The Main Obstacle to Religious Freedom

This past week my wife and I had the chance to attend the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, DC. It was an interesting conference on a subject that gets the short shrift these days. In attendance were representatives of several religions including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and many others. The fact that any kind of consensus is emerging on this topic on with this broad of an audience is encouraging.

One of those groups represented was Ahmadiyya Islam. I got to spend some time with these people. I have been intrigued with this group ever since I discovered that these people believe that the Qur’an teaches that Jesus really died on the Cross and was brought back to life. What happened to Jesus after that is where we part company, but to make this claim is a bold one in an Islamic context. Making the claim that Muhammad was not the final prophet is a bold one too, and one which has made them a stench in the nostrils of (particularly) Sunni Islam, with persecution following. Thus, their interest in religious freedom is more than academic, to say the least.

In the course of our conversation I brought up a question that should have gotten more interest at the conference: why are so many averse to the whole concept of religious freedom? My explanation of this follows.

All religion is concerned with going beyond this life. How this happens varies from one to another. In the case of Islam and Christianity, the choice is the same: it is the means that differs so sharply, and with that the results. But ultimately religious people look at life as transcending the limitations of our mortality.

Today we have an elite which is deeply corporatist and desirous to maintain control over the situation and to perpetuate their primacy. I’ve characterised their priorities as getting laid, high or drunk, and their desire is to limit those whom they feel are under them to do the same. If they succeed, then the people’s vision is limited to what they place in front of them: there is no beyond. It’s the mentality of “Imagine” imposed by this corporatist bunch, not just a bunch of superannuated hippies out for a good time.

Religious people throw a monkey wrench into all this by proclaiming that there is a beyond, there is a higher power of some kind that transcends this life. This is a threat to those who rule: it means that they are not the ones that ultimately make the rules or determine the final destiny over those whom they control. This they cannot stand. If they make an alliance with a religion, it means that they feel that its adherents and leadership can be controlled. In the old Soviet Union, the Communists did a pretty good job doing just that with Islam in Central Asia; they managed to keep a lid on things without forcing all of them to become atheists. But times have changed, which is why we’re seeing the brutal crackdown on the Uygurs in Xinjiang.

This is why religious freedom is in such a parlous state these days. Our elites do not want us to see beyond them, and as long as we do they will attempt to punish us.

The Reformed vs. Athanasian/Nicene Approach to God

An interesting comparison by Bobby Grow:

Scholastic Reformed theologians claim to be in line with Nicene theology proper. But when you read scholastic Reformed theology, particularly their confessions, what becomes immediately apparent is that scholastic Reformed theology operates out of the apophatic ‘negative’ and/or speculative tradition for thinking a doctrine of God (and Christ); whereas Nicene theology thinks from cataphatic ‘positive’ and/or revealed theology for thinking God. By way of prolegomena or theological methodology this places Niceno-Constantinopolitano theology at loggerheads with something like we see in the scholastically Reformed Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF).

First, the Reformed theologians aren’t the only ones working in an apophatic tradition. Moses Maimonides did likewise, and his contribution is certainly valued by Aquinas and myself.

Second, I am inclined to think that Grow is right on this point. As frequent visitors to this site will attest, I’m not much on Reformed theology in any form, and as the years pass I get progressively sourer on the subject. Pieces like this only justify my antipathy.

Third, I think it’s fair to say that Scholastic theology, of which I am an enthusiastic student, started to go downhill after Aquinas, which is the opposite of the narrative that, say, Francis Schaffer was so enamoured with. The idea of a “Reformed Scholasticism” is somewhere between an oxymoron and a sign of the decline that began years before Calvin and Luther.

Fourth, I wonder if this apophatic aspect of Reformed scholasticism made it easy for the Sydney Anglicans to come up with their lame idea of functional subordination in the Trinity without essential subordination. That’s just speculation on my part.

The one part I’m not so sure about is this:

But this is to our point: to think God from speculative philosophical notions, as the Arians and Homoiousions did, only leads to unbiblical conclusions, and thus grammar about who God is; indeed, it thinks of God in terms of whatness rather than whoness as a first-step. Athanasius, and the Nicene theology he helped develop, repudiated thinking God from Hellenic frames of reference, and instead allowed God’s Self-revelation in the Son, Jesus Christ, to shape the way he, and the other Nicenes, thought God.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the whole Arian controversy ran in the context of Greek philosophy. Athanasius and his homoousion colleagues simply did a better job aligning it with the Scriptures. It was ultimately beyond the ken of Greek philosophy to explain essential subordination in the triune Godhead, but I think that problem can be solved.

David Bentley Hart’s Lonely, Last Stand for Christian Universalism

Clip source: David Bentley Hart’s Lonely, Last Stand for Christian Universalism David Bentley Hart’s Lonely, Last Stand for Christian Universalism A Review of ‘That All Shall Be Saved’ October 2, 2019 | Michael McClymond For those not already acquainted with him, David Bentley Hart of the University of Notre Dame is widely regarded as one…

David Bentley Hart’s Lonely, Last Stand for Christian Universalism

Things Going Your Way? A Holy Week Reflection

Many of you know that I used to work for the Church of God Department of Lay Ministries.  One of my colleagues, who did most of the graphic design work, was a good friend in addition to being a coworker.  Sometimes he’d greet me with the phrase, “Things going your way?”

It’s an easy way to say “how are you” because you just assume that, if things are going your way, they’re good.  But the more I think about it the more I realise that there’s something missing here.  The assumption that, if things are going your way they’re going the way they should, needs some review.  I was raised in an environment where I was told that it really didn’t matter whether things went your way or not; you just dealt with what was thrown at you.  Finding out that much of the world doesn’t see it that way–especially Christians–has been a life long struggle.

No where is this more evident than full gospel Christianity, with prosperity teaching following.  The idea is very current that, if you’re in God’s will, things will be going your way.  If they’re not, something is wrong with you.  Many people who experience adversity decide that it isn’t them, and that’s the unrolling theodicy disaster we’re seeing now.  The practical application of this is that people–Christians and others–are conditioned to go to pieces when things don’t go their way.  We’ve seen this play out in the past year with the COVID pandemic, but it antedates that.  This kind of attitude makes life in the U.S. very difficult to endure.

Such an attitude is profoundly unBiblical, and the whole story of the Passion and what follows shows this.  From Palm Sunday things go downhill for Our Lord.  First Judas sneaks off, first to make the deal with the Jewish leadership and then to make good on that deal.  The other disciples are erratic at best; they can’t stay awake when Our Lord needs them the most and bail on him when the going gets tough.  He endures gruesome torture and ultimately death by crucifixion, taunted by things like this: “He saved others, but he cannot save himself! He is the ‘King of Israel’! Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He has trusted in God; if God wants him, let him deliver him now; for he said ‘I am God’s Son.'” (Matthew 27:42-43 TCNT)

But then things change: he rises from the dead, turns disciples into apostles by commissioning them to take the good news to the world, ascends into heaven, and sends the Holy Spirit to start the church.  (The church, sadly, has tried to do the job without the Paraclete, and has the results to show it.)

The lesson of this is simple: just because things aren’t going your way just now doesn’t mean that they aren’t going God’s way.  Our first objective in our walk with God is to follow him, not to expect him to follow us.  When we do that we can find the happiness he has for us, both here and on the other side.

US Christians increasingly departing from core truths of Christian worldview, survey finds

A new survey shows that the majority of Americans no longer believe that Jesus is the path to salvation and instead believe that being a good person is sufficient.

As part of the ongoing release of the Arizona Christian University-based Cultural Research Center’s American Worldview Inventory, the latest findings — exploring perceptions of sin and salvation — from George Barna, the group’s director, show that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that having some kind of faith is more important than the particular faith with which someone aligns…

US Christians increasingly departing from core truths of Christian worldview, survey finds

A Good Place for Lent

Over the years, I’ve noticed that some people take a break for Lent on social media.  Some of that is to avoid the dumpster fire that social media is and has been for a long time, and that’s understandable.  On the flip side, some want to take a break from putting out content and concentrating on what they’re supposed to be concentrating on.

I’ve always had trouble doing that, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that stuff happens during Lent and some of it needs to be commented upon.  (Some doesn’t.)  But I think the best thing to do is to put out stuff that is edifying, uplifting and makes for introspection.  The one site that I can guarantee does that all year around is the Bossuet Project.  The heart of the project is translating Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries and, in addition to the elevations already there, during Lent this year I’ll be putting up “Elevations on Prophecies,” which deal with the subject in the Old Testament and how it relates to the new.

You can subscribe to the Bossuet Project by clicking the link on the right hand side of any page.  Blessings!

Is the “Classic” Concept of Original Sin Based on a Mistranslation?

An intriguing suggestion from J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines.  First, concerning Ambrosiaster’s influential Commentary on Romans:

Ambrosiaster’s teaching is particularly note­worthy because it relies on an exegesis of Rom. 5, 12 which, though mistaken and based on a false reading, was to become the pivot of the doctrine of original sin. In the Greek St. Paul’s text runs, ‘…so death passed to all men inasmuch as (εφ ω) all sinned’; but the Old Latin version which Ambrosiaster used had the faulty translation ‘…in whom (in quo) all sinned’. Hence we find him  commenting, ‘”In whom”, that is, in Adam, “all sinned.” He said, “In whom”, in the masculine, although speaking about the woman, because his reference was to the race, not the sex. It is therefore plain that all men sinned in Adam as in a lump (quasi in massa). For Adam himself was corrupted by sin, and all whom he begat were born under sin. Thus we are all sinners from him, since we all derive from him.’ (p. 354, quote from Ambrosiaster’s Commentary on Romans, 5,12)

And Augustine:

So Augustine has no doubt of the reality of original sin. Genesis apart, he finds Scriptural proof of it in Ps. 51, Job and Eph. 2, 3, but above all in Rom. 5, 12 (where, like Ambrosi­aster, he reads ‘in whom’) and John 3, 3-5. The Church’s tradition, too, he is satisfied, is unanimously in favour of it, and he marshals an array of patristic evidence to convince Julian of Eclanum of this. The practice of baptizing infants with exorcisms and a solemn renunciation of the Devil was in his eyes proof positive that even they were infected with sin. Finally, the general wretchedness of man’s lot and his enslavement to his desires seemed to clinch the matter. Like others before him, he believed that the taint was propagated from parent to child by the physical act of generation, or rather as the result of the carnal excitement which accompanied it and was present, he noticed, in the sexual intercourse even of baptized persons. As we have seen, Augustine was divided in mind between the traducianist and various forms of the creationist theory of the soul’s origin. If the former is right, original sin passes to us directly from our parents; if the latter, the freshly created soul becomes soiled as it enters the body. (p. 363)

There are a couple of things that need to be noted about this.

First, although Kelly places the mistranslation with the Old Latin version, the Vulgate is no different.  That in part is because the Vulgate translation of the New Testament isn’t really a fresh translation (unlike the Old Testament, where Jerome did so from the original Hebrew) but a revision of the Old Latin.

Second, there’s no doubt that the Church Fathers all taught that the Fall was a disaster and left us in a sinfully impaired state.  The issue here is how that disaster has been propagated.  Ambrosiaster and Augustine were of the idea that Adam’s sin was directly passed from parent to child, based on the reading from the Old Latin.  (Ambrosiaster’s expansion into “gender-neutral” territory is an interesting aspect of his teaching.)  That has influenced many things in Christianity, from the Roman Catholic doctrine of Limbo to the insistence that infants be baptised.

As always, Bossuet has a full exposition of this idea, which you can find here.

The Polyepiscopacy of the Early Church

An intriguing (and sensible) suggestion from Trevor Gervase Jalland’s The Church and the Papacy:

Though there are, as we believe, adequate grounds for rejecting the view that Clement formally identifies episcopi with presbyters, yet in the face of this evidence it appears equally impossible to deny that he refers to the episcopate in a way that suggests that it was held by more than one person in a single community. It may be pointed out further that we are bound to infer from Clement’s description that the function of the episcopate at this time was purely and solely liturgical. Thus it may well be that his frequent use of liturgical language, to which commentators on this document repeatedly call attention, is due to his deep sense of the outrage which has been committed by unjustly depriving ministers of the liturgy of their peculiar office.

If it be asked how this plurality of the episcopate arose, it is impossible to offer more than conjecture in reply. It is probable from the evidence in Acts, I Corinthians and Romans that the primitive basis of Christian liturgical organization was the ‘house church’, such as that of Prisca at Rome. It is equally probable on the same evidence that in large centres of population such as Rome and Corinth, more than one such ‘house church’ would be acquired at an early date by rapidly expanding community. Now when an Apostle was present, to him would properly belong the privilege of ‘Breaking Bread’, as in Acts XIX. But to whom would it be assigned in the Apostle’s absence? The natural inference from Clement, who evidently refers to established and recognized custom, is that it would be given to an episcopus, and thus a plurality of house churches would at first naturally lead to a plurality of episcopi. (p. 80)

Jalland goes on to describe how this polyepiscopate morphed into the “monoepiscopate” normative in Anglicanism (well, sort of,) Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  But his concept solves many of the problems in sorting out the leadership offices described in the New Testament and shortly afterwards.

What Jalland is describing is what has come back as a kind of cell group system.  And, when I read this, I said to myself, “Score one for those in the Church of God who wanted to call the highest ministerial rank ‘bishop’ and not just those who supervise a region.”

Jalland also assumes that these bishops had liturgical duties from the beginning, and the whole idea of liturgical worship in the New Testament church is a complete freak-out for much of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity.