Nov 30 2009

Idiotic Evangelicals (and some who aren’t)

The other day I was reading something online about the Manhattan Declaration, and saw a comment stating that many evangelicals are hesitant to sign the document because it has been endorsed by Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic leaders, and so they were concerned about the loss of the Gospel.

Idiots.   They haven’t stopped to consider that if it weren’t for the Orthodox and RCC churches, they’d have no gospel.  For example, fundamentalists (perhaps the most idiotic of the evangelicals) rely heavily on Augustinian concepts (that’s where Calvin got most of his stuff).  And, of course, the concept of the Trinity, our understanding of the dual nature of Jesus and the Biblical Canon all comes from the early Orthodox Church (before the RCC was the RCC).

In fact, many from liturgical churches question whether evangelicals really have the Gospel, or if they’re championing some “other gospel” (a la Galatians 1:8).  But, that’s a topic for another time.

In 1977, a group led by Robert E. Webber drafted a statement known as “The Chicago Call,” which pointed out some of the idiocies of popular evangelicalism.  This movement led to the formation of groups such as the Charismatic Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Orthodox Church (now a part of the Antiochian Orthodox Church), and to other movements within evangelicalism.  Eventually, another document, known simply as “The Call,” (I believe the long name is, “The Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future”) was developed.  Someday I plan to review both of these documents.

The Prologue to Chicago Call states:

In every age the Holy Spirit calls the church to examine its faithfulness to God’s revelation in Scripture. We recognize with gratitude God’s blessing through the evangelical resurgence in the church. Yet at such a time of growth we need to be especially sensitive to our weaknesses. We believe that today evangelicals are hindered from achieving full maturity by a reduction of the historic faith. There is, therefore, a pressing need to reflect upon the substance of the biblical and historic faith and to recover the fullness of this heritage. Without presuming to address all our needs, we have identified eight of the themes to which we as evangelical Christians must give careful theological consideration.

My favorite passage is in the following paragraph, in a section entitled, A Call to Historic Roots and Continuity:

We confess that we have often lost the fullness of our Christian heritage, too readily assuming that the Scriptures and the Spirit make us independent of the past. In so doing, we have become theologically shallow, spiritually weak, blind to the work of God in others and married to our cultures.

When I first read this in the early 80’s, it captivated me – and it still does.  It helped a great deal to keep me from becoming one of the Idiots (although I can tell myself that I am too smart to have ever become one).

I have tried to find a version of The Chicago Call online, but apparently it has been removed from it’s old site, and no one else to my knowledge has posted it.  So, I have decided to post the text on Smallvoices.net where it will remain as long as I keep paying the bills.

Enjoy.


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.


Nov 18 2009

Exploring the Twain

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”  – Rudyard Kipling, Barrack-room Ballads

Years ago, I got to know a Greek Orthodox Priest (who was, in fact, from Greece) who tried to explain to me the difference between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches; to me, both the RCC and the EO were quite similar.  However, to him, the RCC was closer to evangelicalism than it was to Eastern Orthodoxy.  I didn’t quite understand it then.  Now, 30 years later, I find myself considering the issue once again.  This time, however, I am beginning to understand.  Besides reading some Orthodox theology, I’ve also been trying to catch up on 1500 years of Western theology by reading summaries of the major theologians, and I’ve been listening to a great series from The Teaching Company called Philosophy and Religion in the West by Phillip Cary.

Western theology: Fundamentally Flawed?

As I learn more about the history of Western theology, I am finding I have more and more problems with the theological and philosophical direction taken by the Western theologians (as I have dealt with a bit in my Webber series and elsewhere).  In fact, I am finding that it is fundamentally flawed, and that it is very, very difficult to filter out potentially errant presuppositions, as I am so saturated in them I don’t even recognize them.  Such is the problem of worldviews.  My theory, then, is that by understanding the differences between East and West, I may be more able to find a more pure theology.  Even writing this, however, I am aware that this is a purely Western approach to the problem; but, I have to accept that I am rooted in the West, even while I look to the East.

Understanding the Schism: A little history

Even trying to understand the Great Schism, as the split between the Eastern and Western church is known, is difficult.  I have decided that the best way to approach it is by favoring the Eastern interpretation, while not ignoring the Western; reading Western points of view merely tends to reinforce the problem.  However, both sides do point to a number of political, cultural, philosophical and theological issues that contributed to the Schism.  Constantine perhaps set the stage for the split by establishing a 2nd capital city in Constantinople. This, I think, made it easier for the Eastern Church to eventually ignore Rome.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire, of course, is  a major factor.  Many people are perhaps unaware that in the East, the Roman (Byzantine) Empire lasted for about 1,000 years, which contributed to more stability in the Eastern church.  The Roman Bishop (Pope), with Europe in chaos, turned to the Franks (Charlemagne) for support (which led to other problems). Besides these political differences, there was a language barrier, with the East speaking Greek and the West speaking Latin, and both churches insisting the other should convert.

Eventually, as we know, the Pope took on a quasi-political role in Europe.  While this did have a stabilizing effect on the region, it didn’t do the church any favors.  Soon the Pope was considered to be the highest source of spiritual authority in the West; the Eastern church, however, maintained a flatter church structure with a plurality of leadership among the patriarchs.  Today the Ecumenical Patriarch is still considered “first among equals” in the Eastern church.

The issues between East and West grew over several hundred years.  Possibly the biggest factor in the increasing schism was the role Charlemagne played in the late 8th and early 9th Centuries.  At this time what is known as the “Filioque Clause” was being added to the Nicene Creed in various places in the Western church.  The clause changes the nature of the Holy Spirit’s role in the Trinity, adding that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father “and the Son.”  While debated even in the West (Pope Leo III disagreed with the addition), it was Charlemagne who adopted it and subsequently accused the Eastern Church of heresy for failure to use it. Charlemagne had no authority in the East, and I suspect he thought that he could use the Church to extend his political clout.

The final straw came in 1054 with the Roman church “excommunicating” the entire Eastern church.  The Eastern church to my knowledge never officially broke ties with the West (although they finally realized that the Roman Church had, by their own actions, left Orthodoxy). Relations, however, got even worse when the Romans sacked Constantinople on the Fourth Crusade in 1204.  As one could expect, things have never been the same.

Theological Aspects of the Schism

While these issues are important in understanding the Schism, I’d like to focus on the philosophical and theological differences.  Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, an evangelical-turned-Orthodox theologian, writes this concerning the theological split:

In the early Church there had been unity in the faith, but a diversity of theological schools. From the start Greeks and Latins had each approached the Christian Mystery in their own way. At the risk of some oversimplification, it can be said that the Latin approach was more practical, the Greek more speculative; Latin thought was influenced by juridical ideas, by the concepts of Roman law, while the Greeks understood theology in the context of worship and in the light of the Holy Liturgy. When thinking about the Trinity, Latins started with the unity of the Godhead, Greeks with the threeness of the persons; when reflecting on the Crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the Victim, Greeks of Christ the Victor; Latins talked more of redemption, Greeks of deification; and so on. Like the schools of Antioch and Alexandria within the east, these two distinctive approaches were not in themselves contradictory; each served to supplement the other, and each had its place in the fullness of Catholic tradition. But now that the two sides were becoming strangers to one another – with no political and little cultural unity, with no common language – there was a danger that each side would follow its own approach in isolation and push it to extremes, forgetting the value in the other point of view.

Ware, I think, does a pretty even-handed job in his analysis, and also points out in this chapter that while the contributing causes to the Schism were many, it was really the theological differences that divided the church, and which still divide it today.  The 2 primary issues that he sees are Papal authority, and the Filioque Clause. However, the issues he mentions above show a more fundamental difference which, I think, resulted in more than just a church schism; what developed seems to be more of a philosophical or worldview schism, which I will discuss in my next post.


Nov 9 2009

Wrapping up Tradition and Sola Scriptura

Well, actually, I’m just wrapping up my short series of posts looking at the issues.  To revisit them, here’s the list:

  1. Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura (in which I introduced sola scriptura)
  2. Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura 2 (in which I introduced Tradition)
  3. Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura 3 (in which I discussed various views of Tradition)
  4. Re Considering the issue of Tradition (just a bit of added value)

And, of course, I’ve often touched on these issues here over the last 2 years or so.  But, I find it personally helpful to think through things every so often, to consider new (and old) information.  In this way I find that I am, like the reformers, semper reformanda (always reforming).

The original concept of sola scriptura, “by scripture alone,” was based on Luther’s testimony at Worms:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other.

This stands a marked contrast to the common evangelical approach of “this is what the Bible means to me,” aka solo scriptura.  While the Bible can certainly give us personal insights, this does not mean that we can interpret the Bible willy-nilly, taking verses out of both textual, cultural and historical context.  Luther never intended to disregard the Apostolic teachings; he meant to avoid “traditions of men” as had corrupted the Roman Catholic Church.

Insofar as the evangelical church has ignored much of the early church and has let cultural and philosophical influences change how we read and interpret scripture, evangelical “tradition” is highly suspect.   I am to the point where I seriously have to question everything from Augustine to the present; Augustine compromised theology in order to make it rational, as he understood the concept, inventing doctrines like Original Sin.  The enlightenment further compromised theology, as did romanticism and existentialism.  We in the west now view everything through Cartesian and Augustinian lenses.  As such, the evangelical church has no authority; the “plain reading” of the Bible is not “plain” at all – even within one denomination, people can’t agree.

The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the original, Apostolic faith.  However, I have a very hard time accepting the RCC as having any authority whatsoever.  While it has certainly reformed itself since Luther’s time, it still suffers from a great many heresies, including claiming an authority which rests in the office of the Pope.  Also, it, too has been corrupted along with the rest of the West by Augustinian and Enlightenment thinking.  It’s history of disagreements and heretical decrees speaks for itself.

So, when the Pope reaches out to the Eastern Church or to the Anglican Communion seeking unity, I admit I am suspicious.  All along the RCC has believed that “unity” means for other churches to submit to the Pope, who, as I mentioned, has no Biblical or Apostolic authority.  The RCC is not, as it turns out, the original church.

This leaves the Eastern Churches, the Orthodox and Coptics.  It says much that these churches have not changed the essential nature of the faith, ever.  If there is a church group that has Apostolic Authority, it would have to be the Orthodox.  It is the Orthodox who has retained all of the ancient documents as well as oral tradition. They have successfully kept out heresy, and have avoided the theological and ethical scandals of the later traditions.

The question now is, “Can we be sure that the Orthodox have not erred in accepting ‘tradition’ as authoritative when it was just opinion?”  Is being the original church enough?  Timothy Ware explains what constitutes “Tradition” in the Orthodox church:

To an Orthodox Christian, Tradition means the Holy Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons, etc. In essence, it means the whole system of doctrine, ecclesiastical government, worship and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages [The Orthodox Church, p.204]

In evaluating apostolic authority, we have to consider that we know from Paul’s letters that apostles do make errors. Paul specifically nails Peter, for example, as well as other unnamed apostles for teaching legalism.  Are we assuming that the Church Fathers didn’t make errors?

While many are able to accept that the Orthodox Church possesses the original faith, and has Apostolic authority, I am not yet at that place.  Perhaps I am still too entwined in rationalism – I do consider that a possibility.  But, while I will agree that the Orthodox Church has the greatest – and perhaps only – claim to the Apostolic faith, I cannot accept that all of the trappings of orthodoxy are apostolic.

That being said, I am more and more developing a great respect for Orthodox theology and spirituality, and will agree that if the 1st and 2nd century Christians taught a certain way, it is well worth considering.  I would go so far as to say that when interpreting Scripture, one should look to the early church for guidance.

Tradition is more than just looking back to the way things were done in the old days. Tradition is looking back to an understanding of Christianity that was shared with people who were within a generation of the Apostles – who better to show us how Scripture and doctrines were understood?

I am quite glad that the Orthodox Church has expressed a willingness to dialog with the Anglican Church of North America (and find it amusing, and proper, that Calvinism is one of the 3 big concerns); for me – and apparently also to the Eastern Church – the conservative Anglicans sit (to borrow a phrase) at the intersection of East and West, a place where I currently find myself.