Reflections for Lent 4

Here is my reflection for the Urban Abbey, Thunder Bay, from yesterday’s lectionary readings. All passages quoted from the ESV.

Today’s reading from Numbers 21:4-9 tells the story of how, when the Israelites were disobedient and grumbling against God and Moses, serpents were sent amongst them as punishment. Moses made a bronze serpent and placed it on a pole. Whoever looked up and saw the serpent would live. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes an explicit parallel between the bronze serpent and himself, saying, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) Sometimes we imagine Jesus “lifted up” as a reference to his reigning in glory with the Father, as mentioned in today’s epistle reading, Ephesians 2:6, where St Paul says that God “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

But in John 3, Jesus is speaking of his own death on the cross. We must look to the cross to be saved, just as the Israelites looked to the serpent to be saved. The people of Israel, as the book of Numbers tells us, were dying—in fact, many of them had died by the time Moses made the bronze serpent. They were dying from their own disobedience. But God, in his boundless mercy, also provided them a way out. All they needed to do was trust in him and look to the bronze serpent.

As we read in today’s Ephesians reading, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” (Ephesians 2:1) But God did not leave us in our spiritual death. In his mercy, by his grace, he “made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). We simply need faith; that is to say, all we need to do is trust in God and look to the cross. As we read later in the Ephesians passage, it is faith, not works, that enables us to grasp hold of the famous, wonderful promise of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” No matter how morally upright we are, no matter how many “charitable deeds” we perform, no matter how righteously we spend our money, no matter how much we pray, none of this will be what saves us and places us in a right relationship with God. It entirely by God’s grace that we are saved.

Many today will essentially stop there. We are saved by grace through faith, as Ephesians 2:8 teaches us. By “saved”, we usually mean “justified”—that we are saved from the penalty of sin and that we are enabled to enter into a right relationship with God. This is a truth, and a beautiful truth, and worth meditating on. But I think St Paul has a bigger vision of salvation, and so does St John, let alone Jesus himself. In John 3, Jesus is teaching Nicodemus about the Kingdom of God and how we enter that kingdom through being born again, being born of the Spirit. We enter that kingdom by looking to Christ on the cross, high and lifted up, like that bronze snake in Exodus. And if we start thinking in terms of the Kingdom of God, we start to consider not simply what we are saved from, but what we are saved for.

God’s grace not only snatches us from the fire or, like the string on a tea bag, from the hot water we get ourselves into. It also brings us back to life and empowers us to do good works—St Paul follows his teaching on being saved by grace through faith by immediately saying, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10) We are citizens of God’s Kingdom, and are meant to live accordingly. But we are not left alone to struggle in the quest for holiness; that would be mere moralism. No, we are given God’s grace to help us live this way. The saved life is the life that grows over time into greater holiness, living according to God’s kingdom, all empowered by God’s grace.

With God all things are possible, as Jesus teaches us in Matthew 19:26. By faith we take hold of the promises of God. His grace comes to us wherever we are, washes us in the blood of Jesus, brings us into a relationship with God (which is how Jesus describes eternal life in John 17:3: knowing God the Holy Trinity). The pathway of Christian discipleship is not looking to the cross and then doing as we please. It is not living morally on our own strength. It is looking the cross and keeping it ever before us—lifted up—and trusting in the power of God to work within us so that we can do those good works that God has already prepared for us.

There is, really, one truly appropriate response to this, and it is to praise God! As our Psalm for today says, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever!” (Psalm 107:1) Allow me to close this reflection with some words from St Patrick, the fifth-century missionary to Ireland whose feast we celebrate this coming Wednesday. St Patrick was relatively uneducated and went from slave to missionary by the grace of God, bringing many of the Irish to faith in Jesus Christ, which was the good work God had prepared for him (as Patrick himself says). In his Confession, we read:

I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall (Psalm 69:15). That is why I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure.

Justification by Faith Alone

Image courtesy of Mae

Every Sunday morning, I get up at the beginning of church and say a little something about where we are in the church year, highlighting an upcoming saint’s day. So far, I’ve done St Matthew the Apostle (my namesake!), St Michael the Archangel (my brother’s namesake!), St Francis of Assisi (whose feast was actually a Sunday!), St Luke the Evangelist (whose feast was also a Sunday but was used to promote the idea that Every Sunday is Easter instead), and Reformation Day.

Reformation Day is All Hallows Even, and it is the commemoration of Martin Luther pinning the 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. Rather than discuss the 95 Theses themselves — they are mostly about papal indulgences and ecclesiastical abuses — I talked about the importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, saying that although there are many sorrowful things to have arisen in the tradition of the Reformation — and people like me who enjoy things pre-modern tend to focus on them — justification by faith alone is the main business of the affair, and it is worth holding on to.

Nothing you do can make you right with God. You just have to trust Him. That’s what faith is. That’s what brings us into right relationship with God.

Now, I have to admit straight out of the gate that I am about to utter a hunch that would require a deeper knowledge of Luther and the magisterial Reformation as well as of Late Mediaeval theology in order to become a thesis, but my hunch is that much of Luther’s teaching on sola fide is not actually counter to the mediaeval, catholic tradition in and of itself, although cranky old man Luther would probably have disagreed after a few pints. My hunch is that Luther’s sola fide represents a legitimate flowering of pre-existing trajectories with Latin catholic thought that, because of other things he said and did, was rejected at Trent (or was it — when Trent’s not being anti-Protestant, the Council Fathers say some beautiful things).

Certainly the whole tradition, East and West, ancient and medieval and modern, Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox, has its lucid moment of what sounds a lot like justification by faith alone. I’m still trying to sort this out, but I’ll close with a quotation from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, an anthology of daily readings from the Fathers by Thomas Spidlik. This quotation emerged last Saturday just after I had finished meditating on what to say about Reformation Day:

Anyone who is a slave to sin should prepare himself for true regeneration by means of faith. He must shake the hoke of sin off his back and enter the joyful service of the Lord. He will be thought worthy to inherit the kingdom.

Don’t hesitate to declare yourselves sinners. Thereby you will put off your old humanity that was corrupt because it followed the bait of error. And you will put on the new humanity, the humanity newly clad in intimacy with its Creator.

Don’t say: ‘I have been dishonest, an adulterer, I have committed grave offences innumerable times. Will he forgive them? Will he deign to forget them?’ Listen rather to the Psalmist: ‘How great is your love, O Lord.’ (Ps. 31:19)

You sins piled one above the other do not overtop the greatness of God’s love. Your wounds are not too great for the skill of the Doctor.

There is only one course of treatment for you to follow: rely on him in faith. Explain frankly what is wrong to the Doctor and say with the Psalmist: ‘I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity.’ (Ps 32.5) Then you will be able to go on with the Psalmist to say: ‘Then did you forgive the guilt of my sin.’

St Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses 1.2ff.

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.

Justification is not sanctification: Foundations for Protestant asceticism

I have been getting into Richard Hooker recently — first, the Learned Discourse of Justification, then a bit of secondary material on his understanding of sin and grace by Ranall Ingalls in A Companion to Richard Hooker. Next will be David Neelands chapter on predestination, then the book by my colleague and almost friend Brad Littlejohn, Richard Hooker: An Introduction (Brad and I would be friends if we knew each other better).

My initial reason for this current foray into Hooker was seeking teaching from deep in the Anglican tradition about the relationship amongst grace, works, and sanctification. What I’ve found on these topics and more I have liked. I told my brother, “Richard Hooker makes me want to be an Anglican.” He said this was good, since I am one.

Anyway, one of the things I’ve been having clarified is that the real distinction between justification and sanctification is fruit of the Reformation. At least, I think so. The sixteenth century is full of so many writers and so many academic opinions, I’m sure someone disagrees with me. Anyway, grasping this little thread of conceptual framework explains both how Reformational Christianity differs from Roman Catholicism and how we are able to embrace patristics (as Anglicans since Cranmer on the one hand and Parker on the other have done).

Basically, what I’m seeing is this. There is grace coming from God — when you get what you don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing. This grace is necessary at every stage of the Christian life, from conversion and baptism to extreme unction and burial. In terms of justification, the only thing we “do” is have faith. We trust Christ and His promises. This faith is objectively strong because Christ is, no matter how subjectively weak it may at times be. This grace makes us, sinners that we are, righteous in God’s eyes.

The fruit of this justification is good works. We live holy lives. And we become holier by the works we perform. Some of my Presbyterian friends shy away from this as “works righteousness”, but it seems to me that the work of sanctification is precisely something that only happens at every moment because of God’s grace, but that the tool in God’s hands is our own works. That is not an image of Hooker’s. Hooker is much less straightforward on this point than I am being.

We can be holy. And God’s grace makes us holy. The means by which grace makes us holy is our own works. Therefore, we must continually throw ourselves upon God’s grace if we wish to be holy, meanwhile working out our salvation in fear and trembling. This is sanctification.

Making this distinction between justification by faith alone and sanctification — both by works, all in Christ and by Christ — enables us to have Protestant asceticism. I am speaking here of what Kallistos Ware refers to as “natural” asceticism — so, not Stylites or flagellants or such things. Rather, frugal spending, simple eating, plain clothing, combined with fasting, regular prayer, regular engagement with Scripture, partaking of the Holy Communion. That sort of asceticism.

We do these things knowing that the works themselves avail nothing. But we do them knowing that the grace that makes them even possible is also at work in us to make us holy by these works.

This perspective sets us free from the Presbyterian fear of “works righteousness”, for one thing. We can freely perform our training (for that is what askesis means), knowing that God Himself undergirds it all. Second, it sets us free from the sort of late mediaeval anxiety that comes from works righteousness — none of our works can provide satisfaction, none of them holds any merit in relation to God.

We are already in a right relationship with God. We perform these works out of love for Him, out of a desire for holiness (and here I mirror John Cassian, Conference 11). In terms of meeting God, entering into relationship with Him, and escaping Hell — it is not by fasting and almsgiving that we are saved but by the Blood of Jesus. In terms of knowing God better, how else than by spending time with Him and doing what Our Father asks? How else can be transformed than by our own deeds?

(I do hope this makes sense.)

Loving the Book of Common Prayer 2: Protestant

What follows is likely to be less popular than discussing the catholicity of the Prayer Book. But I am a Protestant, so it only follows that liturgy I love would also be Protestant.

220px-Thomas_CranmerThinking on this proposed series of 3 posts about loving the BCP, I’ve decided to add a fourth after catholic, Protestant, and beautiful, and that is theological. This is because, as I think on the ‘Protestant’ aspects of the BCP, I realise that many of the theological moments that I love and that come to mind are actually simply sound theology, and could easily be embraced by the Church catholic outside our small corner of Protestantism. Nevertheless, I think it is important to point out that the BCP is, in fact, Protestant.

So is Anglicanism.

It seems to have become fashionable in many Anglican circles these days to deny our status as a Protestant church. This, I think, is related to the use of the word Protestant by evangelical, dissenting churches such as Baptists, the Alliance Church, varieties of Methodism/Wesleyanism, varieties of Reformed, etc. There is also a long and strong tradition within the Anglican Church of seeing connections with the past in theology and liturgy, especially with the Church Fathers but also, to a degree, our forebears in the English Middle Ages and the best of mediaeval theology and devotion on the Continent, such as Sts Thomas Aquinas and Thomas a Kempis.

Nonetheless, by strict definition Anglicans are Protestant.

And so, as I said, is the BCP — hence its modification by both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics when they use it.

Now, it could easily be said that the BCP is Protestant because it tends to be a one-volume compendium of Anglicanism, containing the orders of service, the Psalter, and the doctrinal documents of our faith. The Articles of Religion, containing such words as ‘popish’ are obviously Protestant. What about the liturgy, though? When we consider the idea of lex orandi, lex credendi, we would expect to find Protestantism in the BCP.

Justification by faith is the most important Protestant doctrine that sets us aside from the Church of Rome. Does the Prayer Book teach justification by faith through grace alone? Yes it does, but more by aggregation than any single articulation. It is a doctrine that undergirds the BCP’s understanding of grace and sin. Here are some excerpts from Canada’s 1962 BCP, starting with the Communion:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all them that with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him …

And although we are unworthy, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences.

…most humbly beseeching thee to grant, that by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion

We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, Whose property is always to have mercy

Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.

…although we are unworthy, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences

Morning & Evening Prayer:

He [God] pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.

Evening Prayer:

Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord.

As I say, it is the aggregate of passages, combined with what they do not say. If you read the Litany, for example, while it is not perfectly, explicitly justification by faith all spelled out, and while much of it is common to Anglicans, Catholics, and the Orthodox, there is a vein of such doctrine running through it. It would be tedious (albeit profitable, I have no doubt!) to go through all of Cranmer’s collects as well as the Exhortations, but I think you get the idea.

Justification by faith alone through grace alone is a rich vein of theology running through The Book of Common Prayer.

More easily spotted is the fact that Protestants do not believe in the sacrifice of the Mass:

who [Jesus Christ] made there [upon the Cross], by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memorial of that his precious death, until his coming again.

You will not find the following (from the English translation of the Sarum Use of the Roman Rite):

But after the offertory, let the deacon hand the cup with the paten and the sacrifice to the priest; and let him kiss his hand each time. But let him, receiving the cup from him, place it carefully in its own due place above the middle altar, and with bent head, for a little while, let him elevate the cup with both hands, offering the sacrifice to the Lord, saying this prayer:

Receive, O Holy Trinity, this oblation, which I, an unworthy sinner, offer in honour of thee, of the blessed Virgin and all the saints, for my sins and offences, and for the salvation of the living, and the rest of all the faithful dead. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Let this new sacrifice be acceptable to the omnipotent God.

Or this:

Therefore most merciful Father, suppliant we beg and beseech thee, through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord.

    Here let the priest rising kiss the altar on the right hand of the sacrifice, saying: that thou wouldst receive and bless these cross gifts, these cross presents, these cross holy unspotted sacrifices.
And the sins being made over the chalice, let him elevate his own hands, saying thus…

Likewise, the Prayer Book has cut this:

Here again let him look upon the Host, saying: Which oblation do thou, O Almighty God, we beseech thee, vouchsafe in all respects to make cross hallowed, cross approved, cross ratified, reasonable, and acceptable, that it may be made unto us the cross body and cross blood of thy most dear Son our Lord Jesus Christ.

I think you get the idea. In pre-20th-century Prayer Books, the Canon of the Mass ended with the words of institution. In the Canadian Prayer Book of 1962, things have been rearranged, and we come dangerously close to offering a sacrifice:

And we entirely desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, most humbly beseeching thee…

That prayer was intended for after Communion. Indeed, besides Christ’s sacrifice once offered for the sins of the whole world, the only other sacrifice, in a prayer after Communion, is:

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.

Now, you may not be a Protestant. You may be Orthodox or Roman Catholic. You may believe that the Eucharistic sacrifice is an integral part of the service of Holy Communion. You may not think there is a sharp difference between justification by faith as represented by the Prayer Book and the concept of condign merit.

I’m not condemning you.

But I am praising The Book of Common Prayer. In this small, maroon-coloured book, the wisdom of the Church has been distilled, bringing us a beautiful book that is not only Protestant but catholic. Not only catholic — connected with the church universal throughout time and space — but Protestant, connected to the reform movement of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sure, there are problems with a lot of what Protestantism has got up to since 1517.

The Book of Common Prayer is not one of them.

Why I’m not Orthodox

Seraphim of Sarov

I try to avoid polemic on this blog. I’d rather discuss those things from the Great Tradition and various other traditions of Christianity that most of us can benefit from, or those things that really just tickle my fancy. However, today I have a burning desire to write something less than irenic.

I write this post as a result of the fact that I dare to pray for other people when praying the Jesus Prayer. This, according to one commenter, is the height of arrogance, and is based on my proud assumption that I am already saved. And, apparently, I have made this assumption because I’ve read a lot of books and think I can pray:

Or you already apriori decided that once u have read and learn anything and “think” u can pray u r saved?)

I don’t know why the random parentheses are scattered across said commenter’s comments.

This brings me to the heart of why I am not Orthodox: salvation.

Reconcile me to the Virgin, the saints, the necessity of kissing icons, the Orthodox view of church history, Palamite hesychasm, the Eucharist, and so forth. I’m willing to be convinced. But I will be much harder to convince because of how this tradition approaches salvation.

At its best (and I try to look at all non-heretical Christian groups at their best), the Orthodox tradition wilfully refuses to parse salvation, saying that simply praying the sinner’s prayer isn’t enough to be ‘saved’, that salvation is found in the ongoing life of faith that follows.

At its best, Protestantism says, ‘Yes. That moment of conversion by faith is when we are initially justified, and then we work out our salvation in fear and trembling, being sanctified by the work of the Spirit in our hearts through the ongoing life of faith that follows.’

The whole bundle is ‘salvation’ for the Orthodox, while we parse the different bits.

Each catches a bit of the truth.

But this leads to difficulties for many of the eastern tradition, going back at least to Mark the Monk, a fifth-century Greek monk who lived in the Egyptian desert (maybe; it’s a common name, so all the sayings attributed to Mark the Monk may not all be by the same monk named Mark). If you read the selections from said Mark in The Philokalia, one of the things that will become apparent to a Protestant reader is that Mark has no assurance of salvation.

Mark the Monk, for all the various pieces of wisdom on prayer and the spiritual life he has, lives in the fear of Hell.

This may not be the best of Mark the Monk, and it may not be the best of Eastern Orthodoxy, but it is not uncommon.

Indeed, is this why many Orthodox pray the Jesus Prayer? For me, it is a way of drawing nearer to the Saviour who I know has saved me. If it is ‘salvation’, it is the ongoing purification from the presence of sin or the tendency toward sin in my life, not escape from Hell.

This is why it’s not so bad that we Protestants tend to parse salvation, even if we may go too far sometimes.

This concern of self-salvation is prominent in my Orthodox commenter’s concerns, evident when she quotes Seraphim of Sarov (but possibly attributing it to the Desert Fathers?) in the form:

Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved.

This seems to be a popular version of the quotation, although I have hitherto only encountered it as:

Keep your heart at peace, and a multitude around you will be saved.

And I immediately hear Fr John Romanides yelling in my ear, ‘Keeping your heart at peace, acquiring peace in your nous IS salvation, Protestant!’ And I respond, ‘It is a result of salvation, given by grace and usually after years of the walk of faith.’

If I save myself, if I keep my heart at peace, that is a terrible burden. I cannot lift that.

Is this not the entire point of the Gospel of Grace? God became man so that man might become like God? We are, each of us, beset by sin on all sides. We cannot, of our own accord, save ourselves. We, God’s beloved creation, are tending towards destructin. So he becomes one of us, and by the power of that Incarnation, and then the death of One of the Most Holy Trinity on our behalf, and then when He destroys death with the lightning flash of his Godhead and rises again, He gives us the grand gift of salvation from the penalty of sin.

And as we accept this gift of grace, he empowers us to live holier lives, day by day, lives of grace. If we accept his daily grace and walk with Him regularly and engage in the disciplines, we become holier and holier. This is the life of salvation, but all of it is grace.

Grace. The great scandal at the heart of the most ancient strand of the Christian tradition. The great incomprehensibility lying in wait for us in the Scriptures (read Romans, Ephesians, Colossians). A power so mighty that even those who claim the strongest ties to the ancient church live much of their lives as though salvation depended on themselves, not on it.

Maybe this is arrogance on my part. Maybe it is arrogant to say, ‘I have read the Scriptures and many of the Fathers and much of the Tradition. The earliest strand and truest strand and the strand most consonant with the Scriptures is grace.’ If it is, God have mercy on my soul.

And I know — to forestall certain comments — that Vera is not the Orthodox position, and that there is a diversity within Eastern Orthodoxy, and that there are shades of meaning in ‘salvation’ in Orthodox discourse, and that what I describe is not indicative of the experience of a great many Orthodox, and so forth. I have no doubt. But I have witnessed it with my own eyes — all the more, then, do I grieve for this state of affairs.

Can orthodoxy change, then?

An important question arose in Cyprus during session on ‘The Bible in the Ancient Church.’ I had just quoted John Chrysostom on Romans 4:5 — to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness:

For reflect how great a thing it is to be persuaded and have full confidence that God is able on a sudden not to free a man who has lived in impiety from punishment only, but even to make him just, and to count him worthy of those immortal honors. Do not then suppose that this one [the one who works] is lowered in that it is not reckoned unto the former of grace. For this is the very thing that makes the believer glorious; the fact of his enjoying so great grace, of his displaying so great faith. And note too that the recompense is greater. For to the former [the one who works] a reward is given, to the latter [the one with faith] righteousness. Now righteousness is much greater than a reward. For righteousness is a recompense which most fully comprehends several rewards. (ANF trans.)

I said that I was not quoting Chrysostom out of a naive belief that the Fathers believed in justification by faith alone the same way we do; no one articulated that part of the faith in that way until Martin Luther. This raised a reasonable concern from one of the people present — if God’s truth doesn’t change, how can orthodoxy? (Sort of. It was more nuanced than that.)

The great concern is: if we are not saved by works, yet we trace so much of our heritage to Fathers, and the Fathers seem, at times, to teach that we are saved by works, what does that mean about the faith of the Fathers? Since justification by faith seems to be taught in the Scriptures, why would no one have articulated it until the Reformation?

These are vitally important questions for those of us who wish to have an orthodoxy in line with the majority, consensual teaching that flows from the patristic (and medieval/Byzantine and Reformation) meditation upon, reflection over, and wrestling with Scripture and life in this broken world. It is a vitally important question for those of us whose theology is daily informed by historical theology. I believe it is a vitally important question for all Christians, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant.

C. Michael Patton has this useful thought on the development of theology, especially in reference to the development of penal substitutionary atonement with St Anselm in the turn of the 11th/12th centuries, as well as to the question of justification by faith alone. The TRUTH about who God is, explains Patton, does not change. From our finite perspective, at that level, orthodoxy is ‘static’ (read book 11 of Augustine’s Confessions if you want to bend your mind thinking about the concept of time and how it relates to God).

Our understanding of God, however, has developed over time, through the direct revelation of the events and writings of Scripture, with their culmination in Christ, there was a gradual unveiling of the character of God and our relation towards him as fallen creatures. And, through Spirit-led meditation upon and grappling with Scripture, the interpretation of the TRUTH has led to a greater precision of what we know.

Yet still we see as in a glass darkly.

So what do we do about things that seem to have developed over history, and those who lived before their development? Patton says:

1. I could say that before these doctrines were understood and articulated according to my current Protestant understanding, no one was truly saved or, at the very least, orthodox. (Radical Restorationism)

2. I could say that these doctrines did exist before, just in unarticulated form. (Oden?)

3. I could say that these doctrines did exist in the earliest church, but the church became corrupted and lost them. (Reformers)

4. I could say that their immature state was sufficient for the time, but is now insufficient. (Conservative Progressives)

5. I could say that these developments, while true, don’t really matter with regards to defining orthodoxy. (Emerging)

The only option Patton is willing to completely ignore is number 1. I am uneasy with number 5, myself. I probably tend towards a blend of 2 and 4 most of the time — what we believe does matter, but there is a difference between ignorance and denial (as my friend Tim. If you had asked St Mark if Jesus was God, he likely will not have said, ‘Yes.’ But for me, with 2000 more years of thoughtful reflection on the Christ-event — if I reject the divinity of Jesus, I am no longer orthodox.

This is helpful as we all wrestle with the fact that our understanding of the things of God has changed over time.

Yet, with that in mind, we must always be humble. Can any of us, even with the doctrine of the Trinity and penal substitutionary atonement really say that we know God any better than Moses or Isaiah or John the Baptist or Paul?

What makes a Protestant?

One evening, as a friend and I walked to Vespers at the local Orthodox Church, he remarked that he had invited some of our other friends who had responded by looking at him as though he had three heads. Another time, these same friends had chuckled in a, “Yeah, right,” sort of way when he said that he was as much a Protestant as they were.

The question has been raised here as to why I am not Eastern Orthodox, given that I seem to embrace so many Eastern Orthodox beliefs. The question is related to the response of more evangelical, Reformed Protestants who don’t see my Methodist/Episcopalian friend who appreciates Aquinas, incense, and Kallistos Ware as being “as Protestant” as they are.

What makes a Protestant?

GK Chesterton, in The Thing: Why I Am Catholic, takes issue with some of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century responses to this question, when people such as Dean Inge argued that basically being a Protestant was rising in protest whenever things were going wrong. He also has trouble with the fact that those things that make a Milton or a Bunyan delightful to the modern Protestant are things that Milton and Bunyan share with Catholics — not things that make them Protestant.

This question has needed answering for a good while, then.

According to Bruce McCormack at the University of Edinburgh’s Croall Lectures for this year, Protestants — the theologians, at least — should be working from within the framework of their confessional statements to produce a comprehensive worldview. He was not fond of those Protestants who produce either Catholicism light or a Patristic synthesis to theological issues. We should be identifiable through our adherence to the confessional statements of our tradition, according to McCormack. At least, that’s what I think he was saying.

For many contemporary Protestants, this is probably a bit of a problem, especially if we consider the very large number of Anglicans who are Arminians and thus cannot throw themselves wholeheartedly into Article of Religion 17, “On Predestination.” For me, saying that I must pledge my allegiance to a particular confession and produce theological thinking in accord with it is a definite problem, if we recall this post.

Nonetheless, I would still like to say that I am a Protestant. And being Protestant requires more than a rejection of papal claims. There are, I believe, certain doctrinal positions Protestants emphasise as well as certain approaches to doctrine and worship.

First of all, justification by faith. As a Protestant, I believe that nothing we do can make us justified before God. No amount of condign merit will justify me. It is the faith within the heart and life of the believer that justifies. God will justify those who have chosen to follow Him and put their trust in Him. From true faith will flow a life of good works, yes; but the good works are not what justify us but the fruit of the justified.

Second, the primacy (supremacy?) of Scripture for faith, life, and doctrine. A lot of Anglicans like pointing to Hooker’s three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, from which the removal of a single leg means utter disaster, saying that people like Mark Driscoll are troubling because of how much they overemphasise Scripture.

Well, the fact of the matter is, Scripture contains everything necessary for salvation. Other things might be okay, but they aren’t necessary. If it’s not in Scripture, it is not binding. Now, tradition and reason are important for the interpretation of Scripture. We can never escape them. That is the point of this whole website. But Scripture still stands supreme. If tradition, through the years, has come up with something counter to Scripture, the Church — the same Church who handed down the tradition — can jettison it after a long, painful process of prayer and searching the Scriptures together.

Third, I do not believe that a true Protestant will have a Roman understanding of the sacrifice of the Mass. That is to say, the idea that Christ himself is offered upon the altar as an immolation for our sins by the Priest who stands in Christ’s stead each Sunday. Now, the idea that there is a twofold sacrifice of ourselves, our souls and bodies, along with the gifts of bread and wine at the Holy Table — this is acceptable. It is also acceptable to say that the Eucharist recapitulates Christ’s atoning work and brings its benefits to the assembled Body through the Sacramental act (see Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New).

As regards other aspects of the Sacrament, Protestants are divided. I, myself, follow Luther in The Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, as explained here. I affirm with my Anglican heritage that the Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism are outward, visible signs of an inward, invisible grace.

If to be Protestant one must sign on to a confessional statement, most Protestants would have to believe in penal substitutionary atonement. And most of us do. And some of us believe in Christus Victor. Some of us, rascals that we are, believe in both. But this issue is more of an East vs. West question than a Protestants vs. the World question.

In fact, most of the major questions of Christology and Triadology (the study of the All-holy Trinity) do not have a particular spin from the Protestants, outside of heretics like Oneness Pentecostals. We tend to follow St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas on these issues. Some, like Reformed theologian T.F. Torrance, turn to Sts. Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria for their Christology. I, myself, follow a sort of Neo-Chalcedonian, Conciliar Christology with something of an Augustinian-Thomist Triadology for good measure. There’s nothing un-Protestant about that!

I’m getting tired. But I think that the issue of justification, the place of the Bible in the Christian life, and the question of the sacrifice of the Mass (tied into how you answer the first two) are among three of the defining points of Protestants.

I am a Protestant, and maybe even an Anglican.

Protestant — but not Calvinist

¡Viva la Reformación! (credit: E Martin)

This week, for a course I’m taking, I had the opportunity to hunker down and read some confessional documents.  First I read The Augsburg Confession and the Catholic response, the Confutatio Pontificia, and then the more recent Joint Declaration on Justification.  I also read chh. 12 & 18 of Althaus’ The Theology of Martin Luther.

You may have noticed that sometimes I tag posts with “i might end up eastern orthodox at this rate”.  I think I may have used it only twice, but I could have used it more frequently.  Anyway, this feeling was increasing over Christmastide, not only with a lot of reading of St. Leo and a couple of trips to St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church, but also because of Frederica Mathewes-Green’s book, At the Corner of East and Now.  I admit there is something compelling in Eastern Orthodoxy.

But then I read Augsburg and Althaus’ discussion of Luther’s theology.  And I realised that I am still a Protestant, for I found Luther’s explanation of Justification by Faith entirely reasonable and compelling, remaining faithful to Scripture whilst setting forth its doctrine with reason.  It holds in tension simul justus et peccator and faith-works and law-gospel — all of these things that, beautiful as so many Orthodox descriptions of the Christian life are, make the most sense to me and give me the greatest spiritual comfort of all explanations.

We are all bound by our understanding of Scripture.

Tonight, for the same course, I finished reading the Second Helvetic Confession.  I am clearly not a Calvinist.  Certainly not of this Confession’s ilk.  This is not just the predestination issue.  It is the overbearing, heavy-handed reliance upon public preaching of the Gospel.  As though this and the rational world of the mind were all that true piety consisted of — thus, even if the confession didn’t consider images in holy spaces as idols, it would still oppose them on grounds of their needlessness.  People don’t need pictures if they can hear the Word of God preached to them (so says this confession).

This Confession also shows many Protestant weaknesses.  It gives a fairly decent account of Eucharist when discussing it directly, but sidelines it the entire time whilst always talking about preaching.  Indeed, the Eucharist seems at one point to be best understood as basically a sermon that you eat.

It seems to support a presbyterian church order over all and rejects the Daily Office out of hand, making claims about the order of the church as handed down from the Apostles — but makes the claim that the Apostles celebrated together on the Lord’s Day!  This is a practice that has evidence for it of the same antiquity as the episcopacy and the Daily Office — evidence not clearly shown forth in the apostolic writings.  What has happened has that the Church, seeking to submit itself to nothing other than Sacred Scripture has become not only the judge of tradition but, at times, even of Scripture herself (see the bit where James is subordinated to Paul to the extent that they would be willing to jettison him from the canon if he disagreed with “the Apostle”).

Some of Helvetic II mirrored the 39 Articles.  But much did not.  So if I must turn anywhere in the Reformation, it is not to Calvin, whose followers haughtily claim that he finished what Luther began, but to Luther and the Book of Common Prayer.  No matter how hard I try, I always come up Anglican.