Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Faith and love are always to be mistresses of the law

Following up on the last post, here is more from Martin Luther's introduction to the Old Testament:

[I]t is to be noted that the laws are of three kinds. Some speak only of temporal things, as do our imperial laws. These are established by God chiefly because of the wicked, that they may not do worse things. Such laws are for prevention rather than for instruction; as when Moses commands to dismiss a wife with a letter of separation, or that a husband shall bring an “offering of jealousy” for his wife, and may take other wives besides.

All these are temporal laws. — There are some, however, that teach the external worship of God, as was said above.

Over and above these are the laws about faith and love, so that all other laws must and ought to be measured by the laws of faith and love; that is to say, they are to be kept where their observance does not conflict with faith and love; but where they conflict with faith and love, they are entirely void.

Therefore we read that David did not kill the murderer Joab, though he had twice deserved death; and in 2 Samuel 14:11 he promises the woman of Tekoa that her son shall not die, though he has slain his brother; Absalom, too, he did not kill. Moreover, David himself ate of the holy bread of the priests, and Tamar thought the king might give her in marriage to her stepbrother, Amnon. From these and similar stories one sees plainly that the kings, priests, and heads of the people often transgressed the laws boldly, at the demand of faith and love, and therefore that faith and love are always to be mistresses of the law and to have all laws in their power. For since all laws aim at faith and love, none of them can be valid, or be a law, if it conflicts with faith and love.
(Introduction to the Old Testament, 1545)

More from Luther's Introduction to the Old Testament:

From Luther's Introduction to the New Testament:

Monday, February 25, 2013

Luther & Scripture as the swaddling-clothes and the manger in which Christ lies

Along with 30 or so other members of my congregation, I’ve been participating in the Bible Challenge to read through the Bible in a year. We read three chapters from the Old Testament, one Psalm, and one chapter from the New Testament every day except Sundays (so we can focus on the lessons assigned for worship).

This has been a great exercise for lots of reasons, not least because it has sparked lots of conversations. This is especially the case with the Old Testament in which many are finding much that is puzzling and provocative. Even folk who come from strong Bible backgrounds are unfamiliar with large chunks of the Old Testament.

And it has to be acknowledged that the Old Testament – along with much that is beautiful, wonderful, evocative, and edifying – contains material that is puzzling, disturbing, and even morally offensive when measured against the life and teaching of Jesus.

One of the big questions is how to make sense of all that. One way to at least begin answering that question is Martin Luther’s double analogy in his introduction to the Old Testament. First he suggests that the Old Testament is like a rich and inexhaustible mine in which we find the wisdom of God. Then he compares it to the manger and swaddling clothes in which Jesus lies. Not everything in the Old Testament is the treasure. But it is the loftiest and noblest of holy things because of the treasure it holds:

Therefore let your own thoughts and feelings go, and think of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines, which can never be worked out, so that you may find the wisdom of God that He lays before you in such foolish and simple guise, in order that He may quench all pride. Here you will find the swaddling-clothes and the mangers in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds.

Simple and little are the swaddling-clothes, but dear is the treasure, Christ, that lies in them.

More from Luther’s Introduction to the Old Testament: 

Faith and love are always to be mistresses of the law

From Luther's Introduction to the New Testament:

Friday, February 22, 2013

The whole purpose of the Savior’s commandments

Maximos the Confessor (c. 580 – 662), from the Philokalia:

The whole purpose of the Savior’s commandments is to free the intellect from dissipation and hatred, and to lead it to the love of Him and one’s neighbor. From this love springs the light of active holy knowledge.
Four Hundred Texts on Love, Fourth Century

Along the same lines:

He who always concentrates on the inner life becomes restrained, long-suffering, kind and humble. He will also be able to contemplate, theologize and pray. That is what St Paul meant when he said: ‘Walk in the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:16).

One ignorant of the spiritual path is not on his guard against impassioned conceptual images, but devotes himself entirely to the flesh. He is either a glutton, or licentious, or full of resentment, anger and rancor. As a result he darkens his intellect, or he practices excessive asceticism and so confuses his mind.

Scripture does not forbid anything which God has given us for our use; but it condemns immoderation and thoughtless behavior. For instance, it does not forbid us to eat, or to beget children, or to possess material things and to administer them properly. But it does forbid us to be gluttonous, to fornicate and so on. It does not forbid us to think of these things — they were made to be thought of —  but it forbids us to think of them with passion [by which I think he means with a grasping possessiveness that puts those things in place of God as opposed to enjoying them as gifts from and a means for enjoying God].
Four Hundred Texts on Love, Fourth Century

Previously from the Philokalia: Preoccupation with Material Things

Monday, February 18, 2013

Our Sinful Passions at Work in Our Members

An addendum to last week’s post on self-control and passions:

In his letter to the church in Rome. Paul writes, “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.”
(Romans 7:5)

At the risk of belaboring the point I made last week, I wonder what comes to mind for most of us when we hear Paul’s reference to sinful passions at work in our members. Which of our ‘members’? What ‘passions’? Is it just me, or don’t most of us initially think of sexual members and sexual passions?

No doubt, our sexual members and passions can cause all sorts of moral mischief. But, that is far from Paul’s only concern. And from the concerns of the rest of the New Testament.

The only other place in the New Testament where ‘member’ is used in the same way as Paul uses it in Romans 7 is in the Letter of James. There, James does not refer to sexual members but to a member that causes much more mischief and does more damage to our souls than those – the tongue. “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” (James 3:5)

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? (James 3:6 - 4:1)

So, when we think of the discipline of self-control, one of the members we need most to attend to is the tongue as well as the sinful spiritual passions/cravings that are expressed by that member which bear the fruit of death. And in the digital age, the ‘tongue’ might well include those ten small members at the end of our hands.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Preoccupation with Material Things

The Philokalia (Love of the Good/Beautiful) is a collection of writings from the Eastern Church, mostly from the first millennium and  mostly centering on practicing the disciplines and virtues of radical discipleship which lead us toward the good and beautiful life incarnated by Jesus Christ. It can be found online here. I have found the Philokalia a provocative and edifying resource. I quoted excerpts from it in my last post and also here I intend to post a quote or excerpt from various authors found in the Philokalia on Fridays during Lent.
Here is a passage from St Neilos The Ascetic on the scandal of Christians preoccupied with material things:

So great is our preoccupation with material things that we feel no shame when, on breaking the Savior’s commandments, we are rebuked even by those whom we despise because they still live 'in the world'; for they now teach us instead of us teaching them. When we are quarrelling, they remind us that 'the servant of Christ must not engage in strife, but be gentle to all men'(2 Tim. 2:24); when we are disputing about money and possessions, they quote to us the text, 'If anyone. . .takes away your coat, let him have your cloak also'(Matt. 5:40). They ridicule and deride us because of the incongruity between our actions and our vocation. Indeed, is it ever right to engage in disputes in order to protect our property? Suppose that someone destroys the boundary of our vineyard and adds it to his own land: someone else lets his animal loose in it; and someone else diverts the water supply from our garden. Must we then lose all self-control in such situations, and become worse than madmen? But in that case our intellect, which should be engaged in the contemplation of created beings, must now give its attention to lawsuits, turning its contemplative power to worldly cunning, so as to defend a quantity of unnecessary possessions.
Ascetic Discourse

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Getting Off the Fence: Reclaiming Self-control

In an earlier post in an ongoing series "Getting Off the Fence” in which I am attempting to explain my change of mind regarding the possibility of committed monogamous same-sex relationships being a faithful option for Christians and therefore their blessability I identified three headings under which I would make my apologia. The first was Testimony. The second was a Commitment to the Pursuit of Holiness. This post falls under that second heading.

Self-Control in the New Testament and Beyond

When Paul was called before Felix, the governor of Judea, and his wife Drusilla, he spoke to them "about faith in Christ Jesus" and about "about justice and self-control and future judgment" (Acts 24:24-25). It is interesting that Paul mentions those three things as what follows from faith in Christ Jesus. While much could be said about the first and third, I want to look at the second, ‘self-control'.

I wonder how many American Christians would list self-control as one of the hallmarks of being a Christian. We who live in an affluent and self-indulgent society. We whose imaginations have been shaped by the bombardment of consumerist propaganda that suggests we should have whatever we want? Do we really believe that self-control is a basic mark of being a Christian? Or are we just as self-indulgent as our neighbors? Are we notably more moderate in our consumption of food and drink? In our pursuit of and accumulation of wealth? Our gratification of every sexual desire? And what  about indulging our more deadly spiritual passions? I wonder if Jesus might just as accurately say of us what he said of the scribes and Pharisees, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Matthew 23:25)

Self-control is a recurrent theme in the New Testament. It is rooted in Jesus’ declaration that self-denial is a basic requirement for being among his followers (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23). It is listed as one of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23) and one of the two things, love being the other, that God has given us instead of a spirit of timidity (2 Timothy 1:7). It is listed as one of the criteria for being a bishop (Titus 1:8).

And the early church continued to recognize the centrality of self-control to the Christian way. Here are a couple of representatives:
No virtue makes flesh-bound man so like a spiritual angel as does self-restraint, for it enables those still living on earth to become, as the Apostle says, 'citizens of heaven’ (cf. Phil. 3:20).
– John Cassion (ca. 360 – 435), On the Eight Vices

Stillness, prayer, love and self -control are a four-horsed chariot bearing the intellect to heaven.
– St Thalassios the Libyan (7th century), On Love, Self-control and Life in Accordance with the Intellect, First Century

Passions and Pleasures

Why is self-control so central to Christian faithfulness? Partly because the lack of it and excess in general were suspect in the cultural context of the New Testament. Self-control is emphasized because it gets at the root sin of selfishness. Out of that root grow ‘works of the flesh’ (Galatians 5:19) making us ‘slaves to various passions and pleasures’ (Titus3:3). Warnings against ‘passions’ show up frequently in the New Testament (cf. Romans 1:26, Romans 6:12, Romans 7:5, 1 Corinthians 7:36, Galatians 5:24, Ephesians 2:3, 2 Timothy 2:22, Titus 2:12, Titus 3:3, James 4:1, James 4:3, 1 Peter 1:14, 1 Peter 2:11, 1 Peter 4:2, 1 Peter 4:3, 2 Peter 2:18, 2 Peter 3:3, Jude 1:16, Jude 1:18).
Here it gets tricky. Ask anyone what ‘various passions and pleasures’ might refer to and the answer will almost certainly be that it refers to sex. While self-control in sexual behavior is a concern and ‘passion’ in the New Testament sometimes refers to sexual passion, the ‘works of the flesh’ and ‘passions’ are about much more than that.
'Passion' was in fact a term used broadly in pagan philosophical morality as well as early Christian teaching that refers to interior spiritual agitations that lead to thoughts and behaviors that are contrary to our nature and lead us away from God’s good pleasure. As such, passions refer to all sinful desires that draw us away from love of God and love of neighbor.
Let me emphasize this again: Unnatural, sinful passions and desires are not only – or even primarily – about sex (see Indulging Unnatural Passions). Besides uncontrolled sexual passion, i.e., Lust, the passions refer to the other six of what became known as the Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Envy, Malice, and Pride. According to Titus 3:3, Being ‘slaves to various passions and pleasures’ means ‘passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another.’ And when Paul lists the works of the flesh that are opposed to the Spirit, along with out of control sexual behavior like ‘fornication, impurity, and licentiousness’, he also lists ‘idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.’ (Galatians 5:19-21).
Reclaiming Self-Control
I am convinced that self-control is a neglected fruit of the spirit that needs cultivating in the contemporary church. It’s lack is at the heart of much of the church's spiritual shallowness. We would do well to reclaim the discipline of self-control. That means self-control of physical appetites:
In our sexual attitudes and behavior. Chastity and modesty are classic Christian virtues of sexual self-control that we would do well to reclaim. That means rethinking some of our entertainment as well as our behavior. Even if we are persuaded that the blessings and disciplines of marriage can be faithfully extended to marriage-like same-sex unions, we should resist capitulating to our society’s abandoning of self-control in this area.

In our consumption of food and drink. The classic virtue of moderation suggests that we can exercise self-control and learn to eat no more than we need to maintain our health. And that fasting is a discipline that we should incorporate into our lives beyond Lent.

Our accumulation of stuff: The classic virtue of simplicity is about exercising the self-control to be content with enough rather than constantly accumulating more and perpetually pursuing the newest and latest whatever.

Our addiction to busyness and distraction. Observing Sabbath requires the self-control to stop striving and to rest in the assurance that God is indeed in control.
But, more importantly, we need to reclaim self-control of spiritual passions:

I suspect that the classic disciplines of self-control are just the foundation of the more significant and more difficult self-control of the self-denying, self-offering love that Jesus calls us to. The wisdom seems to be that if we can exercise self-control at this most basic physical realm of the stomach and other bodily desire, we might also be able to exercise self-control in the spiritual realm of the heart where the more insidious sins of anger, malice, enmity, envy, impatience, vain-glory, etc, lurk. As Jesus said, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23).

We live in an affluent, indulgent society. But, Christians ought not to be indulging our every passion and desire. We have been given a spirit of self-control. Let’s not be timid. Let’s commit ourselves to the discipline of bodily self-control rather than indulging our desires and pampering ourselves. And let us commit ourselves to the more difficult self-control when it comes to those more insidious passions of the heart rather than indulging our impatience, anger, malice, envy, enmity, resentment, jealousy, judgmentalism, pride, factionalism, quarrels, etc. That is what Christian holiness looks like.
But, being self-indulgent, they do not realize how their soft living constantly breeds new and extravagant desires.
– St Neilos The Ascetic (died c. 430), Ascetic Discourse
Knowledge of what is good for him has been given to everyone by God; but self-indulgence leads to negligence, and negligence to forgetfulness.
– St. Mark the Ascetic (5th century),
On the Spiritual Law
Always keep the same measure of self-control; otherwise through irregularity you will go from one extreme to another.” St. Thalassios the Libyan

An addendum: Our Sinful Passions at Work in Our Members