Monday, December 18, 2017

Christmas Break

I'll be taking a two-week break from blogging around the Christmas holiday. Posts will resume on Monday, January 1. Have a blessed Christmas!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

(Painting: "Morning Prayers," by E. N. Downard, 1861)

O eternal and most gracious God, who made little things to signify great, and conveyed to us the infinite merits of your Son in the water of Baptism, and the Bread and Wine of your other Sacrament, receive the sacrifice of my humble thanks, that you have not only given me the ability to rise out of this bed of weariness and discomfort, but have also made this bodily rising by your grace, a promise of a second resurrection from sin, and of a third, to everlasting glory. Amen.

(John Donne)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Glimpses of Grace: Noah's Ark and Salvation through Christ

One of the most compelling Old Testament allegories of Christ is the classic old Sunday School story of Noah's Ark. (Just as a reminder, when I call the Old Testament stories "allegories," I'm not implying that they are non-historical; rather, the historical and allegorical dimensions were overlapping categories for the thinkers of the early church.) We usually present the story of Noah's Ark as a cute tale about a floating zoo, which doesn't do it justice at all. It's really a story about God saving humanity (and the rest of his creation) from the terrible fate brought on by their own sin. So when the early church talked about Noah and his ark, they presented it as the story of salvation through Jesus Christ, prefigured in events thousands of years before his time.

Noah himself was taken as a foreshadowing of Christ. We are first introduced to Noah in Gen. 5:28-29, in which Lamech names his newborn son Noah, saying, "He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed." The word that's translated here as "comfort," however, actually more literally means "bring rest" or "bring relief." In Lamech's saying, then (notable because it is the only such specific saying in the whole genealogy of ch. 5), he's actually prophesying that Noah is the one who will bring rest from the toil of the Curse. That is, Noah's story will be the story of God's plan for the undoing of the Curse that sin brought upon us. This is exactly what we believe was accomplished in Jesus Christ: we were brought relief from the fate of our Fall.

It's not too hard at this point to take a quick glance at the story of Noah's Ark and see the parallels line up with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All of humanity was facing the just wrath of God because of their sin. Everybody was sinful, and everybody was subject to suffering the punishment for their sins: "the wages of sin is death," as the Scripture says. Yet despite this, there was one righteous man, and through his faithful obedience, salvation was offered to all who belonged to him. This was true of Noah, whose faithful obedience brought salvation from the flood to all the members of his family, and it is true of Christ, too--all who belong to him, all who are called by his name, share in the salvation he wrought for us through his faithful obedience on the Cross. It didn't escape the notice of the early church fathers, either, that the number of persons saved in the Ark was eight--and remember, in the early church tradition, eight was a number that hinted towards the New Creation in Christ Jesus (see my earlier post on God's Sabbath-rest for more on this). 

It's interesting to note that it really was Noah's faithfulness that saved the members of his family; we hear no emphasis placed on their role as the instruments of God's salvation--only Noah. In the same way, the New Testament teaches us that it is only because of what Christ did on our behalf that we are saved. In fact, scholars in recent decades have made a compelling case that the many places where the New Testament says that we are saved "by faith in Jesus Christ" should probably actually be read as saying that we are saved "by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ" (both are equally valid translations of the Greek phrase, but theological context may point more strongly to the latter). So Noah stands as a prefiguration of Jesus: the faithful servant of God, who through his obedience saved humanity from the consequences of their sin.

There are many more distinct parallels between the story of Noah's Ark and our salvation in Christ, and over the next few weeks we'll look into them in some depth. But to give you a quick preview: it's worth asking why we call Noah's boat an "ark," even though that was never actually a word for a boat (hint: it has to do with another prominent symbol of the God-with-us foreshadowing of the Old Testament); we'll also notice the parallels between the Flood and the ordinance of baptism; between the Ark's salvation of the animals and what Paul says about all creation eventually participating in Christ's redemption; and we'll look at the wind and the dove, both of which appear prominently in the Flood story, as symbols of the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Trump Shall Resound, and the Lord Shall Descend - Did Donald Trump Just Usher in the End Times?

(President Trump with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, photo courtesy of the Spokesperson Unit of the President of Israel, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

A few days ago, a fellow pastor made me aware that the prophecy junkies (who make up an influential wing of my evangelical Christian tradition) were getting all excited about President Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This was interesting to me, though not surprising--as all good prophecy junkies know, almost any geopolitical event (especially if it has to do with Israel) has the potential to be an epoch-changing marker of the End Times and the Lord's imminent return. Add to that the fact that it was God's favorite country (the USA, of course) that was the spark plug of this particular event, and you've got the recipe for an apocalyptic bonanza.

As you may know, this move was something of a controversial decision: even though it merely put into practice a prior piece of American legislation and recognized the current political organization of the state of Israel (for whom Jerusalem has served as capital for several decades), many perceive it as giving legitimacy to Israel's aggressive land-grabbing techniques in Palestinian areas and as rebuffing Palestinians' own hopes to have East Jerusalem recognized as their capital. These are issues of significant political importance to the region, and even many Christian groups (including practically all of the major Christian churches actually located in Jerusalem) are resisting it. But to many American evangelicals, those issues come in at a surprising second level of importance compared with the possibility that a random Western-Hemisphere country's public recognition of an already-established political reality might be the secret key to unlock the end of the ages. 

19th-century view of Jerusalem
I poked around a little to find out why, exactly, this was seen as significant to the imaginative exegetes of end-times prophecy. Two reasons were most commonly cited: first, that the resistance of other countries to this move might raise enough animosity against Israel to launch the Battle of Armageddon (one commentator, who was putting on airs of knowing something about evangelicals, went so far as to say that most evangelicals actually want war in the Middle East). And second, this rather dry piece of legislation (which, again, changes almost nothing on the ground in Jerusalem, at least for now) is expected to be a step towards the rebuilding of the Temple in the Holy City. Just as a refresher if you're a little rusty on your biblical hermeneutics, one popular branch of apocalyptic interpretation, called dispensational premillennialism, holds that there must be a Temple in Jerusalem as a precondition for the end times, since it appears to be mentioned in several relevant biblical passages. Now, it's not exactly clear how the US' recognition of Jerusalem as the capital would in any way move us toward the goal of a new Temple, especially since to do so would presumably require the removal of the Islamic shrine of the Dome of the Rock, but the likelihood of probable outcomes are not really that important to prophecy junkies when compared to the all-surpassing certainty of the literal fulfillment of biblical metaphors. (Interestingly, none of the articles I read mentioned the popular belief that the Antichrist will make a treaty with Israel, nor the fact that in some of these interpretations, it is the Antichrist who is a leading figure in the Temple's restoration--which, if true, might suggest that the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital might actually be the first step toward an intriguing prophetic identity for Mr. Trump...)

So, let's take the two main anticipations one at a time. First, will Mr. Trump's decision actually lead to the Battle of Armageddon? This question is probably unanswerable, given the fact that almost any Middle East policy decision has a relatively high likelihood of sparking all-out warfare. This doesn't really have much to do with the nature of Mr. Trump's decision, but rather with the instability of the region as a whole. In general, though, many of the most powerful actors in the region with animosity towards Israel (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Gulf States, Jordan, etc.) also have long-standing ties with the United States, which makes it rather unlikely that the governments of the Middle East will rise up in a military response against this act by the US. More likely, if anything happens at all, would be a limited terrorist response from non-state Palestinian actors, which would be quashed fairly quickly by Israel's alarmingly efficient security forces.

Now, for the Temple: is this decision likely to lead to the reconstruction of the Temple? I would say again, probably not. The necessary location for it appears to be the Temple Mount, which the Israeli government will definitely not be touching anytime soon. The top of the Temple Mount, in its entirety, is a Muslim holy site featuring one of the oldest and most beautiful mosques in the world, and even the very simple act of trying to install metal detectors on its entrances plunged the Israeli government into a world of trouble earlier this year. They would not set out to assault the Muslim holy places by trying to build a Jewish Temple up there. The reason for this is that Israel (for some unknown reason) does not actually want the nations of the world to rise up against them in a catastrophic Battle of Armageddon. Go figure. Further, while there are a few wings of the diverse Jewish community that would like to have a Temple again, there are other powerful Jewish voices speaking out against such a move. Many Jews in Israel are secular, and, not being religious at all, see the possibility of a new Temple there as simply throwing gasoline onto the coals of regional conflict. Others, constituting the majority traditions of rabbinic Judaism, actually do not support a renewed Temple, because their religion has grown and developed for nearly two millennia without it; and in most Jewish thought, their current form of worship, centered around the Torah itself, does not require an actual, physical Temple. 

I would push this point even farther, and say that not even evangelical Christians should be pushing for a new Temple in Jerusalem. The reason is twofold. First, the branch of interpretation that I mentioned before, the one that tries to interpret all biblical metaphors as literally as possible (dispensational premillennialism) is actually the new kid on the block as far as traditions of interpretation go. There are three accepted alternative traditions of end-times thinking in Christianity, and most of them have a stronger historic and theological pedigree (and, in my opinion, a biblical pedigree too) than does dispensational premillennialism. I've written about these subjects elsewhere, and I'll let you follow these links to read up about it a bit more if you like: Why You Should Be Excited You're Living in the End Times / What Should We Do With Revelation? / My Theological Statement: Eschatology. But, to put it bluntly, I think that prophecy junkies are seriously misreading Scripture when they insist that a physical Temple is a requirement for end-times prophecy to come true. They are taking literally passages that were meant to be read figuratively, and in so doing, they are actually abusing the intended meaning of Holy Scripture. Just because certain passages might refer to the metaphor of the Temple, this does not necessarily mean that a physical Temple will have to be standing in Jerusalem for Jesus to come back.

Second, the New Testament is very clear that, theologically speaking, a physical Temple would have no relevance whatsoever to us as Christians. Rather, Jesus tells us that true worship will go on not at the Temple, but wherever God's worshipers are (John 4:19-24). In the book of Acts, while the disciples will still frequent the Temple for prayer  (2:46; 3:1; 22:17), as well as using it as an evangelistic setting, it's clear that the main meetings of the Christian church occur elsewhere (1:12-14; 4:23-31 12:12). In the letters of Paul, the argument is consistently made that we are now the Temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:19-22). And if that's true, then there really is no need for a new Temple in Jerusalem. Further, the letter to the Hebrews says in no uncertain terms that a return to the sacrificial worship of the Jewish Temple would actually be an anti-Christian move, because Jesus Christ was the once-for-all sacrifice for sins and the final great High Priest, thus rendering all further priestly sacrifices pointless, if not an intentional offense against the great redemptive work of Christ (Hebrews 9-10). Throughout its long centuries of tradition, the Christian church has always held that the worldwide church of Jesus Christ is the real Temple--the reality toward which the historical building pointed. It was the foreshadowing; we are the reality. This tradition has only recently been forgotten; it was just with the rise of dispensational premillennialism in the past two centuries that serious anticipations of a new Temple in Jerusalem became prominent. 

All that to say, Mr. Trump's move isn't likely to lead directly to the end of the age, nor should we necessarily want it to. The consistent message of the New Testament is to use the hope of Christ's return as a motivation for our continued lives of holy love here and now, not as a codebook for lauding questionable foreign policy decisions. Let's get back to the real message of the end times, please, as Paul showed us in his end-times discussion in 1 Thess. 4-5: "Let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet... Encourage one another and build each other up." (1 Th. 5:8, 11)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Photo of the Week

Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!
Foll’wing our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

- from Charles Wesley's hymn "Christ the Lord is Risen Today"

Monday, December 11, 2017

Quote of the Week

"When you deal with spiritual mysteries, remember not to flatter yourself by thinking you have sufficient knowledge and ability to understand a matter so vast. Learn to climb up beyond yourself. Revere that majesty that passes our understanding."

- John Calvin, 16th-century Protestant Reformer, from his book The Mystery of Godliness

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

A prayer found beside a dead child in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in 1945, apparently written by a victim of the Holocaust:

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted; remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering--our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits which we have born be their forgiveness. Amen.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Glimpses of Grace: Cain, Abel, and Seth

In Genesis 4, we have the story of the first family: Adam and Eve, their sons Cain and Abel, and then, after Cain murders Abel and is driven away, the third son, Seth. In the early church, pastors and writers found allegorical connections in this story with (1) the fallen nature of humanity, (2) the relation of Christ to Adam, and (3) the dynamic interweaving of persons within the Trinity.

The first connection is the simplest to see, largely because it's right there in the open. The story of Cain and Abel follows directly after the story of the Fall and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, so it makes sense that we would then get a story about the effects of the Fall. Taken as a historical account, the murder of Abel is clearly illustrative of that very point. But the early church fathers also liked to look for allegorical dimensions, and they found a possible one in this story. If Cain represents human nature's sin and Abel represents our original good destiny, then the story of Cain and Abel can be taken as an allegory of what happened to us, to our deepest inner nature, in the Fall: our choice to sin destroyed our original good destiny. It did not, however, destroy our whole selves completely; and thus the exile of Cain represents our new destiny, now tied to our sinfulness: as wanderers and strangers in a broken world, a world that we should have ruled in goodness and godliness as the king-priests of the Creator.

The second connection is perhaps a bit more of a stretch. It has to do with the loss of Abel (the original good son) and then the birth of Seth. Early church writers saw in this a faint foreshadowing of the role of Christ himself. Adam was created "very good," but then fell into sin, and Christ was sent as "the new Adam" (to borrow a point from Paul's thought in the New Testament). The birth of Seth after Abel's demise (which is described in Gen. 4:25 as a replacement of Abel) was taken as a prefiguration of the birth of Christ after Adam's sin. It was also sometimes connected to the resurrection of Christ, simply because this story--the first story in which a "son" of any kind appears--shows the loss of a son, immediately followed by gaining a son back again. 

The third connection (also a bit of a stretch) focuses on the biblical language having to do with the creation of Adam, Eve, and Seth. After the story of Cain and Abel, with its allegory of human fallenness, we get the actual "first family," the one that will go on to represent the covenant-community of God: Adam, Eve, and Seth. (Interestingly, Seth got picked up by many extrabiblical accounts in the ancient world as a prominent character representing mystical knowledge of God.) We begin with Adam as the source of humanity, since he was created specially by God. Next came Eve, who was created from one of Adam's ribs. And then there was Seth, who in Gen. 5:3 is described as having been "begotten." The early church fathers noted that the unusual pattern of creation in this first family matched what Christian theology had come to understand about the interwoven relationships within the Trinitarian Godhead: God the Father was seen as the uncreated source (as Adam was the source of humanity); God the Son/Jesus was understood to be "eternally begotten of the Father" (just as Seth was begotten); and the Holy Spirit was said to "proceed" from the Father (just as Eve, in a sense, "proceeded" from Adam by means of his rib). It's an imperfect analogy, of course (as all analogies of the Trinity are), since the traditional descriptions of the Trinitarian relationships are not meant to imply that the Son and the Holy Spirit were brought into existence from nonexistence, whereas this is definitely what happens with Eve and Seth in the biblical account. But with that aside, it's an interesting parallel nonetheless. Again, this may simply be a case of the early church fathers just finding what they wanted to find, but if nothing else, it certainly represents an interesting exploration of the early Genesis accounts.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Lift Up Your Hearts: Experiencing Communal Worship as Prayer

Prayer is the absolute core of Christian worship. When we gather together in the name of Christ, we ought to be using each element of the service to direct the gaze of our hearts toward God. As the old liturgy commands: “Lift up your hearts!” And the response is: “We lift them up to the Lord!”

I often advise the parishioners in my church to imagine that our worship service is taking place before the throne of God in heaven and that we are participating in the ongoing, eternal service of worship that is perpetually poured out in the heavenly courts (because, in a very real sense, we are): to imagine ourselves, each Sunday morning, as part of that great throng of worshipers described in the visions of Revelation.

This Godward focus of the worship service is not an escapist fantasy or a merely individualized experience that pulls our attention away from our neighbors in the next pew: on the contrary, this is an immersion into reality as it truly is, and into the fully communal nature of the people of God. Rather than ignoring my neighbor in the next pew, a Godward focus in worship binds me to that neighbor more closely than ever, through the unity of our shared devotion and the realization of our oneness in Christ Jesus, revealed nowhere more powerfully than in the spirit of worship. Like metal particles all drawn together toward a single magnetic pole, we truly become one when we are pointed in the same direction, toward a single object of mutual adoration.

It is this directional spirit of focusing on God, this attentiveness to his presence, that makes prayer the binding core of all Christian worship. Whatever we do, whether singing songs, giving offerings, joining in a liturgy, attending to a sermon, or celebrating Holy Communion, we are doing those things unto God.

In point of fact, this sensibility about worship is really the most important thing there is to say about the practice of worship. Leave behind all your quibbles about personal preferences regarding styles of music, formal and informal liturgies, dress codes, and all the rest. None of it matters next to worshiping “in spirit and in truth,” no more than whether you’re worshiping in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim (John 4).

Now, I’m not saying that our preferences are unimportant in worship. We all have styles of music that we like and varieties of the Christian worship service that we feel more comfortable in. And that’s fine—it’s wonderful to be able to have forms of worship that speak so easily and so well to our hearts. One of the marvelous things about the sheer vastness of Christian diversity is that our many beautiful traditions have created hundreds of different forms of worship: from ancient, chanted liturgies that haven’t changed in fifteen hundred years, to fresh new worship choruses being pounded out by the drums and electric guitars of modern praise bands. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the style of worship that you enjoy.

There is something wrong, though, with letting your preferences disrupt the unity of the Body of Christ. In many cases, the church in which you are a member will not gear itself entirely to your own personal preferences. You’ll find that you share your church with large numbers of people from other generations, other cultures, and with other personalities, many of whom will not like the music that you like and who will prefer an entirely different form of service than the one you prefer. In far too many cases, this has been the spark for petty squabbles that mount into full-on church conflicts. Sometimes, the unity of the Body of Christ is torn because people decide that they simply can’t abide with a minor change in the form of their church’s worship.

Not only is that circumstance a tragedy, it is entirely avoidable. Mature, godly Christians—those who have learned how to worship God “in spirit and in truth”—know that it’s not really about me and my preferences anyway, as nice as it might be when a church service aligns with those things: no, it’s really about God. And we can turn our focus to God in almost any form or style of worship service we find ourselves in. One of the healthiest spiritual disciplines for a Christian is, every now and then, to go on a “field trip” to a worship tradition that is very unlike your normal one, and intentionally try to connect with God through the form of worship that they use. The forms we Christians use are many, but there is only one God, and he is everywhere present, especially when two or more are gathered in his name.

I’ve been in worship services that consist entirely of a liturgy chanted in ancient Greek (and in which you’re almost never allowed to sit down), and I’ve been in services that share more with rock concerts than they do with other forms of Christian worship. Neither form is my absolute favorite, but I enjoyed both, and I was able to turn my heart toward God in both, and to glorify him as part of the joint worship of his people. Anyone can do it, in almost any situation. There are, of course, exceptions—incidental circumstances, such as music being so loud as to cause physical discomfort, or services that are so poorly led that they tend to distract one’s attention from God rather than direct it towards him—but those are the exceptions, not the rule. The worship of God’s people, whatever the outward form, is still worship, and any Christian who shares the same Holy Spirit with the other believers engaged in that worship can, with a little prayerful intentionality, find ways to worshipfully connect with God.

This is an advisable practice not only when visiting other churches, but even in your own. Keep a mindfulness about you at all times. Remember what you’re doing there, and remember for whom you’re doing it.

When you’re singing hymns or worship songs, sing them with the intent directionality of prayer: don’t just read blindly over the words on the page or on the screen; speak them with your spirit, and let your heart rise through those words to contemplate and praise the eternal Godhead.

When you’re repeating well-known lines of liturgy, keep an awareness of what you’re saying, and mean every word of it. Say those lines to God, and not just because those are the lines you’re supposed to say.

When you’re giving your offering, be conscious that you’re doing it as an act of worship, as unto God. You can imagine that you’re a God-follower in Old Testament times, leading your animal up to the Temple to be sacrificed before the Lord. Too often, we let familiarity suck the intentionality out of our worship: use your imagination, your joy, your musical or artistic sensibilities to bring back that intentional focus on God in every act of the worship service.

When you’re listening to a pastor or other leader speaking out in public prayer, let your spirit follow along with the words they are saying. Don’t just keep your “Amen” till the very end; let your spirit breathe an “Amen” after every line, to join your prayer with theirs. If you have trouble with this kind of mental focus while being silent and trying to listen, you might try something I’ve begun to do when praying silently along with a spoken public prayer: use a simple chant of the “Amen,” and sing it along in your mind while the pastor prays. In the back of many hymnals, there are tunes for learning various “Amen” chants, sometimes up to a seven-fold Amen. And if you’re the sort whose mind likes to wander off during public prayers, letting yourself sing through an Amen-chant during those minutes is a good and practical way to join in the spirit of prayer and keep your heart directed Godward.

The bottom line is this: when we worship God, we ought to be actually worshiping God: not just singing songs or mumbling lines or sitting on a church pew fantasizing about lunch. That kind of focus is not always easy to attain: our minds naturally tend to wander. But learning to make your worship an exercise in prayer—in simply talking to God—can go a long ways toward teaching you how to become the kind of worshiper the Father seeks, those who can lay aside the incidental circumstances of form and structure, and simply worship in spirit and in truth.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Photo of the Week

Hear the word of the Lord, you nations;
proclaim it in distant coastlands:
‘He who scattered Israel will gather them
and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.'
For the Lord will deliver Jacob
and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.
They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion;
they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord—
Then young women will dance and be glad,
young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into gladness;
I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

- Jeremiah 31:10-12a, 13

Monday, December 04, 2017

Quote of the Week - "A Child's Thought of God," by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

They say that God lives very high!
     But if you look above the pines
You cannot see our God. And why?

And if you dig down in the mines
     You never see Him in the gold,
Though from Him all that's glory shines.

God is so good, He wears a fold
     Of heaven and earth across His face--
Like secrets kept, for love untold.

But still I feel that His embrace
     Slides down by thrills, through all things made,
Through sight and sound of every place:

As if my tender mother laid
     On my shut lids her kisses' pressure,
Half-waking me at night and said,
     "Who kissed you through the dark, dear guesser?"

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

O God, who art without beginning and without end, the Maker of the whole world by Christ, and the Provider for it, but before all his God and Father, the Lord of the Spirit, and the King of intelligent and sensible beings; who hast made the day for the works of light, and the night for the refreshment of our infirmity—do thou now, O Lord, thou lover of mankind, and Fountain of all good, mercifully accept this our thanksgiving. Preserve us and vouchsafe us everlasting life by thy Christ, through whom glory, honor, and worship be to thee in the Holy Spirit forever. Amen.

- Apostolic Constitutions

Friday, December 01, 2017

Glimpses of Grace: The Tree of Life

Another parallel between the Garden of Eden and Christ has to do with the mysterious “Tree of Life,” mentioned in Genesis 2:9 and 3:22. I say that it’s mysterious, because although it is clearly important, it serves almost no narrative purpose whatsoever, except to explain the reasoning behind Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden. All that we know about it is: (1) it stood in the center of the Garden, along with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; (2) unlike the latter tree, God did not prohibit Adam and Eve from eating its fruit (although, by inference, it seems that they did not); and (3) when Adam and Eve were expelled, the reason given is that they should not be permitted to eat from the tree of life while in their sinful state (and the inference in that passage is that eating the fruit of this tree confers eternal life). As a side note, the early church fathers often pointed out that Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden was not necessarily a punishment, as it’s usually presented in Western art and theology; in some respects it was a mercy. Look at 3:22 again: “And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’” God’s action in expelling Adam and Eve was a mercy because it prevented them from making their sinful state an eternal state. Whereas before they had not been prohibited from eating of the tree of life, now they were, because if they had done so in their fallen state, then sin would have been eternal. So to save us from that fate, God barred the way to the tree of life until the problem of sin could be dealt with.

It’s pretty clear in the story what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents. It stands for humanity’s intimate acquaintance with sin. In Adam and Eve’s previous existence, they obeyed God in the same way that the angels do. But once they had disobeyed and eaten the fruit, then they knew the difference between good and evil, not in the sense of “head knowledge,” but of intimate acquaintance with both. They had tasted both good and evil, experienced it, and it had become a part of them.

But the meaning of the tree of life is rather more opaque. That doesn’t mean that it was unimportant, though. Both Jewish and Christian tradition picked up the theme of the tree of life in some important ways. Jewish theology taught that certain elements of the Temple furnishings (the candle-trees, for instance) were symbolic representations of the tree of life. And in Christian theology, the tree of life actually pops up again in the biblical narrative, in the final, heavenly scene of salvation history: “On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.” (Rev. 22:2-3a)

In the Christian tradition, the tree of life was consistently interpreted as a foreshadowing of the Cross. It was on the cross, the “tree” on which Jesus died, where the problem of sin and death and separation from God were finally and completely dealt with. The effects of the fall, coming from our disobedience at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, were finally undone. And because that tree solved the problem of our sin, now we once again have access to eat the fruit of the tree of life: salvation through Jesus Christ, and our participation in his death and resurrection, leading to eternal life. The tree of life does indeed confer eternal life on us once our sins are washed away through the blood shed at Calvary.

One other interesting connection here is in the association of eating as the action implied toward the tree of life. It’s worth noting that our main ritual connected to the cross is also a ritual of eating—the Lord’s Supper (sometimes called Communion or the Eucharist). This connection between the eternal-life-giving nature of the tree of life’s fruit and the elements of Communion has long been noted: one of the very first of the early church fathers, Ignatius of Antioch, calls communion “the medicine of immortality.” That doesn’t mean that Communion magically gives eternal life to anyone who eats it, but that it represents the way that we eat the fruit of the tree of life by partaking in Christ’s death on our behalf.

So the tree of life is a prefiguration of the cross, and every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we are partaking, in a symbolic way, of the “fruits” of that tree. And the result of the salvation wrought for us there is eternal life.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Story of Roger Williams: A Founding Father of America's Baptist Churches

Occasionally I'll post materials here relating to major figures or movements in church history. For more, you can take a look at my "Heroes of the Faith" page.

Roger Williams (1603-1683), the leading founder of America's Baptists, was a man constantly on the move--usually because he was being thrown out of one place or another. Early in his life, he became part of the larger exodus of Puritans fleeing the increased religious and political pressure on nonconforming Christians by King Charles I and his archbishop, William Laud. Puritans (and other nonconformists) were given a series of stark choices: either conform to the worship of the Church of England and cease to press for its reform, or undergo persecution by the state. There was one further possibility, though: one could move to New England, where a small community of Puritans had begun to take root. Many chose the last of these options, among them a young Roger Williams, already serving in ministry as a chaplain in the Church of England, along with his wife Mary. In 1631 they disembarked to a new life in Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Williams was initially well-received by the Massachusetts Puritans, and was invited to become the parish minister in the newly-founded city of Boston. But this was the point at which the Massachusetts colonists were first made aware of Williams’ opinionated self-assurance. He turned down the position, objecting to the fact that the Boston congregation was seeking to maintain official ties with the Church of England: “I durst not officiate to an unseparated people,” he wrote. The residents of Boston were offended by his refusal (and his subsequent acceptance of a post in the rival port of Salem), as well as by his accusations that their civil magistrates were inappropriately overseeing religious affairs. Boston’s bad feeling toward Williams ran so deep that they convinced the Salem congregation to withdraw its offer of a pastorate. So Williams decided to move to Plymouth Colony, which was led by a group of Separatist Puritans ("the Pilgrims"), who did not make great efforts to retain ties to the Church of England. This was rather more to his liking, but, after having lived there for a few months, he found that their attitudes toward separation were not as strong as his own, and he managed to speak out often and vociferously enough that he estranged his new neighbors and was forced to move back to Salem. “In less than two years in New England,” Williams' biographer Edwin Gaustad writes, “he had already managed to achieve a reputation for irascibility.”

Amid all this early controversy, one of Williams’ most impressive abilities began to flower: he had a knack for understanding Native American cultures and languages, and he often seemed to prefer their company to that of his fellow Englishmen. Williams’ first book was not a work of theology or biblical interpretation; rather, it was a sociological treatise on the Native American cultures of New England, showing profound regard for their languages and customs. Within its pages, he advocated for better treatment for Native Americans and for honest legal recognition of their land rights. The governmental policy of the early United States would one day follow William’s lead on the issues of the separation of church and state; one wonders how its history might have changed for the better had it also followed his lead on Native American relations.

Back in Salem once more, Williams found some support this time, and eventually did take office as the pastor of that town’s congregation. There he continued voicing his opinions in the strongest way possible, running afoul of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on the issues of women’s veils, flags, legal oaths, the colony’s claim to a proper charter over against Native American claims, and, most importantly, the extent of state magistrates’ authority to prosecute ecclesiastical offenses. In 1635, the General Court of the Colony tried several means to get Salem to renounce its troublesome preacher; when that failed, he was simply exiled from the Colony altogether. 

Roger Williams at the Future Site of Providence
This event would prove to be the locus of a controversy that would extend for nearly twenty years, and which would result in voluminous writings on the subject of church and state authority, set down both by Roger Williams and his main antagonist, the Puritan pastor John Cotton of Boston. Their letters and, more importantly, their publicly-published treatises against one another, form one of the major primary sources for the emerging political and religious philosophies of the time. Even though, as historian Alan Simpson points out, Williams and Cotton agreed in “nine-tenths of [their] opinions” on theological matters, the one sticking point, of spiritual liberty vis-à-vis state authority, was so passionately held as to lead to years of long and bitter denunciations.

After a difficult winter of traveling in exile, Williams found his way to Narragansett Bay, where he laid the foundations of a settlement that would soon come to be known as Providence. Within a few short years, Williams had gathered a substantial following in his new colony, including some of his old followers from Salem and other independent-minded castoffs from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Among them was a small group who had come under the conviction that the practice of infant baptism was unbiblical; Roger Williams, who had earlier expressed sympathy with the views of English Baptists, joined with this company and together they founded the first Baptist church in the colonies. Williams did not stay a Baptist for long, however, a decision that was perhaps as much about temperament—his “restless unsatisfiedness”—as about doctrine. The theological reason for this transition was his conviction that it was impossible to form a true, biblical, apostolic church under the current dispensation of history. He remained a faithful and outspoken Christian, however, and used his position as leader of the Providence colony to further his views.

His season of colony-building, however, did nothing to decrease the stress of his conflicts with his perpetual antagonists. In addition to carrying on his theological disputations with John Cotton, he was often also called upon to manage the power plays being made by the other rather thorny personalities that had gravitated to Narragansett Bay, to mediate in conflicts between colonists and Native Americans, and to establish a clear, legal charter for the new colony. The latter job was perhaps the most difficult, as it necessitated his return to England.

Roger Williams Returns with the Charter
Coming to England for the complicated process of applying for a royal charter in the absence of a king (Charles I had recently been ousted, Parliament was in limbo, and Oliver Cromwell was soon to establish a de facto dictatorship), Williams found himself in the middle of a religious conflict that pitted Anglican, Presbyterian, and Nonconformists of all sorts against one another in the marketplace of ideas. Together with other influential voices, like the poet John Milton, Williams took the opportunity to speak out on issues of nonconformity and "soul freedom." As far as the charter went, Williams did what he could, and gained a legal charter from the highest governmental body available at the time, but the unstable political situation, coupled with a legal challenge from one of the other settlers of Narragensett Bay, necessitated one of Williams’ colleagues staying on in London for another fifteen years in order to make certain the charter was ultimately legitimized.

Williams returned to Providence and took up an official position as its governor, a job that quickly proved thankless. Nonetheless, after decades of hard work as a leader of the colony, Williams could boast a secure governmental system unlike any ever seen in the Christian world: freedom of religion was allowed to all (including non-Christians), and the state bore no authority whatsoever to adjudicate in ecclesiastical matters.

For the first hundred years after Williams' death, rival positions regarding him continued to fall along “party lines”—Congregational thinkers lined up against him, Baptists for him. But after the acceptance of the Bill of Rights as part of the foundational document of the American experiment, Williams’ role began to emerge in an ever more positive light. He had anticipated the social and philosophical necessity of the First Amendment more than a century before it came into being, and his views on church and state, which were unspeakably radical for his time, have now largely become the accepted mainstream view of all Western society.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Photo of the Week

Let all things now living a song of thanksgiving
To God the Creator triumphantly raise:
Who fashioned and made us, protected and stayed us,
Who guideth us on to the end of our days!

- from verse 1 of the hymn "Let All Things Now Living," by Katherine Davis

Monday, November 27, 2017

Quote of the Week

"He who desires to be happy must pursue and practice temperance, and run away from intemperance as fast as his legs will carry him."

- Socrates, from Plato's dialogue Gorgias

Monday, November 20, 2017

Let Us Give Thanks!

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God: It is right to give him thanks and praise!
         - from the Liturgy of Communion

I'll be taking a week off from blogging while I celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with my family. Posts will resume on Monday, Nov. 27. Happy Thanksgiving!

(Painting: "A Sketch of Gratitude Crowned by Peace," by James Thornhill, 1713)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

O God, watch over me always, in my work, in my words, in the thoughts of my heart.
O God, have pity on me, in this world and in the world to come.
O God, have pity on me, for I have sinned against you like the mortal that I am; but, kind and gentle Master, forgive me…
O God, do not show me the anger that my sins and misdeeds deserve...
O God, your Word was made flesh for me; for me he was crucified, died, was buried, and on the third day rose again. Bind me to you!
O God, do not let me give way to disloyalty. May the Enemy find nothing in me that he can call his own.
O God, sharpen my will. May it be like a sword and cut all sinful thoughts out of my mind.
O God, as you calmed the sea with a word, so drive out the evil passions from my sinful nature. May sin die down and disappear from all my members.
O God, grant that my heart may always be pure and my faith orthodox forever, yes forever. Amen.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Glimpses of Grace: The Garden of Eden and the Nativity

Before we leave the Garden of Eden narratives, we need to attend to a few other parallels between the stories of creation and the unveiling of God’s new creation in Christ Jesus. We’ll do one of the parallels this week (how the Nativity stories allude to creation), and another after Thanksgiving week (the Tree of Life). Unlike the preceding studies, these are parallels inferred from the symbols in the stories, but are not specifically indicated in the textual exegesis of these passages.

Some of the parallels have to do with the stories of Christ’s nativity. First, let’s take a look at the annunciation passage, where the angel Gabriel tells Mary about God’s plan for her. The first part of Gabriel’s announcement (Luke 1:30-33) refers back to the Old Testament prophesies of the Davidic Messiah-king. But when Mary asks Gabriel how these things will come about, he says, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:35). The first phrase immediately calls to mind the first scene of creation (Gen. 1:2), when the Holy Spirit comes and hovers over the waters of the newborn world. And the second phrase uses a word that immediately evokes an Old Testament parallel: “overshadow”—this was the same term used for the way the presence of God overshadowed the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple, filling that place with his shekinah glory. So within the space of two sentences, Gabriel has connected his announcement to Mary with the creation of the world, the presence of God in the Temple, and the Davidic kingship: three Old Testament allusions that cover almost the whole scope of the salvation-history of ancient Israel. I referenced some of these parallels when I wrote my poetic rendering of Luke 1:35 in my Evangeliad:

The Holy Spirit will descend on you,
Hov’ring in blessing o'er a world born new!
The Most High's power will o’ershadow thee:
Shekinah glory of His majesty,
As in the Temple, full of glory’s awe;
The one born of you shall be Son of God!

The early church fathers also liked to draw a parallel between Mary and Eve when they considered the annunciation-passage in Luke: they noted that Mary in some sense recapitulates Eve’s role. Here is a woman, standing in the light of God’s creative activity (for Eve, the creation of the world; and for Mary, the New Creation), and faced with a decision: to obey God, or to disobey him. Eve chose to disobey, but Mary submitted to God’s will. I’ve also referenced this parallel in my poetry: take the following extract from my “Incarnation Hymn.”

The Word that knit the universe was knit in Mary’s womb,
The tapestry of ages, upon her humble loom.
She obeyed where Eve had sinned, and with her act of faith,
The Maker took our nature, to save our sinful race.

Even the smallest of details in the nativity story were taken as recapitulations of the Garden of Eden. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was born in a stable (more specifically, Luke tells us that the infant Jesus was placed in a manger, and from that information it is inferred that they were in a stable). Early Christian traditions, available to us in other written documents from the first few centuries AD, help to fill out our familiar picture of the nativity: the presence of animals with them in the stable, and the portrayal of the stable being built into a little cave on the hillside.

One of the interesting things to consider regarding this story is that the Gospel writers often select stories from Jesus’ life that illustrate the ways in which Jesus recapitulated the sacred history of humanity. Matthew’s gospel is the clearest example of this: he chooses to present the stories of Jesus that show him as the recapitulation of Israel’s history. So Matthew presents the holy family’s flight to Egypt and their return, along with Herod’s murder of the male babies in Bethlehem, all of which parallel the exodus account in the Old Testament. He shows Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness (a parallel to Israel’s 40-year wanderings), and Jesus as the new Moses in Matthew 5, teaching the essence of God’s law from the mountain. Even the appearance of the Wise Men, who are Gentiles, fits into this theme: it is a fulfillment of the promise so often made to Israel in the pages of the prophets, that all nations would come to Israel to worship the true God there. And this isn’t just a case of Matthew making stuff up, or forcing Jesus’ life history into his own particular set of boxes: other early Christian documents note stories from Jesus life that also fit this theme of the recapitulation of Israel. In one of them, The Protoevangelium of James, there are two midwives present shortly after the birth of Christ, which, if true, would be another parallel with the exodus story of the Old Testament (see Exodus 1).

Luke, however, is not quite as interested in showing Jesus as merely the recapitulation of Israel; he wants to get the point across that Jesus is the Savior of the whole world. So he often chooses stories that display Jesus’ interaction with Gentiles, and he, unlike Matthew, traces Jesus’ genealogy all the way back to Adam. There might be some significance, then, to the nativity stories that Luke chooses to recount, two episodes of which include the presence of animals. Jesus is born in a stable, with animals present, and the first announcement of his birth is made to the shepherds, also with animals present. It may very well be that Luke is using this particular story to illustrate what he makes explicit in the genealogy one chapter later: that Jesus is the fulfillment of Adam’s experience, and ultimately, of all humanity. Just as Adam came into the world in close proximity to, and relationship with, members of the animal kingdom, so too does Christ. Jesus is the new Adam, sent to reconcile humanity with God, to undo the effects of the Fall, and to restore humanity to its original purpose as the image of God and the priest of all creation.

If one wanted to stretch the implications further, one could even take a few of the extra-biblical details of the nativity story and read hints of recapitulation into them. If the stable Jesus was born in was actually a cave, as the early Christian document The Protoevangelium of James claims, this could be taken as a sign that God intended Christ to recapitulate the earliest experiences of the human race—dwelling in nature rather than in manmade shelters. Once again, this is more of a stretch, but it could be another indication of what Luke was getting at (and what Paul says outright in his letters): that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of humanity itself, recapitulating Adam’s experience, and constituting in himself a new humanity that will be liberated from sin.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

How Should Christians Use Their Wealth?

John Calvin once wrote, “Let this be our principle: that the use of God’s gifts is not wrongly directed when it is referred to that end to which the Author himself created and destined them for us.” The question which follows, and which brings us to our main question, is: What are the ends for which God gave us material wealth? My answer is tripartite (and is demonstrated through just a very small selection of the vast biblical evidence for all three themes): [1] for the meeting of our needs (Gen. 1:28-30; 9:3-4; Ps. 104:14-15; 136:25; Mt. 14:15-21), [2] for the blessing of others (Ex. 23:10-11; Lev. 19:9-10; Lk. 12:33; 14:33), and [3] for the grateful celebration of his goodness (Lev. 23; Mt. 26:6-13). The Christian tradition highlights three virtues that match these ends: simplicity, generosity, and moderation.

The vast majority of that tradition, drawing from OT principles, affirms that the ownership and use of private property for meeting one’s own needs is entirely appropriate, since this is one of the reasons that God gave us material things (Gen. 1:28; Ex. 20:15). However, in meeting those needs, we are called to simplicity rather than “luxury” (a negative term in classic Christian thought).

The second end for material goods is to bless others. In the Bible and elsewhere, this is usually put into practical terms of giving help to the poor and assistance to the ministry of the Kingdom of God (Deut. 15:11; Gal. 2:10; 2 Cor. 8-9). Christian tradition is unanimous in saying that this giving ought to be generous, not merely in amount, but, more importantly, in the spirit of our giving (2 Cor. 9:7). In fact, the Christian tradition affirms a view of “stewardship”—that the things we own are not properly our own; they belong to God and are on loan to us. Some go further, and, like Basil, claim that some of the things we are given are only given to us in order to be given to others, thus: “Resolve to treat the things in your possession as belonging to others.”

The third, sometimes overlooked, purpose of material wealth is to enable us to celebrate God’s goodness. In the old medieval tension between feasting and fasting, this is the feasting side of things. We must remember Christ’s rebuke of Judas, in which he affirmed a lavish outpouring of material wealth in celebration of his own presence rather than having it given to the poor (Jn. 12:1-8, cf. Mt. 26:6-13). This joyful celebration of God’s goodness is the counterweight to the renunciation which simplicity and generosity urge. It is possible, ironically enough, for renunciation to become a self-oriented pursuit, and feasting to the glory of God reminds us not to fall into that trap. But, as always, we must remember that even this must be done within the bounds of moderation, because we must maintain enough resources to give generously to the poor.

Is it possible to move from these three general principles and to generate some specific rules? Gilbert Meilaender suggests that this would be a mistake, and I agree: “For such a life of moderation and austerity there are, however, no universal rules….Room must be left for freedom of the Christian life—and, perhaps still more, freedom of the God who calls Christians to different ways of life. Beneficence to others in need is a duty for Christians, but the ways in which that beneficence may be enacted are many.” John Wesley attempted to frame a rule from these principles, but it came out general enough to be a principle itself: “Make as much as you can, save as much as you can, give as much as you can.” Nevertheless, in the absence of rules, we can still commend an overall perspective of “stewardship” as described above, and an overall attitude of trust in God. Let us rejoice in the Lord our God, and use what he has given to his glory in our own lives and in the lives of our neighbors.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Photo of the Week

My soul, praise the Lord!
O God, Thou art great:
In fathomless works
Thyself Thou dost hide.

- from v.1 of the hymn "My Soul, Praise the Lord," by William Kethe and Robert Seymour Bridges

Monday, November 13, 2017

Quote of the Week

"My wish is that you who believe would place yourself with all your love under Christ, and that you pave no other way in order to reach and attain the truth than has already been paved by him... This way is, in the first place, humility; in the second place, humility; in the third place, humility... As often as you ask me about the Christian religion's norms of conduct, I choose to give no other answer than: humility."

- Augustine, influential North African church father in the 4th and 5th centuries AD

(Painting: "Saint Augustine," by Philippe de Champaigne, c.1650)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

O God born of God, true God of the true God born, you are goodness itself, we confess it. In your kindness come to our aid. Be merciful and hide us under the shadow of your wings. We are as servants in your hands: prevent us from rebelling against your sovereignty. We know that you are just: show us your justice, Lord. We know that you are our Savior: deliver us, save us from evil. We acknowledge your holiness: make us holy through your body and blood. Grant us forgiveness, kind God, merciful as you are to sinners. Amen.

- Ephrem the Syrian