The Gospel according to Astronomy

The first day of summer is usually about June 21st.  This is known as the summer solstice; in the Northern hemisphere we get the longest period of daylight and shortest night all year.  The daylight hours had been increasing for the past six months, and from that point would decrease for six months.

According to Luke 1:24-38, John was conceived about six months before Jesus; they were half a year apart in age.  The Church celebrates the birth of Christ on the accepted (and likely historically-accurate) date of December 25th.  And we celebrate the birth of John on June 24th, about six months earlier.

John said of Jesus and himself, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).  The Northern hemisphere responds accordingly, shortening the length of days after John’s birthday for the following six months.  Then, on Christmas Day, when “The true light that enlightens every man [came] into the world” (John 1:9), the days start getting longer again.

As Psalm 19 opens, “The heavens declare the glory of God!”  It is more than convenient that John and Jesus were born at such noteworthy points in the year, for God who made them “for signs and for seasons and for days and years” (Genesis 1:14), is pleased to proclaim the glory of his eternal Son by all means available!

Posted in Devotional | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Article 22: Purgatory, etc.

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 22 states:

XXII. Of Purgatory

The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

By the late Middle Ages, a number of ancient Christian customs and traditions had taken on a life of their own.  Respect for the dead, remembrances of the departed, the celebration of the Saints, reverence for sacred art, and other such things had grown from their simple pious origins into a systemic culture that the Reformers found to be “rather repugnant to the Word of God”.

Purgatory, in Roman teaching, is a place where the souls of the faithful go after death to finish the process sanctification.  It’s like a temporary hell, or an extension of life’s sufferings, but with the certain promise of heaven when one’s time in Purgatory is complete.  It is based on a controversial reading of 1 Corinthians 3:15 and its neighboring paragraph, and an attempt to differentiate between the “ordinary” Christian and the “perfect” Christian Saint in death.  Over the centuries, a whole theological construct of prayers and indulgences for the souls in Purgatory, resulting in a literal economy of salvation, got so bloated and obviously abusive that it became the very first tipping point that led Martin Luther down the path of Reformation.

Pardons were an abuse of the godly practice of private Confessions.  Out of convenience certain priests were assigned the specialty task of hearing confessions and helping local parishes in that function.  Known as pardoners, these priests frequently earned for themselves rather unscrupulous reputations, accepting money in place of true penitence.

Worshiping and adoration of images and relics was another staple of medieval piety.  It began with the good and godly practice of honoring the departed and upholding the truth that a human being is both soul and body – thus how we treat even a dead man’s bones is a matter of respect to that person.  But over time the due veneration owed to the great Saints of the past became bloated in popular practice, often with the encouragement of the clergy, such that it became indistinguishable from the worship that is to be offered to God alone.

Most of the Protestant Reformers did away with these things entirely: no doctrine of Purgatory exists in official Protestant confessions, private confessions are only offered by the “high church” clergy in the Lutheran and Anglican churches, and the veneration of images (such as icons) is expressly forbidden in the majority of Protestant traditions.  To some degree, Lutheranism resisted the iconoclastic movement (the destruction of icons and images of Christ and the Saints), and many Anglicans have taken a fresh interest in them as well, but the veneration shown by these few (as well as by Roman Catholics today) is nowhere near the overblown malpractice of the 16th century.

It is also important to note that this Article rejects the “Romish Doctrine” considering these things.  This has two implications of significance.  First, it points out that the Roman Catholic teachings on these subjects at the time of the Reformation were not Catholic, but an abuse particular to the Roman Church.  The Eastern Orthodox Church had (and still has) versions of all these things – Purgatory, Confession, and especially veneration of Icons – but they are distinctly different from the Roman teachings and practices.  This leads to the second point: that Article 22 technically only rules out the Roman teachings on these subjects.  This has allowed an enabled Anglicans (particularly those of a “high church” ilk, with particular interest in the Early Church) to explore recovering the simpler Early Church doctrines on these matters, rather than throwing them out entirely.  Although rare, Anglican theories of Purgatory do exist; some Anglican churches have and venerate icons; some Anglican churches offer private confessions on a regular basis.

This is one of the beauties and frustrations of The 39 Articles of Religion.  Most of them read like straight-forward Protestant confessions of faith, but they were carefully written to enable (or even encourage) a rediscovery of the ancient Christian faith before the Church was divided.  And, at its best, that’s what Reformation is all about: reforming what once was, rather than being revolutionaries and creating a whole new Church.

Posted in Theological | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Article 21: Ecumenical Councils

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 21 states:

XXI. Of the Authority of General Councils

General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

For the most part, this Article is an additional layer of clarification attached to Article 20.  There, the authority of the Church was affirmed for the purposes of regulating the liturgy and settling doctrinal controversies.  Now, one of the major historical instruments of Church authority is addressed: the General Councils, which today we normally call the Ecumenical (meaning worldwide) Councils.

In the year 325, shortly after Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine called for an assembly of Christian leaders and delegates from throughout the Roman world and beyond to gather and settle some theological controversies.  The major issue on the table was Arianism – a heresy that ultimately denied the full divinity of Christ Jesus.  The first draft of the Nicene Creed was forged and signed at that council.  Over the next few centuries, subsequent ecumenical councils were called to deal with subsequent controversies.  A total of seven were held in the first millennium, before the East and the West split from one another; some Anglicans point to the teachings of those seven councils as being faithful demonstrations of historic universal Christianity; others (perhaps the majority) point to the teachings of just the first four councils writing off the latter three as being ancillary or less important offshoots of the first four.

During the Reformation, many Roman Catholics accused the Anglicans and other Protestants of inventing a new religion under the guise of Christianity, appealing to the authority of the ecumenical councils.  Our response was to affirm the teaching of the first few councils, insofar as their teaching “be taken out of holy Scripture” without having to elevate them to an “infallible” status.  Article 21 takes this answer a step further with a subtle pushback against the Roman Catholic position by asserting that the real ecumenical councils are the ones called by Christian princes, kings, or emperors, thus rejecting the many more so-called “ecumenical councils” called by the Pope after the East and West formally parted ways in 1054.

This is a point of contention to this day: according to the Roman Catholic Church there have been 21 such councils, the most recent of which being Vatican II in 1962-1965.  The Eastern Orthodox Church affirms the first seven ecumenical councils (held between 325 and 787), though a few among them accord similar dignity to a further four councils held between 879 and 1672.  Most Protestants affirm only the first four ecumenical councils, and even then only their canons pertaining to Christology (the doctrine of Christ).  As far as Anglicans are concerned, Article 21 here leaves room for some debate over what to make of the first four to seven councils.  Our ultimate guide is always and only the Bible, so whatever we find written in the canons of the ecumenical councils that is agreeable with the Bible, we receive and hold dear as the faith of the true and ancient Church.

Posted in Theological | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Article 20: Church Authority

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 20 states:

XX. Of the Authority of the Church

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

One of the contentious issues during the Reformation (which has in recent times again become a subject of great controversy and debate) was the extent of the Church’s authority.  Some, like the Roman Catholic Church, argued for an unquestionable authority alongside that of the Bible.  Others, such as many of the early Anabaptists, rejected the institutional church almost entirely, preferring an extreme form of individualized Christian freedom.  Various Protestant traditions took their stand on various points in between those extremes.  The Anglican teaching described here in Article 20 was among the more conservative positions.

By decreeing “Rites or Ceremonies” this Article particularly refers to liturgy – we believe the Church has the power to assert a common liturgy, or form of worship, to be used in the local churches with all due obedience.  (This was one of the points of the Anglican faith which eventually caused the Puritans to separate from the English Church, especially some of the early Separatists who settled Plymouth and the most of the rest of Massachusetts Colony.)  An example of Scriptural backing for this level of Church authority is in St. Paul’s 1st epistle to Timothy where he described the Church as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.

The Puritans, as well as the majority of Protestants out there today, were reluctant to afford such esteem to the authority of the Church, preferring the “Bible only” as our rule for worship.  This came to be known as the “Regulative Principle” – the Bible is the rule for worship, we can only do what is expressly commanded therein.  We Anglicans, instead, along with the witness of historic Christianity, hold to the “Normative Principle,” of which Article 20 here is a clear expression.  The Church as a whole is free to worship as she sees fit, so long as nothing is “contrary to God’s Word written.”  This is consistent also with how the Church teaches from the Scriptures: we may not “so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.”  Hearkening back to Article 6, the language of things being “necessary of salvation” is once again limited to the bounds of “holy Writ,” that is, the Bible.

This Article is perhaps one of the most important ones Anglicans today need to revisit.  For many Anglicans have been heavily influenced by other church worship traditions, and frequently import things from other places, especially the “prayer and praise” tradition from popular evangelicalism, with little regard for its compatibility with our liturgy.  As a Church with “decreed Rites and Ceremonies,” namely, the Book of Common Prayer, the order of how we worship is already settled.  Local innovation and variance is not in the hands of the individual congregations, but of the Church on a larger level, particularly the diocese, under its Bishop.

Posted in Theological | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

4 Questions for a better Bible study

One of the biggest struggles in reading the Bible is understanding what it’s saying, and discerning what to do about it.  For the past half-century, Western culture has fostered very shallow reading habits; sometimes it seems to me that all but the over-70’s were educated in such a way that critical reading was undervalued or ignored.

As a result, when we crack open the Bible, most of us are unprepared for reading it fruitfully.  We want to hurry up, get to the point, learn the gist of things, find the simple and concise application to our own life; and, because we’re also a very pragmatic culture, we often want to know what we’re supposed to *do* about it.  Some books work this way (mostly modern ones), but the Bible was not written with our bad reading habits in mind.  That means some parts of Scripture are going to make a lot less sense than other parts, and we have to *learn* how to read it in order to understand it.

I’d like to propose four questions to help us read the Bible more effectively.  This is nothing new; I daresay it’s pretty standard Christian wisdom and advice for Bible Study group leaders, for example.  Anyway, here we go.

1. What does the text tell us about God?

We’ve got to kill off our self-centeredness.  The Bible is about God, not about you or me.  It’d be an oversimplification to call it God’s autobiography, but it’s certainly more a biography of Him than it is of you or me.  Even the parables of Jesus and the Old Testament stories, which often seem to lend themselves to an “apply this to your life” kind of lesson, need to begin with this question.  Very rarely will you find a text that focuses on you more than on God (sections of the Proverbs comes to mind).

2. What does the text tell us about the Gospel?

As Christians, we believe that the Gospel – the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Christ – is the heart of the work of God.  As such, we should expect the Bible to be full of references Christ’s atoning work.  After all, Jesus said as much about the Bible: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).  So whether you’re reading a Psalm, Old Testament history, New Testament epistle, or anything else, be sure to keep an eye on the Cross.

3. What does the text tell us about the Church?

When the Scriptures talk about people, it’s more often dealing with God’s people as whole rather than speaking to individuals.  When Jesus and the Apostles give instructions for Christian living, consider their fulfillment in the context of the Body before trying to take every burden upon yourself.  Even in the Old Testament, consider the lessons about Israel.  In John 10:16, Jesus taught that he would bring in other “sheep”, the Gentiles, so there’d be “one flock, one shepherd.”  This union of Jew and Gentile is known in the Old Testament usually as Israel and in the New Testament usually as the Church.  So consider the Old Testament the pre-Christ history of the Church, rather than relegate it to mere story-telling of a foreign people.  The same can be said for linking the earthly and heavenly cities of Jerusalem, especially (for example) in the Psalms.

4. What does the text tell us about ourselves?

Finally, yes, the Bible does have a few things to say about you.  There are commissions, callings, instructions, points of faith, and many other things that we must receive or believe or do as individuals.  But we risk narcissism and self-centeredness if we jump straight to this sort of Bible-reading without giving due consideration to what it teaches us about God, his Gospel, and his Church.

There have been times when Christians perhaps over-emphasized the communal identity at the loss of personal committment and involvement.  But for the most part those times are not now.  Our present culture is hyper-individualized, we are taught to worship self-fulfillment, and there is a resultant longing for community and belonging felt by many young people and middle-aged adults.  If we read the Scriptures with our true “Christian belonging” in mind – to God, to the Gospel, to the Church – then we will have a much more fruitful understanding both of the Bible and of ourselves!

Posted in Devotional | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Article 19: the Church

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 19 says:

XIX. Of the Church

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

In the midst of the Protestant Reformation, one of the critical issues that cropped up as Christians became divided from one another was the question of what the Church actually is.  The Roman Catholics were insisting that the true Church of Christ was loyal to the Bishop of Rome, which was a distinct advantage in terms of recent history and organizational consistency.  But as one of the primary points of Protestantism was the rejection of the Pope’s monarchial authority over the Church, and thus the Reformers returned to the Bible in order to discern what actually constitutes the true Church on earth.

This Article is generally representative of what all the major Reformers believed and taught: the visible Church is the congregation, assembly, or gathering of people whose faith is in Christ.  In that congregation the Bible is preached and the Sacraments are properly observed, plus whatever things are needed in order to carry out those two areas of ministry, all in accordance with Jesus’ teachings.

What things, exactly, are necessary for the proper preaching of the Bible and the celebration of the Sacraments, however, remain points of contention between different European Reformation churches.  For example, most of the Reformers maintained a strong role for Pastors as learned men who were well-trained in theology and the Scriptures in order to preach the Bible well to the congregation.  In the past couple centuries, however, many Protestant traditions have increasingly abandoned the need for pastoral academic training; some have done away with it or even rejected it altogether.  Meanwhile, the Anglican tradition (uniquely among the Reformation churches) maintained the historic episcopacy.  This has usually (though not always) been considered an essential part of biblical Christianity and thus one of the necessary requisites for the due ministration of the Sacraments.

Finally, Article 19 observes that the Church can make mistakes in matters of holy living, in liturgical practices, and in doctrine.  This was a rebuke to the Roman claims of the infallibility of the Pope’s teaching office; only the Scriptures bear the stamp of God’s absolutely unbreakable Word.  The Creeds, ancient liturgies, Early Church Councils, and other such influential documents all bear great value and authority, but none of those carry the guarantee of perfection like the Bible does.  Thus this Article names four of the five Early Church Patriarchs as having erred in the past, forever cautioning us against putting our faith in the Church over our faith in God.

It is an historical curiosity that the fifth Patriarchy of the Early Church (Constantinople) was not mentioned here.  The Church of England, beginning in the time of the Reformation, was constantly reaching out to the Eastern Orthodox Church to explore the possibility of mutual recognition, partnership, and even unity.  Though such an achievement has never been reached, relations had grown very warm by the early 20th century, only to be scuttled by the insurgent Modernism that swept across our tradition throughout the 20th century.

Posted in Theological | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

How do we know God?

Summarizing Articles 6-8

Like the first five Articles, these three set Anglican tradition squarely in line with historic Christian teaching.  The appeal to the Creeds and Scriptures as the normative grounds for Christian belief is of catholic (or universal) appeal – though the Athanasian Creed (mentioned in Article 8) is not generally recognized in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Unlike the first five Articles, however, these three set a distinction between the doctrinal shift of the Roman Church and the Reformed faith in England and the Protestants.  Where Roman teaching had come to put the teaching authority of the Church front and center (with the Pope being the highest representation of that authority), Articles 6 and 8 restore the primacy of the Bible over earthly authority, naming the Scriptures as “sufficient” for salvation, and the “certain warrants” that undergird the Creeds.

Most of the Protestant Reformers described this position as sola Scriptura – “scripture alone.”  By this they meant that only the Bible is infallibly God’s Word, and thus is the final court of appeal for determining true Christian doctrine.  What it doesn’t mean is that the Bible is the only authority.  Many modern Protestants have taken “Scripture alone” to such an extreme that all other sources of authority (be they documents or clergymen) are rejected.  But the Anglican tradition has in these three Articles drawn a line against that extreme.  Taking them in reverse order:

Article 8: The three Creeds are explicitly described as proclaiming that which “ought thoroughly to be received and believed.”  Their authority is built upon the Bible so solidly that they have been recognized as authoritative tools for understanding and receiving the teachings of the Bible.

Article 7: One of the challenges in understanding Scripture is the proper use and reception of the Old Testament and its Law.  Within the Bible itself, thus, there is a sort of hierarchy of authority.  All the Scripture is God-breathed and profitable, but some parts proclaim the truth of God in Jesus Christ more clearly than other parts.  Thus Article 7 describes how we discern the use of some parts of the Bible in light of other parts.

Article 6: Finally, demonstrating that “Scripture alone” is not to be taken to an extreme, a two-tiered definition of Scripture is offered.  While most Protestants have taken the Bible in a black-and-white approach (either it’s God’s Word or it isn’t), Anglican teaching has preserved historic Christian practice regarding a certain set of books from the Greek Old Testament that aren’t found in the official Jewish Bible.  These books, such as Sirach, Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, and others, are collectively known by many names:  the Deuterocanon because they’re a second canon of Old Testament writings, the Ecclesiastical Books because they’re read by the Church but not the Jews, and the Apocrypha because their origins are less clear than the other books.  Article 6 affirms these books are “to be read in the Church,” in line with Christian practice since the beginning, but puts them apart as “not to establish any doctrine,” in line with the reservations which many Early Church Fathers had concerning those writings.  So we have a two-tiered Old Testament: the Protestant list of books that are fully canonical, and the additional books that are authorized for reading and teaching but limited in their scope.

All this goes to show that, while the Scripture absolutely stands first and foremost in all theological ventures, it never stands alone.  Rather, the Bible is intimately connected to the authoritative tradition that proceeds from it, particularly the Creeds (as is affirmed here) as well as the liturgy (as will be affirmed in later Articles).

Posted in Theological | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment