Category Archives: rant

Christ the King

LORD of the ages evermore,
Each nation’s King, the wide world o’er,
O Christ, our only Judge thou art,
And Searcher of the mind and heart

Though Sin with rebel voice maintain,
‘We will not have this Christ to reign,’
Far other, Lord shall be our cry,
Who hail thee King of Kings most High.

O thou eternal Prince of peace,
Subdue man’s pride, bid error cease,
Permit not sin to wax o’er-bold,
The strayed bring home within the fold.

For this thou hangedst on the Tree
With arms outstretched in loving plea;
For this thou shewedst forth thy Heart,
On fire with love, pierced by the dart.

And yet that wounded side sheds grace
Forth from the altar’s holy place,
Where, veiled ‘neath humblest bread and wine,
Abides for man the life divine.

Earth’s noblest rulers to thee raise
Their homage due of public praise
Teachers and judges thee confess;
Art, science, law, thy truth express.

Let kings be fain to dedicate
To thee the emblems of their state;
Rule thou each nation from above,
Rule o’er the people’s homes in love.

All praise, King Jesu, be to thee,
The Lord of all in majesty;
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost, for evermore. Amen.

Today is the Feast of Christ the King in the old Western Kalendar. I relized this late and was scrambling this morning to insert propers into a database following the Old Kalendar so they would display correctly. As I typed and read through these texts, the more they spoke to me.

I rose this morning to the news that there have now been three domestic terror attacks within the span of a couple of days fueled by ideological and racial hatred. The secular world can only shake its head and talk about intolerance and the partisan divide. Luckily, I’m a Christian so I have better language: this is evil, caused by sin. More specifically, it is sin empowered and emboldened by the loudest voice in the State.

Ant. 1: This is the true Solomon, † whose Name is the pledge of peace to the whole world, * and the throne of whose kingdom God hath established for evermore.

Now I get that there are some in the Episcopal church who find the language of royalty and kingship challenging. I have heard that this language of dominion can be a retrenchment of patriarchal thought. And yet I find it a comfort and aid this morning as I consider the news.

I am a Christian first.

I put my identity as a follower of Christ before my gender, my race, and—yes—even before my national origin. For me my Baptism is at the heart of my identity. Don’t get me wrong—I am proud to be an American (usually) and am proud to be the son of a veteran from a lineage of veterans. But the words of the Pledge, “and justice for all,” ring hollow when politicians flagrantly disregard them. At those moments, I remember that I am the subject of a Sovereign.

Ant. 3: Behold the Man who is like to the sunrising, † whose Name is The Branch; * he will sit and rule upon his throne, and speak peace unto the nations.

Political systems and movements that play upon racial hatred are anti-Christ. There is no other way to say it.

The propers of Christ the King take the ideas of dominion and lordship and sovereignty, and subvert them in line with the Gospel and the gospels we have been hearing the last few Sundays:

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

The hymn above emphasizes that kingship was accomplished through the humiliation of the cross and comes to us in the simple forms of bread and wine. Domination and hierarchy are subdued by self-offering. The Lauds hymn is the Vexilla regis which even more emphasizes that the power by Jesus flows from selfless service rather than from might or manipulative rhetoric (“Fulfilled is all that David told/In true prophetic song, of old:/Unto the nations, lo! saith he,/Our God hath reignèd from the Tree”)

The proclamation of Christ as king gives us an alternative and superior political standard that challenges all earthly systems and regimes and powers. Sin and evil and death are put on notice. But we—we the people—have to follow the lead of our true leader.

Chapter at None: For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell; and having made peace through the blood of his Cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself, * whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven (Col 1:19).

The Business of Heterodoxy

Setting the Scene

The girls and I attend a home parish different from Mother M’s. That’s only because we wanted a stable location for the girls that had a strong youth program before M became a rector. It’s a very diverse parish ethnically, theologically, and liturgically; in many ways, I see it as the kind of parish that the current leadership of the Episcopal Church wants itself to be composed of. So, it’s a fascinating look into one direction that the church is moving in.

The Adult Forums are a mix of things from the parish family; many connect to some form of social justice work in our local community, but we did a series on the hard work of forgiveness in Lent and on the Resurrection appearances of Jesus in Easter. On occasion and as my schedule allows, I’ll speak on a subject myself.

One fellow from the parish did a presentation on a weekend seminar that he and two other parishioners had attended: a “Jesus on the Road” seminar from the Westar Institute. If you’re not familiar with Westar, they’re the official name of the group running the Jesus Seminar, the group founded by Robert Funk et al. that kicked off the popular writing careers of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan and others. This was in the early/mid ’90s; when I was a senior in college (1996) I heard J. D. Crossan speak at an RC church in Minneapolis. My doktorvater wrote a blistering takedown of the Jesus Seminar and interest in them largely waned from the public eye.

But apparently they’re on the road now and trying to be relevant again…

Key Points

The presentation given by my fellow parishioner was accompanied by a very slick PowerPoint presentation, well-branded with Westar information, containing embedded videos. While the presenter is a computer science guy, I don’t think he put it together—it looked like part of a professional marketing package.

I’m not going to rehearse everything in it, but I do want to emphasize some key take-aways that I found particularly pertinent…

Insistence on a “late” date for Christianity

One of the talking heads made the claim which is now axiomatic in certain circles that “while Jesus may have lived in the first century, Christianity wasn’t invented until the 4th century.”

This is a core talking point for a lot of folks and is widely believed both inside and outside of the church. I call it the Dan Brown School of Christian Origins. Indeed, I’ve said before that the single most influential source of pop-culture knowledge of Early Church history is The Da Vinci Code: and that should scare us. There are a variety of flavors of this from statements like the one I heard to the notion that Constantine was the guy who declared Jesus a god.

Here’s the truth: Early Christianity (and, if you want to be completely comprehensive, Early Christianities [acknowledging those that were considered heretical later]) was first and foremost a social phenomenon. It was a community of people. This organic body began with the apostles (the twelve guys in the inner circle of Jesus) and the disciples (the wider group of folks including the family of Jesus and many others who followed him around and listened to his teachings). Like most movements of this sort, Christianity spread through social networks—people who knew people who knew people. These groups started with the Old Testament (usually in its best known form, the Greek translation of Hebrew called the Septuagint) and verbal teaching about who Jesus was, what he did, and what happened to him at the hands of the authorities—and at the hands of God his Father who raised him from the dead. And it was through and for these networks that we begin to have the writings that would become the New Testament.

The Bible did not create the Church, the Church created the Bible to better transmit the faith that the baptized body believed.

Let me underscore this in the best way I know how to do so…the end of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul had never been to Rome; the Letter to the Romans was essentially a letter of introduction laying out his credentials and the kind of things he taught so the Romans could judge if he was the kind of teacher they wanted to bring to town. The last chapter is one of Paul’s strongest arguments:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.  Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles.  Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ.  Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you.  Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.  Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord.  Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys.  Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus.  Greet my relative Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus.  Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord.  Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother—a mother to me also.  Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them.  Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. (Rom 16:1-15)

tl;dr: Paul knows people and they know him. At this point—we’re talking somewhere around the year 57 AD—there’s a significant set of people across Asia and in Rome that Paul is naming and demonstrating connections with.

People—this is Christianity! Christianity is not a drawn-up list of doctrines ratified by authorities but a collection of people who gather together to declare “the gospel concerning [God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord…” (Rom 1:3-4).

Now—some folks will try to wiggle out of this by asserting that saying that Jesus was “Son of God” is different than saying he was divine and that no one thought he was divine until Constantine said so. Again, this only works if you ignore the evidence. The clearest evidence that this is not the case is the confession of Thomas—yes, that Thomas—who gives us the most thorough confession of how Jesus was seen and understood: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). It’s kinda hard to hedge that one away…

Early Christianity believed a lot of different things and there were other writings than those in the Bible. The notion of “Orthodoxy” was simply a power play by powerful men to shut down dissension and to seize and maintain power for themselves.

The argument here is an emphasis on the diversity of Early Christianity. The thought process suggests that if various people thought various things, those other works may have value, either historical value or spiritual value. And, if these works could be valuable, then as enlightened modern people free from the prejudices of the ancient Mediterranean world we can do a better job of judging what is valuable than they could.

The undercurrent of the argument taps into suspicion around authorities and especially into authorities tied into imperial systems of power. I don’t forget if it was said explicitly but it was certainly heavily implied that Christianity became an ideological tool of the state and its doctrines were shaped by the state for the purpose of asserting imperial control.

Here’s how I see it: The Early Church was a body of people who believed that there was something special about Jesus. Some believed that he was God and shared a common divinity with the God of Israel; this is the group that would become the community we know as the orthodox Church. There were others who believed that Jesus was a man who was declaring the God of Israel in a new way. Some saw him as a quasi-divine spirit who proclaimed the God of Israel in a new way. Some saw him as a divine or divinized messenger of a purely spirit-based god who was opposed to the God of Israel and any god who might have anything to do with creation or materiality. All of these things were in the mix and some more besides.

Just because they were in the mix does not mean that they were (or are) all equally edifying.

Yes—there was diversity in Early Christianity. We can speak of Early Christianities. But we can also talk about an emerging orthodoxy that we can trace in the formative documents of the New Testament that testify to a system of sorting out who this particular community who shared these books understood to be inside of it and outside of it. Second and Third John (which we just read in the Office) represent a sample of ephemeral correspondence—most of which didn’t come down to us—about which teachers to trust, which teachers to support financially, and what are the tests to determine which teachers are teaching the same message that the apostles taught: “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!” (2 John 1:7). It’s not that the community who would become the church didn’t know that there was diversity; they were well aware of it. The question was what range of diversity was tolerable. What could you believe and still fall within the body’s beliefs structures? Let’s remember what’s at stake here… 1 John teaches Jesus Incarnate. It also teaches a God of love. It combines those two notions in stark declarations like this one: “We know love by this, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (1 John 3:16-17). You see what’s going on here? The insistence on an incarnate Jesus leads to the truth of the real death of Jesus: this shows just how far our God is willing to go to demonstrate love! (Not a spirit who seemed to die but didn’t really, or a nice guy/dupe who followed God’s commands to a tragic end.) If this is how God operates, if this is what God expects, then we need to share our incarnate, material goods with the people who need them as an analogous demonstration that we are incarnating the same God who loved us in the incarnate Jesus.

The argument about materially helping others starts with an insistence on a material Jesus, an incarnate God. The social action is grounded in the belief about who and what Jesus is. Other christologies could not say this. If the real god is a spirit god and we’re all just trying to escape the material creation, then we don’t need to share material goods because these things don’t matter anyway and are simply the bars of our collective prisons. A gnostic spirit-focused christology is contrary to actually helping those in need.

Orthodoxy began organically as the community realized that it needed to create boundaries about what was true and false teaching because—as in the Johannine example—what the community believed had implications for how Christians acted.

Did this decision making process happen in an egalitarian way? No—it didn’t. Not all opinions were considered equally valid. An insistence on the apostolic faith—the set of teachings taught by the apostles and confirmed by the disciples (which included women)—carried more weight than other ideas. Again, 1 John:

“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-3).

The key points here are about community (fellowship) and where the beliefs came from that characterize this community (what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands).

Did the decision-making structures in a Mediterranean society of Antiquity settle into the hands of men and eventually men with wealth and social standing? Yes. That’s part of the incarnate reality of a belief system that has social expression in the world. Should we be somewhat skeptical of the ways these people came to their decisions? Yes, actually—I have no problem with that. How can we possibly do that? We follow the threads of the creeds.

Creedal affirmations about God, Jesus, and their relationship are found in the writings of the New Testament. Creedal affirmations  are found in the writings of the earliest Church Fathers. Irenaeus connects the dots between the canon, the creed as a set of interpretive guidelines for the canon, and the apostolic succession as a means of knowing who the teachers are who are teaching the creedal interpretations of the canon.

If something is getting suppressed that isn’t related to or contrary to the creeds, then maybe we need to re-examine if we’re talking orthodoxy or patriarchy… (The Montanists may be an example here, but that’s a discussion for another post.)

Did emerging orthodoxy suppress the power of women in the movement? It does look that way to me. The writings about Jesus and the letters of Paul do have women in important leadership roles, and we see less of this as we move in time away from the origins.Two things: First, some of this shift has to do with the kind of literature that survives. Second, another reason is because of the way that this surviving evidence has historically been read.

First, part of this has to do with who was writing to whom and for what purpose. As the church gained a more institutional structure, we see men in these roles and we see men writing to men about men. When we read narratives—acts of the early martyrs and such—we see a lot more women acting in important ways. This ties into the second piece.

Second, for the longest time we read church records assuming they were about men and that men were the important ones. We didn’t even look for women. In the last several decades, we’ve been doing  better job at this and learning more about how women were being active in the church. As I’ve written, the Church Father Jerome is only one of the doctors of the Church because Church Mothers told him what to write and paid him to do so. Let’s not fall into the trap of assuming that women then didn’t understand how to influence the power structures of their day… In fact, I intentionally started off Honey of Souls with stories about some influential women precisely because of this.

Did the faith get tied into the imperial power structure and were some declarations of the shape of the faith tied to imperial power politics? Yes, actually. I believe that I see evidence of this in some of the later Ecumenical councils where orthodoxy and heterodoxy were decisions consciously made in negotiating the power dynamics between peripherally Roman spaces and Constantinople, the commercial and political power of the Roman East, and the spiritual power of bishops who took orders from a highly-placed, politically appointed, patriarch in Constantinople.

There is a reason why the early medieval West in particular talked about four Ecumenical councils (Aelfric is an example of this), and why the Reformers went with that number as well.

The Early Church fled Jerusalem with the destruction of the Temple and went to Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and buried their texts there when Imperial Christianity came and started oppressing them.

The contention made was that the documents buried at Nag Hammadi and discovered in 1945 represent an authentic form of apostolic Christianity which was suppressed by the state version of Christianity.

On the contrary: The Nag Hammadi Library contains a mix of materials with a strong core of Gnostic texts. Some of the documents are not inherently gnostic, but generally do have a world-view congenial to gnostic readings. There are also some Platonic and Hermetic which also hold materiality in rather low regard. These are not the teachings of apostolic Christianity which insists on the goodness of creation and the incarnation of Jesus

The presence of books labelled “Gospels” can lead people unfamiliar with the topic to assume that these are writings contemporaneous with the canonical gospels that could provide new historical details about Jesus. This is not the case. The majority of these documents are from the 3rd century and later and contain no new historical information. They can’t give us new access to independent information about Jesus, they can only tell us what people thought about Jesus at the time in which they were written.

The presentation spoke enthusiastically about social justice, progressive causes, and the rights of  indigenous peoples, contrasting these with video clips of Jerry Falwell.

The implication here is that progressive social beliefs go hand in hand with the attempt to topple religious orthodoxies; that all movements in favor of Christian orthodoxy are contiguous with social conservatism.

On the contrary: This is not the case at all. The rhetorical play here is to connect orthodoxy to conservatism; if you are against the Religious Right than you should also be against the orthodox construal of the faith.  One of my big issues here is that I don’t see the Religious Right as being particularly orthodox (and certainly not catholic) in either the proclamation of their brand of Christianity or in the political implications they draw from it. But by this point we should know that this isn’t about argument and facts—it’s an appeal to an anti-establishment ethos.

Neither major American political party and their accompanying ideological movements are in line with the social and political teachings of the Gospel. This should be readily apparent to anyone who can read a Bible and pay attention. Just note the number of politically conservative American Roman Catholics who celebrate papal teaching on Right to Life issues and then act with shock, dismay, and amazement whenever the Pope (even the ones they do like)  starts talking about social and economic issues

The Bottom Line: It’s About The Bottom Line

My main take-away from the slick presentation recapping the seminar is that it was about selling books. I don’t know if they sold tickets to the event as well, but several of the major talking points were plugging the most recent books of one of the speakers.

Now—living in a glass house compromises my ability to throw stones here to a certain degree. After all, I lead seminars on liturgical spirituality, and sell my books there! In a wide-open religious marketplace, how can I begrudge these folks an opportunity to make a living writing their stuff even if I don’t agree with it?

There’s a difference, though: I write my books based on historical facts that experts in the various fields would find non-controversial. These folks are peddling books based on a disingenuous construction of Christian history built on half-truths and untruths. Christianity was not “invented” by Constantine in the 4th century. Gnostic texts were not kicked out of the Bible—they were never in the Bible in the first place! (And there’s a whole discussion, too, of the simplistic notion and presentation of “Bible”—as if it were a book within covers—that was bandied about; if I get started on that, I’ll never get this post finished…) From what I’ve heard and seen, the writers proposing the reintroduction of these gnostic works don’t discuss the implications of this system of belief–why gnosticism was rejected by the church; why it is that gnosticism doesn’t live well.

This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen stuff like this, and it won’t be the last.  The key to addressing it is inoculation with facts. We need to be teaching people not just about the history of the Church, but why the heresies (especially Arianisms and Gnosticisms [plurals intentional; there were/are multiple stands of both]) were considered heresies. People need to know why these things don’t live well, how their logical implications compromise not just how we think but how we act.

My Take-Away

My final thought on the presentation was a sinking feeling of complicity by means of silence. Not because I teach or advocate for heresies, but because I’m one of the voices that knows better and ought to be part of the solution. More of our people in both pulpits and pews need to know why we teach what we teach, what the actual narrative of Christian origins is based on sound scholarship of the texts and archaeology and evolving social models. And the only way for this knowledge to get out there is to start producing it and circulating it.  Hopefully posts like this will do something in that direction.

And so, I’m going to end with a counter-sales pitch of my own… I’ve started a Patreon page. If you use the St. Bede’s Breviary, if you profit from the things that I write here, please consider supporting this endeavor. It will enable me to post better stuff more frequently, and expand the kind of teaching I can do. Because this stuff—authentic Christianity that lives well—is worth arguing about and fighting for.

For Fear of Fundamentalists

There is a piece from Newsweek on the accuracy of Scripture that is making the rounds. I’ll not link to it here because it needs a bit of prefacing.

It’s quite inaccurate. As I commented on a Facebook link to it, “I find this a very biased article full of mischaracterizations and rhetorically augmented half-truths. And as a biblical scholar who’s focused on interpretation in Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval period, I do know what I’m talking about.”

But here’s the problem—there are a lot of people in our churches who don’t have the benefit of the background, education, and research that I do. Furthermore, the article positions itself within an increasingly common and dangerous rhetorical dichotomy. That is, it starts off by portraying a stereotype of malicious and fraudulent Conservative Evangelicals (who are also political opponents) as people who take Scripture literally. What follows, then, is a take-down of Scripture performed as a strategy to undercut these political enemies.  The problem is that Christians who see themselves as neither Conservatives nor Evangelicals find themselves in the position of agreeing with the article because they know they are not the sort of Christians who do what those other people do.

It’s a totally false dichotomy: don’t fall for it.

I’m not a Conservative Evangelical, myself. My primary issue with them is not the base text they use (the Scriptures) but rather bad interpretive choices that are internally inconsistent and unmoored from the historical bases of the Scriptural text and the community norms by which the Church has read and wrestled with the text through the centuries. That’s what deserves a take-down, not the Scriptures.

In the author’s opposition to Conservative Evangelicals, however, a series of half-truths and falsehoods are liberally sprinkled about in such away that non-Conservative Evangelicals who have not been taught Church History can easily be swayed by them.

I do not have to time to conduct a point-by-point refutation—which I realize is kind of a shame because it desperately needs one. What I can do, though, is offer is a few basic guiding points that must be remembered when people spout off about Church History and the Scriptures:

  • The Church is an organic body that connects from the first followers of Jesus—the disciples and apostles—to the present day. Yes, there has been some drift across the centuries, but the organic continuity here of the Church catholic and orthodox is an important touchstone through time.
  • The Church existed before “the Bible” did. It was a community formed around the experience of God-in-our-midst: the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the empowering of the community by the Spirit. Yes, they relied on the Bible—the Hebrew Scriptures typically encountered through the Greek Septuagint—but understood certain parts of that message to be superseded or clarified by what they had and were experiencing.
  • The Church produced the New Testament. Not the other way around.
  • Our methods for dating the books of the New Testament suck. Hard. There is little internal or external evidence to go on meaning that many of the dates you commonly see are well-established supposition.
    • There is external evidence putting Paul’s writings in the neighborhood of 51 AD. The slight differences between the Little Apocalypses in the Synoptic Gospels are used for dating them based on the assumption that they are not recording the actual words of Jesus but, instead, are narrating how the Roman advance on the Temple in 70 AD is going. Hence, Mark (the demonstrably earliest of the canonical Synoptics) is usually pegged at 70 (before the actual fall) and Matthew/Luke are after 70 (after the destruction).
  • However, Paul’s letters argue very strongly against the philosophical construct that anything with a High Christology (i.e., John, Hebrews) must be late and written at some point in the second century.
  • Quotations from the Apostolic Fathers—some of whom we can date internally and externally—make it far more likely that all of the books of the New Testament were written within the first century.
  •  By the year 200, there was general consensus across the Mediterranean Christian world that the Church recognized the four canonical gospels (and only these), the letters of Paul, and most of the General Epistles. Some books like Hebrews, James, Revelation, and 2-3 John would continue to be argued over into the fourth century.
  • Irenaeus, writing in the 160-70 range, who tells us that he saw Polycarp (not clear if Irenaeus learned from Polycarp or not…) whose teacher was John (i.e., Irenaeus was just one step away from the apostles) clarifies that the faith of the Church is built on three things: the canon (reading the books in church that the Church agrees on), the creed (the basic rule of faith by which and in accordance with the canon is read), and the apostolic succession (the organic continuity of teachers who know what the hell they’re talking about because they heard it from people who went back to the apostles).
    • canon: “Now, that the preaching of the apostles, the authoritative teaching of the Lord, the announcements of the prophets, the dictated utterances of the apostles, and the ministration of the law— all of which praise one and the same Being, the God and Father of all, and not many diverse beings, nor one deriving his substance from different gods or powers, but [declare] that all things [were formed] by one and the same Father (who nevertheless adapts [His works] to the natures and tendencies of the materials dealt with), things visible and invisible, and, in short, all things that have been made [were created] neither by angels, nor by any other power, but by God alone, the Father— are all in harmony with our statements, has, I think, been sufficiently proved, while by these weighty arguments it has been shown that there is but one God, the Maker of all things.” Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. II.35.4. (He was arguing against folks who thought there were multiple gods; chiefly that the OT god was an evil demiurge…)
    • creed: “The Church, though dispersed through out the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things in one, [Ephesians 1:10] and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess [Philippians 2:10-11] to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send spiritual wickednesses, [Ephesians 6:12] and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.” Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. I.10.1.
    • apostolic succession: “The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spoke with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.” Irenaeus, Adv. Haer III.3.3.
  • If you bothered to read that middle one it’ll be painfully clear that the notion that Constantine “created” the idea of Jesus as God is total BS as Irenaeus was writing this 150 or so years before the first Ecumenical Council.
  • Ditto on the notion that Constantine “created” the New Testament canon. Constantine did order 50 nice copies of the Scriptures to be made, but this neither created nor closed discussion on the content and order of the New Testament canon.
  • On the “errors” in the transmission of Scripture, yes, there are lots and lots of scribal errors. But most of them are errors like substituting “me” where it ought to be “I”—i.e., minor grammatical errors. Substantive content errors, not so much. We know this, because dozens of German scholars dedicated their scholarly lives to matching up thousands of fragments and manuscripts in order to see where the differences between them all were and it is from these that we get a critical eclectic text from which our modern Bibles are translated. So, yes, many scribes messed up, but since they all don’t mess up in the same way, we can compare the hundreds of ancient witnesses and figure out what the text ought to have been.
  • Similarly while some gleefully point out that the Trinitarian addition in 1 John is a  late addition to the text and extrapolate that to say that all such Trinitarian additions must be equally late totally gloss the fact that Matthew’s ending (Matthew 28:19: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”) is thoroughly Trinitarian and is lacking in no textual witnesses.

In short, a living organic body—the Church—produced the New Testament, established agreements on how it ought to be read, and passed that knowledge along through teachers. Once the relatively disconnected Christian communities could openly talk together and gather after Constantine’s legalization of the faith, they did get together and Constantine had a vested interest in unity. However, that does not mean that he created or thought up the unity. The idea of the Trinity is found in the Scriptures; and early Christians talked about Jesus as God a long time before Constantine. Yes, the Bible was hand-copied, but that does not mean that its text—especially as reconstructed by scholars working with massive amounts of evidence—is corrupt and unreliable for the teaching and purposes of the Church.

Please—learn your Christian history and biblical basics from somewhere other than Newsweek!!

(And if you absolutely must, here’s the offending article…)


Defining Heresies

There is a theology that seems to be marketed largely to White suburban America—that the created image of God is vibrant and whole in humanity and that sin is more of an ugly rumor designed to make you feel bad about yourself.

It’s heresy.

Despite assurances that you may have heard to the contrary, evil is real. Evil—human-created, human perpetuated—is a genuine force in our existence. The evidence is, well, self-evident. Whenever nations and armed groups commit and enable the atrocities of Aleppo, whenever children are raped, whenever the acquisition of money for the few overrides the lives, health, and bodies of the fragile, evil declares its presence to the world. There are strategies that are used and that we use to shield or hide ourselves from it.

That makes it no less real.

Not only that, getting ourselves in the habit of ignoring evil “out there” is part and parcel—a twisted feedback loop—of ignoring evil “in here.”

Understanding and getting in touch with the reality of our own personal sin is an important part of grappling with evil in its many forms.

Already I imagine some readers are turning away in disgust at the notion that they participate anything like “real” sin; adult forums and Lenten talks that M and I have given that speak about sin, confession, and repentance are regularly met with, “I’m not a bad person; this doesn’t apply to me. I don’t have anything to repent for.” (No kidding: that’s an actual quote.)

But here’s the thing: the Gospel is the tool to fight back against evil. The truth of God’s love is the only weapon that doesn’t beget more violence, more hatred—more evil. And if we say nice words about applying it in the world, we must begin by applying it to our own hearts and our own homes. We must recognize our own need for repentance and for grace. (And I use “we” here deliberately because I’m just as enmeshed in this as anyone else… I’m not perfect and have never claimed to be!!)

Spirituality, religion, faith, whatever we want to call it and however we want to define it has got to fundamentally be about truth, recognizing truth and confronting our own shallow constructs with it.  Evelyn Underhill nails it when she writes:

Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment. (Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People, 3.)

We are not telling the truth as revealed in the Gospel if we pretend that evil is not real.

I do believe in the image of God indelibly imprinted on the human soul. But I also believe in the sin and evil that obscure it, and that it must be cleansed frequently, its blurred lines touched up, and be colored in with the virtues (a nice image from Didymus the Blind riffing on Athanasius…).

But that cleansing work, performed by God, invited and cooperated with by us, has got to happen. We must recognize our own personal, secret, hidden complicities in the broader evils of our age. Yes, megacorps are bad; but our own personal sin has a role in sustaining and growing them… No, it’s not enough to decry them or use a general confession that mentions them obliquely. If you can’t begin to name your complicities, then you don’t really mean it.

The fall of Aleppo thrusts the face of evil into our eyes once again.

Reinhold Niebuhr is credited with saying that the only objectively verifiable Christian doctrine is Original Sin. This morning, scrolling through my news feeds, I’m feeling that. And yet there’s a cottage industry of ignoring and downplaying that such a thing even exists. Unfortunately for it, to twist a phrase, reality has a well-known Augustinian bias.

Ah, well—back to the book.

Happy Advent!

Historical/Fantasy Authors Take Note

Alice Hicklin tweeting as @AngloSaxonist is one of my favorite medieval tweeters. She sends out terrific images of mostly Early Medieval artifacts, and if you have any interest in the material culture of this period or just like pretty things, I definitely recommend you follow her!

This one came across today:


Here’s the point I want to make.

It’s November so everybody and their brother who thinks they can write a historical fiction or fantasy novel is toying with the idea of doing so. Please, learn an important lesson from this beautiful reliquary. While gemstones could be polished, cutting and faceting is a relatively late technology. Some crystals do appear in natural shapes that look like or suggest faceting, but the actual cutting of gems didn’t happen until the late medieval period and the Renaissance.

Pretty sparkly gems in your story are fine, but if the technology level is Early Medieval, gems would be in the cabochon style seen here, not faceted cuts!

I’ll save my rant on the ridiculous paucity of bucklers in historical fiction and fantasy (as in the end of this post) for another day…

Brain Foggy

Between things at work, things at home, trying to promote a book, trying to write two books, and fulfilling other writing/programming obligations, my brain hurts…  I owe a number of people emails as well that I’m very behind on. If you’re one of them, I apologize!

I have things to say on a number of church-related links floating around right now, but don’t have the time to actually say them. So let me issue this as a general thought on things in the church right now.

If you see something that needs doing, don’t wait on a committee or a process. Just do it. Some of the very best stuff for the church that I’ve seen in the last decade or two wasn’t produced by committees, dioceses, study groups, or well-funded organizational structures.


They were all done by regular people and their friends who gave a crap.


It’s your turn.


Quick Thought on the Virgin Birth

Ok—here’s what I don’t get.

You have people who are fine with God creating the entire universe from scratch.

Think about that…

Galaxies, suns, gravitational forces, quarks (whatever the hell they are…), rain forests, viruses, the dance of subatomic particles: all of it. From scratch. The crystalline structures of minerals. The little bio-motors that power flagella. All of it.

Bringing forth life in a wild riotous explosion of varities of forms and shapes and colors and life-spans. And that’s just this planet…

They’re fine with all of that.

But suggest that God might fertilize a single human egg cell—this being the same Being that started the whole subatomic dance thing and decided that “fertilization” should even be a thing—suggest that, and suddenly they think you’ve gone a conceptual bridge too far?

Really? You’re fine with “everything from scratch” but one half of one cell is too much for you to conceive of?

(pun totally intended…)

Messing with the Prayer Book

Fr Tobias has been talking about Prayer Book changes; the post has been picked up over at Creedal Christian as well.

In my own understanding of the Benedictine roots and expression of the Episcopal Church, sticking with the texts of the authorized BCP is a matter of both stability and obedience that (quite naturally in Benedict’s ascetical theology) lead into conversion of life. As a Prayer Book Catholic I am committed to using the ’79 BCP but I sometimes find my “catholic” warring with my “prayer book”. That having been said, I entirely subscribe to what Fr. Tobias and others are saying. The American ’79 BCP is the authorized book of our Province. It is the definition of Common Prayer for American Episcopalians and as such should be regarded as the foundation of our “lived experience” and the beginning of our pathway into life with the Triune God.

Is the language used by the prayer book outside of the normal vernacular? Does it need to be fiddled with again to make it more accessible? Not to my ears—for two reasons. First, it was last revised thirty years ago. The English language has not changed that much in 30 years. (No…just…no)

Second, as someone who works primarily with language, let me say that language matters and the ways that we choose to be sloppy or precise with our language says a lot about both our action and our thought. I could, for instance, use the word “book” and most of the time it’ll get the job done. words like “manuscript” and “folio” might be synonyms in some cases—in others they mean something quite specific.  It makes quite a lot of difference if I’ve found a liturgy in a “book” or a “manuscript”. Questions of provenance, accuracy, scribal tendencies, completeness suddenly jump to the fore with “manuscript” that simply don’t exist or to a much lesser degree if I say “book”.

Similarly, I see a desire to “translate” “churchy language” as, more often than not, not only as a dumbing down but a deliberate choice in favor of imprecision and loss of meaning. Yes, I can say I’ve made a “mistake”; but don’t be confused that this is the same as saying I’ve committed a “sin”. Different words mean different things. We—okay, I—don’t use “churchy language” for the sake of “being churchy”; I use it because it’s accurate. If “mistake” would work I’d use it—but it doesn’t, so I don’t… There is a distinctive Christian vocabulary that is necessary to transmit specifically Christian thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs. It shouldn’t be used to “exclude” but if we don’t use it then we’re not transmitting the faith that we have received.

Language is acquired primarily in two ways. First by definition, second by context. From Sunday School, to Youth Group, to seminary, to graduate work, many people have defined the word “sin” for me in different ways. But I’ve also heard and seen it in literally tens of thousands of contexts which teach me far more about the word’s true meaning. That’s how vocabulary gets acquired. What, therefore, does it do if we begin dropping such language from our liturgies? Unless you equally begin editing these “churchy” terms out of, oh say, the Bible and 99.9% of English language Christian literature than you are depriving the people to whom you give a dumbed-down liturgy the tools they need to understand the Scriptures and other Christian literature.

Enough… Here endeth the rant. For now.

Clergy Education/Clergy Graduation

I was listening to NPR this morning and a segment ran on job availablity. Of course, the news is not good in an economy of this sort. What did prick up my ears was discussion technical/trade schools.  One of the scenario that cropped up was people going to technical school to gain marketable skills either before or during doing to college for a regular 4 year degree. I find this both fascinating and quite sound.

I’ve always had to work. My entire graduate school career has been self-supporting. I never undertook technical training but have coasted on an accident of history; my dad built our first computer in the basement when I was 5. I grew up with computers ahead of the curve of the Information Age and, as a result, have always been able to get decent computer work. Thus, I’ve had the skills.

I’ve also had the willingness to work even if it meant outside my training and below my skill set. In some of our rough patches when my day-to-day job wasn’t making ends meet I’ve done everything from tutoring Latin to working as a night-cashier in a grocery store. No job is “below me” if it’s going to keep food on our table and a roof over our heads.

At a meet-up over the weekened with some of our GTS-educated clergy friends, one had just returned from graduation in New York. She informed us that only half of the graduating students had jobs.


Will news like this become the new “normal” in our ever-emerging post-Constantinian state? How about if the economy stays the way it is—or gets worse? (btw, how’s the price of oil and gasoline been trending recently? yeah…) Will bivocational clergy like our colleague Fr. Bob become more common and more necessary especially as tanked/depressed stocks take their effect upon endowments?

It’s easy to say that this indicates that Commissions on Ministry are simply sending too many people to seminary. But that doesn’t quite work either. Seminaries need the influx of a certain critical mass who pays a certain rate of tuition or they go all Seabury-Western on us.

When that happens, we get deeper into a trend already on the rise:  less than half of Episcopal seminarians are attending Episcopal institutions. What does this mean for the maintenance of an “Anglican ethos” or “Episcopal formation”?

As an institution, the Episcopal Church needs to do some hard thinking about education for ministry. What is looks like now; what it will look like a decade from now. This is too important, though, to leave up to a nebulous “them.” We need to be thinking about it and talking about it. I do think we will eventually move to more local options (initial thoughts, more thoughts). And that simply underscores for me the need that we have for good, clear, effective catechesis on the local level. Formation can’t start in seminary; it must start in the parishes first.

Liturgy. One More Time…

There’s a post at the Cafe about what Episcopalians can learn from Baptists. To my eyes, it repeats the usual tropes about hide-bound, static “book” liturgy as opposed to free and spontaneous “spirit-filled” worship.

It’s a tired rhetorical dichotomy that really needs to die because it’s based in a fundamentally one-side understanding of pneumatology.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, liturgical worship certainly can become hide-bound, stodgy and dead. But it’s false to say it all is—or even most.

The chief reason why this hacks me off, though, is the assumption that most Episcopalians are at the place where they can profitably learn things from Baptists about liturgy. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet! Most of the Episcopalians I know need to learn a lot more about Episcopal worship before we start looking to see what we can learn from others.