Nov 23 2009

Exploring the Twain 2

In the first post in this series, I introduced my thesis that Western theology is so tainted by a number of influences that did not affect the Eastern Church that the best way to evaluate Western theology is to start at the beginning, exploring where the West diverted from the East. I also proposed that the true “great schism” was a worldview split, and without understanding this aspect we can’t really appreciate the theological issues.

Father Michael Azkoul (an Orthodox Priest) appears to be a contemporary authority on this issue. He writes in a 1994 article:

Following the Holy Fathers, Orthodoxy uses science and philosophy to defend and explain her Faith. Unlike Roman Catholicism, she does not build on the results of philosophy and science. The Church does not seek to reconcile faith and reason. She makes no effort to prove by logic or science what Christ gave His followers to believe. If physics or biology or chemistry or philosophy lends support to the teachings of the Church, she does not refuse them. However, Orthodoxy is not intimidated by man’s intellectual accomplishments. She does not bow to them and change the Christian Faith to make it consistent with the results of human thought and science.

Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, places a high value on human reason. Its history shows the consequence of that trust. For example, in the Latin Middle Ages, the 13th century, the theologian-philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, joined “Christianity” with the philosophy of Aristotle. From that period til now, the Latins have never wavered in their respect for human wisdom; and it has radically altered the theology, mysteries and institutions of the Christian religion.

This difference of “philosophy of philosophy” explains much of the difference between East and West.  While Eastern scholars will make references to Plato, etc. (as does the Gospel of John with its discussion of the logos), it only borrows concepts as illustrations.  Augustine, who belonged to the Latin side, not the Greek, took a different approach.

Augustine – Saint or Heretic?

Augustine was a Manichaean as well as a neo-Platonist before he was a Christian, and a major focus of his thinking was merging his philosophical ideas with Christianity – ideas which included a continued belief in the eternal forms of Plato as existing alongside God, dualism, and the fallen man.  Augustine, who was largely unknown in the Eastern Church until the 14th Century or so, is the major shaper of Western Christianity, introducing – I’ll even say inventing – concepts like the doctrine of original sin and the total depravity of man.  His views not only heavily influenced the Roman Catholic Church, but also is the foundation for Reformed theology (Calvinism).

While accepted as a saint by the Orthodox, his ideas are largely rejected by them, with some recent Orthodox scholars taking the position that he was a heretic, and see him (rightly, I believe) as a major cause of the East-West schism.  Of course, the Orthodox don’t consider the Church Fathers to be inerrant, and some are more inerrant than others.  Augustine is seen as being in the “more” category.

What this means is, of course, that many of the doctrines and concepts that we take for granted, such as original sin, inherited guilt, total depravity, penal atonement, dualism, a Roman judicial interpretation of justification, and the concept of the “angry God” do not exist in the early church or in the Eastern church.  Furthermore many of these concepts are not Biblical or derived from Apostolic tradition, but began as philosophical beliefs that Augustine felt needed to be reconciled with Christianity.

Aquinas to Ockham to Luther

Thus began a Western tradition of basing theology on philosophy.  Subsequent to Augustine was Thomas Aquinas, who followed Aristotle instead of Plato.  Aquinas’ shift away from Plato caused a bit of strife in the Roman church, but eventually the majority of the church adopted his rationalistic approach. While Thomas still believed in a God limited by the eternal forms, he further altered Christian thought by basing all revelation on our 5 senses.

It wasn’t until William of Ockham (or Occam) – one of my heroes – that we got rid of the eternal forms, and finally back to a Biblical concept of God who actually had free will, who was not limited by some external ideals of “good,” “just,” and so on.   This is what Occam’s Razer was all about, but that’s another topic.  It was this school of thought – away from the limitations of Plato and Aristotle, and Augustine – that provided the backdrop for Martin Luther’s theology.  As I stated in my prior post, Luther also saw the error of basing theology on reason.   Luther also saw the error of Augustine’s concept of the angry God, instead finding that the Bible taught a loving God.  While Luther inherited much from Augustine – as did everyone – his theology was a major correction in a number of areas, and is probably the closest to the Eastern church than any other major Western theologian, even teaching the concept of theosis.  Calvin, however, is another story, and I’ll get to him soon.

So?

We now have a Western church tradition that has been tossed to and fro by every wind of philosophy.  Meanwhile, back East, nothing has changed.  They’ve had 7 major church councils to deal with some issues, but essentially nothing’s changed.  No new theories about the nature of God, no new theories about justification, and no need for a reformation.

My original question was, how can we find a pure expression of Christianity that is unaltered by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine or the Enlightenment?  Especially after Descartes, in the west, we’re pretty much toast.  Our worldview – our entire context for understanding the Bible and early church teaching – has been hijacked not once, but several times.  In this context, it seems that to even try to discuss evangelical theology is pretty much a bust.  Even if the church is semper reformanda (always reforming), it’s reforming into what? To the 1800’s?  The Reformation?  Augustine?  It seems to me that the only way to evaluate theology is to compare it to that of the Eastern Church; even if you don’t accept that as “true,” you have to admit it is the only theology free from all of the Western baggage.

Again, I’m still a rationalist.  But, God does call for us to think, just not to let our ability to understand control our belief.

NOTE:  A friend on Facebook questioned my comment, “I’m still a rationalist.”  It was a poor choice of words, or at least not adequately explained.  What I meant was that I’ve been steeped in Western rationalism, and still naturally think like a rationalist.  However, I am not a rationalist in the sense that I don’t limit my ability to believe on my – or someone else’s – ability to understand or explain something.


Oct 14 2009

NT Wright’s Justification, Pt. 4: Wright’s Big Picture

In the prior 3 posts in this series, I have pointed out a number of places where I am in disagreement with NT Wright’s most recent book, Justification.  Now, let me summarize some things I am in agreement with.

One of Wright’s goals, it appears, is to counter the standard Western Evangelical motif that salvation is about “going to Heaven when you die.”  This is the theme tackled in “Surprised by Hope,” and it is also taken up here in dealing with the title subject, justification.  Overall, I would tend to agree that justification goes beyond an individualized transaction where my decision to have faith is exchanged for Jesus’ death and resurrection, and therefore my eternal destiny is secured.  This does not mean that justification doesn’t have a personal, individual application.  Each one of the Israelites was personally saved when they crossed the Red Sea; that, however, doesn’t mean that God parted the Red Sea for any one person.

Wright sees justification and salvation as having a larger application, that of “setting the world to rights.”  This is not a foreign concept to Paul, who talks about the redemption of creation, which “will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21)

Wright’s “big picture” goes like this: God’s one and only plan was to choose a people – Israel – in order to bless all of creation, and therefore established the Covenant with Abraham. While the Israelite people failed, God did not, and sent Jesus – the heir as identified by Paul in Galatians – to complete that goal.  Jesus’ resurrection began that “setting the world to rights” process.  The Church, now – consisting of both Jews and Gentiles – continues this mission.   Therefore, as Romans 8 says, all of creation waits for the “sons of God to be revealed.”   We are living out the Abrahamic Covenant as adopted descendants of Abraham (and God).

In this sense, justification is not about individual salvation, it is about the redemption of Creation.  Wright, in fact, writes that his understanding of Galatians is that it is a “theology of justification which includes all that the old perspective was really trying to say within a larger framework which, while owing quite a bit to aspects of the new perspective, goes considerably beyond it.” (p.140)

This was always my understanding of Wright’s views on justification: the so-called “old perspective” may have been wrong only in that it was somewhat short-sighted.  For justification to be properly understood, it needs to recognize the larger context of the redemption of all creation.  In this sense, I don’t find Wright’s theology to be dangerous in any way, as some would think.

But, I still have three chapters yet to go.


Sep 14 2009

Tradition!

No, I’m not trying out for Fiddler on the Roof.  I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the concept of Tradition (and tradition) in church theology.  Yeah, I know, I tend to think about some obscure things.  First, a little background:

Tradition, with a capital “T”, is also known in the Eastern Orthodox churches as Holy TraditionOrthodoxWiki.com defines Holy Tradition as “the deposit of faith given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles and passed on in the Church from one generation to the next without addition, alteration or subtraction.”  Holy Tradition is not given equal status with Scripture, however it is seen as authoritative as far as the interpretation of Scripture goes.  It does not change or grow with understanding or time.  While in the Roman Catholic Church the Pope can “amend” church doctrines, there is no one in the Orthodox Church with that authority.  Again, Tradition doesn’t change, it just is.

This, of course, is debated by all other churches.  The RCC has, as I have pointed out, a different approach to church authority, giving preference to the Pope.  This is really what the Reformation was all about.  One of the main doctrines emphasized by Luther and the other reformers is sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone” as the church’s source of authority.

Protestants: Sola Scriptura

While by and large the protestant churches all affirm this, there are many different approaches, which in part explains why there are so many different churches and traditions (with a small “t”).  One problem is that many evangelical churches have no respect whatsoever for the earlier church teachings, instead preferring their own unique twists of interpretation.  Personally, I find this quite dangerous, allowing for much bizarre error to creep in, and allowing for bizarre creeps to mislead many people.

What I find really interesting, however, is that so many churches say “sola Scriptura” but in practice have their own form of tradition that controls them as much as the Eastern Orthodox is guided by their Tradition.

Lutherans

I’ll pick on the Lutherans because I was one, and still hold to a lot of Lutheran approaches to things.  Luther, of course, rejected the Pope’s authority in favor of Scripture alone.  However, over the years, the Lutherans developed a number of documents that defined the “Lutheran” faith, including the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, Luthers’ Catechism and the Formula of Concord. These are all published in one rather large volume known as The Book of Concord.  Some Lutherans, especially in the Missouri Synod, will quote this as much if not more than the Bible itself.  It is interesting to me that the church that first developed Sola Scriptura holds so strongly to a 2nd book.

Calvinists

For Calvinists, there is also a slough of documents that guide their interpretation of Scripture. There is the Westminster Confession, Calvin’s Institutes, the TULIP, and so on.  Calvinists, even more so than Lutherans, will default to Calvinist Tradition rather than go back to Scripture.

All the rest

To look at the rest would take far too much time; nearly everyone has some kind of tradition guiding them, even if it is to be “blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine.”  Some, of course, are less dogmatic than others. The ELCA (Lutheran) and the Episcopal Church have all but left the faith, setting aside even Scripture as authoritative.  Then you have those who follow whatever “prophetic word” floats by.  Fundamentalists are dognatic, but in violation of the clear meaning of Scripture as well as any other source of authority or interpretation.

Emergents

There are many in the “emerging” movements which have chosen to be “blown to and fro” with concepts such as “open-source theology” or even becoming somewht “interfaith.”

My own thoughts

My personal belief is that Scripture – while being open to each individually – is not necessarily open to all individual interpretation.  I think it is important to look to the Church Fathers (2nd-4th Centuries) for guidance, as well as look at the wise men through the ages.  However, I am not convinced that the early Church Fathers had everything perfect.  I think Luther recovered some major truths, but not all.  (I can’t say the same for Calvin, however.)

For example, there are some people with new thoughts about Biblical interpretation, such as NT Wright, who are coming under attack by Calvinists, Lutherans, and others as he dares question traditional interpretations of core doctrines such as Justification.  Now, I tend to think Luther’s thinking follows Paul as closely as possible; however, Wright has some interesting thoughts. Should he be dismissed simply because he doesn’t follow the TULIP or Concord?  Not necessarily.  I don’t even mind if he disputes Chrysostom or Polycarp; I don’t think they saw in the mirror any clearer than Paul did.

Bottom line, I think we need to be open-minded, but with a very healthy dose of respect for historical interpretations of the Bible.  If your own thoughts don’t fit in any existing tradition, then it’s time to rethink.  You may have a valid point, but it’s more probable that you’re simply wrong.



Sep 8 2009

On the differences between Luther and Calvin

Why do Calvinists and particularly Arminians (and for that matter, Roman Catholics) reject the paradox?  Is it because they cannot understand that words of Scripture?  Is it because they are less astute than Lutherans?  The answer to both questions is no.  The reason they reject Scripture’s emphasis on “by grace alone” is that their initial focus prior to their “conversion”, their conversion itself, and there subsequent Christian focus lead them away from grace and ultimately from the gospel.  How and why does it do this?  Simply put, whenever anyone shifts his focus of Christianity, as the Evangelical/Reformed do, his “faith” is no longer a miracle the Holy Spirit works through the gospel.  We must realize that there is in man a natural desire to want to keep the law.  While most consider this desire to be an example of the innate goodness of man, or the “prevenient grace” of the Holy Spirit, the Bible tells us that in the true spiritual sense, no one yearns for the law or for the true spiritual sense, no one yearns for the law or for the true spiritual means of fulfilling it in their lives (Rom. 3:10,11; 8:6,7).  What, then, is this yearning that so many experience?  Lutherans have called this the opinion legis, or the natural (and sinful) desire of a person to gain something for himself by keeping the law, whether that happens to be heaven or God’s temporal blessings on earth.  We hold that even the desire to be moral is a sin-unless that morality is fostered by a love for the Lord.  But such love can only come when a person first knows that God has loved and forgiven him. – Robert Koester, Law and Gospel – Foundation of Lutheran Ministry

Thanks to Larry at The Sacrament is the Gospel for this quote.  His post and the comments that follow are worth reading.  I find it interesting that in this analysis, Calvinists and Arminians (along with Catholics) are missing the point by insisting that grace is the power to do something as opposed to grace simply being the assurance of salvation.

I don’t pretend to really grasp the fine points, but I’m starting to sort it out, I think.