Prayer and the Problem of Evil

April 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

First, let me apologize for the long hiatus. By way of excuse, I will say that this has been an amazingly busy semester, and I just haven’t had the time to devote to my blog and to twitter that I had last fall, but really, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t give a little post every once in awhile. I will try to do better.

Today I’m going to diverge a little from my normal format. Instead of presenting theological arguments for or against some particular nuance of Catholic and/or Anglican theology, I’m going to talk about something that is common to all Christians, and something I really don’t understand. My hope is that this post will spark a discussion that will allow me (and potentially others) to deepen both my understanding and my love for God, and also equip me better for proclaiming His Good News.

The question I’ve been pondering recently is this: how are we to understand a God that is omnipotent, who wants us to ask for things, and who “answers prayer” by giving us things we ask for, but sometimes allows children to die of horrible diseases even when their parents and their churches are earnestly praying for healing? In other words, why does God provide a new place for my family to live (which I felt was necessary, since we have a serious mold problem) but allows my friend’s young son to relapse into Leukemia (which, would the life of this child be spared at the cost of my living in mold, I would gladly trade)?

In pondering this, I recall all my apologetics training. I know many of the canned responses we have for this sort of thing. Perhaps another soul will come to know Christ by the faithfulness displayed by the family during this difficult time. Perhaps God is giving me an opportunity to show Christ’s love to this family in a meaningful way–and grow more fully into the body of Christ in a way that I wouldn’t be able without such a tragedy. And if, O Lord please let it not be, the child were to go home, he would be doing just that–going home to be with Christ.

These sorts of responses felt meaningful when I was a world away from real hurt and anguish. When I was philosophizing from my armchair I could easily ponder the various ways that God’s Kingdom might be being established by just such a situation. How God’s Glory is made greater in such circumstances was all too easy for me to understand.

But not anymore. As I face the reality of tragedy in a world that is bent (to use a term from my favorite C. S. Lewis books) and reflect on the fact that this world is not as God would have it be–as I reflect on the fact that this world is being set to right by Christ, but is not yet put to right–as I reflect on the fact, that as Julian of Norwich said, “all shall be well,” which necessarily implies that all is not now well, I can only come to grips with this in one way. I have no idea why God allows for such tragedy, but I do know one thing: that ours is a faith where God did something amazing and unprecedented. He became Incarnate in human flesh and God Himself suffered. He suffered. Jesus wept.

I can’t make sense of the tragedy. I can’t couch it in language that makes it seem more palatable, that makes me rejoice in the opportunity to suffer, that makes me praise God for the glory he brings himself through this tragedy–and that may very well be my own failing, but there it is. I can’t understand it in those terms, but I can understand that as they weep, and as my heart cries out in anguish even as I write this, Jesus’ heart is broken also. He knows sorrow. He knows pain. He knows tragedy. And as we weep bitterly in tragedy He stands beside us, hand on our shoulders, crying aloud to the Father with us and for us.

I can’t say it better than the hymn:

O Sorrow Deep.
Who would not weep
with heartfelt pain and sighing?
God the Father’s only Son
in the tomb is lying.

O Jesus blest,
My help and rest,
With tears I pray thee, hear me:
Now, and even unto death,
Dearest Lord, be near me.



The Bride of Christ

October 12, 2010 § 5 Comments

I’ve been reading various positions on the visible Church vs. the invisible Church and I was wondering if you people could articulate clearly some of the ideas and arguments between the two. It seems to me that the arguments tend to go something along these lines:

Visible Church

There is One Church established by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. That Church falls under one particular ecclesial structure, namely those who can trace back their ordination by the laying on of hands (with the use of right liturgies) all the way back to the twelve Apostles.

Then, I think the Roman Catholics would go on to say that if a doctrinal dispute (say, e.g. the Great Schism) should emerge, those who remain in communion with the See of Rome are the true Church and any other Christian else is some sort of “separated brethren” Christian who is not actually a part of the Church.

I’m not sure exactly what the Orthodox would say, perhaps that those under an orthodox (with a little-o, meaning right believing) bishop who is recognized as such by the other such bishops and who doesn’t hold anything contrary to the first seven councils nor Holy Scripture are part of the New Testament Church.

I’ve then seen arguments to the effect: why would God allow his Church to be broken and fragmented (by which is mean the ecclesial affiliations)? Wouldn’t he protect one particular structure so that it is, in fact, his Church?

Since the Church is made up of fallen people, she herself is imperfect and the fact that she has fallen into error in various places at various times does not mean that she is not the Church, nor that she is not protected from error when she makes certain infallible pronouncements (e.g. through the Councils).

Invisible Church

This notion seems to be something like this: in Holy Scripture it is promised that when two or three are gathered in the name of Christ, He is in their midst. Therefore, wherever there is right belief with right worship, regardless of ecclesial structure, there the Church is also. The Church is not contained under any particular banner, other than the cross of Christ. This is evidenced by the abuses of various churches in the past (usually one would take this opportunity to mention the selling of indulgences by the Catholic Church). Clearly no one human institution can be “The Church” since they are all made up of sinful people and no one church has everything right, and we’ll all find out in heaven that were each a little wrong in some way or another.

Okay, so I’m sure these aren’t the best arguments for either of the positions above, but they are at least similar to the ones I’ve seen recently, so I wanted to find out from y’all what the better arguments are, and how you define the Church. For those of you who define a visible Church, I’d also be interested in knowing what Church your separated brethren are a part of, and how they are ultimately being saved through The Church.

Sola Scriptura

October 6, 2010 § 8 Comments

I might as well get this one out of the way as well. I can no longer logically accept Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura is the claim that the Bible is the only inspired Word of God (you should read that, the only inspired teaching of God). The question that confounded me is this: if Sola Scriptura is true, then how do we know which books are in Holy Scripture? (I think my Orthodox Study Bible had a lot to do with my questioning of the Sola Scriptura claim. Learning about the Septuagint and the fact that the Catholics didn’t actually add books to their Bible as I had heard countless people claim, but that Protestants took books out, got me pondering this a lot, and I cannot find a way to logically support it.)

So here are a few tackles at the question:

We don’t. Oddly enough, this is the position that many evangelicals take. R. C. Sproul, for instance, claims that we have a fallible canon of infallible books. This seems patently false. A fallible canon of infallible books as far as we are concerned is a fallible collection of books, period. Consider a sentence S in a particular book of the bible. Now try to answer the question: did God want this sentence written in the Bible. If we have a fallible canon of infallible books, then the canon might not include certain books that God wanted included and might include certain books that God didn’t want included (this is the definition of a fallible canon). So our sentence S may come from a book that is infallible or it may come from a book that is fallible. In other words, we have no decision process for determining that S came from an infallible book and therefore we cannot be certain that S must be held dogmatically to be the Word of God. Here is an illustration. If I tell you I’m going to give you a bunch of pages on which are written sentences, and that on each page either all of the sentences on the page are true or some undetermined number of the sentences (ranging from none to all) are true, wouldn’t that be the same as telling you I’m handing you a bunch of papers with sentences on them that may either be true or false? In other words, telling you that there may be pages where all the sentences are true doesn’t give you any added information since you already know that the pages with undetermined numbers of true sentences may in fact include all true sentences. As far as I am concerned, someone who truly believes the Bible to be the infallible Word of God cannot logically believe that the canon is fallible.

We know because the Holy Spirit tells us so. I’ve come across this argument a lot lately as well. This seems to essentially be what Calvin suggested about Scripture. My question for folks who believe this is: how can I know that all the right books were included in the canon? You might answer, “because if you read Scripture and have the Holy Spirit, you will just know.” This seems to have a dangerous implication: that all Christians are infallible themselves when it comes to knowing which books are in Scripture and which aren’t. This also denies the fact that though our sinful selves have been put to death in the waters of baptism we still do things in the flesh (see Romans 7, for instance) and our own sinfulness may cloud the will of the Holy Spirit. This also seems to suffer from another problem: say I can know for sure when I read a book that it should or should not be in the canon. How do I know there aren’t some undiscovered books out there that should also be in the canon that I simply haven’t read yet?

Rejecting the first two answers, the only remaining answer I can see to the problem is as follows.

God gave us the canon through an infallible mechanism. The argument runs along these lines: I accept that Scripture is infallible and therefore that the canon is infallible. The canon can’t be infallible because God tells me personally that it is the correct canon, so it must be that God has given me the canon by some other infallible means. So what means is that? The canon was decided by a council of the whole Church (a majority of her bishops, at least). Note that other important Christian doctrines, like the Trinity, which is supported by but not made explicit in Scripture, were decided by council as well. So at least one council of the Church is infallible which is in direct contradiction to Sola Scriptura.

I actually have quite a lot more to say about this, but I’m quite tired, and this is probably already a garbled mess, so I’ll sort some of it out in the comments if people are interested and ask questions that get me thinking.

Sola Fides

September 28, 2010 § 10 Comments

That should be a provoking enough title, huh? I thought I might balance this blog with some of the issues I have with Reformed theology, as it is generally articulated. I grew up believing that all one needs to do in order to get a free pass into heaven is Faith in Jesus, by which was meant I needed to believe that the proposition P = “Jesus is the Son of God who died for my sins.” was a true proposition, and that if at some point in my life I decided that P was true and also that I desired to have Jesus as the Lord of my Life I was “saved” in the past tense. Done deal. Got my heaven-access-ticket, let’s hit the ski-lift. (There is an interesting question here: what if I believe Jesus died for my sins and yet say, I don’t want his gift, I’d rather try to make it on my own? As is said in James, “even the demons believe.”)

Moreover, I was taught that Roman Catholics do not believe that Faith in Jesus saves you, and that furthermore they believe in what is commonly styled, “Salvation by Works.” In some sense this has been debated ad nauseum, but I feel that since this blog is in many ways a chronicling of my personal theological struggles, then it might as well be written down and discussed a little.

EDIT: I have received responses from both my parents on the above two paragraphs (see my dad’s first comment below, for example) and I just want to clarify something: the bad theology expressed above is not what my parents taught me, it was something I developed myself via talks with my evangelical friends (especially in high school) and well meaning but misguided Sunday School teachers and Christian school teachers. It probably just never came up in conversation around the dinner table-your son doesn’t often say, this chicken is delicious and by the way I was told today that the Catholic Church teaches faith by works? (Or at least we didn’t have these kinds of discussions until I was older and had already stopped believing the crazy things above.) Also when I say, “taught” I don’t mean that I fully accepted or believed the above, but this was what was believed by many in the evangelical culture I was surrounded by. I definitely never accepted the claim that belief in Jesus was a free pass into heaven–that was just what many around me believed.

Sola Fides

Now first, let me say, that I have extreme sympathy for the Reformed position. I think this notion was originally developed out of a sense of charity. It was meant as an assurance that Christ’s faithfulness is sufficient to cover all of our sins. This I believe. It was also meant as an assurance that by being faithful to Christ, His healing grace and mercy surround us and we are given the merits of his death and passion. This I also believe. The problem with this notion is that it threw the baby out with the bathwater in its articulation and practice.

The question really hinges on the ideas of Faith and Faithfulness. Is Faith simply the ability to take a list of propositions, say, Jesus is God’s Son, He died for my sins, He is the redeemer of the world, He was resurrected, etc., and check off a box next to each one labelled, “I believe this,” or is Faith something more? I’ve started listening to Fr. Stephen Freeman’s weekly podcast Glory to God, which is incredibly good–incidentally he was my grandparent’s priest when I was growing up until he was received into the Orthodox Church. In one of his podcasts (I’ll have to look up which one), he talks about the faithfulness of a husband to his wife. He asks the question, is a man faithful to his wife if all he does for her is to not commit adultery? The answer, of course, is no. Faithfulness to our spouses entails a whole lot more than simple monogamy. It entails, as the Anglican wedding vows make clear, the cherishing of the spouse, and the sacrifice of oneself for the spouse as Christ sacrificed Himself for the Church. It entails, in effect, actions–or works.

I would suggest that faith in Christ and faithfulness to Christ are one and the same. This is why, in my estimation, James tells us that “faith without works is dead.” If you aren’t being faithful to Christ through obedience to Christ–which is rooted in the idea of doing good works (“whatever you did for the least of these brother’s of mine, you did for Me”)–then your faith is dying or dead. Christ’s faith is described by the Apostle Paul in Philippians, “He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” Christ’s faith is His obedience to the Father. Our faith too, then, is the faith of Christ, which is obedience to the Father. I think that it is also informative to look at Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Prayer. Christ himself instructs us that when we pray, we should pray for the forgiveness of our sins, recognizing that the forgiveness of our sins is somehow bound up with our forgiving of other’s sins. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” Christ teaches. This is because our faithfulness to God requires that we forgive those who sin against us.

The Ancient Doctrine of Faith and Works

Enter now from stage right the Orthodox and Catholic teachings on works and faith. We enter into Christ’s community by way of Baptism. As Christ commands to his Apostles, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you;” Other translations read, “teaching them to obey” rather than teaching them to “observe.” The Orthodox and Catholic doctrine is not, as is popularly held by Protestants, that by our own good works we can save ourselves. This would, in fact, be wrong. The doctrine is that by Christ’s faith primarily, and our faith secondarily, we are being saved. Works are the method by which we maintain our faith. Sinning, then, moves us along the pathway of rejection of Jesus, and in order to restore our faithfulness, we need reconciliation through repentance. Un-repentence is implicit rejection of Christ. This is the same as a husband who commits adultery. He is no longer faithful to his wife and must restore that faithfulness through repentance and reconciliation.

Roman Catholics and Orthodox do in fact believe in Sola Fides. The notion of Faith, however, is simply richer than that of the Reformed theologians. Faith is an all-encompassing daily living in Christ, not an intellectual assent to propositions.

May God grant us a faithfulness like Christ’s and the grace and consolation of His Holy Spirit. Amen.

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September 20, 2010 § 27 Comments

Continuing the laying down of my cards:

You had to know this was coming, right? Anyway, here goes. I fully believe that the bread and wine used at the Eucharist become the Body and Blood of Christ. What I have a lot of trouble getting on board with is transubstantiation. Transubstantiation, as I understand it, is that the accidents of the Eucharist are bread and wine whereas the essences are Christ’s Body and Blood. But the terms “accidents” and “essences” show exactly where this philosophical explanation is coming from: Aristotle. My disconnect is this: I don’t generally accept Aristotle’s views on things (the man was a heathen and thought pride was a virtue and lived in a society that embraced and encouraged pedophilia, so I have reasons to mistrust him), and for transubstantiation to be true one basically has to accept that Aristotle’s metaphysical theory was completely correct (not all his theories, mind you, just his metaphysics). As an outsider of the Roman Catholic Church, I see the progression of this doctrine as this: somewhere along the line some heretic said, “well it can’t be Jesus’ Body and Blood because it still tastes, smells, and feels like bread and wine!” Then, some well meaning Catholic theologians, in order to (rightly) put down the heresy, searched the Church Fathers for some explanation that would allow them to show that it could both taste like bread and wine, and yet be body and blood. What they found was that many early Church Fathers loved Aristotle (namely, if I remember correctly St. Aquinas and St. Augustine), and Aristotle’s metaphysics provided a (seemingly) perfect explanation for why the Body and Blood of Christ continued to taste like bread and wine and to make sure they never had heretics like that show up again, they made transubstantiation a dogma. (I don’t know if this is how it went, but this seems to be the way a lot of these things went.) So this is where I take issue: it seems like the central belief is (and should be) that the Eucharist is really Christ’s Body and Blood. The question I have is, why does it require explanation beyond that? In fact it seems like there are lots of places in Western Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant) where we have decided to say, “It is a mystery of the Faith… oh, and here is exactly how the mystery works.”

My other worry here is this: were I to become Roman Catholic, would I be unable to receive sacraments if I couldn’t make myself believe fully in the metaphysical explanation behind transubstantiation? If I were submitting myself to the authority of the Church, I could in good conscience say, “I fully believe that the Eucharist is Christ’s Body and Blood and I believe that usually when the Church and I differ, I am wrong and she is right, and though I cannot force my reason to accept transubstantiation, I hope that one day the Holy Spirit will allow me to believe it.” It seems that the answer here is that I would not be able to participate in the sacraments in this scenario, since I don’t hold to a particular dogma. Is this correct?

Laying Down the Cards

September 20, 2010 § 35 Comments

With these first few posts I’m going to foolishly show all my cards. It really rubs me the wrong way when people say something along the lines of, “do you know what my problem with the Catholic Church is?” and then proceed to give you a laundry list of personal disagreements they have with Roman Catholic theology (or more often horrible misinterpretations of Roman Catholic theology), as if they are better thinkers than those who have come before them, but unfortunately I am going to do just that. Know this, however, that I am not doing this solely to present a bunch of arguments that allow me to rationalize being outside the Catholic Church, but rather to lay my cards down on the table so that I can be (hopefully gracefully) corrected where I am wrong and at least get a better understanding of the theological issues at stake–and in some sense there is a lot riding on some of these issues for me.

First, you probably ought to know, I am an Anglican who is concerned about Catholicity. I don’t want to be innovative in my faith, and I want to be holding fast to the Faith once preached by Christ and the Apostles. There is one major barrier keeping me from crossing the Tiber (which I’ll think about sharing in a future post) but if a few of my other questions were settled in my mind, it would probably trump the other problem. In the next few posts I am going to focus on a few of my struggles with Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Oh, and just to dispel the usual problems those of you might have with Protestants (a title that I don’t personally claim anyway), let me say that I believe in the seven sacraments, including that Christ’s presence is made real in the Eucharist and that God has given grace to His ministers to pronounce Christ’s absolution for the penitent.

Okay, so I suppose question one would be this: what is a decent argument for the infallible authority of the Pope? I understand the biblical argument, that the handing of the keys from Jesus to Peter has been interpreted as support for the absolute authority of the Pope over all, but it seems pretty clear to me from everything I’ve looked at, that this wasn’t the interpretation of the Church for the first 1000 years of its history. In fact, I’ve seen this quote from a Roman Catholic historian named Klaus Schatz circulating around:

“There appears at the present time to be increasing consensus among Catholic and non-Catholic exegetes regarding the Petrine office in the New Testament….The further question whether there was any notion of an enduring office beyond Peter’s lifetime, if posed in purely historical terms, should probably be answered in the negative. That is, if we ask whether the historical Jesus, in commissioning Peter, expected him to have successors, or whether the author of the Gospel of Matthew, writing after Peter’s death, was aware that Peter and his commission survived in the leaders of the Roman community who succeeded him, the answer in both cases is probably ‘no.’…If we ask in addition whether the primitive Church was aware, after Peter’s death, that his authority had passed to the next bishop of Rome, or in other words that the head of the community at Rome was now the successor of Peter, the Church’s rock and hence the subject of the promise in Matthew 16:18-19, the question, put in those terms, must certainly be given a negative answer.” (Papal Primacy [Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1996], pp. 1-2)

So the question is, how did it become known to the Church that this authority had in fact been established. It seems that the way the infallibly known will of the Holy Spirit was made known to the Church before 1000 AD was through the councils, but no council established the authority of the Pope. Let me make sure I’m clear: I’m not saying that the Pope definitely does have this authority, but that I can’t take it on the Pope’s authority that he has the authority, because it requires the very thing in question. How can I, as a 21st century Christian, be reliably certain that the Holy Spirit did ordain that the Pope has this authority, and not, as the Orthodox and Anglicans argue, a primacy of place, but not of absolute authority?

So that is probably the biggest question I have, because really if it were decided positively everything else would be fairly well decided for me. There are a few other nit-picky things I would like to throw out there to get feedback on, however, which I will share in future posts.