Just So We’re Clear, Mary Did Know

This is silly. I can’t believe I’m doing this. (So don’t do it, LeCroy.) Sigh. I’m gonna do it.

There’s this song. It’s schmaltzy and sentimental, like many of the contemporary Christian songs I grew up with. If you like this song, I advise you to stop reading. Because I’m going to trash it.

I grew up in the glorious heyday of CCM, and I loved every minute of it. I went to their concerts. I sang their songs in church services and in youth talent competitions. I bought their tapes, read their books, and had their posters on my bedroom wall. Like most Evangelical teen boys growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s I had a crush on Amy Grant. Later I had one on Rebecca St. James. I listened to the local CCM station non-stop, even as a kid sending in some of my meager dollars for their pledge drive. I’m not really cynical or bitter about it. I am mostly appreciative of such a wholesome upbringing in a non-ironic way. The point is, I’m an insider offering insider critique.

Here’s my critique: “Mary Did You Know?” is a terrible song.

I mean, the tune is catchy enough. It sticks in your head like many of CCM’s greatest hits. There’s nothing like a good spirit-filled musical climax or key change to grease the skids on a flagging worship service (I grew up Pentecostal. Key changes were a means of grace for us. The Spirit seemed to always coincide with the high notes.). Aesthetically, it fits in with the era in which it was written. It’s in the Bill Gaither milieu, so it’s melodically rangy and adeptly uses musical climax to stir the emotions. The original recording was by Michael English in 1991. Michael English is an incredible singer. I saw him live once, because of course I did. You have to give that original a listen. Hoo, boy. It’s fantastic (now I’m being nostalgic and a little bit ironic, but in a good way). The music is Phil Collins and the vocals are Michael McDonald. There’s even a third verse drum entrance crescendo à la “In the Air Tonight.” So, as far as that goes, it’s not bad. In fact if you love 80’s music it’s glorious, if about a decade late as most CCM is.

But the lyrics. Ugh.

The author, Mark Lowry, is a great guy. He’s a comedian and singer who tours with Bill Gaither. But he’s not a biblical scholar or theologian, bless his heart.

I mean, the song is fine. If you like it, listen to it. Like the old adage about wine, if you enjoy it drink it. If you like Boone’s Farm, slurp it up, my friend. No judgment here.

But just so you know: Mary knew.

This is my biggest problem with the song. It’s inaccurate and unhelpful. (But, pastor, I just listen to it because I like the beat). We can go line by line through the song to illustrate this (and don’t worry, I will), but in general it presents a version of femininity in Mary that is not true to her or the other heroines of the Bible. It presents her as a clueless passenger in this journey instead of one of the key players. It woefully downplays the importance of her role. Not only did Mary have the perilous job of carrying the God-Man in her body to full term, consider this: the infant mortality in the Roman Empire was about 30%, and an additional 30% of children did not reach adulthood. That’s only a 40% chance of Jesus living to the age of 20. And that’s not even taking to account the fact that people were out there actively trying to kill him. Powerful people. With armies.

Mary’s job was to feed him, clothe him, and keep him safe. She also taught the young boy manners and took him to church. He learned to speak by imitating her. He had her accent. The Eternal Word of God learned human speech from this marvelous woman by watching her lips and imitating her sounds. And all indications are that she did it for the latter half of his life as a single mother.
She did all of this while remaining faithful. She did not take the apple, as her mother Eve did. She was graced by God and did not waiver. She wept at the foot of the cross when the Apostles fled in fear. She was in the upper room on Easter evening and on Pentecost. She helped Luke write his Gospel. This was a strong woman, who stands at the pinnacle of all the heroines of the Old Testament. Higher than Deborah. Higher than Jael. She may not have crushed heads with her hands, but she raised the head-crusher par excellence. She was a Miriam (that’s her name, by the way) seeing her baby boy down the Nile to safety and then raising him to be the deliverer of her people. She is a leaping, dancing prophetess, singing on the shore of the Red Sea with the drowned army of the enemy lying submerged within. Only that beachhead was not in Arabia but in the hill country of Judea in response to a leaping, dancing fetus and a blessed declaration by her auntie. Yet the song is just as victorious and prophetic as the song of her namesake centuries before.

She knew.

Let’s put this to rest. The image of Mary as a passive, quiet bystander who just happened to be the human incubator of the most high, praised for her purity and her quiet virtue, is a product of wrongheaded ideas about sex, purity, and the human body which sadly dominated the early church and the middle ages. Mary was not virtuous because she was a virgin. She was a virgin because she was virtuous. And she didn’t stop being virtuous the moment she was no longer a virgin. I almost typed when she lost her virginity, as if virginity is a thing that can be lost and when you lose it you are damaged goods. There are some purity preachers who go about the country giving Christian teen girls shiny brand new pennies and telling them not to lose their virginity because then they will become tarnished. They need to keep their pennies shiny and bright so that they can give that gift to their husbands. What a load of hot steaming garbage! If a girl falls into sexual sin she hasn’t become any more tarnished than she already was, for heaven’s sake. She needs to repent of that sin and endeavor towards chastity in the future, but she isn’t damaged goods. The gift that she will eventually give her husband is not her virginity, but her very self and her promise to be his faithful wedded wife. We need to put this thing to bed for good. By the way, those same preachers don’t give the teen boys shiny pennies. What sexist nonsense!

I digress. The image of Mary as meek and mild does come from that same purity culture, though. I could give you an in-depth history of the development of sexual purity culture, how it began as a result of the cessation of martyrdom and the rise of the monastic class in the early Middle Ages, but I’ll spare you that. The high-point of this insanity is demonstrated in the medieval idea that when Jesus was born he did not pass through Mary’s vagina, but miraculously passed through her belly, leaving her maidenhead intact. I’m not joking. Here’s the point: Mary’s virginity was not a virtue in and of itself. It was important that she be a virgin in order to serve as a symbol of the new creation and to prove that she conceived by the Holy Spirit. To further demonstrate this, Rahab is a mother of Jesus and she was decidedly not a virgin. Her former life of prostitution did not make her unworthy of mothering Messiah.

Mary was not a hapless damsel in distress, the prototypical medieval maiden cloistered in her embroidery with her ladies-in-waiting. She was a warrior princess. She was Eowyn of Rohan singing and slaying. Her Magnificat, sung on that Judean hillside, was a response to the devil whispering to her, tempting her to the apple saying, “No man can kill me.” That song and her courageous life afterward is her reply, “I am no man.”

She knew. Frankly it is insulting to ask her the question.

Let us analyze the lyrics of this song.

Read the rest over at Semper Ref.

Image: Virgin Mary and Eve, Crayon and pencil drawing by Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO, © 2005, Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey. Printed versions of this incredible image can be purchased here.

Work and Pray

Ora et labora: pray and work.

This was the motto of the medieval monk. This simple phrase moved the life of prayer from the realm of the ascetical heroism of the few to a life that was both accessible to normal Christians and helpful for society. Monks were called to a life of prayer, and pray they did.

But they also worked. They built. They planted. They copied texts by hand. They pastored churches. But in all that work their rhythm of life was set to the meter of daily prayer. Seven times a day, the monks would pray. Their life was one of meditation on God’s wondrous works. Their work flowed out from their prayers and enabled their work to be a vocation, a calling, that was defined by God’s goodness and love for the world, not one motivated by greed, success, pride, or jealousy.

It was not always this way for monks. The ancient monks of the Egyptian desert did not place work as a priority. Their goal was an ascetical ascent to God. Yet the goal of 6th century monastic father Benedict of Nursia was to set prayer and work in harmony. In order to do this he lessened the monastic requirements on prayer to make them more reasonable. He increased the provision for sleep, food, and drink so that the monks could be productive. His goal was not to ascetically bludgeon evil out of the monk, but to set the monk into an ordered life that valued work as an objective good and recognized the necessity of prayer in the life of the worker.

In essence, the daily prayer patterns that Benedict developed for his rule were designed to be a pattern of prayer that the worker could manage. It was intended to be reasonable and doable. It was intended to uplift and encourage, not berate and punish.  

The monk’s life was, as one commentator on The Rule of St. Benedict put it, “an intensely lived Christianity.” Their life was more intense in prayer and in the denial of some worldly goods. Yet the monastic call to prayer was never just for monks, it was for all, even if monks were the only ones ever to fully attain to it. St. Francis, after visiting the Sultan of Egypt remarked at the devotion of Muslim peoples and their commitment to prayer. In a letter to Christian rulers he suggested that cities emulate the Muslim public calls to prayer with a bell or a trumpet or some sort of public audible sign so that Christians everywhere would be called to pray. In the early Church, Hippolytus of Rome encouraged all Christians to pray, at least some kind of prayer, seven times a day according to the Psalmist who wrote, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules,” (Psalm 119:164).

The Protestant Reformation, one might say, was not an effort to do away with all the emphases of monasticism entirely, but to return the positive aspects of monastic spirituality to all the people. This was in effect to turn the entire Christian church into a monastery, a “School for Christ,” as Benedict of Nursia himself put it, and as Knox notably called Calvin’s Geneva a thousand years later. The Reformation was about returning the spirituality of the Church back to the people. It did not intend to remove anything from the richness of the faith.

The phrase ora et labora, pray and work, shows us the goodness of work. It also communicates the need for prayer. All of us work. We work and work and work. There is no end to our work. But is our work good?  Do we have this notion that work is secular and prayer is sacred? Do we drive a hard division in between our work during the week and our prayers on Sunday? The scriptures tell us that our work is good. The Christian faith has not driven such a hard wedge between the sacred and the secular. While prayer is not needed to sanctify work, (work is a created good), returning prayer to work reinforces work’s goodness and helps to push against the forces of this world which seek to turn our work toward evil and unhelpful and unhealthy paths.

Ora et labora also shows us the need for prayer in our lives. We need to pray. Paul says, “Pray without ceasing.” Yet do any of us really know how to go about doing that? Daily prayer on the pattern of the divine hours gives us a pattern for prayer that we can keep.

Work needs prayer. Prayer needs work. We cannot continue to do our best work unless we stop to fill our tanks with the spiritual fuel of word and prayer. The best work is done from a tank that is filled to the top, a goblet of goodly wine that is full to the brim and overflowing, as David wrote. This is a kind of prayer, you see, not just for the various prayer needs of our lives, but a formative prayer: a prayer that forms, shapes, molds; a prayer that fills us and renews us and restores us. There is room in that prayer for petitioning God according to our needs. But the main force of the daily office is to fill our tanks, to nourish and strengthen us, to make us better Christians out in the working world.

Ora et labora. Pray and work.

This essay originally appeared at Mere Orthodoxy. Please visit their great website.

The Promise of His Appearing: The Historical Development of Christmas and Advent

Advent Is Not Christmas, Part II

This is part two of a two part series. To read part one click here.

“I hate Christmas.”

I recently read an article in the Washington Post whose title was, “I hate Christmas.” It wasn’t entirely what I expected: an atheist curmudgeon annoyed by the ubiquitous seasonal Christian messaging, wishing that everyone would get off his god-free lawn. While there was a little bit of that in the piece, it was mostly centered around the fact that because the author grew up poor, he could never experience Christmas the way movies, tv shows, pop songs, commercials, catalogs, and even friends and family taught him he was supposed to experience it. His family could never afford the lavish feast, the tree surrounded with all the items on his Christmas wish list, or even a very nice tree. He now shuns Christmas along with its gatherings, festivities, gifts, and cheer, instead spending all the money he can afford buying toys for poor children so they can have the Christmas he never had.

I finished the article thinking that the author hadn’t rejected Christmas, he had rejected what Christmas has become: a commercialized cornucopia of instant gratification. What he had actually offered was a valid critique of Christmas and a call to recenter on its true meaning. After all, what more pure symbol of the Christmas spirit is there than sacrificing financially to provide gifts to poor children? St. Nicholas, anyone?

Afterward, I perused a bit of the comment section (yes, I know you are not supposed to read the comments). Many commenters agreed with the author. Some agreed because they were of other religions or were atheists (what I thought the article was going to be about). Others, though, didn’t reject Christmas but rather the spectacle that it has become. One commenter replied, “Only 2-ish weeks before the schizophrenia is behind us. My favorite day of the year is January 1, when it’s all over.”

Christmas isn’t the problem

Now don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. If there was a hidden camera in my house it would catch me randomly singing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” My wife and I have curated the biggest (and best) Christmas display in a three or four block radius (in our estimation… opinions may vary). I love the feasting. I love the gift-giving. I love the Christmas liturgies, hymns, and candlelight services. I love all that because I love the message of Christ born to set his people free. I love the message of Immanuel, God-with-us, that the God of the Universe took on every bit of our broken humanity so that he could redeem it all. I love it because the incarnation is the only sufficient answer to the problem of evil in this world, as the best philosophers have realized, St. Augustine at the head. I love it because he became sin, who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God. That’s the reason I’m singing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” That’s the reason why I’ve lit my yard up in multicolored c-9 ceramic bulb nostalgic glory. That’s also the reason why I’m ecstatic that the whole world pauses once a year to celebrate the fact that God was born into the world.

And yet, I resonate with what that Washington Post author wrote. Because he’s right. The Christmas message is not what Hallmark, Home Depot, Honda, Hanes, Harley-Davidson, Hurley, and Hasbro are selling us. We have gotten off the rails, or jumped the shark, or whatever metaphor you want to use, in our overindulgence of the Coca-Cola commercialized version of Christmas. The songs, ads, and store displays start before Halloween now. That’s three full months on a peppermint Red Bull IV drip of wall-to-wall Christmas experience. There’s no expectation. There’s no preparation. There’s no self-denial. It’s just CHRISTMAS!!!!!, full-bore, full-tilt for three full months until December 26 when they turn off the spigot and we collapse into full-on exhaustion. No wonder some people hate it.

But that’s not the way Christmas was designed by those that developed the church year centuries ago. Yes, there was feasting. Yes, there was decorating and singing and gift-giving. But preceding it was a period of longing, expectation, and self-denial focused on something entirely un-Christmassy: the second coming of Christ. In other words, there was the season of Advent. And Advent was not Christmas.

Perhaps refocusing on the wisdom of those that created the autumnal portion of the Church calendar could help us in our current predicament. What can we learn by sitting at their feet?

Click here to read the rest of the article over at Semper Ref.

Gregory of Nazianzus on the Incarnation

Gregory of Nazianzus was a 4th century bishop from Cappadocia who eventually became the Archbishop of Constantinople. Together with the brothers Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa they were known as the Cappodocian Fathers. Basil, Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom are known collectively as the Three Holy Heirarchs, the Eastern Church’s version of the Four Great Doctors (Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory the Great, and Jerome). Gregory briefly presided over the Council of Constantinople (which gave us the Nicene Creed) and is responsible for the Trinitarian language we use about the Holy Spirit, the language of “three persons” (hypostases) of the Trinity, and in articulating Christology in the face of Apollinarianism. In other words, he was kind of a big deal.

It is to Gregory’s defense of the full humanity of Christ against the heresy of Apollinaris that I now turn. Apollinarianism was a heresy that taught that while Jesus had a human body, he did not possess a human mind. What’s the big deal, you ask? He’s still divine. Well, Gregory of Nazianzus would have none of that. In his Epistle 101 he eloquently articulates why it is important that Jesus Christ possesses a human mind. In this section he bequeaths to the church this important theological maxim that you should commit to memory: what has not been assumed has not been healed. Here’s the conclusion to his letter.

If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation, or clothe the Saviour only with bones and nerves and the portraiture of humanity.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 101, 4th c. A.D.

Three things stick out from this quote. First of all is the Eastern notion that the incarnation itself, God uniting with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, is the source of our salvation. Of course, the atoning work of the cross to gain the forgiveness of our sins was necessary, but this notion of the hypostatic union- that humanity and divinity are inseparably united together in Christ and by the very force of that union we find the source of the righting of our broken humanity- this is key aspect of our salvation as well. Thus, Gregory reasoned, if Christ was not fully human, we are not fully saved. If he did not have a human mind, as Apollinaris taught, then our minds are not healed. But if our minds are fallen, then we need our minds to be redeemed. Who among us who has suffered from depression, anxiety, or other disabilities that with modern science we know are afflictions of the mind would not agree that our minds are fallen and in need of healing? Since our minds are fallen we need a Jesus with a human mind, to heal our minds by the union of broken humanity with the divine.

Further, if our wills are fallen or our emotions, or any other non-tangible aspect of our inner-selves, then Jesus had to have a human one of those too. Otherwise we are not fully redeemed.

Secondly, we have in this quote something that looks an awful lot like the Calvinistic idea of radical depravity. Gregory’s syllogism requires belief in the notion that every aspect of humanity is fallen and in need of redemption. He writes, “If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole.” The whole of his nature fell, including the parts that make decisions, the will, and enable a person to respond to the gospel call by faith. That looks like radical depravity to me.

And that leads to the third notion in the quote that so powerfully resonates: the idea that we are saved to the uttermost. It’s not just that our souls are rescued to escape eternal punishment. No, all of who we are, every aspect of who we are as humans is saved because every aspect of our fallen humanity was united to the Godhead in the person of Jesus Christ. In that humanity he perfectly obeyed and pleased the father, was crucified to pay the debt we could never repay, was raised again as the first-fruits of our resurrection, was glorified into a new incorruptible, impeccable humanity that we will all one day possess, and was raised into the heavens where a fully human person sits at the right hand of the Father ruling over all things and sustaining all things with his powerful word.

That is salvation. Do not begrudge us any little bit of it. For if any part of Jesus’ humanity wasn’t really human, if he wasn’t truly consubstantial with us in his humanity, then we aren’t completely saved. What has not been assumed has not been healed. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation, or clothe the Savior only with bones and nerves and the portraiture of humanity.

The Biblical and Patristic Roots of the Church Calendar

Advent is Not Christmas, Part I

This is part one of a two part series. To read part two click here.

I have a pet peeve. Actually, I have several. This one has to do with the way that many churches do Advent, that is, as an extended time of Christmas. Their focus is on the first Advent of Christ, and the time is spent covering the biblical material leading up to his birth. Christmas carols and hymns are sung from the first Sunday of Advent onward and there is no distinctive Christmas season. In other words, Advent is Christmas.

There is just one problem. Advent is not Christmas.

Before I get any further I need to make several disclaimers. First, the purpose of this essay is not to shame anyone or call anyone out. I’ve observed this practice enough to not have any one particular church in mind. In fact, the church I attended this week on the First Sunday of Advent did it correctly. So, I’m not calling anyone out in particular and neither do I have any recent experience in mind. Second, my goal is not to cause anyone to feel ashamed or to cause any immediate, drastic changes in your church. My purpose is to educate and train. The church year is a secondary (or even tertiary) matter, and there’s no reason to go to war over how anyone does the church year (or doesn’t).

That said, if we are going to do the church year, I think that it ought to be grounded in what the Scripture teaches and what the church has observed over the centuries, and that as Reformed Christians we ought to have a good rationale and purpose for doing it.

In this essay, part one of two, I will cover the broader biblical and historical aspects and then in part two I will get into the nitty gritty of why Advent is not Christmas (and why that matters).

The Church Year is Grounded in God’s Word

The church year is not just a cool thing that trendy churches are now doing. While I think it’s good that all kinds of churches are getting in touch with the roots of historic Christianity, as we do that we need to understand what we are doing and why. Ancient does not necessarily equate to good and helpful, and we need to understand what unhelpful aspects may have developed in ancient practices so we can avoid them. When it comes to the church year, we are not just appropriating church tradition. It turns out that, as in many other things, the church’s tradition is grounded in God’s Word.

Please continue reading over at SemperRef.

Re-Blog – Five Misconceptions about Reformation Day

Today is Halloween, better known as Reformation Day. I jest. Kidding aside, this is an important day in the history of Christianity. But just how important is it, and why?

I wrote this post three years ago at the 500th anniversary of the event. I think the points I draw out still have some relevance.

I would like to point out that my logging of these misconceptions is not simply an exercise in pedantry. These things matter because those misconceptions not only shift the way we think about that day itself, but the medieval church and the conditions in which the reformation started. By clearing away those weeds we can discover fruit that both the medieval church and the Reformation have to offer. This project allows us to see the Reformation more fully and richly as we perhaps discover and glean from the medieval church for the first time.

Take up and read: https://theopolisinstitute.com/five-misconceptions-of-reformation-day/

Did Augustine really say, “The Church is a whore.”?

I hear this quite frequently, “As St. Augustine said, ‘The Church is a whore, but she’s my Mother.”

The problem is that St. Augustine never said that.

If you try to run down the source of the quote, the trail ends in a book written by Tony Campolo. In Letters to a Young Evangelical, chapter 6 he writes, “I would urge you to consider this carefully, and to think about the words of St. Augustine, ‘The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.’ That statement brilliantly conveys how I feel about the church.” He goes on to argue that despite all the failures and sins of the church, she is still our mother, and thus we should be a part of her. Where Campolo got that quote is a mystery because he gives no citation. But if you look further back you will not find it, because it does not exist.

How do I know? Well first off, as someone who has read an awful lot of Augustine and an awful lot about Augustine, I have never come across that quote, and that quote just doesn’t seem like something he would say. A few years back after I heard it yet again I decided to try and find the source. That’s when I discovered that the trail went dead at Campolo. Luckily, as an academic I have access to better search engines than Google.

I went to two of the best search databases for Christian Latin texts, the Patrologia Latina and the Brepols Library of Latin Texts. Between the two of them they contain pretty much everything written by ancient Christian writers in the Latin language. I searched for church (ecclesia) and mother (mater) using several different synonyms for whore (meretrix and prostituta being the main ones) and nothing came up exactly like the quote. That leaves me 99% sure that Augustine never said that.

The closest I was able to find is from Sermon 213 on the Creed. What he says there is significant so I’ve translated it for you:

Let us honor the Catholic Church, our true Mother, the true Bride of her Husband, because she is the wife of so great a Lord. And what shall I say? How great is that Husband and of singular rank, that he discovered a prostitute and made her a virgin. Because she should not deny that she was a prostitute, lest she forget the mercy of her liberator. How can it be said that she was not a prostitute when she fornicated with demons and idols? Fornication was in the heart of everyone; a few have fornicated in the flesh, but everyone has fornicated in his heart. And He came and made her a virgin; he made the church a virgin.*

Here we find the concepts mother, church, and whore, but we do not find that direct quote we are seeking. In fact there is a significant difference between the quote Campolo gave us and what Augustine actually said. Augustine here is saying that the Church was a whore because she formerly lusted after demons and idols. She is no longer a whore because her great husband, Jesus Christ, has liberated her from her thraldom, forgiven her sins, and made her his virgin bride.

Campolo is trying to make the point that although the church fails she is still the church. That is right and good. However, that is not Augustine’s point. Augustine is preaching about the glorious redemption that the great Husband of the church has accomplished. She is praised because of what He has done in and for her. She is our Mother because He is her Husband and because He has sanctified her. To make Campolo’s point resonate with what Augustine actually said, we should love and cherish the church, in spite of her failures, because she is Christ’s bride. Because she is his only bride. He found her, liberated her, sanctified her, and married her. That’s why we love her even when she is imperfect, because she is the only bride Christ has. He makes her great.

It is then grossly wrong to say that the Church is a whore. In fact that is blasphemous to say. Augustine himself says so in Sermon 10, which I found when searching for this supposed quotation:

I read in the Psalm, “The one who disparages his neighbor in private, I will destroy,” (Psalm 101:5).  If it is right for [God] to destroy the one who disparages his neighbor in private, then how much more right is it for Him to destroy the one who publicly blasphemes the church of God? When he says “She is not who she is!” When he says, “What is ours is partial.” When he says, “She is a whore.”**

 

UPDATE: Cyprian wrote concerning this concept in his treatise On the Unity of the Church. Since Augustine cites Cyprian extensively, even from this treatise, it is likely that he learned this concept from the African great himself.

The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure. She knows one home; she guards with chaste modesty the sanctity of one couch. She keeps us for God. She appoints the sons whom she has born for the kingdom. Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If any one could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church.

*My translation from the Latin text edited by G. Morin: Sancti Augustini Sermones post Maurinos reperti in Miscellanea Agostiniana, vol. 1, 1930, p. 447.

**My translation from the Latin text edited by Michael Petschenig, CSEL 53, p.177, available here: https://archive.org/stream/CSEL53#page/n269/mode/2up

 

 

Re-post: Holy Saturday Homily – A Great Silence and Stillness

I enjoy reading this ancient Holy Saturday homily each year. It is rich with biblical theology. It makes very powerful and sophisticated connections between the sin of Adam and the redemption of the second Adam, Jesus Christ.

We do not know who wrote this homily. It likely dates from the 2nd. c.

I think the theme of stillness resonates with us in this time of COVID-19. A stillness that erupts with resurrection victory on Easter morning.

We are longing for that day to come.

Read here: An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday

Come, O Root!

Download my 2018 Advent prayer guide.

O Radix Jesse… These are the opening words of the traditional antiphon on Dec. 19 each year (that the cover art of this prayer guide depicts). In English the prayer is worded this way:

    O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;

    before you kings will shut their mouths,

    to you the nations will make their prayer:

    Come and deliver us and delay no longer.

The “Root of Jesse” is an image used by the Prophet Isaiah in his eleventh chapter. This “Root” will come and deliver the people Israel and extend their territory to the ancient boundaries promised to the Patriarch Abraham. Paul quotes Isaiah 11 in Romans 15:12 and interprets the prophecy not to be about the extension of the kingdom of Israel, but the gathering of the nations into the Church. Just as in Micah 7:11-12, Isaiah’s prophecy, and indeed the Lord’s promise to Abraham, is fulfilled in the Church, whose boundaries extend to the ends of the earth and whose inhabitants include every tongue, tribe, and nation. The above prayer then is for the prophesied One to come and deliver us. The need is urgent. “Delay no longer!” we cry.

Root. Radix. The interesting thing about the concept of the Root of Jesse in the text of Isaiah is that it is not entirely clear who the Root is. Is Jesse the Root from which Christ springs? 11:1 certainly leads us in this direction. Or, on the other hand, is Jesus the Root from which Jesse springs? Verse 10 leads us in this direction. The answer to the question is, “Yes.” Jesus Christ is both the Root and the Shoot, he is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the author and the finisher of our faith. He is Ancient of Days and yet lately born. He ushers in the beginning and also the end. Jesus is the Root, the ancient ancestor of Jesse and also the Shoot, the one who springs forth from Jesse’s lineage to usher in the everlasting kingdom and the renewal of all things. Jesus is David’s son and David’s Lord.

Radix. This Latin word for “Root” is where we get the word radical. Jesus is radical. Jesus gets to the root of things and he calls us to get to the root of things. The word radix is also where we get our modern abbreviation for medicine. Rx is an abbreviation for radix because many ancient medicines were made from the roots of things. Jesus is radical. He gets at the root. He is our medicine. Come, O Root, and deliver us!

The most important thing to remember about Advent is that Advent is not Christmas. The word “advent” is from the Latin advenire which means “to come to.” Advent is a season reflecting on the “comings” of Jesus. There are three distinct comings of Jesus that are in view in the season of Advent. The first coming was in the past and was the birth of our Lord Jesus. The second coming is at the end of history and is the bodily return of Jesus Christ to judge the earth. Yet there is another coming of Jesus that we should not miss. The third coming is how we long for Jesus to appear and visit us now, in the present, to right wrongs and advance the kingdom of God in this world. In Advent we do cry out for Jesus to come again. But we also look for his coming to us today in his Word, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and in the faces of our brothers and sisters in Christ who bear his image. Christ comes to us in all these ways, and we need him to come. We need him to visit us this Advent. Come and deliver us and delay no longer!

As we look around us we see a great need for The Root to come and deliver us. We have our own personal needs. We have the needs of our church and our community. There are national crises that we should be concerned about. We need the Lord to come. Now! we cry. Come quickly, Lord Jesus. This is the spirit of Advent.

The Good News is God will answer our cry for deliverance. The Root has come to set us free. The Root will come again to renew all things. And the Root promises to meet us in the here and now. He promises to be present with us through His Word. He promises to be present with us through his sacrament. He promises that when two or three of us are gathered together in His name, he will be smack dab in the middle of us.

This Advent let us commit ourselves to preparation and prayer in joyful and hopeful expectation that King Jesus will come and deliver us. Let us watch and pray and not give in to despair, though it seems he never hears us and never answers us. Many times, when we are praying we are expecting a big act of God, a mighty work, a life changing event. But often God, in His infinite wisdom, chooses to give us a sustaining grace instead of that life changing event we prayed for.[1] We may wonder why he does this, when we know he has the power to move mountains and stop time. Maybe he does it because His greatest desire for us is that we would be satisfied with what he daily gives us in his regular, ordinary comings to us: The very substance of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Jesus is enough. Let us be satisfied with Him.

[1] I credit my friend, Pastor Thurman Williams for this idea.

Cover art by Sister Ansgar Holmberg. Click here to order her Advent art series.


Download my 2018 Advent Prayer guide here, and bookmark the link to listen to the tunes for all the psalms, canticles, and hymns: http://christourkingcolumbia.org/advent/

Infant Baptism in the History of the Church

Infant baptism was the universal practice of the church until after the Protestant Reformation. The early church was not credo-baptist.

Note: I wrote this post in response to a question I received from a fellow pastor. I like to address practical issues that pastors and Christians are facing on the ground. If you would like me to address a particular question, drop me a note!

Ancient practice in the Church sets an important precedent for present day practice. This certainly doesn’t mean that Christians are bound to only do things as they have always been done, but the principles of catholicity and unity move us not to break from historic church practice on a particular item unless there is a strong biblical rationale.  Where there is not a strong biblical rationale, or, strong cases could be made on either side, the precedent of church tradition should play a factor in making the decision.

Such is the case with infant baptism. Credo-baptists and paedo-baptists both present biblical arguments that either side is fully convinced of. Thus, church tradition is often brought into the discussion to lend weight to the support of one side or another.

So what does church tradition have to say on the issue of infant baptism? What was the historic practice of the church from the earliest days?

Before we go further, I would like to make a few distinctions and give a few definitions. First of all, credo-baptism shall be defined as the conviction that only those who credibly and consciously profess belief in Christ are valid subjects for baptism. This can also be referred to as believers-only baptism. Second, paedo-baptism shall be defined as the conviction that infants of at least one believing parent are valid subjects of baptism. The paedo-baptist conviction therefore does not exclude baptism of adults who have converted to Christianity and have never been baptized. I shall also use the term infant baptism as synonymous with paedo-baptism.

Also, I would like to make two caveats. First, I am fully aware of the biblical evidence and rationale for the paedo-baptist position and can readily give it. This point of this article is to give historical evidence in the face of two positions that both claim to have biblical rationale. I am also fully aware that credo-baptists have fully developed biblical rationale for their position (though I disagree with them). The point of this post is to address the historical precedent as a sort of “tie-breaker” to the biblical stalemate. Second caveat: I fully embrace my Baptist brothers and sisters as fellow believers in Christ. This is a intramural discussion, and one I offer not with rancor, yet with firmness of conviction.


 

Infant baptism was the universal practice of the church until after the Protestant Reformation. At the onset of the Reformation, none of the magisterial reformers abandoned the practice of infant baptism, but began to vigorously defend it with fresh biblical rationale based on Covenant Theology. The Reformers went so far in their defense of paedo-baptism that none of them even advocated the re-baptism of those who had received baptism in the pre-Reformation church. To this day, churches that are the ecclesial and theological heirs of the Protestant Reformers have continued that practice of infant baptism. These would be Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed of various kinds, and Anglicans (which I would argue fall in the Reformed camp, but someone may protest that I left them out). In these churches there is a continuous and consistent theology and practice of infant baptism that goes back to the days of the early church.

Thus infant baptism was the universal practice of the Christian Church until some Reformation leaders began to question many of the standard practices of Christianity and the Christian life. These Radical Reformers (what scholars call the anabaptists) opposed padeo-baptism, and they advocated for the re-baptism (thus the name anabaptist, one who re-baptizes) of those who had been baptized before the Reformation. But the 16th century anabaptists can not be properly described as holding to credo-baptism as I have defined it. These radical reformers made a very high hurdle to cross before baptism, not simply allowing those who made a credible profession of faith come to the font, but only allowing those who had proven themselves over a long period of time as committed Christian disciples. The radical reformation reserved baptism for the few, a subset of Christian believers. This is not the modern Baptist position. Furthermore, there are many aspects of 16th century anabaptist movements that modern baptists do not adhere to, specificaly, pacifism, communitarianism, and mysticism. The proper heirs of the 16th c. Radical Reformation are to be found in the Menonite and Amish churches, not in modern Baptist churches. (NOTE: see James R. Payton, Jr, Getting the Reformation Wrong, pp. 160-172).

Baptists, rather, are the spiritual heirs of the English Reformation of the 16th-17th centuries. As such, the 17th century theology of credo-baptism was quite new, even by the timeline of the Reformation. There is no real historical precedent for the view before the 17th century and no place where it was practiced outside of England. In contrast, the paeo-baptist position was practiced and defended biblically and theologically from the onset of the Reformation and in every place where the Reformation spread up to the present day.

To the time before the Reformation: no one disputes that the practice of the ancient and medieval Church was universally paedo-baptist after the time of Augustine. This is because Augustine’s treatment of both original sin and the doctrine of grace made a theological path for the practice of infant baptism to become universal. From the 5th century onward, there is no question as to the universal practice of the Church in baptizing the infants of believing parents.

However, in the earliest centuries of the church (before Augustine) the evidence for infant baptism is scant and many credo-baptists will argue based on this that believers-only baptism was the first practice of the church until Constantine got a hold of things. The Constantine thing is always a red herring. Almost nothing he is credited (or blamed) for in the Church is accurate. As I said above, Augustine was the one who closed the book on infant baptism. Constantine himself never weighed in on it and still evidenced the flawed early church baptismal practice in his own life (which I will talk about below).

Yet the argument for credo-baptism in the early church is not sustained by the historical evidence. It is true that the writings we have access to today give overwhelming evidence to adult baptism and to many folks delaying their baptisms well into their adult life. However, this evidence for delaying baptism does not support the credo-baptist position for the following reasons.

1) The reason why adult baptism is the focus in the early church is because everyone is converting to Christianity (it’s the same as in the New Testament). Many of the stories told in the very early church are of converts, and so many were converting from paganism to Christianity that the stories of infant baptism get lost. The story of the early church is one of conversion. Thus the baptism of professing believers is the story told. This is not therefore evidence against infant baptism or for believers-only baptism. It is evidence that people were converting to Christianity in droves and being baptized.

2) There is no writing (that I know of) that is polemical against infant baptism. If the Early Church was credo-baptist by conviction, you would expect much polemic against infant baptism. It simply doesn’t exist.

3) There is evidence for infant baptism in the early church. It isn’t the only practice, but the evidence suggests that infant baptism was a normal and expected practice. One specific example is found in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (late 2nd to early 3rd c.). In this text a baptismal rite is described that includes infants. There are other examples of this in the early church. As I said above, the adult baptism of converts was the most attested practice, but there is still ample evidence that infant baptism was occurring and no one, I repeat, no one was arguing against it.

4) The reason why many Christians in the early church delayed their baptism was due to a faulty baptismal theology and a faulty soteriology. Before Augustine gave the definitive treatments, many believed that since baptism washed away all previous sin and that if you sinned after baptism there was no possibility for forgiveness, you should delay baptism as long as possible to get your sinnin’ in. This is why Constantine was baptized late in life, for example, not because he was not a committed Christian, but because he wanted to make sure to be saved (there was also a political reason for him delaying baptism). After Augustine developed his doctrine of grace and gave the definitive (and final, at least till the Reformation) argument for infant baptism, this is no longer an issue.

Here’s the payoff, Baptists point to the early church for evidence of believers-only baptism, but are they willing also to own the errant theology that was the reason for it? I think not. There were people who delayed baptism in the early church but it was not for modern credo-baptist conviction that only believers should be baptized. It was for other (faulty) theological reasons. Baptism was not delayed until a credible profession. It was delayed  until the person felt they could go on for the rest of their lives without sin (or to enter the Christian ministry). This is not the modern Baptist position, nor should it be. The early church was not credo-baptist.