Archive for the ‘Apologetics’ Category

Book Review: Come In, We Are Closed

November 17, 2020

Come In, We Are Closed by Tyrel Bramwell

I’m a bad philosopher. By which I mean I dislike the Socratic method, where you allegedly reach truth via conversation. It’s not really that I dislike it, but rather dislike reading it. Whether I’m reading Plato’s Euthyphro or Come In, We Are Closed, what sounds like a good idea and methodology – and can be in person – turns into a terrible read. Terrible not because of the ideas expressed but because invariably one person does all the talking and the other person agrees or pitches perfect slow, arcing soft balls to get hit over the stands and out of the park.

So it isn’t that this book is bad, it’s just bad as a conversation. For me. This book is great in that it provides many of the essential arguments for close(d) Communion in a very easy to read and digest format. The problem is that none of the reasons for open Communion are discussed, or are discussed barely as straw men arguments easily dismissed.

I believe and agree with close(d) Communion. I’d just like to see the discussion deal with the arguments raised against it by other denominations. Otherwise, the reader walks away now convinced by the book, until they happen to run into someone who doesn’t hold the same opinion and presents their arguments.

In this book, the entire seen of a diner with a waitress and a carafe of coffee and other customers is pointless. I wondered if he was going to draw a new metaphor or something from this elements of the story, but he doesn’t. I wondered if there was a reason for the old man’s disheveled and decrepit appearance, but there really wasn’t one offered. In the end these narrative bits were a distraction and then a disappointment from the theological content.

For me. Because, as I’ve often confessed here, I’m a jerk.

So, if you’re not me, read this book. I’m considering ordering copies of it for all of my parishioners because it does that good a job of presenting the Biblical evidence in support of the doctrine and practice of close(d) Communion. I wish he had included a short outline that consolidated all of the Biblical references, but that will be easy enough for me to create. Granted if you don’t hold to close(d) Communion you likely may not appreciate the arguments made here, but in that case I hope you’ll touch base and recommend an equally good and sound writing summarizing the arguments against it!

Grace

November 5, 2020

I had it all planned out. A quick phone call is all it would take. Sorry, I can’t make it for class this afternoon. It didn’t have to be any more than that. But of course I had to have the rationale settled in my mind. A busy weekend. Preparing for in-depth Bible study, a memorial service (and sermon) after that, and then of course Sunday morning sermon preparations. But I wouldn’t need to share any of that.

But for it to work I had to ignore the underlying motivations and challenges. This COVID situation has just worn me down. And half the time when I show up for class they aren’t responsive. They aren’t interested. They’re going through the motions. What difference does it make if I’m there to lead class or not? I don’t like those reasons as much. And in the end, I don’t make the call, and I show up for class at 12:30pm.

Yes, leading a Bible study/discussion class at a residential program for drug & alcohol recovery with a group of men directly after lunch. Motivation is about as high as you might expect. There’s at least one guy I can count on to have something he wants to talk about, something pertinent, Biblically based. But he leaves halfway through the class for one of his other counseling commitments. And then what?

Then he speaks up.

He’s probably been there a month. Maybe six weeks. Just starting. He hasn’t said anything, ever in class before. Sometimes he falls asleep. And hey, I’ve slept through more than my share of classes (as well as sermons) so I don’t take it personally but it is disheartening. But today he speaks. So quietly I can barely hear him. Jesus died for my sins. Christians say that but I don’t understand what it means.

The door opens for an exposition of all of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. The story of salvation and our place in it and the place of this man called Jesus of Nazareth who claimed to be nothing less than the incarnate Son of God, come to suffer and die on our behalf, in our place. His question was the perfect slow pitch and I cranked up and swung as hard as I could, connecting with that ball and trying to drive it out of the park.

And then he responds. Truly a miracle! I’ve never really heard any of this before. Never cared about it. Never needed it. It’s overwhelming. Yes, yes it is. You come to a program in hopes of recovery and change in your life, or maybe just to get off the streets for a while, or maybe to avoid a jail or prison sentence. You’ve heard about AA and the Twelve Steps but now you’re also confronted daily with the Christian faith and the Bible and all this insider talk about Jesus.

Another perfect, slow pitch and I crank up and talk about the questions the Bible and the Christian faith answer that other religions and philosophies don’t. Why is death a problem for us, even as we continue to try and treat it as just another part of life? Why are we shocked and hurt when natural disasters strike in various parts of the world, despite being brought up in a Western, materialist and evolutionary culture that presumes this is more or less how the world has always functioned? Why do I constantly maintain an internal baseline of who I ought to be, even though I never manage to meet that baseline? Why do I hold myself to a standard I have only ever imagined meeting? Why do I do the same things with others?

It was an amazing hour, and I know that at least some of the guys were really listening, really processing what I had to say which was, by the grace of God the Father, provided to and for me through God the Holy Spirit. An amazing opportunity to articulate the Gospel in response to a genuine curiosity. And a reminder that even when I am less than willing or interested the Holy Spirit is more than ready and capable to work in ways I could only dream of.

God is so very, very good, and I am so humbled and grateful to be an imperfect part of his work, throwing out seed and praying for him to raise up a harvest.

Lutherans & The Real Presence & Eucharistic Miracles

October 22, 2020

Lutheran theology affirms that in Holy Communion, the consecrated wine and bread are united with the real body and blood of Jesus. This union is not symbolic – we are not just pretending the bread and the wine are also body and blood. But the union is also not necessarily discernable to empirical methodologies. If you place the wafer or a drop of wine under a microscope, a Lutheran would not be surprised that no elements of human tissue or blood are detectable. We affirm Christ’s bodily presence in a unique and special way – as opposed to the immanent presence of God that infuses all of creation, creating and sustaining all things and beings moment by moment. Holy Communion is different, we maintain in distinction from many of our other post-Reformation brothers & sisters in Christ. But we draw back from the full concept of transubstantiation as taught in the Roman Catholic Church. But our theology is closer to Roman Catholic than to many other Protestant denominations (and non-denominations).

If you’re interested in discussions of how and why Lutherans affirm the unity of the incarnate Christ in Holy Communion, here’s an excellent article. It explains why we interpret Christ’s words at the Last Supper literally, with a systematic explanation of how we maintain this interpretation. If you prefer a less systematic (but only slightly so) and more artistic explanation of Lutheran theology related to this, you might enjoy this article (and this corresponding image). For a Roman Catholic evaluation of Luther’s position on transubstantiation, this is a fairly accessible read.

But I got started on this track here. I’m aware of a tradition mostly in Roman Catholicism (exclusively?) of Eucharistic miracles – events associated primarily with consecrated hosts (bread) exhibiting supernatural characteristics. But it’s not something I’ve given a lot of thought to. Many of my colleagues might dismiss it as a Catholic thing. But my avoidance of this topic mostly stems from a skepticism over the circumstances of the alleged miracles. Isn’t it all just hearsay? Can any of it be proved?

But the article above references an event in 2006. That’s pretty recent. And it alleged eminent forensic experts provided expert testimony as to the nature of the miracle. But it didn’t give me names. A few clicks more brought up this article. The second of the four stories on this web site actually listed some names, and I Googled one of the experts mentioned, Professor Maria Sobaniec-Lotowska, MD. She’s a real person. A real medical researcher. And one of her many publications has to do with Eucharistic miracles. It’s written in Polish, though, and Google’s attempt to translate it into English was problematic, to say the least. It appears to be a more speculative article than a medical one, however. But at least the Eucharistic miracle allegation cites an actual medical authority.

Maybe these events – at least some of them – could be true? Certainly I’m not the only skeptic. This website has some interesting information I may follow up on in the future. I’m sure there are plenty of others. Some of these events are modern and apparently investigated and documented using not just modern scientific methods but perhaps even modern understandings of evidence integrity.

What’s the takeaway, though?

I don’t view these miracles as attestations to the Roman Catholic Church as an institution. Do I believe God could cause these miracles? Of course. Am I able to determine or decipher his purposes for such? Not necessarily. Do these miracles contradict my Lutheran theological understanding of Holy Communion? I don’t think so. Perhaps if anything they have the potential to strengthen it. It’s definitely something I’m interested in learning more about. It’s hardly a necessary expression or demonstration of the faith, but it’s potentially a fascinating insight into the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Pushing Preferences

August 5, 2020

What you believe matters. And the basis for what you believe matters as well. While evangelical Christianity has done a lot of damage to Biblical Christian faith in divorcing faith and belief from the strong anchors of Biblical accuracy as borne out through historical and archaeological discoveries, certainly those critical of the Bible or the Church have launched their own attacks.

Consider the Harvard professor claiming to have proof that Jesus was married, in the form of a small piece of Coptic writing. While the story made a splash in 2012, very little attention has been paid to how the story ultimately played out. This Wall Street Journal review rectifies this somewhat, reviewing Veritas, a book that chronicles how the professor was fooled – or was complicit in fooling others – with the sketchy claims of an even sketchier source for the apparently ancient writing. It appears her commitment to certain ideological ideas might have caused her to be remiss in her scholastic research rigor, ultimately damaging or destroying her career.

What you believe matters, as does the basis of your belief. What do you believe in? And based on what?

ANF: Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus

May 20, 2020

The ongoing saga of my life-long effort to read through all the Ante-Nicene Fathers’ writings….

The first volume of the ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) set concludes with a collections of quotes and paraphrases of Irenaeus from fragmentary documents as well as other authors.  These 55 snippets are various in nature, some conveying complete thoughts and others without much meaning in and of themselves but clearly part of larger works which have either been lost to history or remain to be discovered or translated.

Some notable inclusions:

Section III – contains a remembrance of Polycarp’s visit to Rome during the papacy of Anicetus.  They disagreed on the proper day to observe Easter, yet refused to let their different traditions cause a rift between them.  So firm was their commitment to unity rather than division that St. Anicetus allowed St. Polycarp to preside over the Eucharist celebration in the Church in Rome.  The translator references the Council of Arles in 314 AD as commemorating this by decreeing formally that the holy Eucharist should be consecrated by any foreign bishop present at its celebration, but I can’t find corroboration for this assertion.

Section XIThe business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death.  (as quoted by John of Damascus, likely from a work of Irenaeus entitled Miscellaneous Dissertations, which is referred to by Eusebius).

Section XVI – There may be some uncertainty as to  whether this is really from Irenaeus or not, but in treating the topic of the Fall in Genesis 3, Irenaeus lauds Eve not as the weaker of the the humans but the stronger.  She resisted Satan’s temptations for some period of time, even arguing with him, while Adam ate immediately when she offered him the forbidden fruit without any objection or apparent misgivings.

Section XXIV – He asserts that Matthew’s Gospel was intended for Jewish readers.

Section XXXII – Quotes a tradition from Josephus, that Moses was not just brought up on the Egyptian Pharaoh’s palace, he served as a general in a military effort against the Ethiopians.  Because of his victory he married the daughter of the Ethiopian king.  The translator offers this tradition as perhaps an explanation of St. Stephen’s words  in Acts 7:22, emphasizing Moses’ esteem and wisdom before being selected by God to confront the Pharaoh.

Section LV – A fascinating commentary on the mother of James and John asking Jesus to grant her sons special favor  in glory (Matthew 20:17-28).  Usually, commentators look poorly upon her request, coming as it does so immediately upon Jesus’ prediction of his upcoming suffering and death.  It seems to be the height of not  just pride or grasping for  honor or glory, but terribly poor  timing!  But Irenaeus looks at it differently.  He instead praises their mother.  While we often focus on the first part of Jesus’ prophesy, that he will be tried and condemned to death and be flogged and crucified, the mother hears only the last words.  So firm is her faith – according to Irenaeus – that she considers the tribulations and sufferings of Jesus truly as inconsequential compared to the glory they will bring to him and his followers.  Precisely because she makes the request at this particular point, rather than after the resurrection is a praiseworthy demonstration of faith on her part!  The Saviour was speaking of the cross, while she had in view the glory which admits no suffering.  This woman, therefore, as I have already said, is worthy of our admiration, not merely for what she sought, but also for the occasion of her making the request.  

With this, I’ve completed the first volume of the  Ante-Nicene Fathers.  Thank you again too Lois for her generous gift.  At this rate, I may indeed finish them before I die – just barely!

 

ANF: Against Heresies

May 19, 2020

The ongoing saga of my life-long effort to read through all the Ante-Nicene Fathers’ writings….

While it ends abruptly enough for scholars to suspect there was originally a more formal ending.  what we have in extant of Irenaeus’ major work is impressive enough.  Five volumes devoted to explaining the heretical teachings of several prominent schools of early Gnostic Christians and then demonstrating the falsity of  these heresies in the light of Scripture and apostolic tradition.  I’ve been fascinated with this work for years, and while I’m glad to have finished it, there is also an element of disappointment.  Against Heresies is not a generic work but very focused on dealing with the major heretical movements of Irenaeus’ day (and rightly so).  As such, much of it is not terribly helpful in dealing with more modern heresies.

Specifically Irenaeus is most concerned with the heresies of the Valentinians.  These are the followers of Valentinius, who premised a secret  knowledge of an extended cosmology well beyond  what Scripture lays out.  The entire first volume of Against Heresies is dedicated to describing in detail what Valentinius taught and his followers believed and then expanded upon.  These followers included Cerdon but more importantly Marcion and then the Montanists.

Along the way are fascinating insights to the life of the early Church and the fervency with which the Church was concerned with the Word of God as the only reliable source of knowledge.  These and other heretical groups attempted to draw from select portions of Scripture as proof of their false teachings, and Irenaeus destroys their attempts with an early example of a basic exegetical principle  – let Scripture interpret Scripture.  His list of the popes in Rome from St. Peter to Irenaeus’ day  is the most reliable source for this information.

I can’t advise anyone who isn’t a scholar of the early Church or a student of Greek or Latin or a doctoral student looking for thesis material to read this work.  It  doesn’t apply well today, when Scripture is held in such low esteem not only by non-Christians but many Christians as well.  Using Scripture and logic Irenaeus is convinced he has aptly destroyed the positions of his opponents, another concept difficult to translate into our day of subjective truth and very little understanding of logic and argumentation.

 

ANF: Fragments of the Lost Work of Justin on the Resurrection

April 29, 2020

The ongoing saga of  my life-long effort to read through all of the Ante-Nicene Fathers’ writings….

The title is pretty self-explanatory.  These are some writings attributed to Justin Martyr as part of a longer treatise regarding the resurrection and the implications of bodily resurrection for believers.  He addresses several confusions, questions, or arguments regarding the doctrine of bodily resurrection from the dead, including whether our bodily members will discharge the same functions after our resurrection as they do now, and whether those who deal with malformations of body parts will be resurrected with the same.  In case you’re curious, Justin doesn’t think our bodily members will necessary perform the same duties after the resurrection as before, and he believes any physical disabilities or limitations in this life will be corrected in the next, based on Jesus’ healing of blindness, deafness, lameness, etc.

He then moves on to argue that the doctrine of bodily resurrection is consistent with the teachings of Greek philosophy, and addresses the relationship of the body and soul regarding sin.

Although this is incomplete, it is valuable for what an early Church Father thought regarding the bodily resurrection, and is good evidence this doctrine was firmly in place and being taught in the early Church.

 

Reading Ramblings – April 19, 2020

April 12, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday of Easter – COVID-19 – April 19, 2020

Texts: Acts 5:29-42; Psalm 148; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Context: He is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah! This is the ancient Easter greeting of God’s people. One tradition traces this back to Mary Magdalene, who journeyed to Rome after Jesus’ ascension to evangelize. Eventually she found herself called to the presence of the Emperor Tiberias, to whom she stated “Christ is risen!”, and then gifted him with a red egg. Eggs were a common gift among the poor on special holidays, and this began the Christian association of eggs with the resurrection. The egg is rumored to have been red because of another unverifiable legend, that of two Jews meeting in Jerusalem on that first Easter Sunday. One asked the other if he had heard the miraculous news of Jesus’ resurrection. The other, carrying a basket of eggs, said he could not believe such a preposterous assertion – it sounded as impossible as white eggs turning red. At which point the eggs in his basket turned red, prompting his conversion to the faith. Whether these stories and the traditions they generate are true or not, the truth of our Lord’s resurrection remains something that deserves a special exclamatory and celebratory phrase! The Lord has risen! He has risen indeed! Hallelujah!

Acts 5:29-42 – The first witnesses of our Lord’s resurrection were commanded to quit talking about it. The religious authorities thought with the death of Jesus, his popularity would fall and his followers would disperse. Wasn’t this what happened naturally to most groups when a leader died – especially if that leader died in disgrace and the threat of similar disgrace was extended to the followers? But Peter and the apostles, who had been so frightened the night of Jesus’ arrest and the day of his execution and burial are no longer afraid. They have seen their risen Lord! How could they ever stop talking about it? Others might take violent action against them but they could never betray the truth the carried. Wiser minds among the religious leadership understood that while they might not believe what the disciples claimed, either the falsity of it would be exposed in due time and without further pressure from the Sanhedrin, or it might actually be true, in which case all the power and threats of the Sanhedrin and Rome itself would be incapable of stopping the spread of such amazing news. History stands as a witness to the truth of Gamaliel’s words.

Psalm 148 – What a beautifully unabashed hymn of praise! The Lord is to be praised, and there are no exceptions as to who or what should be praising him, since He is the creator of everything. The heavenly bodies are called to praise him (vs.1-4), and vs. 5-6 are an interesting clarification – these heavenly beings praise God as their creator. They are heavenly, but they are not divine. They are not to be worshiped but rather to be revered as a mirror of the power and majesty of God who created them. Nature is next called to praise God (vs.7-10) and this includes both natural features as well as the creatures associated with them. Verses 11-12 summon all of humanity from the highest stations to the lowest to praise of their creator. The reason for this praise is finally alluded to in the final verse, as God has raised up a horn for his people. Horns were often symbols of strength, drawn from the animals who possessed them. A horned beast could scatter and defeat enemies. Horns from these animals were taken as musical instruments and also copied into architecture and art – the altar on which sacrifices were burned in the Old Testament had horns on the four corners. So this wording here means strength, deliverance from enemies, security, and all good things for which God truly should be praised!

1 Peter 1:3-9 – This passage is a fantastic summary not only of the source of our faith but also our hope. Peter gives praise to God the Father because it was according to his plan that Jesus the Christ would enter into creation on our behalf. This is motivated by divine mercy, rather than any merit on our part, and that mercy makes possible to us new life grounded in the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. This new life in us is more than life as we think of it in terms of mortality. Rather, it’s an inheritance, something yet to be received in full but guaranteed to us, protected for us and from our enemy, Satan, by God in heaven. This salvation is a reality that will be seen eventually, and anticipated in hope now. As such, even when things here and now are hard, we don’t lose hope or peace or joy. This present moment passes, but what we look forward to does not and will not. Our faith in the midst of struggle and trial is not simply a testimony to our faith, but ultimately to the glory of God who has worked things in this fashion. We give testimony to the goodness and greatness of our God that not even the worst threats of this world can diminish.

John 20:19-31 – Hands and sides. Jesus offers his disciples evidence of who and what He is. Why would this be necessary? Wouldn’t his disciples know him for who He was? The simple answer seems to be no, not necessarily. Mary didn’t recognize him initially outside the tomb. The two men on the road to Emmaus are clearly familiar with Jesus and his work and more than sympathetic to him, yet they don’t recognize him on their walk or even as they sit down to eat with him. When they saw Jesus walking on the water earlier in their time with him (Matthew 14) they presumed him to be a ghost, so there’s some understanding or belief in them that spiritual entities exist and might be the explanation behind things physical beings shouldn’t be able to do.

Against uncertainties and confusions and misunderstandings, against fears of the spectral Jesus offers his physicality. Just as He could walk on water yet remain a physical man, so now Jesus appears before them, alive though slain, standing though buried. Though the marks of his scourging are apparently gone he retains the key signs of his death – the nail holes in his hands and feet as well as the wound from the spear thrust in his side. These wounds remain fresh, unhealed, since He can offer to Thomas even a week later to place his hand in Jesus’ side. These wounds are definitive, and they bring faith and comfort to the ten and then to Thomas as well, and so to you and I.

The disciples knew Jesus. They were expected to differentiate him from some other spiritual presence. His physicality was as real after the resurrection as it had been before, including the fact that his physicality could do things (walk on water, enter locked rooms) other physical human bodies could not. If there is suspicion about the solidity of things as we understand them to be, perhaps it should be suspicion regarding the things around us rather than our bodies themselves!

The disciples are not asked to believe blindly, and neither are we. We are asked to trust testimony, testimony subject to the same evaluation and testing as the other testimony we build our lives around.

Apocrypha – 4 Maccabees

March 25, 2020

This is the last of the apocryphal writings, at least so far as they are put together in The Apocrypha: The Lutheran Edition with Notes.

This final entry seems one of the most easiest to dismiss as non-canonical.  The primary theme in this writing is the supremacy of reason over emotions, a thought prevalent in Greek philosophy.  It may have been authored as late as the first century AD but it is difficult to determine.  The author utilizes both Biblical stories as well as extra-biblical historical events to demonstrate how reason rules over the emotions rather than the reverse.

He draws on King David as well as inter-testamental events, most particularly the martyrdom of Eleazar and seven brothers who were martyred under Antiochus Epiphanes as part of his effort to force the Jews first into apostasy and eventually into full Hellenization.  4 Maccabees expands upon the account in 2 Maccabees 7 about these seven brothers, providing quite gory details about each one of the seven, and providing them with lengthy admonitions as they were brought forward for torture and execution, proclaiming eloquently how it was better to die faithfully than to live a lie.  4 Maccabees ends with the final words of the mother to her children.  The author seems to lose his original focus, so caught up is he in the graphic depictions of torture and death he has provided.

Reason as an attribute or quality in and of itself is not a dominant theme in Scripture, unlike wisdom.   I see reason as such subsumed into the larger and far more Biblical category of Wisdom.  For wisdom recognizes and sets the boundaries on what we can reasonably deduce or ascertain, recognizing first and foremost that even our reason is no longer trustworthy since the Fall.

I’m glad I took the time to finally read these works.  They aren’t writings I’m going to spend further time and effort except as necessary for clarification or to answer specific questions.  But it’s good to have a general idea of what they say and to recognize how they differ rather markedly, usually, from canonical Biblical writings.

 

Apocrypha – 3 Maccabees (Ptolemaika)

March 25, 2020

Likely authored towards the  end of the third century BC or early second century BC by an Egyptian Jew, 3 Maccabees deals primarily with the efforts of Ptolemy IV to overthrow the Jewish people and God’s defense of his people.  Thus the traditional title is confusing because it deals with events which occurred well  before the rise of the Maccabees. The more ancient title of Ptolemaika makes more sense since the main character described is Ptolemy IV Philopator.  Because it does not appear to have been authored in Hebrew or by a recognized prophet it has remained outside the Biblical canon despite the Roman Catholic decision to include it based on the Apostolic Canons.  These  were believed to have apostolic authority although that is no longer believed to be the case by many scholars.

The book begins in mid-thought, as though it were originally part of a larger work or the introduction to this work has been lost.  The historical events in the broad sense are true and accurate though this writing attributes divine and angelic elements to those events which sound as though they are exaggeration or embellishment, though of course it is possible they are true as well.

Again, this seems an unreliable text even as it deals with actual events.