Friday, 15 September 2017

Irenaeus on Patient Maturing

Irenaeus, writing to refute the Gnostics who sought perfection and godhood through secret "knowledge" based on their false myths and false interpretations of Scripture, encourages instead that the clay allow itself to be shaped by the Potter into a form which displays the character of the Potter:
"How can you be a god when you have not yet become a man?  How can you be perfect when you have only just been made?  How can you be immortal when, in your mortal nature, you do not obey your Maker?  You must hold the rank of man before you partake of the glory of God.  You did not make God; God made you.  If you are the handiwork of God, await the Craftsman's hand patiently; He does everything at a favourable time, favourable, that is, to you, whom He made.  Offer him your heart, pliant and unresisting.  Preserve the form in which the Craftsman fashioned you.  Keep within you the Water which comes from Him; without it, you harden and lose the imprint of His fingers.  By preserving the structure, you will ascend to perfection; God's artistry will conceal the clay within you.  His hand formed your substance; He will coat you, within and without, in pure gold and silver; He will adorn you so well that 'the King himself will delight in your beauty' (Ps. 44:12).  But if you harden and reject his artistry, if you show Him your displeasure at being made a man, your ingratitude to God will lose you both His artistry and His life.  Making is a property of God's generosity; being made is a property of man's nature.  If, therefore, you hand over to Him what is yours, faith in Him and subjection to Him, you will receive the benefit of His artistry and be God's perfect work of art.  If, on the other hand, you resist Him and flee from His hands, the cause of your imperfection will lie in you...The light does not fail because of those who have blinded themselves; it remains the same, while the blinded are plunged in darkness by their own fault.  Light never forces itself on anyone, nor does God use compulsion on anyone who refuses to accept His artistry."
                                                            - The Scandal of the Incarnation, IV 39, 2-3

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

God can only be known through God

Irenaeus (b. circa 130 AD), writing to refute the Gnostic heretics in The Scandal of the Incarnation, says:
"No one can know the Father without the Word of God, that is to say, unless the Son reveals Him, nor can one know the Son without the good pleasure of the Father (cf Matt. 11:26ff).    IV 6,3
"The Son leads men to the Father, but the Father reveals to them the Son."    III 13,2
"...Lavishly, ungrudgingly, He has granted men to know God the Father through adoption and to love Him wholeheartedly..."  IV 16,5
"Read the prophets carefully, and you will find that all the actions, all the teaching, all the sufferings of the Lord have been foretold by them.  Now it may be that the question will come into your mind: Did the Lord bring us anything new by His coming?  The answer is this: He brought us all newness by bringing Himself, who had been foretold."    IV 34,1
"Everything became new when the Word, in a new dispensation, came in the flesh to win back to God man who had gone off from God.  Thus men were taught to worship, not a different God, but the same God in a new way."    III 10,2

Monday, 24 July 2017

Being and becoming the Beloved

In his book, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, Henri Nouwen speaks of the words the Father spoke of Jesus at his baptism:
"No sooner had Jesus come up out of the water than he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit, like a dove, descending on him.  And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you.'"
This has been historically recognized as the same thing God speaks in the baptism of all Christians: "You are my beloved daughter/son; my favour rests on you."  But Nouwen notes that, while this is true - God's children are his beloved - there is also a process by which we must become the beloved, become what we are.
"Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply.  It is like discovering a well in the desert.  Once you have touched wet ground, you want to dig deeper." 
"Being the Beloved is the origin and the fulfillment of the life of the Spirit.  I say this because, as soon as we catch a glimpse of that truth, we are put on a journey in search of the fullness of that truth and we will not rest until we can rest in that truth.  From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are.  Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make.  Augustine's words: "My soul is restless until it rests in you, O God," capture well this journey.
Becoming what we are sounds very Pauline, like knowing we are justified but leaning into that justification by keeping in step with the Spirit on the pilgrimage of sanctification.  The first half of most of his epistles remind us who we are in Christ and the second half encourage and exhort us to become who we are by putting off who we used to be and putting on and living out our new life in Christ, the new life of the Spirit.
"Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say or do.  It entails a long and painful process of appropriation or, better, incarnation.  As long as "being the Beloved" is little more than a beautiful thought or a lofty idea that hangs above my life to keep me from becoming depressed, nothing really changes.  What is required is to become the Beloved in the commonplaces of my daily existence and, bit by bit, to close the gap that exists between what I know myself to be and the countless realities of everyday life.  Becoming the Beloved is pulling the truth revealed to me from above down into the ordinariness of what I am, in fact, thinking of, talking about and doing from hour to hour."
"When our deepest truth is that we are the Beloved and when our greatest joy and peace come from fully claiming that truth, it follows that this has to become visible and tangible in the ways we eat and drink, talk and love, play and work.  When the deepest currents of our life no longer have any influence on the waves at the surface, then our vitality will eventually ebb, and we will end up listless and bored even when we are busy."
James would agree with this sentiment, for our faith is no real faith if it is not lived out in the things we do, the words we say and the thoughts we think.  John would say that we cannot claim to know God unless we love each other.  In other words our relationship with God must manifest in how we interact with people in all of life.  As Paul would say, "whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."  We must grow into the fullness of who we are in Christ and that means manifesting that fullness in the little everyday things during which we often don't really think about or realize our status as God's Beloved.

"...I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith--that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."  - Ephesians 3:14-19
"To identify the movements of the Spirit in our lives, I have found it helpful to use four words: taken, blessed, broken and given.  These words summarize my life as a priest because each day, when I come together around the table with members of my community, I take bread, bless it, break it and give it.  These words also summarize my life as a Christian because, as a Christian, I am called to become bread for the world: bread that is taken, blessed, broken and given.  Most importantly, however, they summarize my life as a human being because in every moment of my life somewhere, somehow the taking, the blessing, the breaking and the giving are happening....these four words....are the keys to understanding not only the lives of the great prophets of Israel and the life of Jesus of Nazareth, but also our own lives."
 "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God."  - Ephesians 5:1-2

Thursday, 20 July 2017

"Federal Vision" theology and practice

A few people have asked me lately what "Federal Vision" theology (FV) is and is not. 

Below are some links that I hope are helpful.  FV is not monolithic.  There are probably as many variations of this form of Reformed and Covenantal theology as there are people within it.  It also ought to be noted that the critics of so-called FV theology do not themselves agree with each other on their own positions (what they consider to be confessional orthodoxy) or always on the aspects of FV that they agree or disagree with.  And it also should be noted that many of these debates (like the nature of the covenant, the nature of the sacraments, etc.) have been going on for a very long time - some since the Reformation and some since way before that.  FV proponents are, in my estimation, Evangelical and Reformed people who are engaged in and learning from the historic and present conversations of  the broader universal Christian church. 

Here is a joint statement on the major tenets of FV theology.
Here is some helpful context on the broader motivations of FV theological conversation.
And here is wikipedia's entry.

Note:  FV is not the same as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) though there would be some within the FV perspective that would agree with some aspects of the NPP.  Anyone who continues to say these two things are necessarily linked does not understand either one of them.  Most proponents of NPP have never heard of the Federal Vision since the NPP is primarily an academic conversation among New Testament scholars on 2nd Temple Judaism's understanding of Torah and God's covenant relationship with Israel (among other things).  Incidentally, the NPP is also widely variant and should probably be called instead the New Perspectives (plural) on Paul. 

Friday, 9 June 2017

Paul on sin, from Romans

...Sin, as Paul speaks of it, is not first of all a moral category but a religious one.  He does not suggest that every pagan and Jew is locked in vice.  He would grant - if pushed to it - that both Jews and Greeks could be virtuous.  Immorality is a sign and consequence of sin, but it is not sin itself.  The opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.  Thus, sin and faith are the two fundamental responses of a human being to God: "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (14:23).  In such contrasts, Paul speaks of sin in the singular, because it is a rebellion found not in multiple acts of moral failure, but in a basic disposition, or orientation, of human freedom.  It is a turning away from God. 

     At root, sin is the disposition that strives to establish one's own existence and value apart from the claims of the creator God.  It is a refusal to acknowledge contingency and dependency on an absolute other; it is idolatry.  This disposition is what Paul terms "life according to the flesh," for it measures reality apart from the transcendence of the spirit.  He calls it boasting, for it involves a self-aggrandizement that asserts the value of the self at the expense of others.  Refusing that side of contingency that is the gift of being from another, idolaters seek to construct life and worth out of their effort, in effect establishing themselves as the god of their own lives.   This requires such ceaseless toil and vigilance that, combined with the darkening of the mind that results, it leads to slavery.  If the human person is locked in this orientation, then morality, virtue, and even the observance of Torah's commandments can be an expression of sin.  They all can articulate the human attempt to establish life and worth on one's own terms.  Virtue can therefore be a source of boasting over another person who is immoral.  But such judgment is itself a hostile expression of the flesh, and an expression of sin (2:1-3).  Likewise, observance of God's commandments can become a form of boasting (2:23), as one attempts to achieve righteousness apart from God's granting of it. 

     Through all this Paul virtually makes sin into a personified entity, giving it at times an almost mythical coloration (see 5:12-14).  This is because he views human freedom as being inevitably in allegiance with, and in service to, some greater spiritual force, either the spiritual systems of idolatry or of the one true God (6:15-23).  But the capacity for choice remains as a potential, even when the human being is "enslaved" by the "power of sin."  If liberated by the gift of knowledge and love from the Other who was once refused, the human being can be made truly free in faith.

            - Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 3rd ed., p. 309

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The reorientation of worship

Common worship, the congregation gathered in worship on the Lord's Day, is the fundamental structure for the nurture of spirituality and the practice of prayer.  But in North America we have experienced a century of subversive anti-worship: the sacred time and place have been subverted to religious entertainment, to the cultivation of pious narcissism, to a staging platform for messianic do-goodism.  But the fundamental need is to attend to God.  Christians are assigned the responsibility of meeting with their brothers and sisters regularly at a time and space set apart for that purpose, and that only.  If we use this precious hour for other purposes, however well intentioned, we betray our friends, our community, and our calling.

     The single most important thing I did for thirty-five years was stand before a congregation each Sunday morning and say, "Let us worship God."  I loved doing that, loved the hours spent getting ready to do it, loved entering into the action that followed.  And then my vocation took an unexpected turn and I wasn't doing it any longer. 

     What I've done for others all these years, I'm now having done for me -- and how I do appreciate it.  Every call to worship is a call into the Real World.  You'd think that by this time in my life I wouldn't need to be called anymore.  But I do.  I encounter such constant and widespread lying about reality each day and meet with such skilled and systematic distortion of the truth that I'm always in danger of losing my grip on reality.  The reality, of course, is that God is sovereign and Christ is savior.  The reality is that prayer is my mother tongue and the eucharist my basic food.  The reality is that baptism, not Myers-Briggs, defines who I am.

     Very often when I leave a place of worship, the first impression I have of the so-called "outside world" is how small it is -- how puny its politics, paltry is appetites, squint-eyed its interests.  I have just spent an hour or so with friends reorienting myself in the realities of the world -- the huge sweep of salvation and the minute particularities of holiness -- and I blink my eyes in disbelief that so many are willing to live in such reduced and cramped conditions.  But after a few hours or days, I find myself getting used to it and going along with its assumptions, since most of the politicians and journalists, artists and entertainers, stockbrokers and shoppers seem to assume that it's the real world.  And then some pastor or priest calls me back to reality with "Let us worship God," and I get it straight again, see it whole.

         -Eugene H. Peterson, Take & Read: Spiritual Reading:  An Annotated List, 27-28.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

On using Prayerbooks and Hymnbooks

     I was reared in a tradition that scorned written and read prayers.  Book prayers.  Dead prayers.  Reading a prayer would have been like meeting an old friend on the street, quickly leafing through a book to find an appropriate greeting suitable for the meeting and then reading, "Hello, old friend; it is good to see you again.  How have you been?  Remember me to your family.  Well, I must be on my way now.  Goodbye."  And then closing the book and going down the street without once looking my friend in the eye.  Ludicrous.  The very nature of prayer required that it be spontaneous and from the heart.

     But along the way, I began to come across books of prayers that gave me words to pray when I didn't seen to have any of my own.  I found that books of prayers sometimes primed the pump of prayer when I didn't feel like praying.  And I found that, left to myself, I often prayed in a circle, too wrapped up in myself, too much confined to my immediate circumstances and feelings, and that a prayerbook was just the thing to get out of the brambles and underbrush of my ego, back out in the open country of the Kingdom, under the open skies of God. 

     In the process of discovering, to my surprise, alive and praying friends in these books, I realized that all along the prayers that had most influenced me were written (in the Bible), and that the lively and spirited singing we did in church was, for the most part, praying from a book, the hymnbook.  My world of prayer expanded.

             - from Eugene H. Peterson, Take & Read: Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List, 22-23.