Month: May 2014

Obligatory Ecumenism

A friend at another blog linked to an important article about ecumenism, which I wanted to discuss here.

(First, a note to the reader: after today this blog will be Out to Lunch, probably for the next couple weeks, as I take care of some physical world tasks that need doing, and I will be without internet access for part of that duration and with very little free time for even more of it.  Some readers may feel that the posts have been out to lunch for a while now, but this is not an admission of doctrinal error…)

I particularly appreciated Dr. DeVille’s points #5 and #7 (with honorable mention to #6).  Top-level ecumenical contact may often elicit a “who cares?” from the people in the pew.  After all, what could such contact possibly accomplish?  At this stage, perhaps the best it can accomplish is to provide a model for friendship and cooperation to all Christians.  The biggest obstacle to ecumenism is not what so-and-so did to such-and-such back in the X century (whether that’s 431 or 538 or 1054 or 1204), nor even disagreements about ideas and practices (though such disagreements are real).  The single biggest obstacle to real church unity is a nebulous congregational sense that those people over there are not like us.  I have been asked, in all sincerity, whether Catholics and Evangelicals worship the same God (and the person was very reassured when I gave a positive answer).  And the best way to allay misconceptions is to get to know people.  (This works equally well for allaying misconceptions about anything, for example racial differences, Islam or other religions, and political partisan differences.)  Such conversations can (and perhaps should) start off away from the topic at issue and just involve getting to know another human being.  And after you discover that the other person does beautiful handicrafts, or likes the same sports team you do, or has a funny sense of humor, or has excellent taste in wine (or books or music), in other words, after you discover that the other person is a human being, then you can approach the topic at issue with the curiosity to discover how is it that your new friend thinks differently than you.  Dr. DeVille gives other very easy suggestions in his piece, so you should go read it.

But Dr. DeVille’s most important point point is #7.  Ecumenism is not optional.  In addition to our Lord’s prayer in John 17 which he cited, my mainstay is the only command which Jesus added to the Law: “34 A new command I give you: that you love one another, so that just as I have loved you you may love one another.  35 By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).   Dr. DeVille makes the point that church division hinders Christian witness, because God is one, so why aren’t we?  This was exactly my experience.  Before I became a Christian (over a decade ago now), I had a ready answer to any Christian friend who asked why I was not Christian: “Those Christians are so divided they don’t even know what they think about anything, so why should I join them and add to the muddle?”  But God had grace and mercy on me in my blindness, and he dragged me to himself; only after I was there did I see that there is a deeper unity among all true Christians which transcends denominational structures and differences of dogma (which is not to say that either structure or dogma are inherently unimportant!).  I am grateful for God’s grace, and I continue to pray for my family members and friends from that period to find, or rather be found by, the grace that I have.  But I also wish to take practical steps to make it harder for people like me to use visible Christian divisions as an easy excuse not to believe.  Christians are already one, in the one Holy Spirit of God, but we need to live visibly in light of this fact.  Ecumenism is obligatory, not only for pope and patriarch, but for all people.

Petrine Primacy: An Idiosyncratic Suggestion

One of the perennial dividing issues between Roman Catholics and other Christians is the issue of Petrine Primacy.  The Roman Catholic Church claims that our Lord gave his apostle Peter universal jurisdiction over Christians everywhere, and that the popes are Peter’s successors in this role.  Unsurprisingly, other Christians have taken a dimmer view of papal claims to universal jurisdiction.  (Papal claims are not, however, unique: some have suggested that the title “Ecumenical Patriarch” for the Patriarch of Constantinople implies a claim to universal jurisdiction, and a few scribes in the Church of the East title their patriarch the “Catholicos-Patriarch of the East and of all the inhabited world.”  Indeed, a scribe in Mosul in northern Iraq even gave the so-called “Nestorian” Catholicos the title “Vicar of Christ” [syr. natar duktheh da-mshiha]!)

A few years back, as I was re-reading Boniface VIII’s encyclical Unam Sanctam (as one does), I observed that his interpretation of John 21:17 flips the imperative: Jesus commanded Peter to “Feed my sheep,” but Boniface interpreted the text as a command to Christ’s sheep to be fed by Peter.  This got me thinking.

Many critics of the papacy throughout the centuries (perhaps beginning with Origen?) suggested that when Christ said to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I shall build my Church” (Matt 16:18), the rock in question is not Peter but something else, perhaps Peter’s confession, or perhaps Christ himself.  (Paul tells us that Christ is the cornerstone, but we may not require the architectural metaphors for the spiritual community to be fully consistent.)  I think this idea is nonsense: if, as is most likely, Jesus was speaking Aramaic, then what he said is, “You are Peter [Aramaic kefa, “the rock”], and on this kefa I shall build my Church.”  We know from other NT texts that the Aramaic name of Peter is Kefa.

(I shall not consider in this post whether the Roman popes are the heirs of Peter or not.  I actually have little at stake in the question, the reasons for which will become clear later, I suspect.  If they wish to claim to be Peter’s heirs, let them live according to Peter’s call.)

So, having established that Christ singled out Peter in this passage, the question is what did he single out Peter for.  What did Petrine primacy consist of?

In the context of Matt 16, there are two things mentioned, neither of which is fully clear.  “The keys of the kingdom” would suggest that Peter can open God’s kingdom for others.  The very curious grammar of the “binding” and “releasing” (something close to “what you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven”; future perfect periphrastic constructions are rare!) is surprising, but whatever the authority consisted of, it was then given by the Lord to the disciples more generally at Matt 18:18, sandwiched between instructions for confronting a fellow believer regarding sin (confronting as a peer, one might note) and references to any two or three Christians gathered together in Christ’s name for prayer.  Neither of these phrases are very clear regarding the content of Petrine primacy, which is no doubt why Boniface only cited Matt 16 to declare that papal authority has a divine origin, not to define the content of that papal authority.

Fortunately, other passages are clearer about what is required of Peter.  Luke 22:31-32 again singles out Peter, and indicates that once he has repented of denying his Lord, he should “strengthen [his] brothers.”  In John 21:15-17, Jesus three times commanded Peter to feed Christ’s sheep.  The command is not to the sheep, but to Peter, to provide food for the sheep.  Peter’s role in the early Church was to encourage, to feed, and to serve.

And this should not surprise us.  Christ himself “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).  In that same context, Christ made clear what Christian primacy had to look like: “You know that those who intend to rule over the gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It will not be this way among you, but whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44).  Christian leadership does not consist in exercising authority and lordship, but in serving.  If Peter was singled out for primacy of Christian leadership, after Christ, then he was called to serve more than all others.  If Peter was called to universal Christian leadership, this means that he was obliged to serve all Christians everywhere.

And Peter understood this!  His instructions to Christian leaders forbid “lording it over those entrusted to you” (1 Pet 5:3) and admonish these leaders to be “eager to serve” (1 Pet 5:2).  That is why, in spite of all his faults and failures, Peter is a great saint and a model for us all.

But think how different the history of Christianity would be if the popes had understood Petrine primacy as a call to serve rather than an opportunity to be served.  Patriarch Michael Keroularios of Constantinople was by reputation suitably pugnacious, but it was the papal envoy Cardinal Humbert who stormed into the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople and inaugurated the schism of 1054 by excommunicating the Greek patriarch in the pope’s name.  Who was served by this?  One of the most severe spiritual crises under papal jurisdiction was the papal schism of 1378-1415, when for over a generation multiple different people claimed to be pope and were recognized by different countries.  It’s easy to see that as politics, and easy to miss the degree to which, on medieval understandings of salvation’s dependence upon allegiance to the (correct) pope, the salvation of large segments of the population was brazenly endangered by papal grasping.  That was the crisis which gave rise to the Conciliar movement in Western Europe, the notion that when popes were sufficiently refractory, they themselves were subject to ecumenical councils.  The Conciliar movement itself was outflanked by Pope Eugenius IV at Florence, and then banned by Pope Pius II in his bull Execrabilis of 1460, which then hampered the papacy’s ability to respond positively to criticism from friend and foe alike.  Pope Leo X was not the innocent Daniel in the lion’s den of the Roman Curia, as Luther portrayed him in his dedicatory letter to his treatise The Freedom of the Christian, though Luther himself was hardly docile.

The irony is that by the time of these medieval popes, a papal title invented centuries earlier had become a fixed part of papal self-designation.  In the late 6th C, Patriarch John IV of Constantinople assumed the title “Ecumenical Patriarch.”  This might be taken to imply jurisdiction over the entire inhabited world (the “oikoumene,” from which the title “ecumenical” is derived).  Pope Pelagius II protested the title as a usurpation of papal prerogative, but his successor Pope Gregory I had a different response: he disliked John IV, but he did not dispute the title.  Instead, Pope Gregory adopted the title servus servorum Christi (“the servant of Christ’s servants”).  If John of Constantinople claimed preeminent status, Gregory claimed preeminent service, and in so doing he captured perfectly the Lord’s calling for Peter.  According to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, the title was used by some popes after Gregory and not others, and occasionally by bishops or others, but by the tenth century the title was claimed by all subsequent popes, and after 1200 or so was used exclusively by popes, even the very popes whose arrogance and lordliness contradicted Christ’s teachings on the nature of Christian leadership.

I suspect that the more that popes take this title and Peter’s calling as their agenda, the more Christians will wish to be fed by the Roman pontiff.

Why does ecclesiology matter?

My mom tells the story that when she was a child, she was not allowed to eat anything which contained ingredients she couldn’t pronounce, as they were probably harmful.  This is the same way some Christians feel about ecclesiology: they can’t say it, so it must not be good.

Ecclesiology is just the concept of what the Church is.  We all have an ecclesiology, even if only implicit.  Is the Church a formal institution or an informal association of people?  Is it a holy witness to the truth or a messy hospital ward for sinners?  Is it the a tax-exempt charity or a political action committee?  Or none of the above?  There are many different ideas about the nature of the Church.

Do these ideas matter?  In a sense, not nearly as much as other areas of Christian belief.  Jesus never said, “You are blessed if you believe X, Y, and Z about the Church.”  Nor did Paul write, “If you believe A, B, and C about the Church, you will be saved.”  The central message of Christianity is that God became incarnate as Jesus Christ in order to redeem the world and fix the mess that we all have made by his death and resurrection.  Christianity first and foremost proclaims Jesus Christ, who he is and what he has done and is doing.

But “not nearly as significant” as the most significant single event in the history of the universe is a far cry from “insignificant.”

Some might point out that ecclesiology remains perhaps the most contentious and debatable area of Christian belief, with more disagreement than agreement on the subject between Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics.  And if the churches have got on well enough without a clear consensus on the subject (unlike, say, the doctrines of the Trinity or Christology), then ecclesiology must not be the most essential.

But again, “essential” is not the same as “significant.”

Ecclesiology makes a difference to many areas of our understanding of Christianity.  Here, I will take just one example: ecclesiology determines how we evaluate which religious events are good or bad.  In particular, whether a Christian who is not of your group is an ally or a rival, whether you should celebrate or abominate their successes, and whether you regard their ideas are stepping stones or snares, are all questions of ecclesiology which have a large impact on how we live in a society with multiple Christian denominations.  A number of examples will clarify the case.

John of Monte Corvino was a Franciscan missionary to China in the early fourteenth century.  At that time, there were a significant number of Eastern (non-Latin) Christians in China under the Mongol Yuan dynasty, and because he did not regard their churches as in any way valuable or conferring salvation, he focused his efforts on converting them to his own Latin Christianity.  According to his account, he succeeded in converting a prominent statesmen who belonged to the Church of the East, namely King George of the Onggut, and cherished high hopes of leading most of that people into submission to the papacy.  By doing so, he elicited strong opposition from the clergy of the Church of the East, and he complained that they were attempting to prevent him from saying mass or baptizing anyone.  (It is not simply ironic, but rather a reflection of the ecclesiology of his church, that back in Europe and in the Crusader states his fellow Latin clergy sometimes likewise hindered other Christians from celebrating church services.)  His actions and his complaints make sense, if he took a narrow interpretation that outside of his (Latin) Church there could be no salvation.  But from an ecclesiology which values ecumenical cooperation (and since 1994 the Vatican has acknowledged that the Church of the East is not teaching Nestorian heresy, as they had previously thought), these strategies are back-stabbing and sheep-stealing.  What looks like Christian love and missionary zeal, from one ecclesiological perspective, appear instead as arrogance and hypocrisy, from another.

In 1548, Luther’s followers were in crisis.  The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a staunch supporter of the papacy against “Lutheran heretics,” had defeated the Protestant princes in the Schmalkaldic War, and he decreed religious uniformity throughout his realm by ordering all people to go back to mass.  The only concessions to the reformers were communion in two kinds (bread and wine for laity) and clerical marriage.  A revised version the following year explained the doctrine of justification by faith in a Lutheran sense, thanks to the input of Philip Melanchthon, and was more acceptable by some, though not all, of Luther’s followers.  Melanchthon argued that the Roman mass itself was adiaphora, neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture, and therefore obedient attendance was permitted.  His critics, including Matthias Flacius, said that nothing idolatrous (as they viewed the Roman mass) could be adiaphora, and a split developed between the “Philippists” and the “Gnesio-Lutherans” (the name means the “True Lutherans”), which would only be healed a generation later, after both Melanchthon and Flacius were dead.  Was Melanchthon correct to be willing to compromise with the Roman Catholics?  Certainly not, if they had nothing to do with Christ’s true Church, as the Gnesio-Lutherans claimed.  Were the Gnesio-Lutherans right to break away from Melanchthon and other “compromisers”?  Only if preserving the “purity” of their church was more important than unity with Christians who thought differently on these points.  (It is ironic that there was a controversy over adiaphora, literally “things that don’t matter.”)

A third example: Rev. Billy Graham preached an evangelical Protestant message of salvation by faith in Christ from the late 1940s to the early 21st century.  His revival “crusades” in a location were organized by clergy in that city or area, who would then direct follow-up efforts with new converts and incorporate them into their churches.  These clergy would often sit on the platform behind Graham while he preached.  Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Billy Graham’s “crusades” made two inclusive moves.  He racially integrated the clergy on the platform, and he invited Roman Catholic clergy to participate in the revivals.  These views were not universally popular, and he earned a lot of criticism from more conservative Protestants, especially for encouraging lapsed Catholics to return to the Roman Catholic Church.  Ecclesiology again determines whether Graham was right or wrong to cooperate with Catholics.  If the Roman Catholic Church is simply the bondage of demonic idolatry, as some of Graham’s critics assert to this day, then sending would-be converts to Christianity to them is to short-change them of salvation.  (Lest you think I’m making this up, here is one webpage critical of Graham along these lines, and by no means the most extreme.)  But if the Roman Catholic Church is a valid church through which people may experience Christ’s redemption, then Graham’s cooperation with them is another instance of his evangelical priority to work together to spread the good news of Christ’s love and redemption.

Ecclesiological issues inform many of the debates between liberals and conservatives in most major denominations.  Among Protestants, the liberal/conservative divide for the past century and a quarter has frequently lined up over the issue whether the Church should seek to ameliorate the world or should seek to rescue sinners out of the world.  (Some are increasingly realizing that this need not be an either/or.)  Among Roman Catholics, the division between sede vacantists and papal loyalists turns on whether recent popes and the Second Vatican Council have started promulgating falsehood or have merely exercised their divine right of doctrinal definition.  Among papal loyalists, the divide between liberals and conservatives includes the question whether the Church should change to accommodate modern notions of progress and mores, or whether the Church should timelessly hold its essential teaching in defiance of contemporary social developments.  In order to navigate these debates, and to rejoice in those things which honor our Savior, Jesus Christ, we need an ecclesiology which is accurate and astute.  May the Holy Spirit guide his Church into all truth, as our Lord promised.

Catholicity

Most people assume that they know what the word “Catholic” means, but in fact, it means several different things.  Some of the more common meanings are:

1. “Not Protestant.”  The Anglophone world has been dominated by Protestant varieties of Christianity for almost half a millennium, and for much of that time “Catholic” has been used as a denominational label, on a par with “Lutheran” and “Baptist.”  Of course, there are many Christians who are neither Protestant nor Catholic (I’m not thinking of Anglican proponents of a via media here, but rather thinking of Greek and Russian Orthodox, as well as Arab, Syrian, Coptic, and Assyrian branches of Christianity).

2. “Christians who like sacraments, candles, high liturgy with colorful vestments, incense, praying to saints, ecclesiastical hierarchy, and medieval theologians.”  The advantage of this definition is that it is at least positive instead of simply a rejection of Protestantism.  This is the meaning of “Catholic” in the phrase “Anglo-Catholic,” which refers to Anglicans with a fondness for “smells & bells.”  But again, many of these elements (with a different selection of medieval theologians) would characterize varieties of Eastern Christianity.

3. “Part of the Christian denomination presided over by the Roman Pope.”  This excludes both Anglo-Catholics and sede vacantists, the latter being traditionalist Roman Catholics who feel that the recent popes have deviated from traditional Catholic teaching and therefore are not valid popes.  (The name comes from the Latin sede vacante, meaning “while the [papal] throne is vacant.”)  Although a narrower definition than the preceding two, it is not necessarily that much more precise, as there are a variety of ways to define membership in the Roman Catholic Church.  The church hierarchy itself reports membership numbers which include all those baptized into the denomination, regardless of whether they still attend mass or profess to believe any aspect of doctrine, although some rigorists would exclude such nominal Catholics from their definition.

4. “The true Christian Church founded by Christ, present wherever true Christians are.”  This sense of “Catholic” opposes it to “schismatic,” people in a particular locale or region who break away from all Christians elsewhere.  This is the sense in which Augustine used the term in his writings in the 4th and 5th centuries (he certainly didn’t use the term to mean “non-Protestant”!), and is the sense in which Protestants and Orthodox as well as Catholics recite the Nicene Creed’s confession of “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”  It would be strange indeed for non-Roman Catholics to recite a creed saying, “I believe there is one true Church over there, and I am not part of it.”

5. In the phrases “Catholic truth” or “Catholic teaching,” it refers to teaching that is universally held among Christians, as opposed to distinctive beliefs of Christians in one area or one group.  Vincent of Lérins offered what has become the most widely accepted definition of “Catholic” in this sense: “What is believed everywhere, always, and by all.”  Of course, universals always require a scope, which Vincent does not make explicit, but “everywhere” and “always” should of course be taken to mean wherever and whenever there were Christians.  “By all” is trickier, because Vincent would presumably not have included heretics such as gnostics or schismatics such as Novatianists in his category of “all,” but if one narrows the category too much then “by all” becomes tautological: any belief is believed by all who believe it.

The contentious question, then, is what these different senses of the term “Catholic” refer to.  Basically everyone agrees that senses #1 and #2 are larger than #3 (this is empirically verifiable).  Between the Council of Trent (the Roman papacy’s answer to the Protestant Reformation) and the First Vatican Council (1868-1870), the Roman Catholic party line was that senses #3-5 simply refer to the same group of people.  They interpreted the patristic doctrine extra ecclesia nulla salus (“outside of the Church no one is saved”) as referring to the Roman Catholic Church specifically, in keeping with the teaching of Pope Boniface VIII (d. 1303) in his bull Unam Sanctam that submission to the Pope was absolutely necessary for salvation.  On this view, all true Christians were within the Roman Catholic Church (although the converse did not hold: those within the Roman Catholic Church were not necessarily true Christians), and “Catholic truth” was that body of doctrine taught by “all” the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, i.e. the magisterium.  Protestants were ipso facto condemned.

Meanwhile Protestants took a few different lines.  Protestant theologians all (or almost all) asserted that they were part of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” which required explaining “catholic” differently than loyalty to the pope.  Since the papacy rejected almost all of the reforms proposed by Protestants, many Protestants viewed senses #3 and #4 above as mutually exclusive, although some followed Luther in allowing for a little overlap.  The lack of a unified anti-papal organization distinguished the notion of a “Catholic Church” in this sense from an institutional unity, so that shared doctrine as indicated in sense #5 became more important as a definition of Christian unity and the key to recognizing good Christians who belong to other denominations.

Eastern Orthodox (and Oriental Orthodox and the Church of the East) had long earlier concluded that submission to the Roman pope was not the defining character of the Church of Christ, and they too continue to confess into their creed that they are part of the Catholic Church.  There are different self-governing ecclesiastical hierarchies among both the Eastern Orthodox (Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Rum Orthodox, Georgian, etc.)  and Oriental Orthodox (Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopic), so they too concluded that one or another hierarchy was not as important as orthodox doctrine and sacramental unity (shared communion), although they do emphasize the visible unity of the church and the apostolic succession of the bishops to a greater degree than Protestants.  It is obvious to anyone who knows Greek that the term “catholic” comes from καθ’ ὅλην ἐκκλήσιαν (“according to the whole church”) or ἡ καθ’ ὅλην γῆν ἐκκλήσια (“the church in all the land”), and makes no mention of the pope or hierarchy; “catholic doctrine” in sense #5 was understood to refer to “ecumenical councils,” that is, councils which (at least notionally) involved the entirety of the Church and whose decisions were accepted by the Church.

With the modern ecumenical movement, many Protestants dropped the requirement of shared doctrine from their definition of the Catholic (i.e. universal) Church, and have recognized other Christians with whom they have larger theological disagreements.  On this model, sense #3 of “Catholic” describes a part of the group indicated by sense #4.  On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church at Vatican II adopted as dogma the negation of Pope Boniface VIII’s requirement: it is not absolutely necessary for salvation to be in submission to the Roman pontiff.  (This has caused conservative Catholic sources I have looked at to resolve the tension by arguing one of the following: (1) Unam Sanctam does not in fact fulfill the requirements of the Vatican I definition of papal infallibility, (2) Unam Sanctam does not mean that it is absolutely necessary for salvation to be in submission to the Roman pope, or (3) Vatican II and subsequent popes are apostates and not true Catholics).  Instead, Christians and even non-Christians of good will can be saved.  The doctrine extra ecclesia nulla salus has been reinterpreted to mean that all who are saved are in some sense (without knowing it) spiritually connected to and dependent upon the Roman Catholic Church, even if they reject and repudiate the Roman Catholic Church they know (although perhaps they can’t be virtuous enough for salvation if they reject it too vociferously).  On this view, the Roman Catholic Church (sense #3 of “Catholic”) is still the one and only universal Church (sense #4 of “Catholic”), but now both definitions have significant footnotes: the Roman Catholic Church is held to have this non-visible wing of people who are evidently outside of it but mystically inside of it, and some of them are probably Christians of other denominations (which are not therefore, as denominations, other churches or other parts of the sense #4 “Catholic” Church).  Sense #5 is still understood to be the teaching of the Roman Magisterium, although it is progressively more difficult to interpret all the various teachings throughout the ages consistently, and so some, such as Pope Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam, get quietly neglected.

“Ecumenical” is still a dirty word among many Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians, although their participation in the World Council of Churches has helped them see commonalities across Christological divisions.

Is the Roman Catholic Church the Catholic Church?  Is the Pope Catholic?  Depending upon whom you ask, the answers will vary.  But in light of varying meanings of the term “Catholic,” it is important in our ecumenical discussions not to equivocate, but to distinguish the different senses of the term, even for those of us who believe there is a common referent.

Christ’s Donkey

Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey (Matt 21:1-11), and most commentators have interpreted this as a sign of humility, the contrast between the warhorse of the conqueror Messiah expected by some and the spiritual conqueror that the real Messiah was.  This view is authorized by Zechariah 9:9, which describes the coming Messiah’s humility linked with the choice of a donkey for a steed.  I accept this interpretation, but I wonder whether there might be another dimension.

In particular, when David’s son Adonijah presumed he was the heir apparent and hosted a banquet to announce his kingship, the prophet Nathan and Solomon’s mother Bath Sheba asked David to appoint Solomon his heir instead.  And the way that he was appointed heir was to ride the king’s mule down to the Gihon spring outside the city and back (1 Kings 1:33, 38).  Now, a mule (Hebrew pirdah) is not a donkey (Hebrew ḥamor), but they’re related, and both event required riding into Jerusalem on a non-horse (although Solomon’s also required riding out of the city first).  So I wonder whether, in addition to the humility meaning, there is also a link to Davidic kingship in the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Optimism, Christianity, and Pessimism

Some Christians are optimists, and they think everything is going great and getting better all the time.  Other Christians are pessimists and think that the world is falling apart around us and just going from bad to worse.  Is there a right of it?

I try to be a realist, but I know that most people would say the same thing of themselves.  I see there are many things that are bad, and some are increasingly bad.  But I also see that there are many things that are good, and some are surprisingly good.  But most importantly, I think Christianity gives solid ground for hope.  Not optimism, but hope.

On the bad side of the ledger, there are many things that Christian pessimists complain about, ranging from cultural alienation from Christianity in the West to resurgence of militant Islam to growing inequities worldwide.  Here are a few big ones from my perspective:

  • In Europe and North America, most people know basically nothing about Christianity, yet they still presume that they know what Christianity is, and they reject it on the basis of their misconceptions without really understanding the Christianity which I have found.
  • Most churches, it seems, are doing a poor job even in educating their children about the truth of Christianity, and many people who have grown up in the churches are leaving them, not out of any principled or considered rejection, but simply because they don’t see the point.
  • It is increasingly common for public discourse in Europe and North America to claim that traditional Christian views on a range of subjects are offensive, and that expressing them constitutes harming others.
  • Many church leaders in basically all denominations are primarily concerned with maintaining or, if possible, increasing their power through manipulative techniques; many others seek to make Christianity indistinguishable from the surrounding culture, claiming that what matters is the church structure.  Godly leadership is hard to find, and not widely celebrated.
  • The US government is increasingly willing to maintain American prosperity through killing non-Americans over whom it has no jurisdiction.  Drones are a new technology, but essentially they fire missiles or drop bombs, and at no prior period were so many foreigners being killed by US missiles and bombs outside of a state of war as at the present.
  • Christian communities in the Middle East (between Egypt and Pakistan) are experiencing very difficult times, as certain Muslim extremists hold them accountable for American imperialism, and their governments are unable or unwilling to protect them.
  • Public discourse, at least in the US and perhaps in other places, has been neutered by polarizing talking heads who misrepresent every other viewpoint.  Opt-in discussion groups and news media mean that most people in developed countries have very little experience working through any substantive disagreement, or seeing anyone work through any substantive disagreement.
  • New technologies are widening the gulf between those who have and those who have not, while at the same time online discussion groups (as wonderful as they can be in many ways!) cannot fully replace flesh and blood communities, leading to increasing social fragmentation and isolation.  I think people are less happy now as a result of television, the internet, cell phones, and smart phones, as useful as those devices are for certain tasks.
  • Destructive behaviors such as alcoholism and rape are endemic on American university campuses, and even in many high schools, while teachers and administrators are busily saying that such actions are none of their business.  Indeed, if people in authority address such topics, they are likely to find themselves disciplined for trespassing on their students’ rights.

There are other things that bother me and seem to be making things worse, but those bullet points are what come to mind.

With that list of things to worry about, is there anything good to be said about the situation today?  Or are Christian pessimists simply right, and Christian optimists living in fantasy-land?

There are good things happening in the world as well, some of which are trumpeted by the optimists, while others seem to be largely overlooked.  Here are a few that strike me:

  • The “good old days” were not, as far as I can tell, all that great.  When I read or hear stories from before the 1960s, I am often shocked by the frankly hateful racism and sexism which is tolerated (if not advocated) by them.  While Western societies today have certainly not achieved justice, I think that racism and sexism have decreased in many ways.  Some of that apparent decrease, of course, is just political correctness, but I think some of it is genuine as well.  In some areas of society, indeed, sexual violence may be decreasing rather than increasing, to judge from the degree to which date rape and domestic abuse were taken for granted in certain demographics in a previous generation.
  • It seems to me that, despite all its vaunted rejection of Christianity, modern American society is surprisingly taking a more traditionally Christian line on at least one aspect of sexual ethics: the prohibition of adultery.  Only fifty years ago, the sexual double-standard led many people to turn a blind eye toward married men keeping mistresses, and concubinage was apparently acceptable.  While today a small but loud minority is calling for “open marriages” and “polyamory,” and many people think that anything goes (as long as it’s consensual) before marriage, “cheating on” one’s spouse is more widely despised and censured among twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings than, I think, previously.
  • If Christian church attendance is decreasing in Europe and North America, it is increasing in other areas of the world.  In particular, Christianity has been growing very quickly in China for a number of years now, and since China is the world’s most populous country and quite possibly its next dominant superpower, having a substantial Christian presence there will preserve the gospel for generations to come.
  • Christianity is also very strong in South Korea, which is sending more missionaries worldwide than any country except the US.  (Indeed, South Korea is sending more Christian missionaries per capita than the US because the American population is six times that of South Korea!)  Korean missionaries are working widely through the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, and have an easier time in areas where American Christians cannot get visas to preach the gospel.  Some of those Korean missionaries are even coming to the US, breaking stereotypes about how Christianity is a religion for dead white males.
  • Increasing numbers of people are realizing the emptiness of secularism.  They may not know what to replace it with, and there are many ideas on the table, but for some, Christianity is once again considered a live option.
  • Most encouraging is the evidence in continued changed lives.  Non-Christians continue to find the grace, forgiveness, and joy that God offers in Jesus Christ and are converting to Christianity, while some nominal Christians discover the wealth of the heritage they didn’t know they had.

So there are good things going on as well as bad.  Readers inclined to quantification may notice that I listed more bad points than good, but these points are not all equal and cannot simply be tallied up.  The fact is that the world’s a mess, but it’s not a straightforward mess.  This is what Christian doctrine should lead us to expect.  The world was created good, so some good things should be expected to remain visible in it.  Humanity fell and made a mess of everything, so we should expect a lot of harm and a lot of damage, and this is what we see in every age of history.  Theologians often emphasize that every aspect of creation has been damaged in the process, and thus even good things like relationships and technology can be turned to bad.  But that’s not the end of the story, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection, through his Holy Spirit, is redeeming the world.  So we should expect him to have had some success, and for some things to be getting better!

And this is why Christianity is neither a religion of pessimism nor a religion of optimism, but is instead a religion of hope.  The world is a horrible mess, but there is a Savior.  His work is not simply past (although he has been working), nor simply future (although he will finish the task), but is past, present, and future.  He promised to be with us always, even to the end of the world (Matthew 28:20).  He promised that Hell would not prevail against his Church (Matthew 16:18).  He didn’t promise us a rose-garden; instead, he foretold that in this world we would have trouble, but even so he told us to be encouraged, because he has overcome the world (John 16:33).  We do not see these realities fully (although we often see far too much of our present troubles, if you ask me!), but as Paul wrote, “Hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he already sees?” (Romans 8:24).  Even without fully seeing the display of God’s sovereignty in our present world, we can trust his character, for he who died on the cross out of love for the world is now he who superintends the world’s redemption.  We hope in him, we wait for him, we pray to him, we worship him, and we will one day see him face to face.  He will come again and will bring redemption to its completion.

Where are the Whirled Peas?

This afternoon, over lunch, I was asked by a friend who is neither Christian nor Jewish how I might respond to the contention that Jesus could not be the Messiah because he did not usher in an era of world peace.  (For an online Jewish website presenting this objection, see here.)  Honestly, it’s not a topic which exercises me greatly, but I thought I’d present my answer here for future correction.

Basically, I have two answers.  The first looks at what Jesus taught about the Messiah, and the second at what the Hebrew scriptures themselves say about the Messiah.

(Prolegomena: the words “Christ” and “Messiah” are distinct in English, but refer back to the same thing.  Hebrew haMoshiah was Aramaicized as meshiha, which was occasionally (e.g. John 1:41 and 4:25) transcribed into Greek as messias, thence to Latin messia, thence to English messiah.  On the other hand, already in the Septuagint Greek translation of Leviticus (date debated, but before 100 BCE likely), the Greek adjective khristos was used to translate the Hebrew haMoshiah, and it was similarly used in the two passages of the Gospel of John cited above.  It was used as a substantive adjective, i.e. an adjective-turned-noun, in the Septuagint translation of Psalm 2:2, and thus became the common way of referring to the Messiah in Greek.  Greek khristos was transcribed into Latin usually as christus, and thence to English as Christ.  I will not distinguish between the nuances in English between Messiah and Christ, because they have a shared pedigree.)

The Messiah According to Jesus

1. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah.  He asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and when Peter said, “The Christ,” which Jesus approved (Matt 16:13-20), and when asked under oath by the High Priest if he was the Christ, Jesus answered in the affirmative (Mark 14:61).  When a Samaritan woman expresses hope that the coming Messiah will sort out religious questions for them, Jesus claims to be the answer (John 4:25-26).  Thus it is not surprising that the earliest Christian texts use the title for Jesus unreservedly.

2. Jesus disclaimed inaugurating an age of peace.  For example, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34).  The sword that he speaks of is not the sword of conquest, but division within a family in the first instance (Matt 10:35), and the promise that his followers would be killed for following him (Matt 10:38-39, remembering that a cross at that time was a mode of execution, not a bothersome difficulty).

3. Jesus spoke of God’s Reign (more often translated “Kingdom of God,” but a phenomenon rather than a place) as something both present and to come.  Thus he taught his disciples to pray, “may your kingdom come” (Matt 6:10), even while he was announcing, “God’s reign has come” (Matt 4:17; the verb sometimes translated “at hand” is more literally “has come close”).  He even said, “God’s kingdom is within you” (Luke 17:21).

4. The immediate Kingdom of God  will include Christians suffering a lot of violence (e.g. Matt 10:23; John 16:2), but also a kind of peace given by Christ (Mark 5:34; more generally, John 14:27 and 16:33).  Jesus does not say much of anything about the notion of future world peace, although he likens it in a parable to “entering into the joy of [one’s] master” (Matt 25:21,23), and elsewhere he likens it to a feast (Matt 8:11).  He also uses the traditional language of Daniel 7:13-14 to describe a future coming of the Messiah (Matt 24:30-31).  At that time, the “Son of Man” (i.e. the Messiah) will condemn all injustice and wickedness (the chief obstacles to peace) and bring the righteous to “the kingdom prepared for you” (Matt 25:34).

Thus, it appears from the teaching of Jesus that there is a distinction between the first coming of the Messiah, to “bring the kingdom near” despite ongoing violence and suffering, and a second coming of the same, to bring an end to all evil and inaugurate the fullness of the kingdom.  This is called “inaugurated eschatology,” “partially realized eschatology,” or “the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet.'”

But critics may say that the Messianic prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures do not support such a bifurcated Messianic mission.  So that is the second piece of my response to the question.

The Messiah According to Isaiah

(Yes, I know there were other prophets than Isaiah, and the arguments I make for Isaiah could be generalized to other prophets.  But in the interest of writing a blog post rather than a book on the subject, I’ll limit my discussion to Isaiah.)

Isaiah certainly foretold world peace.  Most obviously, “And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  / Nation will not lift up sword against nation, / And never again will they learn war.” (Isaiah 2:4)  When will this come about?  Isaiah tells us: “In the last days” (Isaiah 2:2), when the Lord “will judge between the nations and will render decisions for many peoples” (Isaiah 2:4).

But what does Isaiah say of the Messiah?  This is where things get a little more tricky.  Isaiah refers to Cyrus of Persia as the Lord’s “anointed” (45:1), but leaving that aside for now, more to the point are various prophecies which do not necessary use the term “Messiah” but were understood by an ancient Jewish audience to refer to the prophesied Davidic ruler.  The only one to use the term “anointed” is Isaiah 61:1-2:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord
And the day of vengeance of our God.

(This passage was quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19, and pronounced fulfilled.)  This passage does not say anything about world peace, as it turns out, but presumes that people have been afflicted, brokenhearted, taken captive, and made prisoner.

Other prophecies from Isaiah are debated as to whether they pertain to the Messiah or not.  Most notable are the “Servant Songs” (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12), which speak of the Lord’s Servant.  The most common Jewish interpretation is probably that these songs refer to the Jewish people collectively, while Christians have traditionally interpreted them with respect to the Messiah.  What do they tell us?

In Isaiah 42:1-4, the Lord speaks of choosing his servant and putting his Spirit upon him, in similar language to Isaiah 61:1 though without the word to anoint, and that this servant will bring justice to the world.  In Isaiah 49:1-6, the servant speaks, claiming to be hidden in God’s hand and quiver (49:2).  While he is addressed by God, “You are my servant, Israel” in 49:3, he is also given the mission “To bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him” (49:5).  This implies some identification between the servant and Israel, but also a distinction: the servant is to bring Israel back to God.  And not only Israel: the Lord says to his servant,

It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (49:6)

So the Lord’s servant is chosen by the Lord, anointed by the Spirit, and given a mission of restoration of God’s people and salvation to all the peoples.  If the servant is simply the people of Israel, as some suggest, I do not see how the people of Israel can restore themselves.  One might propose that the righteous people of Israel would bring back those who have strayed, but even “the preserved ones of Israel” need restoration.  And this passage’s double reference to God choosing the servant from the womb (49:1,5) sounds more like the Lord’s call of Jeremiah (Jer 1:5), referring to an individual.  The reference to the servant’s law in 42:4 may then imply that the Lord’s servant is a king, and these passages are likely among the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah.  And they do foretell a Messianic restoration of all things.

In Isaiah 50:4-9, the servant speaks again, indicating his obedience to the Lord, and yet his suffering of beating, beard-plucking, and being spat upon (50:6).  Although he protests that the Lord will help him and he will outlast his opponents (50:9), there is nothing in this passage about world peace or even victory, just confidence in a courtroom.  Instead, it mentions his suffering and endurance.

The final Servant Song is even more direct, and it is small wonder that it is so frequently quoted in the New Testament.  This is the passage in which the servant is described as “a man of sorrows” and “surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried.”  It describes how the servant is killed unjustly (53:7-8) among criminals (53:9,12), though in fact buried by a rich man (53:9), and yet his suffering was to take away the sins of the people (53:5-6).  Nevertheless, “If he gives himself as a sacrifice for guilt, he will see offspring, he will prolong his days, and the Lord’s pleasure will prosper through him” (53:10).  How someone who gives himself as a sacrifice can live longer is a puzzle in this passage, simply unanswered here.

But the prophecies of Isaiah speak on the one hand of world peace, and on the other of the suffering servant of the Lord.  Both are speaking of the Messiah.  This Messiah is Jesus, who as the Lord’s suffering servant has indeed dealt with our sins, “and by his wounds, we are healed.”  The fact that the Messiah’s sufferings would not immediately usher in a period of world peace was understood and clearly articulated by Jesus, and implicit in Isaiah’s various prophecies regarding the suffering servant.

The question how can the Messiah suffer rather than ushering in an age of prosperity is not new.  Jesus faced the question himself (John 12:34).  But the fact of the matter is that the current brokenness of the world, which is very broken indeed, and the incomprehension of the crowds are no surprise to him and no ultimate obstacle to his redemptive plan.

Proverbs

I appreciate the book of Proverbs.  I didn’t always; it wasn’t always intuitive to me what I was reading.  The proverbs themselves seem to hold out various promises, and yet they clearly were not absolute rules.  (Indeed, I, like all converts, am a counter-example to Prov. 22:6.)  So what are they?  A number of years ago I started compiling a list of common English proverbs, to the tune of “A penny saved is a penny earned,” which helped me see the value of this book of wisdom.

Prompted by a post on another blog, I have included here a number of proverbs that have struck me previously, some seriously, some humorously, with brief comment.

I.

“Where there is no guidance, the people fall, / But in abundance of counselors, there is victory.” (Prov 11:14, NASB)

I’m a younger sibling, so I take this proverb to heart.  I have watched many other people charge ahead without first asking advice, and often regretting it.  In consequence, I like to ask people for advice regarding important decisions.  I make no express or implied warrant that I will follow any advice, but I am happy to ask (and less happy to receive advice unasked-for).

Of course, the proverb speaks of “abundance of counselors,” and what one usually learns when one asks for advice from even two people is that they don’t agree.  Professional advice in particular I have found to be often diametrically opposed, though personal advice often diverges.  Why is that?  When people give you advice, their counsel most often reflects their own experiences of what worked and did not work for them.  Most advice has no greater validity than that.  And this is where the proverb’s “abundance” comes in: if one can ask many people, they will not all agree.  But they will give you a broader range of human experience than just your own experience.  My own inclinations also reflect only my own experiences, and have no broader validity than that!  So asking for others’ advice allows me to identify if something surprising always works, or always fails, or has mixed results which might be managed in some way.  It’s not rocket science, but it can be helpful.

II.

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, / But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Prov 13:12, NASB)

“Desire realized is sweet to the soul, / But it is an abomination to fools to depart from evil.” (Prov. 13:19, NASB)

The first of these proverbs always make me think of the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes (also known as “A Dream Deferred”).  Christianity, somewhere along the line, got an odd reputation for being against any sort of fun or pleasure.  Some people’s distorted view of God is as a giant killjoy.  But apart from clear evidence in creation and prophecy that God knows how to have a good time, these proverbs also tell us that we long for things, and when we get them we do better (caveat to follow).  Putting off our longings, perpetually missing out on what we hope for, is hard, and not good for us.  Getting what we want is, at some level good for us.

(Now for the caveat.)  As the second part of the second proverb shows, however, we often want the wrong thing.  So when our desires are “disordered” (to use the jargon of Catholic moral theology) or “messed up” (means the same thing), then getting what we want may in fact do us harm.  This is the point of another proverb, which early in my post-conversion life indicated to me that we cannot trust people to know what is best for them:

“There is a way which seems right to a man, / But its end is the way of death.” (Prov. 14:12, NASB)

If people cannot be trusted to know what is best for them, this places limits on individual autonomy (because most people don’t in fact seek counselors, as described in I. above) and calls into question the moral virtue of permitting people to go their own way.   But that’s a digression for another time, if I ever feel inspired to write on political economy.

For my purposes now, it suffices to show that the problem with fulfilling our bad desires, as indicated in the second half of Prov. 13:19 or in Prov. 14:12, is not that we are fulfilling desires, but that we’re stupid.  It’s not a problem of having desires, as if it would be virtuous to desire nothing (a frequent teaching in certain varieties of Buddhism and sometimes Hinduism), but of desiring the wrong object.  We need to learn to direct out desires to good things, above all to God who gave us good desires in order to delight us with satisfying them!  We are not called to be Stoics; we are called not to be idolaters, substituting bad things for the good that God made us to desire.

III.

“Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, / But much increase comes by the strength of the ox.” (Prov. 14:4, NASB)

When I first came across this, as a new convert to Christianity, it shocked me.  It seems to directly contradict the common English saying (or perhaps only common American saying?), “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”  Indeed, it approaches, though without the connotations of violence, “You can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs.”  I had never liked “cleanliness is next to godliness,” as it sounded judgmental and I didn’t like doing chores, but when I became a Christian I was resigned to accept that as part of package.  Coming across this proverb revealed to me that there are more important things than being tidy.  I mean, I suppose most people like to appear “put together” and like they “have their ducks in a row,” but sometimes real good interferes with those appearances.  Sometimes in order to get something done, something really good, I need to “get my hands dirty.”

IV.

On a much lighter note:

“In all labor there  is profit, / But mere talk leads only to poverty.” (Prov. 14:23, NASB)

As a soon-to-be teacher, I marvel that the Bible explains so clearly why teachers don’t get paid much.