Saturday, June 24, 2006

A Simple Gospel?

In Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller wrestles with gospel tracts based on the Four Spiritual Laws. Being an evangelical, Miller lines up along side those who use these tracts and he values them, but he isn't unaware of their limitation. Miller writes:
While the ideas presented in these pamphlets are certainly true, it struck me how simply we had begun to explain the ideas, not only how simply, but how non-relationally, how propositionally. ... The greater trouble with these reduced ideas is that modern evangelical culture is so accustomed to this summation that it is difficult for us to see the gospel as anything other than a list of true statements with which a person must agree.

It makes me wonder if, because of this reduced version of the claims of Christ, we believe the gospel is easy to understand, a simple mental exercise, not in the least bit mysterious.

This is something like what I would like to have said a few months ago when I complained about what is wrong with the Four Spiritual Laws.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

On the Road

Just as I've revealed my secret identity, I may seem to b going back into hiding. Actually, I'm just on vacation. I packed up the family and we're headed across the country.

If you're curious, you can follow our progress here

Saturday, June 17, 2006

With Unveiled Face

For a little over a year now I've been writing this blog under the name Melancthon. I started it that way because that was my Beliefnet member name, and it made for a fun blog title. But I've never really liked the idea of pseudopigraphical writings, and more and more I've been feeling like I'm the only person at a party wearing a costume, so I've decided to unveil myself as it were.

Hi. My name's Andy. Nice to meet you.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Gift From Whoever

Last night on Fresh Air Andrew Revkin was talking about his book on an expidition to the North Pole to monitor the polar ice cap. It was an interesting interview relevant to the hot topic of global warming, but I don't have anything to say about that.

Instead I want to ponder a phrase Revkin used toward the end of the interview. He was talking what it feels like to be at the North Pole when he referred to the earth as being, and I quote, "a great gift from...uh...whoever."

This is fascinating to me -- especially the pause. Normally, I wouldn't include such a hesitation in quoting what someone said, but in this case it strikes me as being full of significance. We moderns -- people who use electricity -- haven't lost, are unable to lose, the appreciation of the world around as a great gift. But a gift from whom? We still know the answer, but it embarasses us. We think it sounds foolish to say it. So we say it is from "...uh...whoever."

But if not God, who else could give us such a gift. No matter the name you put with it, by the very fact of being the giver of this gift, the benefactor is, inescapably, God.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Anotioch and Alexandria

History is always instructive and Church history especially so. A lot of noise has been made in recent years about the fallacy of viewing early Christianity as a homogenous whole with one theology. Fingers get pointed at Irenaeus as the architect of orthodoxy, but even that is a gross oversimplification.

Those of us who haven't been raised to mistrust the Church have inherited a romantic notion of the early ecumenical councils from Nicea to Chalcedon where the bishops all came to agreement and the Church as one taught and practiced the orthodoxy they defined. Of course, it never happened that way.

The Council of Ephesus (431) is a particularly interesting case in point. We're told that the Council of Ephesus is the council at which the term "Theotokos" ("Mother of God") as a title for Mary received official Church blessing, and Nestorianism (the teaching that Christ existed as two persons -- a human person and a divine person) was condemned. But if you scratch just below the surface you discover that Ephesus was all about resolving a dispute between Antiochene Christianity and Alexandrian Christianity.

The council was precipitated by a feud between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople and former prodigy of Antioch. Nestorius asked the emperor to call a council to resolve the issue. The Alexandrian contingent got there first, quickly condemned Nestorius, upheld the Theotokos title and called it a day -- all this before the bishops from Antioch arrived. This is the official council of record. When the representatives from Antioch did arrive, they held their own council which condemned and excommunicated Cyril.

So far, it sounds a good bit like modern denominationalism. And I think it is. I contend that Antioch and Alexandria represented the major feature of the types of denominations that emerged from the Reformation -- namely, they each had their own theology which they held to be sacred. And in a manner worthy of the 16th century, they named anyone who disagreed with them as anathema.

But the really interesting thing about the Ephesus controversy is that they worked it out more or less to everyone's satisfaction. The leaders in Antioch agreed to dispense with the two persons doctrine while acknowledging two natures in Christ. The leaders in Alexandria agreed to dispense with their monophysite tendencies while acknowledging that Christ is one in person. The result was the formula of Chalcedon which though dressed up as dogma is really compromise. No doubt Alexandria and Antioch continued to practice and teach their distinctives, but the unity of the Church was also recognized and preserved.

Notably, many of the Alexandrian Christians felt Cyril had betrayed them by accepting this compromise and the result was one of the earliest schisms in the Church as the Coptic Orthodox Church became distinct from the rest of Eastern Orthodoxy (and still maintain that they are the ones preserving the purest apostolic tradition). I believe a similar thing happened on a smaller scale on the Nestorian side.

All of this provides a lesson that could be useful in our modern ecumenical situation. Conservatives in all branches of the Church maintain that we cannot budge on our traditional distinctives. But perhaps if we really look at what our fellow Christians in other denominations object to in our dogma we can discover that they have a point and we may even find a better way to affirm what it is our tradition is intending to preserve.

At the same time, we have the unfortunate reminder that there will be those who refuse to go along with even the best of compromises. Yet we can see that this is pretty much OK.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Theology and Psychology

Believe it or not, my previous rambling topic on free will represented the result of effort on my part to bring some focus and organization to my thoughts on the matter. At several points I had about three different and mostly unrelated directions I wanted to go with the ideas. Eventually I thought I had said as much as a reasonable person would read so I quit writing.

One thing I left out that I'd like to go back for now is the relationship between theology of free will and modern psychology. Now I don't think psychology can responsibly claim to have solved the problem of free will, but it does have some interesting things to say on the subject.

When I was a freshman in college I had to read a selection from B.F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity. I was absolutely horrified. It was my first hint that maybe I wasn't as free as I thought I was. I took comfort in hearing that Skinner's assessment wasn't universally accepted, but the world was changed. Gradually I became indoctrinated with the view that most of our decisions are heavily conditioned by our past experiences, if not completely determined, and today I still accept this as a basic fact.

It seems to me that there is a natural application of this idea to the theology of free will, yet I don't think I've seen anything written bringing the two together.

Christians tend to have a reflexive revulsion to the idea of behaviorism. Christianity would seem to be completely invalidated if it turns out that human beings are basically just machines. And yet we have Calvinism.

Constantly lurking in Christian tradition is the idea that God is present in the world, not just where we have performed religious acts to "make" God present, not even just in the places where God has promised to meet us, but everywhere. And if we could but grasp it, there must be a connection here between the theology of free will, grace and providence on the one hand and behavioral psychology on the other.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Ramblings on Free Will

Martin Luther is said to have looked back at his body of work late in his life and decided that his Bondage of the Will was one of the few things (along with the catechisms) he wrote that was worth preserving. Calvinists like to point this out. Lutherans have to live with it.

It's true that lack of free will is a cornerstone of Lutheran theology. How many times is Luther's explanation of the third article of the Creed quoted? "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him..." This is a cornerstone of our theology. It's also a bit of an embarassment.

When I was in college a friend and I used to get together in various bars and talk about philosophy. It became a joke between us that no matter what topic we talked about it always came down to the question of free will. At the time, I was an unapologetic defender of free will -- completely free will to the point of making every human decision practically arbitrary. My friend, a dyed-in-the-wool post-modernist, found my position absurd (which of course it was).

Later I became a dogmatic Lutheran (really...I was). I took it as a given in theological matters that the human will is absolutely bound in matters related to salvation. This is where I now think it's a bit weird. The official Lutheran position has always been that our wills are free with regard to "things below" but that they are bound with regard to "things above" -- that I can make whatever choices I like with regard to civil righteousness, but that I cannot, apart from the Holy Spirit, come to God.

American culture will not tolerate any impingement on free will. We are, says the culture, masters of our destiny. And in the realm of religion this translates into theologies that Lutherans cannot tolerate because they are synergistic and semi-Pelagian. And most of these theologies are, in fact, objectively bad -- but not necessarily because they are synergistic.

Apart from being at odds with American cultural religion because of its position on free will, Lutheran theology is also at odds with the ancient faiths of Catholicism and Orthodoxy on these matters. Orthodoxy especially stresses cooperation with God in salvation. But Lutherans hear "cooperation with God," label it as "synergistic" and treat it as heresy.

I think this is a weakness in Lutheran culture.

I was leading a study of the Augsburg Confession once and one of the participants mentioned an idea he had heard once that the Sacrament of Communion is for Lutherans something like what altar calls are for Baptists. I liked that. A retired pastor who was in the class said that Luther wouldn't have liked that. "Why not?" I asked. He responded, "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him...."

But that elipsis has content, right? It says, "but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith." We confess that we don't have the freedom to come to God on our own power, but when would we ever have to do it by our own power?

Typical Lutheran presentations make the believer (or believer-to-be) into a marionette. God pulls the strings, and we dance. We take the saying, "Apart from me you can do nothing" and make it into "You can do nothing."

The Orthodox believe that they have found the middle way between Augustine and Pelagius. Pointing to the writings of St. John Cassian, for example, the Orthodox teach that God works in and through our will to accomplish our salvation. This was judged in the West to be semi-Pelagianism.

But it's only semi-Pelagianism if you make a sharp division between the human will and the work of God and set them against one another. It seems to me that this involves a false view of the nature of God's presence in the world. If the work of God is seen as super-natural in the modernist sense of some outside action acting on nature, then you have this problem. But if you see God's work as the manifestation of God's immanent presence within the world ("in me deeper than I am in myself" as Augustine says), then the problem goes away.

It's common to here Arminians say something to the effect that God is a perfect gentleman and would never impose salvation on us against our will. That idea has always struck me as deeply flawed -- God is God and so on. But the real issue is that God doesn't need to do anything against our will, because our will is capable of being a vehicle for God's presence in our lives. And I think this is the essence of the Orthodox doctrine of synergism.