The History of Lenten Fasting

Facebook lent meme

This is part two of a series. Read part one here. Part three, here.

In my previous post I argued that a 40 day preparatory period leading up to Easter is a very ancient Christian practice, as old as the Nicene Creed or the first complete articulation of the New Testament canon (4th c.). I also argued that fasting has always been a part of the Christian Church’s preparation for Easter, going at least as far back as the early third century. To make this argument I referenced several primary sources, including one well respected Christian Father, St. Athanasius of Alexandria.

The primary question that arises out of that post is, “What kind of fasting was involved in those early days?” and a consequent question is, “How should I fast during Lent?” This post is an attempt to begin to answer both of those questions.

The short answer is that these early sources do not tell us much about exactly how the fast was kept. In his second festal letter of 330 AD, St. Athanasius’ does not give any directions as to what is to be fasted from or how the fast is to be kept, only that it be kept. The reason for this seems to be that there was a great deal of local control over the nature of the fast, and that it was up to the local pastor (bishop) to set the parameters according to his own cultural situation and pastoral wisdom. Thomas J. Talley, in his book The Origins of the Liturgical Year, presents evidence that early Lenten fasting practices varied widely. By this he means that there was variation both in the number of actual fast days (for there was never a continuous 40 day fast. Sundays were always exempted and Saturdays were also in most places) and in the manner of fasting.

It seems clear that the most arduous form of fasting would be abstinence from all meat and dairy. Additionally, from the sixth century we find that monks were allowed to eat one meal a day during the fast. What this says about the laity and their practices is unclear, but it seems likely that their fast would have been less arduous. In addition there were periods of Lent were a less arduous fast was prescribed: some allowing for the eating of diary products and eggs for a portion of the fast.

Talley concludes at the end of the book that though the bulk of our detail concerning Lenten fasting comes from monastic sources, the laity still participated in the observance of Lent in some way. For the laity, Lent was primarily about penitence, a season to especially be mindful of and to repent of one’s sins. What fasting the laity observed is not clear, though it seems, as I mentioned above, that it was locally prescribed by local pastors and bishops, and that it must have been less arduous than that which was prescribed for monks.

Later in Church history Lenten practices become a bit clearer and more uniform. The practice that came into being was to take one meal a day during Lent, abstaining from meat, milk, and eggs (excluding Sundays). Yet how late this general practice came to be is not clear. As I mentioned above, most of the information we have is from monastic sources. Furthermore there were many local dispensations that kept the actual fasting from being so severe. Additionally, certain trades and people in certain conditions (ill, pregnant, young or old of age) were exempted. The fact of the matter is that with all the dispensations, Lenten fasting has always been something where a general ideal was applied to local and individual circumstances.

So we return to our original question, “What kind of fast was instituted in the early Church?” The answer is that it was locally variable and individually applicable. Pastors worked with the laity to ensure that some appropriate form of fasting or abstinence was taking place. Monks performed the most arduous fasts, but the laity surely did not follow with the same rigor.

This leads us, in closing, to the second question, which is, “How then should I fast?” The answer is that this is something best left up to individual pastors and churches to decide. Even in the Presbyterian tradition, the elders of the church have the authority to call a fast. The Westminster Confession of Faith 21-5 says that “solemn fastings,” are a part of the true religious worship of God. Furthermore, chapter 62 of the PCA’s Book of Church Order provides for individual churches, presbyteries, and the entire denomination to call for a fast. That chapter even allows for the church to keep a fast called for by civil authorities if the leaders of the church find it in keeping with the Christian faith. There is certainly nothing keeping any individual church or presbytery from calling a fast for Lent. It would be completely in accord with the constitution of our church.

In conclusion, we know that Lenten fasting is very ancient, and we know that the details of the fast have always (to greater and lesser degrees) been left to local churches. Therefore it seems that it would be good practice for our churches to consider ways in which we might begin incorporating Lenten fasting. This is one way in which we can keep step with the broader church and more fully express our unity with her. I wonder if we might heed the admonition of St. Athanasius, a Father of the Church that we hold in high regard:

Persuade them to fast; to the end that we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing-stock, as the only people who do not fast, but take our pleasure in these days.

We in Reformed circles are reticent to fast because we see it as a medieval catholic practice. Yet the historical sources show us that it is far more ancient. These same sources also show that local churches have always had the ability to set the parameters of the fast.

Therefore, let us keep the fast in order that we may keep the feast!

This is part two of a series. Read part one here. Part three, here.

Nourishment for the Lenten Journey

But those who are in his body appropriately eat the body, in order that while he is on the journey, through the body of Christ alone he might be refreshed by his flesh and learn not to hunger for anything but Christ, to thirst for nothing but Christ, to taste nothing but Christ, to live by none other, nor to be anything other than the body of Christ.

-St. Paschasius Radbertus, 831 AD

On the Origins of Lent

This is part one of a series. Part two can be read here. Part three, here.

As I sit down to write this post, it is Tuesday, February 19, 2013, otherwise known as the seventh day of Lent. Every year around this time several blog posts are trotted out for or against observing Lent and arguing for or against various Lenten practices. I believe these kinds of discussions are good and helpful, especially within the neighborhood of Christendom where I reside: the broader Reformed and post-Evangelical world. The reason is that we, if I may lump us together, have been recently rediscovering many of the older practices of the church. Along with that we are also trying to keep our Protestant and Reformed bona fides by discussing which ancient practices of the Church ought to be retained and the way in which we ought to retain them.

This post is a part of that ongoing discussion. In it I want to put forth a certain argument for the practice of Lent by way of exploring its history. As I am a credentialed historical theologian, this is both my specialty and my passion. Therefore in this post I would like to explore the content of one meta-question: What are the historical origins of Lent – how far back does the observance of Lent go, and what, if anything, can we say about ancient Lenten practices?

This question is important, because the common perception is that Lent is some kind of medieval catholic practice. Now, as a medievalist myself, if it were a medieval development that would not necessarily disqualify it in my book. Yet as we look at the primary sources what we find is that the season of Lent has very ancient origins in the Christian church, almost as ancient as the origins of the church itself and her New Testament scriptures.

While this may seem like a fantastic claim, I am confident it can be substantiated. Let me begin with one prominent example. St. Athanasius (c. 297-373 AD) is an early church father who is held in high regard by all Christians, including Protestants. There are two main reasons for this respect. First of all, Athanasius is considered to be the champion of Nicene orthodoxy against the early heresy of Arianism, which taught that Jesus was not God but the highest of all created beings. Athanasius was present at the Council of Nicaea (from which we have been bequeathed the ancient and venerable Nicene Creed), and he continued to fight for the orthodox view of the Trinity and the deity of Christ throughout his life, suffering much on account of the faith including two separate exiles from his pastoral see.

The second reason Protestants revere Athanasius is because of his famous 39th Festal Letter written to his parishioners in Alexandria in the year 367. Now, this letter is precious to Protestants, and especially ones of Reformed persuasion, because in this letter is the first articulation of the entire New Testament canon that we now possess. For this reason, Athanasius is known to some as the Father of the Biblical Canon.

Now, what may interest you, dear reader, is that in his 2nd Festal Letter some 37 years before, in the year 330 AD, Athanasius wrote this to his flock:

We begin the fast of forty days on the 13th of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 9). After we have given ourselves to fasting in continued succession, let us begin the holy Paschal week on the 18th of the month Pharmuthi (April 13). Then resting on the 23rd of the same month Pharmuthi (April 18), and keeping the feast afterwards on the first of the week, on the 24th (April 19), let us add to these the seven weeks of the great Pentecost, wholly rejoicing and exulting in Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom to the Father be glory and dominion in the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever.

Given this evidence, if one was so inclined one might make the argument that the observance of Lent was older than the biblical canon. While I personally would not go so far as to make this particular argument, I would point out that those who lay claim to Athanasius and his Festal letter as proof for the biblical canon might also take a look at an earlier letter of his that shows his support for keeping the 40 day fast of Lent.

I would also make a similar observation to those who hold Athanasius in such high regard due to his championing of Nicene Orthodoxy. We may note that the Council of Nicaea met in the year 325 and that this letter followed only five years later. Again, one could make the argument that the observance of Lent is just as old as Nicene Orthodoxy, but, well, I think you get my point.

While this quotation is a significant piece of historical evidence, we have to be careful not to overstate its reach. Though this quote reveals to us Athanasius’ desire for a 40 day fast preceding Easter we also find from later letters that this was a change of practice in Alexandria that he was attempting to introduce there. Yet from other sources, including his letter to Bishop Serapion, we find that at least by 340 AD the practice was more widespread and that Athanasius likely received it from Rome. So it seems that it is safe to say that the by the early to mid 4th century, the practice of observing a 40 day fast in preparation for Easter was becoming the norm.

Furthermore, I would like to point out that while the Council of Nicaea did not declare a 40 day fast for Lent, it did acknowledge the existence of a 40 day preparatory liturgical season preceding Easter when it declared that local synods should meet twice a year, “One before Lent (Greek: tessarakosta; Latin: quadragesima; literally: 40 days), so that all pettiness being set aside, the gift offered to God may be unblemished,” (Canon 5). This piece of evidence seems significant, because it confirms that Athanasius’ practice was not isolated in 330AD. If the Nicene Fathers referred to Lent in their deliberations, it must have been a pretty widely accepted practice.

While we can trace the observance of a 40 day lent to the mid 4th century, the setting aside of some time of preparation in advance of Easter is still at least one century more ancient. In several sources, including the Didascalia Apostolorum, The Apostolic Tradition, and a Festal Letter by Dionysius of Alexandria, we find that there was a one, two, or six day preparatory fast leading up to Easter, depending on the time and location. This, according to scholar Thomas J. Talley, places the practice of preparatory fasting as early as the first half of the third century (200-250 AD). It seems that this six day preparatory fast has become our modern Holy Week, and that by the 4th century this period was extended to 40 days to symbolize the fasts of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.

In conclusion, what are we to take away from this historical evidence? I argue that we should take from it that Lent is a very ancient and universal practice of the Christian Church. Evidence for it is as ancient as evidence for the biblical canon and our most important statement of Trinitarian orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I am not arguing that keeping Lent is as important as the canon of the New Testament or the belief in the Trinity, and neither am I arguing that Lent is as old as these things. This is because Athanasius’ 39th Festal letter is not the origin of the biblical canon. This concept existed far before the year 367 and was held, evidently, by the first Christian disciples of the 1st century. Likewise, neither was the Trinity invented at the council of Nicaea. Trinitarian belief was a part of the Christian faith from it’s earliest days after the resurrection of Jesus.

Therefore, while the observance of Lent is not as ancient and venerable as two of the pillars of our faith, the biblical canon and the Nicene Creed, it is regardless a very ancient and very respectable practice, as old as one of the earliest major proponents of these two pillars, Athanasius of Alexandria. 

If you hold St. Athanasius in high regard due to his articulation of the canon and his fight for orthodoxy, consider also hearing his adjuration to keep a Holy Lent:

But I have further deemed it highly necessary and very urgent to make known to you that you should proclaim the fast of forty days to the brethren, and persuade them to fast; to the end that, while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing-stock, as the only people who do not fast, but take our pleasure in those days… But, O, our beloved, whether in this way or any other, exhort and teach them to fast forty days. For it is even a disgrace that when all the world does this, those alone who are in Egypt, instead of fasting, should find their pleasure.

This is part one of a series. Part two can be read here. Part three, here.


Sources: The Origins of the Liturgical Year, by Thomas J. Talley; The Second Festal Letter of Athanasius, accessed here; The 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius, accessed here; Athanasius’ April 340 letter to Serapion found in Les lettres festales de saint Athanase, edited by L. Lefort, pp 654-656; The Canons of the Council of Nicaea, in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils by Norman P. Tanner.

Thoughts on 40th General Assembly, Part Four: Intinction

This is part four of a four part series. Part one can be found here. Part two here. Part three here.

The fourth part of my series on this year’s GA deals with the issue of intinction. Inctinction is a mode of administering the Lord’s Supper whereby bread is dipped (Latin: intinctum) into the wine and that dipped bread is given to the communicant to eat. This dipped bread suffices for receiving both the bread and the wine.

The practice of intinction has become more common in PCA circles these days. The reasons given are practical and theological. On the practical side there are arguments that state that the practice is quicker (for certain situations that require a quick communion service, like the military) and easier to consume (for situations where hospital chaplains are administering the Lord’s Supper to the sick and elderly). Then there is the theological argument that states that partaking of one common cup is both theologically and aesthetically more fitting for the rite of the Supper than all the little plastic cups. Then, these men move from this theological rationale to a sanitary concern that many people find it revolting to drink after others for fear of disease. Thus dipping bread into the common cup and then eating is found to be more palatable.

Many folks in the PCA are uncomfortable with the practice of intinction. In the interest of full disclosure, I am personally against the practice for both theological and biblical reasons. Yet there are a sizable group in our denomination who not only oppose the practice, but want to make it illegal to practice. I am not a member of this later group for reasons I will explain below.

What occurred at this GA is that an overture came from the Savannah River Presbytery (Overture 30) proposing an amendment to our Book of Church Order (BCO) that would make the practice of intinction illegal in the PCA. In committee this overture was actually answered in the negative by a vote of 49-37-2. This means that the overtures committee were against banning intinction in our denomination. That the committee decided this is significant and leads to a certain prognostication about how this will be received in the presbyteries. More on this below.

In the same way as the recommendations on paedocommunion and the creation of Adam,  the minority on the committee composed a minority report on this recommendation by the committee. Under our current rules, a minority coming from either the RPR or the Overtures Committee is allowed to make a minority report and make a substitute motion on the floor of the General Assembly. The substitute motion was, of course, to answer the overture in the affirmative, which would start the process of amending the BCO. More on this process below.

A few words should be said about the debate on this issue. First of all, the debate on this issue occurred in the Thursday night session, the last session of the GA. This session was held after dinner and worship, starting at 9PM. As you might imagine, attendance for this session was low, some 100 votes or more lower than the earlier sessions. You may draw your own conclusions as to who might be more likely to remain out at dinner and not make it back to the late night sessions.

Debate went on for a good while, but not for the entire allotted time of one hour. Those who spoke for the substitute (for the ban on intinction) made sweeping claims of “liturgical anarchy” (ed. note: what liturgy?) and stated that since the Lord’s Supper is one of the marks of our church, we shouldn’t mess with it. They argued largely form scripture, from the institution narratives, especially 1 Corinthians 11.

Those who spoke against the substitute (against the ban) had several reasons. There were those practical and theological reasons stated above. In addition there were those, like myself, who do not believe that banning the practice is necessary. They argued that we should not be fighting over such relatively trivial matters, and that this strong armed maneuver would be injurious to the unity and peace of the church. Several who spoke against made the point that many of our churches already do not follow the letter of the biblical account nor our Confession by partaking of grape juice instead of wine. On a personal note: I felt that this was a very good point. How can people who do not obey the bible and instead use grape juice hold others to the fire for doing intinction? It just doesn’t make any sense.

After about 45 minutes the question was called and we proceded to vote. The vote was very close, and again, as with paedocommunion and the creation of Adam, a standing count was called for. When the dust settled, the substitute motion passed by 14 votes. Fourteen votes, my friends, out of 1,000 commissioners, that is all the majority could muster. Remember, there were 100 or so commissioners still out at “dinner.” I wonder how the vote would have broken down among them? I guess we’ll never know.

So what does this mean? First of all, it does not mean that intinction is now illegal in the PCA. The process to amend the BCO is a three step process and takes two years to complete. The first step is that it must pass GA. The second step is that it must pass 2/3 of all presbyteries by a majority vote. The third step is that it must pass the next GA.

I do not believe this will pass 2/3 of the presbyteries. My reasoning is twofold. First, because of the close nature of the vote on the floor of GA. The majority could not even muster a majority that would suffice as a statistical difference in any intro to statistics course. In other words, it may have passed, but it does not express the opinion of the majority, statistically speaking. To use election polling lingo, 14 votes is within the margin of error.

Secondly, I believe that the vote of the Overtures Committee better expresses the will of the PCA on this issue. The reason for this is that the Overtures Committee is a delegated body, meaning that only one elder and one pastor may come to that committee from each presbytery. The General Assembly, however, is not a delegated assembly. Every pastor and two elders from each particular church in the PCA may attend. Thus presbyteries that are closer to the Assembly, or who may have a greater proportional desire to engage on the GA level will be disproportionally represented in the GA. For this reason, I believe that this BCO amendment will not pass the presbyteries.

Lastly, what are we to make of all this? I said before that I was against the practice of intinction, but not for banning it. Why is this? Well, I am not for banning it because I do not believe that we should force our brothers to cease a practice that they of their own biblical and theological study and pastoral wisdom applied to their particular contexts have deemed is best for them and their congregations. I do however believe that we should engage in a debate and a discussion on this matter. My preference is that we would attempt to persuade our brothers, in love, and not to strong arm them. This is not the way of love. The world sees this and thinks, “Same old Christians. Same old junk.”

Yet, my overall impression is that entering into this first step of amending the BCO to ban intinction is a good thing. Why is that? I believe this because for the first time on the floor of GA I saw men taking out their bibles and making arguments from the scriptures regarding ritual and liturgical theology. I believe that this issue will force us to have rich conversations about what the bible has to say about ritual, liturgy, and sacramental theology, and I believe that that can and will be a good thing. I would encourage brothers in their presbyteries to have official colloquia at their stated meetings and invite men who are knowledgeable and studied on issues of biblical ritual, liturgics and sacraments to debate and discuss these issues. To be frank, our denomination has not reflected on these issues of ritual, liturgy, and the administration of the sacraments in a mature biblical way. If this forces us to do that, then I’m all for it.

Ultimately though, I hope that the amendment does not pass. I urge our brothers to discuss, debate, and dispute, in love, but not force our brothers against their will. Thus the same principle rings through all four of these major issues before the GA this year. In all of these a group wanted to force at least half of their brothers to do something against their will. The other half wanted the PCA to remain broad and inclusive for the sake of the kingdom and the gospel. Which side will ultimately win? The future of the PCA is at stake. I pray that we will all learn to understand that just because a brother across the country, or even across town, does not do everything exactly the way I do, it does not mean the gospel is at stake. On the contrary, if we make everything into an essential of the gospel, we have turned the gospel into pharisaical legalism and made the word “essential” meaningless. Furthermore, we have broken the commandment the Lord gave us on the night he was betrayed: ” A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34 ESV)

These issues are important issues. We do not simply stand by idly and not debate and discuss these important issues. But we must do it in love. We must bear with each other in love and trust that Christ will rule over his church. I think many times we do not obey the command to love simply because we do not trust Christ. We don’t think he really meant what he said, and we don’t see how the church could possibly governed in love. Brothers, let us take this commandment seriously, and let us love one another and trust that our Lord Jesus, King of all and Head of the Church, knows exactly what he is talking about.

For further reading see this post on Vintage 73.

Thoughts on GA, Part Three: Paedocommunion

Image

This is part three of a four part series. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here.

The third significant issue that came before the GA was related to the issue of paedocommunion. Before we get too deeply into the details of what happened at GA this year on this issue, I would like address two  common misconceptions about paedocommunion in the PCA.

1. No one in the PCA who holds paedocommunion (hereafter PC) practices paedocommunion. There is a misconception, which was repeated on the floor of GA this year, that advocates of PC are practicing it in PCA churches. This is not the case. We must not confuse the admission of young children to the Lord’s Table by the procedure laid out in our BCO with the practice of PC. Strictly speaking, PC is when baptized children are given the Lord’s Supper without any formal admission process. The BCO gives latitude, as it should, for the discretion of individual churches and sessions to decide when the proper time for coming to the Lord’s Table should be. Neither the BCO nor the Westminster Standards proscribe an age for coming to the Lord’s Table, only a method of admission. It is up to each individual church and session to decide when a child is ready to come. The practice of admitting young children to the Table is not paedocommunion. Let’s get that straight out of the gate.

2. There is this other misconception, perpetuated on the attack blogs, that ministers in the PCA who hold to PC advocate force feeding nursing infants intincted bread and wine. This is manifestly not the case. The Reformed version of PC is not the Eastern Orthodox version. Reformed who hold to PC believe that children who are able to take solid food and who are expressing a desire to the table should be able to come by virtue of their baptisms, without having to be examined. Now, there are variations of the Reformed PC view, but the Reformed do not hold to the intinction of infants as the E. Orthodox practice.

With these two items clarified let’s get into the details of what happened at this year’s GA. What occurred this year was actually only one step in a multi-year process. The first step began at last year’s meeting of the Review of Presbytery Records (RPR). RPR is a committee of the General Assembly that meets several weeks prior in order to read and review all the minutes of all the presbyteries in the PCA. This may sound like a very boring and tedious job, and it is. What has occurred over the last several years is that RPR has become a jumping-off-point for the doctrinal purists in the PCA to launch their campaigns on various issues. The issue du jour for the past two RPRs has been paedocommunion. This is how it happened.

At the 2011 meeting of the RPR the committee reviewed the minutes of Pacific Northwest Presbytery and officially noted an exception to one of their candidates being approved for ordination though he expressed a difference with the Westminster Standards on the subject of paedocommunion. Now, the use of this word “exception” is very precise, and means that the view is “hostile to the system of doctrine or strikes at the vitals of religion.” This basically means that the view is either not Reformed and Presbyterian (hostile to the system of doctrine) or a greater charge that the view isn’t even Christian (strikes at the vitals of religion). These are serious charges.

There was a great deal of debate at last year’s RPR but the committee came to last year’s GA with the recommendation to cite the Presbytery with an exception. The presbytery responded and this came back to the RPR this year. There was again a great deal of debate, with parties reporting that the debate went on for four hours. This year, the RPR voted by a count of 29-18-1 to approve the response of the Presbytery as satisfactory. But this was not the end of the matter. Under our polity as it now stands, a minority report may come from the RPR and make a substitute motion on the floor of General Assembly. If you read part two of my series on the creation of Adam, you may recall that something similar happened there.

This minority report came to the floor of the GA on Thursday morning. The substitute motion coming from the minority stated that the PC view was in fact hostile to the system of doctrine (not Reformed) or striking at the vitals of religion (not Christian). They did not specify which they believed PC fell under. Further, they moved that the entire Pacific Northwest Presbytery be cited to appear before the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) for consistently approving men with PC views over a period of many years.

Debate on this substitute went on for quite a while, and the original time allotted of one hour was extended once by the Assembly. Those speaking against the substitute argued that there was latitude within the bounds of Reformed theology for men to hold this view, but not to practice it. They argued that there were many men who came to this view through an honest exploration of Reformed theology and the scriptures. They argued that the men were not practicing the view, and that they were not being disruptive in the church. They further argued that many ministers,for many years, have been faithfully and peacefully ministering in the PCA who have openly and honestly expressed this difference to their presbyteries. To now make this particular view unacceptable in the PCA would reverse many years of precedent and would be an act of bad faith. Men who spoke for the substitute argued that the view was dangerous because it led children to eat and drink unto judgment. Some even warned that children may become sick or die if they partook unworthily (citing 1 Corinthians 11).

Ultimately the vote was very close, but the substitute motion failed. The General Assembly did not want to cite the entire presbytery to appear before the SJC. Yet the puzzling thing is that the RPR’s recommendation to approve the response as satisfactory also failed. This was followed by a procedural motion to recommit that case along with two other cases regarding PC back to next year’s RPR for further deliberation.

Now what are we to make of all this? My personal view is that this was a win for the denomination. The GA decided that it was not appropriate to cite an entire presbytery for allowing ministers with the PC view. This is a very good thing. The status quo of the PCA is one of tolerance and broad inclusion (within the bounds of orthodoxy). In this case, maintaining the status quo is a good thing. While this is true, many were discouraged that these PC cases were recommitted to the RPR again, especially those brothers who serve on the RPR. While this is, in fact, discouraging, we can pray that those brothers on the RPR, on both sides of the issue, can come to an agreement that will allow both sides to live peacefully together in the PCA. Please make it a point to pray for that over the next year.

What we also saw is that there is a major divide in the PCA over the issue of PC. Half of the pastors and elders in the PCA are fine with PC existing as a view, the other half are not. This is significant because if there is such a split in our denomination, then either we must settle the matter as an allowable difference, or settle it as not an allowable one. Yet we must realize that setting it as not allowable will be a major blow to the unity and peace of the PCA and  may even lead to its rupture. This is a serious issue of disagreement. The policy of war and prosecution against views that are not like our own must cease if we are to  maintain a denomination that is already, by the standards of the global church, very small.

Is the PC view un-Reformed? I do not believe so, though men may disagree. To me it seems that the PC view is one of the most Reformed developments of doctrine that has come to be over the past 100 years. Every consideration with regard to PC is steeped in Reformation thought and appeal to the scriptures. I do believe that it is Reformed, though good men may disagree.

Yet the other question, is it Christian, should we even allow this question to stand? To assert, brothers, that this view strikes at the vitals of religion means that we believe that it is no longer Christian, and that those who hold it are no longer teaching the Christian faith. The mere thought of this should be revolting to us, and I urge us to comprehend completely what we are saying when we assert that something “strikes at the vitals of religion.” Something that strikes at the vitals of religion is a damnable heresy. PC is not a damnable heresy.

Let me close by making a broad appeal for reasonable  and peaceful men to be involved in the RPR next year. We need the broad middle of the denomination to be represented on these GA committees. If you do not really care about reviewing minutes or PCA polity or procedure, then you are the exact person we need to be on that committee. Be active! Be involved! Your denomination is at stake.

The last installment in this series will come on Friday.

Thoughts on the 40th PCA GA, Part Two: in thesi Statement on the Creation of Adam

This is the second of a four part series. Part one can be found here.

The second major issue dealt with at this year’s General Assembly was a proposed resolution coming from three separate overtures (10, 26, and 29) to make an in thesi statement on the creation of Adam. An in thesi statement is a non-binding resolution passed by one particular General Assembly on a particular issue. These statements do not have the force of church law, and only express the opinion of one particular General Assembly.

The rationale given for passing an in thesi statement was motivated by concern for an increasing number of adherents to theistic evolution in broader evangelical circles. Theistic evolution is the view that, put simply, teaches that the earth is very old and the processes of evolution occurred more or less as modern sciences teaches, with the caveat that God sovereignly superintended and guided that process. There are some versions of theistic evolution that hold that Adam was created directly by God in an act of special creation, and others that hold to the standard evolutionary origins of mankind.

The three overtures were debated in committee and ultimately the committee decided to answer the three overtures by affirming a fourth overture, overture 26 from Potomac Presbytery. That overture stated that there was no need to pass an in thesi statement in the first place because the scriptures and the Westminster Standards are sufficiently clear on the matter. This overture passed the committee by a vote of 50-35, but there was a minority report and a substitute motion made by that minority coming from the committee to the floor.

I know this is all pretty boring so far, but bear with me and we will get to the importance of all this in a minute. The minority report given on the floor of the assembly argued that one of the purposes of the General Assembly is to weigh in on doctrinal matters, and that this issue was a sufficient enough of one for the General Assembly to weigh in on. They then moved to pass a statement that was the exact same as a statement that was passed by the PCUS General Assembly against evolution in 1886, 1888, and 1924. That statement is as follows:

The Church remains at this time sincerely convinced that the Scriptures, as truly and authoritatively expounded in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms teach:

-That Adam and Eve were created, body and soul, by immediate acts of Almighty power, thereby preserving a perfect race unity;

-That Adam’s body was directly fashioned by Almighty God, without any natural animal parentage of any kind, out of matter previously created from nothing;

-And that any doctrine at variance therewith is a dangerous error, inasmuch: as in the methods of interpreting Scripture it must demand, and in the consequences which by fair implication it will involve, it will lead to the denial of doctrines fundamental to the faith.

The General Assembly debated the substitute motion for about 45 minutes. There were plenty of speakers on both sides of the issue. It must be understood, however, that those who spoke against the substitute (including myself) were not speaking in favor of theistic evolution. I don’t recall that anyone stood up and argued that this should not be passed because they personally held to a different view. There were various reasons expressed against the substitute, the most common of which was that our Confession was already clear, and that in thesi statements in general are not helpful. Most of the argument for the passing of the substitute centered around the denomination needing to have a clear, contemporary statement to an important contemporary issue.

I was one of those who stood up and spoke against the substitute. I argued that it didn’t make sense for us to be answering a 21st century problem with a 19th century solution. The statement that we were presented with, in other words, was not contemporary at all. It contains archaic and unclear language that could be misconstrued as some kind of racism (I refer to the statement about “race unity”). Why in the world would we want to pass a confusing statement?

Furthermore, I argued that the PCUS passed the statement repeatedly (in 1886, 1888, and 1924) and this repeated in thesi fist pounding did nothing to stop the rising tide of evolutionary views in the old Southern church. By this same rationale, we should see that passing in thesi statements really does nothing to fix things, it only makes some people feel good about drawing a supposed line in the sand, as it were.

In addition to what I presented on the floor of GA, I am against in thesi statements in general based on philosophical grounds. We have seen that although these kinds of statements have no binding ecclesiastical authority, proponents have used these deliverances of the General Assembly as blunt objects to bully their opponents. We as pastors and elders in the PCA are required to give such deliverances (including the findings of study committee reports) due and serious consideration, but they are not a part of our constitution, and we are not required to submit to them.

The chairman of the Overtures Committee, Elder Jay Neikirk said it best, in my opinion. He argued that if we feel that the Westminster Standards are insufficient to address any particular issue, then we need to amend the standards. Now, that was a rare moment of sanity in the normal cacophony of parliamentary procedure. The problem with these in thesi statements is that they can easily be passed at any GA and then used as weapons with the force of law. We have seen this repeatedly in the case of the FV Study Committee report, which has no binding authority over any person in the PCA, yet is treated as if it is the second coming of Westminster.

In case you are wondering, the substitute motion failed, by a vote in the neighborhood of 475-325, a substantial margin. We will get the exact numbers of the vote eventually in the minutes of the GA because there was actually a standing count of the votes because the moderator initially ruled that the substitute had passed by his visual judgment.

In closing, I believe that the rejection of the minority substitute and the subsequent passing of the committee’s recommendation was a good thing. Though I am personally against theistic evolution, I do not believe that in thesi statements are the answer to the problem. I do believe that holding to the special creation of Adam is essential to preserve several of our fundamental doctrines (one of which being original sin), but I am not of the opinion that the best way to handle these issues is to beat our brothers into submission. Let us do the hard work to discuss these issues with our brothers and persuade them of the rightness of our view. There are certainly boundaries that cannot be crossed, but I do not believe that passing in thesi statements for the purposes of forming blunt weapons to be used in such battles is the way to go.

More on the 40th GA to come.

My Thoughts on the 40th General Assembly of the PCA – Part One: NAE

There were four significant issues that the 40th GA in Louisville dealt with: withdrawal from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), an overture to pass an in thesi statement on the creation of Adam, a BCO amendment to ban the practice of intinction, and a recommendation from the Review of Presbytery Records (RPR) to approve as satisfactory the allowable exception of paedocommunion by one minister in the Pacific Northwest Presbytery. I will describe each of these and comment on them serially in successive posts.

Overture 12 of the 39th GA to withdraw from the NAE
This overture actually came to last year’s GA from Central Carolina Presbytery. Last year the GA voted to recommit the overture to the GA’s permanent committee on Interchurch Relations (IRC) to study the matter and give an opportunity for churches and presbyteries to weigh in. I actually served as secretary on this year’s GA committee of commissioners (CoC) that dealt with this overture before it came to the floor. The rationale given by those in support of leaving the NAE was twofold: 1. These men are uncomfortable with some of the statements made by the governmental relations wing of the NAE. Some of these statements had what some perceived as politically left leaning overtones, and thus they opposed them being blanket statements of the NAE membership; and 2. Other men also opposed our involvement in the NAE based on their view of the church, specifically, that the church should never make any political statement, regardless of the ideology or issue supported. Ultimately both the CoC and the GA supported our remaining in the NAE (sorry for all the acronyms!).

In my opinion, this is a very good thing. We as the PCA are already a very small portion of Christ’s Church (350,000 or so out of over 2 billion). This is a drop in the ocean, my friends. If we are to take seriously the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, a prayer he prayed as he himself was facing death, that we all be one even as he and his Father are one, then we absolutely must take the visible unity of the church seriously. We know that Jesus was praying about the visible and not the mystical unity of the church because in his very next breath he prays that all unbelievers would see our unity and come to know him. How can unbelievers see the mystical unity of the invisible church? That is only a concept, not a physical manifestation. No, Jesus was praying for our visible unity.

Furthermore, this idea that the theological principle of the “Spirituality of the Church,” which includes a belief that the church should never speak on any political issue, is not one which I or many of my PCA brethren agree with. It is manifestly absurd to say that the church cannot or should not speak on any political issue. There are certainly issues that deal directly with morality and justice that the church can and should speak to. I honestly have a very hard time understanding the rationale of some brothers who say that the church shouldn’t speak for laws against abortion, slavery, prostitution, pornography, divorce, pedophilia, and many others. If the church will not speak to these issues in the public square, who will?

For these reasons, and for the reason that the NAE does so much more good than just a few possibly politically offensive statements concerning public policy, I believe that our remaining in the NAE is very good. We are already an isolated backwater of world Christianity. We have this opinion of ourselves in the PCA that we are very important, but let’s face it brothers, we are not. At this GA we heard from representatives from both the Brazilian Presbyterian Church and one of the Korean Presbyterian churches. Both these churches measure their numbers in the millions, while we measure ours in the thousands. Of the other fraternal delegates we heard from, all of which were based in the US, we heard reports of membership that were 8,000 souls, 25,000 souls, and so on. Friends, the Reformed church in the United States has a sickness. We need to learn to bear with each other in love and to begin to do as Christ commanded and be one. We need to repent of our sectarian ways and our bent toward division and discord. The Lord Jesus is not pleased with us right now. Let us heed his dying wish.

Here is the prayer that I composed and prayed on the floor of this year’s GA during the report of the Interchurch Relations Committee:

Heavenly Father, your Son Jesus Christ, when he faced death,
Prayed that the church would be one, even as He and You are one.
We pray you so to unite your holy, catholic, and apostolic church,
That all unbelievers would see our unity and love for each other,
And would come to a saving knowledge of you through your Son, Jesus Christ.
We pray in the name of the same, your Son, our Lord,
Who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, one Lord, over one Church,
Now and forever.
Amen. 

What is the Catholic Church?

There has been much discussion on the interblags lately concerning Protestant conversions to the Roman Catholic church. This discussion has shown up on my Facebook feed and has raised some questions, so I thought I would write a post in order to address some of those questions. I also thought that I might offer my own perspective on the issue.

There have been several blog posts which have done a good job getting at some of the relevant issues. These can be seen here, here, and here. While these posts are good enough to stand on their own, I want to add a bit to the discussion from my perspective as one holding a PhD in Historical Theology and one who was specifically trained and wrote my dissertation in early medieval ecclesiology.

To my Roman Catholic Friends
First of all I must pay heed to the great elephantoid presence among us and say something to address my friends who are Roman Catholic, many of whom converted to the Roman Church from Protestantism. I realize that seeing a series of articles linked to my Facebook wall and seeing a post like this on my blog may be unsettling or even offensive to some of you. To this I would like to say two things. First of all, this post is not directed to Roman Catholics. My purpose in writing this is not to try to convert anyone, even if I could. This post, as well as the others I have posted are written to Protestants. I realize that some of the arguments we are using may strike a nerve with some of you because they may be addressing some of the issues you faced when you converted, yet this is not my intention. I hope that you will grant an indulgence to us as we have an “in house” discussion. Secondly, I am a Presbyterian for a reason. I have not converted to Roman Catholicism, though I have heard all the arguments for it (over many pints with some of you at mid-town St. Louis pubs). I would hope that you would grant me that latitude to express my Presbyterian distinctives, as I would you if you would express yours.

To the Protestants in the Room
It seems to me that the essence of this discussion boils down to a matter of ecclesiology. What is the nature of the church? Until we have understood and come to terms with a common definition of what the church is, we will not be able to address the issue of conversion to the Roman church. So what is the church? Our Roman Catholic brethren will claim that the church is defined by apostolic succession. What do we Protestants have against the apostles? Well, nothing at all. We all profess that the church is apostolic. The rubber meets the road, however, with how we define apostolic succession. They define it as an uninterrupted succession of bishops who are a part of a physical succession of laying on of hands that goes all the way back to the apostles. Sounds neat doesn’t it? Sounds pretty persuasive.

The only problem is that the bible doesn’t define the true church this way, and neither did the catholic church before the late middle ages. I don’t have a copy of Denzinger on me, but I would guess that, as with most things, the doctrine of apostolic succession as we know it today was not articulated until the Council of Trent. Nevertheless, even the article from the New Catholic Encyclopedia on “apostolic succession” admits that all the churches did not even have bishops until the 2nd or 3rd century, and that in many churches before that time rule was by a college of presbyters, what we today call a presbytery.

Now, this article is not a defense of Presbyterianism, so let’s not get off track. What I’m trying to do is talk about what is apostolic. It seems that before the time of Tertullian and Irenaeus (by the turn of the 3rd century) apostolic succession was held by all ordained pastors, not just the bishops. Clement of Rome in his letter to the church at Corinth espouses such an idea. Later on, it seemed expedient that the bishop become the sole authority and the-buck-stops-here’er with regard to defense of orthodoxy. Now, that is known, as I have argued to my Roman Catholic friends, as changing the rules in the middle of the game. Because if apostolic succession is defined by an unbroken chain of ministers laying hands on ministers going all the way back to the apostles, then we certainly have claim to it.

Yet I’m not even trying to make the claim that Protestants have apostolic succession. At least not yet. My purpose in writing this article is to argue that apostolic succession is not, nor never was intended to be, the marker of unity with the true church. In its inception, apostolic succession was a concept used to defend the true faith against heresy. Yet if you were to ask Tertullian or Irenaeus what the marks of the true church were, they would likely tell you that it was adherence to the orthodox faith and that unity was centered around the sacraments. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it becomes important at the Reformation. The claim of the Reformation is that the Church of Rome had departed from the apostolic faith. So what matters more, adherence to the apostolic faith, or adherence to an artifice that was once helpful in preserving the apostolic faith? No, the definition of the church cannot be changed in the middle of the game. The definition of the church and the symbol of its unity has always been centered around faith in Jesus Christ and the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, and not on its form of government.

This was how the early medievals viewed the matter. In Western Europe from the 5th-10th centuries, or so, there was an influx of new peoples into the church who were formerly pagan, or Arian, Germanic tribes. Rome was in decline, so Rome could not be depended on for help. The local bishops were largely laymen of aristocratic class who were educated in the palace courts. Who then would lead the charge for evangelism, revival, and church building in this strange new world?

The answer is that it came largely down to monks. Monks who were trained to be local parish pastors, evangelists, missionaries, and apostolic bishops. Yet how did these churchmen, who were seeking to unite the large swath of newly converted Europe into the church of Christ, how did they define the church? Was it the bishops?

No. The early medievals did what they did with almost any theological issue (or any issue at all, for that matter), they went to the bible. And what they found was that the bible defines the church as those who believe in Christ and who are unified by means of the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. What then was to be the continual driving force of unity in this nascent European civilization? The Eucharist. The Lord’s Table was the place where all men and women came to be united into one body of Christ and one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. This, if you are interested, was also the view of St. Augustine.

[Addendum: It is interesting to note that before the separation from the East and the West and before the separation of the Reformation, the church was defined around the Lord’s Table. It was only after these splits that other definitions were sought]

So what does this mean for me if I am considering the Roman Church? It means that if you are looking for the Catholic Church you may find it right where you are. The Catholic Church exists wherever the apostolic faith is professed, and the table of the Lord is held open to all baptized disciples of Jesus. If you are looking for something ancient, you will find it there: the table of the Lord was instituted by Christ himself. If you are looking for tradition, you will find it there:St. Paul says that he handed down the tradition of the Eucharist as he received directly from Jesus. If you are looking for unity with the Catholic Church, you will find it there: Sts. Paul and Augustine say that anyone who partakes of the body of Christ becomes and is in union with the body of Christ. If you are looking for salvation, you will find it there: Jesus says in the gospel of John that those who eat his flesh and blood will have eternal life. I love how Peter Leithart recently put it in this blog post: the Eucharist makes the church. That hits the nail on the head. It’s no coincidence that Peter found this insight by reading a book by Cardinal Henri de Lubac where he wrote about the early medievals and their concept of the body of Christ.

So what are you looking for? Are you looking for something ancient, some old traditions, something catholic, something salvific? You can find it at the Eucharist at your own local church.

Are you looking for certainty? Are you looking for an authority that will never be shaken? Well, you will not find it there, but sadly, you may find that you won’t find it in Rome either. The only source of truth we have is the Holy Spirit speaking through the scriptures to his people.  The only certain authority we have is the Lord Jesus Christ who rules over his church. Everything else can and will fail and err.

So put your faith in Christ. And be Catholic just where you are.

The Athanasian Creed

Image

This Sunday at Christ Our King we will be confessing the Athanasian Creed. It is a very long creed, and because of its length the modern church does not confess it much any more. Yet it seems like a good practice to confess this creed at least once a year, on Trinity Sunday. The reason is that the Athanasian Creed is a more detailed, robust, and instructive statement of both the deity and humanity of Christ and the mystery of the Trinity than the Nicene Creed is. It will be good to stretch our theological muscles in this way.

The Athanasian Creed is named for St. Athanasius, a 4th century theologian and churchman who dillgently defended the orthodox faith concerning the Trinity and the deity of Christ against the rising tide of Arianism. At times it seemed to Athanasius as if he was completely alone in defending the truth. Because of this the slogan, Athanasius contra mundum (Athanasius against the world) became to be associated with him.

Athanasius is also important because his Easter Letter of 367 is the first written witness to the entire New Testament Canon.

But Athanasius did not write the Athanasian Creed.

It was attributed to him and was thought to have been written by him up unto the time of the Reformation. Yet we still refer to the creed as Athanasian because it expresses the ideas that the bishop fought for during his life. The author of this creed is still unknown. It is a Western Creed that has been confessed in the churches going back until at least the sixth century.

We will confess it this Sunday, on the Day of the Holy Trinity, because it contains a robust confession of the doctrine of the Trinity as we profess it in catholic churches. The creed is also very instructive, as it lays out many of the nuances of Trinitarian doctrine. Though it is a very long creed, it will be helpful to at least once a year stretch ourselves to profess the doctrine of the Trinity in this way.

The Athanasian Creed

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith unless any person keeps whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither combining the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Spirit unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Spirit Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Spirit Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by Christian truth; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Essence of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Essence of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God. One altogether; not by confusion of Essence; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sits on the right hand of the God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.

The Venerable Bede’s Day

Image

Today the Church celebrates the life and sanctity of the Venerable Bede.

Bede (673 – 735) was the last of the early church fathers and the first to compile the history of the English church. Born in Northumbria, Bede was given by his parents to a monastery in Northern England at the age of seven. The most learned man of his time, he was a prolific writer of history, whose careful use of sources provided a model for historians in the Middle Ages. Known best for his book, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he was also a profound interpreter of Scripture; his commentaries are still fresh today. His most famous disciple, Cuthbert, reported that Bede was working on a translation of John’s Gospel into English when death came, and that he died with the words of the Gloria Patri on his lips. He received the title “Venerable” within two generations of his death and is buried in Durham Cathedral as one of England’s greatest saints. (Source: http://www.LCMS.org Commemorations Biographies)

Bede also contributed to our hymnody. The text of the hymn A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing was written by him. http://www.opc.org/hymn.html?hymn_id=3

A Prayer for the Venerable Bede
We thank you, O God, for our brother Bede the Venerable, and for his work among the English people and for his great influence upon the Western church. We thank you for his exposition and translation of scripture, for his support of missionary endeavor, and for his building up of the church in the British Isles and his influence on the same on the continent of Europe. We realize that we owe our culture and civilization to your work through men and women like Bede. We pray that you would raise up many more Bedes in our time and in the ages to come. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.