Authority and Idolatry

Authority and Idolatry

Recently I’ve been challenged to think about the role images play in the Christian church. I notice a lot of Orthodox and Catholic polemicists against Protestants in particular discuss the importance of the seven ecumenical church councils. By this they really are placing emphasis on the last, the second council of Nicea which validates the use of images in church.

Imagery came up again in reading William Dalrymple’s “From the Holy Mountain” which details his travels through the Middle East in the footsteps of John Moschos back in the 6th century. Whilst travelling through the Syria of the mid 90’s he comments on John of Damascus, known for defending the use of images whilst living under Islamic rule. I’ve haven’t read the ‘Fount of Wisdom’ but John’s (the latter of the two mentioned) peculiar and unique situation made him and his views something I’ve been curious about. The only quotation I’ve found of his on images, without access to any writings directly reads the following..

Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honour is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.

We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.

St. John of Damascus

I think the comparison of the cross is potent namely because many Protestants have no issue with displaying a cross in church, or even wearing one. In fact I know of few aside from the Puritans et al who’d have an issue with this. Particularly because in the example given the worship is directed towards God alone. The contention however lingers on the term ‘venerate’ namely because it is a word rarely used in the everyman’s English language and is synonymous with worship. For John to say he venerates instead of worships images is akin to stating that he lingers in the bath instead of soaking. It is largely a linguistic phrasing without a substantive difference to the everyman.

Despite disputing of the term veneration, to be honest if we are referring to images of God alone the harm that can be done in any confusion is minimised. What is questionable however is in John’s example of the cross. Detractors of Protestantism accuse us of worshiping the Bible but in the case of Orthodoxy or Catholicism in a literal sense this is much closer to the truth. In the venerations of objects of worth; crosses, gospels, bread, wine and even the images and appendages of the departed there are actions involved. Bowing, kissing, prayer these are all ultimately directed to God we are told. Yet at the same time I have detractors of Protestantism say it is too cerebral, too internal and does not inhabit the body. This is why an Eastern or Latin Christian might stand a particular way or face a particular direction in prayer and I would confess that their is some truth to the criticism of Protestantism in this case. Yet by this reasoning if we enact worship with our bodies their is a disconnect when we say that our exhibition of this behaviour to created objects is not in fact worship because of some interior difference.

Whatever you or your church believes on this the interesting thing to me is the emphasis placed on it. The theology at work behind the second council of Nicea seems to be largely about the nature of the incarnation and the redemption of the physical world through the work of God. This is absolutely important and Protestants do uphold this. The linking of the issue however to the veneration of specific objects and images is an issue that, depending on your view of the Eastern or Latin Church is linked to a persons salvation pushes this beyond the immediate theological dispute into something more. More in that it ceases to be about the immediate flashpoint issue of idolatry and instead about authority.

The issue of authority becomes central because it is not enough that a Protestant hold to a particular view of the incarnation and God’s work in the world. It is the idea that truth is ultimately vested in an institution. I mention this more so after listening to an episode on ‘Non-Mainstream Christianity’ (Part 2c) from the podcast ‘Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy’ in which Eastern Orthodox Fr. Stephen Damick, having detailed several cults highlights the trouble of adhering to an institution other than the Orthodox church. That discerning for yourself the truth is the same process by which a heretic might by lead to set up their own church. That even though you might have good intentions, others might exploit this same ‘mechanic’ for their own gain. Such is the history of Protestantism.

In this light the claims of a historical council are less important to the everyman than the point of adhering to the council itself. Truths pertaining to right, wrong and salvation slip into the guise of an institution. Dostoevsky in the Brother Karamazov touches on the friction of this in his short story ‘the Grand Inquisitor’. The story itself  reflects the actual life of Christ and echoes the plight of the Old Testament prophets over and against the idolatry of an unbelieving Israel. The thread through all of this is that truth can transcend an apparent authority.

Yet when confronted with an unbelieving world we cannot escape the question that Pilate confronted Christ himself with “What is truth?”. The serpent similarly challenged Eve with the question “Did God really say…?”. The serpent is worse of the two because he did not deny God but gave grounds for Eve to live outside her creators will. The temptation exists to desire that God had taken away such freedom from Adam and Eve. Just as the Church in the tale of the Grand Inquisitor took the freedom from humanity.

Oh, never, never, will they learn to feed themselves without our help! No science will ever give them
bread so long as they remain free, so long as they refuse to lay that freedom at our feet, and say: “Enslave, but feed us!” That day must come when men will understand that freedom and daily bread enough to satisfy all are unthinkable and can never be had
together, as men will never be able to fairly divide the two among themselves. And they will also learn that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, miserable nonentities born wicked and rebellious. Thou has promised to them the bread of life, the bread of heaven; but I ask Thee again, can that bread ever equal in the sight of the weak and the vicious, the ever
ungrateful human race, their daily bread on earth? … True, they are vicious and rebellious, but we will force them into obedience, and it is they who will admire us the most. They will regard us as gods, and feel grateful to those who have consented to lead the masses and bear their burden of freedom by ruling over them–so terrible will that freedom at last appear to men!

– Excerpt from The Grand Inquisitor by Dostoevsky  

The Grand Inquisitor gives his reason for acting and believing such in that he is acting in the service of the serpent. Did God then, being himself and not the serpent, give Adam and Eve the ‘burden of freedom’ to act as they would? Aldous Huxley in Brave New World touches on this idea in his own way when he details an exchange between the ‘Savage’ and Mustapha Mond.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

– Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I guess it is too Protestant of me to say that the ability to ‘claim them all’ that the Savage describes is an intrinsic part of a inherited Christian worldview and in their own way gifts of God.

In closing, I can’t help but be reminded, when thinking of idolatry and authority but be reminded of Daniel chapter 3. Daniel and his peers knew that God was able to save but would not crave to the pressures of this authority that made such demands of them. When I think about Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace I think of Tyndale who, like Daniel and his friends, went to the flames willingly but unlike them won a martyrs crown. In both instances it is faith in God alone that is the bulwark against authority whether temporal or spiritual. We know that God is able to rescue, but even if he should not we can say to the world “we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up”.

Responding to Orthodox criticism of Sola Scriptura

Responding to Orthodox criticism of Sola Scriptura

I’ve recently started listening to the Ancient Faith Radio (an Eastern Orthodox podcast network) series ‘Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy‘. This is done by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and compares Eastern Orthodox doctrine to other beliefs.

For the most part I’ve found it an interesting listen on the differences between Roman and Eastern Christian beliefs (I’m only seven episodes in as of writing). So far I’m less surprised by the points I disagree with him, but I am surprised by the points on which I generally agree.

Episode seven of the podcast addresses what is known as the ‘Magisterial Reformation’. This is what most people think of when they imagine the Reformation. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli all get mentions including the Anglican Church and the five Sola’s of the reformation. Fr. Andrew being Eastern Orthodox disagrees with the Protestant view but his assessment of the doctrines I feel is particularly deficient. In fact it is deficient enough to actually write down the reasons as to why, partly so I can process this response in a manner outside of my own mind in order to see if my views bear out.

Early on in Fr. Andrew’s description of Sola Scriptura he states that the principle fails at the first hurdle because the principle itself is found nowhere in scripture. Yet this highlights a belief that Protestants subscribe to a form of circular reasoning emerging from the text itself. This isn’t true, Protestants do not hold to scripture but the view that what it contains is trustworthy. We trust scripture because it is an authoritative window on the life, identity, work and implications of Christ as depicted by his apostles and prophets. In addition, the outworking of the miraculous in the lives of those contained within are taken as signs of divine assent, the greatest of which being Christ’s conquering of death. We do not trust a text but the reliability of what the text depicts.

Fr. Andrew however builds on his view of Sola Scriptura by highlighting that whilst scripture is one thing, how we interpret something  can vary massively, as is highlighted by the differing beliefs of all the major reformation churches. He effectively upholds the old claim that the Protestants here have exchanged the Pope singular for making ourselves Popes plural. That we are interpreting scripture in our own image.

This claim of Fr. Andrew however is forcing an overly narrow understanding of the Protestant theological outlook. We recognise that we are fallible, that just as St Augustine or St John Chrysostom might of been correct in some things doesn’t mean they were always right. Yet this is not to say we should cease from making any and all truth claims. Just as we might make one claim, there is the honest likelihood that others might disagree and this is where the separate churches emerge amidst the peculiarities of cultural and political norms of the period. Personally I do not believe the reformers were definitively ‘right’ I just believe they were more right than wrong. The degree to which they are right is in the degree of faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The approach taken by Fr. Andrew however feels like it teeters on an almost Post-modern rejection of ‘truth’ altogether. In place of truth is pure authority in the absence of understanding.

There is also a degree to which however Fr. Andrew opens Eastern Orthodoxy up to criticism here too. If scripture is not sufficient, the tradition must step in to support and help frame it. Yet the root criticism that we cannot genuinely know or interpret scripture can be applied to the interpretation of tradition and the decisions of various councils. Even in this matter Eastern Orthodoxy is not without schism and disagreement, the division with the Roman church being the most obvious example. I could not help but feel that Fr. Andrew’s framing of such divisions, particularly with the Roman and Eastern church was more about who was going to be ultimately recognised as the preeminent authority on tradition and that in such arrangements there could be no ultimate reconciliation. Fr. Andrew says as much in this episode. I confess we all must have our lines which we cannot cross but to somehow put the Protestants in a box in which they alone in being unable to faithfully understand or interpret what they consider sacred seems to be inconsistent.

At the beginning of the Podcast series Fr. Andrew compares the exercise he and the listeners are about to undertake as similar to; a mathematician checking his proofs or a scientist interpreting their data. That ultimately he is convinced of Eastern Orthodoxy because of its ‘truths’. Yet this is precisely what he argues the Protestants are guilty of at the time of the reformation in this episode. This is the process of examining the evidence before them and using their own judgement and reason to discern truth. This is to say nothing of history and theology being less of a science than the aforementioned things. Consistently Eastern Orthodoxy is presented as something not true because an individual is convicted of such a thing but because of its episcopal traditions and councils. This is truth taken on Authority, not reason. The contrast I think is reflected in the well-known exchange between William Tyndale and a Catholic depicted in Foxe’s book of Martyrs.

The clergyman asserted to Tyndale, “We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” Tyndale responded: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”

John Foxe, “Chap XII”, Book of Martyrs.

The claims to authority are emphasised to a greater degree where Fr. Andrew later negatively conflates the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scripture with the view that we must constantly revise our understanding of scripture in light of new archaeological discoveries that shed light on a relevant era. I would agree with this but see it as a positive thing, I believe scripture ultimately communicates truth, that truth is totally contingent on historical events. Paul himself wrote “And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.”. He later goes on to specify that was a literal event in the same passage, yet if it turned out Christ had not really been raised then I would need to reevaluate my trust of scripture. I do not think Fr. Andrew would necessarily disagree here but I feel it is something of an own goal for the point he is trying to make. Ultimately, whether we want to or not we are accountable for our decisions and interpretation of what is true and what is false based on how we make sense of the world. What defines the historical Protestant movement is an insistence that ultimately scripture is the highest authority.

In relation to my own tradition, Fr Andrew makes the point that the original Anglicans upheld ‘scripture, tradition and reason’ as their guiding lights. Whilst he correctly highlights that we have since deviated from such a thing (for shame) I cannot help but associate myself with those convictions. Scripture is my highest authority, I respect the councils and fathers of the church that compiled and gave us the Bible yet acknowledge they are fallible. On some points they took things too far or I do not think they were right. Many Orthodox and Catholics look back on the some of the writings of someone like Origen, Augustine or even Tertullian in potentially similar ways. Even in scripture Peter is shown to be fallible at times in his judgement and actions. I think the Orthodox do a lot that is right and I associate with them in some ways more than with my liberal counterparts. Yet ultimately Fr. Andrew gives an deficient account of the faith of the reformers in his summation. The reformation has created a great many issues reflected in the profusion of different theologies that have emerged over time in the west since the split from Rome. Some of the pentecostal and prosperity preaching I see today in particular just makes me want to sack the whole thing in. Yet I look back to the faith of the reformers, I look back to the early church and take heart. I’m thankful for the lives and witness of these saints and ultimately they inspire me to believe that the situation today isn’t beyond redemption, God willing.

As a final point I want to add that there was no transcript available of the talk so if I have taken anything out of context, or misunderstood it in any way I ask for forgiveness.

Disability, faith and the church

Disability, faith and the church

Depending on who you talk to as many as 1 in 100 people could be psychopaths. Some of the defining characteristics of a psychopath include a lack of..

  1. Anxiety
  2. Remorse
  3. Empathy

Listening to a talk on the subject I wondered to what degree this impacts someone coming to faith. Even if we get more general I feel theres an argument that some people genuinely have the biological cards stacked against them concerning coming to faith. Often when we discuss faith and make appeals to others we place an emphasis on the mind at one extreme or the emotions at another. What do we when confronted with such people incapable of responding properly to either of these? Not just the psychopath but those with learning difficulties or conditions like severe Downs or later life onset conditions like Alzheimers?

When listening to the talk and thinking on this I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Apologist David Wood who self diagnoses’s himself as a psychopath. It’s clearly not impossible for such people to come to faith but does this mean that biology or psychology has no consideration? If we were to do a quantitative study of our Churches we’d inevitably find certain people appear more than others. Psychopaths, for example, are better represented in the Prison population compared to non-Psychopaths. Likewise we’ll find various  aspects of the population both over and under emphasised in Churches. This will change from one church to another but ultimately “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets” and unless we accurately reflect our local populations will need to reconsider how we can bring these people into the church. Psychopathy, whilst having no bearing on comprehension is still a handicap and any number of similar or related conditions can potentially exclude people from not just participation in a church but from faith itself as we understand it.

So much of Protestant faith is framed through a lens of engaging both the head and the heart. Salvation is by faith alone but what about those people who struggle, or lack the mental categories or presence, that contribute to faith? We could wash our hands at this point and give it to the Holy Spirit, but whilst its impossible to dismiss the Holy Spirit at work in our lives it seems fatalistic to use it as a pretext to dismiss these issues. Its here that I wonder if a view espoused more recently by NT Wright of the Church as a form of covenant community might have an explanation. Salvation, communion with God is seen less through the lens of individual receptiveness to the Gospel but by participation in the community which is collectively saying we trust in Jesus Christ.

[T]he doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved. It is, as we saw in an earlier chapter, the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ….Let us be quite clear. ‘The gospel’ is the announcement of Jesus’ lordship, which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham, now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. ‘Justification’ is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other

N.T Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said.

The Church in this light is less a collection of individuals bound by common creed but a community, a family focused on the person of Jesus Christ. Faith is a core component still but it isn’t directly pertaining to justification, instead faith leads to participation in the family of Jesus Christ out of which comes justification. Here then, participation in the family is the emphasis which is still accessible for those with conditions like Downs, Alzheimers or even Psychopaths who might struggle or be otherwise unable to have faith in the conventional sense. Faith is still a core component but theres a nuance here I think is important. This perspective isn’t without its own areas of concern and there are probably implications to this that need to be realised but thinking about this has made me consider it in a way I hadn’t previously.

I think sometimes theres a temptation to expect Christians to be a certain kind of person. The problem with this perspective is, unless the entire neighbourhood, nation and world eventually becomes that kind of person the Church will also be perpetually hobbled. For England to become a nation of  Christians again the Church will have to look very different to what it does today. It’ll need to anticipate the entire spectrum of human nature and have a place for it. This doesn’t mean necessarily changing our theology or liberalising but perhaps coming to increasingly view faith as a community effort rather than an individual one. Theirs a tension to be found in calling the people to repent and simultaneously the church accessible to the people. In the words of Bonhoeffer..

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it..

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

All of this touches on a broader question to me. So much of our faith is hinged on our individual ability to respond – in this light it is quite individualistic. I do not think it is a coincidence then in this light that practices like the corporate sacrament of communion is deprioritised in many Protestant churches. The individual response is important, but perhaps it is the means rather than the end itself.

A few years ago, when the emerging church was popular, I knew a good many people who felt they didn’t need Church, they had their own private thing going on they’d say. Many of those who attended church would ask these people ‘how do you get fed?’ by which they meant – where do you get taught scripture? They asked ‘where do you find accountability?’ by which they meant – how do you ensure you aren’t stumbling into heterodoxy? These were poor questions because the exposition of scripture itself is nothing miraculous, you can get it off the internet, and heterodoxy abounds in so many churches today.

So why go to Church? Perhaps because the Church is the covenant, the Ark, the body and the family of Abraham that is committed to following Christ. It is more than mere acquiescence to a particular set of propositions or an emotional response to the Gospel. The belonging itself is crucial and is emphasised by the practices Jesus himself handed down to us in Communion and Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 1:13 ‘Is Christ divided?’. The answer is no. This makes me ask the question of my own views on communion, anyone can break bread and drink wine but what does that mean if we do so outside the Church? At worst we do so in order to delude ourselves that we can engage with God on our own terms. Perhaps it isn’t just faith but also the church that binds us together, particularly if we’re struggling or just can’t comprehend the Gospel. I’m reminded of the final words of Christopher McCandless ‘Happiness is only real when shared.’ I think its true, but I think it extends to faith too. Our faith is only real when worked out together.

Getting to grips with the Book of Common Prayer

Getting to grips with the Book of Common Prayer

I have to catch myself sometimes, I never thought I’d be this kind of Christian. Even a couple of years ago I was a fairly generic brand of miscellaneous evangelical. I’m still trying to work through what I think and where its leading me, part of this is getting my head round the challenge and appeal of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Book of Common Prayer is a foundational text for the Anglican church, its been adapted for use by both Catholics and Orthodox and at a time was the backbone of Church services nearly everywhere English was spoken. It contains Prayers but it also contains Orders of Service, Psalms to be sung or prayed, Catechism, the Creed of St Athanasius, the 39 articles of the Anglican church and more. For many it’s considered not just a foundational part of Anglicanism but of the English language alongside Shakespeare and the Bible. It was originally compiled during the reign of King Edward the VI, the son of Henry the VIII by Thomas Cranmer, the then Archbishop of Canterbury.

With the decline of liturgy and the various changes within the English church in the 20th century however the Book of Common Prayer is currently out of favour with many Christians. I have the 1662 pocket edition and it reads like the King James Bible, to many and myself initially it can prove complicated and overwhelming. Yet this is partly because, archaic language aside, its prayers are primarily corporate in nature which is something increasingly rare today. The secret to the BCP is in its name – it is meant to be common, or rather something we share ‘in common’ with one another. One person I was talking with, about the liturgy and prayers of the BCP, articulated it in the following way.

One of the things that is most blessed about the liturgy is the fact that it binds us into the community, whether we are praying in our corner alone or united with others in one place. The prayers are ‘we’ and ‘our’, not ‘I’ and ‘my’. It transcends space and time, uniting believers around the world and through the ages — not just to Cranmer but beyond, through the centuries of medieval development and to the ancient church. I love that feature of it. And this emphasis on community, made explicit in many prayers but also built into the traditional structure of Anglicanism from parish to diocese through province to primate, is definitely at odds with much evangelicalism — and this is a shame, because there is something beautiful about the knowledge, zeal, commitment, and drive for holiness that is embodied in evangelicalism at its best. But today, evangelicalism, even in corporate worship, continually uses ‘I’ ‘me’ ‘mine’ (one thinks immediately of the Beatles) and spends much of the time of praise looking to the praiser and his or her experience, not to the one being praised.

 

The Prayer Book sets us free from that without jettisoning the important, deep, biblical theology evangelicals claim as their own.
The use in the prayers of ‘we’ and ‘our’ aren’t original – it mirrors the Lord’s prayer.
OUR Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name,
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil,
(For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.)
Amen.

 

Lord’s Prayer
The Lord’s prayer in this sense is common too and if you recite it with any frequency, then this is liturgy in a fashion. Its tragic that, in my own experience, many evangelical churches seldom say it anymore publicly, or even share communion that often anymore.
The other thing I found challenging about the BCP is that it contains morning and evening prayers. I had to check with someone but the BCP assumes this is done every day. The idea of church being open every day, both morning and evening for me was pretty challenging. The idea of getting together with others early in the morning reminded me of a letter by Pliny the Younger on the Early Church.
..they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so..

 

Excerpt from the letter of Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan

This idea suggested Church, not just Christianity as a way of life. It was something always going on, always coming together and the emphasis was on the ‘common’ faith shared between believers. This is a Church, like the early church, which changed the way society was structured and run. Discussing this with my own minister I was disappointed to hear that the majority of ministers trained today have little to no exposure to the Book of Common Prayer and we are exchanging our heritage for something that seems in comparison so minimal. I only knew anything about because I sought it out, otherwise this is a text many of us either knowingly disregard or are ignorant of.

More recently when a family member was admitted to hospital I was distraught and I prayed till I didn’t know what to say. Out of words I went and picked up the BCP opening it on the section detailing ministry for the sick and ailing. Praying those words knowing that they had been said thousands of times of people in similar situations throughout the ages was profound. The words themselves have power, but so does the common nature of the text I had been given. I knew whatever happened, me and my relative were bound together in the footsteps of Christians who knew that same pain and struggle and responded by bringing it to God. When you push past the archaic language the words are surprisingly candid, human and they help give us focus, directing us out of ourselves towards God.

The BCP is full of prayers thanking God for all areas of our life but it also contains everything you need to know theologically to be considered an Anglican. It contains a Catechism, a Creed and the 39 articles. If an apocalypse were to happen today and all knowledge of this world to disappear, you could, upon discovering the BCP amongst the rubble, continue the practice and belief of the Anglican church from this small book. The faith in the BCP is a common faith, a public faith that is easy to understand and consistently referencing scripture throughout. The BCP is a ticket to a new (but really ancient) vision of church.

Despite all this I struggle to read the BCP consistently, the prayers are long and its not a fashionable thing to do. Yet theres an appeal to it, to be honest it feels a bit of dirty secret when I’m amongst my classically evangelical friends. The BCP is meant really for corporate settings, but I pray it alone because no one really does it anymore – not even my minister. I pray that changes. Even when I struggle I’ve taken to incorporating elements from it into my more open prayer. The doxologies, key phrases and terms are hooks I use to tap into the theology contained within it when I go about my day.

I don’t really understand the point in all the formality in so many church services but I am now beginning to understand the point of the BCP. If you’ve never read the BCP I would encourage you to do so. For all the christian books and music published today you can do worse than to direct funds elsewhere temporarily and pick up a copy for yourself. Let it speak for itself and instead of merely reading the words, like I used to, consider what is being said and why on the pages you read. Its worth it.

O Lord, open thou our lips.
And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Praise ye the Lord.
The Lord’s Name be praised.

Introduction to Evening Prayer, 1662 BCP

Is evangelicalism in trouble?

Is evangelicalism in trouble?

I was listening to a podcast recently where the Presbyterian speaker proclaimed ‘Evangelicalism is in serious trouble.’ This was news to me yet the statement has stuck in my mind and I’ve been turning it over ever since. Is this man true? Is this man false? I don’t really want it to be true and to some measure I think we’re all in trouble all the time if we consider enough different angles. Yet is there anything specific to evangelicalism that makes it in trouble in a clearly visible way?

The appeal of evangelicalism to society at large has always been something prominent to me. James KA Smith in his book on Charles Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age’ suggests that the appeal of ‘scientism’ to some is the story it offers to others. One that is a stance of ‘maturity, of courage, of manliness, over and against childish fears and sentimentality’ (p.77). He suggests that our response to argue over the nature of evidence for one thing or another doesn’t really address the underlying issues at work. A better approach is to offer these people a more compelling story that offers a more robust vision of faith. A faith that in the words of James KA Smith channeling Taylor ‘isn’t some vague theism but the invitation to historical, sacramental Christianity’.

Atheism, as mentioned previously is one of the few belief systems that skews heavily towards men at a nearly 70/30 gender split. This would feed into Charles Taylor’s assertion that the narrative of scientism is one of ‘manliness’ at least in image and appeal. That the words of St Paul ‘When I was a child I thought like a child but when I became a man I put away childish things’ is applied more by those who leave the faith or reject it today than those of us who adhere is indicative of something wrong. Is our faith perceived or in fact increasingly childish or outlandish and alien to the public? Does it offer no challenge? No courage? No maturity? Is it overly sentimental?

One of the claims laid at the feet of evangelicalism is its panacea-like vision of God at work in the life of the believer. Drawing close to God and being open to his work in your life would sort you out. The movement in general is replete with stories of lives turned around or struggles left behind. We come together to celebrate and rarely to lament. We seldom engage with lasting challenges because we believed God would inevitably overcome all of them on our behalf. From some perspectives this can seem childish, as a child my parents solved my problems, as a man I have to solve not just my problems but am expected to help those I come into contact with. Its not that we don’t want lives turned around and struggles left behind, its that we don’t know what to do with people when their lives don’t turn around and their struggles stay with them. Their is no challenge other than that of continuing in the growth of our love for God.

As an evangelical I personally felt somewhat directionless. I was expected to draw closer to God but what did that look like? Was I supposed to become more like my Pastor? Like Jesus? Did my Pastor reflect Jesus? Evangelicalism is complex precisely because its so open ended. In our effort to draw closer to God we can be lead down all sorts of bizarre (at times heretical) cul-de-sacs of which our only gauge can be our emotions, which is to say no real gauge at all. It also places the self at centre of this process, we lead a private self-defined faith thats ultimately is between us and God alone. This is why we see trends of many who consider themselves Evangelicals feeling led to dispense with Church altogether at times as it doesn’t square with their relationship to God. This is why we see increased theological divergence even amongst those who sometimes attend the same church. Its partly a lack of discipleship but its partly evangelical nature. Just recently I was swimming and caught myself wondering ‘I want a faith that is simple like swimming, one arm in front of another, towards some goal.’ Then I realised thats precisely part of the nature of liturgy. There might be different types of swimming but we don’t all swim in our own way, we use the same strokes and movements which gives us something in common, and even children can do it well. Evangelical dispensation of classical liturgy can be disorientating, its like being thrown into the lake with no knowledge of how to swim and being forced to invent our own style. That might lead to some creative and original techniques, but many people will likely drown without support. For much of Church history some form of liturgy has been present, Christ himself gave us the sacraments of baptism and communion.

The problem then, if it exists, with Evangelicalism is that many people on the outside increasingly don’t relate to it. It came into being as a renewal movement within the church but we live in an age where the vast majority of people are outside of it. The public doesn’t seem to relate the evangelical experience to their own experience of life (generally). The inside of evangelicalism is also becoming increasingly fragmented as time goes on as the relationship with God for the private individual is prioritised over the publics shared relationship and experience of God. The current worship/lecture system both focus on the interior self driving a wedge between the interior (mind) and the exterior (body). This is unfortunately wherein our society is currently orientated more around the exterior than the interior. However it might explain the appeal of the charismatic movement in bringing an exterior dimension to the Evangelical church, albeit one that is still privatised and in some ways the antithesis of liturgy.

This entry is no doubt me projecting my own thoughts onto the statement outlined by the Presbyterian in question at the start of this entry. One might also ruminate on the current state of the Presbyterian church, perhaps it is no better than Evangelicalism in some ways. Yet the statement stayed with me and chimed particularly with what I’m reading currently and my current thinking on evangelicalism. I think it has a lot of good things going for it, but it also has some major problems. I still consider myself evangelical but I think we should be Christians first and anything else second, when we get it round the wrong way thats when we suffer.

The problem with finding ourselves

The problem with finding ourselves

Choice is a value we prize highly as a society in the West. Our media promotes narratives replete with individuals who choose their own path and our popular music often focuses on people defining themselves as individuals outside the crowd. Coming of age in our society has no ceremony, instead it’s a process of figuring out who we are or choosing what kind of person we’re going to be. The idea of young people finishing education and going out to ‘find themselves’ has become normative to us. None of this is inherently bad in and of itself, but it is a recent thing and it does have its problems.

The process of finding ourselves is also a decidedly secular idea, it assumes that we aren’t really anything unless we choose it. This is increasingly being applied to the most basic parts of our identity including our gender, a more recent belief that empties the idea of our biological sex containing any inherent values in and of itself outside of the anatomical.

Its interesting too that forms of Christianity that emerged more recently, modern Evangelicalism for example, prioritise and praise road to Damascus style conversion experiences over inherited forms of faith. If your testimony isn’t suitably dramatic theres the chance that people might question the sincerity of your faith in the first place. In this we see a distinction from ‘mainline’ or traditionally ecclesial church movements and these opt-in conversion orientated churches that descended from non-conformist or holiness movement backgrounds. The same bears out on attitudes towards infant or believers baptism, paedo or credo baptism. I say this as an advocate of credo baptism. Its also why we see an embrace of increasingly unorthodox Christian movements and theologies being promoted by both Christians and Atheists alike. This fits in with our contemporary society, and theres a market for it. As a culture we prioritise the selfs choice and are less trusting of the answers of previous generations dressing them up in the language of oppression. We do this as they threaten to place limits on our self-determination, our choice.

Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.

Spoken by the Satan after his fall from heaven in John Milton’s Paradise Lost – Book II

Choice can be a genuinely good thing, the setting of many dystopian novels is that in which the protagonist becomes aware of the choices he’s been disallowed by the State, of the world outside what the State decides is appropriate and desires to experience it always at great personal cost. The idea of these novels isn’t to leave us depressed but to encourage us to see that choice is a valuable and necessary part of human experience. For a more practical example, the isolationist community of the Amish practice something we know as Rumspringa which encourages their youth to go into the world and live in it for a time. This is to help them decide whether or not they truly want to become a part of the community. The choosing and conscious acceptance of tradition can bring a new understanding to that individuals participation and relationship to the community they find themselves participating in. Something which wasn’t arguably present before the choice was made.

“But I like the inconveniences.”

“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You’re welcome,” he said.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Chapter 17

In the Abrahamic faiths choice is not something that features so heavily. To be Jewish today is less of a religion in some instances and more akin to an ethnicity. This isn’t recent, even in the Bible the Jews are known as the children of Jacob,the grandchild of Abraham, later known as Israel. In Islam they are not so much bound by ethnicity but practice, at birth the first thing a child should hear is the whisper in their ear of the Islamic call to prayer by their father. A child of a Muslim parent in many places around the world is considered a Muslim whether the child later wants to be considered such or not. Christianity differs in the relationship of the individual to the church, the process and timing of baptism has differed over time and been a normative or selective act in various cultures throughout history depending on the standing of Christianity within that culture. Jesus himself not being baptised until he was in his 30’s and yet entire households later being baptised simultaneously once the Church had begun.

Choice isn’t something we see prized to the same degree outside of the West and it is argued by some that it is Christianity’s attitude towards the individual that is atleast partially responsible for this modern secularism. Historian Tom Holland writes..

The origins of much that seems most modern to us can in fact be traced back to the distant past. Neutrality between different religions, as it is practised in Europe today, can never itself be culturally neutral, for the simple reason that it depends on a philosophy that is ultimately Christian in character. That the world can be divided into church and state, and that these twin realms should exist distinct from each other: here are presumptions with which many Muslims, for instance, would disagree profoundly. Certainly, there is nothing in the Quran equivalent to the New Testament injunction to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Muhammad, unlike Jesus, had neither the slightest hesitation in formulating a fiscal policy nor in laying claim to political authority. For those who imagine that the western model of the multicultural state can emasculate Islam as readily as it has de-fanged Christianity, this should be a detail of more than merely theological or antiquarian interest.

Tom Holland, Uncomfortable Origins – Article in the New Statesman

What we see today then is not a ex-nihlo secularism from the void but an attempt at Christianity without Christ. In place of Christ we have placed our own self, idols not like the Philistines had of stone and wood but of flesh and bone. Increasingly its not ourselves properly but the idea of ourselves, idealised in the electronic age through the use of cameras, retouching and selective editing enabling people to choose the brand of themselves they present to the outside world in an effort to be more appealing. This desire for affection and appeal leads westerners to imitate those seen as more attractive than themselves in both the shapes they take and actions carried out. People increasingly delight in those less fortunate or successful then themselves in an effort to reaffirm their existing standing in the eyes of others. This primacy given to the self and choice can prove overwhelming. We find ourselves in a culture which is increasingly defined less by what is true than by what is popular at any given time. This makes us especially susceptible to populist political and social movements like we are presently seeing in both the UK and the US.

Too much choice can also feel as stifling as no choice at all. In a post-industrial, geographically mobile, unstable familial, individualistic and diverse sexual environment men in particular are showing signs of struggling. Whatever your views on masculinity healthy rolemodels are just something which are increasingly rarified. Those in existence have to compete with mass media, both the centralised and decentralised forms, in order to be heard. Some might say that this is affording us the opportunity to be more flexible in our understanding of men and women but this is in the context of a population that is increasingly medicated to handle social ills, unable to deal with diverging viewpoints and struggling at times to find a reason to keep going. If this is a social experiment, it is a costly one, if this is societal love of the self at the expense of the actual self then it is tragic.

Choice as a component of our decision making is something which is useful, their is a dignity to ascribing an individual agency over their own fate. Raising up our ‘authentic’ self as an idol, as the end goal to which everyone works, erodes the dignity of all our choices by depriving us of the means to discern if we are making sufficiently good or bad choices. This is why the Teacher of Ecclesiastes writes..

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

In trying to find ourselves we retreat into private narratives that preclude the devaluing of the beliefs, history, culture and values we once held in common. As people, as Christians, we are defined in context and relation to others, our neighbours and God himself. Wherever we are its important to recognise that choice is a component of our life and not our bedrock. We don’t exist in a vacuum but find ourselves in a much broader narrative, a narrative that shapes the world as God works through his Church. Just as it shapes the world we should likewise be willing to let it shape us.

Chrysostom, 1 Corinthians 14 and (Charismatic) tongues

Chrysostom, 1 Corinthians 14 and (Charismatic) tongues

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.

I grew up largely ignorant of the charismatic movement, I was familiar with a general idea that something like it existed but it was only when I went to university that I got to understand it in any depth. I realise now in many settings, even many Anglican churches, that their is an implicit assumption that the contemporary charismatic outlook on the gifts of the spirit is accepted if not generally endorsed by many Anglicans today. One of the clearest signs of the charismatic movement is the use and advocacy of tongues. A series of noises generally unintelligible to all but those gifted with an interpretation. In my experience this takes place either in private prayer or in a corporate setting (which will require interpretation, or not, depending on the church in question). This practice is based on interpretations of actions described in specific chapters in books like Acts and 1 Corinthians.

I will be honest, as someone ignorant of it for a long time I didn’t know how to respond when first confronted with tongues as its understood by charismatics. My first reaction was

  1. This is really flipping weird
  2. If this was true how could I have been so ignorant of something like this for so long?

My charismatic peers were happy to talk about it and did so with a sort of certainty and ease that suggested there was little to no doubt as to the reality of these tongues to them. It isn’t a difficult thing to do, but the implications for doing so and the confidence in which you did so seemed to be at a sign, at least to others, as to how open you were to the Spirit being at work in your life. The thing that really confused me however was that tongues afforded them in many instances a liberty and license in their behaviour and conduct which I hadn’t seen before in Christians. The assumption being that the practice of tongues speaking in some instances was taken as an affirmation of the Holy Spirit for the individual in question.

We use this word ‘tongues’ because it is what appears in the context of passages like 1 Corinthians 14. Glossa, the word for tongues (the body part) in Greek is synonymous and interchangeable with our word ‘language’. This isn’t necessarily problematic to a Charismatic who will offer up that these may well be unknown languages or that of angels. They’re languages, just not as we understand them. Yet as time has gone on I’m wondering if this understanding is a much more recent one and not found in the general history of the church. Reading the writing of John Chrysostom, a 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople, however suggested avery different understanding..

Here he shows that it is in their power to obtain the gift. For, let him pray, says he, i.e., let him contribute his own part, since if you ask diligently, you will surely receive. Ask accordingly not to have the gift of tongue only, but also of interpretation, that you may become useful unto all, and not shut up your gift in yourself alone. For if I pray in a tongue, says he, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. Do you see how by degrees bringing his argument to a point, he signifies that not to others only is such an one useless, but also to himself; if at least his understanding is unfruitful? For if a man should speak only in the Persian, or any other foreign tongue, and not understand what he says, then of course to himself also will he be thenceforth a barbarian, not to another only, from not knowing the meaning of the sound. For there were of old many who had also a gift of prayer, together with a tongue; and they prayed, and the tongue spoke, praying either in the Persian or Latin language , but their understanding knew not what was spoken. Wherefore also he said, If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, i.e., the gift which is given me and which moves my tongue, but my understanding is unfruitful.

What then may that be which is best in itself, and does good? And how ought one to act, or what request of God? To pray, both with the spirit, i.e., the gift, and with the understanding. Wherefore also he said, I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

He signifies the same thing here also, that both the tongue may speak, and the understanding may not be ignorant of the things spoken. For except this be so, there will also be another confusion.

John Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians 35.5-6 (on 1 Corinthians 14:15)

The above quote from Chrysostom suggests that our understanding of tongues as a word really is synonymous with an understandable language (he cites Persian or Latin as an example), a mode of speech. He also seems to suggest this is an argument against saying prayers or even speaking in languages you don’t understand. Tongues has one use. This frames passages like 1 Corinthians 14:14-15 and its broader chapter in context of describing individuals being gifted not just in communication but also in understanding.

 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me.

1 Corinthians 14:11 (NIV)

What can a person achieve if he does not know what he is saying?

Ambrosiaster, commenting on 1 Corinthians 14:14

37612.p
Chrysostom, one of the most famous preachers in the history of the church

Chrysostom seems to understand tongues as a gift that enhances the commons, the body, of the Church. This could be truly miraculous, as is the case at Pentecost – but it is miraculous precisely because it is a gift that unites those in attendance in an clearly understandable message humanely impossible. In the case of Pentecost this results in the Apostles being able to clearly preach the inaugural Kingdom of God to those in attendance in their native languages.

This stands in quite a contrast to the more contemporary expression of tongues as a tool also for devotional, or private ends. Earlier in the chapter we see 1 Corinthians 14:4 which seems at first to support a private or devotional usage of tongues.

 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.

1 Corinthians 14:4 (NIV)

This depends on how we understand prophecy, but implies that tongues has a personal benefit to the individual. If we bear in mind that tongues can equally mean language or more generally a ‘mode of speaking’ however then this can equally be understood as anyone with the gift of a language building themselves up (in the eyes of themselves and others) by speaking it. Prophecy in this passage, is explained in the preceding verse as..

But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.

1 Corinthians 14:3 (NIV)

Which at the very least suggests a communal role for the benefit and growth of the wider church body.

This reading in light of the writings by Chrysostom portrays a very different image of Glossolalia than that given by contemporary Charismatics. It is singular in purpose yet much more public and clearly directed as an act of service to God, a witness to the unbelieving world and a means to grow the broader church body. This seems to make sense and remind me of the verse where Jesus himself states..

But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say,

Matthew 10:19

Given by what? The Holy Spirit. Which sounds more in keeping with Chrysostom’s exposition again. It is a public act that is directed towards bringing people into the Kingdom of God.

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers.

1 Corinthians 14:22

This has echoes again of Pentecost in it – the primary role of tongues is a public evangelistic one, contrary to the contemporary expression which rarely if ever takes place outside of church gatherings today. The gift of languages represents the undoing of the division of tongues found in the Tower of Babel account.

John Chrysostom is by no means the only or final voice on the matter but I haven’t seen anyone of his contemporaries or predecessors dispute this understanding. If however you want to read more on this I’ve found the following paper useful which takes a broader look on the subject within the early church.

So what?

tongues
Contemporary tongues emerged in 19th century Protestant revival movements in the UK/US

I think there are other reasons why contemporary tongues can be seen as problematic, both with reference to history and the contradictory, and at times heretical theological claims of the movements it is found within. But pragmatically as laypeople, what are we to do about this?

I think even having the knowledge that what is taken for granted currently on the subject of something like tongues isn’t the final word is incredibly powerful. Personally I am in an environment where this sort of behaviour is a normal part of the low level ambience. As a result we’ve got to be willing to have these discussions that can place the emergence of these practices within a specific context in light of the broader witness of the church and scripture in order to give us a better grasp of the issues at work and engage with proponents of such practices.

I do not think it is a surprise that in our late-capitalist, post-modern and overwhelmingly individualistic age we see a rise in the practice and appeal of something like these private, manmade and unknown languages. I believe the explanation for this rise in the practice is a mixture in part of..

  • Exegesis out of context
  • Ignorance of church history
  • Sociological phenomenon at work within the church and society

Despite this, I imagine a charismatic understanding of tongues is a theological hill that many people would be perfectly willing to die on. Despite being what many Christians would call a secondary issue on the surface. Partly because it is a core component of a much wider theological worldview. However, if we can work our way back to a confident orthodoxy  we can provide an example to others of a more grounded, nuanced and whole of life embrace of the Kingdom of God that engages with these phenomenon critically without rejecting the wider workings of the spirit. With the prevalence of this sort behaviour being advocated as normative in courses like Alpha, one of the primary evangelism engines at work in the UK church, we need to be willing to go against the grain and speak out in love for a corrective scripturally and historically orthodox understanding on this topic.