pride

The Spiritual Danger of Graduate School

There is a danger in pursuing the highest levels of education.

It is not, as a few antagonistic atheists suppose, that doing so will teach you to think, and that thought is incompatible with faith.  In point of fact, some of the brightest people throughout European and American history, even recently, have been Christians.  Some of them have even become Christians, not simply grown up with it.  (Indeed, I wish more people, both Christians and others, would learn to think better.)

Nor is the danger, as some Christians suppose, that all Christians pursuing graduate education will be brain-washed by professors who are antagonistic atheists out to destroy their students’ faith.  No doubt there are such professors, but graduate students are supposed to think critically about what they hear from all sources, and many advisers give their students a fair degree of latitude to disagree with them (in certain areas).  Historically, Christians have learned a lot from studying with non-Christians, such as the fourth-century author John Chrysostom from the pagan Libanius.  And of course, Christians worried about such brain-washing can pursue graduate study at confessional Christian schools.  While I have known people who have left Christianity while pursuing graduate degrees, I have also known Christians whose faith grew and flourished even in very secular environments.

Nor is the danger that “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor. 15:33, quoting the pagan poet Menander).  While this is certainly true, in general academics are no more immoral than can be found in any bar, coffee-house, movie theater, sports stadium, large corporation, or other place where people gather.  The apostle Paul made clear that Christians were not to shun the presence of all non-Christians (1 Cor. 5:9-11).

The danger of pursuing a Ph.D. or similar terminal degree is simply, in the words of the apostle Paul, that “knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). (more…)

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Proverbs about Fools

There are many proverbs about fools in the Book of Proverbs, but the largest consecutive chunk of them is found in Prov. 26:1-12.  It’s useful considering the first eleven verses together, and then the twelfth as a capstone: (more…)

Did God Command Schism?

The Old Testament books of Kings are filled with wars between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, and make a strong object lesson of the futility, mutual recrimination, and other spiritual harms caused by schism, as both kingdoms turned away from God, whether to the worship of other gods in the north, or to a mere pretense of worshiping the true God among other gods in the south.  This makes sense.  What makes less sense to me is that the political divide was not an act originating from human pride and rebellious spirit, but in fact commanded by God.  With certain things, I am tempted to ask God what he was thinking.

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Having Come Lately

I tend to think that I came to the question of divisions among Christians rather late in the day.  We all have.  Most of the divisions among Christians which exist now already existed before any of us were born.  The division between European Christians and most varieties of Middle Eastern and African Christians happened fifteen centuries ago; the division between Eastern Orthodox and the Latin West is almost a millennium old.  The Protestant Reformation is approaching half a millennium old, and even the Methodists are a quarter of a millennium old at this point.  Many of the Pentecostal denominations are older than a century, as is the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy which sprouted new denominations.  All of these divisions occurred before we were born.  So the question facing us is what to do about those divisions now, given the history that has already transpired.

There are many ways one might answer that question.  Some people regard it as an intellectual challenge, to discern which denomination is the True Church and join it.  Others regard the divisions among Christians as evidence for falsity and abandon the religion, or refuse to join it.  Some people think the correct response is to convince everyone else to join their own group; others prefer  to pretend there are no divisions among the groups.  Perhaps the vast majority of Christians just ignore the issue, staying in the church where they are and ignoring other denominations as irrelevant to them.  None of these is my response, although the reason why will require some background narrative of my own experience. (more…)

Fighting Truth Decay

This is, at long last, an answer to a question posted by a commentator (I’m sorry to say over a month ago): “[H]ow do you see Christ as having made provisions for guaranteeing the preservation of Truth through the ages (if you see Him as having done so at all)?”  Subsequent discussion revealed that he did not mean merely since Christ’s ascension to heaven.  So this post attempts to address the question in general, but first (as a humanities scholar is apt to do), I need to clarify the issue.

Clarifying the Problem

What does it mean to “guarantee the preservation of Truth”?  In what ways is Truth not preserved?  Truth is not an organic mass which begins to decompose in the summer heat, changing color and attracting flies.  Nor is truth a substance that can be diluted or transmuted.  Truth is a property of certain beliefs, and the “preservation of Truth” is the preservation of true beliefs in the minds of people.  A true belief may fail to be preserved in the minds of people either by failing to pass it on to new people, so that the true belief may be said to end (in a sense) with the death of the last person who believes it, or by being rejected in favor of alternate (and false) beliefs.  Since no sound argument can refute a true belief, if we were fully rational beings, no true belief would ever be rejected for a false belief.  And if we were immortal and perfectly rational beings, truth would be in no danger.  But in fact, we are both mortal, so beliefs need to be passed on, and sinful, so that we often prefer convenient falsehoods to inconvenient truths.  And thus true beliefs need to be preserved.  The transfer of true beliefs to other people is a variety of revelation, the means by which those other people come to believe this truth.  The question of how sinful people are checked from simply chucking out whatever truth they don’t like is a question of redemption.  In both processes, God’s message of salvation is at stake, and therefore this is an important question. (more…)

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.