Living orthodoxy or dead conservatism

I recently watched a really good episode of the Pilgrim Faith podcast on YouTube where my new colleagues Joseph Minich and Dale Stenberg of the Davenant Institute (where I teach) interview my friends from PhD days Cory Brock and Nathaniel Gray Sutanto (goes by Gray). The interview was about Cory and Gray’s new translation of Herman Bavinck’s Christian Worldview.

They talked about many things pertinent to Bavinck, early twentieth-century Reformed theology, and the creation of a worldview. One thing that arose was the idea of living orthodoxy rather than dead conservatism, which came up partly in the context of Bavinck and Kuyper’s work in founding a new Reformed church in the Netherlands (I think? I know nothing of Dutch ecclesiastical history after Thomas a Kempis, and I was also rolling change from tips at the cafe I manage so some details slipped by as I counted nickels, dimes, quarters, loonies, and twoonies).

Since I forget some of the context of the discussion, I am mostly just rolling from the paired phrases: living orthodoxy rather than dead conservatism.

I think some would argue that conservative theology and ethics are moribund, are fossils, are traditionalism dressed up in modernist Protestant garb, or, for other Christian tribes, simply mediaeval corpses dressed up in liturgical vestments. I may know far less about Bavinck than my friends, but I have no doubt that this is not the target of the phrase “dead conservatism”.

Instead, “dead conservatism” is what I might call the “conservative temperament” coupled to articulations of historic orthodoxy that are simply held in the head but with no union of the head and the heart. Dead conservatism will happily and gleefully sign off on all three historic Creeds or a church body’s confessional document; it can proudly proclaim itself Bible-believing and theologically sound.

Living orthodoxy is not simply an attempt to accurately and truthfully articulate the faith once delivered. It is finding life as a disciple of Jesus Christ at the same time — maybe even through an orthodox articulation of faith. Living orthodoxy is embracing the reality that Jesus is life and the light of human beings.

If we try to unite the head and the heart, we find true power in words such, “for us humans and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” The God who is Jesus is not aloof and distant; he is near to us and intimate, participant in our entire human existence — as the fathers I just finished teaching demonstrate, from Athanasius to Leo the Great. He became a human being. He suffered, was crucified, and died for us.

And he really truly in real human history with a real, albeit glorified, human body rose again from the dead.

Living orthodoxy takes this as fuel for absolutely everything. The life of discipleship, of being an apprentice to Jesus our teacher, is empowered by his incarnation, death, and resurrection. Actually, in Athanasius’ terms, it is an ongoing participation in that incarnation, for we are the body of Christ. Look to the cross and the empty tomb — here is the fuel for prayer, for fasting, for studying Scripture, for charitable deeds to neighbours; he tasted everything there was to being human. Oh — and he conquered death!

“Glorious now, behold him arise!” as “We Three Kings” puts it each Epiphany.

We follow where He has gone before. We need not fear government restrictions, COVID-19, recessions, ordinary illnesses, unemployment, boredom, isolation, woke capitalism, surveillance capitalism, the alt-right, white supremacy, Marxists, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau, Doug Ford, “liberals”, “heretics”.

Living orthodoxy, living with right belief and right worship in the light and life — as part of the light and life — of Jesus the ManGod — also provides the fuel for the creation of a Christian culture. In our context, not so much the kind we saw in the 1200s with Gothic cathedrals, beautiful manuscripts, and wealth lavished upon all things “Christian”, more the kind we saw in the 200s with the creation of tight-knit communities of disciples learning the ways of the Master, and writing theology and commentaries on the Bible and living rightly amongst their pagan neighbours, always seeking Christ the teacher (or paedagogus), creating not a ghettoised sub-culture but a life-bringing counter-culture.

All of it — absolutely all of it — flows from the kind of orthodoxy that is alive, that is not simply signing off on the 39 Articles or the Westminster Confession or the decrees of the ecumenical councils, but saying that these are the distillation of the teaching of the God Word found in Scripture and lived in the centuries — then going forth into the world and living as a result.

You are not the Blessed Virgin Mary

Adoration of the Magi from Old St Peter’s, now in Santa Maria in Cosmedin (pic from Wikipedia)

This post is not really related to yesterday’s post, in case you were wondering. I think it’s worth reminding people of this fact, especially at this time of year — perhaps particularly with every church that uses the Revised Common Lectionary about to have a sermon on the Annunciation this coming Sunday.

You — male, female, childless, parent of many,

whoever you may be —

are not the BVM.

I write this because many of us this year have no doubt already sung, “cast out our sin and enter in / be born in us today,” from the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It’s not a bad metaphor, as far as things go. I’ve never really questioned it until this year, to be honest. But I am not certain that it is part of the Great Tradition (or at least, not for very long), and I have not seen it in Scripture.

The closest we may come in the Great Tradition is the Cistercian image of Christ having three or four comings, one of which is when he comes to us here, today, in our hearts. Be that as it may, the Christ who comes now, even if that same carol is correct in the lovely words:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given
when God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No hear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin
where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.

— even if, I say, that carol is correct, the dear Christ who enters in so silently is not the babe of Bethlehem anymore. He may not yet come as the Rider on the White Horse, exacting the justice of the LORD against His foes. But He still comes, and our response is not that of the BVM (not really, maybe kind of) but of the Magi who worship the Child, of St Thomas who encounters the risen Christ and proclaims

My Lord and my God!

The degree to which our response to the coming of Christ into our hearts today is like that of the BVM is as follows, “Let it me unto me according to thy will.” A humble acceptance that we are God’s douloi, slaves, and as such seek to do His will. Acknowledging that St Mary the Virgin is Theotokos, the God-bearer, means that the Child of Bethlehem is God. Therefore, when he enters in, we find ourselves his disciples.

Not his mothers or fathers or whatever.

Worshipping at the feet of Christ and becoming his disciples is the appropriate response to encountering him. And this is what I saw earlier today, as I perused Ancient Collects and Other Prayers Selected from Various Rituals by W. Bright. Forgive the Victorianisms — “man” is inevitably a translation of “homo”, “human being”:

Almighty and everlasting God, Who hast willed that on the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ Thy Son should depend the beginning and the completion of all religion ; grant us, we beseech Thee, to be reckoned as a portion of Him, on whom is built the whole salvation of mankind ; through Jesus Christ our Lord. — Leonine Sacramentary (aka Sacramentary of Verona, 7th century)

O God, Who art pleased to save, by the Nativity of Thy Christ, the race of man, which was mortally wounded in its chief; grant, we beseech Thee, that we may not cleave to the author of our perdition, but be transferred to the fellowship of our Redeemer ; through Je- sus Christ our Lord. — Leonine Sacramentary

Grant, O Lord, we beseech Thee, to Thy people an inviolable firmness of faith ; that as they confess Thine Only-begotten Son, the everlasting partaker of Thy glory, to have been born in our very flesh, of the Virgin Mary, they may be delivered from present adversities, and admitted into joys that shall abide; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. — Gregorian Sacramentary (8th/9th century)

Merciful and most loving God, by Whose will and bounty Jesus Christ our Lord humbled Himself for this — that He might exalt the whole race of man, and descended to the depths for the purpose of lifting up the lowly ; and was born, God-Man, by the Virgin, for this cause — that He might restore in man the lost celestial image; grant that Thy people may cleave unto Thee, that as Thou hast redeemed them by Thy bounty, they may ever please Thee by devoted service. — Gallican Sacramentary (I am not sure which sacramentary Bright refers to here)

I think this has suddenly struck me as important because taking on the metaphor of Christ being born in our hearts both infantilises the King Who reigns on high and also … cheapens? … the historical reality and unrepeatability of the Incarnation, of the virginal conception. There is one and only Theotokos because the God-Man, Jesus Christ, the God Word Incarnate, took on flesh and pitched His tent amongst one time.

The historical particularity of the Incarnation of God the Son affects our response to Him, just as it affected that of the BVM.

Enter into the school of the Lord as His disciples. Take up citizenship in His kingdom. Whoever you are, wherever you find Him, whether at the bottom of a whisky glass or a Billy Graham Crusade or at Mass or in a monastery or in the Outer Hebrides or hiding from your children under the tablecloth — you are not His Mother. That is a job that was uniquely given in real, live human history.

Our job today in real, live human history? Worship and bow down.

St Ambrose, the Bible, and Discipleship

Fresco of St. Ambrose in Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (photo by me!)

Yesterday, the Second Sunday of Advent, was Bible Sunday — so called because of its collect that is focussed on the Bible. I, myself, read a passage from St John of Damascus (feast day December 4) about the Bible at Evensong. Today is the feast of St Ambrose of Milan (the Fathers are coming on heavily this time of year — St Nick was yesterday), and scanning his works (particularly On the Faith) makes me think of some themes that have been coming together lately, often because of my friend Rick’s provocations(!).

First, then, St Ambrose and the Bible. St Ambrose was what some today might call a devoted Bible teacher and preacher. But when we look at how he fulfilled the episcopal office of preaching, we see that his methods, his hermeneutics, his exegesis, are not what we would expect from a modern “Bible teacher” — St Ambrose was committed to the allegorical or spiritual exposition of the Old Testament.

Without getting into all the various details of St Ambrose’s sermons and commentaries — some of which are almost verbatim translations of his older contemporary St Basil of Caesarea — what I want to stress here about St Ambrose’s commitment to sacred Scripture is the very heart of spiritual exegesis:

The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is about Jesus the Christ.

When ancient Christians pull out allegory or typology or any other spiritual meaning, almost invariably their teaching points us in the direction of the Saviour. Martin Luther’s criticism of allegory as making Scripture into a “wax nose” is not entirely fair. In fact, many of the Fathers reproduce the same allegory from the same passages, as do the mediaevals, either independently or because they all read Origen.

Second, then, St Ambrose and discipleship. When you look at those texts of the saintly bishop of Milan that are about what we might call “discipleship essentials” — On the Faith, On the Mysteries, On the Sacrament of the Lord’s Incarnation — we do not find him giving extended treatment to the doctrine of sacred Scripture. He spends a lot of time arguing for the fullness of the Godhood of Jesus the Christ. He discusses the meaning of baptism and the Eucharist. He argues for the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

And, although he spends a lot of time arguing from Scripture for the content of the orthodox faith, although his vision of discipleship essentials is derived from Scripture — the Bible is not the object of his faith, it would seem. The Bible, rather, informs the content of his faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith, on the other hand, starts at Sacred Scripture.

St Ambrose’s faith lies instead in Jesus the Christ. His invitation to the Emperor Gratian, to the people of Milan, to the Emperor Theodosius is an invitation to holy obedience to and reverent worship of God the Word Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth.

This is important. Healthy Christianity is fundamentally about encountering Jesus Christ, about seeking to live under His Lordship, about meeting the living God in and through Christ the King.

We are called to be and to make disciples of Jesus, not the Bible.

A worthy meditation for this week following Bible Sunday.

We can’t all be Michael Jordan – The tension of discipleship

In response to my recent post about the professionalization of asceticism in Late Antiquity, a friend of mine commented:

It’s tempting to lower the bar, but also hard to expect everyone to play like Michael Jordan.

He makes a good point. The life of discipleship is, like most of Christianity, a matter of upholding tensions. We are justified by faith, not works, but works are evidence or at least fruit of faith. God is a single essence but also three persons. Jesus is a single person who has two natures. The Kingdom of the Heavens has broken through into history and is amongst us, but it will not fully come until the Last Days and the return of Jesus.

Discipleship, then, exists in tension. I affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone as articulate by Richard Hooker and, last I checked, Martin Luther (whose teaching bears a resemblance to St Mark the Monk, but that’s a different question). We do not enter into a right relationship with God, or become citizens of the Kingdom of the Heavens, or escape Hell, or find our way into the New Heaven and the New Earth on Judgement Day because of anything we have done. Nothing we do holds any merit with God. It is all grace.

But we are called to be Jesus’s lifelong students. We are disciples. Faith without works is dead. Antinomianism, cheap grace — these are not the path of discipleship. In the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Jesus tells his students to make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit — and “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19 NKJV)

The path of discipleship is figuring out how to live that last bit, seeking to love God and neighbour better and better every day. The tension is that we are already justified by our trust in God and his saving mercy upon us, yet we are still seeking to lead holy lives. Nevertheless, while we cannot become holy without doing something, we cannot do anything without God’s unmerited favour helping us.

The question, then, is how do we help people become better disciples of Jesus without lowering the bar on the one hand (“It’s okay if you sleep with your boyfriend, God’ll forgive you — we’re saved by grace, after all!”) or expecting everyone to play like Michael Jordan on the other (“If you eat meat during Lent you are re-committing Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden”)? Both parenthetical statements are real statements I have heard, not hyperbole!

I am not sure. I think we need to exercise grace on the one hand, but also discernment as we sift through the disciplines to see what will help us grow into greater love of God and of neighbour. What we need, then, is each other: People to encourage us and help us see what we need in order to grow spiritually. Loving community helps maintain the tension of discipleship and foster spiritual growth. This is what the old abbeys or the communities gathered around the elders of the Desert were about.

I wish I could create or find that today.

Jordan Peterson, marriage and discipleship

Every once in a while, someone asks me what I think of Jordan Peterson, usually on the grounds that I’m Canadian. Or that I studied at the University of Toronto. This is akin to people asking me what I think of Pope Francis since I study ‘popes’. I dunno. Don’t really know enough, to be honest. Of course, not knowing enough about the man hasn’t stopped any of Peterson’s critics yet, has it?

In February, I was chatting with some fellow Christians who were interested in Peterson and reading his book Twelve Rules for Life. They spoke highly of the book, saying that, although Peterson is not a Christian, he talks about the Bible and a lot of the things he says are in agreement with Christian teaching.

I’ve been mulling this over, especially after a fellow catholic Anglican called the book ‘insipid’. I’ve also read a few articles on the man, usually via Mark Galli (editor-in-chief of Christianity Today) in his weekly e-mail or First Things. Galli himself is not a commentator on Peterson, he simply links to articles. First Things is careful of Peterson, I would say, delicately critical of him at times but also ready to point out the folly of many of the man’s critics. Anyway, thinking this over, my initial reaction to Christians who see Peterson as an ally remains:

Ally in what?

I don’t want to be holier-than-thou in what follows. I believe that gender, sexuality, men’s issues, etc., etc. are important, and that our culture and civilisation are washing these things away precipitously, in such a way that, in my grimmer moments, I suspect that western culture, despite the good it has brought to the world, is going to commit suicide (much like the Roman Empire is said to have done).

But I also think that our first priority vis a vis western culture — as with Chinese culture, Arabian culture, Sudanese culture — is the making of disciples.

Peterson may support many of the same values of ‘family’ and share much of the traditional Christian worldview on ‘gender’, but do not mistake this for the heart of the church militant here on earth. Our goal is to love our neighbours and help them find their way to the feet of Jesus our Master as His disciples to become citizens of heaven.

Let us consider marriage as a case study, based entirely on hearsay about Peterson.

According to hearsay, Peterson believes that the aimless, drifting, frustrated, infantile, juvenile young men of America would benefit from the stability provided by an early, committed, faithful marriage. This is no doubt true. Indeed, I suspect that white Anglophone society is having a bit of a male crisis that needs to be resolved, and part of that crisis is a refusal to grow up. I once heard a fellow on approach to middle age (if he’s middle aged, then I’m closer than I’d like) remarking that calling his partner his ‘girlfriend’ seems so childish. I’m too nice in person to say, ‘Grow up, commit, and marry her.’

I have two thoughts about this proposal, one about discipleship, the other about marriage.

First, as Christians, we should know that this is but one prescription for but one symptom of a deeper malady afflicting our society and every society of all of history. The real cure for our social ills isn’t marriage. If we want men to grow up and take charge of their lives, while most of us in a very normal way will do this through marriage and fatherhood, this answer is not necessarily that of the Bible.

Becoming disciples of Jesus is the real cure. I know, how old-fashioned of me! I sound like a Bible-thumping Baptist evangelist from the Deep South or something, not the sort of person who just today was praying the Jesus Prayer before the tomb of the Venerable St Bede and has a theology degree!

Awkward as it is, Jesus is the answer.

And when I say this, I mean Jesus the Christ, the risen, ascended saviour, God the Word who became incarnate as a man. The Master of the Universe Crucified for us. One of the Most Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us. To quote Peter the Fuller (not Peter Furler):

Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, who was crucified for us, have mercy upon us.

I write this as a married man and a father, but as one who has single friends who lead full, rich lives that do not lack direction. For many of them, this direction comes from Christ. One of my single familiars is changing careers to become a missionary. Another one has found the encounter with Christ in the liturgy and the community of his church to be the great comfort in his life. (And his cat.) Other single friends have found a rootedness in Jesus that they express in art and live out in community.

If we promote Peterson’s solution, we will be telling these brothers and sisters that they are part of the problem, whereas in reality they already found the solution.

Second, then, marriage is not the be-all and end-all of the human state. Our single Saviour never married. St Paul lived in a celibate state. From what I can tell, so did some of the prophets. Marriage can be life-affirming, beautiful, powerful, healthy, and transformative. The asceticism, or the martyrdom (to borrow from Fr John Behr), of marriage can shape us into the likeness of Christ. Theosis can be achieved in the married state. Marriage provides certain circumstances for our growth as disciples.

But the Bible and the tradition are not necessarily that into marriage, are they? I mean, from the cult of marriage in evangelicalism and contemporary Roman Catholic stuff, you’d think that marriage was the best thing ever. In the long Christian and biblical tradition, marriage and sex are approved of, and seen as part of the God-ordained natural order. But Jesus talks about those who are made eunuchs for the Kingdom of the Heavens, and St Paul thinks it would be better if everyone could be celibate without burning with lust.

Tradition is unsure what to do with marriage, probably partly because in most pre-modern societies marriage is very much of this world — a social contract, an economic arrangement, a political alliance.

Without attempting a full theology of marriage and sexuality, it is perhaps enough to note that Scripture and tradition approve of both marriage and the single life. The disciple is to sit at the feet of Jesus in either estate.

But that means that marriage can’t be the answer, doesn’t it?

Indeed, once again, a Christian view of marriage just brings us back to Jesus as the answer. We need to look into Him, plug into Him, and live as His faithful disciples if we’re ever going to see western culture re-evangelised. That’s what society needs, not merely more married couples. How will a growing number of married unbelievers save the soul of western society?

So: Jordan Peterson? I don’t know enough to say. I think he’s probably not wrong on a lot of things, but Christians need to remember that the Kingdom of the Heavens is bigger and stranger than psychology and the things of this world.


If you are interested in thought-provoking Orthodox essays on sexuality, gender, marriage, etc., may I recommend the current issue of The Wheel?

Blogging Benedict: A School for the Lord’s Service

I invite you as you read these posts to read the corresponding sections of the Rule of St Benedict. I will be quoting throughout the translation of Carolinne M. White, The Rule of Benedict, from Penguin (I used the £2 Little Black Penguin, but there is also a full-size edition). My friend Andrew has digitised another English translation available at Project Gutenberg.

Before moving on to the first chapter of the Rule, I want to pause for a moment to consider this phrase and what it might mean for us today — our understanding of discipleship and our worshipping, witnessing communities.

Constituenda est ergo nobis dominici scola servitii.

The idea of the Christian community as school should help us shift our thinking about what the worshipping community is up to. For example, a few months ago a friend expressed his displeasure at a post that had done the rounds on his Facebook feed all about why Millennials aren’t going to church anymore. And, even if some of the criticisms were valid, the entire spirit of the piece was, ‘We don’t go to church because church isn’t doing things for us/the way we like it.’

Elsewhere, you’ll read about church growth tactics, using coffee bars to lure people back. Or manipulating emotions with lighting during worship (this is a thing I read in a catalogue from a supplier of church electronic equipment). We are told to make church relevant to the (felt) needs of congregants. To make worship an unforgettable, subjective (emotional) experience.

For monks, all of this is meaningless.

What do I know about what is good for me? Have I not sacrificed my temporal pleasure and temporal good for the Kingdom of Heaven? I have forsaken all to gain everything in St Clare’s Laudable Exchange. The monk has given up all rights to earthly materials, earthly goods, family, inheritance, social position. St Antony the Great made sure his sister had enough to live on, then completely abandoned his inheritance, giving it all to the poor.

Aren’t we supposed to be like that guy in the parable, who found a treasure in a field, so he sold everything and bought the field?

Forsaking everything for Christ means opening ourselves up to suffering. It means looking at church not as a place where we go to feel good or to have our needs met, but to encounter the risen Christ. It means enrolling in a school of the Lord’s service.

After all, Jesus’ followers in the New Testament are called disciples — an English word from the Latin discipulus, a learner, a student, an apprentice, translating the Greek mathetes. I remember how it startled me to recognition about the word in a Bible study with a Greek Cypriot friend who kept calling the disciples Jesus’ students.

What if all of the inward-focussed church programmes (so not evangelism or serving the wider community) took themselves seriously as a school for the Lord’s service — a school where we learn to serve the Lord Jesus Christ? I think that our churches would look different. And healthier.

And maybe, for a while, smaller.

We need to actually put into practice spiritual disciplines

I just read a piece from 2008 by Christopher S. Webb looking back on and celebrating 30 years of Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. In large part because of that book, many of us have been opening up with freedom the writings and teachings of the past centuries of the church. Ideas like fasting, meditating, and so forth, are no longer foreign in many Protestant churches. But how many of us have succeeded in applying these lessons and turning ourselves into deeply committed disciples?

It is a question I ask myself, especially because I blog about classic Christianity. Do I actually live it? Not to be too hard on myself, of course. But these questions need asking. As Webb says in the article:

Writing, preaching, and teaching about the spiritual disciplines is now widespread. The great Christian classics are more available and accessible than ever. The churches have become comfortable with the language of formation and intentionality. But the utter devotion to the way of Christ that lies at the heart of spiritual formation seems to elude too many. The classics are more often bought and quoted than actually read and wrestled with. Too often, our eloquent teaching and preaching far outstrips our practice. And while we might applaud a church for appointing a Spiritual Formation Pastor, it begs the question: what are the other pastors doing? In many churches formation and intentional discipleship remain electives for the enthusiastic rather than requisites of the core curriculum.

May you be blessed in your times of prayer this day, and empowered by the grace of the Holy Spirit to truly live out the faith we have received!

Gregory of Tours and the need for real discipleship

My copy of a French stamp showing the baptism of Clovis (r. 481-511)
My copy of a French stamp showing the baptism of Clovis (r. 481-511)

So I’m reading Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks right now, and not for any insight into mission and discipleship or disciplines but for insight into the culture and society of Merovingian Gaul. Nonetheless, as a Christian reader I cannot turn off my personal perspectives and thoughts while reading.

This passage seized my thoughts the other day, and I thought I’d share with you:

Chilperic was the next to fly into a rage. … He continued to advance with his troops and invdaed the Limousin, the district of Cahoors and other territories near by, all of which he ravaged and sacked. He burned the churches, stole their holy vessels, killed the clergy, emptied the monasteries of monks, raped the nuns in their convents and caused devastation everywhere. There was even more weeping in the churches at this period than there had been at the time of Diocletian’s persecution.

48. To this day one is still amazed and astonished at the disasters which befell these people. We can only contrast how their forefathers used to behave with how they themselves are behaving today. After the missionary preaching of the bishops, the earlier generations were converted from their pagan temples and turned towards the churches; now they are busy plundering those same churches. The older folk listened with all their heart to the Lord’s bishops and had great reverence for them; nowadays they not only do not listen, but they persecute instead. Their forefathers endowed the monasteries and churches; the sons tear them to pieces and demolish them. -Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 4.47-8, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Penguin Classics), p. 244

A brief historiographical note. As I’ve mentioned before, I often read the sources for Christian history in two ways — one is what this post is about, which is a more devotional approach that seeks to see what insight a text/image/story might have for my own personal life and faith. The other is the more critical approach that sets something within its context.

Grégoire de Tours, Histoire des Francs, livres 1 à 6, page de frontispice.jpg
Gregory’s History of the Franks, Frontispiece from Paris, BnF Latin 17655 fol. 2. Late 7th c.

In Gregory’s case, we should read passages such as this with some caution; he is not a pure, accurate, unbiased observer. He is, in fact, a bishop deeply invested in the culture, politics, and religion of his world. So when he imagines that the days of Clovis (d. 511, recounted in Book 2) are better than today, we need to keep in mind that Gregory is a bishop first, historian second. Gregory’s description of the earlier days may thus be rosier than the truth (I’m inclined to think it is), and his description of his own days may be gloomier, but both are there to encourage piety in the reader.

Back to my original thought. What Gregory of Tours is concerned about here is sort of like a multigenerational vision of a lot of evangelistic outreach events. That is, people heard, received, and ingested the (Catholic) faith with vigour, but before too long they were just as bad (or worse) than before. For Gregory, this is something that happened over generations. Eighty years before Gregory’s day, they were on fire for their new faith, and accordingly built churches and sought the evangelisation of their people. Now, in Gregory’s lifetime, they are raping nuns and pillaging churches — worse than the last great persecution of the pagan emperors carried out by Diocletian!

It is my belief, as a promoter (but, sadly, bad practicioner) of Christian discipline and the formation of disciples, that what (supposing Gregory to be accurate) transpired was a failure of disciple-making. The kings of the Franks after Clovis were not, it seems, brought into the deep fellowship with Christ and surrender to His will as Lord and King that true discipleship calls for. The above story about ransacking churches aside, they continued to deal treacherously with one another, commit adultery, murder people, and engage in unprovoked war. The bishops may have had converts, but over the generations of life in Frankish Gaul, they neglected to make disciples.

This makes me think of big evangelistic rallies that often have no system of follow-up. 1345 people came to Jesus! How many stayed with Jesus? Or, closer to home, how poorly we raise the children in our congregations to be confident, joyful disciples of Jesus Christ. Of the children to whom I taught Sunday School as a teenager, I can think of none who is now a churchgoer or actively involved in the life of faith. Or those people at church camp who had dramatic conversion stories but who now call themselves agnostic.

How many young people ‘graduate’ from church at Confirmation or at the end of High School? A friend of mine said that several young people who were in the group who got baptised with him disappeared after the baptism — they had dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s to make it into heaven, hadn’t they? Isn’t that what being a Christian is all about?

‘The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.’ (Acts 11:25)

We should pray and seek the face of God so that we may see fewer failures of discipleship and disciple-making.

A (frivolous?) plan for a 10-week course

10-week introductory courses to Christianity are a thing, these days — especially Alpha and Christianity Explored. But what resources might we develop to catechise and disciple new believers who have gone through those 10-week courses? Are there fundamentals to help people negotiate that could be assessed in this way? After blogging about Cassiodorus’ program of Christian learning, I was inspired to think out the following rudimentary 10-week course for disciples who have already done Alpha or Christianity Explored:

  1. Introduction to the Course, a brief review of some of the Alpha/Christianity Explored topics as well as pressing the importance of cultivating a Christian intellect.
  2. The Bible 1: How to read it for yourself. Some sort of strategy to help people read the Scriptures themselves. Provide also a list of useful commentaries to turn to for help?
  3. The Bible 2: Overview of the story, from creation to the resurrection of the dead.
  4. The Bible 3: Overview of the books of the Bible.
  5. Theology 1: The person and work of Jesus
  6. Theology 2: The person and work of the Holy Spirit
  7. Theology 3: The Holy Trinity
  8. Theology 4: Redemption
  9. Christian history
  10. Spiritual disciplines

Maybe I’ve given too much to something? Not sure. I mean, if it were a direct sequel to Alpha, perhaps we could squish together Theology into 3 sections. I dunno.

I do think that something like this would be more of a commitment than Alpha. I think people would be expected to read something from the Bible as well as from a book before turning up each week. That way you could go deeper. Maybe it wouldn’t work at all, but this is what I thought of walking along the street yesterday.

Making your own ‘curriculum for Christlikeness’

One of the primary things that Dallas Willard encourages us to do as we decide firmly to live as real disciples of Our Lord Jesus Christ is to immerse ourselves in the Gospels. I want to say that straight away before I blog about other things, because that is, I think, primary. The Gospels are our prime source for the ministry and teachings of Jesus; if we want to be his lifelong students and apprentices, we should get to know them intimately. But there’s little to add from one such as myself.

This study of Jesus is part of what Willard calls the ‘curriculum for Christlikeness’; I’m reckoning he’s trying not to scare off low evangelicals by using ‘rule of life’. Anyway, this study of the Scriptures to learn to do whatever Jesus says and teaches is an essential ingredient of our lives, as it has always been for all literate followers of Jesus — and the illiterate when they hear the Word preached by word and depicted by image in stone, fresco, mosaic, and stained glass.

Their successes and failures are a major secondary source for us — what worked for most of them will work for most of us as we seek to become Christlikeness. And Dallas Willard knows it; he calls The Rule of Saint Benedict, The Imitation of Christ, and The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius ‘some of the most profound treatments of discipleship to Jesus’, recommending that if we non-monks:

make necessary adjustments to the content of such works, you will see that they offer, in substance, precisely what we have been discussing in this chapter: a curriculum, a course of training, for life on the rock. And that is why, century after century, they have exercised incredible power over all who open themselves to them as disciples of Jesus. (p. 405)

Willard goes on to note the major traditions of Protestantism and the presence of  similar writings and teachers there as well — sadly as foreign to many Protestants today as the mediaeval monastic texts!

I have many times read calls such as this, or the monastic texts themselves, and said, ‘I should set up such a rule.’ But I don’t know that until know the importance and power of such a rule, such a curriculum, such a deliberate plan for living has impressed itself upon me.

By the grace of God, by changing our life habits, we can be freed from those besetting sins to which we fall prey every time temptation comes. By the grace of God, we can learn how to tame the passions and redirect their energy to virtue, not vice. So I’m going to make my own curriculum, as I’ve said so many times before, and actually follow it this time.