, while a good read, feels unnaturally inflated to me.  But I suppose no one would be willing to part with $20+ for a hundred page hardback.

That said, I liked the book.  I didn’t find anything I really disagreed with in the book (it’s hard to disagree with something that is chock-full of questions, though).  A few main points:

1) Bell is not saying anything new.  He’s upfront about this.  These issues have been wrestled with since the origin of the faith.  Why is this book so controversial, then?  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure.  Resurgent Calvinism, so common in low-church Protestantism today, will despise this book.  Anyone who likes to draw really clear and easy distinctions about the saved and the damned will not be happy with his reflections.  Many of these folks didn’t like Bell to start with, as evidenced by the fact that he was being condemned as a universalist before the book was even released. I find it laughable that churches who subscribe to no official creeds, no Magisterium (an official compendium of teaching, like in the Roman Catholic faith), who lack any formal denomination or structure from which to excommunicate someone have still attempted to erase Bell’s name from the evangelicals’ Book of Life.  Perhaps such folks are not so Protestant as they imagine themselves to be.

2) Bell has an astounding gift for communication.  He is, no doubt, a smart guy, but that’s not what makes his work so impressive.  His gift is communicating complicated ideas in ways that are engaging and attractive.  I got to see him speak at Duke last year and I was floored.  As a pastor, watching him made me feel like I was watching Mickey Mantle while I was still stuck learning t-ball.  This is not a book that should be evaluated as if it were systematic theology; it’s not.  It’s a book of meditations and questions, none of which are original.  He is no Luther or Barth; he’s not dropping a theological bomb.  He’s restating some old questions for a new generation in a way that is profoundly helpful.

3)  This is solid, practical, and whimsical theology.  At various points I laughed out loud and was tempted to cry.  He goes between exegesis, stories, poetry, and theology with the nimbleness of a ballerina.  If you haven’t read much in the areas of soteriology, the question of other religions, or the nature and scope of Christ’s grace, you may find a lot here that is difficult.  For instance, the Bible knows nothing of oft-repeated concepts such as “the age of accountability” and a “personal relationship with Jesus.”  Bell may well burst your bubble – but you’ll thank him for it.

A couple of critiques, for good measure:

Given the actual density of the book, I think it’s fair to say it is overpriced (at least if you pay full price for it).  The total page count is, frankly, bloated beyond necessity.

He doesn’t cite his sources.  There is a brief list of acknowledgments at the end, which is helpful.  To his credit, he lists N.T. Wright (probably enough reason, right there, to earn the disdain of the John Piper fanboys).  His view is heavily influenced by C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, which he does mention.  But there is a lot that isn’t credited.  At one point, for instance, he references “gospels of sin management,” which I’m pretty sure is a direct allusion to a chapter in Dallas Willard’s wonderful The Divine Conspiracy.  But no reference is made of Willard or the book, even in the acknowledgments.  I have heard it said that source citations scare publishers because they scare away potential readers, so perhaps this was not Bell’s choice.

Read this.  Share it with friends, especially friends who have been exposed to a Jesus that doesn’t look anything like the Jesus of the gospels.  I wish this book had been available to me when I was journeying from fundamentalism to Jesus; it would have been profoundly helpful.  As is, it was a fun read, something I heartily recommend, and something I will use as a reference and source for inspiration.

If you like it, do yourself a favor: read The Great Divorce.  If you are really feeling froggy, go on to read Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope?, which asked these exact questions, in a more direct and controversial way, decades ago.  I personally found C.S. Lewis and Balthasar much more engaging, but Love Wins is a much easier read than these and a great introduction to the notion that maybe – just maybe – God gets what God wants…everybody.

P.S. I said MAYBE.  Don’t try to burn me at the stake.

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Oh That Pesky Infant Baptism…

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I’ve been slogging through the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics and noting occassional gems.  As a whole, the Companion is quite good, though it obviously leans heavily toward the perspective of its editors.  One particularly interesting chapter, by David McCarthy, explores the practices of marriage, relationships, and sex in the modern world in contradistinction to the Church.  A central focus is marriage (from his Catholic theology a sacrament), which he argues is a means of grace.  As a means of grace, it bestows certain gifts as an objective reality, regardless of the fitness of those who recieve.

So it is, he says, with infant baptism:

Infant baptism makes clear that our relation to God and our active faith are always gifts.  It makes clear that we do not make ourselves or will ourselves to have faith.  Infant baptism makes clear that the presence of God in the world is mediated through the gathering of a people, who worship him and are called to be holy as God is holy. (Hauerwas and Wells, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics [Oxford: Blackwell 2004 ], 284)

As a Methodist in the Bible Belt, it’s always good to think about why we practice infant baptism  because many of the folks around me think it nonsensical.  But the idea of faith as a pure gift – here the Wesleyan concept of prevenient grace is particularly helpful – gets us away from so much of the works righteousness/faith-as-personal-acheivement theology that permeates Protestantism.  Even as babies, God, through the work of His covenant community the Church, makes us Christians.  It is a gift that we spend a lifetime receiving.

Thanks be to God.

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Some Help From St. Augustine

But God made you without you.  You didn’t, after all, give any consent to God making you.  How were you to consent, if you didn’t yet exist?  So while he made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you.  So he made you without your knowing it, he justifies you with your willing consent to it. Yet it’s he that does the justifying… (Augustine, Sermon 169.13)

John Wesley quotes this passage from Augustine in his sermon entitled, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” itself based on St. Paul’s admonishion in Phil. 2 to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.”  In the he explores the connection between God’s work of salvation and our own effort to make that real in our lived existence; biblically, this comes from the dual convictions (both from Paul) that God works in us towards salvation but that we, too are expected to play a part.

This whole notion, of course, is anathema for the hard-core Reformed folks.  (Incidentally, does anyone know what Calvin said about this verse from Philippians?)  For the double predestination gang, God wills us from the foundation of the world either to damnation or salvation.  We don’t get a hand in it; it is totally and completely a work of God upon us.  As Jonathan Edwards wrote, most terrifyingly, we are all stretched out over the abyss of Hell, the wrath of God raging against us, and only his unmerited grace will save a few of us from this fiery pit.  Awesome.

For Arminians like myself, though, this is problematic.  We see God’s grace, the enactment of His love that works for our salvation, not as “irresistible” (as the Synod of Dort put it) but as a gift.  Certainly, it is a gift that must be received with joy, unwrapped, and used, but an undeserved gift nonetheless.

In some ways, this concept bears a closer family resemblance to the Orthodox spiritual tradition than the Western.  The Eastern notion of theosis, of becoming God-like, is quite akin to the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness/sanctification and our somewhat unique doctrine of Christian perfection.  The East tells us, “God became man so that man might become God.”  This is stronger than, say, John Wesley would put it, but expresses essentially the same activity.

But then I’ve been reading Barth, and Barth, with the Reformed tradition from which he came, emphasizes the initiative of God over the work of humanity.  Known for his rabid christocentrism, Barth, like Bonhoeffer, is not friendly to the pietist tradition (kissing cousins to us Wesleyans) which he sees as a kind of semi-Pelagianism.  I love Barth’s project (though I am an amateur Barthian), but I’ve been concerned over how to gel this with Methodist theology.

Only an intellectually restless recent seminary grad like myself would worry about this, but, well, it drives me crazy when things don’t fit together.  So I’m working on it.  They say “build a bridge and get over it.”  I think this Augustine quote is a step in that direction, a good sized piece of that bridge.  I find it profoundly helpful for Augustine, the (perhaps misused) great-granddaddy of Reformed theology, to be expressing so clearly a sense of grace that works with us rather than arbitrarily on us.

Wesleyans would call this “cooperative grace.”  In other words, grace that must be enacted, lived; it is essentially the act of receiving a gift (the giver of the gift is the prime actor, and the gift cannot come from oneself – but still, the gift can be rejected).  Gifts, afterall, can be abused, forgotten, tossed aside, or trampled upon.

So it is with grace.  God will not save us against our will; He loves us enough to let us have our way, even if it is harmful to us.  (Think of God’s “hardening the hearts” of various characters throughout the Scripture.)  No, “God doesn’t justify you without you.”  Randy Maddox, probably the greatest Methodist theologian working today – and one of my teachers – calls this “Responsible Grace.”  The response matters.  It is a small part – but it is our portion.
Thank you, Augustine.  Bite me, John Piper.  Amen.

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Barthian Snow

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As the snow falls down here in North Carolina, I’m chewing on the theological equivalent of beef jerky: Karl Barth, Dogmatics II.2.  From my slight exposure, I love Barth.  I dig his project.  I dig the postliberals that follow his lead.  I love the ‘third way’ between beyond liberal and fundamentalist theology (having occupied both previously).  But I don’t know how to make Barth ‘fit’ into my overarching theological framework.

I went to a Methodist seminary, studied under some folks who are supposed to be the best Methodist thinkers in the world, and I got a lot of good Wesleyan theology.  But I also studied with brilliant and persuasive people who were, to one degree or another, Barthians.  I identify with both camps.  In January I began reading a small bit of Dogmatics II.2 each morning as my devotional reading (one of my mentors recommended reading Barth at a pace of 5 pages a day, which I track in a box to the right).  And while I think I am in the process of converging, I’m not sure I can be a consistent Wesleyan and like Barth so darn much (the reverse is also true).  I by and large can’t stand Calvin and his descendants – especially puritans like Jonathan Edwards and his modern day descendants like John Piper.  I’m a Wesleyan because I believe God is all about grace – and I loathe the notion that a loving God would/could condemn people before the foundation of the world.

But Barth did this strange and wonderful thing with Calvin – he made the election about Jesus! With the insight that the election of Israel was for the sake of the whole (as the Bible attests), he turns the whole project on its head.  Election is now, in his words, an election of grace.  In my pure Wesleyan days, this idea would be nonsensical.  But my oh my, is he convincing.  Perhaps it is because all my Wesleyan theology never taught me to deal with the concept of election in any way other than approbation – mocking TULIP and the like – and perhaps it is because he is more systematic than the practical Wesley ever had the chance to be.  But I’m beginning to think that, on the whole, we Protestants have vastly overestimated the importance of our response to God.  Yes – it matters; yes, the proper and good response to the love and mercy of God is repentance, new life, and holiness (something Wesleyans share with the Orthodox).  But surely, all of this is accomplished only through Jesus, God’s elect, who reconciled the world to Himself.  In short, we’ve given ourselves too much credit for our salvation.  Jesus is the point of all of this – Jesus has saved us!  We just have to get on board with that reality (but our “getting on board” doesn’t make it so).

I’d love some feedback on why, if, and how exactly I am wrong.  I have a long ways to go – from both ends – to reconcile my Wesleyan and my Barthian sides.  But it’s a work in progress.

Now, a little of why I love Barth:

Between God and man there stands the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and Himself man, and so mediating between the two.  In Him God reveals Himself to man.  In Him man sees and knows God.  In Him God stands before man and man stands before God, as is the eternal will of God, and the eternal ordination of man in accordance with this will.  In Him God’s plan for man is disclosed, God’s judgment on man fulfilled, God’s deliverance of man accomplished, God’s gift to man present in fullness, God’s claim and promise to man declared.  In Him God has joined Himself to man.  And so man exists for his sake. (Dogmatics II.2, 94)

I am not breaking any ground in reflecting that what makes Barth great it his insistence that Christ is the center not only of theology, of Christian reflection, prayer, thought, and worship – but of the whole of reality.  In a world that is so ‘me’ centered – so vulgar – so arrogant – so obsessed with the experience of selfhood – it is a real joy to read something directed to the holy and wholly Other – God in Christ, electing God and elected man.

At the end of the day, life really isn’t about me.  Or you.  Thanks be to God!

In other news: For the second time in a decade, I must ask: what in the hell does the federal government have to do with sports?

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