Thursday, September 28, 2006

More on "The Man of Romans 7"

(continued from here)

Eric Phillips pointed out the Antiochene tradition as one example of a patristic treatment of Romans 7 which he sees as broadly “mesh[ing] quite naturally with simul justus et peccator.” Now, he says this primarily in regard to a commentary he's studied of Theodore of Mopsuhestia, but also cites a homily of John Chrysotom. I cannot speak to his reading of Theodore, whom he doesn’t cite, but I can read the homily of John's as conveniently translated and linked.

But actually, as I read it the Chrysostom homily says quite clearly that "the Man of Romans 7" is the pre-Christian man, and that the Christian will indeed move from the “Man of Romans 7" to the “Man of Romans 8," just as perfectionist Wesleyanism maintained. In short, it is similar to the youthful view Augustine later repudiated and quite opposite to Augustine's mature view. Let me substantiate this analysis.

As John Chrysostom concludes his discussion of v. 14, For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin, he writes this about Paul’s discussion:

For after praising the Law, he hastens immediately to the earlier period, that he may show the state of our race, both then and at the time it received the Law, and make it plain how necessary the presence of grace was, a thing he labored on every occasion to prove. For when he says, "sold under sin," he means it not of those who were under the Law only, but of those who had lived before the Law also, and of men from the very first. Next he mentions the way in which they were sold and made over (emphasis added).

As becomes clear, the "Man of Romans 7" lives in "the earlier period" -- either under the law of Moses or else in the pre-Mosaic, patriarchal, period.

He then immediately cites v. 15: For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. His discussion here is oriented primarily to clearing the Law of condemnation, showing how the flesh here criticized is not our physical nature as created by God, and arguing that the compulsion here must leave our free will intact, For if it was not willingly, but by compulsion, that we sinned, then the punishments that took place before would not be justifiable. Nowhere in this discussion does he modify the impression given above that he is taking those who were either “under the Law only,” i.e. Jews, or else “those who had lived before the Law also,” i.e. the Gentiles, patriarchs, and antedilluvians.

But in his discussion of 8:3, he moves through how Christ's crucifixion condemned sin in the flesh, and then in v. 4, makes it clear that all that went before was relevant only to the Jews and Gentiles, not Christians. A sinless life after baptism is quite possible:

And the making a stand against it, and the getting the better of it, came from Him. But it is for us to enjoy the victory. Then shall we never sin henceforth? We never shall unless we have become exceedingly relaxed and supine. . . .

So showing, that it is not only binding upon us to keep ourselves from evil deeds, but also to be adorned with good. For to give thee the crown is His; but it is thine to hold it fast when given. . . .

For in this passage he shows that the Font [of baptism] will not suffice to save us, unless, after coming from it, we display a life worthy of the Gift. And so he again advocates the Law in saying what he does. For when we have once become obedient to Christ, we must use all ways and plans so that its righteousness, which Christ fulfilled, may abide in us, and not come to naught.

To John Chrysostom, the "Man of Romans 7" is indeed humanity before the crucifixion. This fact and his lack of Augustine’s distinction between mortal and venial sin gives his treatment of the passage its perfectionistic force, what I called before “achievable asceticism.” This is particularly clear in his long peroration on v.6: For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace:

What he says then is not that it is impossible for a man that is wicked to become good, but that it is impossible for one who continues wicked to be subject to God. Yet for a man to be changed, and so become good, and subject to Him, is easy. For he does not say that man cannot be subject to God, but that wicked doing cannot be good. As if he had said, fornication cannot be chastity, nor vice virtue. . . . (emphasis added).

What was an enduring anthropological point in Romans 8:7, is now a simple logical tautology.

For that which thou hadst no power to do under the Law, now, he means, thou wilt be able to do, to go on uprightly, and with no intervening fall, if thou layest hold of the Spirit's aid. For it is not enough not to walk after the flesh, but we must also go after the Spirit, since turning away from what is evil will not secure our salvation, but we must also do what is good. And this will come about, if we give our souls up to the Spirit, and persuade our flesh to get acquainted with its proper position, for in this way we shall make it also spiritual; as also if we be listless we shall make our soul carnal [For more on how to be Spirit-filled and live the victorious life," complete with helpful graphs of the proper position of the flesh in relation to the cross and the Spirit, click on the links.] For since it was no natural necessity which put the gift into us, but the freedom of choice placed it in our hands, it rests with thee henceforward whether this shall be or the other. For He, on His part, has performed everything (emphasis added).

"God will do His part! You can do yours!"

For sin no longer warreth against the law of our mind, neither doth it lead us away captive as heretofore, for all that state has been ended and broken up, and the affections cower in fear and trembling at the grace of the Spirit. But if thou wilt quench the light, and cast out the holder of the reins, and chase the helmsman away, then charge the tossing thenceforth upon thyself. For since virtue hath been now made an easier thing (for which cause also we are under far stricter obligations of religious living), consider how men's condition lay when the Law prevailed, and how at present, since grace hath shone forth. The things which aforetime seemed not possible to any one, virginity, and contempt of death, and of other stronger sufferings, are now in full vigor through every part of the world, and it is not with us alone, but with the Scythians, and Thracians, and Indians, and Persians, and several other barbarous nations, that there are companies of virgins, and clans of martyrs, and congregations of monks, and these now grown even more numerous than the married, and strictness of fasting, and the utmost renunciation of property. Now these are things which, with one or two exceptions, persons who lived under the Law [like the Man of Romans 7] never conceived even in a dream. Since thou seest then the real state of things voiced with a shriller note than any trumpet, let not thyself grow soft and treacherous to so great a grace (emphasis added).

This is perfectionism and achievable asceticism, and among the fourth century Greeks, as among the nineteenth century Wesleyans, it comes from the reading of the “Man of Romans 7" as some previous state in Paul's life, from which his readers must move to become the “Man of Romans 8."

UPDATE: As Jeremy pointed out in the comments, my perfectionist/Wesleyan terminology was a bit "off." So I decided to just to link to the many web-sites that teach this and let them speak for themselves in favor of John Chrysostom's reading and against the older Augustine and Luther.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Buddhists and Christians Together (for Dinner at Least)

A Buddhologist colleague once mentioned that she'd heard a colleague point out (yes, this is third hand) that you could see the Protestant origin of Religious Studies in its focus on doctrines as the center of religion. But if Religious Studies had started in Judaism or Hinduism, on the other hand, the person said, you'd see that food practices are really the center of religion.

I was reminded of that in my summer trip to Russia. In an interview with the Khambo Lama or abbot of the newly revived Aga datsang (monastery) -- that's a picture there -- he told me a funny story about the recent Congress of World Religions in Moscow this summer (details here and here). The Jews could only eat kosher, and the Muslims could only eat halal. So the result was only the Christians and the Buddhists could eat together! (He didn't mention the Hindus, but they have their own purity regulations and rules -- no beef, certainly.)

Actually Buddhism and Christianity have this similarity: they are both explicitly multi-ethnic religions, whose early writings expressly attack the purity legislation, food laws, and ethnic exclusiveness of their ethnic parent religion -- Hinduism and Judaism respectively.

In fact, one could argue that Christianity and Buddhism are the only well-established really multi-ethnic religions in the world. Virtually all the other religions of the world are for one ethnic group alone.

And what about Islam? That's a fascinating case. I think you could argue that while Islam accepts adherents from every ethnic group, it follows the American ideal of a melting pot: e pluribus unum ("from many, one"). I've touched on this before (see here). Traditionally, this was a purely eschatalogical ambition, but this aim of absolute cultural unity of the Islamic world is getting a lot more traction lately (see here).

Not eating together can strike people as very offensive. Qubilai Khan (a.k.a. Kubla, Kublai) in 1280 invited some Muslim merchants to his palace but they demurred and would not eat his meat, because it was slaughtered in the Mongol fashion. In a rage at what he saw as their arrogant refusal to accept that he was their ruler, he banned Muslim slaughtering and circumcision from his realm for eight years.* Rashid al-Din, the Persian historian, claims that jealous Christian courtiers played a part in poisoning the khan's mind against Muslims. In the end, because Muslim merchants controlled the vital South Seas silver trade, he had to relent.

*Curiously in the decree, Jews are treated as a subset of Muslims.

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Who Is the "Man of Romans 7"?

(Previous number in this series from here)

Romans 7 has been the key passage for simul justus et peccator (at the same time justified and sinner). The famous description of Paul's in which he describes a struggle with sin:

For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.

Is Paul speaking as an apostle here? Or was this before he believed in Christ? Or perhaps under some conviction of sin, but lacking the second blessing that would lead him to sinless perfection and victorious life that all Christians should aspire to?

Here too, Luther was aware of the fifth century debates on this topic. Here the opponent of Augustine, the mature anti-Pelagian preacher, was not Jerome, but the younger, earlier Augustine. In Luther's Lectures on Romans (written in 1515-16), he writes:

That, beginning with this passage until the end of the chapter, the apostle speaks in his own name and as a spiritual person and not at all as a carnal person, Blessed Augustine first asserts extensively and persistently in his book against the Pelagians. Hence he says in the twenty-third chapter of the first book of his Retractations, where he deals again with his exposition of this passage:

When the apostle says: We know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, I did not want to understand this as in any way spoken by the apostle in his own name, because he was already spiritual, but rather with reference to a man who is subject to the law because he is not yet under grace. In this way I earlier understood these words, but later, having read several interpreters of the divine sayings whose authority impressed me greatly, I considered them more carefully and came to see that they can also be understood with reference to the apostle

And in the second book against [the Pelagian] Julian, he writes:

Behold, it is not, as you think, some Jew who says: I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, etc., but according to Blessed Ambrose, it is the apostle Paul who speaks here in his own name.

And, a little farther on, he quotes Blessed Ambrose from his book On the Sacrament of Regeneration:

We must struggle against the flesh. Paul struggled against it. At last he says: I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind. Are you stronger than Paul? Have no confidence in the sedulous flesh and do not entrust yourself to it, since Paul exclaims: For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, no good dwells: for to will is present with me, but to accomplish that which is good is not.

Likewise, quoting the same author [i.e. "Ambrose"] from the book On Paradise, he says:
Again, at another place of the same work, the same teacher writes: Paul, he says, is assailed and sees the law of his flesh warring against the law of his mind. Paul says: For the good which I will I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do. And still you think that man is helped by knowledge in so far as it increases his displeasure at his trangression? etc.

And most clearly of all, he [i.e. Augustine] makes the same point in the same work [Against Julian] from the sixth chapter to the end.

Luther then goes on to demonstrate how the delight in the spiritual law and the awareness and hatred of the flesh's sinful urges is a feature not of the carnal (i.e. unregenerate) man, but of the regenerate man.

It is interesting that the Ambrose cited here is believed by modern scholars to be not the "real" Ambrose, but another man who wrote under Ambrose's name (he is called Ambrosiaster). It seems odd that Augustine was unable to tell the difference between the writings of the two, since Ambrose was an older contemporary. In fact, for good or for ill, it seems that this Ambrosiaster was a rather more influential and original theologian than the real Ambrose. If one wishes to find the cuckoo who laid the egg of Evangelicalism that Luther hatched, this Ambrosiaster would seem to be a prime candidate. It is a shame that so little is known about him.

Those who wish to read Augustine's developed anti-Pelagian exegesis of Romans 7 can find a nice assembly of texts in pp. 61-65 of Hurst's translation of Bede's anthology. But it is important to note that there is still a crucial gap between Augustine and Luther. Both believe that the sinner is just yet still subject to sinful desires. Both also believe that the sinner in Christ will prevent these desires from ripening into fruit of mortal sin.

But in this situation of being simultaneously justified and sinner, we can ask, on what basis can it be said there is no condemnation for such a person in Christ? Augustine's answer is that they are not condemned because those in Christ through the Holy Spirit rule over their covetous desires. The work of conquering the flesh cannot be done, but they do do the work of not being conquered by the flesh, and that (it appears) is the basis of their righteousness (although the ability to do so is a gift of God). The mature Luther stresses that while the saint does indeed repress the motions of the flesh, such repression is not the grounds of his acceptance with God. Rather it is faith alone which gives makes the sinner righteous, as it always was.

UPDATE: In a succeeding post, I analyze a homily by John Chrysostom here (HT: Eric Phillips) that gives us the perfectionist "you need to move from the Man of Romans 7 to the Man of Romans 8" reading of Romans 7 as being about man before the grace of the cross. One may presume this was the sort of reading Augustine had imbibed early in his Christian life and which he later repudiated.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

More on the Pope's Regensburg Address

(Continued from here)

Since Eric Phillips has taken up the challenge of espousing the (more or less) anti-voluntaristic side here and here, I wanted to make it clear exactly what it is I am arguing. There's voluntarism and then there's voluntarism. I am only going to do this in relation to the Pope's speech since I would probably not be too coherent if I tried to do more.

First the context: the Pope is speaking about dialogue with non-Christian religions and philosophies on the basis of reason. This means that acceptance of the doctrine of the incarnation cannot be a basis of this dialogue, because those who accept the incarnation are Christians of one sort or another. What he has to proposing is that we can know theses like "God does not approve of coerced belief," "God does not approve of violence," etc., through our own ethical reason, and know them through our reasonable apprehension of God as He is in himself, apart from Christian faith. So when he writes:

God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.

-- I think there is a fatal ambiguity here.

"God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf" -- what does he mean by "revealed himself"? Become incarnate in Jesus Christ? Then I would agree, but such a statement is obviously useless for inter-religious dialogue, because those who can accept it are already Christians.

But if he means "revealed himself" to include "revealed himself" in nature, through philosophy, through general theistic revelations accepted by all believers in God, then I disagree: the God accessible to nature is only ambiguously, if at all, "acting lovingly on our behalf."

What does Paul say in Romans 1 is revealed by nature? "Even his eternal power and Godhead." And how are we to react? By glorifying Him as God and being thankful, and eschewing idolatry and immorality. Power and glory, above all. Indeed the natural concept of God, is that we should die for Him and by no means Him for us -- the latter is indeed absurd as our Muslim neighbors know so well. And while insincere, coerced thankfulness is definitely worse than sincere, coerced thankfulness, it is hardly obvious that it is not better than openly expressed rejection and contempt.

Let us argue from human reason to divine as the Pope calls on us to do: is it worse for someone to obey the laws and recognize sovereign authority sulkily and by threat of prison than willlingly and sincerely? Certainly. But for all that do we forego the use of force to compel those who reject sovereignty to recognize it by paying taxes, testifying in court, and obeying the commands of appointed agents from police men to airline flight attendants?

Do we allow people to say, "I will no longer pay taxes, because I have decided the government doesn't exist, and if it did, it would be unjust"? Of course not. Just so the Muslim argues, that while it would be nice if all were sincere Muslims, still it is our job, as God's appointed agents on earth, to at least suppress open contempt for and disobedience to Him. Such reasoning is perfectly coherent on the basis of God as creator, monarch, and sovereign.

It is, on the other hand, suddenly cast into the shade when God himself submits to the unjust and wicked decrees of His own creation -- but that's not something that can be said of a God approached solely through reason and analogy from human things.

Similarly, what is God's attitude toward His creation, seen in the light of reason and nature? I think Harriet Beecher Stowe put it best when she characterized it as a kind of general benevolence -- the world is indeed teeming with the life that He loves -- but exercised at a terrible cost in individual suffering, to which He often seems so callously indifferent. Or even more severely, here is what Luther wrote:

Behold! God governs the external affairs of the world in such a way that, if you regard and follow the judgment of human reason, you are forced to say, either that there is no God, or that God is unjust; as the poet said: 'I am often tempted to think there are no gods.' See the great prosperity of the wicked, and by contrast the great advesity of the good. Proverbs, and experience, the parent of proverbs, bear record that the more abandoned men are, the more successful they are. . . . Is it not, pray, universally held to most unjust that bad men should prosper, and good men be afflicted? Yet that is the way of the world. Hereupon some of the greatest minds have fallen into denying the existence of God, and imagining that Chance governs all things at random.

And here Luther cites not just Epicurus, but Pliny and Aristotle (two Greeks and a Roman) on the non-existence, or else indifference of God or the gods to human injustice.

And then there is of course the Biblical testimony of God's utter freedom and transcendence -- just to take a few:

And he said, I will make all My goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.

Lo, He goeth by me, and I see Him not: He passeth on also, but I perceive Him not. Behold, He taketh away, who can hinder Him? who will say unto Him, What doest thou? If God will not withdraw His anger, the proud helpers do stoop under Him.

All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; he doth according to his will in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou.

Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?

Is there anything in this with which a Muslim would disagree? Is there anything in this that is unreasonable, given the premises of theism? But let me ask the proponents of approaching God through human intellect -- is this the sort of thing you would chose to calm a raging mob intent of killing those they think (rightly or wrongly) to be idolators or blasphemers? Me neither.

About the arguments presented by Eric Phillips, one thing, historically, is clear: Luther was absolutely sure, every day of the week, that God in Himself, apart from the incarnation (whether accomplished or foreseen), as understood solely by human reasoning from the premises of theism and the facts we see around us, is something no man can see and live -- certainly not with any comfortable assurance that He is "acting lovingly on our behalf." I can say that without fear of blasphemy, because He Himself has said so.

And because another thing that is clear is that the Word of God Incarnate is absolutely trustworthy. Thus a Christian may be sure that God's promise, whether it be "in Isaac shall thy seed be called" or "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house" are sure and solid. So when Moses or Abraham plead the promises already given by the utterly free God, in foresight of the incarnation, they are doing rightly -- and still reserving their Lord's right to be utterly unbound by any mere conception we might have of Him, anything except His will in which He binds Himself.

So when God asks Abraham to sacrifice Himself, Abraham can think the promise already given must be sure. He can think "God will find some way to raise Isaac from the dead -- because He has freely given His promise." But what he can't do is reason with himself thus, that Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul; "God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably ("syn logo") is contrary to God's nature" and then refuse to perform His unreasonable command. At least he can't if he wishes to become the father of faith.

So what would I use to argue against religious violence, Muslim or otherwise? For a Christian there is sympathy for the shocking death of our Lord as an innocent victim accused of blasphemy -- but that is obviously worse than useless against a Muslim who see the very possibility of such a death of God at the hands of His creatures as blasphemous.

So I would turn instead to all the good arguments, mostly civil and prudential, proposed over the centuries for freedom of conscience and speech and that condemn vigilanteism and mob action. And I would remember that the Law that makes peoples' actions reasonable on the outside is different from the Gospel that makes peoples' hearts good on the inside, and leave each to do their proper job.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Can Predestination Be Preached?

The Ponitificator has a truly stellar post up on this problem in which he exactly recognizes the problem with predestination as a doctrine: that neither the Arminian/Molinists nor the Augustinians/Calvinists have found a way to preach that doctrine as good news, as Gospel, as something to be believed and trusted in and rested on. Building on the writings of James Daane, he points out the problem that no one preaches predestination because no one knows how to do it.

And when he speaks of preaching, the Pontificator rightly excludes apologetic lectures:

In the New Testament predestination is not so much a doctrine to be taught as good news to be proclaimed. When the Apostle Paul writes that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son … And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (Rom 8:29-30) he was not engaging in a bit of abstract theological speculation; he was proclaiming gospel to the believers in Rome and offering a powerful word of hope and encouragement. God has predestined you to glory! Therefore, you need not fear “trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword” (Rom 8:35). The biblical language of predestination is first- and second-person discourse. It is a way of speaking the gospel to those who have died with Christ in Baptism and been raised to new life in the Church. But this way of speaking the good news of Jesus has been effectively nullified by the transposition from proclamation to intellectual speculation. The doctrine of election has been divorced from the gospel; it has been divorced from Israel, Incarnation, and the Church.

Well, we Augsburg Evangelicals think we have a doctrine of predestination that avoids the Scylla of Arminianism and the Charybdis of Calvinism. (In fact, one might say we have two of them -- see here and here; more on the topic here, here, and here.) But in seven years sitting in Evangelical pulpits, I haven't heard predestination preached. This post of the Pontificators levies exactly the right challenge: if we have such a great teaching why don't we preach it? Is it because we can't make it sound like Good News? And if that's the case, then we have a problem.

Can we live up to this challenge? Do any readers have any examples of Augsburg Evangelical preaching on predestination that is authentically good news -- whether they heard it or preached it?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Ghazan Khan on Idolatry (of the Buddhist Sort)

Once in private [Ghazan Khan*] said to this humble servant, the writer of this book [Rashiduddin Fazlullah]:

There are some sins that God will not forgive. The greatest of those is for someone to place his head on the ground before an idol -- for that there will be absolutely no forgiveness. The poor people are caught up in ignorance in placing their heads on the ground before idols, and I too was like that. However, God gave me illumination and comprehension, and I was delivered and purified by God of that sin. The gist of these words is that there is nothing that will take a person to hell as easily as ignorance; rather ignorance is a hell one cannot get out of. How can the mind accept that a person should place his head on the ground before an inanimate object? Such a motion is a sign of sheer ignorance.

Originally idolaters said, 'There was a perfect individual but he passed away.
[As usual in medieval sources, 'idolater' here means Buddhist, and Ghazan Khan is thinking of the Buddha, whom he worshipped in his youth.] We have made an image of him, and we set it up as a reminder. We recollect him in order to seek help from his psychic power, and we take refuge in him, worship him, and prostrate ourselves before him.' All the while they were ignorant of the fact that when that person was alive, when that which is the germ of humanity was still together with his body, he never desired any such thing and never allowed anyone to place his head on the ground in front of him lest conceit and self-aggrandizement be born in himself. Therefore when they worship him and prostrate themselves to seek help from his psychic power, how can his soul possibly be content to have those people place their heads on the ground before an image of his body. Even if they have good intentions for his psychic power -- and let us imagine that there is some trace of that power -- assuredly it would be a bad and unhappy psyche, not a good and happy one.

Furthermore, one should know as a given truth that the body has no importance, and therebey one may forget to love one's own body. One should also know that what will depart from this body is one's essence. One should therefore contemplate just what it is that will depart, where it will go, and how it will remain. If one thinks of that thing, that place, and that state, as a consequence one may come to know them. When one believes in a form made in the shape of a body and bows down before it, one cannot think about or seek the essence that is paradise itself. Quite the opposite, one inclines to that which is the lowest depth of sheer hell. The more one thinks about it, the more one realizes that the only use an idol has is to be turned into a threshold so that people will step on it coming and going in order that the spirit of which this thing is supposed to be the body will be content with them because it will be thinking, 'While I was in this world I attained perfect humility; after my departure the form of the body is also in that state.' It will also be thinkiing, 'My sould had such perfection. Its body has turned to dust and is worthy of being a threshold to be stepped on.'

For us who have no such perfection, how will our bodies be? One should detach one's heart from the body's condition altogether and think about the next world, pure stages, and the conditions of holy spirits. Let one constantly think about those states so that perhaps one may attain something of that which is reality, so that there may be some benefit to one's having come into the world, so that one may attain some perfection, since the goal of creation is for one to go from the world of darkness into the world of light.

Why have I posted this? First, because while I was in China, Buriatia, and Mongolia, I saw the rapidly reviving Buddhism (not to speak of shamanism) among many dear friends and acquaintances. Well, here I will let a Mongolian, a descendant of Genghis Khan, express his opinion about all this.

Secondly, with regard to Pope Benedict's recent speech, many have argued that "in Islam" God is completely above and separate from reason, that God could order idolatry if he pleases, whereas "in Christianity" reason and faith are congruent and any form of voluntarism (the idea that something is right or wrong simply because God wills it or forbids it) is of course rejected with horror.

The Pope himself cites Western students of Islam thus: The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry.

Far be it from me to deny that there have been many Muslim thinkers who expressed this idea of God's complete transcendence and freedom. Indeed Ibn Taymiyya, one of the favorite writers of Islamists today, specifically rejected the conversion of Mongols like Ghazan Khan because, he said, they rejected idolatry and embraced Islam not because God commanded it, but because Islam seemed more reasonable to them than idolatry. To his mind this was a bogus conversion. But actually Ibn Taymiyya was a fanatic of little influence in his time and his viewpoints were rather transparently linked to the foreign policy aims of the Mamluk Egyptian regime he served.

But as the citation from Ghazan Khan, endorsed by Rashiduddin Fazlullah -- one of the great world historians -- shows, there is indeed a different tradition of Islamic thought that is not voluntarist, seeing reason and faith as congruent.

And Evangelicals should of course remember that there is a different tradition of Christian thought that is volutarist and sees reason and faith as often violently in conflict. They should also remember that one of the great writers in this voluntarist tradition was Martin Luther. And of course the Pope's aim in criticizing late medieval voluntarism is to implicitly link it to our Evangelical faith as another form of irrational religion.

So of course I find it grotesque that an academic citation of a fourteenth-fifteenth century writer should provoke demonstrations and demands for an apology -- particularly from the sort of people who say and do much worse toward other religions every day. I agree with those who see these demonstrations as the expression of weak and brittle faith in the Islamic world. I hope the Pope is not intimidated into some sort of groveling apology.

But among ourselves, what bothers me about the Pope's statement is that his generalizations about Islam are intended to serve a particular partisan interpretation of Christianity (big surprise that, no?) and the relation of reason and revelation.

The Pope writes: The vision of St. Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (cf. Acts 16:6-10) -- this vision can be interpreted as a "distillation" of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

Well, I suppose it can be so interpreted. But it can also be interpreted as the need for revelation to just replace an inquiry which despite its theoretical knowledge proved completely and utterly incapable of purifying its practicioners of even the grossest of sins (like idolatry and fornication -- see Romans 1). And one can ask, in the Christianity Pope Benedict here recommends is there any place for praising a man willing to sacrifice his own son in obedience to a divine command?

*More on Ghazan Khan and his historian Rashiduddin here and here. By the way, the name Rashiduddin is often (and more literally) written Rashid al-Din but pronounced Rah-SHEED-owed-DEEN.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

More on Luther, Augustine, Jerome, and Paul's Epistles

Sometimes one sets out to write a long series, and then doesn't follow through. Sometimes, however, one falls into a series without really realizing it. That's what's happened in this case, where I have started a series on Luther and Augustine's commentary's on Paul's epistles. In this series the guiding principle is one I enunciated quite a while ago: "I would like to suggest that one's interpretation of a relatively small number of Biblical passages will determine one's theology."

As I've looked through Luther's commentaries on Paul's epistles, I am repeatedly struck by how aware Luther was of the important changes in approach brought in by Augustine, and how important those actual changes were in making Luther's own approach possible. I gave an example below, with circumcision, where Augustine challenged Jerome and Origen's dominant interpretation (you might also want to check out this more recent post where I discuss a passage I should have discussed earlier). I'd like to give a few more examples with the issue of calendrical festivals and the "man of Romans 7."

For calendrical festivals the difficult passage was Galatians 4:10: Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.

For Augustine and Jerome, the problem here was that the church year seemed to be a similar form of observing days, months, times, and years (this passage is, of course, pay-dirt for Puritan exegetes defending the regulative principle). Augustine seems to have had some sense that since it is OK for us to observe our church year, then it should have been OK for the Jewish Christians to continue to observe their Mosaic church year. Hence he tended to think that can't be what Paul is prohibiting here. In meeting this problem, his early exposition was more ingenious than plausible. In his 1519 lectures on Genesis, Luther noted that:

St. Augustine wavers in his exposition of this passage. Yet he explains it in the light of the religious ceremonies of the Gentiles rather than in the light of those of the Jews. For he says that it is a very common error of the Gentiles that, as they conduct their affairs or look aheard to the outcomes of life and of their business concerns, they observe the days, months, seasons, and years designated by the astrologers and Chaldeans.

But as Luther notes, even Augustine couldn't really believe in this opinion, since it seems so obvious that the "times" in question should be Jewish. By contrast,

St. Jerome understands this passage simply and correctly as referring only to the Jews. "Days," he says, as Sabbaths and new moons; "months," however, as the first and seventh month; "seasons," as those in which they came to Jerusalem three times each year; "years," however, as the seventh, the year of release, and the fiftieth, which they called the year of jubilee.

Jerome also asks whether we, too, are in the clutches of the same fault, because we observe the fourth day of the week (Wednesday), the day of preparation (Friday), the Lord's Day, the forty-day fast season (Lent), Easter and Pentecost, and various seasons appointed in honor of the martyrs and differing from land to land. In answer he says, in the first place, that we do not observe the days of the Jews but observe other days.

Or, as the Didache (8:1) inimitably says:

Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.

("Well that explains it; fasting on Thursday is different -- totally -- from fasting on Friday.")

Here we see the idea that after the Resurrection, Jewish ceremonies are in some inherent sense fatal for the Christian.

But as Luther adds, Jerome has other explanations too:

Secondly that the days have been appointed, not to give greater distinction to the day on which we assemble but in order that faith in Christ may not be diminished by a disorderly assembly of the people.

Thirdly, Jerome says that actually now every day is a Lord's Day, a resurrection Sunday, a day of celebration, and the real change has been that by concession certain days have been disallowed, "for the sake of those who have more time for the world than for God." In other words, every day should be a monk's day, but as a concession to human weakness, laymen are allowed to spend non-feast days in worldly occupations.

Luther adds that in his time, there are far too many feast days. Not until the end of his commentary on this passage, though, does he hit the crucial issue of justification:

Circumcision as well as feast days contributed nothing at all to righteousness. Nor did the other things which [Paul] recounts in greater detail in Col. 2:16. Accordingly, they were not to be observed as necessary, certainly no more than our feast days confer righteousness on us when we observe them or other burdensome traditions. But our righteousness comes from faith in Christ, which is not produced by ceremonies but freely makes use of ceremonies out of love for God and one's neighbor . . .

In his 1535 Lectures, however, he puts this point right up front. After discussing the controversy of what days exactly were the Galatians observing, he writes:

But Paul is instructing the conscience. Therefore he is speaking, not about the Gentile practice of observing days, etc. [as Augustine might think], something that pertains only to the body, but about the Law of God and the observance of days, months, etc., according to the Law of Moses. In other words, he is speaking [as Jerome realized] about religious days, months, and seasons, which the Galatians were observing, on the basis of instruction by the false apostles, as a means of obtaining justification.

He then answers the question which Jerome had asked:

Here someone may say: "If the Galatians sinned in observing days and seasons, why is it not sinful for you to do the same?" I reply: We observe the Lord's Day, Christmas, Easter, and similar holidays in a way that is completely free. We do not burden consciences with these observances; nor do we teach, as did the false apostles, and as do the papists, that they are necessary for justification or that we can make satisfaction for our sins through them.

He then refers to a famous incident in church history, when the second-century bishop of Rome, Victor, excommunicated the Anatolian Christians for observing Easter on a different day. This debate and St. Irenaeus's remonstance against Pope Victor's actions, were important for the Augsburg Confession's discussion of church traditions in Article 26 (scroll down to lines 44-45). Luther comments:

It was the utmost madness to hand the churches of the East over to the devil on account of such a trifle [i.e. the date of Easter]. Therefore this knowledge about the observance of days and seasons was rare, even among great men. Jerome did not have it, and Augustine would not have understood it if he had not been troubled and provoked by the Pelagians.

I wonder what particular passages from Augustine Luther is referring to here. Perhaps he means the texts from Augustine's letters and On Christian Doctrine, which he and the Augsburg Confession liked to cite. In the Confession (again in article 26, lines 16-17), Melanchthon writes:

Thirdly, traditions brought great danger to consciences; for it was impossible to keep all traditions, and yet men judged these observances to be necessary acts of worship. . . . [But] Augustine also forbids that men's consciences should be burdened with such observances, and prudently advises [in his letter to] Januarius that he must know that they are to be observed as things indifferent; for such are his words.

Luther liked to cite Augustine's On Christian Doctrine III.9. In a discussion of signs and what they signified, Augustine wrote:

In these times, since there has been revealed to us a clear sign of our liberty in the Resurrection of the Lord, we are not heavily burdened with the use of certain signs whose meaning we understand; rather we have a few in place of many, which the teaching of the Lord and the Apostles has transmitted to us, and these are very easy to perform, very sublime in implication, and most upright in observance. Such are the sacrament of Baptism and the celebration of the Body and Blood of the Lord.

But even in the late Enchiridion (chapter 81), Augustine still referred to his old astrological interpretation of Galatians 4:10:

Certain things we may suppose to be trifling if the view of Scripture did not show them to be more serious. Who would think that the observation of days and months and years and seasons may be a grave sin -- as those people observe them, who are willing or unwilling to begin anything on certain days or months or years because according to worthless human teachings they reckon such times lucky or unlucky -- unless we weighed the seriousness of this evil from the anxiety of the Apostle, who tells such people, I am anxious about you, that my work for you may have been wasted (Gal. 4:11) .

So how did Luther read Galatians 4:10? He had to accept Jerome's insight that it is exactly Jewish dates which are in question, thus rejecting Augustine's astrology fixation. But he then had to find a proper explanation (in place of Jerome's patently inadequate ones) for why observing Jewish dates were bad without invalidating the Christian observance of the church year. Here Augustine's writings on circumcision, that focused on the intent of the observance, were crucial. But on the dating issue, Luther had to travel most of the distance himself.

Next up: "The Man of Romans 7"

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Do You Recognize These Flags of European Nations?

Probably not, right?

Here are some quotations for Daniel Kalder's The Lost Cosmonaut: Observations of an Anti-Tourist. The blurb calls it: "poetic and profane [not to say raunchy], hilarious and yet oddly heartwarming, bizarre and even educational" -- actually that's a pretty good description.

I like to read about the Kazan of old, of dreaming minarets and Asiatic bazaars, I do. But I'm glad it was destroyed.

If it existed today it would be a dilapidated heap, or a sterile heritage center, an empty shell that existed for tourists only, insipid and dull, like Prague. But the obliterated Kazan can never be visited, except in our imaginations, and thus it can never disappoint. It has a mythic power, a dreamlike power. Through annihilation it has been transubstantiated. And the pitiful squalor of the real Kazan only adds to the beauty and power of the unreal one (p. 51).

. . .

Apart from hair posters, there wasn't anything in the way of commercial advertising in Elista, not even one billboard for Coke. I noticed this on our last morning in the city, as we rode the taxi to Chess City. All the signs by the roadside were public announcements. They exhorted me to love Kalmykia, or to telephone my parents, or to play chess. Ilumzhinov was smiling at me, chess piece in hand, on that last one.

I have never been in an urban environment without advertising before. It was startling. It was eerie. Maybe, I thought, it was this absence that made Elista feel so much like the Twilight Zone. Without advertisements on the streets there was nothing to remind its citizens of the rest of the world. There was only the president's face and, just beyond the city, the eternal, identity-erasing steppe.

Suddenly I understood that an advert for a Sony TV isn't just an advert for a Sony TV. It's a reminder that there's a country called Japan, and there are links between your country and something outside itself. Advertising posters are portals to the beyond.

More than that, they assure us of the passage of time, that life changes, that old things die and are replaced with fresh one. No billboard stays up longer than a couple of months. As sure as the seasons pass it will vanish, and be replaced by another, and another/ And every time you look at a billboard, in the back of your mind, you are aware that it will soon vanish and be replaced with another one, more up to date.

Remove advertising posters and what you are left with are insincere public announcements that stay up for years, never changing, until they are all worn and peeling from the rain, wind, and sun. Only exposure to the elements brings them down. The graphics, meanwhile age even more badly and beome depressing reminders of a time when you were younger and stronger(p. 119).

. . .

Suddenly, Alexei's transformation from Soviet shock worker to pagan high priest made perfect sense. His remarkable story was in fact rather banal. His life was not so contradictory after all. There was a unifying theme: the drive for fame. He wanted to see his name in print. He wanted to be somebody. He had become high priest and see: a journalist from Scotland had come to see him! They knew about him even in faraway lands!

Alexei had made a mistake: he shouldn't have shown me the clippings. It made him seem smaller to me.

I didn't want that.

By smaller, however, understand that I mean human and flawed, that he was less of a miracle, that I could understand him. There had been a mystery; now there was not. I do not mean that I considered him a fraud, adopting the mantle of high priest solely to get the attention he craved. He believed in his gods with a simple, unanguished faith. That was obvious to me. But he also used them for his own unspiritual ends. He had taken his faith and manipulated it to satisfy a deeply felt need for attention and recognition. But that it was a genuine belief, I did not doubt.

However, when I got back to Moscow and told people about him the response was always the same: "Ah! So he just wanted to be famous."

This irritated me. It was so lacking in nuance, so lacking in sympathy. As if people wanted to negate him, to brush him aside. Ah! So that's what it's all about. He's not really a pagan. He doesn't really believe in all this strange stuff. Thus the unknown is banished and you are left with just a little lost man, a failure. The world becomes reasonable, comprehensible. The world becomes safe.

I found myself becoming defensive, protective of Alexei. But for some reason it was difficult to explain what I thought: that a man can believe bu exploit his faith; that he can love, but abuse his love. Surely that's obvious? (pp. 206-07).

. . .

In the modern world, however, it's forbidden to crush and absorb minorities entirely. Unless you're a psychotic third world dictator, and even then it's not really approved of. The Udmurt, then, I thought, are condemned to a long twilight. They will continue to assimilate, but they'll never be allowed to assimilate fully. There will always be the word "Udmurt" hanging over them, preventing them from identifying fully with the only culture they have: Russian. That is their destiny: even when they are no longer Udmurt, they will still be "Udmurt."

Suddenly, I felt very sympathetic toward this woman. I thanked her and smiled. She smiled back. I looked in her featuress for something I could recognize, something I could take away with me as Udmurt, as a sign of who she was. High cheekbones? Ginger hair?

There was nothing. Nothing at all (pp. 245-46).

. . .

I wasn't trying to get out of a tricky question, by the way. I had no advice. My answer disappointed here, however. Undaunted, Sveta took another stab at getting profundity out of me.

"OK . . but, Daniel -- you've traveled around Russia."

"I have."

"You've seen the way we live."


"Then . . . why? Why is Russia like this? Why is it so backward? Why isn't it a normal European country?"

Sveta had surprised me again. This honest expression of self-loathing was something I had forgotten about. In the UK we don't like to air our despair openly. Especially in front of strangers. But Sveta had laid it on me. In all the cities I'd visited: Kazan, Elista, Mari El, and now Izhevsk. Why? Why were they so . . . rubbish?

Again, I was conscious of the assembled people of Udmurtia watching me, waiting for my answer. Yes, I was a wise man. I was somebody. I was a foreign journalist. My opinions mattered. Bulls***t.

Sveta had really set me up. I hesitated, but I didn't have time to think. I told the truth.

"You know, years ago, before the collapse of the Soviet Union there were schools of Sovietologists in the universities of the West, and they spent their whole lives studying Russia and the Soviet Union. Their whole lives. And do you know: not one of those 'experts' predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not one. As for me, I've been in Russia for only seven years . . . what can I say? I think I am only beginning to understand your country."

Yes, I thought. That's nice. That'll flatter them.

"Oh," said Sveta (pp. 270-71).

I haven't been to any of the places Daniel Kalder went to, but I can sense that much learning and research went into his seeing what was in front of his nose in various corners of multi-ethnic Russia. A rare and wonderful book.

P.S. The flags, in order, are of Udmurtia, Mari El, Kalmykia, and Tatarstan.


Jerome and Augustine Again

If there is one thing I try to emphasize with my students, it is that information in literary sources needs to be read and understood in context. If some Chinese historian writes about the Huns (Xiongnu), for example, you need to understand that in the light of his whole historical argument. And that will usually involve reading the whole book, not just strip-mining it for useful quotations. And sometimes as you read the whole book, you come across interesting passages that you otherwise would have missed.

I came across an example of this recently as well. While finally getting around to actually reading Bede's florilegium of Augustine passages commenting on the epistles of Paul (I'd bogged down in Romans for a while), I came across this passage from one of his letters to Jerome that is the best expression of some of the points I've been trying to make in my on-going posts on Biblical interpretation.

It occurs on pp. 222-23 of Excerpts from the Works of St. Augustine on the Letters of the Blessed Apostle Paul, and is on Gal. 5:18:

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are no longer under the law.
What is being under the law in the way the Apostle finds faulty may be seems to me an important question. I do not believe [here he contrasts his view with that of Jerome, to whom he was writing] that he said this on account of circumcision, or the sacrifices once made by our ancestors, but not now made by Christians, or other things of this kind, but on account of this saying of the law, 'You shall not covet.' This I grant Christians definitely must observe, and must preach with all the light the gospel sheds on it.

In other words, the law that Paul is saying doesn't justify is precisely the law that Christians must observe, not some other, obsolete, law.

The words of the law, 'You shall not covet,' bind a guilty person under it, and, if human weakness is not aided by God's grace, rather condemn a transgressor than set a sinner free. How much less, then, could those things commanded because of what they pointed to -- circumcision and the rest, which had to be abolished while the revelation of grace was becoming more widely known -- justify anyone?

Once law is redefined in this way, then circumcision is seen as not something bad in itself. It's not a question of good laws versus bad ones, but of the general problem with law as a category. Even so, Augustine does not envision a church with permanent religious-cultural* diversity:

And yet they [i.e. Mosaic rituals] were not for this reason to be shunned, as if they were the diabolical sacrileges of the nations, even while the grace that such signs foreshadowed was beginning to be revealed. They were to be allowed for a while, especially to those who had come from that nation [of the Jews]. Later on, however, they were to be honorably buried, so to speak, by all Christians, and given up without blame.

So eventually, mature Christianity will lead to ritual conformity and the "honorable burial" of all religious culture that diverges from the mainstream. As I have said before, this is part of the way, but still considerably short of where Luther and the Evangelical Reformation put the question of liturgical/ritual diversity.

*On this term, which I prefer to the nihilistic-sounding adiaphora, see here.

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