Monday, March 30, 2009

My Anti-Bucket List, Part 2

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the idea of a "bucket list" (a list of things to do before I kick the bucket) is pretty unappealing to me. Instead, I have begun compiling an anti-bucket list consisting of things I have never done and genuinely hope never to accomplish before I die. This post contains my anti-bucket list item #2.

I have never watched a football game.

Of course, I have seen football on TV (usually at a restaurant or some other public place), but I have never actually watched an entire game from start to finish. Of course, my overall lack of exposure to this sport in no way disqualifies me from opining about it publically, so here goes:

First off, you gotta admit that football isn’t all that physically strenuous (unless you compare it to baseball). Think about it: not only are the players completely covered in padding from head to toe (to protect them against what the refs call "unnecessary roughness"), but the total amount of actual playing time for someone who's in for the entire game can't be more than around 10 minutes or so. Each play, from the snap to the tackle, touchdown, or incompletion only averages around 5 seconds, 10 at the most. And when you take into account the fact that there are separate teams playing offense and defense, well, it begins to look like the most running these guys do is to and from the bench. Any soccer, rugby, or basketball player expends way more energy than a football player. I may have even exerted myself more strenuously by writing this sentence.

And enough already with the whole running the ball up the middle thing. If I were given the chance to coach an NFL team—a job I would be awesome at—I would tell my players, "Hey fellas, see that big pack of defenders clogging up the middle? Yeah, them. Maybe try to, I don't know, avoid those guys. Go around them is what I'm saying." Or just pass the ball more, that's at least interesting.

So there you have it, another feat I am very proud not to have accomplished.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Paradox of Parallel Passions

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chester-ton takes the mystery of the hypo-static union and just does some fascinating and creative things with it. Maybe this kind of thing is par for the course in Rome, I don't know. But from where I stand, it's pretty remarkable.

For example, Chesterton argues that our Lord's two seemingly contradic-tory natures being united in one Person without in any way dimin-ishing either the human or the divine can act as a kind of paradigm for our faith's ability to unite other disparate qualities as well.
By defining its main doctrine, the church not only kept seemingly inconsistent things side by side, but, what was more, allowed them to break out in a sort of artistic violence otherwise possible only to anarchists.
Speaking of the various applications of this principle, Chesterton writes:
[The church] has kept [the emphases on celibacy and family] side by side like two strong colors, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink.
Chesterton then turns to the biblical prophecy of the lion dwelling with the lamb, insisting that it is too facile simply to think that this odd arrangement of bedfellows is made possible by the lion becoming lamb-like, for
... that is brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb. The real problem is, Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? That is the problem the church attempted; that is the miracle she achieved.
He concludes:
Anyone might say, "Neither swagger nor grovel"; and it would have been a limit. But to say, "Here you can swagger and there you can grovel"—that was an emancipation.
It's not difficult to see some implications for a two-kingdoms ethic begin to arise from Chesterton's points here. To borrow his nomenclature from elsewhere, there needs to be a balance between puritanism and paganism, or, between heavenly- and earthly citizenship. If our Lord was "at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man" while remaining "one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation," then we mustn't allow either legitimate side of a dilemma to swallow the other.

Could it be that the temptation to which the American church often falls prey, namely, to fear the world as a constant threat, is simply an example of its sloppy Christology playing itself out?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Oligarchy of the Living Versus the Democracy of the Dead

I think G.K. Chesterton is alive and well, and I'm pretty sure he reads this blog:

The man who quotes some German historian against the Catholic Church... is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of the mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history.... Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.... Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our [servant]; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 64-65).
The reason I did a double-take when I read this the other day was that Chesterton may as well be arguing with one of the commenters here at DRD who loves to, well, "quote some German historian against the Catholic Church."

Now, I do appreciate Chesterton's position, especially his sense of childlike wonder and appeal to fairy tale and legend in arguing for the Christian religion in general, and the Catholic faith in particular. His chapter "The Ethics of Elfland" is among my all-time favorite passages in all of literature. Still, it must be said that not all those who appeal to German historians to disprove the Catholic Church are doing to simply in order to be aristocratic or elitist. Sometimes such an appeal is made because said German historian has actually marshalled a good bit of evidence to demand that we take another look at the facts.

Plus, if citing contemporary historians is to automatically fall prey to Chesterton's charge of preferring the oligarchy of the living to the democracy of the dead, what happens when those historians themselves die?

Can we listen to them then?

Monday, March 23, 2009

My Anti Bucket List, Part1

I first heard the term "bucket list" when I saw the trailer for the film with that title starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman (no, I didn’t see it, nor would I ever stoop that low). Anyway, a bucket list, apparently, is a list of things you hope to accomplish before you "kick the bucket," to use the parlance of our times.
Well, this got me thinking....

Not being the most motivated person in the world, a couple years ago I started compiling a growing list of things that I genuinely hope not to accomplish before I die. Although not doing stuff is way easier than the opposite and not necessarily something to brag about, I trust that you all will be truly surprised by my various lacks of accomplishment. And of course, if you can honestly claim to have not done these things, then by all means speak up and share the glory with me.

So for the first item on my anti-bucket list, I provide the following: I have never owned a beeper, a pager, or a cell phone, nor have I ever sent or received a text message.

Here’s my reasoning: (1) I am a bit of a Luddite anyway with a healthy suspicion toward technology in general; (2) the last thing I need in my life is some new thing that in six months I won’t be able to live without; (3) none of the scenarios that you’re imagining that would necessitate my having a cell phone have ever happened to me, nor are they likely to (read: no, my car has never broken down in the middle of nowhere with no means of rescue); (4) I inwardly belittle (read: despise) people who can’t seem to sit still in a coffee house waiting for whoever they’re waiting for without pulling out their cell phone after 26 seconds and fiddling with it because their own thoughts are so utterly shallow and boring. Here’s a tip: try thinking about something; (5) I think the more dependent we are on gadgets the less human we become; (6) I relish in the fact that I’m not easily reachable at all times. It made me happy the other day when the guy who was tuning up my car at Goodyear actually came across the street to Starbucks to ask me if I approve the work that needed to be done; (7) I like asking total strangers if I can use their phones if I need to make a call for some reason while away from home. They always give a look of combined confusion and either awe or pity.

You’ve probably heard the slogan that says that "necessity is the mother of invention," but in our day of technological acumen, I think that slogan’s a total farce. In fact, I think the exact opposite is true.

(Put down your cell and think about it.)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Peculiarity of Christianity's Peculiarity

I read this in Chesterton's Orthodoxy yesterday, and liked it for many reasons:

"It is commonly the loose and latitudinarian Christians who pay quite indefensible compliments to Christianity. They talk as if there had never been any piety or pity until Christianity came.... They represent that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it was the first to preach simplicity or self-restraint, or inwardness and sincerity. They will think me very narrow (whatever that means) if I say that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it was the first to preach Christianity. Its peculiarity was that it was peculiar, and simplicity and sincerity are not peculiar, but obvious ideals for all mankind. Christianity was the answer to a riddle, not the last truism uttered after a long talk."

If I were forced to give up every non-canoincal book save one and read it continually for the rest of my life, I have to admit it just may be this one.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Arrested Development?

One of the most interesting and challenging arguments used by Catholics to defend doctrines that Protestants consider pure novelties is the argument from the devel-opment of doctrine, which states that though the initial deposit of the faith was given intact to the apostles and from the apostles to the first generation of bishops, the church’s understanding of the deposit develops over time, usually as a result of controversy or heresy.

There are a couple examples that are commonly used by Catholics to demonstrate their point. One is the canon of Scripture. Though by the year 90 AD (or thereabouts) the final book of the New Testament had been written, it took the church a good number of years to arrive at this conclusion. Likewise with the doctrine of the Trinity or the hypostatic union of the two natures in the one Person of Christ. The fact that these doctrines were not formally propounded until the fourth- and fifth centuries does not in any way diminish their validity. Therefore, insists the Catholic, just because the dogmas of papal infallibility or the assumption of the blessed virgin Mary were not formulated until the nineteenth century does not mean we should balk at them. If the Trinity had taken another thousand years to state officially, would it be any less true?

Now on the one hand this makes a lot of sense. I mean, a case could certainly be made that the church of Acts 2 would barely have recognized the church of Acts 15 if it had been given a crystal ball. Elders? Deacons? Gentiles? What happened to our simple movement, how did it get so complex?

But on the other hand, I fail to see how certain dogmas can honestly be said to be developments in the church’s understanding of the original deposit of faith, and when I hear Catholics insist that they would never think of adding anything to what God has revealed in his Word, I just scratch my head. Take the sale of indulgences as one example (does that one count as dogma?), or take as another the immaculate conception and assumption of Mary. Sure, I’ve read the arguments and heard the logic behind these teachings, and though they are unpersuasive they are certainly plausible. But insisting that they are actually biblical, well, that’s another issue.

What am I missing?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Remember, With Moxy, Your Own Orthodoxy....

I have touched on this topic before, but perhaps it merits a revisiting in light of recent comments. There are two kinds of "orthodoxy" in my view. The first (we'll call it Big-O Ortho-doxy) represents those things which must be believed in order for a person to be a Christian in any meaningful sense of that word. Most traditions look to the Apostle's and Nicene Creeds as examples of Big-O Orthodoxy.
Then there are various little-o orthodoxies that compete with one another for the other, umm, non-essential doctrines (I shuddered a little just now).

So while any claim to Orthodoxy must include a correct understanding of, say, the divinity of Christ and the hypostatic union of his two natures in one Person, where one stands on the issue of the metaphysics of the Eucharist or the timing of Christ's return may play a part in the orthodoxy of whichever tradition one may be a part of, but they do not affect Orthodoxy with a Big-O.

So for example, Calvary Chapel's orthodoxy demands a belief in the pretribulational rapture, while the PCA's insists on the doctrine of imputation, and Rome's orthodoxy includes the immaculate conception and assumption of the blessed virgin Mary. But all three of these traditions would affirm the tenets of the Nicene Creed (even if, as in our first example, they've never heard of it).

So when the question is asked, "Can your tradition guarantee orthodoxy?", we need to determine what the interlocutor means by "orthodoxy" before we can answer. If he means Big-O Orthodoxy, the answer is "Yes," because if a person in just about any Christian church denies the tenets of the Nicene Creed he will be disciplined, and if the entire church denies them, they will be relegated to the status of a false religion such as Mormonism or the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

But if the questioner is asking whether a tradition can guarantee little-o orthodoxy, well, the question is somewhat redundant. Can the PCA guarantee belief among its members in the doctrine of imputation? Can Calvary Chapel ensure that its pastors hold to Dispensational eschatology? Can Rome guarantee that those in her communion affirm transubstantiation? Well, with varying degrees of success, the answer is pretty much "Yes."

But when we identify Orthodoxy with orthodoxies of whatever stripe, the question "Can your tradition guarantee orthodoxy?" becomes meaningless. No, the PCA cannot guarantee belief in the immaculate conception any more than Rome can protect the sanctity of the seven-year tribulation or the "Moses Model" of pastoral ministry.

And for the record, all churches hold to this distinction, whether they admit it or not.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

You Two and Three

Why is U2 obsessed with the number three?

On the song "Breathe" from their latest al-bum No Line on the Horizon (which was released, [co]incidentally, on 3/3/09), Bono sings,

16th of June, 9:05, doorbell rings,
Man at the door says if I want to stay alive a bit longer,
There's three things I need you to know. Three.
In "Unknown Caller," the protagonist finds himself "lost between the midnight and the dawning, in a place of no consequence or company." Then, at "3:33, the numbers fell off the clock face." This may be a veiled reference to the cover of the band's 2000 album All That You Can't Leave Behind, on which they had the display in the upper left altered to reference Jeremiah 33:3, which Bono calls calls "God's phone number."

Referring to the fact that we tend to kill those whom we admire ("Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief. All kill their inspiration, then sing about the grief"), Bono sings in "Hold Me, Thrill me, Kiss Me, Kill Me":

They want you to be Jesus,
They're going down on one knee;
But they'll want their money back,
If you're alive at thirty-three.
And then, of course, it was "three o'clock in the morning," when "it was quiet with no one around," that the character portrayed in "Stay (Faraway, So Close)" heard "a bang and a clatter, as an angel hits the ground."
If you've got an interpretation, then by all means weigh in, because I haven't a clue....

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Let Them Eat Cake!

I like cake. But the thing is, I like to eat it, too.

Because of this tendency, I often shy away from arguments against Catholicism that take as their launching point the various abuses and aberrations of the church throughout the centuries, as if the Protestant's only problem with Rome is the occasionally opulent pope or abused altar boy. In other words, a robust Reformed argument against Rome would focus not only on what it became, but also on how it began.

If all we focus on are the incidentals, then is not this a tacit admission not only that the solution to Rome is not Protestantism but reformed Catholicism, but also that our entire ecclesiology is a convention arising post hoc, a reaction to biblical Christianity gone awry instead of a return biblical Christianity itself? Don't miss the import of what I'm saying: if we focus solely upon Rome's abuses, we are surrendering not only all exegesis, but also conceding that Jesus did in fact intend to found a visible church characterized by apostolic succession and Petrine primacy, but once that church messed things up, we came along with a bunch of new ideas about invisible churches and Sola Scriptura.

To put it bluntly, Protestants need to argue for Protestantism, not just against Catholicism, and we need to do it from Scripture, as if (gasp!) Jesus actually intended something akin to Reformed ecclesiology all along. Why would we be comfortable with anything less? I mean, what are we, Protestants or simply non-Catholics?

So let's not shoot ourselves in the foot by just settling for cake. Let's go the next step and demand to eat it, too.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Rationalists, Mormons, and the Validity of Folk History

After attending an excellent seminar on Saturday by Dr. Tracy McKenzie (Professor of U.S. History at the University of Washington, erstwhile opponent of Doug Wilson and his romanticized view of slavery, and member of the church I pastor) on the topic of "Thinking Christianly About History," I got to thinking....

Is there, or ought there to be, such a thing as folk history?

I guess what I'm asking is, What is the relationship between the actual events of the past and the lens of tradition through which we evaluate them? Take for an example the issue of the resurrection of Christ. No matter how many articles appear in Time or Newsweek quoting some scholar who claims to have discredited the doctrine, or some archaeologist who thinks he found the bones of Jesus, most Christians will not believe it. Our faith makes such claims highly suspicious.

The resurrection may not be the best example, though, since the event is recorded in Scripture. But what about the Johannine authorship of the fourth Gospel? Despite the fact that it is nowhere attested to in the New Testament itself, it is unlikely that any sincere Christian will come to reject it after reading some liberal scholar's arguments, no matter how well-reasoned.

Or, take the debate between Catholics and Protestants over the issue of the papacy. Because Catholic tradition states that Clement wrote to the Corinthians at the end of the first century exercising the authority belonging to the bishop of Rome, it really doesn't matter what contemporary historians may say to discredit the presence of a monarchical bishop in Rome in the first 150 years of church history. This is because the Catholic's lens of tradition functions more powerfully than does the testimony of some historian out there with an axe to grind (and I'm not faulting the Catholic for this, I'm just pointing it out).

So it seems to me that there are two distinct but related pitfalls to avoid as we seek to relate our faith to the study of the history on which it relies. On the one hand, we can accept the testimony of historians based solely on the merit of their research. On the other, we can cling to our story with such devotion that it becomes unfalsifiable.

If we adopt the former approach, what distinguishes us from rationalists? And if we choose the latter, how are we principally different from Mormons?

Friday, March 06, 2009

Finding Grace Inside a Sound

Following Scripture, Reformed theology has always placed great emphasis on the ear over the eye. The gospel is called by Paul "the word of faith," a message that produces belief "by hearing the Word of Christ." The opposite of faith, of course, is not doubt but sight. A person is most faithless, therefore, not when disbelief is mingled with his belief, but when he demands to see, to experience, to feel the truth before he'll believe it. "We walk by faith," says Paul, "and not by sight."

Go ahead and roll your eyes, but I maintain that Bono understands this. U2's music often elevates faith over sight as, for example, in 1987's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," where Bono sings:

I believe in the Kingdom Come,
When all the colors will bleed into one,
But yes I'm still running.
You broke the bonds, you loosed the chains,
Carried the cross, and all my shame, all my shame;
You know I believe it,
But I still aven't found what I'm looking for.
On 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, Bono sings of the "grace that travels outside of karma," which, "when she goes to work, you can hear the strings." Get it? Grace is something you hear.

This theme is prevalent on their new release, No Line on the Horizon, as well. In the song "Moment of Surrender" Bono sings:
At the moment of surrender,
I folded to my knees;
I did not notice the passers-by,
And they did not notice me.

At the moment of surrender,
Of vision over visibility,
I did not notice the passers-by,
And they did not notice me.
True surrender, in other words, can only happen with "visibility" is relinquished.
In their lead single "Get On Your Boots," Bono repeats the line "Let me in the sound!" over and over (the same line is also sampled in "Fez - Being Born"). Lest we scratch our heads over what this "sound" is, the song "Breathe" tells us:

We are people borne of sound;
The songs are in our eyes,
Gonna wear them like a crown ...
I’ve found grace inside a sound,
I found grace, it’s all that I found;
And I can breathe,
Breathe now.
Remember, Newton told us that God's grace is not only "amazing," but that it's "the sound that saved a wretch like me." This is why ears are better than eyes, and why blindness is to be preferred over deafness.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Men at Work: Cool Band, Bad Theology

Continuing our look at Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, we now turn specifically to the “negative principles” that, the author argues, constituted the Church’s real problems with the Reformation and precipitated her rejection of it.

Bouyer insists that sola gratia, sola fide (salvation by grace alone through faith alone) is perfectly within the pale of Catholic orthodoxy, and it is only when the Reformers waxed polemical that they got all negative and carried away.

The affirmation of sola fide is not content with excluding works in the Jewish sense or works done before faith is received or works done by the believer apart from the agency of faith in grace or even apart from this as the unique means giving man power to do good works. The Catholic faith could not do otherwise than take all these exclusions as its own and ratify them. [But] Luther, and Protestantism after him… declared that all possible and imaginable works are harmful, that faith itself has not to produce them for salvation, cannot, should not, do so.
Bouyer goes on to wonder at the fact that Protestants “attack the scholastic idea of faith ‘informed’ by charity, contrasted with faith without charity as living faith to dead.”

Setting aside for the moment Bouyer’s characterization of Protestantism as arguing that faith not only need not but indeed should not produce good works for salvation (a statement that is false on its face), I would like to offer a brief exegetical rebuttal to Bouyer’s claim that the Protestant Reformers went overboard on their negative statements about works.

According to Bouyer, there are four senses in which the Catholic may agree that works do not contribute to man’s acceptance by God. First, he admits Catholics agree with Protestants that “works in the Jewish sense” are inadmissible. I assume he means what some theologians call “Jewish boundary markers,” those works of the law such as circumcision and dietary restrictions that divided Jews from Gentiles. Second, Bouyer lists “works done before faith is received,” by which he most likely means the good deeds done by the unregenerate pagan before he is converted. Third are “works done by the believer apart from the agency of faith in grace.” I guess what Bouyer is referring to here are the Christian’s attempts to please God in the arm of the flesh. And the last kind of works that the Catholic would agree are useless for pleasing God is works “apart from this [Option 3] as the unique means giving man power to do good works.” I have no idea what Bouyer is talking about here.

So here’s my question: Which type of works was Peter referring to when he insisted at the Jerusalem council that Gentiles need not be circumcised since such practice would “place upon them a burden that neither we nor our fathers could bear?”

The option that seems most obvious at first is #1 (works in the Jewish sense), since the whole debate in Acts 15 was over Jewish boundary markers. But not so fast. If the Judaizers of Peter’s and Paul’s day were so meticulous about adhering to circumcision and dietary laws—even going above and beyond by fasting twice a week (Luke 18:12)—then how can Peter call these works an unbearable burden? They kept them, didn’t they? So what was the problem?

Paul says something similar in Gal. 3:10ff, arguing that the Galatians should not submit to circumcision for the specific reason that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse.” Now this curse is obviously not solely due to failing to keep the Jewish ceremonies since, as we have seen, the Jews kept them scrupulously (I mean, how circumcised can a man be?). And the “works” Paul is referring to cannot be works done apart from faith or before receiving grace since he is holding up his own kinsman as his foil, arguing that even faithful, circumcised, ham-shunning Jews are under God’s curse.

The only answer that seems to make any sense of these passages is that circumcision binds a man to the entire law (Gal. 5:3) and that failure on just one point is tantamount to failure on all (Epistle of Straw 2:10). In fact, Paul says as much in the verse under consideration, quoting Lev. 18:5 to the effect that the Israelites were bound to perform “all things written in the Book of the Law.” That's the kind of works that curse: not the Jewish kind, the ceremonial kind, the prideful kind, or the faithless kind. All kinds.

The conclusion of all this, therefore, is that even faithful Christians, if they bring works of any kind into the justification equation (even ceremonial boundary markers), thereby bind themselves to a law whose only function this side of the fall is to curse, accuse and condemn.

Better, in my view, to affirm what Trent anathematizes, namely, that whatever good works we perform are but results of grace received and in no way contribute to God’s acceptance of us.

If I’m wrong, please show me how.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Which of the Seven Dwarfs Best Sums Up Protestantism?

Lutheran-turned-Catholic Louis Bouyer argues in his The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism that the expulsion of the Protestant Reformers from the Catholic Church was in no way a response to the "positive principles" of the Reformation such as Sola Gratia and the emphasis on divine sovereignty (principles which, according to Bouyer, had "the power to rejuvenate and restore traditional Christianity"). Instead, the Reformers were tossed out for "something else," namely, the unnecessary negative principles that were also insisted upon but were, Bouyer maintains, "so far from following from the principles already examined or from being necessarily implied by them or even useful or expedient."

The question that must be pondered, according to Bouyer, is not "If the positive principles of the Reformation are perfectly consistent with Catholic tradition, then why did the Church reject them?" but rather, "What was present in the Reformation that forced the Church to reject it despite its clearly orthodox positive principles?"

Before we look at the specific examples Bouyer cites, I'd like to examine his general claim. Is there a "mysterious fatality" resident within Protestantism that inevitably moves its adherents to attach a "negative significance" to its positive principles?

It's a good question.

Just answering the challenge in general terms, it seems necessary to insist that if A is true, then non-A must be equally false. That being said, however, is it absolutely necessary to say that if, say, the Bible is uniquely authoritative then the Church has no real authority beyond that which I attribute to it? Or is it inevitable that if salvation is a sovereign work of divine grace alone, and that works play no role in disposing God towards the sinner, that therefore all works are eliminated from the salvation equation altogether?

I guess what Bouyer is asking is, "Why do Protestants have to be so grumpy all the time?"