This article originally was published on Theologues.com
Taking the Absolutes
I’ve struggled a lot with doubt in recent years. I grew up in a fairly conservative Christian home. I was homeschooled and almost all of my life revolved around church and family. So, when I started to question many things about my faith, including how true the scriptures are, I began to have a crisis of faith. Many times, we grow up in a world where we assume the absolutes. As we grow up or gain new information, we make decisions about how to enfold this information in our lives. Taking the scriptures as unequivocally, 100% true is something that is considered the backbone of belief for many Christians. To discard it is to utterly abandon the faith itself. I’ve come to my own conclusions on this subject and I think neither the materialist nor the fundamentalist are correct. Awhile ago, Michael Gungor, a prominent worship leader and musical artist stated in an interview that he had “lost his metaphysic” and then in a later blog post, Gungor responded to an article stating that he had “drifted from Biblical Orthodoxy”. In the blog post, he said:
Do I believe God exists? Yes. Do I believe Jesus is the Son of God? Yes. Do I believe that Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness? Yes. Do I believe that God literally drowned every living creature 5,000 years ago in a global flood except the ones who were living in a big boat? No, I don’t. Why don’t I? Because of science and rational thought.
He then goes on to explain how he can believe in the miracles of Christ without having to believe all supernatural events in the Bible. And I would agree. The Bible is a collection of books and every word is inspired by God, but that doesn’t mean every single word is held with the same regard in terms of literal criticism. We don’t take Christ’s words to “cut off your hand if it causes you to stumble” literally and we don’t take the virgin birth as figurative -at least, I don’t. For his position, Gungor was skewered by many Christian bloggers.
The Great Divide
It can get tricky, but I think there’s more to this debate than just a theological divide. There’s also a philosophical one as well. While one man looks at the past and says, “Things weren’t that great and their knowledge is incomparable to ours”, another man looks at the past and says, “Things were better back then and we underestimate the knowledge of the ancients.” My argument is that both men could be right and both men could be wrong, depending on the specific case. Taking the story of Noah as an example; Gungor does make a valid point in his blog post and it is that based on the scientific knowledge we now have of the earth, most aspects of the flood and the ark are not only improbable, but they’re insanely improbable. The diversification of the races and populations alone is not traceable to the event of the flood through genomic research. With all that being said, nothing is impossible with God. I don’t rule out the possibility that God could have flooded the earth and repopulated it with Noah’s family, or that maybe the story itself is referencing a regional flood but the truth is I don’t really have the capacity to know fully what happened. I can say that I still trust in the Bible as truth because the story of Noah is not useless if it’s not true. Rather, the story is about faith and obeying the voice of God. As G.K. Chesterton notes in Orthodoxy:
Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.
One does not need to disregard physical reality to have faith, but we need to realize that faith is not constrained by physical reality. The idea that faith is constrained by physical reality is a product of the enlightenment and the rise of humanism. We tend to no longer look at our forbearers with any degree of faith in their wisdom, but rather we look to the present scholars and academics to guide us in our relation to our faith. In a way, I understand this mentality. With the dawn of the Reformation, the gates had been opened for the religious to no longer be ruled by dictatorial mandates on what or how to believe. The flip-side of this, however, is that many began to abandon the entire foundation for the Christian faith and in doing so, decided to construct the Christian God in an image more suiting to their fancy. The Reformation brought freedom in many areas, but this freedom was abused and maimed to heighten man and his intuitions of the Holy Spirit to be above any ecclesiastical body.
The Fundamentalist Cometh
Then, we saw the backlash to the enlightenment with fundamentalism. In essence, fundamentalism had noble goals. To bring men and women back to entrusting sacred tradition, but in the scriptures. Fundamentalists put sola scriptura on steroids. The Roman magisterium had long been dethroned in the minds of the fundamentalists, but after seeing the liberals cut out all the supernatural and miraculous from the Christian faith, they decided to return back to making the world conform to the scriptures instead. The fundamentalists decided to break through the prevailing culture’s theological abrogations and determined to shape culture for God themselves. As Presbyterian minister and a father of the fundamentalist movement, J. Gresham Machen once said:
To bring back truth, on a practical level, the church must encourage Christians to be not merely consumers of culture but makers of culture. The church needs to cultivate Christian artists, musicians, novelists, filmmakers, journalists, attorneys, teachers, scientists, business executives, and the like, teaching its laypeople the sense in which every secular vocation-including, above all, the callings of husband, wife, and parent–is a sphere of Christian ministry, a way of serving God and neighbor that is grounded in God’s truth. Christian laypeople must be encouraged to be leaders in their fields, rather than eager-to-please followers, working from the assumptions of their biblical worldview, not the vapid clichés of pop culture.
The problems that began to arise with this view is that it still presupposes that through rigorous study, man can find the invariable truth of God and all areas of culture, including science, must conform to “God’s truth” (i.e. The Bible). Furthermore, this creates a dichotomy which need not exist. Christians do not need to be in opposition to science and although Ken Ham might tell you differently, the Bible is not a science or historical textbook. It’s God’s way of communicating the truth of Jesus Christ, the Living Word, to us. The scriptures are as St. John Chrysostom would say “God’s baby talk”. We can no further reason out the historical accuracy of scripture than a baby can measure the dimensions of a painting they’re staring in awe of. Inerrancy is essentially a unicorn when it comes to the human understanding of scripture. One can argue that the Holy Spirit illuminates people to it’s true meaning and I would agree…but only in the right context and only in certain things, not a Matrix-like download gnosis of the way the universe works. That’s only for God. Which, leads me to my next point.
Living in Paradox
The church fathers looked at the apostolic tradition and the knowledge that came with it as part of a winding mystery. I covered much of this in my article “A Phrase More Christians Need to Say“. The bread and wine are a centerpiece to this mystery. That’s what “sacrament” means. Partaking in the Christian life is not about filling our heads with unending reason, but it’s about filling out hearts with the mystery of our faith. The “unknown known” (as Donald Rumsfeld would say) is the Gospel. It’s that Christ was crucified, buried and rose again. We put our confidence in the Gospel and in how it has been relayed to us through the deposit of Tradition. There is latitude for me to put less confidence in an earth that is 10,000 years old because neither the scriptures or Tradition ask that of me. Rather, they ask me to put confidence in a God who is bigger than reality itself and His son, Jesus Christ. My conclusion is that we must retain the mystery of our faith if we are to ever align our minds to God. We belong to a religion based on paradox. A being came to earth who is both fully God and fully man. We worship three persons in one God. Impossible, right? Welcome to being a Christian. Let’s humble ourselves and take to believing that maybe paradoxically we can believe that Noah built an ark while also not necessarily holding it to be a verifiable, undeniable truth. We are the “errant” ones. Not God.
This article originally was published on Theologues.com
The Bible Code
About a decade or more ago, the “Bible Code” book was gaining a lot of attention by Christians and non-Christians alike. It was a book from a reporter who had spent some time with researchers that had come up with a computer program that could scan to find acrostics, like buried secret codes within the aligned letters of the ancient Hebraic texts. Many of the acrostics were of many important current and future world events. For example, the JFK assassination date was presumed to be found deep within the writings.
Of course, people stopped paying attention after the concept was debunked by running the same software through other bulky texts, like Shakespeare.
The Pre-figured Gospel
In this series, I hope to help certain stories rise to the surface from the Old Testament that we don’t often think about in Christological terms. This is called “typology”. We sometimes read the scriptures looking for input into our own lives and our own situations, or to help us get a grasp on what the future holds. Yet, we don’t often read for the Gospel as the pre-eminent story which informs our understanding of many Old Testament stories. Maybe we consider reading typologically as primitive or irrelevant for today’s world.
Typology is exemplified in New Testament scriptures as well as early church writings. Many writers used typology a lot when explaining concepts in the epistles. Hebrews is a prime example, such as when Christ is proclaimed as “a priest in the order of Melchizedek” in chapter 7. The author dove into the Genesis text and saw Christ. He drew Christ out of the Old Testament text.
(Read the rest on my new website for bridging modern Christianity and Tradition with theology at Theologues.com)
Sometimes I start something hoping to finish it right away.
This was not one of those endeavors.
But not to fear! I have some more to say on this subject, so I’ll get right down to it.
A (very) brief history of the scriptures
As I explained in part 1, I am still learning to balance my perspective of scripture against the backdrop of the Church. See, for a long period of time, there was only one Christian church. There were schismatic groups that started to form in the early centuries (like the Montanists), but these groups tended to fade after a while (yes, I know about the Nestorians, but I consider that a different animal). Then, in 1054 AD the bishop of Rome and the Sees, which were largely centered in Byzantium and the east, pulled away from one another. This has become known as the Great Schism. In the west, Roman Catholicism grew and flourished outwards towards the wilds of western Europe and in the east, the Byzantine Orthodox Church was growing towards Asia.
All this history is to show that there was a maintained church structure for 1,000 years and that the array of denominations we have today is a more recent anomaly. This means that the scriptures we have today are not detached from recent history. They are very much a product of the chasm of language and understanding that grew over time. In the early church, the holy scriptures were largely written on parchment scrolls and the copies were kept in the Christian schools. Books began to come about in the middle ages and it was expensive to purchase a Bible for personal use, being as they were hand-copied. So, the Church is where people went to hear scriptures and learn them inside and out. The Church delivered the scriptures from the beginning.
We have learned the plan of our salvation from no one else other than from those through whom the gospel has come down to us. For they did at one time proclaim the gospel in public. And, at a later period, by the will of God, they handed the gospel down to us in the Scriptures-to be the ‘ground and pillar of our faith. – St. Irenaus, Against Heresies
One must also take into account that the Old Testament which Jesus and His apostles read from was a version called the Septuagint, which was a Greek translation originating in the 3rd century BC. It was the version Paul quoted out of. Jesus may have likely read from it as well. The Old Testament most people possess in these days is a translation by the Masoretes into Hebrew from the 7th and 10th century. The King James Version, for example, takes it’s Hebrew root from the same manuscripts Luther used for his translation, which is the Masoretic text. Now, this isn’t necessarily an awful thing, but the Septuagint and the Masoretic texts have some slight variances. The Septuagint also wasn’t widely circulated after awhile and was largely kept in eastern churches. The Roman Catholics mainly used Latin via the Vulgate. Considering the Reformers and the Catholics weren’t too fond of one another at the time, the Reformers weren’t too fond of using the Vulgate as their source for translation.
Now, there are variations between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text sources. Consider the differences in Isaiah 53 between this English translation of the Septuagint and the King James version:
1 O Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom was the arm of the Lord revealed?
2 We proclaimed His presence as a Child, as a Root in a thirsty land. He had no form or glory, and we saw Him; and He had no form or beauty.
3 But in comparison to all men, His form was lacking in honor. He was a man in suffering and knew how to bear sickness. His face was turned away, and He was dishonored and not esteemed.
4 He bears our sins and suffers for us, yet we considered Him to be in pain, suffering, and ill-treatment.
5 But He was wounded because of our lawlessness, and became sick because of our sins. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His bruise we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray. Man has gone astray in his way, and the Lord delivered Him over for our sins.
7 Although He was ill-treated, He opened not His mouth. He was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb is silent before his shearers, so He opens not His mouth.
8 In His humiliation His judgment was taken away, and who will declare His generation? For His life is taken from the earth, and because of the lawlessness of My people He was led to death.
9 I will appoint evil men for His burial and rich men for His death, because He committed no lawlessness, nor was deceit found in His mouth.
10 The Lord wishes to cleanse Him of His wound, and if You give an offering for sin, Your soul shall see a long-lived seed.
11 The Lord wishes to take away the pain of His soul, to show Him light, to form Him with understanding, and to pronounce righteous the Righteous One who serves many well; and He shall bear their sins.
12 Therefore He shall inherit many, and will divide the spoil with the strong, because His soul was delivered over to death. He was considered among the lawless, and He bore the sins of many, and was delivered over because of their sins.
Authorized King James
1 Who hath believed our report?
and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?
2 For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant,
and as a root out of a dry ground:
he hath no form nor comeliness;
and when we shall see him,
there is no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He is despised and rejected of men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief:
and we hid as it were our faces from him;
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he hath borne our griefs,
and carried our sorrows:
yet we did esteem him stricken,
smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities:
the chastisement of our peace was upon him;
and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth:
he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb,
so he openeth not his mouth.
8 He was taken from prison and from judgment:
and who shall declare his generation?
for he was cut off out of the land of the living:
for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
9 And he made his grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death;
because he had done no violence,
neither was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him;
he hath put him to grief:
when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin,
he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days,
and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied:
by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many;
for he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he hath poured out his soul unto death:
and he was numbered with the transgressors;
and he bare the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
There are subtle differences between the text which have some profound impact towards Christian theology (maybe for some people more than others). We do know now that the Dead Sea scrolls have many places which favor the Masoretic text over the Septuagint in the Hebrew language, but these fragments still date after the time of Christ (about the 2nd century), so there’s still some speculation on the accuracy. A good read on which is more authentic can be found at the Mystagogy blog. It can depend on which way you choose to see the history, but the differences can matter.
You may be thinking in your head of an imaginary conversation with me where you ask, “why does it matter to you?” It matters to me because it seems that it’s less suspect to trust the translation which Jesus and Paul and the apostles depended on rather than a translation made by a Hebrew community which did have a possible agenda in de-legitimizing Christianity after such passages like Isaiah 53 were often quoted from the Septuagint in order to prove Christ’s fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. Besides that though, I am trusting the church, which used this translation for centuries and continues to use it to this day. The Catholics do have a version much closer to the Septuagint than the King James. And the Orthodox Church still uses it’s Septuagint sources, but have carefully translated them from Greek into other languages.
For me, it’s not just about one version of the Bible being better than the other. I am seeing that the Church and the scriptures had a symbiotic relationship for a long time and that relationship devolved around the same time the Great Schism happened. They became even further wedged apart after the Reformation. (I do understand the Reformation had a good reason to happen, by the way.) Yes, there have been abuses as scripture was kept secret from being read by the people, but before Gutenberg’s printing press, there wasn’t some nefarious plot to keep people ignorant. Actually, many of the peasants and poorer classes just weren’t literate and the Church made it their job to educate people on Christian doctrine. (This is also partially why icons were very important as well, but that’s another post altogether.) A good education was often tied to Christian doctrinal education.
To an extent, we are all trusting the translators and the Church which cradled the scriptures for centuries. The question is, which track in history are we going to trust most?
I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone post on a Christian Internet forum and ask “Ugh…Paul…why do we care what he says?” It seems that the latest trend in revisionism within Christianity is to snipe Paul out of the picture. A couple decades ago, people aimed to take Jesus’ divinity and miracles out, but now many have set the scope on a lower target.
All this may stem from Paul’s influence in scripture. Paul’s epistles take up a significant amount of the New Testament canon. He writes a great deal about cultural issues, some which are too unambiguous to sidestep. Also, in an age where our culture is very liberal towards sexual issues, Paul is the immovable annoyance that keeps God from condoning any sexual relationships outside of a heterosexual union. I know this is a very tough issue and I’m not going to focus on Paul’s sexual mandates in scripture, but rather, I’d like to turn attention to the supposed validity of arguments against Paul’s placement in Christian dogma.
There are a few main common gripes on Paul that come up repeatedly, so I’d like to take a look at each one and raise questions about how each objection holds up. Here we go…
Argument #1. Paul is not Christ and we should put a lot more weight on Christ’s words in scripture rather than Paul’s
This seems legitimate on it’s face. I mean, Christ is the absolute authority and cornerstone of our faith. The Gospels are testimonies to the work Christ did for us. It is true and right to say that Christ’s words are more important and dear to us than Paul’s. Paul is really just kind of grabbing the coattails of this growing Galilean movement by the time he shows up, so maybe we’re correct to be suspicious. And yet…there are some things which don’t add up with this theory.
For starters, the gospels are considered by almost all scholars to have been written after Paul’s epistles. The epistles can be dated sometime between 51 and 58 AD. The gospels have been dated sometime between 68 and 100 AD. Luke is regarded to have been written by Luke, who was a student of Paul’s.
Taking all this into consideration, it seems more plausible that Paul was a higher influence on the text of the gospels than the gospels were standalone works themselves. I don’t actually believe Paul manipulated the gospel texts in any way, but if he did, you’d think he would have shored up his own apostleship more. The Christians back in the day already had a lot to suspect against Paul, so it wouldn’t have worked out well for him to start messing with the stories the disciples of Christ were already circulating.
Argument #2. Paul’s words shouldn’t be taken as seriously as the were only addressed to a certain group of people in a certain context.
There is a grain of truth to this argument, but I think we need to be careful about making such a sweeping assertion, considering Paul’s works were considered vital enough to remain in the Biblical canon. Paul did write to specific congregations and was addressing issues that needed an authoritative hand to straighten out. However, the epistles that made it into the New Testament canon were included specifically because they held some value to the universal church. Why were the the epistles of Peter or Clement and other epistles left out of the canon over time? Well, it’s because these epistles were either highly abused by heretical groups at the time or they contained a lot of localized mandates for the churches they were addressed to. A Christian could still read these letters and gain much value for his/her walk with God, but they were still not considered useful for the instruction of the entire body.
It’s important to remember that the canonization process has really never ended. It’s just that certain councils came together and confirmed or denied what popular as beneficial to the church at the time (before Guttenberg, mind you). Certain ones, stuck around and were universally accepted. Pretty much all of Paul’s epistles passed the test through numerous councils.
Argument #3. Paul’s conversion was a fake and as Jew he was trying to sabotage Christianity from within.
Now, this is just pure speculation. But let’s suppose it’s true for a second. If Paul was truly trying to twist Christianity as a Jew, he really did a piss-poor job. I’m sure vehemently defending Christian freedom to the Gentiles against the Judaizers won him a lot of friends in Jerusalem. Paul even went toe-to-toe with Peter regarding Peter’s sympathies with the Judaizing crowd. (Gal. 2:11) Thanks in large part to Paul and a vision to Peter while he was crashing at Simon the Tanner’s house, us Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised (yay!).
Paul also had a separate conversion from the rest of the Apostles. He was a Pharisee through and through until he met Jesus. (Phil. 3:5) So, this often gives people hesitancy and makes them think he might have been a double-agent. However, if we’re to believe that one well-known Pharisee who persecuted the church could’ve put the blinders on Peter and the rest of the disciples, we’re pretty much “up a creek without a paddle”. One man would have utterly destroyed the Church before it even began and Jesus’ promise to Peter that “the gates of hell” would not prevail against it would have come true. Even if one could make a case that there’s always been some sort of “true sect”, then that also means that the disciples failed to keep the teachings of Christ throughout the world where they were sent.
Here’s how I see, Paul: He was an emissary to the growing Christian world in a time where things were drastically changing. The 12 disciples were also Christ’s emissaries, but they had a bit of a different mission, to plant the Gospel. Paul’s job was to water it. That is why we have more writings. Also, let’s face it…he was also much more educated and had the capacity to face-off against the philosophies of the age with wit and vigor. If you think Christianity would be less pagan without Paul, then you should probably read more Greek philosophy. Paul, Clement, Irenaeus and many more during the first few centuries of Christianity defended the Christian faith against the rising tied of pagan thought by tackling the most popular philosophies of the day.
Don’t diss Paul. He isn’t the outlier many make him out to be, neither is he more important than Christ.
I was recently reading a blog post by Dr. Randy White on “Why I am Leaving the Church Growth Movement” and I found it utterly fascinating. I don’t entirely agree with Dr. White’s conclusions in his article, but I do see the inherent problems he points out and the style he’s become disgusted by. I know plenty of people who are sincere in their belief to Jesus Christ and they believe that what matters most is evangelizing people into a church community so they can evangelize more people into the same church community, where they can make a decision for Jesus Christ, thus making the world a happier, more decent place to live. The coffee and donuts start to slowly become the draw rather than the Gospel. I have a hard time believing Jesus would be happy with his followers reducing the gospel to sweet snacks and soul spa. I also think it’s a wider problem in which the “church growth movement” is just a symptom.
It’s something that I struggle with even now as I long to go a more traditional route in my worship, where I believe there is more sacrifice, truth and beauty, but even in the “high church” people can get hung up on aesthetics way too much as well. The beauty I see in Eastern Orthodox churches is more than just beauty as I see it. It’s beauty that’s supposed to edify and point back to Christ, brought forth from an ancient Christian understanding. If the aesthetics don’t point back to Christ, then the community tends to start to fall for the lie that their church sits better than other churches in the area. Even Orthodox parishes have a tendency to do this against one another, taking pride in their liturgical style or their magnificent iconostasis over even other Orthodox churches. I am not Orthodox yet, but I know that this can be a problem for any church in the world. It’s not a problem with the church’s (dreaded “D” word) “doctrine”, but with the people.
Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick talks about a similar trend in his article “Doctrine Matters“. In the article, Fr. Andrew refers to pietism as a plague which stagnates spiritual growth. Pietism is putting one’s sincere feelings about God and one’s moral behavior above the actual belief system which governs the believer’s behavior.
I think Fr. Andrew and I would disagree on some of his own conclusions in the article regarding where the fault of this wide-spread nominalism comes from, but we would agree that Christians today have lost sight of how their beliefs/doctrine affect their Christian worldview. We have began to believe that the end is all that matters and the means can be anything that tickles our fancy, but for centuries, the means and the end were the same.
When Christians forget the anchor of truth in holy scripture and holy tradition, which bind them to Christ, they ultimately forget what makes Christianity the unique expression of God’s love. Our God is not one among many. He’s not some “invisible force”. He’s not just the life-force of all things or any other pantheistic, mystical terminology you could come up with. He is the make and sustainer of the Universe. The Absolute of existence. The early Christians believed so strongly in their doctrine that they put it down in the creeds. These became altars, like the patriarchs of the Old Testament built, marking the faithfulness of God and our faithfulness to Him.
This quote from the C.S. Lewis work Miracles absolutely sums it up for me:
An ‘impersonal God’-well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads-better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap-best of all. But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, King, husband-that is quite another matter.
In conclusion, every Christian should evaluate their beliefs and ask themselves “why”. Why here? Why Him? If the answer is “because it makes me feel better”, then the world has plenty of other options for placating our emotional needs. If Christianity is just one flavor among many, then people have all the more reason to walk out the church’s doors and never come back.
But if Christianity is truth, then the real truth of Christ will be more compelling than a Tony Robbins seminar. The connection of finite man to infinite God shouldn’t be able to be reduced to mere platitudes and sentiments, nor should it be taken for granted.
How Jesus Christ defeated death and how the early Christians saw the afterlife.
On January 15th, 5 year-old Payton Benson was sitting at her kitchen table, eating breakfast when a stray bullet from a nearby gang fight wounded and later killed her.
This event sent shockwaves in our city but it also happened about 6 blocks from my family’s current residence. When something like this happens so close to home and with a child who is so close in age to my own daughter, my wife and I can’t help and contemplate our own choices with our family. Is this the right place to live? Should we move? What if that stray bullet hit one of our children or us?
I’ve often ignored death. Frankly, I have always had a laissez-faire attitude regarding death. Meaning, I believe that if I had died and I went to hell, I would totally believe that I put as much effort as possible to live a virtuous life. If I die and then it’s lights out, then I guess I wouldn’t care because my consciousness would have disappeared.
In my early days as a Christian, I’d often think of the afterlife in medieval terms, where people turn into winged spirits when they die and float up to the clouds in a white robe and holding a harp like a Looney Tunes character. Or, the person finds him or herself in hell where horned demons with pitchforks poke you repeatedly and force you to watch Lars Von Trier films on repeat.
Through the years, my view on the afterlife slowly shifted. I still had a view of Christians in eternally spiritual bodies praising God in something like a never-ending prayer service for awhile. But it most radically started to shift when I learned more about the bodily resurrection in scripture and traditional Christianity. Surprisingly, I had been a Christian for a majority of my life and had never learned about the traditional and scriptural basis for a bodily resurrection. All that changed when I read Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. Wright beautifully explains the Christian realization of heaven as both tangible and real, and how in the end, heaven will meet earth where we’ll all rise to eternal life in God. Death is not something to be feared by anyone anymore.
Early Christians saw death as the conquered Goliath. As Paul said in Romans 5:12-14, sin came forth through one man and through sin came death. Sin’s end result is death. (James 1:15) Jesus Christ came and cut Death off at the head, so we could have true life now and forever. When He rose again, He did so with a real body, just like we will. Thomas the disciple could tell you that much, after poking his fingers in the holes in Jesus’ hands and the gash in His side.
St. Athanasius of Alexandria beautifully describes Christ’s victory and the early Christian attitude towards death:
Death is destroyed, and the Cross is become the victory over it, and it has no more power but is verily dead.
Of this is no small proof, but rather an evident warrant – the fact that it is despised by all Christ’s disciples, and that they all take an aggressive stance against it and no longer fear it.
Instead, by the sign of the Cross, and by faith in Christ, they tread it down as dead.
For of old, before the divine sojourn of the Saviour took place, even to the saints death was terrible, and all wept for the dead as though they perished.
But now that the Saviour has raised His body, death is no longer terrible. For all who believe in Christ tread death under foot as nothing, and choose rather to die than to deny their faith in Christ.
For they verily know that when they die they are not destroyed, but actually begin to live, and become incorruptible through the Resurrection.
And they know that the devil that once maliciously exulted in death, once death’s pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead.
And a proof of this is, that before men believe Christ, they see in death an object of terror, and play the coward before him.
But when they are gone over to Christ’s faith and teaching, their contempt for death is so great that they even eagerly rush upon it, and become witnesses for the Resurrection the Saviour has accomplished against it.
For while still tender in years they make haste to die – and not men only, but women also, exercise themselves by bodily discipline against it.
So weak has death become, that even women who were formerly deceived by him, now mock at him as dead and paralyzed.
When a tyrant has been defeated by a real king, and bound hand and foot, then all that pass by laugh him to scorn, buffeting and reviling him, no longer fearing his fury and barbarity, because of the king who has conquered him.
In the same way, death has been conquered and exposed by the Saviour on the Cross, and bound hand and foot.
And all they who are in Christ, as they pass by, trample on death, and witnessing to Christ scoff at death, jesting at him, and saying what has been written against him of old:
“O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?”
Athanasius of Alexandria (c.293-373): On the Incarnation, 27.
How did this happen? How did Jesus trample death down? It happened by Jesus being both God and man at the same time. I think a beautiful shadow of Christ in the Old Testament is the Burning Bush, which God spoke to Moses through. It was a bush consumed with flame, but unscathed by the fire surrounding it. This is how we perceive Jesus -filled with the consuming fire of God, contained in mortal flesh, but yet un-destroyed. (This foreshadows the consuming love which of God in New Testament eschatology, which I will be talking more of later.) Sin was destroyed before Him. Through His death, death sought to conquer Him and burn Him, but instead He vanquished it.
My life is already forfeit. I have already given it over whatever the outcome, whether I am stuck in the grave or not. And for my family, I have hope that one day we will be in eternity together. Is this hope in vain? I can’t be completely 100% sure. I do believe that there is no body of Jesus of Nazareth in the grave though. That’s the pivot-point of all of our belief as Christians. As Paul said, if there was no Resurrection, then we are to be pitied more than all. I guess I’d rather be pitied by the world than die without hope.
These are quotes I’ve collected over time, mostly from Orthodox sources regarding the judgement of God and judging others.
1. Do not be vexed with those who show pride, or malice, effeminacy, and impatience in their intercourse with you, or others, but , remembering that you yourself are subject to the same and greater sins and passions, pray for them and be meek with them. – St. John of Kronstadt
I’ve been a fan of Glenn Packiam for awhile. I have a friend who has been going to New Life Church for some time and he introduced me to Glenn’s writings. I’ve also seen Glenn play with the Desperation Band, which he founded with Jared Anderson and Jon Egan. Through his books, such as Secondhand Jesus and Butterfly in Brazil, I found that Glenn has a great way of conveying his experiences and Christian thought clearly and plainly.
I started reading Discover the Mystery of Faith after I saw Glenn tweet some quite bold statements (for an evangelical) regarding the Eucharist. He spoke of the body and blood in terms of real presence and also as a mysterious work. This is a particular doctrine which I adopted while still an evangelical and it’s turned me towards the Orthodox church and sacramental life. Needless to say, these statements I caught wind of on Twitter are just the beginning of what Glenn tries to convey in Discover the Mystery of Faith.
I bought the Kindle edition which doesn’t have the accompanying album and supposedly has some liturgical music Glenn has written. My review will be based solely on the merits of the content of the book.
The main thrust of book is about Glenn’s own exploration into how worship shapes our faith while also looking into the early Christian history regarding worship. It’s a very light read at 118 pages. There are six chapters, which cover a lot of Glenn’s personal journey into embracing the mystery of the faith in worship and how he has implemented it into his own ministry.
I’ll start with what I think are Glenn’s strongest points in the book.
First, this book is an excellent way to bridge the gap between liturgical worship and the practice in modern day worship. I am most conservative in my beliefs about worship and so I lean more towards the liturgical service, but I can understand that unless you’ve been raised in a church which has liturgical services, the beauty and meaning of liturgy may escape you.
Second, Glenn really brings his points home by diving into the Patristic texts and showing how the early Christians saw worship from the beginning. Most importantly, Glenn points to how the Eucharistic table was perceived as the center of worship. He doesn’t quite get to the point where he mentions all the sacraments, but he presents the idea which underlines the sacraments very well -that God comes to us in tangible mysteries, consummated by the worship of His people.
Glenn states some rather startling observations about the current state of modern worship, including:
Perhaps part of the reason the Church is malnourished and our faith is anemic is because our worship services have become a theological Happy Meal.
If our songs are juvenile, they may simply be a symptom of our adolescent faith. But maybe they are also part of the problem. Maybe our simplistic, peppy songs actually perpetuate our spiritual adolescence.
I would tend to agree with both of these statements, but this is also where I come to the negative part of my review.
The book has so much potential to shift the reader’s paradigm regarding modern worship, but as Packiam tiptoes towards the edge of the precipice of posturing towards the “high church”, he then reverts back to the evangelical shoulder-shrug at the end. This is something I find utterly perplexing. If modern worship has truly evolved into a “theological Happy Meal”, wouldn’t the solution be to go back to the liturgical feast, given that our predecessors clung to it for several centuries? Could it possibly be that they understood the weight of worship far better than we do now?
I understand there are a lot of other factors to consider here, including the developmental history of liturgy to modern worship, but this book doesn’t even attempt to graze those questions. One particular moment that sticks out to me is when Glenn recounts his experience of going to an Eastern Orthodox worship service. I gathered he got a lot out of the experience and was taken aback by the beauty he saw, but then concluded that it was a preference choice without ever even bothering to ask why this style of worship still lives within the tradition of the Orthodox church. I would have even preferred a full statement of dismissal towards the full-on liturgical style to Glenn’s juking of these above inquiries altogether.
In conclusion, I think that this is a fascinating book for two reasons: 1) It bridges the gap between the modern evangelical understanding of worship and the hunger we can feel for deeper meaning in worship, which can ultimately draw us to the liturgical style. 2) It is a sort of look into the way many Christians perceive Christian history. Some see it as a nice bookmark in the continuing, evolving story of Christianity, but they never consider that it might be the well-worn path we’d do best to try and tread. They’d rather borrow ideas as they suit them comfortably, but disregard the ones that don’t fit in with their cultural context. Christianity becomes a bit like a buffet of rituals and doctrines, without the baggage of the ecclesiology. There’s a lot of questions asked here, but the answer Glenn provide may not necessarily be satisfying.
I know this may sound harsh, but it’s something I’ve had to deal with myself. If you divorce the Tradition from the ecclesiology, you end up with hollow ritualism.
All in all, I do recommend this book. Especially if you disagree with my assessment of it’s material. You may find yourself at least looking down the path of liturgical worship and find a wealth of meaning which can speak to your spiritual life.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars ¤¤¤
Every now and then I hope to post a series of quotes from early Church and Eastern Orthodox saints. This post is all about “love”, towards God, to one’s fellow man and His love for us. The love of God is beautiful!
1. I cannot persuade myself that without love to others, and without, as far as rests with me, peaceableness towards all, I can be called a worthy servant of Jesus Christ.
– Saint Basil the Great, Homilies on the Psalms
2. God, Who is by nature good and dispassionate, loves all men equally as His handiwork. But He glorifies the virtuous man because in his will he is united to God.
– St. Maximos the Confessor
3. A friend is more to be longed for than the light; I speak of a genuine one. And wonder not: for it were better for us that the sun should be extinguished, than that we should be deprived of friends; better to live in darkness, than to be without friends.
– St. John Chrysostom
4. Let no man’s place, or dignity, or riches, puff him up; and let no man’s low condition or poverty abase him. For the chief points are faith towards God, hope towards Christ, the enjoyment of those good things for which we look, and love towards God and our neighbor.
– St. Ignatius of Antioch
5. When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.
– Basil the Great
6. In love did God bring the world into existence; in love is God going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of the one who has preformed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.
– St. Isaac of Syrian
7. As a handful of sand thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God.
– St. Isaac the Syrian