Sunday, March 30, 2014

Philokalia and Eastern Orthodox spirituality

In modern-day Evangelicalism, the issue of contemplative spirituality has come to the fore. People like Thomas Merton, M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating (Roman Catholics) and Richard Foster (Evangelical) have turned to the East in their search for spirituality. One possible stop point is that of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, with its idea of centering (contemplative) prayer and spiritual directors. Eastern Orthodox spirituality has a veneer of being Christian since it is practiced in the "Christian East," which for non-discerning Evangelicals means it is an acceptable Christian alternative.

The sourcebook for Eastern Orthodox spirituality is the Philokalia, a collection of writings from theologians and mystics in the East in the Hesychist tradition till the 18th century. Beginning with the Desert Fathers, and also the orthodox Eastern teachers like the Cappodocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus), the evolving Eastern spirituality soon had a center at Mt. Athos, where generations of monks practiced and refined the monastics practices from its Neo-Platonic root.

Just because something has a long history and tradition does not mean that it is right. As heirs of the Reformers, we Protestants hold to the principle of Sola Scriptura. Unfortunately, I would have to post this caveat in light of the many Radical biblicists in the modern church: Sola Scriptura is a principle of appeal to authority. It is NOT an appeal to methodology. Many biblicists practice Solo Scriptura, in which there is an appeal to Scripture without the actual need to engage with what it says IN CONTEXT. They think that the mere citation of verses with some surface similarity to their position(s) is sufficient, a method used by the heretic Charles Finney for example to deny doctrine such as total depravity. My latest interaction with biblicists has shown me how terrible the situation is within the corpse of Evangelicalism.

The main issue here is that Eastern spirituality is essentially heretical. It is a Neo-Platonic scheme of ascension towards God. The only difference between that and the Neo-Platonism in Western spirituality is the distinction between God's essence (being) and His energies (works). Deification or theosis, which is the end game for Eastern spirituality, is participation in God's energies not in His essence, thus there is no ontological fusion with God's essence per se, although it is to be questioned how much this distinction holds in practice.

Eastern Orthodoxy has a relatively simple story. Humanity is made after God's image and created good. However, Man chose to sin. This "ancestral sin" however is not original sin and is not transmitted to Adam's posterity as such. The faculty of beholding God is the nous, or the mind's "eye of the soul" [Allyne Smith, Philokalia, The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts: Selections Annotated and Explained (trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Bishop Kallistos Ware; Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, 2012), xi], which is darkened by the Fall but otherwise still functional. Salvation in Eastern Orthodoxy is not to avert God's wrath, but rather to behold God through the usage of the spiritual discipline of contemplative prayer, which would bring one to theosis.

The contrast between the Scriptures and Eastern Orthodoxy can be seen as follows:

  Eastern Orthodoxy Biblical view
Goal of Man Theosis: Participation in the Divine (p. xiii) Glorification: Enjoy and worship God in our transformed yet still creaturely bodies
Nature of the Fall Darkened mind (nous), but only impaired; sickened, not dead (pp. xi, 178) Radically depraved sinners totally corrupt in all their faculties
Nature of Sin Sin is only in sinful acts, alien to human nature (pp. 28, 126); moral Fallen nature of Man; forensic
How to be saved Grow towards theosis, through spiritual disciplines and contemplative prayer Justification by grace alone through faith alone
Individual or Corporate Corporate setting. Spiritual directors required for growth towards theosis (p. 21) Individual
Nature of salvation Synergistic (Man needs to cooperate with God) (p. 96) Monergistic (God alone saves)
How Jesus saves Invoking Jesus' name in the "Jesus' Prayer" results in Christ burning up the impurity within the nous of the sincere believer practicing the prayer in order to grow towards theosis. (p. 113) Meriting the righteousness in His life and death on the Cross, so as to die as an expiation and propitiation for the sins of all who repent and have faith in Him as their Savior
Our part in salvation Believers ought to purify the nous from sin, and keep it from sin in the future (p. 52). Also, imitating the life of Christ in this world is needed (p. 209) Empty hand of faith, i.e. nothing

Eastern Orthodoxy is fundamentally Pelagian, and it makes little difference if they do not think in those categories. Just like sin is objective meaning sin is sin regardless of what others think about it, Eastern Orthodoxy is Pelagian even though Eastern Orthodoxy do not have the categories for thinking in that manner. In other words, it is Eastern Orthodoxy's fault for misreading the Scriptures so badly they cannot think in forensic categories.

Eastern Orthodox spirituality flows from its anti-biblical teachings. It is a fundamentally Neo-Platonic ascent towards God. The problem is impurity of the mind's eye or nous, which is not much different from the Neo-Platonic problem being that of finitude. Sin is a creaturely problem, and the solution is clothing finitude up with the divine. We see here the rather obvious difference between Eastern Orthodox view of theosis and the biblical view of glorification. In theosis, one participates in something divine, which even using the essence-energies distinction, still has the creature in some sense participating in the Creator. In the biblical view of glorification however, the glorified saint does not ever "participate" in anything divine. Rather, he is made like Christ as the perfect image (ectype) of God. Christlikeness is the eschatological telos which Adam was made for, if Adam had not fallen, he would have progressed to be the perfect image and likeness of God. In glorification, the saint is made into the perfect eschatological image of God. An image however is still an image. We are like Christ in His glorified humanity, but His divine nature is always out of bounds to us. Finitum non capax infiniti; the finite cannot contain the infinite. Even in our glorified state, we are still creatures. It is easy here to see what's wrong with theosis. Even with the qualifications made by the essence-energies distinction, there is still a disturbing idea of participating in the divine, instead of in the image of the divine in Christ's glorified humanity.

The practice of Eastern spirituality arise from their unbiblical view of sin and salvation, and thus cannot be just taken and "contextualized" for Christians. Here are some choice quotes about the nature of prayer:

"The essence of prayer, then, is the mental ascent to God from the heart." -Theophan the Recluse, The Duty Also of Those Living in the World (p. 32)

"Prayer is a great blessing, and it embraces all blessings, for it purifies the heart..." -St. Hesychios the Priest, I,On Watchfulness and Holiness, Sec. 62 (p. 41)

For through unceasing prayer and the study of the divine Scriptures the soul's noetic eyes are opened" -Abba Philemon, II, A Discourse on Abba Philemon (p. 87)

Prayer in Eastern Orthodox spirituality is a human work required for salvation, not a means of grace. The "Jesus Prayer" is normally a single phrase in which the person praying it says "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me" (p. 108) and then repeats it over and over again like a mantra (p. 107). As the chart shows, the Jesus' Prayer basically is their idea of how they can invoke Christ's name for Him to save them, a practice which totally misunderstands the idea of calling upon Jesus' name for salvation in the Scriptures.

Eastern Orthodox spirituality is integral to their unbiblical system of doctrine, and thus the practices cannot be divorced from the underlying theology. Evangelicals who think they can take those practices and use them are playing with fire. There is simply no way one can say that they trust in Christ's work alone for their salvation, and then deny it with these practices which are intended as cooperative work towards one's own salvation. There is little difference between the idea of one's "ascetic efforts in prayer" being "designed to earn merit," and "our cooperation with God in protecting the grace of prayer that God gives to us" (p. 96). Both ways, Man has to do something to be saved, and thus Eastern Orthodox spiritual disciplines are still meritorious. Anyone who borrows from those practices therefore has mocked the death of Christ, and spat on His face, and needs to repent of this grievous sin against God.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Thinking with their kidneys...

Over at a previous blog post, some guy called "Darrel" decided to take pot shots at the entire post. The fascinating thing for me in the entire exchange is how much he is trying to make it all about me, while I want to focus purely on the issues. It fascinates me that someone thinks he can claim that the entire post is "mostly useless philosophical nonsense," and then begin to whine over and over again when I actually push back and call him on the mat for such accusations. One side it seems can make ALL the accusations they want, but then of course, the same privilege is not to be extended to me. After interacting with him, and seeing how he sees the exchange as "beneficial," I wonder if I should have applied Prov. 26:4 since he is now wise in his own eyes, but then, I don't begin interacting with my critics as if they were fools from the beginning.

The problem with at least some if not many professing believers is that they have bought into the zeitgeist of this era. Thinking has now been replaced with feeling, of which the kidney is the organ of emotions in the OT (And for those who want to dispute that, go look at the word in Hebrew in places like Job 19:27, Ps. 7:10, 26:2). Whereas the proper way is to deal with the substance of the arguments, now all one has to do it seems is to deny the proposition(s) without putting forward a viable counter-argument, and then go immediately to accusations of "hate" etc. Am I always right in what I claim? Probably not. But that's not the point. The point is that one actually has to deal with the real issues, not passive-aggressively claim that one is teachable yet refusing to actually deal with what the text is saying. In our current real-life example, "Darrel" has refused to actually deal with the brief exegesis of Eph. 4:11, as if asserting over and over again that the text is about individual spiritual gifts is enough as long as one does it over and over again. This is the same tactic the homosexual lobby does in society, and it seems at least some professing Christians have imbibed on the very same zeitgeist.

The sad fact is that it is highly likely that such people make up a majority of professing believers. That is why the Church as a whole is in such a sorry state. People it seems can't actually deal with actual arguments. They don't know logic, and thus they can't even parse out a syllogism even if their lives depended on it. We see this very clearly in our example, that when I briefly exegeted Eph. 4:11, the argument I posted was that it speaks about God's gifts to the Church, the Body of Christ. That is the entire point I was making, and "Darrel" completely missed that point. When I speak about the distinction between "gifts" and "offices," I first used the example of women as an example, and then, when he didn't get it, I spoke of gifted men living in sin. The main point I am driving at is that the qualifications for ministers goes MORE than mere gifts, and thus there IS a distinction between "gifts" and "offices." Yet, "Darrel" continues to miss the point. Do others also see the problem here? The problem is that "Darrel" totally missed the syllogism I was constructing. This shows how strangely illogical at least some if not many people are. It seems that even if I were to lay out the syllogism in clear propositional form with premises and conclusions, those same people will still miss the force of the syllogisms. That is why I say that some if not many people can't even parse a syllogism even if their lives depended on it.

That brings us back to the sad fact that many people can't think. They think with their feelings, they confuse people with issues, and then violate Mt. 7:1 over and over again as they emote, and emote, and emote, all the while portraying their ignorance for all to see. (It is one thing to disagree with me. I do not claim to have all the answers and I may be wrong. But it is another thing when one cannot understand the points I am making, and then through irrational incomprehension misrepresent them and attack me personally.) The real question therefore is: How can ministry be done to a people like these, a people irrational and illogical? To a people thinking with their kidneys, only God can work the miracle of giving them new sight, and we must pray for that to happen.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Do not forbid speaking in tongues?

So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. (1 Cor. 14:39)

1 Cor. 14:39 is one key text for reformed charismatics, who claim to be following the Scriptures when they promote the continuation of the charismata. Followers of the hyper-Calvinist Vincent Cheung likewise hold to this view, which is really interesting because here we have the quest for illegitimate religious experience (QIRE) meeting the quest for illegitimate religious certainty (QIRC), otherwise known as Rationalism.

The problem with the usage of verses like 1 Cor. 14:39 is that such usage of scripture texts are nothing more than mere acontextual proof-texting. There is nothing worse than trying to establish a doctrine with texts divorced from their contexts. Using the same hermeneutical principle, we could hold to the following:

  1. Christians should never take oaths (c.f. Mt. 5:34)
  2. Christians should not resist evil at all (c.f. Mt. 5:36-42)
  3. When sacked by your boss, a believer can take revenge by changing the record books to his boss' disadvantage in order to curry favor with others (c.f. Lk. 16:1-8)
  4. Believers cannot eat any food that was strangled or had even a bit of blood in it, i.e Kosher (c.f. Acts 15:20b)
  5. Christians ought to greet each other with a holy kiss every service (c.f. Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, 1 Thess. 5:26). And I think Paul meant it literally, not figuratively.
  6. Women who are believers must keep their heads covered at all times during the service, and not cut their heart short, for such is a disgrace (c.f. 1 Cor. 11: 2-16). Again, Paul meant it literally when he penned those words.
  7. If a believer is sick, he ought to confess his sins and pray for others, then he will be healed (Jas. 5:16). The word ὅπως is used followed by a subjunctive indicating a purpose or result clause. That means that a person who confesses his sins and pray for others ought to be healed.

My point should be evident by now. Merely citing Scripture without accounting for its context does not prove anything at all. In the case of the holy kiss and head coverings, understanding its historical situated-ness is the key to understanding the applicability of the commands for our time.

Likewise, when we deal with the sign-gifts, it is extremely simplistic to merely quote 1 Cor. 14:39, as if Cessationists have not read that text before or noticed it was there. Repeating 1 Cor. 14: 39 as a mantra over and over again is not an argument! One has to understand the text in its historical or rather redemptive-historical context before understanding how such an imperative applies to us. If we understand the sign-gifts to be revelatory, and as revelation it must end with the close of the canonical era (c.f. Heb. 1:1-2), then we understand the imperative of 1 Cor. 14:39 to be a past tensed imperative. In other words, through the passage of time, the command is applicable now NOT as "do not forbid the present speaking in tongues," but rather "do not forbid listening to the past speech of tongues and prophecy." No Reformed Cessationist have ignored this imperative, and thus none of us have violated 1 Cor. 14:39. On the contrary, it is the Charismatics who have violated 1 Cor. 14:39 in essence, by ignoring the clear revelation of the finality of New Testament revelation (Heb. 1:1-2).

Interestingly enough, reformed charismatics (mostly baptists) hone in to 1 Cor. 14:39, yet the much clearer commands in other parts of Scripture are ignored, like the following:

  1. Churches ought to have appointed (i.e. ordained) elders (c.f. Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5). The elders are appointed by someone else, not self-appointed. Neither are they merely asked to be an elder, but appointed to do so.
  2. Churches ought to have fraternal relations with other churches (cf Phm 1:1, 2 Jn 1:13), especially in diaconal assistance.
  3. In dealing with doctrinal controversies, it is right and proper to appeal to a church council, as we can see in Acts 15. Such a council has the authority to pass down binding decrees to the local churches.

It is surely illustrative how reformed charismatics are so enamored of the imperative of 1 Cor. 14:39, while ignoring the other clearer imperatives of Scripture on church polity. But back to the topic, do we forbid speaking in tongues? No, we do not forbid the continual validity of the past revelations (which included tongues) as inscribed in the Scriptures, so we have not forbidden the speech of tongues, and as such we have followed 1 Cor. 14:39.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Questions regarding ministry and education

[See also Pastors and Seminary Education].

Q: Is seminary necessary for those going into ministry?
A: A seminary education, or the equivalent, is necessary for going into ministry.

Q: Why is seminary education, or its equivalent, necessary?
A: Ministry deals with issues of spiritual life and death. Just like a doctor requires training in dealing with bodily ailments, so a minister requires training in dealing with spiritual ailments.

Q: Isn't a heart of caring for people and a life of piety towards God in prayer and reading His Word sufficient?
A: No. Just as a doctor who cares for people and who interacts with doctors still requires further education and on the job training, so likewise a person who cares for others and who is pious still requires seminary and other ministerial training.

Q: But weren't the apostles unschooled, and thus isn't a requirement of seminary education an addition to the Bible?
A: No. The apostles had personal "seminary" level training with Jesus for 3 intensive years, and even after that, their training was not complete until Pentecost. Paul too went into Arabia for 3 years after his conversion to re-study the Scriptures, and before that he had trained under Gamaliel.

Q: But God works even in the ministries of those who are unlearned.
A: God also used a donkey to rebuke Balaam, but we don't go around looking for talking donkeys. God used a big fish to discipline Jonah, but we don't look for big fishes to execute church discipline. Just because God uses something does not mean that we should be content and disregard the perceptive will of God.

Q: Does that mean that someone who is not seminary trained (or the equivalent) should not go into ministry?
A: Yes. Since ministry involves issues of spiritual life and death, it is better not to go into ministry untrained for the task. God can and does use our imperfect service, but we should not be pragmatists and should follow God's perceptive will instead of presuming upon Him.

Q: Does this imply that full knowledge is required for ministry?
A: No. All Christians, including ministers, are still learning. But it's a sin to willfully neglect what has been known, the traditions of the Church, and thus ignore the collective knowledge, wisdom and insights of the saints, and attempt to minister accordingly. Just like doctors do not have full knowledge and should be ever learning, so likewise ministers should be adequately trained, and yet still continue learning.

Q: What do we say then of a church without adequately trained ministers?
A: It is a church without adequately trained shepherds, who ought to get training if and as soon as possible so as to avoid potential cases of pastoral malpractice.

Q: Are there any problems with a loving pastor who is not adequately trained?
A: Yes. Precisely because he cares for the flock and presumably the flock loves him, he has great influence over the sheep. If he unknowingly promotes error, the flock will follow him too because they trust him. There is nothing more dangerous than love (and zeal) without knowledge.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Unbelievable: Young, Restless, ... and no longer Reformed

Recently, the Unbeliever podcast by Justin Brierley hosted a discussion of Dr. James White with former New-Calvinist Austin Fisher, who wrote a book of why he has left the New Calvinist movement. The podcast can be listened to here.

The Gospel and theories of creation

The issue of the views of creation, while certainly academic, is not merely academic. Behind the various views lie major ramifications for faith and life. Here I would like to deal with the issue of history.

The Genesis accounts and the whole section normally termed "primeval history" (Gen. 1-11) are dealt with in various ways by advocates of the various creation theories. Key among many who deny 6-24 creation is relegating the creation account to some form of poetry or allegory. The best one could do was to affirm its overall historicity without at the same time holding to the necessary historicity of its parts, which is what the Framework view does with the Genesis account.

The main reason why creation is so important is because of what it does to history. If the Genesis accounts are fully historical, then what that implies for history is that world history actually begins the way the Bible says it would. Conversely, if the Genesis accounts are not in some sense historical, then that would tend to lead towards the idea that world history and redemptive history are at best parallel tracks. If we embrace the idea of two parallel histories, which are not always separate but ontologically independent of each other, then it will create problems for the universality of the Christian faith and evangelism.

The issue here is very simple: For example, I am non-white Chinese. Christianity as it comes to us is a "white-man's religion." Furthermore, Christian missionaries were often flawed and sometimes partook of the sins of the Western imperial powers in the 19th century as they bullied China into submission. The question therefore is: Why should the Chinese embrace Christianity, a religion historically (and I would certainly say wrongly) associated with imperialism and oppression?

There are various reasons that can be offered for why Chinese (for our example) should be Christians. The flimsiest reason is that it works; it provides for one's subjective spiritual and/or material needs. The "God-shaped hole" in one's heart after all *just* needs to be filled. The problem with this is that emotions are unreliable, and while I do believe that there is some sort of "God-shaped hole," in the sense that Man is made for God, people do not necessarily know or feel what they actually need, as the happy atheist will testify. The one who bases his faith on feelings of spirituality is like the shallow soil. When the plant grows up and unfavorable conditions come (which can be more than just persecution and also include one's emotional states), the plant of the Gospel will die in his heart and he will certainly fall away.

The second reason given for embracing Christianity, despite its alien origins, is that it speaks to the sin condition that I see in myself. Correlative with that is the evidentialist apologetic methodology proving the existence of Jesus, His death and His resurrection. The reasons here are better as it focuses on Jesus and the Cross, and such is the focus of Evangelicalism as a whole. The main problem here is that the sin condition is in some sense subjective. It depends on the person being convicted of sin based upon a rather subjective Christian realization of sin. The second reason suffers from the similar problem of subjectivity, and gives Christianity the impression of a crutch for weaklings — only for those who feel their sin in the Christian way. Now of course, some sense of sin is unavoidable, but falling short of the ideal can be construed in other fashions as it is done in other religions like Buddhism, where "sin" is impersonal and can be outweighed by good works. And the proofs concerning Jesus and His death and resurrection, while powerful in their own right, can be twisted to support pantheistic notions of Christ and Man, something which was seen in early Gnostism and now in the New [Age] Spirituality.

The third reason for embracing Christianity is through an appeal to its intellectual prowess and consistency, or Christianity as a philosophy and worldview. Such would appeal to intellectuals and philosophers. With their sophisticated arguments, they are convinced that Christianity provides the best answers to the ultimate questions. Be they Alvin Plantinga or William Lane Craig, they are intellectually convinced of Christianity and its universality, arguing for Christian theism against unbelief. Now this has much more virtue than the previous two since it appeals to more objective issues, and the use of evidentialist claims about Jesus here are more objective because they are not left drifting but correlated to a bunch of other philosophical and theological arguments for the Christian faith. Yet, the weakness here comes from its strength, its intellectual rigor, as it almost made Christianity the religion of Christian intellectuals and philosophers, or at the very least split Christians into two camps: the uninitiated, and the intellectuals. Lastly, the methodology itself has a flaw in the following: What happens if one day some philosopher suddenly proves (at least for a time) that Christianity is not the best and most rational system? Are we rationalists that only follow Christ to the extent that Christianity makes sense to us?

If we hold to the parallel tracks of history, it is not much of a surprise if non-Christians see the other track as irrelevant to "normal life." From a non-Christian non-white point of view, the claims of Christianity are merely just that, claims. Even if true, they have no relation to him and his history. After all, in the prevailing secular metanarrative, life evolved from non-life, humans evolved from primeval apes, and cultures and civilization develop naturally. Eastern non-materialists could conceivably accept supernatural occurrences in the history of Israel for example, but what has that got to do with *MY* country and culture? The history of China goes back 4000 years, so why should we listen to the "white men" who were living in caves while we were building great cities?

That is why the whole issue of creation is so important, because it attacks the supposed autonomous histories of cultures, even those as ancient as China's (or Egypt's). Primeval history especially in the table of nations of Genesis 10 established the historical basis for all of Christianity's claims of universality. It is because there is a real objective historical basis for sin that sin is sin and deserves damnation. It matters not whether someone is happier after he has jettisoned his faith, for feelings often deceive. It matters not whether one feels sinful, it matters not whether one feels that Christianity is meeting his need, it matters not whether he feels a "God-sized hole" in his heart. All these don't matter! It is because Christianity is historically objectively true on the origins of Man, that it is objectively true regarding everything else it teaches. No one for example dispute the fact of gravity (except theoretically). In the same way, Christian history should be claiming that level of truth.

Only a proper grasp of the historicity of the Genesis account will avoid a parallel track system of two histories, and only that can solve the problem of the universal claim of Christianity (not its universal appeal). If one holds to some version of the dual system of histories, then why would anyone be interested in hearing just another "abstract theory," especially during the times when they feel self=fulfilled?

It is because of this that I find holding to 6-24 creation necessary. The other views, while held to sincerely, do not seem capable of adequately answering the problem of universality. Why should a particular faith be universally applicable? Experience, guilt, miraculous evidences of the 1st century AD, and rationality all bypass the history of other cultures and peoples, and thus cut redemptive history from other cultures and people God did not work with in the Bible..