Monthly Archives: October 2010

A child at peace in the presence of his father: a Lutheran monasticism?

Note to any who dare to read: As Reformation day approaches, why not be a little controversial?  A week or so ago, I came across something I’d started writing a couple years ago, but had forgotten about.  I offer it now for feedback and critique – and to promote discussion about these matters.  Unhappily, I won’t be able to comment again myself again until Monday.

A new [Lutheran] monasticism for today?

Martin Luther, the monk who took down Western monasticism (at least making it less dominant), wrote in the Smalcald Articles:

As monastic vows directly conflict with the first chief article, they must be absolutely abolished. For it is of them that Christ says, Matt. 24:5,23ff : I am Christ, etc. 2] For he who makes a vow to live as a monk believes that he will enter upon a mode of life holier than ordinary Christians lead, and wishes to earn heaven by his own works not only for himself, but also for others; this is to deny Christ. 3] And they boast from their St. Thomas that a monastic vow is equal to Baptism. This is blasphemy [against God].

In addition, the monks of Luther’s day were performing the “counsels” (non-obligatory works, unlike the precepts which bound all) in order to earn additional merit that they could transfer to others.  It seems very safe to say that something had definitely gone wrong with monasticism – at least in some quarters.

But then again – was monasticism ever right to begin with?  Philip Melanchton certainly seems to leave the door open for this possibility.  Responding to the Roman Confutation (written vs. the Augsburg Confession), which asserted that “the monks try to pattern their lives more closely after the Gospel in order to merit eternal life” (Roman Confutation to the Augsburg Confession, p. 271, fn 5, Tappert), he wrote in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession:

Anthony, Bernard, Dominic, Francis, and other holy Fathers chose a certain kind of life for study or for other useful exercises.  At the same time they believed that through faith they were accounted righteous and had a gracious God because of Christ, not because of their own spiritual exercises.  But the crowd ever since has copied not the faith of the Fathers but only their behavior without their faith in order by such works to merit the forgiveness of sins, grace and righteousness” (Ap 4.211. Cf. Also Ap 24.7 and Ap27.21).

And later in the section about monastic vows, he wrote:

In the histories of the hermits there are stories of Anthony and of others which put various ways of life on the same level. It is written that when Anthony asked God to show him what progress he was making in his way of life, God pointed in a dream to a certain shoemaker in the city of Alexandria as a basis for comparison. The next day Anthony went into the city and came to the shoemaker to find out about his exercises and gifts. In his conversation with the man he did not hear anything, except that in the morning he prayed in a few words for the whole city and then paid attention to his business. Thus Anthony came to understand that justification was not to be attributed to the way of life he had undertaken. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XXVII:38, pp. 275-76)

Later he said:

“If we follow this, monasticism will be no more a state of perfection than the life of a farmer or mechanic. For these are also, states in which to acquire perfection. For all men, in every vocation, ought to seek perfection, that is, to grow in the fear of God, in faith, in love towards one’s neighbor, and similar spiritual virtues.” (Tappert, Apology, Art. XXVII, Par. 37)

But if monasticism was not necessarily an un-Christian attempt to earn God’s favor, than what was it?  Was it simply an all-out retreat from the world, as it is often characterized?  This seems unlikely, seeing as how the writings and practices of the monks both indicate that they were still concerned to be “in the world” while not being “of” it.  Gregory of Nanzianzus in his works endeavored to show that “the monastic profession is characterized by steadfastness in a way of life rather than by physical withdrawal”[1]  The idea seems to have been that by embracing the monastic life, persons could be most fully equipped to fulfill a priestly, prophetic and royal ministry for the “life of the world.”  (Some persons have even argued that it was not the “mainstream” institutional church but rather the monastics that created the Church’s impetus for missions and evangelism).  “If you want to exercise the priesthood of your soul, do not let the fire depart from your soul”, Origin had said, and for some, this meant something akin to the monastic life was needed. (see here)

Rather than an attempt to earn one’s salvation before God, it seems that monasticism was born from its founders’ desire to intentionally live out more fully the Christian life that had freely given to them in their baptism.  Many of them in fact believed that the world was becoming less and less conducive to the full blossoming of the faith once delivered to all the saints.  Yes, political figures like Constantine had made it possible for Christianity to become institutionally acceptable, but it was precisely in this that something important was being lost in the process.  Therefore, that something that was being lost would not necessarily be able to be handed on in an environment which tended to produce more watered-down forms of the historic faith.  The marriage with Caesar came with costs.

In other words, as Lutheran Pastor Will Weedon suspects, “a key to getting what the early monks were about, though, is that they were desiring to LIVE (as opposed to earn) the heavenly life now.  To live more of it in this age than was possible in other settings.  So the constant prayers, the singing, and celibacy.”  This means that although it was certainly an “intensified lifestyle that attempt[ed] to facilitate intimate communion with God on this side of paradise”, and was “efforts-based”, involving one’s entire being, it was not thereby “works-based”, where one attempted to climb into heaven by one’s own merits and accomplishments (these ideas were from an EO friend).  Pastor Weedon went on to tell me that “Luther spoke of [monasticism] originally as a sort of ‘schooling’ and it was that – if we think of it as a schooling for the undying age to come!”

Luther also spoke of our responsibility to “put the best construction” on things, and therefore, I think this is in all likelihood a good and proper way of looking at the situation.  At the same time, I think if we are to understand this as the sincere intention of the early monastics, this way of understanding is still not without its problems – although God certainly used monasticism and sustained it in spite of itself to accomplish many wonderful things.

Just what do I think was wrong with this monasticism?  Well, God certainly wants us to have more intimate communion with Him – and to strive for such.  The art of Law and Gospel is learned in the school of experience, and let the one who boasts boasts that he knows and understands the Lord!  The main theme of the great pietist hymn “One Thing’s Needful” is sound, and Lutheran orthodoxy and other non-pietists would do well to pay attention here.  The problem is not that we feel the need to “come out from them” – the world – to this or that extent, for this is entirely reasonable (as one notices the problem of dirty water, i.e. cultural pollution, all around them, this does not mean they are being self-righteous or necessarily denying their own sins, or sinfulness), and the motif is something which all Christians struggle with from time to time, place to place, degree to degree.  The problem is rather that we often seek to do this via means that He has not given us, but that we have invented ourselves.

I think that what is at issue is whether or not we believe we should expect to live the heavenly life now, and just what we think this “heavenly life” entails.  Yes, persons will no longer marry and be given in marriage in heaven, but does this necessarily mean that the practice of celibacy now, in the fallen world, is anything other or more than a special kind of blessing which enables certain individuals to be more single-minded, focused, and free in their efforts to accomplish in one form that which all Christians are called to do?  Further, Jesus was the New Man, the Heavenly Man, but note that He entered into a fallen world marred by sin and full of corruption, death, tears and sadness.  Hence, He learned – grew into, obedience, by what He suffered.  We new men are not exempt from this and cannot rise above it, nor should we expect that we will – for the time being.  We must constantly keep in mind that it is this very new, heavenly man who like Christ, descends to earth and suffers (not the old man!) – “for we who are alive are always being given over to death…” (II Cor 4) ...and this is for the life of the world, just like our Lord, whom we image… This is easy to forget, and I think often is forgotten among Lutheran theologians.

In truth, we are not to “live the life of heaven” now – if by this we mean to imply in any sense that we will be removed from the earthly realities of pain, tears, sorrow, thorns, and sadness – but we are rather to, in Christ, descend into our neighbor, bringing the very Life of heaven, the Bread that all men need.  In fact, God has even called us to be worldly, in one sense at least, that we are to use money and other “stuff of the world” – ungodly mammon for the sake of his kingdom, his purposes (and then we will be welcomed into the homes of those who dwell in heaven) – we can’t avoid any of these things, nor should we, this side of heaven.  No, the fullness of “on earth as it is in heaven” will ultimately have to wait until Christ’s second advent, when the disease of sin and corruption which infects humanity and its institutions, replete with all its “ungodly mammon”, will finally be wiped out.

Then keeping these things in mind, might it be possible that concepts of monasticism might soon arise again from the ashes among Lutherans, (just as it already has among many Evangelicals, I hear)?  Possibly.

Why not?  Perhaps St. Basil, one of the mainstays in Eastern monastic thought, may provide some guidance in this area.  A Benedictine Monk, Father Augustine Holmes writes of Basil’s monastic musings:

On examining these definitions one things is clear: none of them clearly defines those with whom Basil is dealing as against ‘ordinary Christians’, as the word ‘monk’ does today. Certain texts imply a boundary, but the main boundary, as in Longer Rule 32 on the parents of brothers, is between those who live ‘kata theon’, who are devout, and the worldly. In the Asceticon, composed over two or three decades, we can see various situations and a gradual development of institutions and hardening of boundaries, but Basil’s ascetic teaching, which was also given in all its rigour in Homilies addressed to wider audiences, was addressed to all Christians. It was only in the context of later developments that the Asceticon came to be seen as a purely monastic document. (Augustine Holmes OSB. A Life Pleasing to God. The Spirituality of the Rules of St Basil. London, DLT, 2000.54, italics mine)

Macrina Walker, writing at the blog “A Vow of Conversation” also says “Father Holmes notes various terms that Basil uses: piety (although in a stronger sense than today), godly, life according to the way of God, ascesis as in “athletes of the Commandments of Christ” and “the ascesis of being well-pleasing to God according to the Gospel of Christ”, a life pleasing to God, a life with one aim, namely, the glory of God, and a life of brotherhood. (p.53)”

She then goes on to comment: “When I read this I was reminded of something that I heard Metropolitan Jonah say recently. He said that if one is to distinguish between people then it is not so much between those in the Church and those outside of it, as between those living according to the passions (understood in the patristic sense of disordered desires) and those struggling against the passions, which is what ascesis is all about. I suspect that St Basil would agree.”  (see here)

As would another Eastern Orthodox blogger, who communicated to the Eastern Orthodox friend I mentioned above:

Unfortunately, I don’t know of anything in particular on the monk/laity distinction.  I can say that it is absolutely not true that the monks are the “model of a true spirital athlete.”  The saints are.  And it is the saints in their holy lives, some being monks, yes, but many, many, many more being lay people, who won the crown.  Whoever spreads the tale that monks are the pinnacle of the Christian life is deceived and deceiving. It is absolutely not true.  We each of us have different paths.  In some ways, the monks are the weakest, in that they must pursue their life in Christ apart from the world, while others are able to triumph in the world, in big cities, and in so many more difficult situations than the ideal world of a monastery. Yes, it would be ideal to be able to spend nearly 24 hours a day in prayer, but this is a goal all of us work toward, not just the monks.  Indeed, the monasteries are places sanctified by prayer.  But so is your own prayer corner in your home.  Monks have always been outnumbered by laity, among the saints as well as in a census polling.  But it is the saints to look to for help, for the examples on how to triumph as they have.  Some saint of some age will have suffered the things that each of us suffers, so there is a relationship of experience between us and that saint.  The saint’s having overcome through the grace of God then becomes the guideline for our own salvation, and the saint a prayerful partner and indeed a coach to cheer us onward.

Building off some of this man’s words above (the ones I italicized and put in bold), perhaps modern monastics could more readily avoid the impression that they are works-based by framing their choice in the following, even more explicit (and perhaps “thought-provoking”?) way:

“We are too weak, feeble, and corrupt to resist the many temptations of this present age.  The secular realm as it is currently imagined and hence constructed is becoming less and less Christian in its affections, and hence, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christian faith to be communicated in words and deeds.  The tempting enticements, multiplied a thousand times, and available from the privacy of our own homes at the click of a mouse, are too great.  The churches themselves are focusing on Jesus Christ and the Scriptures which speak of Him less and less, and their worldliness increases daily.  Temptation abounds as sin for a season has become sin for all seasons.  Even if I flee the sins which so clearly destroy life, in my escape it seems in the popular consciousness I only find pagan solutions that while attempting to control the gross outbreaks of wickedness (family problems and otherwise), are wicked themselves in their idolatry.  The world constantly teaches things which are at odds with what is true about God, about us, about the creation.  I know there are those who tell me that there are good answers to these false assertions, but the lies sometimes sound persuasive, I feel my faith being choked out, and just trying to provide food and housing, I can’t afford an internet connection where I can get to Issues ETC.  : )

Bouncing between what seems to be the extreme of attaining material wealth and comfort (often smuggled in to definitions of “quality of life”) for all, and the other extreme of a spiritual liberty (spiritual power and comfort) that degrades the physical (particularly, the human body) men these days religiously strive for a “progress”, often operating in intellectual isolation from any possible consideration of any true progress that may be due to the Christian message (popularized in books like Alvin Schmidt’s “How Christianity Changed the World” or Vishal Mangalwadi’s “Truth and Transformation”).  They do not seek to be found in a renewed creation in Christ, where they may more fully grow into a realization of what it means to be creatures made in God’s image.  Instead, bolstered in part by the liberation the world has experienced because of the Christian Gospel, they fight against the ancient pagan notions of an unchanging natural order and fate in their own way.  The worldly wiser among them do not reject notions of realism, for there is indeed “the world as it is”, even as there is also “the world as it should be”.  Still, whether they atheistically embrace the material, seeing it as the only reality, or whether they seek liberation from the material in a more spiritual sense, they both see the need or imperative, now driven more so by new medicines and technologies, to liberate humanity from what it previously meant to be human. They will not “destroy the old man” in God’s way, through the Law and Gospel found in Christ, but rather via their own means, and to their own ends.

Further: all of this takes place as relationships are becoming increasingly atomized, self-focused.  The Darwinian life that seems to be required of our persons in the ever-more demanding meritocracy which is our world lends itself to all manner of difficulties, leading to temptations to sin.  The world has determined that I am not as “passionate” and creative and innovate and customer-centric [not just around here, but in the global environment!] as I need to be.  It is no longer good enough to work hard with my hands in a skill or trade – and with integrity.  I can no longer justify my existence to the world with my works, which it sees as increasingly useless and worthy of automation.  The fall no longer obligates us to simply “produce”, but rather we ourselves are becoming products, to be consumed and disposed of at the customer’s whims.  For now, it seems that only those who do not exhibit sufficient (measurable) consciousness and self-awareness are no longer considered persons – but perhaps the definition will expand.  I know God’s expects me to be perfect, but the perfection the world seems to be demanding of me seems even more oppressive – I must give it my all, and I must not devote time to God and His Word, which is seen as increasingly irrelevant.  I must give so much attention to my work, to re-imagining and re-making myself to meet the demands of what is currently demanded that the “things that matter most” are being choked out.

But the “private sector” (free market) is not the only one which has become increasingly oppressive.  The same can be said for the public realm, the realm of those who govern.  After all, families and churches, working hard where God has placed them, making a difference in “Good Samaritan” moments – especially remembering in Christ’s name the poor among them – being supported in their good deeds by a government set up to encourage such work, are not enough.  For there are still too many poor and disadvantaged and disenfranchised (and we are not even talking about the rights that the “persons” of the great apes and other sufficiently cognitive animal species have yet!).  Natural families and churches are not quick enough, far-reaching enough, equitable and fair enough, planned and controlled enough, nor effective and efficient enough in delivering and forming the “civil righteousness” that men need to live together in brotherly unity – to be the kind of new men that will allow for peace and comfort, stability and sustainability (without global warming of course).  Understanding that humanity rightly believes that there is a duty to provide for those who have not, the governing authorities determine that families and churches are not “useful” enough.  Of course, here we see that the prevailing and default mode has become one of a Christless progress, whether understood primarily in a material (power, wealth) or spiritual (love, unity) sense – for these “sides” can often find a very Christless common ground.  With the realities seeming increasingly insurmountable, everything is work and labor – again, in a relentlessly Christless fashion.  Those who manage to attain power (those who are “useful”) are either godless or god ourselves, and so the real God who can save us disappears.  With all of this going on, it is hard to find rest, forgiveness, peace, comfort for one’s family, one’s church, in that Great Stumbling Stone, the Crucified One.

Speaking in my own Western context, since America was settled some four hundred years ago, it seems that gradually with each passing year, more and more persons are losing the orthodox faith once delivered to all the saints.  There are fewer who uphold orthodox Christian teaching than just several years ago.  Perhaps some might conclude: Is not the frog being slowly boiled in the kettle?  Am not I myself very susceptible to this danger?  When they come to this conclusion, what can they say but:  I need more good food!  Yes!  In order to survive spiritually – that I may be what God needs me to be for my neighbor – I know that my soul needs more of His life-giving Word. Like Mary, I need my whole life arranged around the Word.  Time must be made for listening to the Word.  As Gregory Thaumaturgus said in his “Oration and Paneyric to Origen” (pt. 7) in the third century, there is now “no pleasure or leisure for the pursuit of nobler objects”, and we are surrounded by “the slavery of the marketplace and lawsuits and crowds”.  “Indeed it is but likely that in journeying [in the world] I may fall into the hands of robbers and be taken prisoner”.  The world may call me lazy, unpatriotic, a poor world citizen, or even an atheist(!), but this is the truth – I am in need of more food.  The Church may even call me selfish, but may I be “selfish” like a baby receiving nourishment at its mother’s breast.  May I be like the trusting child who simply feels the need for more love. I need more growth in grace.  I am in desperate need of these things, which I find so little mention of in the world!  And why should I be surprised at such need?  I need more, for I have missed not only the world’s mark (Paul: “as I try to please them in every way…”) but God’s – and I alone am the Chief of sinners.  Like Isaiah, my own lips are unclean and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

Such would be the humility of the new monastics:  “We are not strong, but we are weak.  In Christ alone and in the shelter He provides are we strong.  Only by being humbled to the point where we once again are set upon dwelling with, and remaining with the little babe could we even hope of fight the battle whose victory He has secured for His people”:

His camp is pitche`d in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, hay-stalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward;
This little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

(Robert Southwell, This Little Boy So Few Days Old)

Now, some might argue that all of this is a bit ingenuous.  After all, is this not actually implicitly saying that *we*, the ones who are choosing to separate ourselves, are the ones who are spiritually strong in the Lord?  Isn’t all this talk about weakness really pretense?  It certainly could be and some of the monastics of Luther’s day would undoubtedly have seized such words, but the truly spiritual man realizes that there is no pretense in these statements.  For even persons immersed in the world who successfully keep the faith and whose children keep the faith could be susceptible to a similar temptation – to think in the same way (i.e. that they are the spiritually strong ones).  And truly, there are many who exist in congregations and church bodies where the preaching is poor and emaciated and yet live a life of true, simple faith and piety.  There are many who thrive in congregations deeply enmeshed in the world – because of strong Christian teaching and good and wise examples within their families, for instance – where others might succumb and whither.  Some Christian parents heavily supplement their children’s education with devotions, prayers, and hymns – and make sure their children are exposed to others of like faith.  Certainly, there are many Christians who are heavily invested in the secular realm that have done so while remaining firm and bold in their core Christian convictions.  Such may not take the initiative to evangelize like some more hard-core door-to-door evangelists, but they hope and pray that they may be ready to give a good reason for their hope when they are asked or as such topics come up naturally in everyday conversation about family, work, etc.  No – there are many who live very full, devoted, and effective Christian lives while being deeply involved in the secular realm.  They are deeply committed to work in the secular realm while also being deeply convinced that any feelings of sufficiency they might experience in that realm are not a reason for pride, but rather always a call to deeper repentance, to continuous conversion, to a humility found in Christ alone.  To this, primarily, they have been called.

And of course, there is no reason that those who sense a call to a more monastic life should not be able to “re-enter the world” so to speak – at the appropriate time – becoming more deeply enmeshed in the worldly structures after having drunk more deeply and fully from the wells of God’s Word in communities deliberately structured and ordered around God’s Word.  Then they, again like Gregory Thaumaturgus (“Oration and Paneyric to Origen” – pt. 7) may say: “And it may be that we shall come yet again to you [Origin], bearing with us the fruits of handfuls, yielded by these seeds [you have planted in us].  Far from perfect, truly – for how could they be so?  But still, such as a life spent in civil business makes it possible for us to rear.  Though marred indeed, by a kind of faculty that is either unapt to bear fruit altogether, or prone to bear bad fruit, but which I trust, is one not destined to be further misused by us, if God grants us grace.”

So, in short, as Bishop Jonah says, the true distinction is about those living according to the disordered desires of sin, i.e. living “unrepentantly”, and those struggling against such desires, or living “repentantly”.  All persons, regardless of where they dwell, must “take heed lest the fall”.  Therefore, all can also agree that being immersed in His Presence by means of His Word and Sacrament, taught in accordance with the Church’s rule of faith, is the key.  So: both those dwelling in the “secular realm” and the more intentionally devotional realm would be leaning on Christ, neither one being superior to the other.  To quote my EO friend again: “The Church is a great mystery of unity in diversity; we each of us have our own gifts and ministries within and for the Church. But while our gifts and ministries are different, in Baptism we have all been entrusted to share in the priesthood, prophetic ministry and Lordship of Jesus Christ” (quoted here)

Again, I would hope that there would not be either a two-tiered spirituality, or an earnest but naïve attempt to “live the life of heaven now” – for it will take a new heavens and new earth, purged of the sinful infection, to do that.  Rather, I think there needs to be an acknowledgement that the fullness of the Christian faith could be handed on in non-monastic contexts, although the wiles and temptations of the world – now so tricky to even claim to be adopting the Christian faith as its own! (in Constantine’s day, and in ours as well, always eager to hijack the adjective “Christian”) – might very well cause one to think that some are called to an alternate route.  After all, regular persons dwelling deeply in the secular world are attempting to raise up young persons in Christ in such an environment where there are often exceptionally large quantities of poison and fire.  Although it could be done (for some seem to have the resources they need, and look to be doing a remarkable job) is everyone necessarily called to take this approach?

Herein would be another distinction of a new monasticism.  It would not necessarily just be for single persons, to those who must commit to celibacy and singleness.  Although there may be some orders of persons made up exclusively of those who would have this gift, other communities would also be made up of families, which are based on the [monastic] “order” established by God himself (Luther argued that God established the family, the Church, and the governement for our good), marriage.   This might alleviate some of the concerns many had with monasticism from its conception, causing Luther to conclude in his day: “”It may be that Anthony and other hermits were saintly men; but you are committing a grave sin if you abandon your calling and follow their example by secluding yourself in a hiding place; for what the Lord has commanded you to do is something else, namely, to obey your parents, the government, and your teachers.” (LW 3:131).  One wonders if brother Luther would re-evaluate his statement in light of the situation of today, where doctors may be forced to perform abortions, adoption agencies allow same-sex couples to adopt, pharmacists provide abortifacients, and justices of the peace give marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  St. Anthony the Great comes to mind again here: “a time is coming when people will go mad… And when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’”  In any case, regarding the argument vs. this kind of solitary monasticism (and non-family oriented versions of it), I think it better to emphasize not obedience per se, but rather the duty (which includes, yes, obedience) that one has to care for those God has put in one’s life.  For this reason, it seems to me that Chalcedon’s pronouncement that monastic vows must be for life (451) should be thoughtfully re-evaluated.

Also, these communities may indeed often include persons who choose to freely sell their possessions to give to their churchly communities, so as to attain to this once again:  “All the believers were together and had everything in common”.  Meanwhile, those who choose to not do this, but rather dwell more within Churches that seek to be directly a part of the “secular realm”/ “world system” (where persons hold on to their property, and use worldly mammon responsibly and justly, all with a goal of serving the proclamation of the Gospel) ought not be chastised for not doing so, for their calling may indeed be to do exactly what they are doing.  Further, all efforts should be taken to make communities that are locally self-sustaining (yes, we ought to “think globally”, but to abstract to the entire world as regards our plans is a bit foolhardy, as we are increasingly realizing), able to produce all the goods and the necessities of life so that the community can “live simply that others may simply live” (Harry Wendt) – with constant efforts being made to be able to produce surplus goods and necessities of life (including knowledge of farming, technology, etc.) that can be given to others in Christ’s name who are currently in need (preferably in conjunction with new church plants, where it may be appropriate).

Indeed, many of the things that St. Gregory of Nyssa said characterized St. Basil regarding a denial of personal comforts, would be true of new monastics:

Who does not know that he considered a soft and delicate mode of life inimical, in everything seeking fortitude and manliness instead of pleasure, enduring heat from the sun, exposing himself to the cold, with fasts and acts of self-control disciplining the body, tarrying in cities as in deserts (with his virtue harmed in no way by circumstances), making the deserts into cities? For neither did his intercourse with the multitude in any way change his strict and steadfast way of life; nor if he withdrew into the solitude within himself could he be freed from those who assembled for aid; so that in his case also, after the manner of the Baptist, the desert became a city crowded by those who rushed there.[20], (Sterk, Andrea)

One would deny personal comforts not for the reason of deliberately hurting oneself and attaining merit unto eternal life, but simply because of a determination and dedication to form self-sustaining communities that would also work hard to produce more spiritual goods and physical goods than what they themselves need (in other words, the “training of the body” would be done with the neighbor in mind, and indirectly, by doing work and not focusing on training the body), all for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel to visitors and neighbors, as well as to their own community.

In conclusion: this is not about “higher forms of life” (although it will be a constant fight to convincingly make this argument).  This is about the mission of the Church to shine with the Light of the World, proclaiming the Gospel through many different forms and strategies.  I think that Luther himself would jive with this vision.  For he said in the Smalcald Articles regarding chapters and cloisters:

1] That chapters and cloisters [colleges of canons and communistic dwellings], which were formerly founded with the good intention [of our forefathers] to educate learned men and chaste [and modest] women, ought again to be turned to such use, in order that pastors, preachers, and other ministers of the churches may be had, and likewise other necessary persons [fitted] for [the political administration of] the secular government [or for the commonwealth] in cities and countries, and well-educated, maidens for mothers and housekeepers, etc.

2] If they will not serve this purpose, it is better that they be abandoned or razed, rather than [continued and], with their blasphemous services invented by men, regarded as something better than the ordinary Christian life and the offices and callings ordained by God. For all this also is contrary to the first chief article concerning the redemption made through Jesus Christ. Add to this that (like all other human inventions) these have neither been commanded; they are needless and useless, and, besides, afford occasion for dangerous and vain labor [dangerous annoyances and fruitless worship], such services as the prophets call Aven, i.e., pain and labor.

The new monastics, especially, would be permitted to, in a very real sense, rest in their redemption in Christ.  They would retreat from both storms external and internal into the shelter of His house.  Like a baby as in a mother’s arms.  Like the child playing at peace in the presence of his father.  All striving for perfection, doing excellent work with the explicit goal of to promote Christ, sharing His Name upon “re-entrance” into the world, the “secular realm”, would necessarily spring from this truth.  And since people, generally, do not know what their real needs are, perhaps this will shake them up enough to start catching a glimpse of just what it is they are lacking – forgiveness, life and salvation in Jesus Christ, the exact representation of God the Father.

[1] Sterk, Andrea. “On Basil, Moses, and the model Bishop: The Cappadocian legacy of leadership.” Church History 67.2 (June 1998): 227. EBSCO MegaFILE. EBSCO. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation]. 23 Dec. 2008 <>. Her footnote refers to Oration 21.19, line 21-21.20, line 5 as her source for this information.


Posted by on October 29, 2010 in Uncategorized


The faith of a child (from Incarnatus Est)

Thanks to Pastor Paul Gregory Alms for this fine quote:

“Why does our earliest childhood always seem so soft and full of light? A kid’s got plenty of troubles, like everybody else, and he’s really so very helpless, quite unarmed against pain and illness. Childhood and old age should be the two greatest trials of mankind.

But that very sense of powerlessness is the mainspring of a child’s joy. He just leaves it all to his mother you see. Present, past, future–his whole life is caught up in one look, and that look is a smile.”

Diary of a Country Priest, Georges Bernanos, p. 18-19.

Found here.

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Posted by on October 14, 2010 in Uncategorized


How to “get” Law and Gospel: its Personal

Theologians of the Reformation often get upset when non-Catholic preachers promote the dictum attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Always preach the Gospel, if necessary use words”.

In all honesty, I do not know why they get upset.  Yes, sometimes clear words of forgiveness are necessary – but words can also be cheap.  We are told if you really want to see what someone believes, don’t look at what they say, but what they do.  I think this is right.  A man might say he forgives me with his mouth, but go on to show me that his forgiveness is quite doubtful.  Another may not say anything, but by his expressions and actions I feel sure that from his perspective, my sins really are buried at the bottom of the sea – when I, the destroyer of the little ones, am the one who deserved to be cast there.

It seems to me that if a child were to hear a person’s words of forgiveness – and that person went on afterwards to intentionally distance themselves from the child because of the deed that was done – what the child would believe about their relationship would be based more on what was done than what was said.  Of course, our words should not be so cheap, but often they are.  In our lives, we may know what we should say and what we should do – and these things should go hand and hand – but many times they do not.  We “forgive” while still holding our hands around another’s throat.  And here, it seems to me, we rob the Gospel of its power.  It does not have the chance to be the stumbling block, because we have already gotten in the way.

Here is my theological point: even though a statement like “live the Gospel” is not found in the Scriptures, we all know that the word “Trinity” is not either.  The point, of course, is whether or not the concept is found in the Scriptures.  I believe it is.

There is undoubtedly danger here.  It is true that persons often get confused about the Law and love, thinking them opposites, when in reality, we are told that the Law is all about love; it is in fact fulfilled in love.  Still, perhaps much of the confusion has to do with us: for often I think that we give the impression that the Law is simply about demands, threats, and punishments, whereas it is the Gospel that is all about forgiveness and mercy.  Actually, Matthew 23 tells us that the Law itself is also all about these things namely, justice [social!?] and mercy and faithfulness.  These are, in fact, the “the weightier provisions of the law”.

If we say that we can’t live the Gospel, but only the Law, do we not deny that Jesus Christ is both the Law and the Gospel incarnate (something else I believe I have heard both Lutheran and Reformed preachers affirm)?  Can we do this?  I am not for denying the importance of propositional statements in our lives, but are not both the Law and the Gospel first and foremost to be found incarnate in the man Jesus Christ?  Are they not primarily to be found, and understood, in a Person (though not at the expense of propositions)?

I know I am messing with treasured categories and that “Confusion of Law and Gospel” alarms are probably going off in some quarters.  I am not looking to have the final word here.  I am interested to hear where I might be going wrong in my reasoning.


Pastor Wil Weedon said to me: “I think that the language of living IN the Gospel is not problematic at all:  living in its promises, etc.  The problem comes with language of LIVING the Gospel – as though our living were somehow the good news itself, rather than witnesses to the truth of the good news.  When God announced the Gospel to us he did not spurn words:  Behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all people.”

You can see more of what he wrote below, as he gave me permission to post it in the comment section.  I now have to agree to say “use words when necessary” does seem to put to emphasis on the wrong thing – even as I think such a statement can really get us thinking about how our life may possibly obstruct the Gospel witness. Many thanks to Pastor Weedon.

Further, I have to note that when I said, “If we say that we can’t live the Gospel, but only the Law”, I must note that this seems to me, upon reflection, to be a bit of a straw-man sentence.  I am not sure how many preachers in the broad Reformation tradition that I have met who have said that we can “live the Law”.  They would say, we don’t and can’t “live the Law”, which is kind of the point!  All self-justifying mouths must be stopped.



Posted by on October 5, 2010 in Uncategorized


Starting another blog: “The world against me rages, its fury I disdain”

With some help from Paul Gerhardt, I have started a new blog.  On weekday mornings, I am trying to discipline myself to spend 1/2 hour reading parts of a book of some intellectual influence that deals with questions of knowledge (i.e. epistemology): how we know what we know, and what this means for our lives day by day.  Take a look at it if it is something you are interested in (you may not be!). 
Within that short 1/2 hour of daily reading, I am taking notes on, summarizing and interacting with the book as I go, addressing things from a Christian perspective.  In 1 Timothy 6, Paul writes: “Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge”.  If there are things I encounter that I must “turn away” from, I hope to do that intelligently, and with “gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15).  There will also be some good quotes about true knowledge, worldliness, the futility of the world’s ways, etc. 
Based on what I’ve done so far, it looks like I’ll be making 2-3 posts/week…
If you are interested, stop in once in a while and join the conversation.  Otherwise, it will be me and the books.  : )  
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Posted by on October 4, 2010 in Uncategorized