Friday, January 27, 2017

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Sunday

He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.”  Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.  Therefore they called out to the Lᴏʀᴅ, “O Lᴏʀᴅ, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lᴏʀᴅ, have done as it pleased you.”  So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.  Then the men feared the Lᴏʀᴅ exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lᴏʀᴅ and made vows.  And the Lᴏʀᴅ appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah.  And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.  (Jonah 1:12-17)

The sailors and the passengers…do not know the reasons why the prophet, a fugitive servant, deserved to be punished.  And yet they justify God and acknowledge the blood of him whose deeds they do not know to be innocent.… They do not question the justice of the judgment of God but acknowledge the veracity of the just Judge.

Jerome, Against the Pelagians 2.23

Now when we take the blessed prophet as a type of the ministry understood in Christ, there is need to add that the whole world was at risk and the human race was affected by the tempest, as if the waves of sin itself were raging; the dire and insufferable pleasures were overwhelming it, corruption impending in the form of a storm, fierce winds buffeting it—namely, the devil and the wicked powers subject to him and working with him.  When we were in this situation, however, the Creator had pity, and the God and Father sent us the Son from heaven; He took on flesh, arrived on earth even when it was at risk of tempests, and willingly went to His death to make the storm abate, allow the sea to become calm, settle the waves and put an end to the storm; by the death of Christ we were saved.  The tempest abated, the rain passed, and waves settled down, the force of the winds diminished, deep peace then prevailed, and we enjoyed fair weather of a spiritual kind, since Christ has suffered for us.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Jonah

Friday, January 20, 2017

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Sunday

“Jonah and the Whale” by Carlo Antonio Tavella
 But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the L
ᴏʀᴅ.  He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lᴏʀᴅ.… So he said to them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lᴏʀᴅ, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”  Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, “Why have you done this?”  For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.  (Jon 1:3, 9–10)

But, as I have learned from a man skilled in these subjects, and able to grasp the depth of the prophet, by means of a reasonable explanation of what seems unreasonable in the history, it was not this which caused Jonah to flee, and carried him to Joppa and again from Joppa to Tarshish, when he entrusted his stolen self to the sea: for it was not likely that such a prophet should be ignorant of the design of God, viz., to bring about, by means of the threat, the escape of the Ninevites from the threatened doom, according to His great wisdom, and unsearchable judgments, and according to His ways which are beyond our tracing and finding out; nor that, if he knew this he would refuse to co-operate with God in the use of the means which He designed for their salvation.   Besides, to imagine that Jonah hoped to hide himself at sea, and escape by his flight the great eye of God, is surely utterly absurd and stupid, and unworthy of credit, not only in the case of a prophet, but even in the case of any sensible man, who has only a slight perception of God, Whose power is over all.

Gregory Nazianzen, In Defense of His Flight to Pontus, Oration 2.107

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Christification by Jordan Cooper – Book Review

Cooper, Jordan.  Christification: A Lutheran Approach to Theosis.  Eugene, Ore.  Wipf & Stock, 2014.  142 pp.

Jordan Cooper’s purpose with this book is to bring light to the little-understood doctrine of theosis that has its basis in Scripture and is promulgated in both the Eastern and Western Church in different forms.  Cooper begins by defining theosis—no mean feat since these two branches differ in their understanding.  However, this foundation is necessary, first, because many in the Western Church have not heard of this doctrine, and second, because the believer needs to understand God’s active, sanctifying work.

The next chapter covers theosis in the Lutheran tradition.  Here, the author makes the case that Christification or theosis was taught as a Lutheran doctrine from the 16th into the 21st centuries.  One would expect such a chapter since the author is a Lutheran pastor writing primarily to Lutherans on a doctrine with which Lutherans should have familiarity, since the concept is brought up in Martin Luther’s teaching and the Lutheran Confessions.  A host of historical authors are cited, making the chapter a bit difficult to follow, because I wanted to know more background of each man cited.  For those who know Lutheran history, this should be a profitable section.

The author wants to begins his look at New Testament usage with 2 Peter 1:3–4.  In order to do so, he spends time defending the Petrine authorship.  I am uncertain this is necessary in view of his intended audience, but it does not detract from his argument as he looks to both Luther and Calvin for Reformation-era input on this passage.  From there he moves into the Pauline and Johannine writings to establish the doctrine.  I am not convinced of the latter’s use, however, Paul seems to present a theological case with his consistent view of communion and unity with Christ.

Cooper finishes with two chapters drawn from patristic sources.  The first draws on the writings of the Apostolic Fathers and Apologists.  I am familiar with these writers and found his explanations of their thought to be accurate.  For example, Ignatius understood suffering with Christ and allowing that function to have its perfect work in him.  Alternatively, Irenaeus and Athanasius seem to have understood the interplay between God and man as accomplished by Jesus’ incarnation.  The last chapter looks at Neo-platonic thought in the writing of Dionysius the Areopagite, which is foundational to the Orthodox understanding of theosis.  Cooper does a good job in describing this view of the doctrine and making it understandable to the reader.

Overall, the book presents the doctrine of theosis well, but I pass along two areas of possible concern.  The first is the density of citations: I had trouble following the lines of reasoning when checking unfamiliar authors.  The second is the lack of a concluding chapter.  While there is a conclusion at the end of each chapter, a final chapter dedicated to this purpose would have been a benefit.  Those minor things aside, I can recommend this book even if you are not Lutheran.

And if I might be allowed a bit of whimsy:

Best book I’ve read all year—but, then, it’s only mid-January.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Sunday

Jonah the Prophet – Byzantine icon
Now the word of the Lᴏʀᴅ came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.”  (Jnh 1:1–2)

In my view, then, the God who knows everything had the beneficial intention of demonstrating even to the ancients that people who were quite alienated and caught in the toils of deception would also be attracted in due course to the knowledge of the truth, even if quite desperate, stubborn, and completely in the grip of impenitence.  The word of God, you see, is quite capable even of succeeding in forming attitudes and persuading people to learn the things that make a person wise.… It was therefore not without purpose that the divinely inspired Jonah was sent to the Ninevites; rather it was for him to be a kind of harbinger of God’s inherent clemency, which is bestowed even on people led astray by ignorance.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Jonah

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Holy Spirit Speaks and Guides, But How?

Last year, our pastor undertook a profitable study of Acts that extended over several months.  During the study, I noticed recurring statements concerning the Holy Spirit’s work in and through the work of the gospel.  Using Bible software, I was surprised to discover 54 explicit references to the Spirit’s person and work from the first chapter (Ac 1:5) to the last (Ac 28:25).  While the Holy Spirit is God and therefore immutable, how are we to relate this activity to our day?

Planned Obsolescence
With all the divine activity in the book of Acts, one can understand the emphasis some wings of Christendom place on active, phenomenological manifestations in our time.  Jesus empowered His disciples with the ability to perform miracles (Mt 10:8), even being surprised that they were unable to perform an exorcism later in their ministry (Mt 17:16, 19).  Before ascending, He promised they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Ac 1:8; cf. Mk 16:17–18).  In addition, evidence of continuing manifestations were recorded in Corinth (1Co 12:4–10; 14:26–33).

While these manifestations were still occurring, an examination of the New Testament chronology shows a decrease in their use.  While miracles accompanied the apostles from the Day of Pentecost through Paul’s third missionary journey (Ac 19:11–12), the remainder is largely bereft of such save for visitations to Paul by the Lord (Ac 23:11) and an angel (Ac 27:23–24), plus the snakebite on Malta (Ac 28:1–6).  From the flow of the narrative, miraculous signs and leadings were typical as the apostles went to new people groups, but after the gospel was declared and churches established, the manifestations reduced in number.

The process of being witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” is a natural growth much as we would see in any individual.  We can see this on a small scale in Paul’s first letter to Corinth, where he outlined to that splintered group of believers how individual members worked together in a body (chap. 12) then later gave practical tips for their gatherings (chap. 14).  Between these two chapters, the apostle gives what is often called the “Love Chapter” (chap. 13).  While this section speaks much of love, the emphasis is too often reduced to romance and sentimentality.  Paul attempted to describe how the believers were to move from their divisions and pride to a mature, unified body, wherein the love of Christ was to be the outstanding characteristic of this maturation process.  Gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge, which were vital to the establishing and early growth, was to give way to a mature love.

Paul uses two comparative examples to solidify the point.  The first, childhood vs. adulthood, is clear.  We adults understand the changes in maturity level, responsibility, and relationship that come with aging.  The second, obscured understanding vs. clear, is less certain because the phrase “face to face” evokes thoughts of our final meeting with Christ:
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.  (1Jo 3:2)
However, a correlation to John’s epistle would be incorrect.  In the Scriptures, a face to face meeting is one in which the participants interact in order to understand one another.  In the context of 1 Corinthians 13, then, Paul’s use is simply another rhetorical device to describe the movement from immaturity to maturity.

Are We Missing the Point?
If spiritual maturity is of greater significance than manifestations, are we misunderstanding the Holy Spirit’s ministry?  Have some believers so built up a doctrine centered on personal revelation and manifestation that they apply their theology to Acts rather than allow the text to speak itself?  There are many points of denominational disagreement based on their theological understanding of different biblical texts, and Bible scholars are not immune to placing their presuppositions in the biblical narrative.  More than once, I have read a commentary that explained the text with something like, “This is what the passage says, but that is not what it means,” followed by an explanation based on his or her doctrinal bias.

Christians of different backgrounds can agree on what is intended when speaking of the Holy Spirit anointing, baptism, filling, indwelling, empowering, etc., though understanding of the expected manifestations will differ.  The difficulty comes in understanding and applying the Spirit’s speaking and guiding (or leading).

Ac 1:16, 20
Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, … “May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it;” and “Let another take his office.”
Ac 28:25
And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet…”

Ac 8:29
And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.”
Ac 10:19
And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you.”
Ac 11:12
And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction.  These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.
Ac 21:11
And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”
The first two verses are set apart to demonstrate that the Spirit spoke in the Scriptures, but notice that in both cases the identified speaker is someone else: the first passage has David’s expressions to God, and the second appears to be a theophany of Jesus to Isaiah.  Neither is attributed to the Holy Spirit, yet He is speaking.  We can deduce that the Spirit uses the Word of God to speak, this seems to be borne out in the remaining passages.  Philip had first received instruction from an angel to be at the appropriate spot in the road.  Peter first received a vision from the Lord before the visitors came.  Agabus was an active prophet in Judea (Ac 11:28) who affirmed and clarified what Paul expected.  We can see, then, that the normal course of communication for the Holy Spirit is through revelation spoken by the prophets as confessed in the Nicene Creed.

Ac 16:6–10
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.  And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.  So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.  And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Ac 19:21
Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.”
Ac 21:4
And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days.  And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.
These three episodes in Paul’s clearly demonstrate the guiding work of the Holy Spirit, but there is no explicit method described.  Those advocating an active mystical or supernatural movement will say the believers received a prompting or “inner voice” to determine their courses of action: what Paul and the disciples said or did was in accord with divine counsel and working outside that would be considered sinful.

The first passage, with the verbiage having been forbidden … did not allow them … a vision appeared, is the most consistent with direct intervention by the Holy Spirit.  This would be consistent with the active involvement accorded to Him, however, there is no indication what the negative commands entailed nor to whom they were delivered.  Since only the effect is mentioned, there remains the possibility that Luke, not currently with the team, rejoining at Troas where Paul received the Macedonian call, was summarizing how the Spirit orchestrated the team’s journey through that region, instead emphasizing the subsequent gospel expansion westward.  Whichever case might be accurate, an active, direct leading from the Holy Spirit would not have been considered typical decades, much less centuries, later.

The second passage is debated, because translators are mixed as to whether πνευμα is speaking of the Holy Spirit or an individual’s spirit: both are acceptable.  Whichever translation is used, the force of the sentence is not changed.  Luke is describing Paul’s God-instilled determination fueled by three principle reasons: desiring for his brethren after the flesh to believe in their Messiah (Ro 10:1), longing to encourage and be encouraged by the Roman church (Ro 1:9–13), and planning for the furtherance of the gospel westward to Spain (Ro 15:24, 28).

In the final passage, a difficulty remains.  When the disciples advise through the Spirit, their counsel is in direct contradiction to Paul’s testimony that he was constrained by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem (Ac 20:22).  Are either the disciples or Paul sinning in their claims, or is the Holy Spirit contradicting Himself?  Left with only these two options, we would be forced to choose the former as true, however, the most logical conclusion is that neither party were making a decision based on a direct revelation from the Holy Spirit but were operating and making decisions consistent with what had been revealed through Scripture weighed against desire to minister and expectations of future difficulty based on past experiences.  Much like the decision wherein Paul and Barnabas parted ways over the inclusion of John Mark (Ac 15:36-41), there were strong differences of opinion over future ministry, but neither party sinned or erred.

Ac 13:1-2, 4
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.  While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” … So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.
Ac 15:28–29
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.  If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.  Farewell.
Ac 20:22–23
And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.
Three occasions in Paul’s ministry the Holy Spirit was actively speaking and guiding to make His intentions known.  Notice in this triplet a shift in the Spirit’s operation as time progressed.  In Antioch, the prophets and teachers were involved in their spiritual service (λειτουργια, leitourgia) when the Holy Spirit made Himself known.  Ministering to or serving the Lord was the regular tabernacle and temple activity of the three divisions of Levites based on the direction God had revealed in the Scriptures.  The prophets and teachers in Antioch were going about the same type of activity in the regular meetings of the assembly.  This concerted work, plus, the reception of the same message, indicates that no individualism was involved: the Holy Spirit set apart two by speaking to all five.

After prayer and fasting in preparation for commissioning, Barnabas and Paul were sent out as directed.  One may wonder if there was a divine reasoning for traveling east instead of a different direction.  The most logical possibility is that the two men wanted to use the easily accessible transportation routes to spread the message quickly through the empire.  While good, safe roads are not technically a spiritual reason for furthering the gospel, not all aspects of a ministry are divinely dictated.  We were and are presented options that are not any more or less proper before God, but one may be more advantageous depending on circumstances.

At the council in Jerusalem, those assembled had determined to pass along to the new believers what seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us, supplying a short list of suggestions.  In trying to determine how the Spirit made known that these things were good, we need search no further than earlier in the council proceedings (Ac 15:12–21).  Looking back at James’ remarks, we see him referring to a prophecy in Amos 9:11–12, stating the Lord’s intent to include Gentiles in the restoration followed by practical instructions from the Mosaic Law so as not to offend the Jews.  Even though the Spirit did not give direct or mystical input in this discussion, the brethren understood that He was speaking through the Scriptures, and they could accord His hand and approval on their instructions to the new believers.

The final passage has already been partially examined in contrast to other disciples warning Paul against his planned trip to Jerusalem.  Paul, while encouraging and warning the elders of Ephesus during a stop in Miletus, makes known to them that his trip was in accord with his own desire and God’s intention.  The only question we have is in how the Holy Spirit testified of imprisonment and afflictions.  Did He communicate directly to Paul of the approaching difficulties?  Was Paul surmising based on past and current experiences?  Or did his conclusion comprise both?  All are possible, though we might legitimately favor the first.  Since the apostolic work was not yet complete, the reassuring presence and leading of the Spirit would be necessary for the ensuing travails: they were unique to Paul alone.

First, while the Holy Spirit was active in providing supernatural signs and gifts while the apostles were active in spreading the gospel of Christ, there is sufficient evidence that this was not to be a regular, continuing phenomenon within the local assembly.  While God is sovereign in all His dealings, there are clear indicators that the Holy Spirit would not be supplying gifts, leading, and communications in the way given as the message went from Judea into Samaria and Gentile areas (cf. Ac 1:8).  The Church was intended to mature so that some spiritual manifestations would no longer be needed, being replaced by a thoroughgoing love for one another as the ultimate sign (Jn 13:34–35).

Second, we can see that individual communication directly from the Holy Spirit was the exception, rather than the rule, with the Scriptures being the source of certainty.  Believers of the earliest church understood that God spoke through the fathers and prophets until His Son came as the final Word.  The delivery of the Word continued after the Ascension through the ministration of the apostles and prophets as led by the Spirit in accord with past revelation, demonstrating that the entire Godhead was at work in revelation from beginning to end.  Personal communication or prompting by the Spirit occurred infrequently to select individuals.  More often, the Spirit would make known the message to a group for mutual confirmation.

For centuries there has been a desire in the Church for a personal, one-on-one relationship with God.  This has caused His people to move from the sure footing of Scripture and instead look inward to current inclinations, perceptions, and emotions in an endeavor to instill fervency in His people.  While the intentions might be laudable, the practices have left fleeting and mixed results.  An alleged personal word or prompting from the Lord delivered apart from what Scripture clearly states must be considered suspect or invalid regardless of how pertinent the message may be to the ears.  We are not called to heed cleverly devised tales or our inner leading, but rely on God’s Word.  It is there that the Holy Spirit still speaks and guides as it is faithfully taught in the presence of witnesses.