Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Prayer for Loyalty to God

A prayer from James A. Harding, quoted in Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding:

O my father, deliver me from the domination of money. My heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick, only though canst know the depth of it. Without realizing that it was so, I was on my way to become a professional. And now, Father, forgive thy penitent servant, and guide his wayward feet unto thy paths. Make me wholly free from the fear of men. May I by thy grace love thee, even thee alone and supremely, and because I love thee may I love thy truth, and the souls of men. Enable me to lay all my burdens and concerns as to this world's affairs upon the God who will in no wise fail nor in any wise forsake them that rest their trust on him; and then go forth to do all thy will, even thine, unto the end.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Future of Homosexuals in the Churches of Christ

I wonder sometimes if and how the Churches of Christ will resist the incorporation of homosexuality into their churches. It seems to me almost completely self-evident that the counter-movement in American culture which has resisted the full enfranchisement of homosexuals is doomed to failure (and reasonably so, as far as I'm concerned). In a generation, I do not doubt that our children will look back on our parents as backward, foolish bigots. Gay marriage will become a reality, even a norm in American society, and, I am convinced, anyone who opposes it is fighting a self-deluded and futile battle against the dominant forces which drive our society.

I do not, however, really care what the American government decides on the issue of homosexuality. I have no problem admitting in the same breath that to deny civil rights to homosexuals is fundamentally un-American and that to deny that those "rights" are sinful is un-Christian. As I am an American by an accident of birth and a Christian by conviction of conscience and by the grace of God, I am inevitably only bothered with the latter of those two assertions. Thus, given what I consider to be the inevitable state of affairs in the secular world, I wonder what will become of the Churches of Christ? Will they accept homosexuality as acceptable? Will they put homosexuals in their pulpits?

I don't worry so much for Christendom as a whole. The majority of Christians belong to denominations with the kind of ecclesiastical machinery to combat social forces should that be their desire. More importantly, the Catholic and Orthodox churches (representing roughly 1.5 of the 2 billion Christians) are geographically diverse enough - and thus sufficiently divorced from any dependence on American culture - that whatever direction American goes, they may gladly continue on whatever course seems best to them.

Churches of Christ, however, have no ecclesiastical machinery through which to combat social forces. Thus, the history of the churches of Christ has long been characterized by a defense of the social status quo. When the social norms change, Churches of Christ are almost always somewhat slowly following right behind. Churches of Christ are, more significantly, very thoroughly American. They were founded in American, rooted in American values. It is a church that fosters patriotism as much as piety, and one that has long courted respectability in the American religious culture.

So what will happen when that culture adapts to incorporate homosexuality into its accepted worldview? Will it be, as it has been with so many other issues, that support will begin with a few dissenting voices (as perhaps it already has). Those voices may appear to be squashed by an overwhelming flood of criticism on the part of conservatives, but slowly the idea will take hold. With the younger generations, with the educated elite, will the church slowly conform itself yet again to cultural norms until the whole body has largely forgotten what it stood for to begin with?

The experience of the church with civil rights provides a good example of the metamorphosis that Churches of Christ can undergo in a generation, riding into the future on the coattails of dominant culture. Since the Civil War, Churches of Christ had largely capitulated to the social pressure for segregation. At the advent of the civil rights movement, the largely southern church championed the racist agenda of most southern whites. Only after the death of Martin Luther King, when the battle had already been won (at least in principle) did dissent from the party line begin. Less than thirty years later, that dissent has become the party line. (The purpose here is of course not to lament that the church eventually abandoned its racism. Clearly that was a positive outcome. My point is merely to demonstrate the tendency of the Churches of Christ to allow themselves to be shaped so thoroughly by the dominant mores of society.)

On the other hand, the Churches of Christ have resisted the move to "ordain" women with surprising vigor. There have certainly been capitulations. The early twentieth century saw the defection of churches who refused to allow Sunday School because they would need to staff women to teach them. In recent times, women have found positions as "ministers" in the church, but those roles are almost exclusively for ministering to women, children, and youth. The churches have resisted any incursion of women into the eldership or the pulpit of most congregations. While the ordination of women has largely become the assumed norm, at least in Protestantism, Churches of Christ have managed to resist the temptation to incorporate women more fully into their unofficial power structure.

So I wonder which path homosexuality will take. Will Churches of Christ change with culture, modify their moral code, admit their "bigotry," and incorporate homosexuals openly into their fellowship? Or will they resist change and represent a last counter-cultural stronghold against homosexuality in Christianity? For my part, I imagine that the former will be the case. As long as Churches of Christ identify themselves so readily with American culture, as long as they put their faith in the American government to be a "Christian government," and as long as they falsely conflate permitting something socially and supporting it ethically the force of cultural change will be irresistible.

Friday, July 23, 2010

James A. Harding and Christian Education

In reading Earl West's article, “James A. Harding and Christian Education,” I became increasingly bemused by the fact that there is a university (and not merely a university, but the largest Church of Christ university) that takes Harding as a namesake. Given what I have just learned about James A. Harding's beliefs about the way schools should be run - not merely as a matter of preference but as a matter of right and wrong, good and evil - I am quite certain that he would be disgusted to find his name attached to Harding University. Some quotes from Harding and from the Article should suffice to illustrate what I mean.

With reference to Lipscomb University, which Harding helped to found, West writes:

So, in the fall of 1899, tuition began to be charged in all courses except the Bible and all Bible teachers did their work without pay. Harding explained, "It seems to me that a teacher of the Bible should never charge anything for his services whether he teaches with pen or tongue. We ought not to put a price on the gospel. . . ."" Teachers, then, "will depend upon voluntary, unsolicited contributions, as they do in their work as preachers, to supply whatever they need."

Again of Lipscomb University, Harding says:

It is not an incorporated or chartered institution under the control of a Board of Trustees. I could not work as a teacher of the doctrine of Christ under such control. To my mind, such an institution is wrong to the same extent and in the same way that a missionary society is. In doing the work of Christ, a Christian should not submit himself to be directed and controlled by any other authority than that of Christ, nor should he belong to any other institution for the advance of the Lord's cause than the Church of God.

He makes the same point of a different school after he left Lipscomb University (coincidentally right after they formed a board of trustees and gained a charter):

No if our school had a Board of Trustees empowered to select and discharge teachers at their will, to direct the teachers as to what and how and when they should teach, and, in general, to control the school, with a set of by-laws of their own making for the regulation of themselves and of us, I could not continue in it.

West adds:

Not only did Harding object to a Board of Trustees to administer a Christian school, he was equally negative on an endowment. When the Christian Courier, a Texas Christian Church periodical, advocated an endowment as a means of financially supporting a faculty so they could "maintain that serenity of mind necessary to keep up their studies," Harding took exception.

So Harding - who opposed boards, charters, endowments, and salaried Bible faculty - lends his name (quite unwillingly, I imagine, if he were given the choice) to Harding University - which has a charter, a board, a large salaried Bible faculty, and an almost eighty-one million dollar endowment.

The best part for me, however, was the irony of the fact that the Harding University Graduate School of Religion will next year become the Harding University School of Theology in view of these words of Harding's: "Theological schools are wrong."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Primitive Christianity and Bison

What is the deal with the Restoration Movement and Bison? It just occured to my wife and I that not only is the mascot of Harding University and Lipscomb University a bison, but so is the mascot of Bethany College, the university Alexander Campbell himself founded. What is up with that?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Why I Gave Up Paleo-Orthodoxy...Before I Had Even Heard of It

I heard of Thomas Oden and paleo-Orthodoxy for the first time recently, and the more I read about it, the more I realized that Oden was pursuing an aim which I myself had begun to pursue at the beginning of my training as a historian. There is a certain simple allure in what Oden offers, particularly for those of us deeply disturbed by the ongoing fracturing of the Church and the seemingly endless capitulation of faith to secular culture. The Bible has quite clearly proved insufficient as an objective uniting ground for Christianity. Even the Stone-Campbell churches who share a basic theology and hermeneutic could not stay united on the principle of "the Bible alone." So in proposing a broadened basis for unifying orthodoxy, Oden's suggestion of the earliest church as an alternative is promising.

Nevertheless, paleo-orthodoxy and the Vincentian Canon which forms its implicit grounds for unity are flawed in two important ways: one of them historical and one philosophical.

Historically there is very little that has been "believed everywhere, always and by all." If the full scope of those who claim adherence to the Christian faith is considered, then doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection are out. In fact, what was measurably shared between Gnostics and "proto-Catholics" (to borrow a distasteful term from modern scholarship) is almost entirely semantic, reducible to the name "Christian" derived from largely unrelated understandings of "Christ." Of course, Oden and others would never suggest that heretics be included in the "everyone" who is believing. Yet, if heresy is excluded some definition of orthodoxy is assumed and the argument becomes circular. The problem is further compounded by the great diversity even between saintly persons who are recognized as authoritative. For example, the Cappadocian and Augustinian views of free will are not merely in tension, capable of coexisting side by side in a reunited Christianity. They are fundamentally incompatible. Oden elects the Cappadocian view over Augustine's, but the grounds for this are not entirely clear to me. Millions of Calvinists, among others, would certainly object that voluntarism is the universal testimony of the earliest church. Even within the orthodox historical witness, there is so much variation and ambiguity that to suggest that we can in any sense pool the record and come up with a clear majority on orthodoxy is at best optimistic, at worst deluded.

Even if, for the sake of argument, there was sufficient uniformity on matters of faith to select an arbitrary point in time before which orthodoxy would be understood to be in tact, there is a deeper problem to be considered. What are the grounds for assuming that consensus results in truth? The history of the church has rejected this claim as often as it has made it. Certainly Athanasius, who Oden cites as an orthodox father, would not have suggested that the Arian emperor was right to have him exiled by virtue of the Arian majority in the Empire at the time. Maximus the Confessor, another father Oden relies on as a source of truth, was mutilated and died specifically for his claim that even if the whole world testified that he was wrong God would vindicate him in the end. Christian truth can never be understood to be rooted in or even recognized by the consensus of Christians. Truth has as its root the True One, and no other source may be posited. Suggesting that by consensus the Fathers reveal what is orthodox to us is more or less the equivalent of suggesting that Christians might hold a worldwide poll today to determine what we should all believe, with the results being binding on everyone.

I had long since given up on paleo-orthodoxy as a grounds for ecumenicism before I ever encountered Thomas Oden or his theories. Nevertheless, in reading about his theology I am able to better understand precisely why the system is flawed. The practical outcomes of paleo-orthodoxy are certainly desirable as far as I'm concerned. A renewed respect by modern Christians for the theologians who came before. An effort to solve present issues by appealing to the core truths which have been articulated throughout time. A deference paid to the great minds - greater than most of ours, great enough to be preserved much longer than my thoughts here will be - who peered into the abyss that is God and preserved what they saw for the benefit of this blind generation. But as a system for recognizing truth and uniting Christians, it falls woefully short in view of its critical defects. Thus, I agree with Ralph C. Wood (who wrote one of the articles I read about Oden) both when he writes, "Our experience of the Cross is immensely deepened by learning how major (and also minor) theologians have interpreted it. So long as we remain mentally and existentially imprisoned within the cage of modernity, our faith itself is fettered" and, immediately afterwards, when he adds "that the Gospel requires a contemporary re-visioning as much as it needs a classical repeating." It does nothing, to paraphrase a quote I once read from Florovsky, to have a patristic faith if we spend all our time looking at the Fathers and no time following their example.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Suicide According to G. K. Chesterton

"Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered) than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings: it insults all women. The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is not: that is his crime. He cannot be bribed, even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer. When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves might fall off in anger and the birds fly away in fury: for each has received a personal affront. Of course there may be pathetic emotional excuses for the act. There often are for rape, and there almost always are for dynamite. But if it comes to clear ideas and the intelligent meaning of things, then there is much more rational and philosophic truth in the burial at the cross-roads and the stake driven through the body, than in Mr. Archer's suicidal automatic machines. There is a meaning in burying the suicide apart. The man's crime is different from other crimes--for it makes even crimes impossible."

Without commenting on Chesterton's view of suicide, I will add some observations based on my recent work on Gregory of Nyssa. For Gregory, all sin is the active choice of non-being instead of being. In view of this understanding of sin, suicide becomes not the greatest of sins, as Chesterton suggests, but merely the physical acting out of what is already a metaphysical direction in every sin. Sin is the choice of death, of more than death, of descent into non-being altogether. To choose to kill oneself is, at least in the philosophical sense, merely the playing out of the drama of sin up to its inevitable conclusion.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Disaster Movies

I just finished watching the film 2012 for the second time. (Don't ask me why I sat through it a second time. I didn't enjoy it the first time.) It strikes me as I watch it, mulling over in my mind what a terrible film it is, that the whole concept for the movie is little more than the serial destruction of major landmarks by natural forces. The Washington Monument crumbles. The Eiffel tower crumbles. St. Peter's Bascilica crumbles. And so on. In fact, that seems to be the scheme for most disaster movies. The Day After Tomorrow cover shows the Statue of Liberty succumbing to the elements. Armageadden sees major world cities leveled to dust. There are, of course, more examples.

I wonder what the attraction is? How many times can we watch Paris, New York, and Tokyo destroyed before we get bored? I'd like to believe that what draws people to these kinds of images is some subconcious awareness of our own fragility and finitude when compared with creation. The movies are to me little subliminal theist apologies that remind people that there is something out there in whose hands we all are. And some part of us likes that reminder, or at the very least needs it.

I'm sure I'm reading too much into it, but that was my thought anyhow.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Apophatic Moment for the Day

"Men have never discovered a faculty to comprehend the incomprehensible, nor have we ever been able to devise an intellectual technique for grasping the inconceivable." - Gregory of Nyssa

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Way the Bible Reads the Bible

I am always delighted, though never surprised, to find serious flaws in the application of the supposed ideological presuppositions of the Churches of Christ. (It’s that immature, rebellious child in me that likes to lash out at my spiritual parentage.) It was a major turning point in my spiritual development when my wife asked the very innocent question, “Where does the Bible talk about selecting elders?” It took about two hours for us to finally conclude that the Bible not only never outlines the democratic selection process so popular in the Churches of Christ but actually speaks exclusively of an appointment process. Another month of posing my wife’s question to every professor I could lay hands on did little to impede my growing realization that the very framework of Restorationist belief and practice was in fact little more than a thin fa├žade hiding rationalism and capitulation to a nineteenth century culture that is now obsolete. Calling Bible things by Bible names, doing Bible things in Bible ways, speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where the Bible is silent - in short, restoring the first century church based only on what can be derived from Scripture - make for good slogans and bad founding principles.

My most recent reinforcement of this dismal perspective came during a course I took under Fr. John Behr at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. In the course, he addressed at length the importance of a person’s theological presuppositions in forming one’s hermeneutical presuppositions. In the context of juxtaposing Jewish and early Christian hermeneutics, Fr. Behr discussed some of the most basic beliefs about the character of Scripture in general which were shared by Jews and Christians as well as the theological disparities which yielded such radically different interpretations of the text. He made the point in passing that our own presuppositions have made it very difficult to conceive of Scripture in the way the early church did. Even simply understanding why it is certain fathers, or even the apostles, understood a text the way they did requires a complex harmony of history, theology, and exegesis. The modern person has no less a distinct starting point for biblical interpretation than did the Jews who rejected early Christian “misappropriation” of their Scriptures.

The Churches of Christ are no less guilty of this charge. In spite of claims to be restoring a first century church, a simplified Christianity with an authentic Christian mindset, Churches of Christ adopt the same basic hermeneutical launching point as most major Protestant denominations. They cling quite readily to principles of interpretation which locate relevant meaning first and foremost in a thorough and accurate exegesis of the text. Quite contrary to antique views of Scripture which held a text to be cryptic and perpetually speaking to the present, modern hermeneutics begin by stripping away any sense of mystery through scientific evaluation of what a text meant in the past. If that should happen to give insight in the present, all the better, but that is by no means an inherent characteristic of Scripture as such.

In fact, Churches of Christ may be guiltier than other groups. Their acceptance of historical-critical presuppositions is logically prior to their engagement of Scripture. The historical concept of a first century church in need of restoration and the critical belief that the plain sense of Scripture is readily accessible are the founding beliefs of the Restoration Movement which thus cloud every engagement with Scripture. Only by accepting fundamentally unbiblical ways of engaging the Bible a priori can the Churches of Christ uphold “key” beliefs, e.g. the plurality of elders, the radical autonomy of the local church, and a capella worship.

Were we to apply the “Bible things; Bible ways” principle to hermeneutics, the result would not be a historical-critical framework which locates meaning in right exegesis. That assertion ought to be self-evident, but a few simple examples should suffice to prove it nevertheless. Matthew 13:35, Mark 12:10, Luke 4:21, John 5:39, and Acts 2:16 serve as obvious illustrations of the primarily Christological interpretation of the Scriptures in the Gospels and Acts. The same basic hermeneutic continues in the epistles, e.g. 1 Cor 15:13 and 1 Pet 2:6. Other interpretations of the Scriptures include ecclesiastical (1 Tim 5:18) or theological (Gal 4:27) appropriation of Old Testament texts. The common thread, of course, is that none of these interpretations of Old Testament texts (and perhaps a New Testament one in 1 Tim 5:18) adopt the rationalistic interpretive strategy on which the Churches of Christ base everything from their ecclesiology to their deepest theology. There is little regard, if not positive disregard, for the historical context of a passage. Meaning, for the New Testament authors at least, comes not from human evaluation but only when God has “opened the Scriptures to us” (Luke 24:32).

As a closing disclaimer, let me clarify that my point is neither to undermine historical-critical hermeneutics nor to propose primarily Christological hermeneutics as an alternative. My purpose is only to illustrate a deficiency, even hypocrisy, in the way Stone-Campbell churches (of which I am a part) apply their hermeneutical presuppositions. There is a great deal of discord over a variety of issues based on whether or not the Bible approves of them. Can we have extra-congregational superstructures? Can we have instruments in worship? Can we have kitchens and gyms and fellowship halls in church buildings? What does the Bible say about this? This last question is often the first question posed. The original question, if consistency is to be maintained, would be “What does the Bible say about how to read the Bible?” Frankly, I am of the opinion that anyone honest enough to pursue that question first will be unsatisfied with the implications of the answer. I admit, however, that someone who genuinely undertakes to do Bible things in Bible ways is better than someone who only pretends to do so.