Category Archives: Truth

In defense of Scholasticism

In confronting the “new atheists,” Dr. Edward Feser offers Scholasticism (or “new scholasticism”) as the proper answer. I like his ideas. I have my own ideas of the role and place of apologetics, and often I struggle with its importance in comparison to other forms of witness, but it’s still important.

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Baptism references

A recent discussion prompted me to think again of some posts I did on baptism. My friend was emphatically saying something like we all know baptism isn’t necessary, etc, etc. I know very well how deep that thinking goes for many Protestants, and the context of the discussion wasn’t good for challenging assumptions, so I just let it be, but I know now that baptism is necessary. I also believe that God works with people where they are, and that one’s conscience is fundamental, so I’m not particularly worried. Still, it’s good to refresh one’s memory from Holy Scripture and be ready for possible future discussions.

This post was originally publish April 26, 2011.

Sermon of St. John the Baptist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1566

The following citations come from the English Standard Version (ESV) translation. The purpose of this list, for me at least, is to gather in one place as many of the scriptural references on baptism as I can so that I might begin to understand the place and meaning of baptism in the life of faith. If I have missed any biblical references, whether directly mentioning baptism or whether pointing to baptism metaphorically or symbolically, please let me know.

John baptizes:
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:1-2)

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1:4-5)

And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3)

Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:5-6)

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7)

He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. (Luke 3:7-8a)

John points to Jesus:
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)

“I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8)

As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Luke 3:15-16)

They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” (John 1:25-27)

Jesus gets baptized:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11)

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

“I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:33-34)

Jesus baptizes:
After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison). (John 3:22-24)

Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” (John 3:25-26)

The nature of John’s baptism?
“The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?'” (Matthew 21:25)

“Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” (Mark 11:30)

He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” (Luke 20:3-4)

Jesus’ teaching on (or related to) baptism:
Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized . . .” (Mark 10:38-39)

“I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.) (Luke 7:28-30)

“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (Luke 12:49-51)

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:15-16)

And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4-5)

Baptism in the first generation church:
“. . . beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:22)

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:37-40)

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41)

But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. (Acts 8:12-13)

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 8:14-16)

And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:36-39)

So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened. (Acts 9:17-19)

“. . . you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed” (Acts 10:37)

“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:47-48a)

“And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'” (Acts 11:16)

“Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.” (Acts 13:24)

The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” (Acts 16:14b-15a)

Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. (Acts 18:8)

He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. (Acts 18:25)

And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. (Acts 19:3-6)

And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name. (Acts 22:16)

Paul on baptism:
By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:2-4)

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:13-17)

For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4a)

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13)

Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? (1 Corinthians 15:29)

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27)

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12)

Peter on baptism:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22)

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Hearsay vs. Encounter

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Most personal religious belief is based on hearsay. This includes Christianity — what he said, what the pastor said, what parents say, what tradition says, what the Bible says, we understand our faith because of what others have said. This is a good thing. The Church teaches that the essential beliefs of the faith have been handed down from the beginning orally through teaching and testimony. Most of the early Christians, including that incredible first generation, did not have direct, first-hand experience of Christ. The Gospel spread throughout the known world by way of witness, and reports of witness.

In the gospel of St. John we read: ‘Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”‘ (John 20: 28-29)

Of course I am using the word “hearsay” as a rhetorical device. We normally use the word to mean a rumor, or something heard that cannot be verified.

And yet, for all of us (except, perhaps, a few mystics) we know the basic tenets of our faith because we have been told about it or read about it. This fact does not make Christianity less true, but it does highlight a couple of things. First, we are indebted to those who have gone before us and have taken the time to teach us. This is especially true of the Apostles, disciples, and writers of the New Testament, but it is also true of parents, pastors, fiends, and many others. Second, belief by way of hearsay is not the same thing as belief because of encounter. Encounter is one’s own experience of God. At various times in history individuals have had powerful encounters with God — Moses, Christ’s disciples, St. Paul, and numerous saints down the ages. These are the more obvious encounters, but most Christians have also had encounters with God. It is arguable that one cannot be a Christian without having an encounter with God.

This is why a person can grow up in a Christian family, go to church regularly, and be a Christian in one sense, but then have a profound conversion experience later in life and become “born again” as it were. In other words, without “encounter” Christianity remains for the individual, essentially hearsay.

When the Holy Spirit moves within the heart of a person a profound experience occurs. God has reached out, presented Himself in some mysterious way, has penetrated the hard heart, and established a level of faith within the individual. For many this encounter comes as a surprise. For some it comes from searching, seeking out God, asking that He enter in as it were. Regardless, surprise or answer to prayer, when we have an encounter with God we are never the same.

Encounter is also something that can happen invisibly until, perhaps much later, the individual realizes what has happened. Encounter can occur frequently, perhaps even regularly. But it may happen rarely in a given person’s life as well. It is a mystery. Like the wind, it comes and goes, and we only see the effects.

The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Finally, there is no competition between hearing and encounter. Our faith is not based on one or the other, but on both. But we should recognize that mere knowledge, or being able to repeat what we’ve been told, does not constitute a full knowledge of Christ. And our encounters should be tested against the words of truth.

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Unintentional Evangelists & Seeing God in Roseburg Oregon

Pilate might have been the first evangelist. We read in the Gospel of Saint John:

So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Gol′gotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. The chief priests of the Jews then said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” (John 19:17-22)

It is certainly unlikely Pilate actually believed Jesus was King of the Jews, but here he is declaring that truth in the three primary languages of that time, as though it is being proclaimed to the whole world — for everyone then and there, though that number was relatively small, and then for the world down through the ages, and against the objections of those who thought they were only putting to death a troublemaker, Pilate officially stated: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. He was, unintentionally so, an evangelist proclaiming Christ the King.

He was the first to publicly do so. Strange, ironic, but beautiful in a way. God is always surprising.

king of the jews

There are others who unintentionally proclaim the truth of God’s offer of salvation.

I live in Oregon, just an hour north of Roseburg where the terrible shootings recently took place at Umpqua Community College. The murder of nine people and the wounding nine others shocked the world. In one of those ghastly and ironic twists of fate, the shooter also became an evangelist of sorts.

How can this be?!

While holding the gun to each person’s head, the murderer asked one specific question: “Are you a Christian?” If the victim answered “yes,” he replied “Good, because you’re a Christian, you are going to see God in just about one second.” And then he killed them. One after another. Are you a Christian? Yes.

If you are a Christian you are going to see God. This profound and powerful truth does not diminish the nearly unspeakable tragedy and massive waves of sorrow the killer has caused. And yet, consider this: In our age of global social and mass media, news of this event has gone around the world countless times. The entire world has beheld, even if only through description, the martyrdom of these brave witnesses to the unchanging truth of Christ.

Millions upon millions of people read the words: “Good, because you’re a Christian, you are going to see God in just about one second.”

Millions upon millions of people heard that in an ordinary, small town community, regular people said yes. They said yes with a gun to their heads. Tears come my eyes while typing this.

That angry, religion hating, God hating, lonely, self-pitying, gun fetishizing, nazi infatuated young man got his name in the news, but he also unintentionally declared the beauty of the Gospel — if you are a Christian then you will see God. Oh that it had never happened. Lord help us to understand. But God be praised for His love. They carried their crosses all the way. Not dead, but eternally alive. May their souls flourish forever in the loving embrace of their Heavenly Father.

The 2nd-century Church Father Tertullian wrote: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” We owe so much to so many.

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No slapping matter (or is it?): Thinking about Synods and Encountering Christ

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An irate Bishop Nicholas slaps troublesome priest Arius across the face at the First Council of Nicaea

Some brief, and probably uneducated personal thoughts on the Synod on the Family, but first…

…and with humility…

There is a lot of discussion and vitriol flying around these days about the family and the Church. It bothers me. Two frequently narrow-minded religio-political groups — Liberals and Conservatives — have been squaring off over questions of divorce and remarriage and the receiving of the Eucharist — and other important matters of marriage, sex, faith, and the Church. I say narrow-minded because Christ is neither liberal or conservative, and neither is the Church. As Christians we know this. At one time or another I have been in both camps (I still am I guess). Nonetheless, I wonder…

Could all this hullabaloo over these tendentious and tender issues be God’s way (perhaps by way of Pope Francis) of calling the Church to account? The Church, frequently in the actions of its members (but not in its dogma), in recent decades (maybe longer), has again and again turned away from the foundational teachings on family and sexuality. Catholics do whatever they want it seems. This is well documented. There’s a lot of interest from all “sides” in the synod and its outcome for these very reasons. What this all means and where it will lead I cannot really say — and a lot of smarter people than I have much to say about these things anyway.

The conservatives, who are people of good will, and who are worried the liberals will get their way (there’s a lot of worry going around), should at least realize the “battle” was lost a long time ago — at least on a cultural/historical level, for God, of course, has lost nothing — and they have also been part of the problem. They may be “conserving” dogma, but some concept of a past culture is probably not worth conserving in some significant sense, at least in terms of a past “golden age” of Catholicism — though I could be wrong. We live in this culture, we are culture, culture is a living, moving thing. I sense many feel the conservatives are only interested in a kind of old-fashioned mono-culture — whether this is actually true I cannot say. However, bulwarks can seem like too much Soviet architecture, and it didn’t take long for many, even good-willed Catholics (or their children), to abandon the conservative project. How did the project “lose” so quickly and so completely? I suggest the Church’s presentation of its core teachings on sexuality and marriage for the past 150 years or so has taken too much for granted, was content too much with externals, and was not sufficiently evangelical in its approach or its language, did not bring Christ first, etc. If your average Catholic cannot articulate the Church’s understanding (and I mean understanding, not merely a recitation of the “rules”) on these issues what does that say? I believe this has caused untold suffering. I could be wrong.

Bishops should bring Christ to others first. Some do. Perhaps most do, I can’t really say. But the world needs Christ and the world seems to say the Church only brings them rules and dry theological presentations of human passions. (This synod could end up being another example of this. Let’s pray it isn’t.) I get that the world rejects Christ too, but shouldn’t it be more clear the world is actually rejecting Christ and not the Church — if that’s the case? It’s complicated, but let’s not accept easy excuses.

And the liberals, who are also people of good will, should realize they are just as much a part of the problem of causing great suffering amongst the faithful as everyone else. Tenderness and mercy is good, truly very good, but they go inextricably together with truth as well. (The same could be said to conservatives.) It’s not a 50/50 proposition — trying to find a nice balance between truth and mercy, between hard reality and tender compassion. It’s a 100/100 proposition — total truth and reality along with total mercy and compassion. (Again, one could say the same to conservatives.) We cannot turn away from our human nature, from the way we are designed, and not suffer. We cannot reject God’s natural will for our lives and not suffer. [Side note: If you are a Christian then you believe God exists and is your creator. Meditate on that.] But we are all at fault, for the real problem of our society, as it has been with every society before us, is our deep and profound brokenness. We must not let our pride prevent us from seeing this. I raise my hand as a guilty offender; I am broken and prideful.

Bishops should not hide the truth from anyone, thinking that truth is too difficult to handle right now — for that person. Bishops who refuse to bring truth, keeping it hidden, are snakes. Gentle smiles and soft hugs don’t make for genuine healing if there is not also truth in those hugs and smiles. Our souls are desperate for love and truth. Tenderness without calling for repentance is a hollow emotion. I can’t say I know any bishop who does this, but I can imagine. Oh that every prince of the Church were an icon of Christ!

And I am constantly confused on these issues. It is easy for me to say, “Who am I to judge.” (Only I do judge all the time and without mercy.) I am forever figuring out how to make good and right judgements, to see clearly, to know what is true. I pray for wisdom. There are people of all stripes whom I love — and love all too poorly. We’re all carrying heavy packs on this pilgrimage. I pray we are going the same way. Pray for me, a stumbling and wayward sinner.

Consider: It is better that we are prodigal sons who eventually find salvation than older brothers and end up in Hell. Think about it.

I do believe that Christ is calling us all to Him — every one of us. We are not being called first or foremost to dogma or to rules or to tradition — even if those things are good. Honestly, I love dogma, but… We are being called to Christ. To Him alone. We must risk that, and let others have the freedom to risk that as well. We do not come to Christ if not in freedom. That includes everyone, not just you or me.

Unless we solve the problem of our brokenness, of this principle of sin within us, we cannot find true joy — and we cannot solve it. We just can’t. Only in Christ can we find the answer to our soul’s longing. That is the gospel, that is the good news. Only by His blood, by His love, in His resurrection, and through His mediation do we have hope and reality of salvation, of our own resurrection. Only by the grace of God do we live. This is not a liberal or conservative issue. Neither “side”, separately or together, has the capacity to contain the radicality of the good news of Christ.

Be neither liberal or conservative, be a radical follower of Jesus Christ. This may mean being open to an encounter with Him — I’m sure it does. Is it not true that we mostly encounter Christ through encountering other people? Are you willing to take that chance? I hope I am — fear and trembling folks, fear and trembling.

I see in Pope Francis a man who brings the evangelism of encounter, and the world is crying out YES! Sadly I read and hear a number of catholics behaving like some of those baddies in the Gospel accounts — they grumble, they worry, they don’t see that their fear is blazoned on their sleeves. There is the constant parsing of the Pope’s every word, fretting over every action, and more grumbling that he is too confusing, sending the wrong message (“What will they think?!” “They’re bound to take that in the wrong direction!!” “Look who he’s meeting with, he’s sending the wrong message, doesn’t he see that?!!”). I get it, the Pope is sometimes confusing to many people — though I have yet to find him so. Some Catholics, sadly quite a lot, are saying the vilest things about the Pope. I think the Pharisees said the same things about Christ. Can’t you just hear it: “He is muddled and confused, and confusing others. Did he really say that?! My God, save us. He is leading us to schism. He wants schism. Just like a Jesuit to play a devil’s game. He’s not a real Pope. Pray for his death.” (Death?!! Yes, some “Catholics” have even said they want him dead. Can you imagine?) I’m not defending anyone, not even the Pope. His naysayers may prove to be right. I just wonder if something is happening (that’s not really the right word, not a strong enough word) according to God’s plan that is calling the Church, and its leaders to account — and in the process bringing about a renewal of sorts (perhaps a re-formation?). So the tensions are good. They point to something meaningful going on. Usually only in suffering do we gain wisdom. Only through struggle do we find the truth.

Anyway, I love this Pope. I don’t expect perfection from any man, but I do find in him a kind of icon of Christ to the world, and not just in his office, but in his words, actions, and person. Think about that. If true, what do our reactions to him say about us? We should examine our hearts if we find him displeasing. Again, I’m not defending the Pope. I could be blind.

So finally, about the synod… I suppose all this is my way of saying I sometimes (secretly) hope the Synod on the Family becomes a big, knock down, drag out fight. I hope true colors fly, and the truth emerges from the smoke. It seems about time the bishops wipe the genial smiles off their faces and they point some fingers and throw some zucchettos — maybe even overturn some tables. Of course I want them to behave with all the of the virtues in full force (love, courage, etc.). They should act always in love — sometimes not being nice is the loving thing to do; sometimes it means to stop hiding their true feelings and ideas under thick theological speak and formalisms. The Pope said to “speak clearly.” More importantly, if there is a crisis, then act like it’s a crisis. This is not, should not be, a political fight. It is a fight for the Church, for the Bride to be ready and perfect and lovely for the Groom when He returns. May Christ be glorified — and decorum be damned, if necessary.

Not to tell anyone what to do, but pray if you care.

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Believing with integrity

Each of us who try to follow Christ will often associate ourselves with a particular church. Broadly speaking we have three big choices: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. For the Protestant the choices further multiply exponentially. But why do we make the choices we make? Why does one choose Protestant over Catholic, or Orthodox over Protestant? And, if Protestant, why choose Methodist over Presbyterian, or Baptist over Episcopalian? Or why not just choose not to care at all, as many do?

For those denominational apologists among us the reasons are clear, and each church, each camp, has its ardent (sometimes foaming at the mouth) defenders. But we live in a culture that, for the most part, believes it does not really matter which church one attends or which denomination one adheres to, as long as one goes to church somewhere and meets some vague, minimum requirements of “christiany” belief. Some take this further and say that any kind of organized Christianity is only likely to get in the way, that being a Christian is really and only about faith, which is really and only existential belief. I am inclined to view each of these positions as wrongheaded, though I have tended to be less “religious” and more in the “faith” camp.

Sometimes it seems that we, and I mean most Christians (at least in the U.S.), have lost somewhere in the recesses of history and memory what it means to be Christian. Naturally we will seek out other Christians in order to emotionally and psychologically bolster our desire to believe ourselves Christian, but does this cut it?  Sadly, how one looks, what one wears, the lingo one speaks, the food one eats, and where one shops, probably has more to do with being accepted by other Christians these days than right doctrine. We gravitate to those like us, give them slack in their “Christianity” because they are like us, and seek churches filled with people like us. We look for a comfortable Christianity where we are welcome and where we feel good. From my observations, this tends to be true more in Protestant churches than Catholic or Orthodox, but I’m sure it is everywhere. Fortunately, genuine faith still exists even in the midst of our many follies. In fact, I think we tend to live with this tension all the time—our tendency for a comfortably social Christianity and the pull of the Holy Spirit towards authentic religion.

As I wonder about my next steps on the path of faith, I do not want to give into a vague, mushy sentimentality (though I have many times before, and will certainly do so again), for it smacks too much of a kind of consumerism where churches become something more like brands than representations of particular doctrines and practices. On the other hand, I do not want to fall into a kind of apologist swamp where being a Christian is all about manning the barricades and where winning arguments effectively function as a kind of perverted beatific vision. In short, I want to pursue what is best. I want to pursue Christ. This may mean clinging to a particular expression/version of Christianity while simultaneously holding it loosely. In other words, seeking Truth while obeying Love.

One should have good reasons for being who and what one is. If one is a Catholic one should know why. Same for the Protestant. It seems one should have reasons better than, “I was just born a Baptist and I guess I never questioned it.” or “A friend invited me to their church and I just liked it, made some friends, my family is ‘plugged in’, why change?”, or “I’m on the ministry team and it would be too big a deal to change.” or “I just don’t want to deal with all the questions if I do change.” or “My father and my grandfather before him were Presbyterian ministers and there’s just no way I could change.” or “Once baptized a Catholic, always a Catholic. So I can’t change.” But these are exactly the kinds of excuses by which we tend to live. And often we don’t even get to the excuses. We frequently put up barriers that prevent true challenges from ever penetrating our minds; the questions aren’t even allowed in the room.

And perhaps most of us do not consciously choose which “version” of Christian we are. Much of the time, so it seems, we just are what we are, and don’t think much about it. But then that puts us in the same camp as anyone in the world who uncritically accepts the religion of their culture or their family. In other words, one can be a Christian in one sense, and yet be no more a part of the Body of Christ than is any Muslim, Buddhist, or Zoroastrian. If we are not careful our Christianity may be nothing more than the Dutch church critiqued by Kierkegaard. He argued that if everyone’s a Christian then no one is a Christian, and I fear that holds true for many today.

If one does not consciously choose, freely and intellectually and existentially choose, then is one’s choice truly valid? Of course we can all too easily fall into the whirlpool of constant self-doubt, wondering if we are truly saved. Nor should we assume or presume too quickly upon our salvation. The solution, as always and from the beginning, is God’s grace, in which our hope resides.

It is important for a Protestant like me (someone whom God has made a questioner and self-analyzer) to truly and honestly ask why am I Protestant. I know one thing at least: Through the “accident” of birth, at that particular time and place, into the particular family I have, within that particular social world, I was raised a Baptist. I was taught basic Protestant theology from my youth. I was taught to love the Bible, and genuine faith, and gong to church, and piety. And I was trained to be anti-Catholic (and anti-nonBaptist really) from my youth. I later found a version of Reformed theology appealing and dove in, leaving some of that Baptist world behind, but not all. I know my presuppositions played a big part in why Reformed theology made sense to me. But at some point it is important to ask, “Why these presuppositions? Why this church, why these doctrines, why these practices?”

I know that God is sovereign and thus He is the author of my life, but I also know that some will call Jesus “Lord, Lord” and He will say, “I never knew you.” Thus I have freedom, and I must use it wisely. While I know it is God who wills and works, I must also work in fear and trembling; I must also seek God, imitate Christ, listen to His apostles, and be a member of the Body of Christ. And part of this is to ask, “Why am I Protestant?” If I do not honestly consider my reasons, then I lack integrity. If I do not honestly consider my reasons, then I might also lack faith.

Of course, I have asked myself that question. I have asked why I am Protestant. My conclusion is that, though I am still deeply committed to Christ, still passionately a Christian, I am no longer Protestant.

What now?

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rule in hell or obey in heaven?

A common Catholic criticism of Protestantism and its legacy is that ever since the reformers opened the flood gates of their “rebellion” there has been an unstoppable and uncontrollable multiplication of claims to the truth, followed by ever increasing splits and disunity. The Protestant counter-criticism says Catholics cannot think for themselves and merely follow the Roman Church and its Pope like dumb sheep. The late Richard John Neuhaus, in his book Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth, says this about the reason to trust Christ and the Church he founded:

We obey because we trust the words of Christ to his apostles and to their successors who are the bishops in union with the bishop of Rome. We obey because the ministry of the Magisterium is the ministry of unity, and unity is part of the truth that Christ wills for his Church. The alternative to obedience is to turn the conversation into a cacophony of Christians making it up as they go along. Obedience does not come easily for there is in all of us the rebellious spirit of John Milton’s Satan, who would rather rule in hell than obey in heaven. If we will not have obedience, if we will not abide the self-discipline that is involved in sentire cum ecclesia,† then we would be well advised to make our acquaintance with the innumerable denominations and sects, or start one of our own.

Increasingly, I find Neuhaus’ argument compelling. What for so long seemed to me like the spirit of integrity appears now more and more like the spirit of rebellion. But it is so ingrained, so deeply loved, so much a part of the water we drink and air we breathe, that this rebellious spirit looks not only normative, but even honorable. I find that frightening, but not surprising. Perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps I am merely projecting my own issues—I know some of that must be true—but I have been thinking about these things for more than twenty-seven years (since my days on the college group ministry team at a large Baptist church) that I don’t believe I am being reactionary.

I was trained to have a strong allergic reaction to words like “successors”, “bishops” and “Rome.” I was not trained to react against “Magisterium” because I’d never heard that word until recent years. Implied in all this, and what I now see more clearly, is the strong Protestant allergy to the word “obedience.” Protestantism is founded on disobedience (and so is the American spirit). Protestants will say, however, that they have merely changed their obedience from the church to the Bible, from man to God, from blindness to truth. I wish that were true, but I believe it is the popular myth animating Protestantism. I fear, and what perhaps seems clear to me now, is that Protestantism is the tangible, historical expression of “John Milton’s Satan, who would rather rule in hell than obey in heaven.” This is a very provocative thing to say, and of course any Protestant would disagree with that charge (I would have not long ago). But the disunity produced and maintained by Protestantism is a grave testimony of a turning away from Christ—at least in some significant and undeniable way. But Protestantism also provides a handy method of denial: just point your finger at everyone else, everyone not part of your denomination, or even your little local band of “believers,” and say it is they who have turned from Christ, not us.

In one way or another we all “think with the church,” or “a” church anyway, and none of us are as independent as we want to believe. We cannot help but think with a given set of ideas. I am not a Catholic, not yet anyway, but I have lived most of my life as a Protestant, and I know that Protestants are as bound and confined by traditions, presuppositions, confessions, hermeneutical methodologies, and mythologies, as anyone else. Can it be that the issue is not whether one “thinks with the church” but rather which church? If so, then which church?

Can it be that Protestantism, even in light of much that can be said to be good, and even in light of the many good Christians that populate its commonwealth, is essentially the wholesale embracing of the first century Corinthian church and its worldview—a worldview promoting factions and disunity? Remember, Paul is not calling the Corinthians apostate and declaring them non-Christian (though he comes close), rather Paul says, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul loves the Corinthians, and therefore he calls them back to unity. Is it time for Protestants to be called back to unity? to obey in heaven?

But I wonder, when Paul asked the Corinthians, “Has Christ been divided?” How many said, “It’s not my fault,” and blamed the others?


† to think with the Church

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