Saturday, February 25, 2012

Posts About Dead People: An Essay on Augustine

I had to write a paper for class arguing for the event in the history of the Church that I believe to be most significant in the formation of the contemporary church. I chose Augustine's conversion and teachings. After some thinking about the subject, it seemed to me the obvious choice. I have pasted in my paper below (sans notes and bibliography--because nobody really cares about plagiarism anyway) in the off chance that someone might actually want to read such a thing and because it's my blog and I can do what I want. The people who might find this interesting are Tim that's probably it.

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The Most Influential Event in the History of the Church:
The Conversion and Teachings of Augustine of Hippo

         Aside from Christ, Augustine of Hippo might well be the most influential person in the history of the Church. While the New Testament canon, especially the Pauline epistles, are officially recognized as the authoritative foundation of church theology, the thinking of Augustine is perhaps more readily appealed to for understanding several areas of doctrine and is more tacitly present in the thinking of the Church today. The Roman Catholic Church readily accepts the concept that tradition formed by the fathers throughout history is authoritative. Remarkably, in much of the Protestant world Augustine's influence is likewise accepted as if having special authority, although such a claim would not be readily agreed upon by most Protestants. The influence of Augustine somehow spans the doctrinal divide of the Protestant Reformation. Every significant movement in the Western church either assumes Augustinian thinking or directly appeals to it. What the modern church would look like if it were absent of Augustine's influence is not immediately apparent, but we can be confident that across the entire breadth of the Western church—and to some extent the Eastern church—orthodoxy as it is variously held would be dramatically different had this 4th century rhetorician and philosopher not converted to Christianity. There is a broad and expressive testimony among church historians about the impact of Augustine's ideas. This paper will look at the historical event of Augustine's conversion and present a small yet broad sample of the strong opinions from various scholars and church leaders about the value of his contribution in forming the modern church's perception of itself. 
            The world during Augustine's life was undergoing massive change. For the Church this transition was a passage from its origin as an obscure but growing Jewish sect to an established and institutional force in the world. Constantine legalized and legitimized Christianity in the empire a generation prior to Augustine. Before Augustine's death the world would see the destruction of Rome by the Goths. Between Constantine's reign and Rome's fall there was a continual yet varying tension between the Church, the pagan Romans, and the Roman government. Christianity was growing in a way that was previously unknown to the Church. The faith of our fathers was tested by the relative comfort and acceptance of the era. There were many theological issues raised during this period. Withinthe Church, due to an increase in the opportunity for contemplation, controversy and schism arose (e.g. Arius, Pelagius, and the Donatists). There were also challenging outside religious movements (e.g. Manichaeism). Rome was on a course leading to destruction, and the identity of the Church was becoming fatefully entwined with the Empire.
            Such was the world that welcomed Augustine. As Justo Gonzales records in The Story of Christianity, Augustine was born in Northern Africa in A.D. 354. He was an intellectually gifted child and his parents wanted to provide him with a quality education. Augustine's academic career brought him to Carthage as a young man where he pursued rhetoric, philosophy, and women. Unable to accept the Christian faith of his mother, Augustine adhered to Manichaeism—a young, Gnostic and dualistic religion of Persian origin. Finding shortcomings in Manichean beliefs, Augustine eventually followed the philosophical teachings of Neo-Platonism, which was also a Gnostic-like teaching with many similarities to ideas that we might today associate with the Eastern pantheistic religions. Later in life, while working in Milan as a professor of Rhetoric, Augustine's mother convinced him to attend the preaching of Aurelius Ambrosius, the local Bishop. It was through these sermons and through watching influential acquaintances abdicate their pagan religion for Christianity that Augustine was led to eventually confront the God that he had been avoiding.
            What might be the most significant event in the history of the post-apostolic church happened in a garden in Milan in A.D. 386. Urged forward by his lifelong search for the truth, Augustine wrestled with God and walked out of his garden as a convert to the Christian faith. His actions evidenced that he was truly a new man. Giving up his profession as a professor of rhetoric, Augustine settled into a monastic lifestyle back in North Africa. Through a series of events and against his intentions, Augustine came to serve as the Bishop of Hippo, another city in North Africa. It was during this time that Augustine penned his most influential works and set a course for the Church that would form the thinking of Christians to this day.

            The significance of Augustine's work in the modern church, especially in the Western world, cannot be understated. Much of his success, if not seen as a direct result of the divine sovereignty of God, likely rested on his gifting as a philosopher and rhetorician. Gonzalez states it this way: “Throughout the Middle Ages, no theologian was quoted more often than he was, and he thus became one of the great doctors of the Roman Catholic Church. But he was also the favorite theologian of the great Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century. Thus, Augustine, variously interpreted, has become the most influential theologian in the entire Western church, both Protestant and Catholic.” And John Piper, a leading figure in the resurgence of Reformed Theology in America, says in his three part biography: “From this platform in North Africa, and through his remarkable faithfulness in formulating and defending the Christian faith for his generation, Augustine shaped the history of the Christian church. His influence in the Western world is simply staggering.”
            Some of Augustine's contributions to the Church were unique articulations of innovative doctrines. Where Augustine was not outlining new teaching he was reinforcing and strengthening older ones. Ideas such as classical theism, original sin, infant baptism, ammillennialsm/postmillenialism, and just war theory have benefited from Augustine's influence. Although it is unlikely that anyone would ever admit Augustine's authority to be on par with that of the original Apostles and authors of the New Testament, Augustinian ideas permeate the thinking of modern Christians both overtly and latently to such a degree that we are regularly impacted by his teachings in even the most subtle ways. To some extent, Christians undoubtedly read scripture through an Augustinian filter—so that even the interpretation of Paul's epistles is predicated upon Augustinian traditions and assumptions. This is not so surprising for the Roman Church when considering the significance that tradition has in her formation of doctrine. However, it is a more perplexing point for the Protestant Church—which historically prides itself upon the motto sola scriptura. Nevertheless, Augustine has had a profound and lasting impact on the whole Western church.
            Augustine uniquely impacted the Church of the Middle Ages and the Church of the Reformation in different ways. The dramatic histories of those periods carry through to us today both the heritage of their occasions and also a more direct Augustinian influence. Peter Brown, in his biography of Augustine, points out that, “It is no coincidence that these two themes (his doctrine of grace and his notion of the Church) were the two major preoccupations of Augustine's life in which he seemed to have turned his face most directly towards the future. They pointed toward the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, to the crisis of grace and freedom in the Reformation and to the laicized sequels of that crisis in modern times.” Augustine's impact in the Roman Church is perhaps most obvious in its ecclesiological distinctions. His City of God is certainly visible in the catholic, supranational, and pilgrim characteristics of the Church. Out of the ashes of Rome and through his struggle to defend Christianity against its detractors, Augustine contributed to an understanding of the function and identity of church that likely led directly to the strong, formal institution that arose in the vacuum of Rome's absence. This must have had a direct impact on the ability of the Church to survive throughout the following Medieval Age.
Augustine's defense of the Church's right to coerce heretics as well as his views on just war foreshadow the Inquisition of the 12th century and other controversial episodes in church history.   Brown states that, “In fact, Augustine had already moved half of the way towards accepting coercion asa means of solving the Donatist schism; and the new circumstances created by the Edict merely crystallized an attitude which had been evolving for a long time....Augustine, in replying to his persistent critics, wrote the only full justification, in the history of the Early Church, of the right of the state to suppress non-Catholics.” And Gonzales, writing on the effect of Just War Theory, said, “The second condition is that a just war must be waged by properly instituted authority....this principle would be applied by the powerful in order to claim that they had the right to make war on the powerless, but that the opposite was not true.” The impact of such ideas can also be seen throughout the Reformation in the words and actions of Calvin, Zwingli, and Luther toward the dissidents of their movement. Of course this sort of activity does not have a formal place within the Roman or Protestant Church today, but the memory of these historical events have a lasting impact on the legacy of the Church.
            The Reformation also carried with it a rich Augustinian tradition. As already stated, the reformer's articulation of the doctrines of Grace is a direct connection to Augustine's ideas. Hilmar M. Pabel notes Augustine's impact on Luther: “Scholarship has signaled Augustine's influence on Protestant reformers, especially Martin Luther....In 1517, after formulating the doctrine of justification by faith alone through a reading of St. Paul supported by a study of Augustine, Luther equated his own theology with Augustine's.” The famous (or infamous) soteriological system named for John Calvin was first articulated by Augustine more than a millennium earlier. In Anthony Lane’s biography of John Calvin, the source of Calvin’s theological inspiration is highlighted: “Calvin held Augustine in the highest regard. He was very reluctant to depart from Augustine in doctrinal matters, or at least to admit it. He made sweeping claims to the support of Augustine....Calvin's teaching was to a considerable extent, if not to the extent that he actually claimed, a revival of Augustinianism, and it is natural therefore that he should have felt inclined to give considerable authority to Augustine.” Calvinist doctrine was a predominant aspect of the Great Awakening and the early spread of Christianity throughout America. Even of those sects of the Protestant Church that do not espouse Calvinism today, few are truly absent of at least some of its distinctive doctrinal points. So we see that Augustine's influence on the whole of the Western church is extensive.
            A much longer treatment of the manifold ways that Augustine has influence the Church, both Roman and Protestant alike, is more appropriate for such a dense subject. Most of the ways we experience Augustine's thinking are likely too subtle or too embedded in our presumptions and dogma to be easily discernible. There are many critical points throughout the history of the Church which are worth considering as the most influential: e.g. the transition from the Apostles to the apostolic fathers, the rise of Constantine, the Crusades, the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and the spread of Christianity in the New World. However, none of those, with the exception of the age of the Apostolic Fathers and Constantine, would have likely been what they were without the influence of Augustine. His impact is active in the Church down to this very day. The modern church, across the board, is in many ways an Augustinian church. The Church, and the whole of western society, would not be the same without him.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Why You Should Vote for Ron Paul (Episode 2): The Republican Exploitation of Evangelicals

If you are a Christian and you've followed Ron Paul for any length of time then you will have noticed that he does not wear his faith in the way that America has come to expect from Republican politicians. If you have heard him speak of his faith at all, it was likely in only the most succinct manner. Where we are accustomed to seeing republicans desperately pandering and performing for the approval of the evangelical right, it is strange to have a serious candidate for the Republican party not selling his faith out for the sake of political gain. Even Mitt Romney is heard talking faith more than Paul, and Romney would likely prefer that the evangelical base forget about his religious distinctions.

For some reason this seems to cause a problem for many politically interested evangelicals. They have become accustomed to needing to hear all the right things out of a candidate's mouth. A successful prospect must one-up the other candidates with their sharp abortion rhetoric and they have to make strong verbal affirmations of support for traditional marriage (their own personal infidelities aside). They must somehow convey their harmonic love for God and country, and the more blurry the lines between the two the better. It is broadly understood that without these prerequisites a prospective office-holder cannot solidify the support of the evangelical base. Without the evangelic base there is hardly any expectation that a candidate can win. Jerry Falwell must be smiling in his grave.

However, all the rhetoric has proven time and time again to be almost worthless. There is a rough formula that republican candidates must follow if they hope for success, and this formula is basically a guideline for exploiting the willingly naive evangelical base. That is usually the extent to which republican candidates have any use for evangelical talking points: political gain. An outside observer might conclude that the abortion issue (which is only one aspect of a truly "pro-life" world view) and eradicating gayness or gay people are the two foundational aspects of the evangelical faith. There is certainly very little about their public conversation or behavior that would tip anyone off to something called the gospel. Even despite the actual actions of men in power, as long as they say the right words when they speak then evangelicals are happy to hold their pocket and dutifully follow wherever they lead. Lately that has lead to the evangelical right being complicit in unjust war, exploitation here and abroad, and a dismantlement of liberty.

Ron Paul (and libertarianism) offers evangelicals a way out of this political-ideological quagmire. He doesn't adhere to the republican formula for success because he isn't interested in simply using people in order to attain office. Politically, Paul is oriented around libertarianism which has a set of foundational premises that are used to guide decision making. In contrast, most politicians are aligned to a party (probably whichever one they deem most likely to succeed). Because political parties are not ideologically grounded, a party's stances change with the ebb of culture. This is why the republican party as a whole is not so much conservative as it is merely (maybe) less progressive than the democratic party.

Spiritually, Paul is oriented around Christ. If pressed, he is not ashamed to speak of his faith. However, he is aware of the way religion is used by politicians and seems to avoid even appearing to take part in that sort of evil. So for Republican evangelicals the choice comes down to Paul, who is a lifelong committed Christian with the character and behavior to prove it, or the rest of the Republican field, who--as it seems that everyone but the evangelical right realizes--are likely employing their faith as just one more political tool to capture the allegiance of a special interest.
I'm quite confident of which way the evangelical base will go. They care too much about rhetoric and speeches. They enjoy having their ears tickled and shy away from deep thinking. This is evidenced in many churches on Sunday morning where a shallow, seeker driven homily is the centerpiece of the service. We really like good-looking and well-spoken men telling us what we want to hear. And so the conversation coming from the evangelical world this political season about who to rally behind has been quite amusing. With Paul not allowed to be a viable option for them, the evangelicals are left to choose between a Roman Catholic missionary who happens to be running for president, a serial adulterer who became evangelical in college and then converted to the Roman Catholicism of his latest mistress/wife, and a standout former Mormon bishop and stake president. Considering that the average evangelical tends to consider LDS a cult and does not look much more favorably toward Roman Catholicism, I am sure that there will remain quite a circus within the evangelical political world as they continue to cycle back and forth deciding who among the three will be recognized as the best representative of evangelical faith and values.

Avoid the circus. Vote Ron Paul.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

God is Love

The first epistle of John emphasizes that God is love (ESV 1 John 4.8,16). Love is also fundamental to the Gospel. John writes that God's love was made manifest in the act of him sending his son into the world to bring us life (1 John 4.9) and that the very definition of love is found within the Christ's act of propitiation on our behalf (1 John 4.10). John expresses quite plainly that we who follow Jesus are to love one another (1 John 4.7), that loving others is intrinsic to knowing God (1 John 4:8), and that it is impossible to love God while hating your brother (1 John 4:20,21)--which was basically articulated in an even broader sense when it was earlier expressed by Jesus (Mat. 5:44,45).

So what's the problem with love? I'm thinking of the perspective that we (followers of Christ) sometimes tend towards when too much love is seen as a threat to other items of practicing our faith or other aspects of God's nature. If you have no idea what I'm referring to then good, maybe you haven't experienced this. But some of us sometimes seem to understand love as existing in a dichotomic tension with other virtues. For example, it might be thought that emphasizing (or overemphasizing) God's love tends to underemphasize his righteousness, judgement, or holiness. Focusing too much on God's love won't lead a person to fearful reverence, repentance, and right living is how the objection might go. But how can it be possible that God is love and the gospel is founded on love, yet if we thoroughly apply this truth we risk damaging our faith? And if too much love risks keeping people from repentance, what then are we to make of the notion that God apparently finds it worthwhile to employ kindness in the attempt to bring people to that end (Rom. 2.4)? It seems obvious to me that, to whatever extent our thoughts on love lead us to these conclusions, our thinking is wrong.

As we see in John's epistle, since God is love and love is fundamental to the gospel, obviously there is nothing wrong with it. It is without meaning to conclude that it can be over emphasized (1 Cor. 13.13). If God is love then love is a premise in every attribute and action of God. God's justice must exist not aside from love or contrary to it, but rather enveloped by it. In fearing God, as we rightfully should, our reverence is not for a malevolent, loveless being but for an awesome, powerful, perfectly holy God who nevertheless is still love.

But if that's so, what else could be the source of all the examples of compromise within the church? Don't failures on the part of the church to discipline its own members indicate too much love and not enough accountability? Don't all of the "hippie-spiritual" people out there just float along trumpeting love but yet living outside of Christ? No, that's not it at all. The problem is not an overemphasis, but a wrong emphasis and a wrong understanding of love.

When we as believers object to focusing "too much" on love we are failing to understand love according to a biblical worldview. When we equivocate on the meaning of love and hold closer to a secular, romanticized, folksy definition then we start to get confused. I'm not going to outline it in detail, but within the biblical framework we are to understand love as an action (Luke 6.27, Rom. 13.9,10), and in the context of our relationship with God that action is obedience to him (John 14.15-24). Likewise, as Gods love manifested itself as a sacrifice for the propitiation of our sins, likewise our love for one another should manifest itself sacrificially (John 15.13). Love is not affability, kindness, or a sentiment and in many contexts such things work against love. Love in the biblical context can require us to do very hard things, such as confronting someone about their destructive lifestyle (1 Cor. 5.1-5). Paul sees church discipline as being needed for the sake of the person being disciplined, or out of love for those involved (1 Cor. 5.5). It because of love that God disciplines those whom belong to him (Heb. 12.3-11).

So don't be afraid of love. Abide in it and love one another. In Christ we have the freedom and grace to do so because he first loved us.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

N.T. Wright on the Rapture

Just stumbled upon this. It's not very long. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Literal Word

        literal [ˈlɪtərəl]
        1. in exact accordance with or limited to the primary or explicit meaning of a word or text
        2. word for word
        3. dull, factual, or prosaic
        4. consisting of, concerning, or indicated by letters
        5. true; actual
        6. (Mathematics) Maths containing or using coefficients and constants represented by letters: ax2 + b is a literal expression  
        Compare numerical [3a]
        (Literary & Literary Critical Terms) Also called literal error a misprint or misspelling in a text
        [from Late Latin litterālis concerning letters, from Latin littera letter]
        literalness , literality [ˌlɪtəˈrælɪtɪ] n

For those who regularly engage in the bible and theology, you do not have to spend much time at all listening to church teachers and preachers before you will hear someone espousing the manifold virtues of a literal approach to biblical interpretation. Certain theological topics in particular attempt to rely heavily on the concept of employing a literal hermeneutic and the presumed merit of such an approach. I imagine that for many people the inherent wisdom of literal exegesis is too obvious to even think of it being soundly critiqued. Here is my critique:

A literal hermeneutic does not literally exist. With a little bit of examination I'm sure you'll see that the concept is actually rather absurd. An overwhelming amount of the bible would be rendered completely unintelligible if the words were understood literally. It is likely that one of the most common mistakes "young" bible readers make is to take passages or phrases that are idiomatic, allegorical, or symbolic, and attempt to understand them literally.

It is often said that the historical-grammatical approach is a literal hermeneutic, however it's self-evident that such a concept is necessarily false. By definition the historical-grammatical hermeneutic, which emphasizes the reading of text in lieu of the indigenous context, original intent, and unique genre of the particular passage in question, contradicts the idea of approaching the bible with consistent literalism. It is necessary to read Song of Solomon much differently than the way Leviticus should be read.

Now I know that this idea would probably produce a visceral reaction from some bible readers who have been taught that there is such a thing as a literal hermeneutic and that it is the only right way to read the bible. But I would truly enjoy meeting someone that actually consistently interpreted the bible literally and have them explain how they make sense of anything. For example, just within the sermon on the mount alone (Mathew 5) you would have to take away that...

    1.    You are composed of salt, as in the particular chemical compound (NaCl) useful for preserving food. (v13)
    2.    You are an actual light that emits photons and collectively you and other lights compose a city on an actual hill (which seemingly contradicts the first point). (v14)
    3.    If you have ever been brought to sin through visual stimuli, you are commanded to tear out the eye responsible and throw it away (no littering). (v29)
    4.    Ditto for your arm. (v30)
    5.    God actually sits on heaven (which we should perhaps expect to resemble a giant chair) not unlike how you are now sitting at your computer. He also rests his feet on the actual Earth. (v34, 35)

I hope the above list of interpretations are as obnoxious to you as they are to me, because they highlight the natural shortcoming an actual literal interpretation has. Obviously it would be impossible to render the Bible intelligibly this way, as the authors and characters used idioms, hyperbole, and poetic devices in common communication just as we do. But you are probably saying, "Boring Gabe, nobody actually reads the bible like this. This is nothing like what I mean when I say I read the bible literally". Of course it isn't what you mean, but the words we use are so very important. If our communication is reduced to some ugly amalgamation of broad equivocations than we will lose the very ability to meaningfully articulate the foundational tenants of our faith and the opportunity to have sensible and productive discourse with other people over differing views.

It seems to me that people usually intend one of two things when claiming to use a literal hermeneutic. The more ingenuous error happens when people say they read the bible literally but it is clear from how they speak that they actually intend to express their commitment to taking the bible very seriously. That is, that they sincerely believe the bible to teach the truth and they hold to the high virtue of employing the utmost sincerity in their commitment to an uncompromising application of biblical teaching to their personal lives. More specifically, they take the bible at its word on the miraculous and believe in the modern relevancy and everyday importance of the New Testament teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. This is a great position to have and I heartily encourage it, but it is a separate issue from whether or not the biblical text should literally be interpreted literally. For example, I believe that Jesus is rightly described as the sacrificed lamb of God in the 5th chapter of the Apocolypse, however I don't know anyone who expects to meet a bloody, mangled, wooly animal--one with seven horns and eyes no less!--when they one day come before the Christ.

The second manner of erring in the claim to a literal hermeneutic is, in my view, much more of a serious problem than the former example. It is particularly popular among some Christians to support their theological conclusions as superior based on the virtue of the supposed literal hermeneutic they are employing. It then becomes a matter of convenience to push forward a fallacious argument in order to dismiss other opinions: they read the bible the literal (right) way, other people are doing something less (e.g. spiritualizing or allegorizing) and they beg the question by asserting that every other approach is by definition wrong. The root problem with this is the misnomer of claiming literalism as a hermeneutic. They do not have any higher platform from which to disparage the non-literalism of others. They end up tending toward hypocrisy in so much as they wrongly criticize those they disagree with for not acquiescing to an impossible standard that they themselves do not actually uphold. This is often and perhaps most easily seen in debates on eschatology where one person declares their view more literal than the view of another person when in reality they have both taken some passages literally and some not. They simply disagree on what is literal and what is otherwise.

This is an important issue in theological discussion because carelessly disparaging the view of other people on faulty grounds leads to the dismissal of people who have different conclusions than us without caring to understand anything about them. This leads to increased disconnection and segregation within the body of Christ (not a literal term) and is unfair--even misleading--to those younger Christians that might be naive to the difference between their preacher/teacher's personal dogma and the methods of sound biblical exegesis. It is also a red-flag for the veracity of our own positions if the best polemic that can be mustered against other opinions is fundamentally false. Arguing from such a point is all around unproductive for everyone involved.

So let us dispose of claims to literal hermeneutics. Nobody actually uses one and there would not be any virtue in doing so. Read the bible as it was written to be read. We should recognize that when we disagree with someone because they read a certain passage non-literally that we have to actually deal with that passage on its own merits. Simply pointing out that they are not reading it literally without pointing out why the particular section in question should be understood literally is in no way a valid argument. Of course, anyone is free to disagree with me and I heartily invite your expressed dissent. If you have stumbled across this and you're wondering who I am and what authority I have to speak on this, be sure to understand that I am nobody of significance and I don't carry any special authority. However, I believe that the preceding argument is able to stand on its own legs (also not literal).