Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"Christus est me."

One of the joys, some might say curses, of historical research is that I am constantly discovering figures whose thought is deep and often revolutionary - particularly for their time - but for whatever reason, have been largely overlooked in the grand narratives of our history books. Irenaeus of Lyons, the second century figure who will command the majority of my attention in my dissertation, was one such figure. Most of the major history books rarely mention anyone earlier than Augustine (4th century). (Of course, this was prior to the Da Vinci Code dabocal, where Irenaeus actually comes to play. Even here, however, his thought is much misunderstood and characterized. But I digress.)

A recent figure that has captured me is the 16th century figure Johann von Staupitz. Generally, he is known to scholarship, if he is known at all, as Martin Luther's teacher and confessor. Thus, he is generally referred to as the "frontrunner of the Reformation", a title which completely overlooks the fact that he remained a member of the Roman Catholic Church to his dying day (though he also refused to condemn Luther). Rather, he worked for reform from within the walls of the Church and his theology is, therefore, much more nuanced and subtle than some of the more polemical works from the hands of the Reformers.

One of the primary ways in which his thought was subversive to the Catholic establishment was in his understanding of the union that is effected between Christ and the Christian. Generally speaking, the Catholic Scholasticism dominant in his day viewed the relationship primarily as a marriage between Christ and the Church. This marriage was, consequently, mediated (or appropriated) by the believers through the grace of the sacraments.

Staupitz picks up this marriage analogy (likely originating with Paul) and subtly changes it, emphasizing the union between Christ and each individual Christian. For Staupitz, the union revealed in Paul's marriage analogy was much more intimate and personal than had come to be interpreted by Scholasticism. It was not mediated by the Church or by the sacraments, the grace of God simply came to the human creature because God elected him or her to marry and therefore, pledged himself to him or her.

The vows which Staupitz believes effect this union express this intimate union in a most profound manner. Christ says to the believer:

"Ego accipio te meam,
accipio te mihi,
accipio in me."

("I accept the Christian to me,
I accept the Christian with me,
I accept the Christian into me.")

Staupitz interprets these progressing vows as Christ and the Christian becoming one in flesh, heart and spirit, such that the Christian can now say "I am Christ." As a result of this intimate union, all of the merits of Christ become ours. We now have a right and a title to heaven because we are Christ, not because we have merited it on our own account. Moreover, the sin that was ours is transferred to Christ, who also says in his vow: "I am the Christian." It is these sins that are put to death on the cross.

Finally, Staupitz envisions this marriage as happening at the point of justification. This is again quite different from Scholastic theology, and even from some of the more mystical theologians of the high medieval age, who believed the union with Christ was the result of much spiritual growth and something that one arrived at at the end of his or her journey. Staupitz sees it as a beginning. Christians are joined to Christ when they are justified and this union adheres throughout their life. What confidence should this inspire in us, if we truly believe that "I am Christ."

Most readers will see in this theology a radically Protestant understanding of the relationship between Christ and the Christian. Historically speaking, it was a Catholic understanding. Johann von Staupitz, for this reason, I think could be a starting point for ecumenical discussions. He is a witness to the fact that there is in the Catholic tradition a place for the concerns that the Reformers were raising. Unfortunately, at this point, he is too little known to history to work effectively in this role. We need more historians!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Wounds

"Our rock, then, is in heaven; in it is strength, and on it security. Is it not said that the rock is a refuge for the conies? And where, in truth, is there a firm and safe refuge for us who are weak, except in the Wounds of our Savior? There I dwell with safety so much the greater, as He is so powerful to save. The world rages around me, the devil lays snares for me; but I do not fall, for I am founded upon a firm Rock. Perhaps I have committed some great sin, my conscience is troubled, but I do not despair, because I remember the Wounds of my Lord; for He was wounded for our iniquities. What sin is there so deadly that it may not be remitted through the Death of Christ?

-St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Who Can Be Saved?

One of the most difficult theological questions Christians face today is the fate of the unevangelized. The reason this question is so difficult is that it strikes at the heart of two pillars of Christian truth. The first is that God is a God of love who wills all of his creatures to be saved. This truth, despite some Calvinists protests which I can already hear ringing in the background, is sufficiently attested to in scripture. There is the famous statement of God's love: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life." To interpret this verse as applying to only a certain number of people, say a predestined elect, one has to do quite a bit of mental gymnastics in his or her interpretation of "world." A somewhat less memorized, but equally important verse comes from one of the epistles: "This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:3b-4). In addition to these verses, I think it safe to say that the entire tenure of scripture reveals a God of love who does not want any of his creation to be out of communion with him. This is the God of the cross.

The second truth, however, is the belief that only through Christ can sinners be reconciled to God. The biblical evidence on this point is equally strong. In one of his earliest sermons, St. Peter declares: "This Jesus is 'the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.' There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:11-12). To take the verses we have already cited, God indeed loves the world but the stipulation for everlasting life is belief in Jesus. And the verse which follows 1 Tim 2:4 states: "For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus . . ."

When applying these truths to the fate of the unevangelized - that is those billions of people through history (and existing today) who never had the opportunity to hear the good news of Christ - we are left in a conundrum. For it seems that we cannot adequately maintain both of these truths. If we maintain that since God loves the world and wills the salvation of all, then he will surely provide a way for the salvation of those who have not heard the gospel. Yet the moment we affirm something like this, we put the truth that salvation comes only through Jesus in jeopardy. What is worse, we marginalize the work of the cross. For if God was able to save some humans apart from Jesus, then why did Jesus have to die? This is a theological question without an easy answer.

One of the best recent articles I have read on the subject comes from the hand of the Catholic Cardinal Avery Dulles, "Who Can be Saved?". He lucidly defines the difficulty and what is at stake in our answer. Additionally, he traces the history of thought on the subject which is enlightening in itself. He concludes with an answer that I think very satisfying. If you want to read this article, click here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Narcissistic Update

I do not know if there is anyone still reading who would appreciate an update on my studies (who has not been in contact with me otherwise), but in the rare chance, I thought I would pause to be a bit narcissistic. But then again who am I kidding? Sometimes it seems that blogging is nothing but one big project in narcissism, especially when your readers are not given to commenting much.

In any case, I am in my fourth semester of classes, which means that I am officially done with course work this May (May 8th to be exact). On that blessed day, I will have completed my course work. This means nothing except that now I have the opportunity to sit for exams. Some places call them boards. The people at Marquette, who I've discovered have a penchant for acronyms, refer to them as the DQEs, or the Doctoral Qualifying Exams. I am planning on sitting for those sometime in the late fall. If I pass them, then and only then, will I have earned the right to be called a PhD candidate. So if some of you have been thinking of me as a PhD student, the joke is on you. Actually, the supreme joke, I think, is on me. For all this means is that the last two years of my life have been in a sort of limbo state. I'm not a PhD student, what the heck am I? Fortunately, this nihilistic problem will be resolved if I pass my exams.

The procedure is as follows: three days, six hours a day, four written essays (averaging 7-10 pages a piece) and an oral exam. I'm not sure what happens at an oral exam but I must admit that it does not sound very pleasant. I have consulted my DQE board, which consists of five distinguished professors, and they have each given me (or required me to give them) a bibliography covering a certain area. For example, one of my history questions will focus on the Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century. Thus my bibliography will consistent of primary sources from the major players of that century, as well as past and current secondary sources each having varying theses on what happened. When the test comes, I will be asked a comprehensive question about that time period. The bibliography is the map that guides the question, in other words, my professor cannot ask me something that is not covered by the bibliography. Conversely, I am responsible for everything on the bibliography - and these are long mothers.

So for the next five or six months (following May 8th), I will be reading through my various bibliographies and forming outlines to answer projected questions in my various areas. In the fall I will begin meeting with the professors of my board to discuss what I have read to hopefully focus in on questions. With some professors, I may have a fairly good idea of what I will be answering going into the test. With others, I may know nothing but generalities. Here is what I know so far.

Major area: History

1. Trinitarian thought of the apologists, particularly Justin Martyr (second century)

2. Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century

3. Theory of knowledge in Thomas Aquinas

Minor area: Bible

1. Romans

Minor area: Theology

1. Karl Barth on revelation

This is likely more than any of my readers wanted to know, but I put out there for anyone who does. If you have knowledge of any books or articles that might be useful, please send me a note. Otherwise, I ask for your prayers now as I begin what is sure to be a very long preparation process.

In other narcissistic news, as a celebration of the end of course work, Julie and I will be heading to Italy for two weeks! We will be going with her parents and her great uncle Virgilio Sala who will serve as a tour guide. We absolutely cannot wait.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Abundant Life

This morning our pastor made an interesting connection between the lectionary readings. The epistle reading came from 1 Peter 2:19-25, a portion of which reads:

"For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.
If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps."

The Gospel reading came from John 10:1-10, a portion of which reads:

"I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

So often, Christians want to read the promise that Jesus gives in John 10 as referring to this earthly life. We want this to be a promise that if we follow Jesus than he will abundantly bless this life. Some versions of Christianity have even built their theology around this promise. The Prosperity Gospel, as it was called, preached that God blesses his followers monetarily in this life. The converse implication is that if a person is suffering than he or she must be in sin. There are versions of this perverse gospel being preached today. Sometimes it is subtle, but if you listen for the rhetoric, it is there.

The wise formers of the lectionary must have known the potential danger of misinterpretations of which life Jesus was referring to for they paired it with an epistle reading that makes it impossible to understand Jesus promise of abundant life as referring to monetary blessings. For Peter is crystal clear that followers of Christ are not promised blessings in this life - at least in the way that "blessings" are understood these days. Rather, Peter writes that Christians have been called to suffer unjustly. Bear in mind, he does not say that we may suffer unjustly, he says that this is what we have been called to.

Why would God call us to suffer unjustly, our modern minds may ask. The answer is simple. This is the example that our savior set for us. Jesus suffered unjustly because he was faithful to God in an unfaithful world. The original audience of 1 Peter likewise lived in an unfaithful world and Peter knew that to follow in Jesus' footsteps would likewise result in unjust suffering. Christians today continue to live in an unfaithful world, and if we are faithful to the example of our savior, the result will be the same. There have been more Christian martyrs this year already than in the entire first century.

Abundant life comes in the pure joy of living a Christlike life and the reward that results from such a life. May God give us all the courage and strength to live the life to which we have been called.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Though nothing beats, in my opinion, the theology in the old hymns of the church, I find that many of the newer, "contemporary" (oh how I despise that word) songs are also often filled with profound thoughts. Here are a few of my favorites, quotes from some of the younger saints in this communion of ours. Feel free to edify us with some of your favorites.


"All the heavens cannot hold you Lord,
how much less to dwell in me?
I can only make my one desire:
Holy unto Thee."

-Third Day


"Give me one pure and holy passion,
Give me one magnificent obsession.
Give me one glorious ambition for my life:
To know and to follow after you.

"To know and to follow hard after you,
To grow as your disciple in your truth.
This world is empty, pale, and poor
Compared to knowing you my Lord.
Lead me on, and I will run after you.
Lead me on, and I will run after you."

-Passion Worship Band


"Be my vision and I'll be your delight."

-Point of Grace

Monday, March 31, 2008

Politics and Religion to Middle Schoolers

In Sunday School yesterday, at the suggestion of the confirmation teacher, we combined the confirmation and senior high classes to discuss a rather pertinent topic - "Politics and Religion." I announced it in the first service and received numerous chuckles from the congregation. On the way out after service, I had numerous people pat me on the back giving me forlorn looks and an occasional, "good luck!" I felt like I was marching to the gallows. It seems that this is just a topic that we inherently fear, whether we think that they shouldn't be mixed, should be mixed, can't be mixed, can't help but being mixed, or some combination of the above. But everyone has an opinion, and as I soon found out, even kids.

We kept it as basic as we could, keeping the discussion to things like the purpose of the separation between church and state, etc. What amazed me, however, is the assumption that seemed to permeate the room that politics is one thing and religion a completely different and never the twain shall meet. Thus, when we asked whether a person's religious beliefs should influence their policies, the general response we got was no. Perhaps I am ignorant but I do not see how someone who is a follower of Christ can somehow put those beliefs on a shelf when he or she goes to do his or her job. If we are a follower of Christ, should not his values affect everything we do?

The kids also did not think that Christ was a political figure or that the church was a political body. I think this seems to be a common thought as well. Without seeing Christ as a political figure, it is hard to make sense of why the Romans crucified him. Perhaps Christ was saying a bit more than keep your religion at home. And when the church lays a claim on our lives that is absolute, how we are to live, where we are to spend our money, etc. it is difficult to see how this cannot be a political body.

I don't think we ask the nature of the relationship between them enough. Thoughts?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Protestant Ecumenists

"It was because they recognized what they had received through the Catholic Church that the first generation of Reformers wished for the renewal, not the disruption of the historic ecclesiastical structures. It was against their will that the visible continuity and unity were broken, and they thought of the separate polities which they established, not as new churches, but as temporary emergency measures. Convergence into a reformed and united church was their goal, and this once again is the objective of those Protestant ecumenists who are their heirs."

-George Lindbeck

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Our Hope has a Name

This past Easter Sunday, a United Church in Toronto sang the glorious Easter hymn "Jesus Christ is Risen Today," but it replaced the name "Jesus Christ" with the phrase "Glorious hope." Here is an excerpt from the article printed by Globe and Mail:

"Thus, it will be hope that is declared to be resurrected – an expression of renewal of optimism and the human spirit – but not Jesus, contrary to Christianity's central tenet about the return to life on Easter morning of the crucified divine son of God.

"Generally speaking, no divine anybody makes an appearance in West Hill's Sunday service liturgy.

"There is no authoritative Big-Godism, as Rev. Gretta Vosper, West Hill's minister for the past 10 years, puts it. No petitionary prayers (“Dear God, step into the world and do good things about global warming and the poor”). No miracles-performing magic Jesus given birth by a virgin and coming back to life. No references to salvation, Christianity's teaching of the final victory over death through belief in Jesus's death as an atonement for sin and the omnipotent love of God. For that matter, no omnipotent God, or god.

"Ms. Vosper has written a book, published this week – With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe – in which she argues that the Christian church, in the form in which it exists today, has outlived its viability and either it sheds its no-longer credible myths, doctrines and dogmas, or it's toast."

There is a genuine consensus, the pastor of this church goes on to say, that the Bible is a human project that has no ontological truth, that it is absurd to think that salvation comes through the death and resurrection of a particular man. The church, she believes, needs to recognize this and throw off their old language that they might survive. If I understand her correctly, her justification for removing the name "Jesus Christ" from the hymn, ironically, is that the Christian church might not perish but might live.

My first observation is simply to acknowledge that Scripture says the exact opposite. Rather, it says rather clearly that our only life is in the life of this particular man Jesus of Nazareth who lived in a particular place at a particular time. And that this man is also God. If he did not rise on Easter morning, then there is no glorious hope. Paul writes: "Now if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also in vain . . . and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied." -1 Cor. 15:13-14, 17-19.

Of course these statements are meaningless to someone who thinks like Rev. Vosper because she believes the Bible is just human invention. My second observation, then, is a bit more practical. Why bother? Why are you the pastor of a church? Why not sleep in on Sunday morning? I just do not understand why this person - or anyone who believes the way she does - would waste their time with coming together. And I further do not understand the basis of her glorious hope. Where is our hope if Jesus has not been raised. I think that we have none and we might as well just eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.

But I do believe that He is risen. And I do believe that our Scriptures are the true story of God's covenantal interactions with his people. And I believe that they are the basis for our faith and hope that He will continue to be faithful to his promises. In short I too believe that glorious hope has risen today. But glorious hope has a name. Jesus Christ.

One last observation. I know not of this "general consensus" that Rev. Vosper speaks of. There are believers and there are non believers, as there always has been, but to say that there is a general consensus now that the Bible is of human invention is plain disingenuous. I find it funny to note that when leading theologians were asked to comment on her book, they all refused because they hadn't read it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Maundy Madness

As I write this, Marquette is in the second half of a close game with Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Though I have not had much time to follow basketball in the last seven years since leaving Iowa State, I do have an affinity for this game as it pits my current school against my former school. (Asbury Seminary did not have a basketball team so as far as sports go, I adopted the University of Kentucky as my collegiate team during those years.) But alas I am not watching the game as I am reading furiously to try to get ahead for the final push of the semester, "the Paper Madness" as I like to call it.

What is more unfortunate is that I will likely not pause too long to remember the significance of this day. For it is not just the beginning of March Madness, as most Americans (and sadly most Christians) will only take note of today, but it is Maundy Thursday, the day in which our Lord celebrated the last supper with his disciples, the day in which he donned the towel of a servant to wash the feet of his disciples. The Pope, in his Maundy Thursday address from Rome, likened the event to the early Christological hymn preserved in Philippians 2:

"He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death - and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion." -Philippians 2:6-8

If the Pope is right, and I think that he is (despite the fact that he was not speaking ex cathedra) then the footwashing episode is a microcosm of the entirety of Jesus' life. Even to the point that some of those whom he serves want to reject the cleansing. To paraphrase the early Patristic dictum with this understanding: "He became a servant, that we might be the one who is served."

This insight of the Pope's mirrors that of some of the early reflections on the Eucharistic mystery. Writers such as Cyprian of Carthage connected the actions Jesus took at the last supper in giving the bread and wine with the actions he took on Golgotha in giving his body and blood. It is all one mysterious act, through which we are reconciled to God. Our feet are now clean to walk where God walks. We could not clean them ourselves, as Peter's refusal was ultimately suggesting (despite the pious front), but we needed the Holy God to do it. This, when you think about it, truly deserves the appellation madness. And yet it is this madness - or foolishness as the Apostle Paul writes - that is our salvation.