Monday, March 31, 2014

"City of God" VII.12-15

Chapter 12-15:

What we see on a closer examination of the pagan gods is that the names they give them are inconsistent with either reality or each other. Jupiter is really Saturn in disguise, and is also referred to as "Money." ("Pecunia.") Mercury and Mars seem to be just named after human events and happenstances of grammar, while the stars are seemingly randomly assigned to gods.

To repeat, I think Augustine's analysis of the pagan gods is getting tedious. But then again if I lived in his culture I might think it critical. Just as if a modern writer were to go on about atheism or naturalism or some other dominant worldview today I might find it to be of the utmost importance.

Friday, March 28, 2014

"City of God" VII.9-11

Chapter 9-11:
Whether we're discussing teleology or prior analytics (categories of thought laid out by Aristotle), or the relationships between matter and spirit, we run into problems and contradictions in the pagan view of the gods as laid out by Varro. There is simply no rational way to balance, for example, Janus and Jupiter.

Nor can we escape into the idea that there is only one god, and the pagan pantheon is merely a series of representations of this one god in many different forms, or by many different names.
Jupiter, for example, has many names, but these most certainly do not refer to different gods--we can see that from the way they are used and from the stories that are told about him in the mythology.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

"City of God" VII.6-8

Chapter 6-7:
Varro claims that he believes that "God" is the soul of the world--that is, creation is God's body and He is its animating force. In that sense, the whole world is God. (Chapter 6)
If that is indeed the case, what grounds do we have for discriminating between two different gods? How can we articulate the difference between Janus and Terminus? Why do we have festivals to each of these gods, and give them different months? (January and February respectively.)

Chapter 8:
For that matter, the pagans cannot even really agree on Janus himself--is he two-faced or four-faced? How can he guard all entrances and doors when he does not even have a set number of faces? Instead, let us turn to Him who says 'I am the door.'

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4, Tertullian (IV), Minicius Felix, Commodian, Origen

The fourth volume in the classic series edited by Philip Schaff combines the scraps of Tertullian's Montanist period, two short works by Tertullian's fellow North Africans Minucius Felix and Commodian, and the grand pre-Augustinian theologian Origen (also technically a "North African" in that he spent much of his life in Alexandria, but "Alexandria" is generally grouped with Eastern Christianity and, later, Eastern Orthodoxy, while "North Africa" refers to Latin writers in the Carthage area).


Since the entire last volume was devoted to Tertullian (reviewed here), I'll just give a brief note on each of his treatises here. I will say that if I didn't know the back story, I don't know that I would have picked up much of his Montanism from these works. To be sure, some of theme are more extreme than his previous writings; and to be even surer, this is a 19th century translation and much of the nuances may just be getting lost in the old-timey language. (If you haven't read any of these volumes, they often follow the 19th century device of intentionally antiquating their language so that it sounds like a 19th century parody of the 16th century. Which is annoying not just here but in much literature of the time.) I mean, the bits about the prophet Prisca was a bit of a giveaway that something else is going on with Tertullian, but even then he sticks mostly to Scripture and doesn't seem to rely too much on these extra prophecies (though of course any such reliance should make us hesitate). If you want to know more about this, the folks over at The Tertullian Project have got a great bundle of resources all gathered into one place...

I. On the Pallium
Here Tertullian makes the quite reasonable point that since clothing customs change over time, we ought not worry about wearing the pallium, even though such is not commanded in Scripture. He also gives what I hope is good-natured ribbing about even worrying topics like this:
Men of Carthage, ever princes of Africa, ennobled by ancient memories, blest with modern felicities, I rejoice that times are so prosperous with you that you have leisure to spend and pleasure to find in criticising dress. These are the 'piping times of peace' and plenty. Blessings rain from the empire and from the sky. (OTP, Chapter 1)
At least, I hope it's good natured--with Tertullian we can never be completely sure that he's not in full-blown cranky-old-man mode...

II. On the Apparel of Women
While we may in fact be able to wear whatever the local customs dictate, women are still required to be modest (men too, for that matter). Rather than extravagant opulence of the culture, we should remember that we are temples of the Holy Spirit and not to be made gaudy or falsely painted/covered with gold. And while I don't know that I'd go quite as far as Tertullian in condemning all makeup, I'm quite happy to admit that he condemns it with style and quotability:
Whatever is born is the work of God. Whatever, then, is plastered on is the devil's work. (OAW, Chapter 5)
III. On the Veiling of Virgins
The plain truth of Scripture is that women should be modest at all times, whether virgin or married. Human custom may dictate otherwise, but it's our job to rise above human custom and live in a way pleasing to God and worthy of our salvation.
Tertullian points out that tradition and custom grown from time, people, and geographic location:
For these, for the most part, are the sources whence, from some ignorance or simplicity, custom finds its beginning; and then it is successionally confirmed into an usage, and thus is maintained in opposition to truth. But our Lord Christ has surnamed Himself Truth, not Custom. (OVV, Chapter 1)
IV. To His Wife
Here, Tertullian argues that widowed women should not remarry, and that no Christian woman should ever marry an unbeliever. Rather, the widow should be content in her relationship with God and not seek for fulfillment in what God has taken away from her. While Tertullian doesn't go quite so far as to explicitly say "if God wanted you to be married He wouldn't have killed your first husband," it's certainly in the subtext...

V. On Exhortation to Chastity
Again, Tertullian tells us that one marriage is the limit! Any more than that and we're just giving in to lust. In this short work we also see the beginnings of the North African discussion of the will that eventually culminates with Augustine (though Tertullian is not nearly so good a thinker, and only touches on the subject in passing).

VI. On Monogamy
Yet again, one marriage is the limit (there's a clear pattern to those later works of Tertullian which have survived). This truth is hinted at in Scripture and solidified by a new movement of the Spirit amongst those who truly believe.

VII. On Modesty
There is no forgiveness for adultery or fornication after conversion. That is to say, there is no easy forgiveness. I suppose it's not surprising that Tertullian takes this extreme position after the big build up of "one marriage only." And yet, I don't think Tertullian is completely astray here either. His radical sexual purity seems to be based not so much on a granite temperament (though he certainly had that), as on a high view of virtue. So he opens the treatise:
Modesty, the flower of manners, the honour of our bodies, the grace of the sexes, the integrity of the blood, the guarantee of our race, the basis of sanctity, the pre-indication of every good disposition; rare though it is, and not easily perfect, and scarce ever retained in perpetuity, will yet up to a certain point linger in the world... (OM, Chapter 1)
VIII. On Fasting, in Opposition to the Psychics
The fasting practices of the Montanists are Biblical (especially along Old Testament lines), and clearly in accord with the Holy Spirit's guidance. And again, while I may not care much for Tertullian's actual conclusions, his desire to obey and his delight in the ordinances which we regularly and utterly ignore these days is at the very least convicting.

IX. De Fuga in Persecutione (On Flight During Persecution)
We must not flee persecution! It is ordained by God for our own good, and so we ought to stick it out. This short essay--though I disagree with it's overall claim, I think there are times when it is perfectly reasonable for a Christian to flee persecution--has some delightful reminders about the power of our salvation to overcome whatever the world can throw at us.
You are Christ-clothed, you who flee before the devil, since into Christ you have been baptized. Christ, who is in you, is treated as of small account when you give yourself back to the devil, by becoming a fugutive before him. (DFP, 10)
All this [the suffering of Christ] took place that He might redeem us from our sins. The sun ceded to us the day of our redemption; hell re-transferred the right it had in us, and our covenant is in heaven; the everlasting gates were lifted up, that the King of Glory, the Lord of might, might enter in, after having redeemed man from earth, nay, from hell, that he might attain to heaven.... Will you value, then, this free man at any price, and possess him at any price, but the one, as we have said, it cost the Lord--namely His own blood? (DFP, 12)
For as Christ laid down His life for us, so, too, we should do for Him. (DFP, 12)
I do hope this was Tertullian's last work (and it may not have been, the chronology is obscure), because I love the image of the champion of Christianity who fell into heresy coming back with a work like this challenging Christians to remain faithful to the end.

X. Appendix
If nothing else, this section proves that there is a long, venerable tradition of Christians writing terrible fiction. Or, as Elucidation I says, "These versifications... are 'poems' only as mules are horses." (166) The "Genesis" poem is kind of fun, but really you can skip this section and lose nothing. And no, Tertullian probably didn't write these--they're far too cheerful.

Minucius Felix

The Octavius
This "dialogue" (really two back-to-back monologues) is truly fantastic, and more than makes up for the drudgery of the preceding poetry. Minucius Felix lays out a litany of pagan objections to Christianity, and then responds to each. Every ancient challenge makes an appearance, from the charge of immorality (incest, cannibalism, midnight orgies, and, well, the rest) to the claim that fortune and nature truly rule mankind and the universe, not the Christian God.
Minucius Felix responds with a depth and intelligence that is truly impressive. I suspect that if we had more of his writings, he would be ranked with Origen as one of the colossal minds of the Ante-Nicene era. Just to give a sampling of his writing:
"[I grant the pagan argument that] man ought to know himself, and to look around and see what he is, whence he is, why he is; whether collected together from the elements, or harmoniously formed of atoms, or rather made, formed, and animated by God. And it is this very thing which we cannot seek out and investigate without inquiry into the universe; since things are so coherent, so linked and associated together, that unless you diligently examine into the nature of divinity, you must be ignorant of humanity. Nor can you well perform your social duty unless you know that community of the world which is common to all." (Octavius, Chapter 17)
"Now if, on entering any house, you should behold everything refined, well arranged, and adorned, assuredly you would believe that a master presided over it, and that he himself was much better than all those excellent things. So in this house of the world, when you look upon the heaven and the earth, its providence, its ordering, its law, believe that there is a Lord and Parent of the universe for more glorious than the stars themselves, and the parts of the whole world." (Octavius, Chapter 18)
"How beautiful is the spectacle to God when a Christian does battle with pain; when he is drawn up against threats, and punishments, and tortures; when, mocking the noise of death, he treads under foot the horror of the executioner; when he raises up his liberty against kings and princes, and yields to God alone, whose he is; when, triumphant and victorious, he tramples upon the very man who has pronounced sentence against him! For he has conquered who has obtained that for which he contends... Thus the Christian may seem to be miserable; he cannot be really found to be so." (Octavius, Chapter 37)
"We despise the bent brows of the philosophers, whom we know to be corrupters, and adulterers, and tyrants, and ever eloquent against their own vices. We who bear wisdom not in our dress, but in our mind, we do not speak great things, but we live them; we boast that we have attained what they have sought for with the utmost eagerness, and have not been able to find." (Octavius, Chapter 38)
The Instructions of Commodianus in Favour of Christian Discipline, against the gods of the heathens

Aside from the odd eschatology on display here, I think Commodianus has given us a method that's worthy of attention, even if it needs updating for today. Basically, he walks through the heathen gods one at a time (Mercury, Jupiter, etc) and explains why they are not truly gods at all. Because so few people worship those gods these days, an updated version would give a brief overview of Islam, the Eastern gods, and the Animist deities. I'm not sure I'd want to do a one-to-one parallel with the things that Westerners tend to worship (science, progress, nature, ourselves, etc), since actual "divinities" are under consideration here. But it's still an interesting exercise and worth a quick read.


And, the one we've all been waiting for. Origen is by most accounts the greatest theologian of the early church prior to Augustine. Which... doesn't actually say much for the state of theology in the early church.
Okay, that's probably unfair. The church was still young and still working out the whole "what is our relationship with Greek philosophy?" thing, and we obviously have to be generous with them. And to be yet more fair (fairer?), some of this really was quite good. And some of it wasn't.

De Principiis
Most of that which wasn't is found in De Principiis, the first extant systematic theology and one of the major sources of the Origenist controversy of the 4th and 5th centuries, wherein much argument was had between major Christian scholars over whether Origen was an orthodox or heretical thinker. The controversy continues today to some extent, though by and large we accept him as a Christian while rejecting some of his more extreme thought.
Anyhow, De Principiis lays out Origen's view of the basics of the faith, including the nature of the Godhead, human nature, and the nature of creation. This edition is especially interesting since from time to time it will have the Latin version transcribed (and updated into better theology) by Rufinius in one column, and the remnants of the more speculative and (occasionally) heretical Greek in the other.
Where people get tripped up are places where Origen speculates on the pre-creation of souls, the idea that eventually all creatures will be redeemed after being purified in hell (hence the glimmerings of the idea of Purgatory), and the radical view of human free will.
And yet, for all its problems there are some worthwhile passages. Even if his theology can get a bit wonky at times, Origen clearly has a high view of Scripture and is trying his best to worship God with his mind accordingly. For example, I love how Origen talks about our attempts at theology:
Having refuted, then, as well as we could, every notion which might suggest that we were to think of God as in any degree corporeal, we go on to say that, according to strict truth, God is incomprehensible, and incapable of being measured. For whatever be the knowledge which we are able to obtain of God, either by perception or reflection, we must of necessity believe that He is by many degrees far better than what we perceive Him to be....
But it will not appear absurd if we employ another similitude to make the matter clearer. Our eyes frequently cannot look upon the nature of the light itself--that is, upon the substance of the sun; but when we behold his splendour or his rays pouring in, perhaps, through windows or some small openings to admit the light, we can reflect how great is the supply and source of the light of the body. So, in like manner, the works of Divine Providence and the plan of this whole world are a sort of rays, as it were, of the nature of God, in comparison with His real substance and being. As, therefore, our understanding is unable of itself to behold God Himself as He is, it knows the Father of the world from the beauty of His works and the comeliness of His creatures. (I.I.5-6)
Or again when he attempts to explain the Incarnation:
After the consideration of questions of such importance concerning the being of the Son of God, we are lost in the deepest amazement that such a nature, pre-eminent above all others, should have divested itself of its condition of majesty and become man, and tabernacled amongst men....
But of all the marvellous and mighty acts related of Him, this altogether surpasses human admiration, and is beyond the power of mortal frailness to understand or feel, how that mighty power of divine majesty, that very Word of the Father, and that very wisdom of God, in which were created all things, visible and invisible, can be believed to have existed within the limits of the man who appeared in Judea; nay, that the Wisdom of God can have entered the womb of a woman, and have been born an infant, and have uttered wailings like the cries of little children! And that afterwards it should be related that He was greatly troubled in death, saying, as He Himself declared, "My soul is sorrowful, even unto death;" and that at the last He was brought to that death which is accounted the most shameful among men, although He rose again on the third day. Since, then, we see in Him some things so human that they appear to differ in no respect from the common frailty of mortals, and some things so divine that they can appropriately belong to nothing else than to the primal and ineffable nature of Deity, the narrowness of human understanding can find no outlet; but, overcome with the amazement of am mighty admiration, knows not whither to withdraw, or what to take hold of, or whither to turn. If it think of a God, it sees a mortal; if it think of a man, it beholds Him returning from the grave, after overthrowing the empire of death, laden with its spoils. And therefore the spectacle is to be contemplated with all fear and reverence, that the truth of both natures may be clearly shown to exist in one and the same Being." (II.VI-1-2)
And, well, I think we can see why Origen can be forgiven his excessive speculations. So... I don't know that this is necessarily a place to start with the church fathers (or with Origen, for that matter), but it might be worth reading for someone looking to dig in a bit deeper to the theology of the patristic era. Just be sure to read it with a huge grain of salt ready.

Africanus to Origen/Origen to Africanus
These two letters raise the question of the canonicity of the "History of Susanna", a story attached to the book of Daniel in the Apocrypha. The short version is that Origen thinks this story should be in the Bible, and obviously I'm going to find it uncompelling (not least because I've read it and, well, it's definitely got a different feel that the rest of the book of Daniel). These letters are short enough that there's no reason to skip them, and I suppose they provide an interesting look at how Origen viewed Scripture in general, but beyond that there's not much worth taking up too much time here.

A Letter from Origen to Gregory
This short letter, on the other hand, is worth reading and dwelling on. Responding to a letter from Gregory Thaumaturgus, Origen argues that rather than shunning pagan philosophy, we ought to read it and mine it for absolutely everything that it's worth. Just as the Israelites spoiled the Egyptians of their gold on their way out, so we ought to strip the house of everything of value as we leave. This not only gives us nice stuff with which to decorate our own place, it recognizes the sovereignty of God over the pagans as well and shows gratitude for his work among them.
But lest we think Origen is selling out to pagan theology, he ends this short letter with a charge to Gregory to be sure to pursue the study of Scripture first and foremost. It must be the foundation of the Christian life, and if we're going to rebuild the things we've plundered from the pagans on top of it, we need to be sure that we are regularly asking, seeking, and knocking through prayer and devotion.
While I don't necessarily agree with all of this, I think it's an important argument and one that we Christians should spend a good deal of time reflecting on--especially in a world that is increasingly alien to the Gospel. What should we be taking from the culture, and what should we be resisting? There are no easy answers, but Origen at least gives us a place to start...

Against Celsus
Origen's response to the pagan writer Celsus is the primary work in this volume of the ANF, making up almost have of its ~700 pages. In it, Origen walks almost line by line through Celsus' criticism of Christianity (called True Doctrine or something along those lines) and provides a Christian response to each of the challenges thrown out therein. If you want a good summary of Celsus that is short and readable, check out the appropriate chapter in Wilcken's The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (a book you do need on your shelf--it's excellent!).
Basically, Celsus accuses the Christians of creating something new. Which is bad, because "new" is: contrary to the established practices of the world; offensive to the gods; a violation of tradition (Celsus especially focuses on Jewish tradition); and repugnant to true philosophy.
I am not going to go through Origen's response to each of Celsus' points, that would be tedious (as the whole thing can be if you try to read it through--there's a short summary at the end of the ANF volume that will give you the highlights). Instead, I think it's worthwhile to notice Origen's method--rather than responding with vitriol, or ignoring Celsus' actual claims, Origen carefully and patiently walks through each claim made by Celsus, explains it, points out where it goes wrong, and provides the Christian response. And although he at times takes Celsus to task for sloppy scholarship or confusing orthodox Christians with heretics, you never get the sense that Origen is about to burst a blood vessel in his eye (as I imagine had to have happened daily with Tertullian).

I do wonder if there is a lesson here for us (and this is legitimate wondering, not me saying "I wonder" and meaning "this is unvarnished truth"). Would it be worthwhile to take a book by, oh, a New Atheist, or a Muslim, or a Mormon, or whatever and walk through it with the patience and the thoroughness of an Origen and respond to its claims point by point? Or is that more trouble than it's worth? Not being much of an apologist myself, I don't know that I have a good answer to that.

So just what is Origen's response to Celsus? Again, I can't do justice to a ~350 page book in a thousand word review. In general, Origen claims that when Christianity is rightly understood, it is not really something "new" (the charge at the heart of all of Celsus' criticisms). It is rather the consummation of all of human existence, the pinnacle of wisdom, the life of true virtue, and the highest philosophical good made available to all of humanity. The two pronged response Origen most often uses is that if one looks at true believers (and Origen is quite concerned to keep heretics in a separate category), one will see both the virtuous life in the common people and the highest love of wisdom in the intellectuals. Our lives are ultimately our witnesses, which means it is incumbent on us to cling to the Gospel and shape our lives accordingly.

Overall, I don't know that Against Celsus is quite worth the time and energy it takes to get through ~350 double-columned pages. With that said, Origen's thought is worthwhile and does force further reflection on Scripture and the Christian life. It just might be better to pick up one of the many available abridgments and work with that instead.

In closing, a selection of quotes from Against Celsus. I suspect these do not do justice to the great thinker of Alexandria, but they were a few of the many I marked while reading through the text:

"Now this is our answer to his allegations, and our defense of the truths contained in Christianity, that if any one were to come from the study of Grecian opinions and usages to the Gospel, he would not only decide that its doctrines were true, but would by practice establish their truth, and supply whatever seemed wanting, from a Grecian point of view, to their demonstration, and thus confirm the truth of Christianity." I.2 
In response to the charge that Christians are always hanging about with sinners and criminals (and we all know that criminals always hang out with other criminals), Origen writes "A Christian... even though he invite those whom the robber invites [into his home, for dinner, etc] invites them to a very different vocation, viz., to bind up these wounds by His word, and to apply to the soul, festering amid evils, the drugs obtained from the word." III.60 
"And therefore, as those who expect the resurrection of the dead, we assert that the qualities which are in bodies undergo change: since some bodies, which are sown in corruption, are raised in incorruption; and others, sown in dishonour, are raised in glory; and others, again, sown in weakness, are raised in power; and those which are sown natural bodies are raised as spiritual. That the matter which underlies bodies is capable of receiving those qualities which the Creator pleases to bestow, is a point which all of us who accept the doctrine of providence firmly hold; so that, if God so willed, one quality is at the present time implanted in this portion of matter, and afterwards another of a different and better kind." IV.57 
"And as a husbandman performs different acts of husbandry upon the soil and its productions, according to the varying seasons of the year, so God administers entire ages of time, as if they were, so to speak, so many individual years, performing during each one of them what is requisite with a reasonable regard to the care of the world." (IV.69) .... "We have to say that, as we ourselves, when talking with very young children, do not aim at exerting our own power of eloquence, but adapting ourselves to the weakness of our charge, both say and do those things which may appear to us useful for the correction and improvement of the children as children, so the word of God appears to have dealt with... history. (IV.71) 
"So those who understand that God is light, and who have apprehended that the Son of God is 'the true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world,' and who comprehend also how He says 'I am the light of the world,' would not rationally offer worship to that which is, as it were, a spark in sun, moon, and stars, in comparison with God, who is light of the true light." (V.11) 
"Now, if he imagine that the existence of numerous heresies among the Christians is a ground of accusation against Christianity, why, in a similar way, should it not be a ground of accusation against philosophy, that the various sects of philosophers differ from each other, not on small and indifferent points, but upon those of the highest importance?" (V.61) 
"God conceals Himself in darkness, as it were, from those who cannot endure the splendours of His knowledge, or are incapable of looking at them, partly owing to the pollution of their understanding, which is clothed with the body of mortal lowliness, and partly owing to its feebler power of comprehending God." (VI.17) 
"We say that the holy Scriptures declare the body of Christ, animated by the Son of God, to be the whole Church of God, and the members of this body--considered as a whole--to consist of those who are believers; since, as a soul vivifies and moves the body, which of itself has not the natural power of motion like a living being, so the Word, arousing and moving the whole body, the Church, to befitting actions, awakens, moreover, each individual member belonging to the Church, so that they do nothing apart from the Word." (VI.48) 
"For what reasonable man can refrain from smiling when he sees that one who has learned from philosophy such profound and noble sentiments about God or the gods, turns straightway to images and offers to them his prayers, or imagines that by gazing upon these material things he can ascend from the visible symbol to that which is spiritual and immaterial. But a Christian, even of the common people, is assured that every place forms part of the universe, and that the whole universe is God's temple. In whatever part of the world he is, he prays; but he rises above the universe, 'shutting the eyes of sense and raising upwards the eyes of the soul.' And he stops not at the vault of heaven; but passing in thought beyond the heavens, under the guidance of the Spirit of God, and having thus as it were gone beyond the visible universe, he offers prayers to God." (VII.44) 
"But we, while recognising the duty of thankfulness, maintain that we show no ingratitude by refusing to give thanks to beings who do us no good, but who rather set themselves against us when we neither sacrifice to them nor worship them. We are much more concerned lest we should be ungrateful to God, who has loaded us with His benefits, whose workmanship we are, who cares for us in whatever condition we may be, and who has given us hopes of things beyond this present life. And we have a symbol of gratitude to God in the bread which we call the Eucharist." (VIII.57) 
"Wherefore the world prevails only so long as it is the pleasure of Him who received from the Father power to overcome the world; and from His victory we take courage." (VIII.70) 
"We do take our part in public affairs, when along with righteous prayers we join self-denying exercises and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures, and not to be led away by them. And none fight better for the king than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it [meaning military service]; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army--an army of piety--by offering our prayers to God." (VIII.73)

"City of God" VII.4-5

Chapter 4:
Even now that we've divided the gods into the "Select" gods who are better known and more commonly worshiped than their lesser counterparts, we see that these select gods are not actually treated better. Not only are the worst crimes attributed to them, but even the least terrible of them (Janus, in Augustine's recollection) are submitted to the infamy of having their images carved into grotesque statues.

Chapter 5:
The pagan argument put forth by Varro is that the statues are not actually gods themselves, but merely physical representations of spiritual realities--realities about both the gods themselves and the immortal nature of the human soul. These images were to be both an object of veneration and a theology lesson rolled up into one.
Augustine rejects this completely, holding forth the glorious truth that
Thy soul, so learned and so clever (and for this I grieve much for thee), could never through these mysteries have reached its God; that is, the God by whom, not with whom, it was made, of whom it is not a part, but a work,—that God who is not the soul of all things, but who made every soul, and in whose light alone every soul is blessed, if it be not ungrateful for His grace.
We cannot learn about God, according to Augustine, by the use of idols. Grace alone reveals the Lord to us, in ourselves we cannot see beyond the created world to the the Author of Creation. (This is not a condemnation of art or public decoration, Augustine is speaking of worship only here.)

Hopefully we can see how foolish (and sinful) it is to rebuke Varro's position not by agreeing with Augustine, but by claiming that Varro simply chose the wrong gods to image. Augustine's take is certainly not that Varro and the pagans just picked false gods, and that if they had used images of the Christian God everything would have been fine. Augustine is clear that no one should ever attempt to commune with God through a representation or statue or any other created object. (Here, we have to side with the wisdom of the Medieval Church in struggling so mightily to condemn the use of images.)

How then are we to worship? Through Christ, who alone is the image of the invisible God, and who is displayed to us in Scripture. When we interpose between us and Christ the works of our own hands, we violate the commandment by degrading the Incarnation (by trying to add to it our own creation) and the Crucifixion (by attempting to come to God other than through the Atoning blood of Christ) and the Resurrection (by attempting to jump-start in stone the promised physical presence of Jesus on earth).

I think I've mentioned this before (apologies if I'm being repetitive, but blogging every day quickly runs through my stock of publicly appropriate stories), but one of the most effective teaching devices I've seen was at an all-church Bible study (~200 people or so) when the pastor reached I Corinthians 10:14 and asked everyone in the room who had been converted out of a religion that worships idols to raise their hands. 20-25 people did so, and then we spent some time hearing the stories from each of them (many were from East Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but some were from the United States and Western Europe as well). We all too often allegorize these portions of Scriptures and talk about the idolatry of the heart and idolizing food, work, family, etc, while forgetting that the primary definition of the work is the worship of created things. Augustine's comments here are a useful reminder of that definitions...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"City of God" VII.3

Chapter 3:
Why is there such a proliferation of gods, and why are some valued over others in such a haphazard manner? Obscure deities rule the pantheon; gods of irrelevant or lifeless objects dominate the gods who rule the living and growing things; and again we see that Fortune should be set above all these gods.

I hate arguing with the great minds of history, and whenever I can I try to find another great theologian to use instead of relying on myself (there's my formal advice for the day: never believe something that hasn't been believed by a dead Christian before you). But in this case I'm too lazy to slog through other church fathers and find something: unless I'm missing a key point here (and I might be), it seems that Augustine is dunking over the fat kid on the court. He's made his point and he has good arguments, but rather than moving on he keeps coming back to 1) his points about the pantheon; and 2) if the gods exist, only Fortune should be worshiped. Maybe this was a critical issue in his day and place, but I confess publicly here that I'm convinced and need to hear no more.

And having put that in writing, well, I'm a bit ashamed, because I have firsthand evidence that there are still pagans around. And i don't mean just in the obscure corners of the earth--I blog with some of them over at Patheos. So maybe the problem isn't with Augustine, it's with me.

Monday, March 24, 2014

"City of God" VII.1-2

For the intelligent, the previous books will have been enough to convince them that Augustine was right about everything. But because there may still be a few dullards out there reading, and because the issue is of eternal importance, Augustine has to keep writing.
Okay, maybe that's not exactly what Augustine meant, but I suspect it's close to what he wanted to say...

Chapter 1:
Even if the "Civil" gods (and hence also the "Mythical" ones) are rejected as a pantheon, it may be possible that one or two of them stands as a real god amongst the many false deities. We can't just dismiss this claim with a joke as Tertullian did, we have to take this seriously.

Chapter 2:
Varro highlights twenty gods out of the pantheon as real and worthy gods. But what, Augustine asks, makes one of the pantheon more worthy than the others? Is it their supposed function? Or the number of people dedicated to them?
It cannot be the former (Augustine does not take up the latter in this chapter), for if some gods are exalted over others because of their function, we have a serious problem when we consider all the functions of the deities who have been passed over. If we select Venus and Liber (who govern conception) but pass over Vitumnus and Sentinus (who give life to the fetus), we can't hope to have a viable embryo, however much attention is paid to the gods of the conception.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

When is "I'm Sorry" not enough?

When you don't mean it, of course. Or when you're a controversial megachurch pastor.

If you haven't been following the Evangelical headlines (and why would you? we're an increasingly marginalized minority and hardly merit a byline compared to most of what happens in worldly affairs), Mark Driscoll is the pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle (not the Mars Hill in Michigan started by hipster heretic--hipetic? herester?--Rob Bell) has been called out for several issues, the most recent being plagiarism in several of his 'best selling' books. Books which are best sellers largely because church money was spent to manipulate the market.

Following these allegations, there was a longish period of silence from Driscoll and Mars Hill, until this letter appeared on the internet, apparently 'leaked' (if we can apply such a word to so large and public a church affair). There has been some speculation as to whether we should be spreading this letter around, given that it's nominally from Driscoll to his congregation, but since 1) the damage is done at this point anyway and 2) I highly doubt this was released in any kind of secrecy, I think I'm okay linking to it here.

The question has then been raised: what now? There seem to be two sides to the question, the first being whether or not the apology linked above is sufficient, and the second being whether an apology (if sufficient) should end the matter, or whether there needs to be some kind of follow-up discipline.

As for the second question, I'm happy to say that the answer really should be up to his church. The Mars Hill congregation is at the end of the day Biblically responsible for disciplining Driscoll, should such discipline be needed, and as such any opinion I had on the issue would be moot anyway. If there are no such  structures in place in Mars Hill to provide such discipline, well, we can only pray that they learn from this and implement them. Whether they do or not, this is a matter for the local church to handle, not for the blogosphere and armchair inquisitors.

To some extent, I want to give the same answer to the first question (i.e. is the apology sufficient). After all, if it is not sufficient, then presumably we are suggesting that Driscoll is continuing in unrepentant public sin, and as such needs to be disciplined--again a function of his church. If it is sufficient, then no further action need be taken.

And yet, because so much of this controversy has been made public, here at least some public discussion can be useful. To that end, here are the handful of articles I've read on the topic that may be of interest.

1) Janet Mefford
Mefford, who originally broke the plagiarism story on her radio show, argues that Driscoll's apology is insufficient both in its details (many pertinent ones are left out, she claims) and in its substance. How do we know that? She argues we can know he's not really repentant because his actions have not matched his words:
And there’s the rub. Of all the things Driscoll never mentioned in his letter, the most glaring omission is the obvious and necessary act that should have come as a result of his repentance: Driscoll should have resigned as pastor of  Mars Hill Church. That act, more than anything else, would confirm his true turning from sin, his heartfelt sorrow over what he has done and his desire for accountability to every person who’s ever heard his sermons, attended his conferences or bought his books.
2) Ray Ortlund
On the Gospel Coalition website, Ray Ortland for all intents and purposes declared this an across the board Driscoll victory.
But let’s understand what just happened.  His repentance just pulled the rug out from underneath all the Driscoll-haters out there.  He shifted the moral burden to them.  Not that that was his purpose.  But it was an outcome.
Everyone who feels the power of the gospel will also feel that a penitent man deserves another chance.  That man should be held to his professed repentance — but gently, with encouragement, with support, with prayer, with every positive expectation of beautiful outcomes.  And if we don’t cut him that slack, we are the ones whose turn it is to repent.
While Ortland's triumphal language is perhaps unwise, there is an important point here. Driscoll has done something that I've only rarely seen from celebrity pastors. And speaking of celebrity pastors,

3) Kevin DeYoung
Also on the Gospel Coalition, Kevin DeYoung raises some important tangential points that are good reminders, even if not exactly on the same subject of the topic of this post. Namely, [not DeYoung's numbering] that 1) delay in repentance (especially over a public sin that involves a whole church) is not necessarily either wrong or unwise; 2) when public sin is trumpeted, we should be equally aggressive at trumpeting the repentance. He makes other points too, but these are the pertinent ones.

4) Owen Strahan
Strahan suggests with a good deal of gentleness and kindness that maybe some of these problems would have been offset in the past and could be offset in the future with a better church polity. Namely, if there were some kind of accountability structure in place to keep an eye on these things, instead of the functional one- or few-man rule that seems to be the norm at so many of the churches run by 'celebrity pastors.'
The “celebrity pastor” criticism is overblown, but it does land on this matter. Too many of us are now familiar with a methodology that tends to remove close pastoral accountability and connection between shepherds and the flock. This is a serious problem. We need to collectively think hard about what the Lord might be showing us. Many young and restless types hunger for globe-stretching, campus-multiplying ministries of the kind of our beloved leaders. I wonder, though, if the old ways might be commending themselves afresh in our day.
Here’s what I mean. If we’re hearing from super-energetic, remarkably-gifted individuals like Mark Driscoll that super-complex ministry is indeed as demanding, exhausting, and hard as it might seem, perhaps we should seek out simpler models of ministry. Perhaps we should think once more of the simple, humble model of the local church as being led by a body of elders. These leaders do not oversee multiple campuses. They are not elevated as a kind of “super board to manage other boards.” They simply oversee one church. At this church, they do their darndest to know their people, to keep watch over their souls, and to lead them in soul-delighting worship of the holy Trinity.
5) Dave Doran
Doran rightly points out that this is far more complicated an issue than we can ever really get through in a single 1000-word blog post. We have to account for the fact that these days (contrary to, say, a hundred years ago) millions of people are affected by pastoral sin, despite the fact that none of us who publicly reply know anything about the actual details of the inner-workings of Mars Hill life.
Doran raises a few interesting questions that merit some reflection:
Even granting the sincerity of a public apology does not eliminate the fact that some sins bring consequences which affect future relationships and actions. A church treasurer who embezzles funds can repent and apologize, but I doubt that very many people think he should be allowed to continue managing the church’s funds. When someone serves in an office which requires that he meet the qualifications established in Scripture, an apology does not necessarily wipe away the impact of disqualifying actions and/or patterns of life. So, as an example, if someone is accused of and admits that he has violated God’s Word that shepherds are not to be “domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3), should an apology simply wipe that away? Does he immediately get a “do over” or should a new pattern of humble service be demonstrated before being restored to leadership? If character actually matters, then character should be displayed.
6) Todd Pruitt
On the Ref21 blog, Todd Pruitt argues that given the public nature of Driscoll's ministry, it is not wrong for pastors and other public figures to respond in a way that cares well for their own congregations.
I am troubled when every conceivable explanation is used to excuse a man who has stretched the biblical command to be above reproach to the breaking point while those who dare to call a thing what it is are classified as "haters." In pointing out these concerns, what is not happening here is hatred. It is far from hate. It is love for the church. Believe it or not, it is love for a man who, for the good of his own soul, may need to be steered away from the office of pastor by those who hold him accountable. Most of all it is love for our Lord and his reputation. It is love for his people who have suffered enough from our pastoral malpractice.

7) Coyle Neal
Okay, not really-- I don't have a response. I just want to point out in conclusion that this whole issue is truly complicated (despite the oversimplifications of Mefford and Ortlund linked above) by the fact that Driscoll is a very, very orthodox preacher. Seriously, jump on his website and listen through any given sermon series. While he certainly says things that I disagree with (what preacher doesn't?), he strives to exposit Scripture in a way that is Christ-centered and clearly articulates the Gospel. In some ways, it would be easier if he were preaching something awful (not that I'm hoping he becomes a heretic!), since then we could all wash our hands of the whole thing. The real world, of course, is never so simple, and the Mars Hill church has a long, difficult haul in front of it as they sort through the sticky issue of what to do with their senior pastor.
And in that sense, there is exactly one thing that we all can do whether we're members of Mars Hill or not: pray for Mars Hill and their continual faithfulness to the Gospel.

"City of God" VI.10-12

Chapter 10:
Where Varro had only obliquely attacked the Civil Theology (being afraid of punishment by the state), the Stoic philosopher Seneca gave it both barrels. Feeling that he was set 'free' by his submission to fate (a common theme among the Stoics--this is a great listen if you want to know more on that), Seneca could criticize the falsity and excess of the pagan religion. And yet, even then he encouraged people to go along with it publicly in order that they not give offense to the masses or be punished by the government:
But this man, whom philosophy had made, as it were, free, nevertheless, because he was an illustrious senator of the Roman people, worshipped what he censured, did what he condemned, adored what he reproached, because, forsooth, philosophy had taught him something great,—namely, not to be superstitious in the world, but, on account of the laws of cities and the customs of men, to be an actor, not on the stage, but in the temples,—conduct the more to be condemned, that those things which he was deceitfully acting he so acted that the people thought he was acting sincerely.  But a stage-actor would rather delight people by acting plays than take them in by false pretences.
So much for the "freedom" of philosophy.

Chapter 11:
This is reinforced by Seneca's treatment of the Jews, and his silence about the Christians. Interestingly, as Augustine was well aware, there was a tradition of apocryphal correspondence between Paul and Seneca spurred on in part by the fact that Seneca's brother was the judge in Paul's Corinthian trial. Though Seneca did write many letters, he did not write these.

Chapter 12:
And so we have seen that the Civil and Mythical gods can provide neither temporal nor eternal blessing, and so should not be worshiped.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"City of God" VI.9

Chapter 9:
Augustine picks back up an issue he has touched on in an earlier book (sorry, I'm too lazy to link back). Namely, that it is ridiculous to assume that there are specific gods for specific events/actions/items in the world. Even if we look at it with the Mythical/Civil/Natural theological distinction in view, we see that it is an absurd theology to hold--Varro's attempts to shore up the Natural theology notwithstanding.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"City of God" VI.7-8

Chapter 7:
As suggested in the previous chapter, the "Civil" and "Mythical" theologies are really the same. In fact, they are the same because they are both deceptive and sinful, and those in exactly the same way. Even pushing the "civil" rites back into the shadows of the mystery religions (as with the Isis cult, for example) does nothing, for secret idolatry is no better than public idolatry.

Chapter 8:
We find that the Natural theology of the philosophers tends to openly reject the Mythical theology of the poets, and would also reject Civil theology if not for fear of punishment by the state (even though as Augustine has already established, Mythical and Civil are really the same thing).

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"City of God" VI.5-6

Chapter 5:
Varro argues that there are three kinds of theology: Mythical, Physical, and Civil.

"Mythical" theology involves the stories of the poets about the gods and the fantastic events of the past. Homer and Hesiod would certainly have been in mind, Augustine may have even thought of Ovid and later compilers.
"Physical" theology is the realm of the philosophers and is a quest to explore the nature of existence, the truth about deity and mankind, the nature and role of reason, and so on.

Augustine suggests that in these first two types of theology, Varro has confined the first (Mythical) to the superstitious masses, and the second (Physical) to the thoughtful-but-isolated elites. We might think of modern philosophers, theologians, and scientists who believe that they have higher and deeper truths, while the common man clings to his Bible and guns. (An image not completely rejected by the common man himself.)

Yet, there is a third type of theology called "Civil." Varro suggests that this is the theology of the sate--the rites followed by priests and the sacrifices made by the community. Augustine suggests that this is really in the same category as the first type, since both are found within the city itself. They are both, in a sense, the superstitions of the people--that one is acted out on stage and the other acted out in the public forum makes little difference to the question of whether or not they are true (the subject of the next chapter).

Chapter 6:
Augustine points out that Varro knew that the Mythical/Civil religion was false, and yet pursued it anyway. In a sense, Varro's honesty only condemned him all the more, since he knew very well that neither provided truth or eternal life:
So then, neither by the fabulous nor by the civil theology does any one obtain eternal life.  For the one sows base things concerning the gods by feigning them, the other reaps by cherishing them; the one scatters lies, the other gathers them together; the one pursues divine things with false crimes, the other incorporates among divine things the plays which are made up of these crimes; the one sounds abroad in human songs impious fictions concerning the gods, the other consecrates these for the festivities of the gods themselves; the one sings the misdeeds and crimes of the gods, the other loves them; the one gives forth or feigns, the other either attests the true or delights in the false.  Both are base; both are damnable.  But the one which is theatrical teaches public abomination, and that one which is of the city adorns itself with that abomination.  Shall eternal life be hoped for from these, by which this short and temporal life is polluted?  Does the society of wicked men pollute our life if they insinuate themselves into our affections, and win our assent? and does not the society of demons pollute the life, who are worshipped with their own crimes?—if with true crimes, how wicked the demons! if with false, how wicked the worship!
What we see in the superstitions of the mass of mankind is not the truth (vox populi is certainly not vox dei) but rather a reflection of mankind itself. Whether we look at popular entertainment or the practices of civic life, we see nothing more than a base reflection of the "society of wicked men" which attempts to "pollute our life" by appealing to our affections and trying to "win our assent."

(And despite Varro's best efforts, 'Civil' theology is not exempt by being closer to the 'Natural' theology he wishes to follow--Civil and Mythical are connected to each other, and equally false.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"City of God" VI.2-4

Chapter 2:
Augustine here introduces Marcus Varro, an author contemporary with Cicero (i.e. ~1st century BC) who wrote much about the Roman religion, apparently not believing it himself but preserving it nonetheless as a valuable tradition. Augustine specifically seems to think he feared the popular response should they find that he had denied their gods. Which leads Augustine to praise his education but condemn his devotion to the truth and highlight Varro himself as an example of fallen human nature, even as Augustine uses his writings to advance the Gospel:
What ought we to think but that a most acute and learned man,—not, however made free by the Holy Spirit,—was overpowered by the custom and laws of his state, and, not being able to be silent about those things by which he was influenced, spoke of them under pretence of commending religion?
Chapter 3-4:
Augustine first gives an outline of Varro's writings on traditional pagan religion (VI.3) and then discusses what we learn from such an outline (VI.4). Namely, that Varro places 'human things' and the state first, and only then deals with 'divine things' and the theology of the gods, even at times explicitly saying that humanity comes first and then shapes the gods to fit its own ends. As a result, from the lips of the most learned of pagans we see that there can be no possible hope of eternal life from worldly religion.

Monday, March 17, 2014

"City of God" VI.1

Augustine thinks that he's written more than enough to counter the claims of paganism concerning the dominance of the gods:
And who does not know that, in the face of excessive stupidity and obstinacy, neither these five nor any other number of books whatsoever could be enough, when it is esteemed the glory of vanity to yield to no amount of strength on the side of truth,—certainly to his destruction over whom so heinous a vice tyrannizes?  For, notwithstanding all the assiduity of the physician who attempts to effect a cure, the disease remains unconquered, not through any fault of his, but because of the incurableness of the sick man. 
Such, however, is the nature of sin that one can never write enough to argue men out of it. Our natures must first be changed by grace.

Chapter 1:
We've seen Augustine refute the claims that the gods should be worshiped in exchange for worldly power and glory, now he is going to tackle the idea that the pagan deities should be worshiped so that one may achieve eternal life.
To some extent, the pagan philosophers and playwrights (especially the comic ones) have done our work for us as they have argued and mocked away the open idolatry and superstition of the crowd of the common people. Yet, we cannot wholly endorse what the philosophers have done, because they have brought with them a more subtle paganism that itself requires a response.
Whether for the sake of the life which is to be after death, we ought to worship, not the one God who made all creatures spiritual and corporeal, but those many gods who, as some of these philosophers hold, were made by that one God, and placed by Him in their respective sublime spheres, and are therefore considered more excellent and more noble than all the others?
In other words, are not the pagan gods merely representatives of the one true God, and so to be at least respected (if not openly worshiped) as the bearers of His will and as His agents in creation?

What we see in fact is that these gods are the inventions of men, and as such rulers over nothing. As we've seen in the last five books they do not control even the affairs of mankind here on earth, why would we ever extend to them the power to control eternal matters?
Wherefore, if, when we were inquiring what gods or goddesses are to be believed to be able to confer earthly kingdoms upon men, all things having been discussed, it was shown to be very far from the truth to think that even terrestrial kingdoms are established by any of those many false deities, is it not most insane impiety to believe that eternal life, which is, without any doubt or comparison, to be preferred to all terrestrial kingdoms, can be given to any one by any of these gods?
But we've already answered this in the preceding books--the gods cannot provide even happiness (if they could, we should worship Felicity and no one else), so even the intangible rewards of eternity are beyond the reach and control of created beings.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"City of God" V.26

Chapter 26:
As much as I hate to say it, at this point Augustine gives something of a whitewash of the life and reign of Theodosius. Don't get me wrong, Theodosius was by no means the worst emperor. For that matter, he wasn't even a bad one and should easily be ranked among Rome's greats. His reforms of the law were necessary, timely, and effective. His military victories and political consolidation of the Empire brought about the last moment of true unity that Rome would ever know. And by all accounts he was a genuinely devout Christian, even if he did some less-than-Christian things as Emperor. (But then again, haven't I done some less-than-Christian things as a professor?)

For example, Augustine praises Theodosius for showing kindness to Valentinian, even when he had him at his mercy and could have dispatched him. That to be certain is good! But then he praises Theodosius for consulting a hermit on the outcome of a battle. This is certainly not good, in fact it is the pagan practice of divination in all but name--that the hermit claimed the name of Christian in no way distinguishes this from the actions of Theodosius' pagan forebears as they consulted the Oracle or the Sybil. That as a consequence he melted down the statues of Jupiter is no proof of Divine favor, as Augustine has been highlighting so far in this book.

Augustine then praises Theodosius for sparing the children of the enemies he slew in battle--again, a worthy thing for a Christian ruler to do! "He did not permit private animosities to affect the treatment of any man after the war." All well and good, but also no different from the action of Julius Caesar as praised by Sallust. So far Theodosius has been a bit of a mixed bag.

Augustine points out that "the idols of the Gentiles he everywhere ordered to be overthrown, understanding well that not even terrestrial gifts are placed in the power of demons, but in that of the true God." The problem is, I'm not convinced that toppling the statues of false gods is a worthwhile pursuit for a Christian. It was suspect when the Christians did it to the Roman pagans in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, to the Scandinavian Pagans in the late Middle Ages, and to the Catholic pagans during the Reformation. Just as we do not really want people burning our Bibles (not that we worship the Good Book in the same way one might bow before a statue), the law of charity should govern even here. We ought to encourage folks to walk away from their statues and false religions, not drive them away by burning things down.

And of course there is the infamous incident of Thessalonika. In a fit of rage Theodosius had ordered this city destroyed and its inhabitants butchered after a riot killed the Roman governor. In response, Ambrose of Milan excommunicated the Emperor and ordered him to repent. Which, as Augustine points out, Theodosius did. So again, sort-of a mixed bag...

Theodosius believed, according to Augustine, that he had his position only because of Providence (which is true enough), and as a result strove to live a life worth of that particular calling. Whether or not this is actually reflective of Theodosius' beliefs and actions, the point is clear enough: if you find yourself as a Christian in a position of authority, you are to use it for the glory of God and not for yourself or for any worldly glory.

Augustine now believes that he has shown that all worldly goods and political power come from God alone, and are given to good and bad alike. "Of these works the reward is eternal happiness, of which God is the giver, though only to those who are sincerely pious.  But all other blessings and privileges of this life, as the world itself, light, air, earth, water, fruits, and the soul of man himself, his body, senses, mind, life, He lavishes on good and bad alike. And among these blessings is also to be reckoned the possession of an empire, whose extent He regulates according to the requirements of His providential government at various times. " Salvation alone comes to those who believe, everything else falls under the category of "common" grace. That is, grace which God gives indiscriminately to everyone regardless of the final state of their souls.

But what about the people who say that they don't care about heaven or hell, so long as they have the best this world has to offer? What we find is that such people are never truly happy, even when they get everything they say they want.
Wherefore, whoever he be who deems himself happy because of license to revile, he would be far happier if that were not allowed him at all; for he might all the while, laying aside empty boast, be contradicting those to whose views he is opposed by way of free consultation with them, and be listening, as it becomes him, honorably, gravely, candidly, to all that can be adduced by those whom he consults by friendly disputation.

Friday, March 14, 2014

In which I attack Celebrity Pastor Carl Trueman

If you know me personally (which most of you don't), you'll know that one of the reasons Carl Trueman is a "celebrity pastor" is because of the high regard in which I hold him. At least my crotchety delight in his writings and musings contributes in some small way to his "celebrity" status. He is a "pastor" for entirely different and unrelated reasons.

Over the past few years, I have especially enjoyed his thoughts and words on the subject of "celebrity pastors." (If you haven't been exposed to Trueman on this subject, stop reading now and visit this, this, this, this, and especially this. Go ahead, I'll wait.)
This is either a picture from T4G or the set-up to an incredibly inside-Evangelical-joke
In general, his point is that we have begun to confuse our categories of "celebrity" and "pastor", which is devastating to the life of the church. And I say Amen to that! If we care more for a pastor we've never met who is a phenomenal speaker with a widespread podcast ministry than we do for the pastor in our local church who faithfully and regularly preaches the Gospel, administers the sacraments, and holds us accountable, but who is perhaps staid (or even dull) in his style and doesn't bother to write down his messages, let alone record them, well then we have lost something critical in our faith. After all, we are to care for and love each other. To be sure, there is a sense in which that is to be a general love for all believers everywhere (and even for the whole world), but it must certainly first and foremost mean we are to love those with whom we fellowship week after week--including our pastors. Just as I should never care more for a Hollywood actress than I do for my own wife, so I should not be more shaped by and submissive to a pastor with no authority over or responsibility to me than to the man with whom I have covenanted "to walk together in brotherly love as becomes members of a Christian church." And go read more Trueman if you want it said better, more thoughtfully, and in an English accent.

But, in the past few days Dr. Trueman has come out with a couple of articles on the subject that I think merit a bit of a response. First, on the Ref21 Blog (a blog well worth following!), Trueman writes:
All of this is old news.  But here is the rub: If there are people out there who still believe that there is such a thing as reformed evangelicalism as a trans-denominational movement, if they believe that this movement will play a key role in the future of the church, and if they believe that they are important leaders in this movement, then they need to speak directly, clearly, and firmly to precisely these issues.  You cannot be a leader without leading publicly on the major issues and major personalities of the day who impact your movement and your chosen constituency.    It is not enough to say 'That person is no longer one of us' when you helped to create a culture in which accountability is not transparent and where your public silence encouraged the big names to think they could do what they wanted and not be held publicly to account.
That is where today's problems started.
That accountability question has always been the Achilles' Heel of the evangelical parachurch movement. 
Now, the overall point of the post is still a good one. When celebrity pastors are caught sinning (and they will be caught--we are sinners), far too often their Evangelical followers and their fellow celebrity pastors rush to their defense and turn on the attackers, sometimes in ways that are inexcusably vicious. In part this is because we too are sinners, and in part this is because of the culture that we have created (intentionally or otherwise) in the Evangelical world over the past two decades. Even as we have sought to be more doctrinally pure, we have generally failed to keep up the accompanying involvement in and accountability to the local church. We have tried to replace pastors with distant 'celebrities', and church institutional structures with wide-ranging religious programs and parachurch organizations. (As a response, sadly some Evangelicals are currently overreacting to the emptiness of those programs and organizations by turning to more liturgical--and usually heretical--religions, which is a different but related conversation.)

Again, so far so good. The problem comes in this piece published at First Things. In it, Dr. Trueman says:
And then, finally, there is the silence. The one thing that might have kept the movement together would have been strong, transparent public leadership that openly policed itself and thus advertised its integrity for all to see. Yet the most remarkable thing about the whole sorry saga, from the Jakes business until now, has been the silence of many of the men who present themselves as the leaders of the movement and who were happy at one time to benefit from Mark Driscoll’s reputation and influence. One might interpret this silence as an appropriate refusal to comment directly on the ministry of men who no longer have any formal connection with their own organizations. 
Yet the leaders of the “young, restless, and reformed” have not typically allowed that concern to curtail their comments in the past. Many of them have been outspoken about the teaching of Joel Osteen, for example.
There are two problems here, the first is an implication that is simply wrong. As my wife pointed out when she read it (in the interests of providing appropriate citation) Mark Driscoll is not Joel Osteen. To the best of my knowledge, Mark Driscoll has never publicly declared a false Gospel. Even with the current scandals surrounding his ministry, so far as I know he has never preached in favor of plagiarism or encouraged his congregation to intentionally misuse church funds. In other words, he has yet to teach sin. He may have been caught in a sin (I haven't honestly been following close enough to have much to say publicly on that one way or another), but again that is not and should not be enough to merit public rebuke from strangers. (How he has responded publicly to being caught in sin is of course a different story.)

And that leads to the second problem, which is a bit more difficult and could possibly be fixed by a follow-up piece (which I sincerely hope Dr. Trueman writes). What exactly would Dr. Trueman like well, whoever it is that he thinks should be speaking up, to say? In other words, who should be saying something and what should they be saying?

I suspect Dr. Trueman would point out that the fact that we have to ask such a question shows the true nature of the disaster that has become the Evangelical world. But unless he's being subtly ironic (which is a real possibility: I've never been one for British humour), he seems to be trying to hold accountable a category of people whom he has already declared illegitimate. What's more, I suspect that if one "celebrity pastor" were to verbally and publicly hold another's feet to the fire, Dr. Trueman would (quite rightly) point out that this is just yet another example of celebrity pastors and the Evangelical culture trampling on the rights and responsibilities of the local church without regard for caution or restraint.

What's more, I don't think I can quite go here with Dr. Trueman (from the Ref21 Article): "You cannot be a leader without leading publicly on the major issues and major personalities of the day who impact your movement and your chosen constituency."

Except, to some extent you can and should. In some ways when a celebrity pastor falls into sin it is exactly the right response for another pastor (celebrity or otherwise) to refrain from public criticism. For example, imagine for a minute that rather than celebrity pastors we're dealing with local pastors in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. If one of those pastors is revealed to have been temporarily separated from his wife, what obligations are there on the other pastors? In a small town they may be as close to 'celebrity' as one can get, but assuming vague knowledge of circumstances (even if the fact of temporary separation is known, I'm assuming we don't know why, or how long, or anything else) I suspect that we'd all agree that any kind of response beyond "we're praying for him, his family, and his church" would be inappropriate. In the same way, given the lack of transparency (again, Trueman is quite right to highlight that!) I struggle to think of an appropriate public response to Driscoll or any other celebrity pastor's difficulties by another pastor. If a false Gospel is being preached or open sin is being encouraged then this changes of course, but that has not yet been the case.

Anyway, that's what I've got on the subject. Again, let me reiterate my agreement with Dr. Trueman in general on the subject of celebrity pastors and the problems of the modern Evangelical culture. (And David Wells also.) But in terms of these recent writings, well, I'd like to hear a more specific criticism that makes practical suggestions rather than a general condemnation of people in general.

Which of course is just to say that I'd like to read more from Carl Trueman--and not just because he is a celebrity but because I would like to know what he thinks.

"City of God" V.23-25

Chapter 23:
We even have examples in our own times of the defeat of great powers against all odds and clearly by the decree of God. It seems that a particular Gothic king (whom you can read about here, if you can stand some dry historical prose) intended to sacrifice the leadership of the Roman Empire to the pagan gods. He was defeated nearly miraculously by Stilicho, a barbarian (or at least half-barbarian) who had risen through the ranks to command the remnants of the once-mighty Roman legions. Augustine points out that in that case, even the pagans celebrated the defeat of Rome's enemy, when in reality they should have wished for a victory to 'prove' the dominance of the pagan gods.

Chapter 24:
The greatest power and authority imaginable in Augustine's time--the office of Roman Emperor--is insufficient to convey true happiness. That comes alone through the worship of the true God and through living a godly life.
 But we say that they are happy if they rule justly; if they are not lifted up amid the praises of those who pay them sublime honors, and the obsequiousness of those who salute them with an excessive humility, but remember that they are men; if they make their power the handmaid of His majesty by using it for the greatest possible extension of His worship; if they fear, love, worship God; if more than their own they love that kingdom in which they are not afraid to have partners; if they are slow to punish, ready to pardon; if they apply that punishment as necessary to government and defence of the republic, and not in order to gratify their own enmity; if they grant pardon, not that iniquity may go unpunished, but with the hope that the transgressor may amend his ways; if they compensate with the lenity of mercy and the liberality of benevolence for whatever severity they may be compelled to decree; if their luxury is as much restrained as it might have been unrestrained; if they prefer to govern depraved desires rather than any nation whatever; and if they do all these things, not through ardent desire of empty glory, but through love of eternal felicity, not neglecting to offer to the true God, who is their God, for their sins, the sacrifices of humility, contrition, and prayer.
Even success as an Emperor will provide neither satisfaction nor fulfillment, that comes only in repentance and faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Chapter 25:
As with Augustine's discussion of evil in Book I, we see that he believes God is careful to neither bless too much nor bring too much suffering lest we begin to worship Him for those reasons alone. Constantine was given power and allowed to rule as a Christian monarch for so long to provide evidence that it is possible to be a Christian and a political ruler at the same time--one need not worship demons in order to achieve worldly glory. Yet, lest we replace "demons" with "God" and worship only to achieve worldly glory, we have the examples of Jovian, who by all accounts was a faithful Christian and yet reigned less then a year and died in a very unglamorous way, and Gratian, who ruled longer than Jovian but died by the sword.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"City of God" V.21-22

Chapter 21:
These things being so, we do not attribute the power of giving kingdoms and empires to any save to the true God, who gives happiness in the kingdom of heaven to the pious alone, but gives kingly power on earth both to the pious and the impious, as it may please Him, whose good pleasure is always just.  For though we have said something about the principles which guide His administration, in so far as it has seemed good to Him to explain it, nevertheless it is too much for us, and far surpasses our strength, to discuss the hidden things of men’s hearts, and by a clear examination to determine the merits of various kingdoms.  He, therefore, who is the one true God, who never leaves the human race without just judgment and help, gave a kingdom to the Romans when He would, and as great as He would, as He did also to the Assyrians, and even the Persians...
Hopefully this is both self-explanatory and evident to all believers who acknowledge the sovereignty of God in the affairs of man: kingdoms are given and taken away by the Providence of God alone. They are neither rewards for human virtue nor signs of Divine favor. And they are certainly not signs of salvation--God by grace alone gives that particular gift, while he gives political rule to the saved and unsaved alike. We can know that this giving of political power is just and according to the wisdom and plan of God, but saying anything more than that "is too much for us, and far surpasses our strength." When we try we're attempted to peek into the secret things of God, and that is beyond our ability.

Augustine follows this statement with a list of examples, various kingdoms who worship different 'gods' and various emperors who were sometimes good and sometimes evil, and even the Christian Emperor Constantine and, after his time, the pagan Emperor Julian. (Whether Constantine was a Christian is now a hotly debated topic: no one doubts Julian's pagan devotion.) The point is, we should not equate political power with either God's favor or proof of salvation. No doubt every American needs to hear this: we are not guaranteed political power, and a revival of our faith is no promise at all that we will receive such. God has a plan in store for America that may involve intense persecution of Christians, or the rise of faithful believers to positions of power, or anything in between. At no point, however, are we told anything about what will happen other than that God is in control of it.

Chapter 21:
Even war is under God's sovereign authority.
Thus also the durations of wars are determined by Him as He may see meet, according to His righteous will, and pleasure, and mercy, to afflict or to console the human race, so that they are sometimes of longer, sometimes of shorter duration.
The very worst of possible circumstances in the ancient world--a long war followed by conquest and subjection to an enemy--are controlled by the will and power of God. We should not read a national loss of a war as a mark against Christianity, nor a national victory as a mark for it. Augustine reminds his readers that there were long and shorts wars and victories and losses for the Romans long before the Christians were on the scene.
These things I mention, because many, ignorant of past things, and some also dissimulating what they know, if in Christian times they see any war protracted a little longer than they expected, straightway make a fierce and insolent attack on our religion, exclaiming that, but for it, the deities would have been supplicated still, according to ancient rites; and then, by that bravery of the Romans, which, with the help of Mars and Bellona, speedily brought to an end such great wars, this war also would be speedily terminated.  Let them, therefore, who have read history recollect what long-continued wars, having various issues and entailing woeful slaughter, were waged by the ancient Romans, in accordance with the general truth that the earth, like the tempestuous deep, is subject to agitations from tempests—tempests of such evils, in various degrees,—and let them sometimes confess what they do not like to own, and not, by madly speaking against God, destroy themselves and deceive the ignorant.
It is not the fault of Christians or Christianity if a nation--be it Rome or America--is winning or losing a war. Turning to other gods or belief systems may indeed have a practical effect on the war (say one embraces a pacifist religion, that may change the outcome for obvious reasons), but in the end God remains sovereign and the course of human events remains under His authority.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

"City of God" V.19-20

Chapter 19:
The desire for glory and the desire for domination (what we in a post-Nietzsche age can safely call the "will to power") are not exactly the same thing, but Augustine points out that the former quite easily transitions into the latter. This is because pursuing glory can mean on rare occasions mean pursuing virtue. The reality is that this type of pursuit is rare. The inverse, those who wish for domination without also possessing the desire for glory, are the set of those who most quickly turn to crime and sin in pursuit of that domination.

On the other hand, those who wish to pursue glory can pursue it by means of virtue, or they can pursue only the appearance of virtue--they maintain a public facade of goodness in their quest for glory while not actually having virtuous souls at all. (One of the major themes of Plato's Republic is the attempt to answer the question of why it's not better to merely appear to be virtuous while simultaneously having all the fun of vice, and so getting the best of both worlds.)
What we find when we look at those who are truly virtuous is that they despise the appearance of glory, since God can see the reality. The problem is that some will be quick to include in their facade of virtue the further facade of despising worldly accolades. Which means that to some extent there's really no way to tell true virtue from a clever and competent facade of virtue. This will not bother the man of true virtue, because again he cares nothing for the praise of men and knows that ultimately God will set everything to rights. "He who despises the judgment of praisers, despises also the rashness of suspectors." Those who praise the appearance of virtue and those cynics who suspect that it is a facade are alike irrelevant to the man of true virtue.

What is not irrelevant to such a man is the salvation of both "praiser" and "suspector".
If he is truly good; for so great is the righteousness of that man who receives his virtues from the Spirit of God, that he loves his very enemies, and so loves them that he desires that his haters and detractors may be turned to righteousness, and become his associates, and that not in an earthly but in a heavenly country.
Our pursuit of virtue and our rejection of human praise should not lead us to turn our backs on the world in monastic isolation (a temptation which Augustine himself was led into as a new Christian--see Peter Brown's biography for an extended treatment of that time in his life), nor should it lead us to hate our fellow human beings, nor should it lead us to openly despise their praise of virtue (we want to neither be dishonest about the worth of virtue nor unintentionally push anyone to praise sin!). Rather, we are to love them and gently encourage them to turn their praise of virtue to the only truly Virtuous Person, Jesus Christ.
Their salvation, indeed, he does not despise, if he is truly good; for so great is the righteousness of that man who receives his virtues from the Spirit of God, that he loves his very enemies, and so loves them that he desires that his haters and detractors may be turned to righteousness, and become his associates, and that not in an earthly but in a heavenly country.  But with respect to his praisers, though he sets little value on their praise, he does not set little value on their love; neither does he elude their praise, lest he should forfeit their love.  And, therefore, he strives earnestly to have their praises directed to Him from whom every one receives whatever in him is truly praiseworthy. 
The Christian disposition towards those who reject the Gospel should not be rejection in kind, but rather love returned for hate, honesty about the nature of virtue and the true Source of any stray virtues that may have beet rooted in us by the Holy Spirit, and continually extolling the greatness of God and the salvation offered through the Cross.

At the same time we have to acknowledge the grim reality that pursuit of domination is not always tempered even by the lesser vice of love of human glory. Sometimes the will to dominate is on naked display in human nature and leads to the worst sorts of cruelty. (Nero is Augustine's example, we of course could think of many others.)
Even here, however, we must remember that God is the one who gives political power. The worst tyrants in history rule at the command of Divine Providence: "Nevertheless power and domination are not given even to such men save by the providence of the most high God, when He judges that the state of human affairs is worthy of such lords." While sometimes we can sort-of see why this may be the case in history (as Augustine thinks he has shown in part with the Roman Empire), "there may be, nevertheless, a more hidden cause, known better to God than to us, depending on the diversity of the merits of the human race." In other words, our response as Christians to the reign and atrocities of tyrants and dictators in the world ought to be a humble acknowledgement that God is sovereign and works to His own ends in history in ways which we cannot see.

And whatever we ultimately think about history and politics, we must, Augustine says, remember that true virtue is concerned with the worship of God and is never "the slave of human praise." While citizens of the city of man (i.e. non-Christians) are better citizens when they have a love of human praise (and so a facade of virtue) than when they don't, best of all is if Christians have both true virtue and skill in political leadership and position and rank in the state that enables them to do so (note Augustine's political realism here--we are all tainted with original sin, but we are not all as awful as we could be, especially when thinking in terms of worldly civic virtue). "But there could be nothing more fortunate for human affairs than that, by the mercy of God, they who are endowed with true piety of life, if they have the skill for ruling people, should also have the power." These are those rare and unique circumstances where we have political leaders who both exercise true virtue by and recognize that "however great virtues they may possess in this life," such virtues are to be attributed "solely to the grace of God" and "that He has bestowed it on them—willing, believing, seeking."

This is not of course the common state of affairs. The common situation of the world is that political leaders, have at best the love of praise. And "however much that virtue may be praised and cried up, which without true piety is the slave of human glory, it is not at all to be compared even to the feeble beginnings of the virtue of the saints, whose hope is placed in the grace and mercy of the true God."

The best of the virtues of the city of man are as nothing compared with the least of those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and brought by grace into the City of God.

Chapter 20:
The philosophers are quite right to pull pleasure from her throne as queen of the highest possible goods, and to insist that virtue should never be put in the service of pleasure. Augustine here is siding with basically all of the Hellenistic and Roman schools of thought against the Epicureans, who held that bodily pleasure is supreme. (For an excellent survey of all of these schools, see Paul Elmer More's Hellenistic Philosophies, available for print-on-demand at Amazon or here for free.)

But! We must be careful not to follow these philosophers too far. They say that they would replace "pleasure" with "virtue," but in reality they are merely worshiping "human glory." They have substituted bodily pleasure for the pleasure of feeding their own pride. "For their virtue,—if, indeed, it is virtue at all,—is only in another way subjected to human praise; for he who seeks to please himself seeks still to please man. " Everyone wants to trash the Epicureans, but in doing so their true motive is self-glorification.

Instead, Christians need to pursue as ultimate the glory of God. In doing so, we will find both true virtue and true pleasure.
He who, with true piety towards God, whom he loves, believes, and hopes in, fixes his attention more on those things in which he displeases himself, than on those things, if there are any such, which please himself, or rather, not himself, but the truth, does not attribute that by which he can now please the truth to anything but to the mercy of Him whom he has feared to displease, giving thanks for what in him is healed, and pouring out prayers for the healing of that which is yet unhealed.
This is a difficult sentence (the Latin isn't much better), but the point is plain enough. When we fix our attention on God (even when it seems contrary to our own immediate pleasures), we find that we are pursuing the truth. And then on closer examination we find that our pursuit of truth is not based on anything inherent in us, but on "the mercy of Him whom he has feared to displease." This in turn leads to gratitude for what has already been done for us, and desire for the completion of the good work that began with our salvation and will end with our glorification.
Here we have a point that C.S. Lewis makes in God in the Dock (I think, Lewis essay compilations start to blur together after a while) and that John Piper makes in Desiring God. That is, when we pursue pleasure or virtue for their own sakes, as ends in themselves, we find that we get neither. But when we pursue God through Christ, we find that we receive both pleasure and virtue along the way. To say 'I want to be happy', or 'I want to be humbler', or 'I want to be' any variant of pleasure or virtue is ultimately to be looking into ourselves for both of those qualities. This can not only be unsatisfying but also lead to idolatry as we base our spiritual status on what we find within our own souls.
On the other hand, to say "I desire God" is to come to the fountain of both joy and virtue that flows from the cross to all who believe. In a sense, our desires for pleasure and virtue (both fine in themselves) cannot be satisfied by pursuing either pleasure or virtue themselves. They can only be satisfied by pursuing God.

We should note in closing that even for Christians, that these desires will never be completely satisfied in this world. Although we are forgiven and redeemed, although we are bought with the Blood of the Lamb and reconciled to God in a relationship that can never be broken, there remains to do. Until then, we are to be grateful for what "in him is healed," and pray fervently "for the healing of that which is yet unhealed." This side of heaven we will only have fleeting glimpses and temporary sensations of the fullness of joy and the life of virtue that we are promised in Christ. To be sure these glimpses and temporary experiences are legitimate and true--more solid than anything a nonbeliever will ever experience--but they are only the appetizer that whets the appetite. And if you want a simply amazing reflection on the satisfaction of our desires that will come in heaven, I am happy to recommend Jonathan Edwards on the subject, or Sam Storms talking about Jonathan Edwards on the subject. (The best order is to listen to the latter and then read the former, but really any order will do.)
To give you a taste (which I may have shared before--when I'm blogging every day it's hard to remember what I've done!), here is Edwards on heaven:
There, even in heaven, dwells the God from whom every stream of holy love, yea, every drop that is, or ever was, proceeds.
There dwells God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, united as one, in infinitely dear, and incomprehensible, and mutual, and eternal love.
There dwells God the Father, who is the father of mercies, and so the father of love, who so loved the world as to give his only-begotten Son to die for it.
There dwells Christ, the Lamb of God, the prince of peace and of love, who so loved the world that he shed his blood, and poured out his soul unto death for men.
There dwells the great Mediator, through whom all the divine love is expressed toward men, and by whom the fruits of that love have been purchased, and through whom they are communicated, and through whom love is imparted to the hearts of all God’s people.
There dwells Christ in both his natures, the human and the divine, sitting on the same throne with the Father.
And there dwells the Holy Spirit — the Spirit of divine love, in whom the very essence of God, as it were, flows out, and is breathed forth in love, and by whose immediate influence all holy love is shed abroad in the hearts of all the saints on earth and in heaven.
There, in heaven, this infinite fountain of love — this eternal Three in One — is set open without any obstacle to hinder access to it, as it flows forever. There this glorious God is manifested, and shines forth, in full glory, in beams of love. And there this glorious fountain forever flows forth in streams, yea, in rivers of love and delight, and these rivers swell, as it were, to an ocean of love, in which the souls of the ransomed may bathe with the sweetest enjoyment, and their hearts, as it were, be deluged with love!