Monday, April 01, 2024

On ministry in an anti-Christian place

While reflecting on ministry, I recalled a piece I had read some time back. Titled "Arise Jonah, Go to California that Wretched State and Preach Jesus!," the blog article by Pastor Christopher Gordon sets forth reasons for Christians continuing to be in California and specifically for preaching Christ in California. Now if this article is arguing for Gospel ministry to be done in the most godless of places, certainly that would be correct. But what should ministry in an anti-Christian setting look like?

There has been discussions over ideas of a "positive," "neutral" and "negative worlds" as it pertains to ministry. While the labels might be helpful, the Scriptures are clear about how Christians are to behave and ministers have to minister on objective issues of morality. Biblical morality is "inflexible," inasmuch as it does not care what the cultures thinks but proclaims God's standard for all time, always. In other words, it does not matter whether the culture celebrates, tolerates or detests Christian morals; the pastor has to be prepared to preach the truths of Scripture regardless.

In a hostile, anti-Christian setting, the pastor has the uneviable job of being en emissary from a hated land of a hated King. It does not matter whether that place is California, or the many places around the world where Christians are persecuted. The pastor has to proclaim the whole counsel of God. Knowing the message is detested, he would know Christians would be persecuted for holding to biblical truths. The role of the pastor is to preach and prepare his people for persecution. In other words, unlike a "typical Western church," the pastor is not looking for businesss as usual. He should not expect the church to be well-liked, to be well settled in a commmunity, and for the secular rulers to be godly. Besides proclaiming the Gospel, part of catechesis is to teach the congregants the wickedness of the culture, and to not partake of its wickedness. The pastors while proclaiming the Gospel to wicked and dying men is to be a witness of something different, a "counter-culture" if you will, and be unflinching against the tide of wickedness of that culture.

What that means is that ministry in Babylon is decidedly counter-cultural, but not as a withdrawal from culture, rather a condemnation of the wicked culture. In other words, a Gospel minsitry that does not condemn wickedness in culture is merely creating a small protected "space" for Christians to retreat to in their churchly culture. While Christians do need oases to refresh themselves, the church should not be about creating protected spaces but about reaching the world. This is a hard calling but those who are called to such must do so, and not "agree to disagree" on whether sin is indeed, sin. Or worse of all, hide behind a mutilated version of "2 Kingdoms" theory, as if the Reformers did not condemn the wicked rulers of their times!

Friday, February 23, 2024

The problem with the new scholasticism - "Retrieval of classical theism"

According to the philosopher, the people on the first story have no visible stairway by which they may walk up to the second story and actually see the nature of who God is. They can look at pictures that God the owner has placed on the first story. Some of the pictures are very good and very beautiful. But it is still all the first story. The philosopher, however, is like the manager of the house. He knows about a secret, hidden back stairway, used only by the manager of the house.

He has been up the stairway, by means of reason and Aristotle’s categories. He has special qualifications. He can tell us what the actual situation is. The secret back stairway is an exciting discovery because of its intellectual power.

But does the secret back stairway actually exist? Or is the philosopher himself under an illusion? …

[Vern S. Poythress, The Mystery of the Trinity: A Trinitarian Approach to the Attributes of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2020), pp. 336-7]

There is concealed a pride, a self-satisfaction, and a knowing superiority to ordinary Christians who have not achieved such heights of reverence for the Almighty. (p. 460)

The fourth response, classical Christian theism, attempts mediation by prioritizing transcendence, that is, prioritizing the second story. But to do this prioritizing, we must first have adequate knowledge of the second story itself. And so the back stairway enters the picture. (p. 487)

In his book promoting a form of "classical Christian theism," a phrase which up till now seems amorphous, Vern Pothress cautioned against the over-use of philosophy in understanding the doctrine of God. Without pointing out anyone today in particular, Poythress points out the problems with utilizing Aristotelian categories to understand God. Of course, the rest of us can be less restrained, and point out the arrogance and superiority mindset that infects modern day neo-Thomists, who insist that anyone rejecting Thomas Aquinas's doctrine of God are heretics who should be de facto excommunicated from the Church.

The main problem with the new scholasticism promoted by Matthew Barrett, Carl Trueman, Craig Carter et al. is not so much whether they think that a Thomistic doctrine of God is good, but that that is the only way one must conceive of God. While claiming the Creator-creature distinction, and holding the distinction between archetypal/ ectypal theology, they undermine it with what Poythress call their "secret, hidden back stairway," where they can behold God as He truly is. They are the only ones who truly know God; the peons must just bow down to their superior intellect, and don't you dare question the Great Tradition™ !

God is God; he is beyond all human comprehension, and that applies to philosophers and theologians. Instead of thinking that we must have it correct, Christians especially should understand that the only reason why we can know God is that God reveals Himself to us. Instead of trying to recover "Natural Theology," wwith the idea that Man can somehow grasp a knowledge of God by His own intellect, we should understand that total depravity extends to the intellect. We are sinners, even in and especially when we think, and the idea that somehow we can climb a hidden back stairway to understand God is a mockery of the God who reveals Himself to us.

Therefore, we should be humble in our assertions of who and what God is. By all means hold to Thomstic views if that is what one is convicted of, but do so with humility. A little less pride and more humility, more teachability, will go a long way in preserving the peace and unity of the Church.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Col. 2:8)

Thursday, February 22, 2024

The corruption of monasticism on the life of the church

After the victory of icons, the number of monks who became bishops grew. (John Binns, The T & T Clark History of Monasticism, p. 77)

The monastery was a centre of support for icons during the iconoclast controversy in the eighth and ninth centuries. (p. 90)

Monasteries were places of ascetic struggle and were populated by women and men who lived by different standards and had a different set of values from those of the city. They were suspicious of education and learning, which they associated with the world which they had left behind. They recognized the need to read and understand the Bible and other books but wanted to distinguish this form of knowledge from secular education. (p. 175)

Monasticism, with initial good motives, became a snare and a curse to the church over time. With the idea that the "spiritual" was superior, and the mundane is of the world, monasticism led Christians aways from education and learning, causing a steady deterioriation in the interpretation of Scripture. One just has to read the allegorical sermons of medieval times to see how over-spiritualizing had led people away from the Word of God into fanciful interpretations, distorting the Word of God for their own traditions.

By the time of Niceae II (787AD), monks had devolved into a movement away from Scripture, as they were at the forefront for pushing for the use of icons, which a cursory read through the Scriptures should have shown to be contrary to what God has said. The Second Commandment clearly forbids the use of any form of images of in worship (Ex. 20:4-6), and this prohibition against images (which includes icons) extends throughout the Old Testament, a prohibition that Jesus nowhere rejected. There is simply no way to support icons from Scripture, and Eastern Orthodox arguments are speculative based upon tradition rather than Scripture.

"You shall know them by their fruit" (Mt. 7:16). The seeking of God by speculative mysticism leads to darkness and disobedience, and Nicaea II is proof of that, as monks, not knowing the Scriptures, violate Scripture with impunity, leading to a council promoting falsehood and heresy. If there was any doubt of the spiritual darkness of monasticism, Nicaea II is its irrefutable proof.

Monasticism in violation of Scripture: The case of Amoun

Another pioneer of Egyptian monastic life was Amoun. He was born in 295 and lived in the north of Egypt in the region of the Nile Delta. He was an orphan and at the age of twenty-two was forced by his uncle to marry. He went unwillingly through the ceremony but then read passages of the Bible to his illiterate new wife instructing her about the importance of chastity. She had little option but to accept his preferred way of living but wanted at least to live in the same house. Amoun worked growing balam, ate and prayer with his wife, then retired at night to a different room. This went on for eighteen years after which his wife suggested they lived separately. Amoun then happily moved to the nearby mountiain of Nitria, when he was thirty-four years. (John Binns, The T & T Clark History of Monasticism: The Eastern Tradition, 38)

Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. (1 Cor. 7:27)

The case of Amoun, one of the pioneers of monasticism in Egypt is instrumental in showing us how seeking supposed good things led many to sin. In this case, Amoun violated Scripture and broke his marital vows to his wife. Scripture is clear that those who are married to live as married men and women — the husband to love his wife and the wife to honor and respect her husband (cf. Eph. 5:22-33). It is also clear from Scripture and its context that one's happiness or "consent" in the matter of marriage is irrelevant to the obedience of these commmands, noting that many marriages in antiquity were arranged without the concept of consent or romantic love. Amoun entering a marriage through being forced by his uncle to marry is therefore irrelevant to the issue of how he ought to conduct himself in his marriage.

God is God, and He is the one who ordains each person's station in life. The greatest virtue comes in obedience to God in our daily lives, not to create an artificial "holiness" through human means. Thus, the one who enters into marriage ought to obey God in the midst of his/her marriage, noting the marriage covenant that binds husband and wife in one flesh (Eph. 5:31 cf. Gen. 2:24). There is therefore no legitimate reason for Amoun to violate his marital covenant, breaking it with the view of "living for God." Instead of living according to God's revealed will, monasticism replaces the words of God with the commandments of Man, and in so doing showing us how sin enters through Man's sincere attempts to be good.

The beginnings of monasticism

Where did Christian monks come from? There were certainly no monks or nuns in the Bible, yet, for we know that monasticism infests the lands in the time of Martin Luther. Most certainly, monasticism is a departure from biblical Christianity, yet how did it emerge in the first place?

In his book on the history of monasticism, John Binns details the emergence and development of monasticism [John Binns, The T&T Clark History of Monasticism: The Eastern Tradition (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2020)]. As someone sympathetic to the Eastern tradition, Binns holds that monasticism is nothing more than Paul's supposed ascetism taken to heart, but more on that at another time. Formally however, monasticism begins with the first monk, Anthony of Egypt, the father of eremetic or solitary monasticism, around 304 AD. Pachomus began the first coenobitic or communal form of monasticism aound 320 AD. From then on, monasticism spreads rapidly through Christendom, becoming a feature of both Eastern and Western Christianity.

The beginnings of monasticism come about due to a few factors. A major factor is the fermenting of pagan views of ascetism through the views of condemned heretics like Origen and Evagrius, something which Binns could not deny, although he separated their heretical "metaphysical speculation" from their "ascetical teaching." (p. 182). Another factor is the elevation of marytrdom and martys to a holy status in the early church (the "cult of the martyrs"). Those who attain to this yet are denied actual marytrdom can aspire for the "white martyrdom" (p. 36) that symbolizes a removal from the world. A third factor is the zeal for holiness, which became difficult when more and more people became Christians. When Christianity became normal, those who seek purity ran to the desert to live out their separate lives, a choice easier to make after Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire resulting in an influx of nominal Christians into the Church.

As it can be seen, two of the main factors of the beginnings of monasticism come from a desire for good things. There is nothing wrong with honoring and respecting those who pay the ultimate price for their faith in Jesus Christ. There is likewise nothing wrong with a desire for holiness, and the influx of worldliness into the church should trouble Christians. But is the solution a withdrawal from the world, as monasticism would do, in a personal pursuit of one's subjective holiness? The answer of the Reformation was a resounding no. We are called to be in the world, but not of the world, as it is written:

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (Jn. 17:15-6)

Marytrdom is a gift, and so is continence, but none of these things are things one can dictate to God. The problem with monasticism from its inception is its vain attempt to control what gifts God should give to His people. One desire matyrdom, so one seeks after the "white" variety when the "red"' version (real martyrdom) is not given. One thinks ascetism brings one closer to God, so one becomes a monk, usurping God's prerogative over who should be married and who is to be celibate. In the end, instead of submitting to God, one attempts to climb Jacob's ladder to reach God, never understanding that God is the only one who can reach us, never we him.