Prayer is Theology

Theology and prayer… what a combination.  To many people today, “theology” is what smart people study in seminary, and seldom makes much sense to the ordinary Christian.  “Prayer” on the other hand, is something we all do individually according to our own styles and customs.  Theology and prayer could hardly be any more far apart to such a mind.

the false dichotomy

But this divergence and split between “theology” and “prayer” is not the way things have always been.  In the late Medieval era, when a movement known as Scholasticism began, “theology” came to be more and more associated with the formal academic study of doctrine.  Theologians were scholastics – scholars – people who had studied this stuff and were therefore experts in the field.  Theology had become a discipline alongside the sciences, literature, mathematics, and music.  The Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment didn’t change this at all, and to this day most Christians in the Western tradition associate “theology” with some sort of formal study.

Before the rise of Scholasticism (and in a few breathes of fresh air throughout the past near-thousand years of history since then), theology and prayer were inseparable.  They were almost two sides of the same coin, you could say.  In fact, they were part of a single continuum or process that was (and remains) a central part of Christian spirituality.

reading, meditation, and prayer

This Lent I will be reading a collection of prayers written by St. Anselm in (roughly) the 1070’s.  His prayers are representative of Early Medieval spirituality, where theology and prayer are still fully bonded together.  In the Introduction written by Sister Benedicta Ward, it is explained:

Reading was an action of the whole person, by which the meaning of a text was absorbed, until it became prayer.  It was frequently compared to eating: (1) Taste by reading, [2] chew by understanding, [3] swallow by loving and rejoicing.

Prayer, in other words, comes from the digesting of Scripture.  Once you’ve taken some part of the Scriptures into your mind and heart, you’ve now got material to pray.  This is especially true with the Psalms, being themselves prayers in the Bible.  As you grow familiar with God’s prayers, the Psalms, you become more able to pray them as your prayers.

This analogy of eating survives in Anglican liturgy via one of our Sunday Collects:

BLESSED Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such a way hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of your holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

So prayer is rooted in theology – the understanding of the Scriptures.

The other side of the same coin is seen in writings of the Fathers: their theology is continually rising up into prayer, or rather, there is no distinction between the two.  In Cyprian, Irenaus, and especially Origen, prayer welled up spontaneously as they wrote their commentaries.  Their theology, in the ancient sense of the word. was a hymn, a prayer, the point where knowledge and and love become praise.  The Sanctus, the Te Deum, were therefore called theologies and conversely theologians were those whose prayer is true.

If a Bible Commentary today suddenly went from explaining part of the Scriptures to a prayer, that would throw off most readers today.  It would seem like an inappropriate change of writing style or genre.  It’d feel out of place.  But before Scholasticism changed the way we think of theology and prayer, they worked together much more fluidly.  The Sanctus and Te Deum mentioned above are considered songs or hymns today, but they’re also works of theology.  They both express truth about God (and particularly Christ) and are expressions of praise to Him.  In a sense, they were the “best” sort of theological works, because they simultaneously proclaimed Truth and praised Him.  Similarly, it’s why the Creeds both end with the word “Amen.”  They’re both statements of theological belief and prayerful acts of worship.

the meaning of orthodoxy

Let’s revisit the end of that last block quote.

… theologians were those whose prayer is true.

This may be an odd statement for some people today to wrap their minds around.  Shouldn’t it say “those whose prayer comes true”?  First we have to remind ourselves that prayer is far more than our intercessions and petitions.  There is also prayer of confession – confessing our sins and confessing our faith!  There is also prayer of oblation, adoration, praise, and thanksgiving.  When we speak to God, we make assumptions about who God is.  When we thank and praise and adore Him, we’re identifying aspects of who and what God is, or what He has done for us.  When we confess sins and offer ourselves before Him, again we’re operating on certain “theological” assumptions about what sin is, where salvation comes from, and what our place and value is before God.  With that in mind let’s repeat the quote one more time:

A theologian is one whose prayer is true.

This is what it means to be “orthodox.”  Normally when people use the word “orthodox” today, they mean “right teaching” or “correct doctrines.”  But that’s not quite what the word really means.  Ortho means “right” or “correct,” but doxa is Greek for praise, not teaching.  Orthodoxy means “right praise” or “right worship.”  It means prayers that are true.  So yes, the “correct faith” is implied here, but it’s part and parcel with “correct prayers”.

This is a challenging and important lesson that we get from this ancient mindset: correct prayer and correct doctrine go together.

Before anyone freaks out, don’t worry – if you “mess up” when you’re praying out loud with others, you’re not in danger of suddenly turning into a heretic and losing your salvation.

But here is an example of how this can be very important.  In a time of prayer, how do you open: do you address God the Father or Jesus?  Do you address “God” in general, or do you address the Holy Spirit, or perhaps invoke all three persons of the Trinity?  Now think about how that prayer continues: do you keep repeating “Father God” as has become popular lately or “Lord Jesus”?  And finally, at the end, a lot of folks include “in Jesus’ name, amen.”  Is there coherence through all those pieces?  If you’re praying to Jesus, and then you say “in Jesus’ name,” you’re suddenly talking about Him instead.  Popular spontaneous prayer frequently reveals the deep confusion that Christians have about one of the most basic doctrines of all: the Trinity.

Orthodoxy, or right worship, provides a powerful antidote to that kind of issue.  By providing us with a set of “right prayers” we get both theology and prayer in one super bundle.

it keeps coming back to liturgy

As I often write here, this is why worship has always been liturgical.  Since at least Mount Sinai in the Exodus, God’s people have had God-given forms for worship that simultaneously teach us about God and express our prayers to Him.  Churches that retain the traditional liturgy in one form or another tend to produce Christians less confused about how to pray.  (Yes, when the liturgy is left a complete mystery and never explained then individuals can become disillusioned and miss the whole point, but that’s a fault of raising up believers, not a fault of the liturgy itself.)

The union of theology and prayer happens in every kind of Church, though, not just “liturgical” ones.  Even the “non-liturgical” churches present an implicit theology through their forms of worship and prayer.  Whenever we speak to God or about God, some sort of theology is always assumed.  The question is whether that theology has been thought through ahead of time such that it is translated accurately into prayer and praise.  Rock concert churches tend to communicate Jesus your buddy a lot better than the Judge of heaven and earth.  Stiff and unemotional churches tend to communicate the Judge better than the Friend.  And yet God is both Judge and Friend to us; a good liturgy takes both extremes into account.  The Gospel makes us cry (weeping over our sins) and smile (rejoicing in God’s forgiveness), therefore “right worship” should also instill both fear and joy in their proper proportions and times.

What does your private life of worship and prayer look like?  Can it be better-informed theologically?  Or are you academically-minded and well educated but struggle to express or use your knowledge in worship and prayer?  All too often, we tend to split theology and prayer apart.  Let’s see if we can heal that rift somewhat.  This is something I am passionate about at the level of congregational worship, but have yet to explore very deeply on an individual basis.  Food for thought (and prayer), I guess!

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Learning from the Liturgy: Candlemas

Yesterday was the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, often known as Candlemas for short.  I thought I’d take up some of the liturgical tid-bits that characterize the celebration of that day, and point out something of how they inform us of the Christian Faith, and biblical interpretation.

There are three primary worship services in Western liturgical tradition: Morning Prayer (or Mattins), the Mass (or Communion or Eucharist), and Evening Prayer (or Vespers).  Although they are normally held throughout the day in that order, the Communion service is the “principle” celebration of the day; that means that the scripture readings in that service are usually the most significant ones for the given holiday, and the readings in the Office are supplementary.  Also, what exactly the readings are, and how many of them exist, will vary between different specific traditions.  Older Anglican Prayer Books differ slightly from newer ones, and Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox liturgies also have slightly different choices in many cases, but over all the similarities tend to outweigh the differences.  With that in mind, let’s dive in!

The Collect

The “Collect of the Day” is a prayer that is meant to collect together the theme(s) of the day from the Scripture readings.  Looking at how this is done in a given Collect can reveal the theological, devotional, or practical emphases that the tradition is putting forth.  Here is one Collect for the feast of the Presentation:

Almighty and everlasting God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our flesh, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

This focuses on the historical event (Jesus’ presentation in the Temple) and draws a spiritual analogy to the end product of our salvation: the Day we are all made completely holy in Christ such that he may present us to the Father as adopted members of the household of God.  It also points out that Jesus was in “our flesh,” providing an emphasis on the incarnation and the exchange that takes place: God entered into our humanity so that we can enter into His divinity.

Morning Prayer readings

One Old Testament reading that some of the classic Prayer Books set forth for the Office of Morning Prayer is Exodus 13:1-16.  This makes for a great first reading on this holiday because it gives the Old Testament Law of Moses background for what’s going on with Jesus and his family.  In the wake of the Passover (Exodus 12), God instructs Moses that by destroying all the firstborn males in Egypt except for those households protected by the blood of the Passover Lamb, all firstborn males in Israel now belong to Him.  Therefore they must be redeemed (or bought back) after they are born.  It’s like a first-fruit offering, except because children are not to be sacrificed, they are to be paid for instead.  (Interestingly, it’s the same concept as an indulgence – a debt is owed, but another form of payment is accepted.)

This is what Mary and Joseph were doing in the Temple with 40-day-year-old Jesus; they were obeying this law going back to the time of the Exodus.

Holy Communion readings

Across the board, the Gospel reading for this holiday is Luke 2:22-40, as that is the account of the event on which this holiday is based.  There we find the story of Jesus’ family in the Temple, Simeon recognizing Jesus and singing his prophetic song (or Canticle), and Anna the prophetess recognizing Jesus and sharing the good news of His arrival as well.

An Old Testament reading often included here is Malachi 3:1-5.  Much of that passage provides material for the preaching of St. John the Baptist, which inevitably draws the participant in the liturgy back to the season of Advent.  For there we heard for one or two Sundays about John and his preaching, and the accompanying Advent theme of the future return of Christ for the final judgement echoes in this reading too.  But most importantly, the very first verse here says “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.”  Obviously this has multiple fulfillments, as Jesus visits the Temple many times in his life and significant things take place at several of those visits.  But this is his first arrival in the Temple, and there are two people there (Simeon and Anna) who had been seeking him there.

An Epistle reading often used in the service of Holy Communion is Galatians 4:1-7.  There we find a theme mentioned briefly in the Collect – our own becoming sons of God.  It also mentions the dynamic of moving from being bound to the Law to being adopted as sons.  Jesus himself, it says, was “born of a woman, born under law,” which this holiday describes.  So the sharing of Christ in our humanity leads to our sharing in his divinity, because “since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.”

Evening Prayer readings

One reading often used at the end of the day is Haggai 2:1-9.  This prophetic writing speaks of the newly-build second temple and its inferiority to the original built under King Solomon.  And yet, God promises that it will be greater in glory, for “in this place I will grant peace.”  This promise is empty and void throughout Old Testament history; it is not until Jesus arrives there that God’s presence actually ever even enters the Temple again!  As the Christian goes through Evening Prayer and sees this promise of peace at the end of the Old Testament lesson, he or she will be drawn back in memory to the Gospel reading earlier, specifically the words of Simeon: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.”  Haggai’s words are directly answered by Simeon in Luke’s Gospel book!

The Canticle of Simeon

Let’s stick with Simeon’s song for a moment here.  It’s Luke 2:29-32, specifically, and is actually used throughout the entire year as a canticle (prayer-song) in the Daily Office.  Traditionally it’s a canticle appointed for Compline, the bedtime office of prayer.  In that context, it is read by Christians sort of in union with Simeon with our approaching bedtime as a picture of our eventual death (as Simeon had been promised that would not die until he’d seen the Savior).  In Anglican practice, the Canticle of Simeon is also used in Evening Prayer, but the end-of-day/end-of-life context and effect is the same.  My point is that a regular participant in the liturgy will be intimately familiar with the Canticle of Simeon.  As a result, hearing it in the liturgy for this particular holiday will have an interesting effect.

Two major promises stand out in the Canticle of Simeon: Christ will be a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and will be a light to be the glory of Israel.  The theme of light coming into the world is echoed throughout the seasons of Advent (Romans 13:12’s armor of light), Christmas (John 1:9’s light coming into the world), and Epiphany (Isaiah 60’s light shining upon the nations).  So as this holiday wraps up the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle, the theme of light is brought to the foreground and celebrated quite visually.

The Blessing of Candles

This holiday’s nickname is Candlemas, because of the tradition of blessing candles on this day.  All the candles to be used in the Church for the coming year are gathered up to be blessed for their sacred purpose.  Additionally, other candles are blessed and distributed to the people to carry in procession and to take home.  This is a physical enactment of what we learn from Simeon – Christ is the light of the world for all nations, including ourselves!  One can also find in the Gospel books the words of Christ, “you are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14 and following).

Light does many things.  It drives out darkness and exposes what’s hidden.  Thus, the blessings spoken over the candles include both penitential aspects as God’s people repent of their sins, and apotropaic aspects as demonic spirits are to flee from the light of Christ.  The Scriptures do attest, after all, that the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).  So, by receiving candles and lighting them, we participants in the liturgy are given physical reinforcement to the words and teachings of Scripture that we are God’s adopted children, receiving Christ the light of the world promised in ages past by the Prophets.  And we receive this not just as some abstract teaching, but as historically linked to real events that actually happened.  Christ the Light of the World is not just a spiritual reality that occurs in our hearts, but is grounded in the real arrival of the real Christ child in the real (though now long-gone) Temple.  And with all that in place we are pointed to look ahead to the Day we each are presented in the heavenly temple to our heavenly Father by our adoptive brother, Christ Himself.

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The Importance of Words

This devotion is based upon two Scripture readings: 2 Corinthians 4:13-18 and Matthew 12:30-37.

From these two readings, we find that words are very important.  Let’s begin with a closer look at the end of the Gospel reading.

By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” – the words of our Lord, Matthew 12:37

What a great and frightening claim!  Taken alone, this quote might make one wonder if saying the wrong thing can send one to hell forever.  But the full reading sets this context, and Jesus explains that our words are the fruit of our inner heart and mind.  We’re like trees – good trees produce good fruit and bad trees produce bad fruit.  If we have faith in Christ, we are being transformed into good trees.  It is that inner faith that God looks to as he brings us salvation: justification from sin, sanctification from our sinful nature into the perfection of Christ, and so on.  So in the meantime, even as we still sin and even blaspheme Christ in our thoughts, words, and deeds, we can know forgiveness – because we have put our faith in Christ as the One who alone can save us from those sins.  Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, speaking defiantly against the good work God would do in the hearts of the faithful, is unforgivable because it is the act of anti-faith.  The call of the Gospel again and again is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and we shall be saved.  If we do not believe, salvation is not ours.

Since we have the same spirit of faith… we speak.” – St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 4:13

Having faith in Christ, being a “good tree,” we bear the “good fruit” of words and speech.  We do still sin and produce evil, speaking lies at times, but on the whole we are to be moving in the direction of producing more and more good fruit – speaking good words of faith.  Here are three ways we can do this.

  1. Reinforce your faith with words in worship.  When we gather together for the corporate worship of the Church, it’s like a training ground for how to serve our Lord.  We read the Bible together, say prayers together, recite the Creed together.  All of these are vitally important tools that shore up our faith, reinforcing the work of the Holy Spirit within us.
  2. Strengthen your faith by confessing your sins.  This, even more than the previous point, is especially absent in far too many churches today.  Taking the time to speak, literally to call yourself out on your own sins, before God, is very helpful.  When you admit your sins, the darkness with you, it gives place for the light of Christ to shine into your heart more deeply.  Plus, as you jostle your sins out of the way, it allows the Christian faith to be strengthen in its place!
  3. Share your faith by speaking of Christ to others.  As you grow in confidence in Christ, and stronger in your integrity, it is just and right that you share that with others.  In some ways this is less a duty and more a overflowing – the identity of “Christian” and living “the way” of Christ will naturally lend themselves to words of explanation to others.  In some cases this should be very intentional: making a point of telling a particular person about a particular part of the Gospel.  At other times it may be very simple – a few words introducing a stranger to the Christian perspective that the Holy Spirit has been developing in your heart over the years.

Just remember that you’re a tree, in this metaphor.  You must remain “rooted and grounded in love,” that is, Christ.  And to love Christ is to keep his commandments.  And yet, to live according to the Law of Christ is only possible if we first hold the Faith of Christ.  So it is all interconnected: we are planted firmly in Christ as our source of life, inner faith in Him is absolutely necessary, and the fruit we bear is in accordance to that which is inside ourselves.

May God make you worthy of his call, and fulfill every good resolve and work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” – St. Paul, 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12

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An Anglican Martyr

As “reformed catholics,” Anglicans have a curious relationship with the celebration of the Saints.  While most of the core cast of characters from the New Testament are given “major feast days” to be remembered in the annual liturgy of the Church, the vast host of “minor feasts” were removed from the early Prayer Books.  A few big-name saints were listed on calendars, but no formal liturgies or worship services were prescribed.  But in the late 1600’s, an exception appeared.

In the 1640’s, England was gripped in civil war.  There was the usual mix of politics and religion: Anglicans & monarchists on one side, and Presbyterians & parliamentarians on the other.  After years of bloodshed, King Charles I was captured and put on trial by his own Parliament.  He refused to recognize their authority to try him, so the proceedings were pretty short.  (And of course, the court was rigged with the level of corruption one might expect in a war-torn country.)  On this day, January 30th, 1649, Charles was executed for “treason” against the realm of England.  Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England, and thus the “Interregnum” began.  The Prayerbook, its liturgy, holidays, bishops, were all abolished; England was now a Puritan (roughly Presbyterian today) state.  Massachusetts, the puritan colony, rejoiced.

Upon Cromwell’s death, his incompetent son came to power, and proved so unpopular that he was deposed within a year, and the late King Charles’ son, Charles II, was brought back from exile and put back on the throne.  This was in 1660.  No time was wasted: bishops were reinstated, traditional English life went back to normal, and a new Book of Common Prayer was put back together.  That prayerbook, the 1662 edition, has remained the Anglican standard to this day!

But now a new “saint’s day” was included in the back of the book:  “A FORM of PRAYER with FASTING, to be used yearly upon the Thirtieth Day of January, being the Day of the Martyrdom of the Blessed King CHARLES the First; to implore the Mercy of God, that neither the Guilt of that sacred and innocent Blood, nor those other sins, by which God was provoked to deliver up both us and our King into the hands of cruel and unreasonable men, may at any time hereafter be visited upon us, or our posterity.”  What can I say, they liked long titles back then.

I’d just like to share one prayer from the Order for this day in the 1662 prayerbook:

BLESSED Lord, in whose sight the death of thy saints is precious; We magnify thy name for the abundant grace bestowed upon our martyred Sovereign; by which he was enabled so cheerfully to follow the Steps of his blessed Master and Saviour, in a constant meek suffering of all barbarous indignities, and at last resisting unto blood; and even then, according to the same pattern, praying for his murderers.  Let his memory, O Lord, be ever blessed among us; that we may follow the example of his courage and constancy, his meekness and patience, and great charity. And grant, that this our land may be freed from the vengeance of his righteous blood, and thy mercy glorified in the forgiveness of our sins: and all for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.

Because we live in the USA, the martyrdom of King Charles I isn’t a national fast day for us.  However, we can appreciate the memory of the religious extremism that plagued those times, and be reminded to pray for the many places in the world that experience this very problem: Syria, northern Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, China, Egypt, and many other nations.  One international organization that specializes in organizing prayer & relief for the persecuted Church abroad is The Voice of the Martyrs.  If you feel so led, their website has a great many resources for praying for and assisting Christians throughout the world being persecuted for the Faith: www.persecution.com

God bless us all, and protect all His people in the true worship of Him!

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Frequently Misused Verses: “not in the Gospels”

Today we’re throwing this series a little curve ball.  Instead of dealing with a particular quote or verse from the Bible that is frequently misused, we’re looking at an anti-verse, so to speak.  Especially in recent times, people have made appeals to the claim “Jesus never said anything about ___ therefore it isn’t that important.”  This pits one part of the Bible against the others, namely exalting the Gospel books above all the others.  And although the four Gospels do hold a special and exalted place unique before the other books (at least in liturgical traditions) the current popular misuse is a reduction of divine revelation to the “red letter Bible” – that is, the words actually attributed to Jesus during his life on earth.

Let’s start with an example.

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We’ve got a bonus round here, too, as someone has supplemented the meme with an actual attempt to explain the reasoning behind it.  Both are problematic misuses of Scripture, and I shall address these one bit at a time.

Point #1: the whole Bible is the Word of God

Highlighting the Gospel books, or even the “words of Christ” within the Gospel books, is a style of argument that inevitably denies the divinely inspired authority of the rest of the Bible to some degree.  If all that mattered in Christian teaching was what Jesus directly said in person, then we wouldn’t keep Paul’s and James’ and Peter’s letters, John’s letters and Revelation, the history of the Acts, or any of the Old Testament, in the Bible; all we’d have is a “collection of sayings.”  Interestingly, the early Gnostics made the same sort of appeal, claiming to have “lost” or “secret” sayings of Jesus that contradict the elaborations of the Apostles after His ascension into heaven.  We do not pit one part of God’s Word against another; that is a basic interpretive fallacy.

Point #2: who is Jesus again?

Let’s revisit the most fundamental doctrine of Christianity: who or what is God?  God is Trinity: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  God the Son, known on earth as Jesus, is also known as the Word of God.  Through God’s Word and God’s Spirit, the human race has received God’s self-revelation to us.  And although God is three persons, God is one Being.  So what the Spirit said through the Prophets of old is just as divine as what the Son said when among us on earth.  And if we account the whole of Scripture as God’s Word (as the Church always has done), then it makes no difference whether its earthly source is the mouth of Jesus or the mouth of a Prophet – we receive both as from the same Divine author.  Granted, the way in which we understand those words may vary, but even then, it’s not so much because of who spoke it on earth, but because of the style in which the word was recorded.  A poem (like Psalms) must be read differently than an historical account (like Acts).

Now, to deal with the errors in the commentary below the meme.

Paragraph #1: the purpose of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible

The Law of Moses was set forth to deal with sin, as the commenter correctly begins, but to say that the Law atoned for sin and “got people into heaven” is inaccurate.  The New Testament highlights that the old Law was unable to carry out that hope.  Galatians 3:21-22 says:

if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

So the Law actually just condemned people of their sins.  The sacrificial system of the Old Covenant was an active lived-out reminder that sin is beyond our capacity to bear, let alone remove.  It therefore also functioned as a placeholder until the real sacrifice to atone for sins took place: the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross once for all.

Paragraph #2: freedom in Christ

The commenter starts out well, identifying the Cross as a central part of Jesus’ ministry in the world.  But then a fatal error jumps in when she says that we enter into heaven by “acting in His image.”  We do not join ourselves to Christ and His image by our actions.  That is the heresy of Palagianism (or something much like it) which teaches that we’re good enough to save ourselves if we just imitate the Good Example of Jesus.  Rather, we are made into Christ’s image through Baptism, faith, and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit (Romans 6:3-11, John 3:16-17, Titus 3:3-7).

The commenter goes on to note that because of Christ’s sacrifice we are no longer bound to the old Law of Moses.  Or at least, that’s the corrected wording of what she tries to describe.  We no longer have to perform circumcision or wear our hair in prescribed ways or sacrifice animals, correct.  But to say we don’t have to follow “any of the other laws in Leviticus” is misleading.  We are freed from the old law, not bound to the old covenant, but we are bound into the New Covenant, which repeats the exact same basic demand: “be holy as I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44-45, 1 Peter 1:16).  How do we know what holiness is?  The law of the Old Testament, especially as we see it repeated in brief highlights in the New Testament, give us that picture of holiness.

Does this mean we have to “pick and choose” our way Leviticus to understand holiness?  No, it does not.  The Old Testament Law, from Genesis through Deuteronomy, is surprisingly clear if you actually read through it attentively.  There are different types of laws throughout.  Some are civil laws, like the laws about land inheritance and not moving your neighbor’s boundary markers.  Some are religious laws, like the laws about hairstyle and sacrifice and not boiling goats in their mother’s milk.  And some are ethical laws, like not murdering, fornicating, or stealing.  The civil laws belong to the civic – ancient Israel and Judah, long past in history.  The religious laws belong to the religion – ancient Judaism centered around the Ark of the Covenant.  The ethical laws belong to the ethical standards of the deity – the God of Israel.  Since Christians profess the God of Israel to be the same God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, the ethical laws remain as lessons in godly holiness.

Paragraph #3: do Christians need ethics?

The final paragraph of our intrepid commentator is the most disastrous, as it moves from false teaching to false exhortation.  While absolutely yes, we do look to the sacrifice of our Great High Priest, Jesus of Nazareth, upon the Cross, as the sole source of our life and our salvation, that does not mean we have no need of any law.  First of all, Jesus spoke quite a bit of law from his own mouth, the “sermon on the mount” in Matthew 5-7 being one of the better-known examples.  Secondly, as I already noted, the call to “be holy” like God is repeated throughout the New Testament (not only in 1 Peter 1 but also in Matthew 5, for example).

We do not follow the ethical teachings of Jesus in order to earn, catch up to, or supplant the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.

Rather, we follow the ethical teachings of Jesus in order to follow, honor, and respond to the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.

This is really basic to Christian living and really important to understand.  In the beginning of Romans chapter 6, we see the retort from St. Paul:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?

He asks a similar question shortly thereafter:

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!

The explanation is simple:

you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

and

if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.

Long story short…

It is a frequent issue for people these days to fail to see the connection between the Old Testament laws and New Testament living.  Simplistic appeals to “what Jesus said” are not the solution.  Instead, we’ve got to do the hard work of actually reading and learning how the Bible is meant to be understood, and how the Old Testament stands as God’s Word for Christians.

Two of the best places to start are Romans 6 and Galatians 3.

Once you’ve got those chapters sorted out, go ahead and read the whole epistle to the Galatians.

Then go and read Romans chapters 1 through 8.

The epistle to the Hebrews is also a valuable book linking the Old Testament and New, though its focus is more on the priesthood, sacrifice, and liturgy, rather than on the Law.

Finally, allow me to remind you of the famous verses in the Bible about the Bible, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”  Remember that St. Paul is really talking about the Old Testament!  It’s true for the New as well, but let that sink in: the Old Testament is inspired by God and profitable for all those good things so that Christians may be prepared for good works.

Thanks be to God!

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The Basic Need: Liturgy or Bible?

Every now and then people like to say provocative things to make other people think, freak out, or somehow be surprised and see things in a new way.  Protestantism takes for granted that the Bible is centrally important to the Christian faith, and without it there can be no Christianity.  And so one Roman Catholic writer one day decided to poke back at that assumption with a slightly different assertion: “No Bible? Fine.  No liturgy? No Christianity.”  Feel free to check out the article in full: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cosmostheinlost/2015/10/09/no-bible-fine-no-liturgy-no-christianity/

As an Anglican Christian, I highly value both the Bible and the Liturgy.  I would not want a church to lack either, and when one is absent everything falls apart.  A liturgical church without paying any attention to the Bible which permeates the liturgy is an empty collection of useless gestures and pontifications.  A Bible-preaching church without paying any attention to the Liturgy that gives the Bible a context is an aimless collection of teaching endlessly swept away with secular culture (be it modern, popular, old-fashioned, or whatever).

The Bible through the Liturgy

But let’s look closely at this artificial Bible versus Liturgy debate that the Catholic article made up.  There was indeed a time when the Church existed and the Bible did not.  The New Testament wasn’t entirely written until as late as the 90’s AD, meaning Christianity grew explosively for half a century without it.  The Jewish Christians had the Old Testament, and both Jew & Gentile believers had the Apostles’ testimonies, so there was a semblance of what would come to be “The Bible” in their midst, but for the most part all that they had was a liturgy – a way of worshiping that connects the core events and doctrines of Christianity with the lives of the Christians in community.

Let’s take this further; the makeup of the New Testament wasn’t universally agreed-upon until the 300’s AD.  Until then you had a shorter list of books in some places (often leaving out books like 2 Peter and Revelation) and a longer list of books in others (often adding 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas).  This website has a neat table showing the New Testament’s book list according to different people in history.  I don’t point this out to disparage the veracity of the New Testament; most of it is pretty consistent, and I am unashamed to trust the decisions made in the 300’s… they’re also the ones who wrote the first draft of the Nicene Creed and began the great Ecumenical Councils of the Church.

But let’s take this yet one more step further.  Until the 1500’s, the number of literate people was very small.  So the Bible was not “freely accessible” to most people.  Instead they heard it read to them in Church… that is, yes, in the liturgy.  They received the Bible through the liturgy.  Even today, there are many Christians who don’t read the Bible on their own, thus only hearing it when in Church.  In a liturgical church, the Bible permeates the worship service and the readings are carefully selected so that the participants will hear the most important passages to instruct and exhort them.  A faithful participant in a robust liturgy will absorb a great deal of Scripture, even if that person is unable to read!

Bible without liturgy?

My many friends in non-liturgical or semi-liturgical churches will be asking what the point of liturgy is, though, if one can and does read the Bible?  The primary issue of Bible-reading without participating in the liturgy is the problem of divergent and contradictory interpretations.  During the Reformation, the Catholic Church “banned” private Bible-reading not because they were anti-Bible, but because too many people were interpreting it according to their own minds, apart from (and in conflict with) the historic faith.  Even some of the Reformation churches temporarily “banned” private Bible-reading for the same reason.  The message on both sides was this: “stop adding to the confusion with your own not-thought-through interpretations, and come listen to a good preacher help you make sense of it first.”

This may come off as controlling and paternalistic.  In a sense it is.  But if we really do believe in Truth, and the Scriptures as the Word of God (which both Protestant and Catholic believers do claim), then there is a right interpretation and many wrong interpretations, and we should take great care to be sure to get it right!

One of the greatest aids to biblical interpretation, historically, is the liturgy.  I’ve already written about this in the past, how the liturgy is a context or habitat in which the Bible is best read.  Please go to that link and read the blog post if you don’t know what I mean.

We need both!

As much as I (sometimes) enjoy the provocative language used by the Catholic article, “liturgy only!”, and the provocative language used by most Protestants “Bible only!”, I accept neither extreme.  The Liturgy, without the Bible, is meaningless and dead.  The Bible, without the Liturgy, is confusing and too-easily manipulated.  The Church really does need both in order to be whole.  While it is true that the individual Christian can survive without reading the Bible so long as the Liturgy remains saturated in Scripture, there is great value in private Bible-reading which should not be neglected by those who are able to read.

If you’re in a liturgical church and you don’t read the Bible on your own, you should!  The simplest way to start is to read the Scriptures for Sunday Mass before and/or after you go to Mass.  Let the liturgy of the Church stay with you throughout the week by dipping back into the same Scriptures.  Perhaps they’ll launch you on to reading other verses or chapters as well.

If you’re in a Bible-preaching church with no traditional liturgy, well, that’s harder to address.  You can latch on to whatever semblance of liturgy exists, such as by reading the same book of the Bible that your preacher’s sermon series is going through.  You could also make a point of attending a liturgical church in addition to your own, perhaps on weekdays, and actively seek out and ask how the Bible functions in that worship setting.  There are also many great devotional resources available that can direct your Bible-reading according to the seasons of the Church year.

This old book we call “the Bible” and the ancient liturgy both are such beautiful treasures and valuable tools for Christian growth.  I honestly wouldn’t want to go without either of them, and earnestly wish for all Christians to invest in both of them more deeply.

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Unity and Division

January 18th marks a day in the liturgical calendar which highlights both the unity and the division of the Church as we know it today.  Today we crack open our Bibles to Matthew 16 together and read the same words and come to very different conclusions.

The Confession

We see there one of the most beautiful and succinct summation of who Jesus is: “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  As Christ, he is the long-awaited human Messiah.  As Son of the living God, he is God himself incarnate.  Rarely do we find such perfect clarity during Jesus’ ministry!  This is so incredible that Jesus commends Simon Peter, pointing out that such knowledge only could have come from God.

The Authority

But what our Lord says next has gotten us all in a tizzy:  “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  In recent centuries the Roman Catholic Church has put this forward as  the first hint of the Papacy beginning with St. Peter.  This was probably an attempted push-back against Protestantism or its precursors in the Lollard movement or other such dissenters.  They have come to focus “this rock” upon the person of Peter to the expense of Peter’s confession.  In predictable reaction, Protestants have focused “this rock” to be Peter’s confession to the expense of his person.

From what I have read thus far of early Christian writings, both Peter’s person and confession seem to be in mind here.  The focus on Peter as an individual who is a rock at the foundation of the Church is very real.  But his confession of faith is very much needed here too.  The special authority to loose and bind Jesus extends to the rest of the twelve two chapters later, and finally bestows in John 20.  And that is significant: the foundation of Christ’s Church is made up of all the Apostles together.  St. Paul makes his very observation himself.  Although Peter is the initial mouthpiece for the whole group, and he serves as a sort of leader early in the book of Acts, there is no biblical foundation for Petrine supremacy.

The Situation

And so we have today’s splits in the Western Church, ironically centered (in part) around these verses that call for unity.  Protestantism calls for the true confession of faith as the required source of unity, and Roman Catholicism calls for the true leadership of the Church as the required source of unity.  But what if both are right?

As I already pointed out, the rock foundation of the Church is not Peter or the subsequent Papacy, but “the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”  What if the unity of the Church is based both on Peter’s confession and the historic line of leadership?  This is the witness that we as Anglicans put forth to the world.  We have confessional documents like Classical Protestants, but they’re very short and summary.  We have Bishops in apostolic succession, but they’re not overshadowed by a Pope.

The Gates of Hell

In this day and age, many will point to the rampant problems across the Anglican Communion – problems of heresy and disunion and malpractice and schism.  How on earth can we be any sort of witness or good example to our Christian brethren in this condition?

First of all, none of our problems are unique to us.  We have the same issues as our Protestant cousins – erosion of the true confession faith, the popular winds of false doctrines swooping many people astray, charismatic leadership speaking louder than God’s Word.  And we have the same issues as our Roman Catholic cousins – overblown faith in leaders who aren’t as godly as they ought to be, fixation on the Church as an institution rather than the Body of Christ, preference for “walking together” at the expense of theological integrity.

The way I see it, the fact that we have both buttresses supporting our Church (a confession of faith and apostolic succession), the Enemy has two fronts on which to attack us.  And yet here we stand in the midst of the chaos, beaten up but not defeated, and the Gospel is still being promulgated throughout the world.  I don’t think our problems discredit our witness to the promises of Christ in Matthew 16 any more than the problems of other Christian traditions discredit theirs.  If anything, I can’t help but suspect that our having a broader ecclesial foundation makes us a bigger target for the Enemy worthy of particular attack.

Prevail

Whateverso, whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong, we stand in the promise of Christ that the “gates of hell” will not prevail against his Church; rather, the Church will withstand the onslaught unto the End.  Until that day, let us “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12).  And let us continue united with the Apostles from whom we receive the words, “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).

For it is not a burden to be bound either by the Apostolic faith nor by the Apostolic succession.  For it is in that perfect and complete fellowship “that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:4).

 

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