30 June 2004

you'll have to wait til year's end, but...

You can now pre-order Jamie Smith's forthcoming book Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology, due out from BakerAcademic in November/December.

From the sounds of it, the book will not only provide a helpful and readable overview of Radical Orthodoxy, but will also interact with and critique it from a Reformed perspective, a much needed task. I am very much looking forward to the release of this book.

toddler fun

I've been having lots of fun spending time with my 22-month old daughter Claire this summer. We've gone on a number of outings to the park, zoo, playground, and elsewhere.

She's getting to be very talkative and seems to have a huge vocabulary, including weird stuff like "violin," "octopus," "prayerbook," and "diploma."

Her pronunciation, of course, could often use some improvement. Our friends have a new baby named Hazel whom Claire refers to as "baby Hegel" (which, of course, I think is cool). And the A.A. Milne characters include not only the conventional "Pooh," "Tigger," and "Eeyore," but also "Pigget," "Raggit," "Critfer Rogin." At least she doesn't call applesauce "backeldauce" anymore.

Claire's also getting into imaginative play. We've got an old Fisher-Price castle and she likes to put the various people in their chairs, face them against the wall, and tell them "two minutes!" giving them a time-out.

She'll also take the carriage from the castle, fill it with characters, and then roll it down the bottom several steps, yelling "CRASH!" and spilling the characters all over the floor, as she says "ouch ouch ouch." Then she picks up the queen (who she calls the "mommy") and has her kiss all the others' boo-boos.

It's a lot of fun to watch her development and all the new words and ideas she's picking up daily.

...and i'm back

I've not blogged in quite a while.

Part of that was due to a couple of formal lectures I needed to finish writing and had put off far too long. Part of that was due to beginning to teach a Summer Session evening class and have to engage in a lot of preparation, given the fact I decided to use a text I hadn't used before. Part of that was due various trips and outings with my family and spending considerable time at home with Claire after a busy Spring semester.

In any case, I'll be blogging some more now that a couple of projects are out of the way.

17 June 2004

pca ga

The past several days have witnessed the annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, held this year in Pittsburgh, PA. The PCA is the denomination of which I am currently a member.

Two items of interest that were approved by the Assembly are a Pastoral Letter on Racism and a Statement on Marriage and Sexuality.

16 June 2004

the church of east

"By the year 800 there were more Christians east of Damascus than there were west of that city..." So begins the 1984 book, By Foot to China: Mission of The Church of the East, to 1400 written by John M. L. Young, Chairman of the Japan Presbyterian Mission (also available here in PDF).

The Church of the East is a distinct branch of the Christian church, neither Western nor Byzantine, claiming an independent patriarchate since 424. By the early 600s, missionaries had been sent to China. Young's book is an interesting narrative study of some of this early expansion of the church in Asia.

14 June 2004

blech

I just spent the better part of two days barely able to crawl out of bed while overcome with a high fever, repeated chills, sweats, aches, and a nasty sore throat. Thankfully, things seem to have subsided to a manageable head cold today, though I still feel a bit weak.

Illness, of course, makes a person rather useless, so Laurel's been taking up the slack, which has kept her very busy since this weekend was already packed. One of our friends had her baby on Saturday and Laurel watched their 3 year old son while she and her husband were at the hospital. The husband picked him up yesterday afternoon.

Our church library Summer Reading Contest also officially launched this Sunday. I think we have around 50 entries so far, which is a promising start. But Laurel was supposed to staff the library and be available to answer questions after both morning services. Fortunately, a friend was willing to staff the second hour so she could come home with the kids and feed them before they got too crabby.

I was supposed to teach adult Sunday School, meet with the missions commission, and work in evening nursery yesterday, but had to bail on all three, though Laurel was able to take the evening nursery shift.

In any case, I should probably take it easy today, though after a couple days of being useless, maybe I can get some not-too-strenuous work done.

Before getting sick, Laurel and I had managed to get out to the movies last week, due to the kindness of a friend who had offered to babysit Claire. We saw the newest Harry Potter flick, which I think is unarguably the best of the three films made so far, in large part due to the directorial work of Alfonso Cuarón (who also directed Y tu mamá también). Among improvements, the cinematography was really great and the plot flowed much more smoothly.

We also recently saw About Schmidt and Adaptation on DVD, both of which I'd recommend.

Well, off to rest a bit before tackling some writing.

09 June 2004

hmmm

On the way back from campus today Laurel pointed out an old warehouse that has been converted into an Islamic school called "Growing Light" Day School.

The irony, of course, is that it has no windows.

08 June 2004

summer reading contest

When I was growing up our church library always had a summer reading contest, as did an area Christian bookstore and, sometimes, the local library.

Since I was such a voracious reader, I enjoyed entering those contests and, on several occasions, I won.

Prizes varied from a bookstore gift certificate to a museum trip in downtown Philly with the church librarians.

Now that I'm all grown up, I've become involved with our church library--along with Laurel and some friends--and enjoy making purchases, accessioning books, staffing it on the occasional Sunday, and so on.

This year we decided it was time for us to have our own summer reading contest. We announced it at the Sunday School graduation this past Sunday and have already had an enthusiastic response.

In order to publicize the contest to the church and to make rules and forms readily available, I've spent part of the past day and a half throwing together a website (well, when I wasn't busy watching after Claire or running errands).

Now that I'm done that, I've got to finish up a writing project and then move on to some other work. I don't expect to be blogging a great deal in the next couple of weeks, though, you never know.

06 June 2004

collect for trinity sunday

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

05 June 2004

toddler prayers

Claire is beginning to show more interest in forming her own prayers. At dinner we usually give thanks, holding hands before the meal.

Last night, in the middle of dinner, Claire stopped eating, reached out, grabbed our hands, and said, "Pray!"

I asked, "What do you want to pray for?"

"Elmo toy!" was the reply.

"Ok...well, let's pray then. Dear God..." I began.

"Dear God..." Claire repeated.

"Thank you for the Elmo toy..." I continued, referring to Claire's favorite tub toy.

"Dank-oo for my Elmo toy!....AMEN!" Claire finished, all smiles.



After all, everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.

"Eucharist," of course, means "thanksgiving," which is among the reasons why Christ placed it at the center of our liturgical piety, so that what happens at that Table, flows out into the rest of life.

03 June 2004

more on private confession

I was looking at William Perkins' writings on the conscience yesterday while researching some questions I have about the history of Reformed moral theology and the shift from theories focussed on the formation of conscience and inculcation of virtue toward more deontological theories.

While skimming through The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience (Cambridge: John Legat, 1606), however, I ran across Perkins' discussion of private confession of sin to Ministers of the Word, which he addressed in connection with the topic of the distressed conscience.

Perkins began by noting that Christ, in his prophetical office, have the "special duty...to give comfort to the consciences of those that were distressed," a duty Christ has now "committed the dispensation thereof to the Ministers of the Gospel" (3-4). He goes on to say, "because Christ now in the New Testament, speaks not unto the afflicted in his own proper person, it remaineth therefore, that he performs this great work in the Ministry of Pastors and Teachers upon earth, to whom he has given knowledge and other gifts to this end and purpose."

For Perkins the ministry of private confession is first and foremost an application of the promises of the Gospel to specific persons, which is received by them in faith. He adds that "it is most convenient, this Application be made by the Minister of the Gospel, who in it must use his ministerial authority given him of God, to pronounce the pardon" (103).

Perkins adds some caveats with regard to the use of private confession. "First," he writes, "it must not be urged, as a thing simply or absolutely necessary, without which there can be no salvation" (6). He does maintain, however, that "in troubles of conscience, it is meet and convenient, there should always be used private Confession. For James saith, 'Confess your faults to one another, and pray one for another,' thereby signifying that Confession in this case, is to be used as a thing most requisite" (5).

He adds that "though confession may be made to any kind of man ('Confess one to another,' saith James) yet is it especially to be made to the Prophets and Ministers of the Gospel" who in virtue of their office and gifts "are the fittest and best able to instruct, correct, comfort, and inform the weak and wounded conscience." The person to whom one makes confession, however, "must be a man of trust and fidelity, able and willing to keep secret things that are revealed, yea to bury them (as it were) in the grave of oblivion, for 'Love covereth a multitude of sins'" (6).

In later chapters, Perkins goes on to give very specific instructions to confessors in helping the troubles and penitent to examine their consciences and to provide them pardon and comfort from the Gospel. At times Perkins' advice is a rather odd mixture of pastoral concern and experience, apparent familiarity with traditional confessional manuals, and use of syllogistic logic by which the penitent might be granted assurance by drawing deductions from major and minor premises under the direction of the minister.

In ways Perkins departs from some earlier Reformed discussions of private confession since he sees the Minister more as instructing the penitent about his forgiveness, than as effectually declaring God's forgiveness to him. This departure would parallel Perkins' wider sacramental thelogy, which sees sacraments more as signs pointing to God's immediate work rather than as instrumental means by which God actually does work, to be received in faith.

The wider shift towards favoring a more Bullingerite "occasionalism" rather than a Calvinian "instrumentalism" is typical of some Puritan writers and goes hand-in-hand with what strikes me as an increasing rationalism. This shift is coordinate with a shift away from Calvin's more "objective" declaration of forgiveness to a troubled conscience, by which forgiveness itself is offered and received in faith, toward a focus upon a more "subjective" assurance of forgiveness, by which an already present forgiveness is rediscovered and known.

Still, it is interesting to find that private confession remained a matter of discussion in Reformed dogmatics within the early 17th century, almost 50 years after Calvin's writing on the topic. This, of course, raises the question of when it fell into disuse and why. I suspect some of the shifts already present in Perkins are part of the explanation, but the bigger story would be interesting to discover.

After not-very-productively researching some other matters (regarding moral theology and Trinitarian theology), I also, on a whim, thought to take a look at Richard Baxter to see if he addressed the issue of private confession of sins to a minister. Thus, I took a look at Baxter's The Right Method for a Settled Peace of Conscience, and Spiritual Comfort (Underhil, Tyton, and Raybould, 1653), which is a series of 32 "directions" written for a "troubled friend," each of which is divided into numerous sub-points, as was Baxter's custom. Baxter wrote this nearly a century after Calvin and the Second Helvetic Confession.

Like Perkins before him, Baxter affirms (in "Direction 31") the propriety of private confession of sin to ministers. When a conscience is troubled by sin, he maintains that "it is your duty to seek direction from the guides of the church," that is from a "faithful, prudent, judicious pastor" as a "guide under Christ in the way to salvation."

Baxter writes to his friend, "You must use your pastor as the ordained instrument and messenger of the Lord Jesus and his Spirit, appointed to speak a word in season to the weary, and to show to man his righteousness, and to strengthen the weak hands and feeble knees; yea, and more, to bind and loose on earth, as Christ doth bind and loose in heaven." Thus, he writes, "as Christ and his Spirit do only save in the principal place...yet ministers save souls in subordination to him as his instruments."

Baxter goes on to discuss what one may and may not reasonably expect from the ministry of a pastor. Baxter's discussion, though psychologically and pastorally sensitive, is also rather tedious, so I'll spare the details. In general his focus seems, as with Perkins, less upon the effectual communication of forgiveness than upon personal assurance, though these are not entirely disconnected for him. Still, the drift away from "absolution" towards mere "assurance" is apparent.

After discussing how best to choose a pastor for the purpose of confession, he gives the penitent directions for examination of conscience and making confession, beginning with "Do it as truly as you can. Make the matter neither better nor worse than it is."

What follows in Baxter's discussion indicates that, in his day, the practice of private confession had begun to fall into disuse. He makes the following exhortation:

And let me advise all christian congregations to practise this excellent duty more. See that you knock oftener at your pastor's door, and ask his advice in all your pressing necessities; do not let him sit quietly in his study for you; make him know by experience, that the tenth part of a minister's labour is not in the pulpit. If you sins are strong, and you have wounded conscience deep, go for his advice for a safe cure; many a man's sore festers to damnation for wnat of this; and poor, ignorant, and scandalous sinners have more need to do this than troubled consciences.

Baxter goes on to criticize those who, under the devil's influence would "call Christ's yoke tyranny" and "dare call the ordinances of the Lord of glory tyrannical." Apparently, then, some in Baxter's day were rejecting the practice of private confession as a form of spiritual abuse of power, seeing it as an attempt "to bring christians under the tyrrany of priests again, and make them acquainted with all men's secrets, and masters of their consciences."

Baxter, however, replies that "Some in opposition to popery have gone too far on the other extreme; perhaps sinning as deeply in neglect as the papists do in formal excess." He then follows with a list of further reasons "why our ministers have not urged this [i.e., private confession] so much upon you, nor so plainly acquainted their congregations with the necessity of openning your case to your minister and seeking his advice." Again, this indicates that the practice was already falling into disuse in the mid-17th century.

Among the reasons listed by Baxter for the waning of confession are: [1] it is a personal burden for a minister to hear confession of sins, [2] many ministers already are very busy without this additional ministry, [3] some ministers are over-modest in seeing themselves as unfit to hear others' secret sins, and [4] some do not want to appear to be masters of others' consciences.

Baxter does say that "most godly ministers do tell people in general" of the importance the ministry in God's church, but "do not so particularly and plainly acquaint people with their duty, in opening to them the particular sores of their soul." He adds that "it is also the policy of the devil, to make people believe that their minister are too stout, and will not stoop to a compassionate hearing of their case, especially if ministers carry themselves strangely, at too great a distance from their people."

At any rate, these are some notes toward a larger picture and history.

02 June 2004

of sheep and wolves

Many different Christian traditions have gone through times of trial, many times over. At one time the Christian church was overrun by the Arian heresy, with orthodoxy difficult to find. East and West over time became alienated, finally producing a significant split. The Latin church underwent a series of doctrinal, ecclesial, and political convulsions, eventually resulting the various communions of the Reformations.

Some of the most profound questions arising out of these various upheavals are questions of ecclesiology: Who are we as the church? What is essential to our Christian identity? How do we maintain communion with one another and when might we have to break fellowship? What role do structures of authority play and how do piously submit when authority runs amok? How do we recognize where the Body of Christ is truly present? And so on.

I know that some believe they have found answers to these questions by moving into what they see as more satisfyingly authentic manifestations of apostolic authority and tradition, whether in Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism or elsewhere. While I respect that choice, many others of us remain unconvinced by such claims, especially when made exclusively, even if closer communion with our separated brethren in those traditions is important to us.

The general questions I've raised, however, are questions we all must face as Christian people. And particular circumstances may call for special discernment.

For instance, I recently visited an Episcopal parish where we have several good friends and which is, I believe, one of the largest parish communites in its diocese. While not "low church" the parish is definitely more on the "catholic evangelical" end of the spectrum within Anglicanism, but would be very much at home in the world of Hooker, Taylor, Andrewes, and so on.

This, of course, is a wonderful thing. Yet it poses all kinds of distressing difficulties within a diocese where the Bishop is a professed heretic. I don't use that word lightly. This is not a matter of differences in opinion on whether the church should bless same-sex unions or whether a person living in a homosexual relationship should be ordained to the ministry, however troubling and potentially church-dividing those questions are.

The Bishop is a heretic of a rather old-fashioned sort, denying not only the authority of Scripture quite broadly, but also rejecting orthodox doctrine as summarized in the Nicene Creed, particularly regarding the Person of Jesus Christ and, as a result, the Trinity (his schizophrenic voting record within the church, notwithstanding). On these issues regarding the Bishop, my friends within Affirming Anglican Catholicism (with whom I otherwise have some important differences) are generally in complete agreement: the Bishop is a heretic.

How such a person has managed to become a bishop in Christ's church, taking vows to guard the faith--and why he would want to--is a mystery to me, though I suppose since the days of Bishop Pike (who was unsuccessfully tried for heresy in 1966), ecclesiastical discipline within the Episcopal Church has gradually loosened and all but disappeared. The more pressing question, at least for an orthodox parish, is how to live with the situation, especially in light of events such as episcopal visitations at which the Bishop wishes to preach and celebrate the eucharist.

The question here, of course, is not one of the Bishop's right to visit the parish and carry out his episcopal duties. That is granted to him by canon law. Nor is the question one of the "validity" of his orders or his sacramental ministry. Donatism is not an option.

The question, instead, is two-fold: [1] the propriety of being in communion with heresy and [2] the propriety of receiving communion in a context of unreconcilable antagonism and disunity. And we have to consider the questions in light of wider issues of bearing witness, exercising discipline, maintaining unity, the parish's vocation, pastoral guarding of the flock, and so on.

These are difficult questions and I'm not entirely sure of the best answers, especially within the context of the wider problems of the western and, particularly, American church.

And, even as a Presbyterian, I cannot say that this is just "their" problem and remain aloof. This is bishop in Christ's church, ordained by an institution that still officially professes the orthodox faith, however lax it may be in disciplining violations of that faith. As a Christian, therefore, the Bishop is one of my bishops.

Moreover, in my tradition we welcome all to Christ's Table who profess the orthodox faith embodied in the Nicene Creed, whatever their particular affiliation. Christ's church is not first of all a bureaucracy, a book of canon law, or membership rolls. It is God's people, called together by the Gospel, sharing in the Word and Sacrament. In that context, shifting denominational affiliations may make the ecclesiological problem easier to handle on a practical level for a parish (though often at a great cost as well), but it doesn't make the problem go away.

In any case, we need to continue to pray for those parishes who find themselves in such difficult situations, as well as the larger Christian bodies of which they are a part, not only that there might be a recovery of orthodox doctrine, but also that God would grant the wisdom and discernment to know how best to proceed in trying circumstances.