Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Life of the Saints

The communion of the saints, living and dead, is present and ongoing.

Some Protestant denominations, including Anglicans and Adventists, oppose this doctrine on the basis of "Christian mortalism" (sometimes called "soul sleep"). They point out that our Western notion of "the immortality of the soul" are predicated not on Scripture but on Platonic dualism, which treats the soul as pure and the body as corrupt, and which therefore imagines the human person as a good charioteer riding and reining in an intractable and diseased horse.

The kernel of truth in this objection must be noted: the Judeo-Christian understanding of the human person bears little resemblance to this Platonic imagery. We are embodied souls, both the "dust from the ground" and "the breath of life" (Gen. 2:7), and the resurrection promised to us is a resurrection of the body and soul. On this basis Christian mortalists argue that the soul, though alive in Christ, enters a state of sleep until woken with the bodily resurrection at the end of days, at the creation of the New Heaven and New Earth.

Though the doctrine of soul sleep has its modern adherents, it is an ancient heresy. It has existed since the earliest days of Christianity on the outskirts of Church teaching, and has never been considered orthodox. The early theologian Origen once spoke against the doctrine of soul sleep so strongly that an entire sect of Arabian dissenters was persuaded to return to the orthodox understanding (according to the church historian Eusebius).

The nearest it came to official recognition was by a pronouncement by Pope John XXII on a separate issue that might have potentially been consistent with soul sleep. Upon discussion with the College of Cardinals, the Pope corrected his statement, and his successor Pope Benedict XII recognized that corrected teaching to be ex cathedra doctrine.

Soul sleep only received a general hearing among the Protestant reformers (especially Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Luther), mostly as a utilitarian counter to the veneration of the saints. Yet even John Calvin wrote strongly against such novelties in the tract "Psychopannychia," and today, most Protestant denominations share this perspective, joining the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church in asserting the active communion of the saints.

Ultimately, the Christian doctrine of an active communion is not rooted in a Grecian notion of an immortal soul, but in the Biblical notion of an intermediate heaven preceding the New Heaven and New Earth which will become our eternal home. This is the essence of the doctrine: the saints are preserved not by some intrinsic power of our own humanity, but by the grace of God and the spirit of Christ's sonship which they share and by which by they are claimed.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Communion of the Saints

One of the most admirable traits of Islam, in my opinion, is the unity of the global Muslim population.  Five times a day rings the call to prayer, and five times a day every Muslim is called to face Mecca and pray to God. When I first understood this, I looked and found nothing comparable in my own background, nothing to echo the sweeping grandeur of a worldwide church united in a single act of devotion to God. To be honest, it was more than a little disappointing.

From this relatively recent appreciation of the Eucharist, I see what I was missing. For Christ Himself said of the bread that "This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me" (1 Cor. 11: 24), and the earliest descriptions of the Christian church incorporate the centrality of the Eucharistic meal.

In the first post-Resurrection appearance recorded by Luke, Jesus walked with two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus, and when they arrived and "He had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him" (Luke 24:30-31). When the two disciples returned to Jerusalem to share this with the eleven, "They began to relate their experience on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread" (Luke 24: 35). Likewise, after the events of Pentecost, the members of the early Church "were continually devoting themselves to the apostle's teachings and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:30).

But Scripture does not merely treat the Eucharist as a sacrament shared only among the living. Christ declares that "I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom" (Matt. 26:29).

Indeed, Scripture bids us to "rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.... Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.... These are the true words of God" (Rev. 19:7-9). The Eucharist is shared among all the saints of God: it is the sign of our unity as the Body of Christ, that we partake of that body together.

Communion is by this measure more than a memorial and in a sense even more than a sacrament.  It is a pillar of our Christian identity, allowing us to anticipate the marriage supper of the Lamb, sharing the celebration "with so great a cloud of witnesses" (Heb. 12:1) and with the triumphal cries of the host of heaven.

This is the "new covenant in My blood" (1 Cor. 11:25) instituted by Christ. This is the communion of the saints.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Real Presence

My first encounter with Catholicism was at an international conference on religion and economics in Michigan. Because many attendees were Catholic, daily Mass was administered by the local parish priest, who was also the President of the hosting institution. I attended one morning, and found it an interesting though unfamiliar spectacle.  Later that day, however, I had a chance to converse with a number of devout Catholics who explained to me some of the Catholic doctrines that were so foreign to my Protestant ears.

The single doctrine that struck me as simultaneously the most objectionable and the most defensible was the doctrine of Eucharistic Adoration. After the communal hosts have been consecrated by the priest, but before they are set out to be consumed at Mass, the elements are sometimes set aside in a chapel, where devout Catholic may go to worship before them.

From a Protestant perspective, this practice is tantamount to institutionalized idolatry. However, as my Catholic friend was describing it, he noted that, by the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation, the consecrated hosts are no longer merely bread and wine, but are in reality the body and blood of Christ. With such an understanding, worship or adoration of the elements can only be seen as worship or adoration of Christ.

The doctrine of transubstantiation is often misunderstood among both Protestants and lay Catholics, mostly because it relies on Aristotelian concepts foreign to modern ears. From his mentor Plato, Aristotle inherited notions of the world of forms -- the objective reality that undergirds the realm of subjective perception.  Loosely speaking, when you sit on a chair, you are sitting on a corrupted image of a Perfect chair, on a physical (and therefore inconstant) manifestation of the Form of a chair. Aristotle's concept of forms was modified slightly from Plato, but he still argued that there is a real distinction between reality and the realm of the senses.

This distinction, in the Aristotelian system, is between substances and accidents.  Substances are the thing itself, its essence or "quiddity" (a Latinate word roughly meaning its "what-ness"). Accidents are properties of the thing that we use to identify or describe it, but which aren't essential to its definition. For instance, this chair is made of wood.  Is wood essential to the substance of a chair?  No, because a chair might also be made of metal or plastic. Accidents belong to the realm of the senses, but substances are the thing itself.

Therefore, when Catholics speak of transubstantiation, they speak of the accidents (the outward appearance and physical reality) of the bread and wine remaining the same, while their substances are supplanted by the substance (inner reality, essence) of the body and blood of Christ. Under the Catholic hermeneutic, the words "this is my body" and "this is my blood," are not merely metaphorical but in fact definitional: Christ stated that the bread and wine were to be substantially identified with Himself.

This is the foundation for the Catholic dogma of the Real Presence, and the Catholic discipline of Eucharistic adoration.

One common Protestant objection to the Real Presence is the argument that, if it's necessary for Christ to be present in the host and to be broken each time Mass is celebrated, that would severely undermine the sufficiency of the atoning grace that arose from His sacrifice on the cross.

This objection is well taken, but it seems to hinge on a rather crucial misunderstanding. As created beings, we live our whole lives in the contexts of time and space, and find it quite impossible to imagine anything outside them. But time and space are properties of the created order, and thus God as Creator transcends such limitations. In the original celebration of the Lord's Supper, Jesus referred to His body broken, and His blood poured out, prior to His crucifixion, yet He asked His disciples to eat and drink in remembrance of that future act. No wonder the disciples were confused!

God exists in what we might consider a timeless present: this is the meaning of His Name, the Tetragrammaton "I am that I am." In every moment He experiences and observes everything. This is, incidentally, the solution to the problem of divine foreknowledge and predestination. For now, it also resolves the issue of competing sacrifices. It seems to me that God is sacrificially present in the act of communion, not in addition to His sacrifice on Calvary, but in the same divine moment.

We partake of that single sacrifice, and share the same Holy Meal, without regard to our differences in space and time from the rest of the Church, because God is present throughout space and time.

This is, incidentally, a necessary counterpoint to the doctrine of the Real Presence. After all, as Christians we must concede that God is present everywhere and such presence is indeed real. But there is a difference in the act of communion.  There is a visceral sacredness, an almost oppressive sense that this is truly a Holy Meal, just as surely as the ground beneath Moses' feet was holy ground. The transcendent Lord of the Universe is peeking out, as though from from behind the veil, and even that partial and opaque glimpse can still unravel the strings of our soul.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 1-2:1

Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God... to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Romans 1:1-7 ~~ Paul's customary greeting is extended by subjunctive clauses and prepositional connectors, to include content on prophet ("the gospel... promised beforehand"), Christology ("concerning His Son, who was born a descendant of David, according to the flesh"), spiritual gifts ("through whom we have received grace and apostleship"), and salvation ("to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles").

Romans 1:s5 ~~ Paul received from Christ the efficacious grace and his apostolic authority to evangelize, to promote the words of the Lord.

Romans 1:8 ~~ The faith of the Roman church is already renown, even before the apostolic visit of Paul.

Romans 1:11-12 ~~ Paul desires to come "to "impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established." The next verse seems to indicate that the spiritual gift in question is the mutual encouragement of a shared faith.

Roman 1:16 ~~ There is no shame in the Gospel even among the Gentiles, though the Gospel is in time and in privilege "for the Jew first and also to the Greek."

Romans 1:18 ~~ This verse introduces the extended section on judgment that continues to Romans 1:32.  Paul's rhetorical strategy should become apparent at that point, but for now he is content to rail against the moral depravity of the pagans surrounding the church at Rome.

Romans 1:18-20 ~~ The wrath of God falls on the wicked because of the general revelation ("because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them"). This verse corresponds to the broad thesis, picked up in Romans 2, that divine judgment is in fact applied on a gradient, depending on one's knowledge and exposure to God (cf. Romans 2:12).

Romans 1:19 ~~ The pagan is punished for suppressing and disregarding the voice of conscience (cf. v. 21).

Romans 1:20 ~~ "His invisible attributes, His eternal power, and divine nature, have been clearly seen" from the tapestry of Creation.  This is the doctrine of general revelation: that, by the mere fact that we are created and can perceive other created beings, we bear witness to some limited knowledge of God.  In fact, Paul makes the case here that our knowledge from general revelation is far broader than is commonly understood, for from Creation we are able to discern some of the attributes, power, and even the ineffable nature, of God.

Romans 1:21 ~~ This limited knowledge of God among the pagans did not lead them to honor or give thanks to Him, but rather to "become futile in their speculations."  Blessed are the wounds of the Lion of Judah.  He certainly know how to put us theology buffs in our place.  The purpose of theology is to elucidate the nature of God, but this must always be subordinated to our absolute purpose as created beings to worship God: we should seek to know Him more, so that we might honor and love Him more.

Romans 1:23-25 ~~ The pagans worshiped physical idols and allowed the corruptible created order to overshadow the glory of the incorruptible Creator.  Therefore, God allowed their sin to corrupt and defile their physical bodies.  The punishment always suits the crime.

Romans 1:26-27 ~~ Interestingly, the "degrading passions" (which pretty unequivocally reference homosexual behavior) are treated here as a judgment for other sins, not as sins in themselves.  While these acts are described as "degrading," "unnatural," and "indecent," the focus of this passage is on the prior sins for which this conduct is suitable as a "due penalty."  The greater sin, the prior sin, is idolatry and the pagan focus on physical things.

Romans 1: 28-31 ~~ Just as God turned over idolaters to "degrading passions" of the body, so He "gave them over to a depraved mind."  What follows is a list of vices associated with this depravity of spirit, with an evil and rebellious intent.

Romans 1:32 ~~ Here is the key quote setting up the listeners for the rhetorical turn in the next verse.  These evildoers know the Law written on their hearts: from their own conscience and from general revelation.  They also know the just punishment for such sins is death.  Yet they "practice such things... but also give hearty approval to those who practice them" -- they abide in evil and encourage others in evil as well.

Romans 2:1 ~~ One of my favorite verses in the Bible from a rhetorical perspective.  Having established the utter depravity of the pagan unbelievers in Rome, Paul swiftly turns the tables on his listeners: "Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgments, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things."

Every reading of Romans 1 -- every proof-text of the list of sins or the errors of pagan idolatry or the depravity of homosexuality -- simply must be balanced in light of Romans 2:1, because that is their purpose.  The preceding verses are meant to make the believer indulge in his own self-righteousness, so that Paul can utterly eviscerate that pride and smug self-satisfaction in a single rhetorical leap. It is a brilliant performance, and an absolutely inspired reminder of the Biblical principle: judge not lest you be judged.  We'll see a major application of this principle to the doctrine of justification and salvation in the next chapter.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Eucharist

A few months ago, I was attending the morning service at my church on communion Sunday. As the pastor read from one of the standard passages and prayed over the elements, a little girl behind me started asking her mother: "Mommy, what are we doing?"  After some hushed conversation, presumably in a failed attempt to answer the daughter's questions quickly, I heard the mother finally say in muted exasperation: "We're just pretending."

I fought the urge to turn around and make a scene. This little girl's first lesson on the Holy Eucharist was that it was a game of make-believe, along the lines of playing house. I tried to remind myself that the answer was perfectly understandable -- after all, how would I explain communion to a young child?  But I still felt like the mother's response was profoundly wrong, as though it were a blasphemy against the Church and the people of God.

I grew up accepting the common Protestant definition of communion as an ordinance, a memorial done in remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ. But I had grown increasingly discontented with this answer as I grew older and wrestled with other theological traditions.

The Psalmist's words that "the heavens declare the glory of God" began to strike me as something more than mere poetry -- they hearkened at a reality, that Creation itself was imprinted with the fingerprints of God.  In Aristotelian terms, the final cause of Nature as a thing created is to magnify and glorify its Creator. Once you accept this view of reality -- once you realize that the world is invested with more meaning that subsumes and transcends the level of the senses -- it is almost impossible to think differently. The world is too colorful to think in hues of gray; the melody of nature is too sweet to ever compare to cold monotone. 

When Christ spoke the words over the bread and wine, that "this is my body" and "this is my blood," He changed those elements into something almost infinitely more.  Even if the words were purely metaphorical, we can see that the words would magnify and glorify the elements, because He allowed them to represent and reflect Him. Similarly, by choosing to represent Himself and His relation to the Church through the imagery of marriage, God transformed the nature of marriage into a profound testament to His love. Thus, even by the loosest standard of Protestant interpretation, the act of communion must be seen as a sacrament: a vessel of God's holiness.

God is present when we celebrate communion. The rest is semantics -- theologically profound semantics, but considerably less valuable than this foundational understanding.  Just as the mode of baptism ("sprinkle, dip or dunk") matters considerably less than the condition of the heart that receives it, the question of whether God is present locally within the elements (as in the Catholic and Orthodox understandings of transubstantiation, and the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation), or present generally in the ritual or the act itself, is of comparatively little importance.

But the sacred aspect of the Eucharist goes further.  For, when He spoke those words, He did not merely make the elements reflect His divine nature.  The blood of Christ is the blood of atonement, the forgiveness of sins, the essential act of atonement operating by the grace of God for the redemption of the individual soul and of a fallen Creation. And how can we forget that the bread does not merely reflect the body of Christ broken on the cross, but also the resurrected body, emanating glory, as well as the Body to which we all now belong? For the Church is the mystical Body of Christ.

Therefore, by partaking of the Eucharist, we do not merely participate in a memorial to His work, and we do not merely eat of glorified elements that reflect His nature.  We partake of the blood by which we are forgiven, and the body by which we are made whole.  We partake of our individual salvation and our corporate identity as the Church. Indeed, the Eucharist is how we are known as the Church -- for the sacrament of baptism is done for individuals, but communion defines us as a Body.

Since I was 18 months old, I've been diagnosed with severe anaphylaxis (allergy) to peanuts. Whenever I see that communion will be administered on a Sunday service, my first reaction is to get up, find an usher, and make sure that there are no peanut contaminants in the bread so I can participate.  Even if it's in the middle of the worship time, this takes first priority.  Communion is probably one of the most important elements of my Christian walk, and certainly one of the most sacred rituals in which I participate as a believer.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dialectic on Catholicism: Introduction

I grew up an evangelical Protestant, which is perhaps as far removed from Catholicism as you can get within the Christian community.  However, I recently came to the realization that I share a fundamentally Catholic approach to certain doctrines and issues in Christian theology, which made me take a second look at Catholic doctrines and disciplines (particularly those I don't particularly agree with) to see what I might learn from their tradition.

I'm calling this series a "dialectic" because I hope to reflect that process in these notes: state my background and my original beliefs on a given issue (thesis), engage the Catholic approach to the same issue (antithesis), and identify my preferred approach based on the comparative strengths of both (synthesis).  I'd also like to identify any commonalities that might reliably point us to the rudiments of "mere Christianity," that wonderful phrase coined by C.S. Lewis that must be at the heart of any efforts at ecumenical unity and dialogue.

The series will wrestle with the teachings on the Eucharist and other sacraments, the principles and practice of canonization, the dogma of Mary, papal authority, and (if time permits or interest prevails) other issues such as church structure, eschatology, and purgatory. Sounds like fun, at least to the ears of a theology nerd.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Sacramental World

Names are important.  Many instances in the Old and New Testaments, God seems to go out of his way to name or rename certain individuals. Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah; Zachariah became the father of John; Saul becomes Paul.  Certainly this emphasis on names was shared by the culture -- Adam named the beasts and Jacob named his sons, and these names had real meaning. My own name is meaningful: my parents named me Alexander David, meaning "leader of men, beloved of God."

Whether names are primarily social constructs, or whether they hearken to something spiritually or metaphysically real, I can't really say.  But, though Shakespeare reminds us that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, we should remember that we would not remember the smell if a rose went by another name.  Words have a rhythm and a timbre, and some words just mesh perfectly with they object they denote.

All that to say, I've struggled with the name of this blog.

It was originally "Confessions of a Protestant Medievalist" -- the latter being my personal self-description, based on my encounter with medieval (Catholic) theology and doctrines.  But it was so much of an "inside joke" that it won't convey the meaning of this blog to those not already conversant in those doctrines.

At times I considered switching it to "Heterodox Reflections" or something along those lines, indicating that my approach to certain problems and doctrines tend to shy away from the norm of my evangelical Protestant background.  But I find value in tradition, and I wanted to emphasize that I believe any shift away from my Protestant roots would arise in conformity to a deeper or earlier Christian tradition.

Thus, most recently, the name changed to "Orthodox Reflections." But I was not contented.  For one, the title was so staid -- so boring -- that it didn't really describe anything significant about this blog.  It would discuss issues, and it would be grounded in Christian principles, but the name lacked any information to differentiate this blog from any other.

However, I think I finally found the name, a phrase to suit this blog's purpose. After a lot of theological reflection I've found that perhaps up to half of my theology is now rooted in Catholic understandings of God and the Church. I can't consider myself Catholic, when I still diverge so strongly from certain doctrines of theirs, but I am increasingly influenced by Catholic ideas.

Chief among these is the notion of "sacrament" -- of physical objects or deeds being not only signs but also vessels of God's grace. The Roman Catholic Church officially recognizes seven such sacraments  -- baptism, confirmation, communion, confession, last rites, ordination, and marriage.  However the doctrine of sacraments is far broader than that.  While these seven rites carry unique importance in Catholic tradition and Christian practice, they are by no means exclusive.  The world itself is a Sacrament.  It was not necessary that God create, and therefore Creation itself was a vessel of His grace bestowed upon the created for His glorification.

We live in A Sacramental World.  And now my blog has a name.