A Commandment You Can Keep or, it would seem, God vs. Some Bishops

Pray for the Church. Pray for the bishops.

The Babylonians ransack Jerusalem

We are given commandments by God and are expected to keep them. We hear Jesus Himself say things like:

“Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19)

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

And the Apostle John writing:

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. (1 John 2:3)

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus. (Revelation 14:2)

We can feel the weightiness of the word “commandments.” For many it seems like an unusually heavy word, a word out of place in today’s world, altogether too severe, to draconian — certainly not American. I sometimes sense that many Christians have a “you can’t be serious” attitude towards the objective seriousness and absoluteness of commandments. Did not Jesus, after all, save us from all that? He took up His cross so we don’t have to, right? Of course He didn’t. Reference the quotes above.

Often these days we hear of a so-called “pastoral approach,” being pushed hard by a number of bishops, that seems to offer comfort and compassion to sinners without also calling for repentance. The argument for this seems to hinge on the idea that the call to holiness (including the call to a marriage that does not end in divorce, or the call that one should not get remarried without a proper annulment, or the call to chastity or even celibacy) is an ideal rather than an expectation with actual consequences.

This seems to be the idea some bishops see the biblical definition of marriage, and even the Gospel itself — as an ideal that inspires. Writing on Amoris Laetitia, the German bishops published a statement on pastoral care of marriage and the family. The bishops wrote:

People see themselves faced by the shattered remains of their life plans that were based on a partnership. They suffer from having failed and having been unable to do justice to their ideal of life-long love and partnership.

Notice that “life-long love and partnership” is presented as an ideal. I suppose holiness is an ideal too. Right? The use of the word ideal in this instance, I would argue, comes from the desire to view holiness as an inspirational concept that can help us in our individuals pursuits of “the best version of ourselves.” But we are called to pursue holiness without compromise. Holiness is both an ideal and an objective. Is the Gospel itself an ideal too? If by ideal we mean something not truly attainable, or not something we should expect people to attain, then that would seem to contradict both Holy Scripture and Catholic Tradition. But, of course, the German bishops are not writing without precedent. Here is a key sentence from Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, as quoted by the German bishops in their letter:

“The Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements.” (AL No. 308)

Given the continuing issues with the German bishops desiring to water down both the Gospel and Tradition, it would seem they see “ideal” as being a mostly unattainable goal primarily reserved for those who have the faith and goodwill of saints, but not anything more than an an example and a slim hope for most Christians.

Naturally, we often hold up ideals as inspirations for motivation, but not as something we can have any hope of attaining. However, many see ideals as only that and no more. Is this how God sees ideals? Or, perhaps a better question, does God see His commandments as ideals at all, or as requirements? Are we called to try to be holy while believing it’s actually impossible to do so, and also that God doesn’t really care all that much anyway, nor will He truly hold us accountable? Or are we to be holy?

Consider this passage from Deuteronomy 30: 11-20

11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Did the Israelites keep these commandments? No. Again and again no. Did God know they would break them? Yes. Of course He did. Did they break the commandments because of sin, weakness, outside pressures, temptations, foolishness, and folly upon folly? Yes. Did they always have some “reasonable” justification in their own eyes for doing so? Probably. They must have.

And yet, God says: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you.” In light of this cannot the German bishops, and all bishops for that matter, hold Catholics to the actual standards God has given us, offering council, forgiveness, and mercy as is appropriate, but never ceasing to call us all to Christ without compromise? But the way of the German bishops, and too many others as well, seems to imply preaching the Gospel itself is, in fact, too difficult any more.

The evidence before us, declared from headlines and testimonies, says many bishops refuse to hold themselves accountable to God’s demands for holiness. Naturally, therefore, they might want to change the “rules” a bit, tweak the definitions of words, and shift the focus to the environment and refugees rather than ask anyone to truly keep God’s commandments. Perhaps their only integrity is refusing to ask others to do what they themselves refuse.

What was God’s “pastoral” care for His people? God says: “But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.”

Was God too harsh, too draconian on the Israelites? Was the Babylonian captivity God showing a lack of charity? Was the Father sending His Son to die on a cross to much? Some bishops of the Church, it would seem, must think so.

Thank God that we also have many good bishops. Pray for them. And pray for the rest too.

[Final thought: Sometimes it seems that criticisms aimed at traditionalists come from a place that prefers an easier, less judgmental faith than Catholic orthodoxy. Thus, criticisms of the Traditional Latin Mass, or Catholic traditions in general, though often couched in terms of the need for the Church to be less stuffy and get with the times, may actually be expressions of the desire to avoid the call to holiness–at least the kind of holiness demanded by God and sought after by the saints. Traditional Catholicism does not see holiness as merely a nice or inspirational ideal, but as a requirement, and as possible with God’s grace, and requiring God’s mercy when we fail. And traditionalists, as I have observed, tend to seek out the Church’s traditions as a means to help in the striving for holiness, not because of a “holier than thou” attitude. Is it not true that the person of faith longs for holiness and its demands, and the person without faith seeks to avoid the demands of holiness? Is this not fundamental? If so, what might this say about a significant number of Catholics, including all too many bishops?]

The narrow gate


I regularly get chills from certain passages in the Bible. This is one of them:

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7: 13-14)

I often believe, with not a little worry, that while I ascent to Christ’s teaching and to the narrow gate metaphor I am, in truth, on the wide path to destruction. I also look around me and I am convinced the Church is filled mostly with people who are not on the narrow path, are not getting through the narrow gate and, in fact, have decided the narrow gate either does not apply to them, or that the wide gate is, in actuality, the narrow gate.

In fact, it seems there is a “the wide gate is the way to go” attitude in much of popular Christianity. It goes under the name of tolerance = love = “see how loving I am.” It is so easy for us to feel self-righteous and not see it.

In fact, I do not believe modern American  Christianity embraces the narrow gate. I believe the Church in the west has largely rejected the narrow gate. I believe our affluence and our love of modernism has encouraged us to believe the narrow gate does not apply anymore. This is really serious.

We have adopted what I call the “funny inner feeling” form of Christianity. I am not the first person to use that phrase. It arises from a distinctively Protestant form of Christianity naturally and inevitably born out of the sola fide mindset, but embraced by Catholics too, especially in the post-Vatican II world. Just like our modern concept of love, we are given over to a emotional definition of faith. With this feeling in place we can do all kinds of things, such as

  1. be spiritual but not religious
  2. presume ourselves forgiven
  3. presume ourselves saved
  4. believe we are no longer called to be martyrs
  5. believe holiness is merely a “lifestyle” of no eternal consequence
  6. choose our own forms of worship
  7. conjure more feelings of faith for a spiritual high
  8. denigrate piety as old fashioned
  9. denigrate traditions as being only for “rigid” people
  10. denigrate “works”
  11. denigrate Christendom
  12. promote “bumper-sticker” forms of encouragement
  13. ignore the sacraments

…and the list goes on and on.

But Christ will separate Christian from Christian. Some will go into glory forever with Him. And others will go to eternal destruction and fire. Does that not scare you? It does me. Dante was right to place some popes, bishops, priests, and religious in Hell. Will you and I be in Hell too? Or will we choose the narrow gate?

Verses like the ones above challenge me. I hope they challenge you too. Let us pray for each other. God is good and trustworthy.

Teaching like Saint Paul

My wife and I chose to homeschool our children. This immediately placed upon us the need to have a plan on how we would do this. Consequently we faced the question of what method or approach should we chose. We ended up with what is commonly called Christian Classical Education, an approach we think is best, but we have been open to other ideas, and have tried to enter into a dialectical process with other homeschoolers and educators on this topic. We also looked to the Bible to see what we might find there, and to Saint Paul, one of the Church’s greatest evangelists and theologians, we naturally turned.

I published a version of this essay several years ago. I feel it is worth republishing again, with slight modifications.


I doubt if Saint Paul ever developed a detailed educational foundation or curriculum or program in the way that we might today. He may have thought about the right approach in some formal way as he spread the Gospel, but he certainly didn’t lay one out in his letters.  And I doubt he ever founded a school (of course, if he did I doubt he would have used the word “classical” in its name). But still, as I ponder what Christian Classical Education is or might be, I wonder what Paul would contribute towards a philosophy of education. Without trying to turn this into an overwhelming project for which I am unprepared, I want to briefly look at only two verses from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. He writes in Philippians 4:8-9:

(ESV) Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

(RSVCE) Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

(KJV) Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

[Note: I’m providing three common translations to help give a broad sense of the passage.]

Consider St. Paul’s list:

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

What do we do with such a list? (Imagine going to your local school board and proposing that the district’s curriculum be revamped to begin with this list. Ha! I dare you.)

And then about this list St. Paul says to think about these things.

To think. In the minds of our modern educators, and most of the rest of us, thinking is almost tantamount to doing nothing. Ever see someone thinking? What are they doing? On the outside they are often quite still, maybe staring into the distance. In effect, they are doing nothing. And yet, they are doing a great deal. Now if they are not thinking alone, not staring placidly off into space, then they are probably in dialogue with someone. But a true dialogue can seem to be unfocused and wandering, which is also antithetical to teaching in the modern sense.

Our modern education system is partially based on a sense of urgency–we cannot afford to waste time with thinking when we have so much knowledge to get into those little brains. We have become slaves to the bullet-pointed list. It is a system that must swap dialogue with lecture. The material must be covered, we cannot slow down, and then slow down some more. But this modern system denies the existence of the human soul and its mysterious needs and movements. Is that what we want?

Paul says to think about these things.

What is thinking? I know nothing about the brain as a subject of scientific study. I know there are chemicals and electrical impulses involved, but more than that? I know nothing. However, I gather thinking is a mystery of our minds, of our humanity. I use the word mystery because I doubt science can ever, truly plumb the depths and workings of thinking. Thinking is a mystery because it is a force of great power that seems to have no substance, no true existence, no way to completely contain it and control it as a totality. We can guide it, use it, encourage it, welcome it, and share it, sometimes even fear it, but we cannot entirely subdue it. To think is to ponder, to wonder, to suppose, to engage, to meditate. More importantly, thinking is to take an idea into oneself, into one’s soul, and turn it over and over and make it one’s own, or to reject it in favor of another.

So then we ponder and wonder, suppose and engage, meditate and bring into our souls

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

Can you think of any better education? I can’t.

Paul could have left it there, but he goes on. He writes, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me…” Don’t pass over this. Consider that Paul is able to confidently write that the Philippians have directly experienced him in such a way that they have:

  • learned from Paul
  • received from Paul
  • heard from Paul
  • seen in Paul

This list is somewhat cryptic, but I think we can get a glimpse into how Paul was a teacher. First the Philippians learned from Paul. He saw himself as a teacher. He had intention. He knew what he wanted to teach them. And he taught them thoroughly enough, with enough feedback, to know that they learned. He is confident of that. Then he says they have received. This implies a giving, a handing over, and a taking in. There was something that he left with them, something they now have. He can write to them because he knows they have what he gave. In this sense they are more like Paul than they were before. One of the primary goals of the classical educator is that his pupils will one day become his colleagues. The Philippians are now colleagues of Paul; they have something that Paul has, something he gave them and they received.

Third he says they heard from him. Teaching often involves speaking and hearing, but sometimes we forget what a gift is language. If you are like me then you love Paul’s letters, but you would really love to hear him speak, to ask him questions, to sit at his feet, to get into a deep dialogue with him over beers. Paul engaged their minds as God intended, as their minds were designed to function, by using language. We sometimes hear that apocryphal story of St. Francis exhorting his followers to preach Christ at all times and, when necessary, use words. There’s a valuable lesson in that story, but Paul was not afraid to use words right up front. Preaching Christ requires using words. Speaking to another also requires presence. Paul was with the Philippians, in person, in the flesh; they heard his voice, knew its sound, picked up on nuances of meaning in the subtleties of his voice and body language. To hear in this way, that is, to listen to ideas spoken, is a profoundly human experience. We do not know if the Philippians heard Paul because he formally preached to them, or lectured them, or led them in Socratic dialogue, or engaged in casual conversation, but they heard.

Finally, and this may be the most important, they saw. Paul presented himself as an example. He lived what he taught. Or better yet, he embodied the logos. The Gospel, the good news of Christ, the content that Paul taught, handed over, and spoke, was also visible in his life and actions. Paul could rightly say, “look at me.” The best teachers embody the logos.

Can we find more about how Paul taught? Yes, I’m sure we can. But just from these two verses we get something of great depth. We find that Paul, with confidence, can say the Philippians

  • learned from Paul
  • received from Paul
  • heard from Paul
  • saw in Paul

And what did they learn?

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

From this alone we can know that Paul was a master teacher in the fullest Christian Classical model. How this will look in your own teaching will be unique, but there is no better foundation that I can find.

And then Paul writes:

“…practice these things…”

Paul both taught in person and was writing to the Philippians with an Ideal Type in mind, that is the complete or perfect Christian, that is Christ. Christ is the logos. We are Christians and therefore seek to embody the logos in our lives. It is not enough to merely find the idea of the Ideal Type good or fascinating or excellent. One must put it into practice. To practice is to work and persevere at imitation, it is a form of becoming. To imitate is to behold, to embrace, to take into one’s being and seek to embody the Ideal Type in one’s life and actions. True knowledge is, in this sense, incarnational. It has a form. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” To put on Christ implies that when others look at us they see Christ. Ideas have consequences. Others will know us by our fruits, which are visible signs of an inner reality. Are we putting into practice these things?

David Hicks wrote: “To produce a man or woman whose life conforms to the Ideal in every detail is education’s supremely moral aim.” (Norms and Nobility, p. 47) Is this not also the passion of Paul, that the Philippians live’s would conform to the Ideal of Christ in every detail? And how are the Philippians to do this?

“…practice these things…”

Now, if you haven’t noticed, I have not defined what Christian Classical Education is or how to do it. Partly this is tactical; I don’t have a clear answer. On the other hand I will offer a quote from Andrew Kern:

Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty so that the student is better able to know and enjoy God.

I cannot think of a better, more fundamental description of what a Christian Classical Education is all about. There is a lot in there, and a lot of room for developing strategies of teaching, but if this is what we are aiming for, if this is what we are building on, if this is our longing, then consider again the words of Saint Paul:

(ESV) Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

(RSVCE) Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

(KJV) Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

Do that and the God of peace will be with you.

Baptism references

A recent discussion prompted me to think again of some posts I did on baptism. My friend was emphatically saying something like we all know baptism isn’t necessary, etc, etc. I know very well how deep that thinking goes for many Protestants, and the context of the discussion wasn’t good for challenging assumptions, so I just let it be, but I know now that baptism is necessary. I also believe that God works with people where they are, and that one’s conscience is fundamental, so I’m not particularly worried. Still, it’s good to refresh one’s memory from Holy Scripture and be ready for possible future discussions.

This post was originally publish April 26, 2011.

Sermon of St. John the Baptist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1566

The following citations come from the English Standard Version (ESV) translation. The purpose of this list, for me at least, is to gather in one place as many of the scriptural references on baptism as I can so that I might begin to understand the place and meaning of baptism in the life of faith. If I have missed any biblical references, whether directly mentioning baptism or whether pointing to baptism metaphorically or symbolically, please let me know.

John baptizes:
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:1-2)

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1:4-5)

And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3)

Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:5-6)

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7)

He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. (Luke 3:7-8a)

John points to Jesus:
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)

“I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8)

As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Luke 3:15-16)

They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” (John 1:25-27)

Jesus gets baptized:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11)

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

“I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:33-34)

Jesus baptizes:
After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison). (John 3:22-24)

Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” (John 3:25-26)

The nature of John’s baptism?
“The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?'” (Matthew 21:25)

“Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” (Mark 11:30)

He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” (Luke 20:3-4)

Jesus’ teaching on (or related to) baptism:
Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized . . .” (Mark 10:38-39)

“I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.) (Luke 7:28-30)

“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (Luke 12:49-51)

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:15-16)

And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4-5)

Baptism in the first generation church:
“. . . beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:22)

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:37-40)

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41)

But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. (Acts 8:12-13)

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 8:14-16)

And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:36-39)

So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened. (Acts 9:17-19)

“. . . you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed” (Acts 10:37)

“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:47-48a)

“And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'” (Acts 11:16)

“Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.” (Acts 13:24)

The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” (Acts 16:14b-15a)

Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. (Acts 18:8)

He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. (Acts 18:25)

And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. (Acts 19:3-6)

And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name. (Acts 22:16)

Paul on baptism:
By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:2-4)

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:13-17)

For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4a)

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13)

Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? (1 Corinthians 15:29)

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27)

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12)

Peter on baptism:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22)

Judgement and Works


BTW, our eternal destiny — salvation or damnation — is based on the works we do.


Growing up in church* I frequently heard teaching that included something like this: “I know it may seem the passage (or verse) says X, but in fact it really means Y.” In other words, although on the surface it looks clear, don’t be fooled. Since we know that such and such doctrine must be true, we therefore know that this passage can’t really mean what it seems to mean. This kind of approach was most evident (to me at least) on the topic of faith versus works. Since, of course, we know we are saved by faith alone (sola fide) then we know passages that say we are saved by works must actually be saying something else.

But do they? A good question to ask is, if the writer (St. Paul, St. John, etc.) of any passage in question meant what one has now figured out it “really” means, then why did he write it the way he did? In other words, if the writers of the New Testament meant to say we are saved by faith alone, then why didn’t they write that way? So many times they wrote we are saved by works, as well as by faith, grace, mercy, baptism, etc., that one wonders how did they get their doctrine so messed up?! But of course their doctrine was correct, and it is we who must correct our thinking.

As an example of what I mean, below are examples where New testament writers (many of the words are from the mouth Christ) point to something other than sola fide.

Anyway, I too feel convicted of often letting myself off the hook thinking it doesn’t ultimately matter how I live my life as long as I have faith. It’s a trap I fall into too often. I think we all do. Perhaps it’s a human tendency, perhaps a product of my Protestant upbringing (though I see it everywhere). And caring to do good is not the same as doing good. Caring may be enough, I mean I’m going to fail again and again, so caring has got to count for something, but I wonder.

Some might say that God doesn’t intend us to actually do good works, only that we try, miserably fail of course, and then turn to Him. That that is the purpose of having good works set before us as a goal; not that we do them but that we try and learn we can’t. I don’t see that teaching clearly articulated in scripture.

Some might say that good works are fine, and of course we should do them, but they are ultimately meaningless, that any work we do is really worthless. Again, I don’t see that teaching clearly articulated in scripture. In fact, clearly the opposite.

What I do see are repeated calls to good works, and that those works are critically tied up in our eternal destiny, and our movement towards becoming one with Christ and holy like our Father is holy. I also see we are utterly sunk without God’s grace and mercy. But still, we are called to be holy, to do good works. Our eternal destiny depends on it.

Judgement and works brothers and sisters. What do we do with this? What do we do with these verses?

Matthew 7:19 “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. . . .”

Matthew 7:21 “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Note: See the next several verses (7:22-27) to get a fuller picture of the implications.

Matthew 16:27 “For the Son of man . . . will repay every man for what he has done.”

Matthew 25:34-36 “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’” (cf. 25:31-33, 37-46)

Luke 3:9 “. . . every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John 5:29 “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”

Romans 2:5-13 But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,  but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.

2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.

2 Thessalonians 1:8-11 . . . inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may fulfill every good resolve and work of faith by his power, . . .

1 Peter 1:17 . . . who judges each one impartially according to his deeds, . . .

Revelation 2:23 . . . I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.

Revelation 20:12 . . . And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. (cf. 20:11-13)

Revelation 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.

Revelation 22:12 Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done.

Those are just a few of many passages.

Peasant's Head

*Sometimes I joke that I was moved from the hospital directly to the First Baptist church nursery, such was my experience.

Are you bad enough to be Catholic?


You’ve heard the story: A man, who has spent his life trying to be a saint in some fashion or another, says to God, “I know I’m not perfect (because no one really is anyway), but I have not done so bad. I treat others fairly, I’m not divorced, got good kids, go to church every week, am part of a Bible study, pray, tithe, vote according to my faith, love sports but not too much, and overall am an upstanding member of society. Thank you God for all that you’ve done for me, and that I’m not like that guy over there — a wretch of a man, divorced, alcoholic, dirty, his family has abandoned him, he cheats others, can’t hold a job, lies, steals, fornicates, you know, that kind of guy. Thank you that I am a good Catholic.”

And that other guy? He falls on his knees before God and says, “God, my life is a mess. I have turned from you so many times, and will do so again, for I am weak. I do things I don’t want to do. I don’t do the things I should. I am a liar, a thief, a cheat. See what a miserable failure I am, what a sinner. As a young man I ran as far as I could from the faith of my childhood. I do not have faith anymore. I have driven away all who have loved me. I do not trust anyone. I do not even trust You, but I want to. If only I could. I deserve nothing good from You or any one else. I do not deserve forgiveness, so I am afraid to ask, but if… but if only You might have any mercy at all for me, here I am.”

The first man is at Mass every week. You probably stand next to him or behind him. He might greet you at the door, or read from the scripture. He might even offer you the Body and Blood of Christ when you come forward. He might even be you. And he might be me. That likelihood is higher than we want to admit.

And yet we are told by Christ (see Luke 18:9-14) that it is the second man who is closer to God than the first. It just might be that that guy is the true Catholic — perhaps not sacramentally but of the heart. A Catholic is a sinner who knows he is a sinner. And the first man? He is a sinner as well, and when his heart is softened he too will say, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.”

So the answer is yes. You and I are bad enough to be Catholic. Pray that we have eyes to see as well. Praise God for His great and inestimable love for us!

There are saints indeed in my religion: but a saint only means a man who really knows he is a sinner. ~ G. K. Chesterton

Like sheep into the midst of wolves

Eternal Father,
we praise you for sending your Son
to be one of us and to save us.
Look upon your people with mercy,
for we are divided in so many ways,
and give us the Spirit of Jesus to make us one in love.

We ask this gift, loving Father,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.



Christ said “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” (Matthew 10:16a)

When are we sheep in the midst of wolves? Who are these wolves? Where are they?

Christians often see themselves as fighting against the world. An “us vs. them” mindset sadly prevails much of the time. (Sad because Christ died for the world, and like our savior, we too should die for the world.) We might even think of ourselves, and especially our children, as being like innocent sheep being sent out into a world full of wolves. Homeschooling parents especially like to think of public schools as being wolf dens; so they keep their children safe by keeping them close to home. We tend to see Churches and Christian establishments as havens from the wolfish world. But if that is the way we think, then we might miss a stern warning from Christ.

To whom was Christ speaking? His apostles, the twelve. What was he doing? He was sending them on a mini-mission, perhaps we should call it a training mission, to proclaim the gospel. Christ the teacher knew his apostles would be the first missionaries, taking the gospel to the world, so he was teaching them. He was giving them the opportunity to experience what proclaiming the gospel was going to be like while he was still with them, while they could still come back to him and debrief. He knew it would not be easy, and he gives them some specific instructions and the warning above. Let’s take a look at that verse above in its fuller context:

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matthew 10:5-23)

The answer to who and where the wolves are is this: The apostles are not to go into the world in the way we might think, but to go to those who already reside in the house of Israel. He says: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” So “the world” is not the world out there among the gentiles, but the world right there before them, among their own people. And therefore the wolves come from among them as well. Simply, the wolves are the Jewish religious leaders, the teachers of the Torah and the Law, the wise men, the kosher men, the good Jews, the embracers of of being Israelites, the good Jewish families, the upright citizens, the parents and siblings and children, the so-called lovers of God, etc., etc. If we can draw a comparison with us today, the wolves are the pastors and associate pastors and their wives (maybe especially), the deacons and elders, the church bake-sale organizers, the religious right and the religious left, the para-church enthusiasts, the Christians who bring their big floppy bibles with them to every meeting or conversation, the “I love Jesus and not religion” people, the successful Christian business persons, the fashion leaders, the social leaders, the Bible study leaders, the Christian school headmasters, the ones with a Bible verse always on the tip of their tongues, the quiet church ladies, the “real men love Jesus” guys, the arbiters of morals, the gatekeepers, the “prayer warriors”, the church youth activity chaperons, the concerned parents, and all the rest of us Christians who so easily confuse fear with love of God, who choose sacrifice over obedience, and who refuse to weep, mourn, or be poor in spirit.

In other words, the wolves are us if we do not abide in the light.

Preach and, more importantly, live the Gospel in the midst of these “good Christian” people who are really wolves and you will be torn to shreds and eaten alive; usually in the most unassuming and apparently innocent ways. You might even feel that you deserved it. The greatest enemies of Christians, apart from the Devil and his minions, are those who go by the name Christian yet who do not love God or the things of God. And yet, when they serve the Devil they believe they are serving God. When they eat lambs alive they claim they act only out of love. Remember how Christ chastised Peter by saying, “Get behind me Satan!” Geeze, Peter was only helping Jesus be the right kind of messiah. Jesus continued: “You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter would have been a wolf if not for the great love and mercy of Christ in his life. Peter had to learn what following Christ really meant.

If Peter then why not us? He would eventually be crucified for his authentic faith. Oh that we would have Peter’s faith.

One reason that we sometimes cannot tell the wolves from the lambs is that the wolves seem to be the best Christians. They really seem to be the ones who know, often emphatically so, what Christianity is all about. They are the ones who are good at using Christianese (that ubiquitous Christian sub-culture language), at dropping Bible verses in every other sentence, at piety, at being visible in the sub-culture, and saying how much Jesus is really important. They can also be wonderful family people, homeschooling their kids, leading Bible studies in their homes, planning and leading church activities, and much more. One way to spot a wolf is to look for the super-Christian in your midst who has taken it upon herself/himself to test other Christians to see if they really are strong enough believers, especially for leadership. They will quietly corner people, draw them aside, talk to them in private, and then drill them with questions like, “How do you define yourself as a Christian?” and “Do you believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible?” and “What does it mean to be saved?” They will do this saying they only want to know where someone stands, to see if they are on the “same page.” And they will generally do this only to those who are not their personal friends, to people they don’t know closely, and especially to those who don’t look or talk like they do. And they will do this because they are protecting something, like their church or school, or worse, their reputation, and not ultimately for the benefit of the one being tested. Remember Christ was tested by the Pharisees (you brood of vipers) for the same reasons. These wolves appoint themselves as the gatekeepers. They see their actions as noble. It is not an unusual experience for a lamb to feel like an inadequate Christian in relation to the wolves.

One of the great problems with Christianity is that the Church is filled with wolves, mixed in with the lambs, eating people alive. (It is a problem, but perhaps it is by design as well.)

Here’s the rub: How do you know, truly know, if you are on one side or the other? How do you know if you are a lamb or a wolf? Do you love God or only think you do? Have you given your life to Christ or only believe you have? Do you know the truth or only think you do? Are you a lover of the things of God or only believe you are? Do you confuse merely being annoyed at life with mourning? Do you confuse anger that the world isn’t going your way with weeping? Do you confuse your feelings of being a “little man” in the face of big government with being poor in spirit? How are you to know? How is one to untangle oneself and see clearly?

Perhaps the only way to truly know is through suffering. Our faith is tested through suffering because we would not know if we had faith without the testing. (Know this: I cannot “test” your faith, only God can. And He does it for you, not for Him. Thus I can only, at best, surmise if you have genuine faith if I can truly witness how you deal with suffering. But I can never truly know. And it cannot come via hearsay.) Faith is not something you know just by claiming to know, rather it is something you discover. You don’t claim to love Jesus and that’s that. God tests you and you break and then run away, or you break and then grab hold of God. For lambs, knowing one has faith often comes from being eaten alive by wolves and seeing that their faith has not left them. For wolves, knowing one has faith comes from repentance, which is the only thing that can turn wolves into lambs. The thing is, true wolves cling ever more strongly to their “Christianity” but never repent. In fact, they see no need to repent since their wolfish actions are what fuel their self-righteousness and convince them of their faithfulness. Wolves win and claim the victory as God’s blessing. And yet,  suffering works for them as well. It works by giving wolves fodder for their cherished self-image. Lambs will cry out to God in their suffering, knowing they are unworthy of God’s mercy and love. Wolves will cry out as well, seeing their suffering as a badge of what must be their worthiness to suffer, their righteousness, that they must be a target for Satan because of their holy standing before God.

It is the wolf that thanks God that he is not like others.

It is the lamb who bows before God saying, “Have mercy on me a sinner.”

And so… I am no saint, and I know well how easy it is to to find fault in others and not in oneself. I am sure that I have been a wolf at times; probably far more often than I realize. The following words come from a guilty participant, who stood by rather than stood up.

Several months ago, in a private meeting, I sat in a room of wolves who were accusing a lamb of not being worthy to teach their children. This teacher is a believer, and genuine lover of God, a servant of Christ, and a truly excellent Christian classical teacher who gives tremendously out of love for the students. But he is different, a little eccentric, a little atypical; not at all like so many cardboard evangelical christians populating the scene today. And so they accused him of having insufficient faith, of not being enough of a believer, of not giving unambiguous, Baptist evangelical “orthodox”, tip-of-the-tongue answers (read: fundamentalist/baptist orthodoxy) to their testing. (I previously addressed some of this story here.) They said he’s a “nice guy”, but just not Christian enough to teach. The teacher’s response to this attack was one of the most Christ-like examples I have ever witnessed. I saw the comparison play out before my own eyes—their accusations, his loving and honest responses, his weeping. And I saw their stone-faced reactions—and I knew it was a scene of wolves tearing into a lamb. The accusers took the teacher’s emotional response as weakness rather than strength, and merely considered it fodder for their claims. They were blind and I believe they remain so – I do not believe they are as yet capable of seeing themselves as anything other than champions of the Gospel. (I later heard that one father took the teacher’s weeping in genuine sorrow as evidence the accused is not man enough to be in a position to teach this father’s child. Oh how to completely miss the message of Christ’s sermon on the mount!) Perhaps they would have accused Christ himself of unworthiness as well. For me it was both disheartening and nauseating to witness the event. I was asked to not say anything at that meeting I really wanted to say, so I didn’t. Looking back I wish I had. But I know God is sovereign, and I know that God sees all. If God wills, they will see the error of their ways. But I don’t want to put myself up on some righteous pedestal, and I am getting too close to the line of judging the hearts of others, for I cannot truly see their hearts and I am certainly not righteous or free from sin in this matter.

Eventually the overall context shifted such that the teacher stayed (because of overwhelming support from others and from the organization he works for) and the wolves began to ruthlessly attack those who God had placed in authority over them and who supported this teacher, starting a campaign to smear the character of those in their target sights, telling both veiled and outright lies, and using Christian language to elevate themselves as righteous victims. I’ve seen a lot over the years, but this was one of the ugliest examples of Pharisee-ism I’v ever personally witnessed. And so they left to form their own “Christ centered” and “pure doctrine” (their words) educational endeavor which, in my opinion, they falsely and, from what I can tell, self-righteously claim is more Biblical, thus sowing division among believers in the name of Christ. Is this not taking Christ’s name in vain? I grieve at how quickly many Christians are willing to separate themselves from other Christians, and even claim the act of pulling away as some kind of badge of holiness. They made no attempt to seek reconciliation, to find a middle way, to let love rule over their pride. But isn’t this just par for the course, especially in our division-loving Protestant world? I mean no attack on Protestantism per se – though it is important to recognize certain prevalent tendencies when they are there. Perhaps many churches and “Christian” schools should have “Thank you Lord that we are not like other churches/schools” as their mottoes.

Of course I could be wrong in my judgement. I have been before. I admit I am biased and not a little emotional about it.

As hard as that was and is to go through, most troubling perhaps is watching the number of families follow the wolves to their new “Christ centered” educational endeavor, not knowing the backroom stories, not discerning (if they know any of the story) the difference between wolf and lamb, and not seeing that the beatitudes are the first touchstones of the Christian tutor. I am also disheartened especially by how easy it seems for the fathers of these families to so quickly abdicate their role as spiritual leaders by accepting hearsay without demonstrating any desire to know the truth—truth that is readily available if any would ask. (Only one father of the lot, because he suspected there was more going on, partially reached out to find out some of the truth for himself.) Perhaps it’s just too easy to “lead” without really leading. It seems much of popular Christianity is play-acting “Christian” spirituality without any true spiritual discernment (which is more the result of very hard work and lots of prayer rather than cheap intuition). I challenge fathers, as I challenge myself, to step up—not with a kind of American Christian macho cartoon version of being a Christian man, but a true Christ-like, beatitude loving, truth demanding, love rules kind of Christian man. Of course, it’s all too easy to slap on a Christian façade without really being different than everyone else. We all do it. But remember wolves often appear as the best Christians, thus garnering many unquestioning followers. Woe to us if we are not wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Please keep in mind that I am not seeing myself as above it all. I am deeply sinful and have said things and thought worse things in my own way. I am the opposite of a saint. And perhaps I am only taking the side of the lambs because this time I feel as though I am one of the victims. I’m sure when I am a wolf I don’t see it.

In many ways this story has been like a classic Protestant church split. What I see too often is an easy acquiescence to the idea of Christians splitting. It is so much a part of Protestant culture and history that many see it as normative. More than that, many Protestants, like the one’s above splitting to form their “pure doctrine” school, often see separating themselves from other Christians over perceptions of doctrine or practice as a badge of their right standing before God (I suppose this is a broadly Christian thing as well). I come from that background. I was trained as a good Protestant. I know that mindset, and I have come to believe this easy spirit of disunity is the spirit of Antichrist. It arises from the leaven of the Pharisees.

Then again, and with fear and trembling, I wonder how often I have been a wolf who thinks he’s a lamb. I wonder how often I have believed I have the truth, but really do not. I wonder how often I deceive myself, even now as I write this, about my own faith. And I wonder how often I have said faith is more important than love.

I’m sure some would say there is no little amount of hypocrisy in this post of mine. God have mercy on me.

Lord Jesus Christ, at your Last Supper
you prayed to the Father that all should be one.
Send your Holy Spirit upon all who bear your name
and seek to serve you.
Strengthen our faith in you,
and lead us to love one another in humility.
May we who have been reborn in one baptism
be united in one faith under one Shepherd.

For Lent: A New Testament Reading Schedule

Day of the Week Text to read
(Ash) Wednesday Matthew 1-7
Thursday Matthew 8-12
Friday Matthew 13-18
Saturday Matthew 19-24
Monday Matthew 25-28
Tuesday Mark 1-6
Wednesday Mark 7-11
Thursday Mark 12-16
Friday Luke 1-4
Saturday Luke 5-9
Monday Luke 10-13
Tuesday Luke 14-19
Wednesday Luke 20-24
Thursday John 1-5
Friday John 6-9
Saturday John 10-14
Monday John 15-19
Tuesday John 20 – Acts 4
Wednesday Acts 5-9
Thursday Acts 10-15
Friday Acts 16-20
Saturday Acts 21-26
Monday Acts 27 – Romans 4
Tuesday Romans 5-10
Wednesday Romans 11 – I Corth. 1
Thursday I Corinthians 2-9
Friday I Corinthians 10-15
Saturday I Corth. 16 – II Corth. 9
Monday II Corth. 10 – Galatians 4
Tuesday Galatians 5 – Ephesians 6
Wednesday Philippians 1 – I Thes. 2
Thursday I Thes. 3 – I Timothy 5
(includes 2 Thes.)
Friday I Timothy 6 – Hebrews 1
Saturday Hebrews 2-10
Monday Hebrews 11 – James 5
Tuesday I Peter 1 – I John 1
(includes 2 Peter)
Wednesday I John 2 – Jude
(includes 2 John & 3 John)
Thursday Revelation 1-7
Friday Revelation 8-15
Saturday Revelation 16-22
Easter Sunday HE IS RISEN!

Beyond both Bible and Burning Hearts: Breaking the Bread

Supper at Emmaus. Oil, 65 x 68 cm
by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1648
Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

[Note: Perhaps the title of this post should instead read: “Along with Bible and Burning Hearts…” I didn’t intend to use the word “beyond” to mean getting past, leaving behind, or disregarding. But using “beyond” keeps both the alliteration and hint of provocation to catch your attention.]

Consider this wonderful story in Luke 24:13-35 (RSV):

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?”

And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

They are lost and without hope. They do not understand that Christ had to suffer and die, and that he would then rise again. They do not recognize the Christ though he stands before them. The irony of their question is almost humorous. Nobody knows of the things which “happened there in these days” better than the man they do not recognize.

And he said to them, “What things?”

Jesus does not begin by telling them, but by asking them. He draws out their thoughts. He helps them consider the events that happened so that they might be prepared to believe all that the prophets have spoken.

And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”

And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

Oh to have been present at that explanation! And yet, even though Jesus explains everything, and even though he gives them the right way to interpret the scriptures that foretold those events which troubled them so deeply, they still do not comprehend, and they still do not recognize Jesus, they still cannot see the Christ standing right before them.

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.”

They invite Jesus to stay. Was he actually going further, or just giving them an opportunity to be drawn in to something more personal, an opportunity to ask him to stay, thus preparing them for what was to come? To invite a person to stay is to commit oneself to that person at some important level. They were beginning to move beyond proofs from scripture to a covenant relationship of personal commitment. But they did not know what they were getting themselves into. And they were still lost.

So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.

It is only when Jesus breaks the bread do they finally recognize him. What does this mean? What does this imply? What if they had not asked him to stay?

They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”

While they had heard Jesus teach them their hearts burned within them. They loved what he was saying. They longed for the truth. It seems that they too loved the scriptures. Perhaps they even understood all that he taught, but they could not see the Christ standing before them until they got off the road, sat at table with him, and the bread was broken. Only in the breaking of the bread were their eyes opened. Their hearts had burned but they could not see until the bread was broken. When they had the scriptures and burning hearts they were still lost. Perhaps it takes more than knowledge of scriptures and burning hearts to see Christ. Perhaps we should be cautious in trusting our interpretations and our emotions when salvation is at stake. If the bread had not been broken they might still be lost. If they had not asked him to stay he could not have broken the bread.

And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

They make the connection: He was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Do I?

We Christians like to speak of a “personal relationship with Jesus.” We often like to think of Jesus as our friend, our buddy, our confidant. Modern evangelism tends to avoid bringing up the awfulness of hell anymore as a motivator to become a Christian (we make fun of fire-and-brimstone preachers), rather the emphasis is placed squarely on the positive relationship aspects of salvation. “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” “Come to Jesus!” There must be many ways to think about this, but I believe in general we tend to produce an image in our heads of Jesus as our friend. Jesus loves us, he even died for us, but is friendship the best way to think about our relationship with him? Is he our friend or is he our lord?

Are Jesus and you on a roadtrip together, or are you doing his will? Is my relationship with Jesus more like having coffee with a friend or more like coming before the throne of a king?

A great many Protestant/Evangelical church services revolve around creating the feelings of having a personal relationship with Jesus; a kind of emotional high that evokes heartfelt emotions and supposedly “recharges one’s spiritual batteries” for Monday. That seems to be the job function of what is often called the “worship team.” Churches that are most successful at creating those feelings tend to grow big and become financially rich. Apart from the fact that, though Jesus does truly exist, the “Jesus” we claim to know is largely one of our imaginations; and apart from the clearly manufactured and manipulated emotional elements of many of these church services, a question still remains: Do we have the right kind of relationship in mind when we claim a personal relationship with Jesus?

I cannot imagine anyone having a more clear understanding of a “personal relationship with Jesus” than his apostles, except, of course, his mother. If this is true, then I am struck by these two verses:

One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; (John 13:23)

And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead.  (Revelation 1:17a)

The first takes place during the upper room discourse prior to Christ’s crucifixion.  John the apostle leans back against Jesus. There is a closeness, an intimacy, a personal relationship going on there. Of course all the apostles had a personal relationship with Jesus, for they walked with him, ate with him, boarded with him, and were taught directly by him. But the intimacy with John wonderfully contrasts with John’s response at seeing the risen Christ in his vision of Heaven. Here John turns and sees Jesus in his glory. What is John’s response? He falls at Christ’s feet as dead. John is an apostle, one with a close and intimate relationship with Jesus, but now he is falling down in profound reverence at the feet of his lord—as though his very life depended on it.

Is it better to approach the throne of Christ standing up because one is confident in one’s “standing” before him, or to fall down before him as though dead, only to have him then raise one up to standing saying, “be not afraid”?

We know that God loves us. We know that Jesus gave his life for us. We know that the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father and the Son, works intimately on our hearts. But can we say that we have a personal relationship with Jesus as though he is our friend, our buddy, our warm fuzzy? Perhaps John saw Jesus as a kind of “big brother” buddy when they were walking around Galilee, but that obviously changed once Christ rose in glory. If John fell down at Christ’s feet as though dead, what should be our response to Christ? Are we willing to accept a Christianity that, perhaps, gives us not so much a friend as a lord? I know I have rarely exhibited the kind of reverence and service due to Christ.

What if we discover that Jesus doesn’t care all that much if we have warm fuzzy feelings toward him, rather that he wants us to keep his commands: to feed the hungry, help the poor, the orphans , the widows, to be a unified church, to submit to the authority of the apostles (and their successors), and to participate in the corporeal and tangible activities that God gave us to sanctify us, that is, those gifts known as the sacraments? Is not this the right kind of relationship? Can we live with that?

If so, what would this then look like? How would this affect our lives, our relationships, our sanity? And how would this affect our worship, or perhaps, how should this affect the way we “do church”? Might “church” then look less like a Protestant/Evangelical/emotional worship service and more like a solemn Catholic (or perhaps Orthodox) mass? (This is not to say that Catholics shouldn’t get a bit more evangelical in spirit as well.) Does the Eucharist (with Christ being really present) and the serving of others constitute our true personal relationship with Christ, and the rest being, perhaps, merely imagination and emotion? If we are the body of Christ then is not our unity some indication of our relationship with Jesus, who is the head of the Church, and our disunity a sign of a poor relationship with the head? If this is so, then to be Protestant must require answering the question every day, “Why am I still Protestant?” We should have a very good reason, for the implications of disunity are too great not to take this seriously; the implications of being comfortable and unquestioning in the “breakaway churches” might be very grave indeed.  And if I don’t have a good answer am I then willing to admit the seriousness of my situation? If I am not Protestant, but rather some vague evangelical who just “loves Jesus”, am I capable of admitting the serious of my situation?

I ask because I don’t know. But I have my suspicions.

“…but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering

God will provide himself the lamb

provide himself the lamb

himself the lamb

himself    the    lamb

…and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

Unicorns in the Bible

The following verses are from the King James Bible.

Numbers 23:22
God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.

Numbers 24:8
God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.

Deuteronomy 33:17
His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.

Job 39:9
Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?

Job 39:10
Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?

Psalm 22:21
Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.

Psalm 29:6
He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.

Psalm 92:10
But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.

Isaiah 34:7
And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.

The following verses are from the Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition.

Psalm 21:22
Save me from the lion’s mouth; and my lowness from the horns of the unicorns.

Psalm 28:6
And shall reduce them to pieces, as a calf of Libanus, and as the beloved son of unicorns.

Psalm 77:69
And he built his sanctuary as of unicorns, in the land which he founded for ever.

Psalm 91:11
But my horn shall be exalted like that of the unicorn: and my old age in plentiful mercy.

Isaiah 34:7
And the unicorns shall go down with them, and the bulls with the mighty: their land shall be soaked with blood, and their ground with the fat of fat ones.


…unicorns refer to a real but mysterious animal in existence? The Hebrew word re’em was translated as monokeros (Greek Septuagint) which was translated as unicornis (Latin Vulgate) which was translated as unicorn in English. Unicorn is “one horn.” Then consider the Latin rhinoceros, from Ancient Greek ῥινόκερως (rhinokerōs), composed of ῥίς (rhis, “nose”) + κέρας (kéras, “horn”). Maybe monokeros and rhinokeros are really referring to the same beast. Interesting.

Unicorns do exist!

each was teaching something different

The following quote is from Marcus Grodi’s testimony on how he journeyed from being a Presbyterian pastor to being a Catholic:

Every Sunday I would stand in my pulpit and interpret Scripture for my flock, knowing that within a fifteen mile radius of my church there were dozens of other Protestant pastors—all of whom believed that the Bible alone is the sole authority for doctrine and practice—but each was teaching something different from what I was teaching. “Is my interpretation of Scripture the right one or not?” I’d wonder. “Maybe one of those other pastors is right, and I’m misleading these people who trust me.”

I don’t want to make a judgement here on Grodi’s conversion to Catholicism, but I do think this quote captures the tension in brief of what every Protestant minister feels, or should feel, when he (or she) steps into the pulpit.

Found in Surprised by Truth, ed. by Patrick Madrid, page 38.

bring your Bible…

Is this statement true?

I have been told that Protestants and Catholics have different views of the Bible. I grew up a Baptist, and thus a Protestant, and we looked down our noses at Catholics for many reasons, not least of which was “we knew” Catholics didn’t care much for the Bible.

I was taught from an early age to bring my Bible to church. That is what Baptists do−at least they did when I was a kid. This makes sense given the apparent high value placed on the Bible by Protestants. I was also told that Catholics do not read their Bibles because they don’t need to, They are told by the Pope what to think. Though I still feel “naked” without my Bible with me in church, I now see things differently.

Below are some observations I’ve been musing over, tell me if you’ve noticed the same things, agree, or disagree. Note, if it sounds like I am being critical of Protestants a little, I am, because I am being critical of myself.

  • The Bible is a difficult book to understand. Knowing how to read it well is more important than just having it open on your knee in church. In my experience, most Protestants, like most Americans, in general do not know how to read well, let alone read the Bible well. This is probably true for most Catholics too.
  • When we bring our Bibles to church, those Bibles were given to us, that is, the books of the Bible were collected and made canonical, by the Catholic Church. Protestants did remove a small number of books from the Catholic Bible, but most Protestants cannot tell you what books were removed, why they were removed, and if they should have been removed. Protestants have their Tradition too.
  • If we believe in the Trinity, that Christ is fully man and fully God, and if we believe that scripture is inspired by God, then we are in line with the tradition of the historical (read Catholic) Church. If we recite any of the old traditional Christian creeds (Apostles creed, Nicene creed, etc.) then we are reciting Catholic creeds. If we believe that any doctrines we hold and any traditions we follow must conform fully to scripture, then we are hold the same position as does Rome.
  • The doctrines we hold dear should conform to what the Bible says, but most of us, Protestants and Catholics, hold to doctrines given to us by the church we are in, and not because we discovered them on our own in the Bible. We believe what someone else has told us.
  • When Catholics read the Bible they will likely see scripture conforming to what they already believe.
  • When Protestants read the Bible they will likely see scripture conforming to what they already believe.
  • Both Protestants and Catholics claim their dogmas conform to what scripture says.
  • The reasons we find certain doctrines to be obviously true has a great deal to do with what Peter Berger calls the “plausibility structures” in which we live. We are, in countless and subtle ways, molded by our culture and circumstances to accept some beliefs over others. This is a normal part of how humans come to believe anything, but it must be called out. Yet, each of us tends to disbelieve our own beliefs could possibly be the work of plausibility structures. But we tend to believe other’s beliefs are.
  • The reasons we tend toward one church or another has a great deal to do with where we feel most comfortable. That comfort comes largely from such things as the way we were raised, the friends we have, and the social environments to which we gravitate. These factors generally play a much bigger role in what Christians believe and where they go to church than does strict adherence to doctrinal orthodoxy.
  • Catholic teaching, especially Catholic apologetics, is deeply scriptural, just like Protestant teaching and apologetics. Most Protestants don’t know this because they don’t read Catholic apologetics.
  • Protestants tend to dislike the idea of having someone telling them what to think, thus they dislike the idea of a pope or a centralized church. But then they tend to believe what someone tells them to believe (their pastor) and conform their thinking to a semi-or-non-centralized church (the one they currently attend) that gets its dogmas from a centralized organization somewhere (from its own tradition−Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, or one of the 35,000+ denominations in the U.S. alone).
  • Sola scriptura takes authority away from the Pope (or the church) and makes every man a pope. Though this also confuses the real idea or purpose of the Pope.
  • We tend to confuse the idea of “be true to yourself” with truth, which it is not, unless one is Christ.
  • All Catholic doctrines that Protestants dislike are argued similarly from scripture as are Protestant doctrines. The issue is not so much Catholic tradition versus Protestant scripture, as it is one interpretation of scripture against another. For a Catholic, tradition plays an obvious role in interpretation. The same is true for a Protestant, but Protestant tradition tends to be carefully obfuscated and its existence often denied, yet it plays just as big a role in interpretation.
  • Protestants have very strong opinions about Catholicism, but generally know very little of Catholic doctrine, even those Protestants who were formerly Catholic. This may be, in part, a failing of the Catholic Church.
  • Most Protestants generally know very little of Protestant doctrines, but believe them passionately anyway.
  • Most Protestants cannot say why they are called Protestant or what they are Protesting.
  • Most Protestants, though they bring their Bibles with them to church, cannot adequately use their Bibles to defend Protestant doctrines that they insist are derived from the Bible. Thus they trust in their church, and the social context of similar thinking Christians, for that assurance. This is the same for Catholics. But Catholics are less likely to carry their Bibles around with them, or pithily quote Bible verses (in or out of context) at the drop of a hat.
  • Finally, when and wherever Pope Benedict XVI (who can read Greek, Hebrew, and bunch of other languages) travels he has with him an old, well-worn Greek Bible which he reads and studies everyday. Most Protestants who hold firmly to sola scriptura, or some similar presupposition, cannot read the Bible in any of the original languages.

I do not believe that any of the observations above are reasons for a Protestant to become Catholic, or vice versa. However, I do know there are strong opinions between Protestants and Catholics about doctrine, the Bible, and about each other, and that some of those opinions unravel just a bit if we are honest with ourselves. We should also remember that an ignorant member of a particular belief system does not negate the validity of that system.

Thoughts on the picture at the top: The statement, “A Bible that’s falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t,” may be true. It is difficult to be in the word on a regular basis and not have at least some Biblical worldview enter one’s life. That worldview gives one the kind of perspective one often needs to weather the storms of life. However, I’ve met too many people who pour over the Bible in a near obsessive way who also seem somewhat skewed in their understanding of God, God’s creation, and their place in it. And I’ve seen their lives fall apart as well. And I’ve seen many faithful, God fearing, Bible loving people suffer. So a well-worn Bible is no guarantee of a life incapable of falling apart. Plus, we must be clear on what we mean by a life falling apart or not falling apart. Sometimes I am convinced that those Christians I see whose lives are all “together” may not, in fact, be destined for the kingdom of God. This world (the flesh) is all about having one’s life together, solid, not falling apart. It is in fact the way of the world. And there are so many ways to get one’s life together, to be in control, to live the good life. Conversely, it is possible, even probably, that a life that is falling apart is a life in God’s hands, for it is through the trials of life that we gain wisdom and our faith is tested. One way God shows His love and commitment to us is to bring trials and suffering into our lives. The goal in this life is not to have a life free of suffering and strife, rather the goal is faith, hope, and love. The goal is the kingdom of God. The goal is union with Christ.

“…as a mystery of infinite love…”

From Verbum Domini:

From “God in dialogue”

[W]e would not yet sufficiently grasp the message of the Prologue of Saint John if we stopped at the fact that God enters into loving communion with us. In reality, the Word of God, through whom “all things were made” (Jn 1:3) and who “became flesh” (Jn 1:14), is the same Word who is “in the beginning” (Jn 1:1). If we realize that this is an allusion to the beginning of the book of Genesis (cf. Gen 1:1), we find ourselves faced with a beginning which is absolute and which speaks to us of the inner life of God. The Johannine Prologue makes us realize that the Logos is truly eternal, and from eternity is himself God. God was never without his Logos. The Word exists before creation. Consequently at the heart of the divine life there is communion, there is absolute gift. “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16), as the same Apostle tells us elsewhere, thus pointing to “the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny”. God makes himself known to us as a mystery of infinite love in which the Father eternally utters his Word in the Holy Spirit. Consequently the Word, who from the beginning is with God and is God, reveals God himself in the dialogue of love between the divine persons, and invites us to share in that love. Created in the image and likeness of the God who is love, we can thus understand ourselves only in accepting the Word and in docility to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Pope Benedict XVI writing about the The Twelfth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which met in the Vatican from 5-26 October 2008, and had as its theme: “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.”

Timeline of Bible translations

This timeline only covers some Greek, Latin, and English translations. And there’s really only a handful of the available English translations. Still it’s fascinating.

[UPDATE: My friend Kim says this timeline is incorrect. Some of the connections are wrong and some critical pieces are missing. Even though there should be nothing wrong with the diagram since I found it on the Internet (and the Internet never lies) I trust Kim’s judgement.]

Click (or click twice) to enlarge:

I would love to read Latin well enough to read St. Jerome’s translation.

I found this timeline here.

For blessed is the wood by which righteousness comes

The Wisdom of Solomon, Revised Standard Version

Chapter 13

[1] For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature;
and they were unable from the good things that
are seen to know him who exists,
nor did they recognize the craftsman while
paying heed to his works;
[2] but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air,
or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water,
or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world.
[3] If through delight in the beauty of these things
men assumed them to be gods,
let them know how much better than these is their Lord,
for the author of beauty created them.
[4] And if men were amazed at their power and working,
let them perceive from them
how much more powerful is he who formed them.
[5] For from the greatness and beauty of created things
comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.
[6] Yet these men are little to be blamed,
for perhaps they go astray
while seeking God and desiring to find him.
[7] For as they live among his works they keep searching,
and they trust in what they see, because the
things that are seen are beautiful.
[8] Yet again, not even they are to be excused;
[9] for if they had the power to know so much
that they could investigate the world,
how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things?

[10] But miserable, with their hopes set on dead things, are the men
who give the name “gods” to the works of men’s hands,
gold and silver fashioned with skill,
and likenesses of animals,
or a useless stone, the work of an ancient hand.
[11] A skilled woodcutter may saw down a tree easy to handle
and skilfully strip off all its bark,
and then with pleasing workmanship
make a useful vessel that serves life’s needs,
[12] and burn the castoff pieces of his work
to prepare his food, and eat his fill.
[13] But a castoff piece from among them, useful for nothing,
a stick crooked and full of knots,
he takes and carves with care in his leisure,
and shapes it with skill gained in idleness;
he forms it like the image of a man,
[14] or makes it like some worthless animal,
giving it a coat of red paint and coloring its surface red
and covering every blemish in it with paint;
[15] then he makes for it a niche that befits it,
and sets it in the wall, and fastens it there with iron.
[16] So he takes thought for it, that it may not fall,
because he knows that it cannot help itself,
for it is only an image and has need of help.
[17] When he prays about possessions and his marriage and children,
he is not ashamed to address a lifeless thing.
[18] For health he appeals to a thing that is weak;
for life he prays to a thing that is dead;
for aid he entreats a thing that is utterly inexperienced;
for a prosperous journey, a thing that cannot take a step;
[19] for money-making and work and success with his hands
he asks strength of a thing whose hands have no strength.

Chapter 14

[1] Again, one preparing to sail and about to voyage
over raging waves
calls upon a piece of wood more fragile than
the ship which carries him.
[2] For it was desire for gain that planned that vessel,
and wisdom was the craftsman who built it;
[3] but it is thy providence, O Father, that steers its course,
because thou hast given it a path in the sea,
and a safe way through the waves,
[4] showing that thou canst save from every danger,
so that even if a man lacks skill, he may put to sea.
[5] It is thy will that works of thy wisdom should
not be without effect;
therefore men trust their lives even to the
smallest piece of wood,
and passing through the billows on a raft they
come safely to land.
[6] For even in the beginning, when arrogant giants were perishing,
the hope of the world took refuge on a raft,
and guided by thy hand left to the world the
seed of a new generation.
[7] For blessed is the wood by which righteousness comes.

Considering Orthodoxy & Tradition (Part 3)

One of my greatest fears is that I would give up some of my freedom for something that appears worthy of that sacrifice, only to then discover I made a huge mistake. If that freedom is directly related to my ability to decide for myself what is true, then I will have sacrificed my personal integrity and my conscience. I confess that I fear the historical Christian idea that Scripture, and what it means (interpretation), should be studied and understood within an already established Tradition. Is this merely my Protestant indoctrination kicking in? Could it be that I do not understand what it means for Scripture to be part of Tradition? Or is it my pride and even some arrogance that fuels my fear? In this post I want to approach hesitatingly the Orthodox perspective on Scripture, interpreting Scripture, and how all that fits into the Orthodox idea of Tradition. Necessarily, this will be a brief exploration–the topic is just too monumental for my mind and too huge for a blog post. Plus, in order to get at the Orthodox perspective I must examine the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura–an examination that will also be too brief. As I said in my previous post, I am profoundly ignorant of Orthodoxy. I am an outsider looking in, trying to be even-handed in my assessment, but still essentially in water far deeper than my abilities or my comfort.

The Christian Church is a Scriptural Church: Orthodoxy believes this just as firmly, if not more firmly, than Protestantism. The Bible is the supreme expression of God’s revelation to the human race, and Christians must always be ‘People of the Book’. But if Christians are People of the Book, the Bible is the Book of the People; it must not be regarded as something set up over the Church, but as something that lives and is understood within the Church (that is why one should not separate Scripture and Tradition). It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority. (Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p.199)

[A]s an Orthodox clergyman, I hold the position that the Orthodox Christian faith is uniquely true. I would not be Orthodox if I did not believe it to be the true faith revealed by God in His Son Jesus Christ. If I encounter a teaching of the Orthodox faith that makes no sense to me or strikes me as incorrect, then my conclusion should be that it is I who need to be reformed, not the Orthodox Church. This is in fact the classical view of all traditional religions, as opposed to the modern consumer-style understanding of faith popular in our culture; that each person is the arbiter of what is true and false, and that he is free to pick whatever bits of “spirituality” and belief he likes from a sort of religious buffet. (Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, p. 7)

Are we to check our minds at the door of the Church? This is the classic fear of the sola scriptura Christian when confronting the claims of Tradition. The issue is not so much about doctrine as about principle. Though a particular doctrine may be held by both Orthodoxy and by the sola scriptura purist, it is the so-called purist who claims the so-called high ground in the Scripture vs. Tradition debate. The purist will claim that her own, personal arrival at that doctrine was not unduly influenced by outside sources, was grasped with her God-given rationality, and that she came to true belief rather than merely parroting the doctrine as is typically the case (it is argued) with the traditionalist who is only finding comfort within a socially circumscribed religious experience rather than exhibiting true understanding.

I do not hold as tightly to the sola scriptura position as I once did, but much of it still seems true, at least it still holds a powerful influence on me. I do not want to define sola scriptura in this post, you can read about it yourself here. The basic point I want to make is that this doctrine I grew up with taught me that all I really needed to know, and that what I was supposed to believe, and how I was to behave as a Christian, was found in the Bible, and that all I needed to do was open its pages and read it–as long as I let the Spirit of God guide me, and as long as I didn’t stray from what my church said the Bible said.

When it comes to Scripture and Tradition there is really just one two-part question: Do I read Scripture in light of Tradition, letting Tradition guide me and correct me in my understanding; or do I read Scripture fundamentally apart from Tradition, letting my own personal understanding of Scripture critique and even reject Tradition? I must say that at this point I am tending towards the Orthodox perspective that sees Scripture as being a part of Tradition, that Scripture should be interpreted within Tradition (I am not sure there really, honestly is any other way), and that to do otherwise is to open the flood gates (which have already been burst wide open for several centuries) to all sorts of trouble. On the other hand, I am not so terribly concerned with “all sorts of trouble” because I know that God is good and will not abandon His Church.

If we are not to interpret Scripture within Tradition how, then, are we to do it? From a sola scripturist we get this:

Theology, therefore, always faces the danger of elevating the theologian’s own conception of human need to a position of equal authority to, or even greater authority than, the Scriptures. But through prayer and meditation on God’s Word, that danger can be avoided. (John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 19)

There are two problems with this position. The first is that the fear–that the Bible student will elevate human need above Scripture–is already, by definition, inherent within sola scriptura. This is not necessarily a bad thing, the Scriptures are given to us for us. If we are interested in the Truth we are interested in it for ourselves, for our salvation. If we seek glory, if we search for the pearl of great price, we seek and search for ourselves.  If, to safeguard the Truth, we place Scripture above Tradition, right or wrong, it is because we have elevated our human need for Truth and believe the Scriptures are the key to fulfilling that need. The problem, and what I believe Frame is getting at, is that we would let our human need cloud our judgement and that we would twist Scripture to say whatever we want it to say; that we would let lesser human needs, rather than our need for God and salvation, be our standard. In this case it is just as easy, probably much easier actually, to argue in favor of Tradition as an antidote as it is to argue for sola scriptura. The second problem is the emphasis on prayer and meditation on God’s Word as the way to keep the Scriptures in their proper order. This view is akin to giving the fox the keys to the hen-house. There has never been a lack of prayer and meditation on God’s Word at the core of virtually every denominational split, every contrary doctrine, every heresy, and just about every Christian cult. You will find the Baptist preacher, the Episcopalian priest, and the Catholic bishop all fervently praying and deeply meditating on God’s Word, and they do not agree with each other as to what the Bible means in many places. In short, though prayer and meditation are good and necessary things, this is not the way to avoid the danger as Frame argues.

Also notice the emphasis placed on the personal rather than the corporate. It cannot be emphasized enough that the tendency in modern American Christianity to favor the “knowing self” over, and sometimes against, the “believing community” is emblematic of Protestant Gnosticism, which is to say modern North American Protestantism. I recognize this is a grand claim, and I am not prepared to defend it here in this post, but my larger point is to highlight the fact that we all inhabit and embody the traditions we have grown up with, have been trained in and, at some level at least, find comfort in. These traditions include those of Christianity, but also of philosophy, of the socio-political, of the economic (including class), of family, and much more. And it can be argued that we are all children of the Enlightenment Project and that its tenets, conceits, goals, and assumptions are as much embodied in our modern forms of Christian worship, church structures, understanding of knowledge, and even how we approach the Tradition/Scripture debate, as any other influence we might claim. A Baptist apologist is as deeply within a tradition–guiding and correcting his Bible study–as any Eastern Orthodox. Remember, there are few things more indicative and more telling of one’s ignorance of oneself as to claim, “I only believe what the Bible says.”

The Bible requires interpretation. Sola scriptura is based on the claim that human rationality is sufficient to understanding the Bible, and that the Bible is understandable. Both of these claims are profoundly true. You and I can read and understand the Bible using our (common to all humanity) God-given rationality and skills of comprehension. Still, the history of Christianity is full of highly talented biblical exegetes utilizing their God-given rationality and skills of comprehension, along with prayer, meditation, and apparent submission to the Holy Spirit, who have come to fundamentally, and sometimes radically divergent understandings of Holy Scripture. While we may appreciate some of the characteristics of sola scriptura we must realize that it is not a sufficient doctrine to either ensure right understanding or to combat heresy. The evidence may, in fact, show otherwise.

But this post is not so much against sola scriptura as it is an exploration of the Orthodox perspective on Holy Scripture and Tradition. In fact, all that above is really just my way of softening my heart a bit to be more open to the idea of Tradition and of seeing that Scripture might be best understood within Tradition. So then, what does the Orthodox Church understand regarding the study of the Bible?

Since our reasoning brain is a gift from God, there is undoubtedly a legitimate place for scholarly research into Biblical origins. But, while we are not to reject this research wholesale, we cannot as Orthodox accept it in its entirety. Always we need to keep in view that the Bible is not just a collection historical documents, but it is the book of the Church, containing God’s word. And so we do not read the Bible as isolated individuals, interpreting it solely by the light of our private understanding, or in terms of current theories about source, form or redaction criticism. We read it as members of the Church, in communion with all the other members throughout the ages. The final criterion for our interpretation of Scripture is the mind of the Church. And this means keeping constantly in view how the meaning of Scripture is explained and applied in Holy Tradition: that is to say, how the Bible is understood by the Fathers and the saints, and how it is used in liturgical worship. (Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p. 110)

From this quote we see that the Orthodox Church’s understanding is normative rather than analytical. The Holy Scripture should be analyzed, scrutinized, and pondered, but within Tradition. First we notice is that the Orthodox view refuses to accept the all-too-common assumption that Tradition is absent from the Christian’s Bible study. Second, it unabashedly claims the Orthodox Tradition. The issue is not Tradition or no Tradition, rather it is which tradition, a question that bypasses sola scriptura and 16th century humanism to bigger questions of God and His Church. It is not the Bible and our rationality alone that guides our study, rather it is the history of the Church, which is a flawed history certainly, but also a history of the Holy Spirit working in the hearts of men. Thus, Bible study is as much an activity of trust–trust in God, trust that Christ has never abandoned His Church, trusting the Holy Spirit has always been active in the Church–as it is an activity of reading and comprehension. Thus the question is not really a Scripture versus Tradition question, rather it is one of Scripture plus which tradition. While the sola scripturist may wish to downplay the role of tradition in his understanding of scripture, the Orthodox refuses such denials while elevating together  Scripture, human rationality, and the Orthodox Tradition.

There is so much more that can be said and I am not qualified to do so. My apologies for such a brief description of the Orthodox view, and for leaving open so many unanswered questions. For a few more details, the list below is from The Longer Catechism of The Orthodox, Catholic, Eastern Church:

On Holy Tradition and Holy Scripture.

16. How is divine revelation spread among men and preserved in the true Church?

By two channels–holy tradition and holy Scripture.

17. What is meant by the name holy tradition?

By the name holy tradition is meant the doctrine of the faith, the law of God, the sacraments, and the ritual as handed down by the true believers and worshipers of God by word and example from one to another, and from generation to generation.

18. Is there any sure repository of holy tradition?

All true believers united by the holy tradition of the faith, collectively and successively, by the will of God, compose the Church; and she is the sure repository of holy tradition, or, as St. Paul expresses it, The Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. 1 Tim. iii. 15.

St. Irenæus writes thus:

We ought not to seek among others the truth, which we may have for asking from the Church; for in her, as in a rich treasure-house, the Apostles have laid up in its fullness all that pertains to the truth, so that whosoever seeketh may receive from her the food of life. She is the door of life. (Adv. Hæres. lib. iii. c. 4.)

19. What is that which you call holy Scripture?

Certain books written by the Spirit of God through men sanctified by God, called Prophets and Apostles. These books are commonly termed the Bible.

20. What does the word Bible mean?

It is Greek, and means the books. The name signifies that the sacred books deserve attention before all others.

21. Which is the more ancient, holy tradition or holy Scripture?

The most ancient and original instrument for spreading divine revelation is holy tradition. From Adam to Moses there were no sacred books. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself delivered his divine doctrine and ordinances to his Disciples by word and example, but not by writing. The same method was followed by the Apostles also at first, when they spread abroad the faith and established the Church of Christ. The necessity of tradition is further evident from this, that books can be available only to a small part of mankind, but tradition to all.

22. Why, then, was holy Scripture given?

To this end, that divine revelation might be preserved more exactly and unchangeably. In holy Scripture we read the words of the Prophets and Apostles precisely as if we were living with them and listening to them, although the latest of the sacred books were written a thousand and some hundred years before our time.

23. Must we follow holy tradition, even when we possess holy Scripture?

We must follow that tradition which agrees with the divine revelation and with holy Scripture, as is taught us by holy Scripture itself. The Apostle Paul writes: Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word or our epistle. 2 Thess. ii. 15.

24. Why is tradition necessary even now?

As a guide to the right understanding of holy Scripture, for the right ministration of the sacraments, and the preservation of sacred rites and ceremonies in the purity of their original institution.

St. Basil the Great says of this as follows:

Of the doctrines and injunctions kept by the Church, some we have from written instruction. but some we have received from, apostolical tradition, by succession in private. Both the former and the latter have one and the same force for piety, and this will be contradicted by no one who has ever so little knowledge in the ordinances of the Church; for were we to dare to reject unwritten customs, as if they had no great importance, we should insensibly mutilate the Gospel, even in the most essential points, or, rather, for the teaching of the Apostles leave but an empty name. For instance, let us mention before all else the very first and commonest act of Christians, that they who trust in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ should sign themselves with the sign of the cross–who hath taught this by writing? To turn to the east in prayer–what Scripture have we for this? The words of invocation in the change of the Eucharistic bread and of the Cup of blessing–by which of the Saints have they been left us in writing? for we are not content with those words which the Apostle or the Gospel records, but both before them and after them, we pronounce others also, which we hold to be of great force for the sacrament, though we have received them from unwritten teaching. By what Scripture is it, in like manner, that we bless the water of baptism, the oil of unction, and the person himself who is baptized? Is it not by a silent and secret tradition? What more? The very practice itself of anointing with oil–what written word have we for it? Whence is the rule of trine immersion? and the rest of the ceremonies at baptism, the renunciation of Satan and his angels?–from what Scripture are they taken? Are they not all from this unpublished and private teaching, which our Fathers kept under a reserve inaccessible to curiosity and profane disquisition, having been taught as a first principle to guard by silence the sanctity of the mysteries? for how were it fit to publish in writing the doctrine of those things, on which the unbaptized may not so much as look? (Can. xcvii. De Spir. Sanct. c. xxvii.)

A tentative conclusion

I have mentioned in previous posts that the tradition in which I grew up (Protestant, Reformed, Baptist, etc.) knew nothing, and taught me nothing, of the early Church, of Orthodoxy, or of the Church Fathers. I think there are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is a prevalent insecurity masquerading as emphatic confidence. Regardless, it is a big hole that is largely unrecognized and even more rarely addressed. Only recently, and after decades of ignorance, and to my surprise, I have only just begun to learn of the Orthodox Church.

I have concerns (as you can tell) about the doctrine of sola scriptura (a doctrine which, though I know from my training, I may still have misrepresented). Also, the position of the Orthodox Church seems more biblical to me, but I still am conflicted. Orthodoxy is still foreign to me. Should I trust it? What would it mean for me if I was to become Orthodox? What would I gain, what would I be giving up? Would I be leaving my mind at the door? Would I be giving up some of my freedom for something that appears worthy of that sacrifice, only to then discover I made a huge mistake? Although I express a number of opinions in this post I really am unsettled on the issue. I pray for eyes to see.

Meditations on baptism (part 3)

What does the “great commission” say or imply regarding water baptism?

The history of Christianity makes clear that the primary assumption concerning baptism is that it involves water, whether immersion or pouring or sprinkling. We find this assumption with most all of the Christian groups or denominations. Debates concerning its nature (sign or sacrament), its timing (infant baptism or believer’s baptism), and its method (immersion or pouring) continue, but all involve water. Is water baptism biblical in a post-Christ’s death/resurrection Christianity?

“Did Christ command his disciples 
to baptize with water?”


How’s that for a book title? It was also published under the title Why Friends (Quakers) do not baptize with water. I think we know where Rev. Moon* stands on the subject of water baptism. My ideas in this post are influenced and guided somewhat by Moon’s, who, I believe from the title of his book, was a Quaker. I would, however, point the reader to Rev. Moon’s book (and any other similar book) rather than this post to fully dig into this subject.

Let’s take a look at Christ’s command to his apostles to carry forward the message of the gospel. There are seven places in scripture (that I know of) where the so-called great commission is declared or referenced. They are as follows in the ESV translation:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matthew 28:19)

My notes: Here we have baptism mentioned. Does this baptism have to be with water? Is it required to be water by the text? No. One will, of course, assume water baptism if that is the expectation, but it is not clear from the text.

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. (Mark 16:15)

My notes: Here baptism is not even referenced. If baptizing converts is so critical to salvation, or even just being accepted into the visible/local church body, why is it not called out here? One could argue that proclaiming the gospel includes baptism, but that would be a stretch. When Christ came proclaiming the gospel, he was proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. In Matthew 4:17-25 we read of Jesus beginning his ministry, teaching in the synagogues, healing, gathering his disciples, etc. Nowhere in this passage does it say that Jesus baptized his disciples into his ministry, or baptized others, or called for baptism. It is unlikely that Jesus had a low view of baptism, for he was just baptized by John the Baptist—even insisted on it—but we don’t see Jesus carrying on John’s baptism. Thus, it does not appear that proclaiming the gospel necessarily required baptism such as John preached, at least not from these verses.

Curious: What does “to the whole creation” mean? I assume this only means people, but maybe St. Francis was right.

. . . and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:47)

My notes: Here again we have the key message to be carried by the disciples to all the nations, and it does not specifically call out baptism. What it calls out is repentance and forgiveness of sins. And again we could link baptism to this message, especially repentance since that was connected to baptism with John the Baptist’s preaching. But the connection might also be a stretch, and it is not made in this verse. Given the importance placed on baptism in the history of the church (only the baptized could partake of the Eucharist), one would guess that Luke would have know the importance of baptism and called it out here, but he does not. What does that say about the traditional understanding of baptism?

Also: It is interesting that “beginning from Jerusalem” is included. This highlights, intentionally or not, the particularly Jewish origins of the gospel. I think we can easily forget this.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

My notes: Again baptism is not mentioned. This verse calls us to examine how the Father sent Jesus, since that is the way the disciples are being sent. We should take a look at the context (John 20:19b-23): Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me,even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Notice that the “commission” to the disciples comes right after Jesus showed them his wounds. Could it be that that is how they should be sent, that is, as servants willing to lay down their lives for Christ’s sake? Then the words, “as the Father has sent me” point to an orientation of their hearts, to their primary commitments, rather than to a method of converting others, such as through baptism. This does not negate baptism outright, but it does seem, by implication, to relegate it to a lesser or non-essential position. What it does foreground is the role the apostles will play in forgiveness, a role I am not able to unpack at this time. Regardless, Christ sends the apostles into the world and does not mention baptism.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

My notes: Again baptism is not mentioned. Here we have the “commission” calling out the witness nature of the apostles ministry. From what I can tell there is no mention of baptism, at least not water baptism. However, could it be that “when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” refers to a spiritual baptism? Is that how we are to understand Christian baptism, as from the Holy Spirit rather than through water?

And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. (Acts 10:42)

My notes: Again baptism is not mentioned. Preaching and testifying make up the work of the “commission.” However, the next several verses say this: While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. (Acts 10:44-48) Here we have water baptism clearly called out, but only after those to be baptized have had the Holy Spirit fall on them. They do not get baptized in order to receive the Holy Spirit, at least not here. It is also clear that that falling of the Spirit produced visible evidences. Water baptism follows divine baptism. Is Peter merely adding a Jewish custom to a new Christian custom? Why the need for water at all?

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:17)

My notes: Here the apostle Paul clearly makes a distinction between baptizing and preaching. In his mind the act of baptizing was either secondary to preaching, or not important at all. It was the telling of the gospel, and the hearers believing it, that was critical. If the church has traditionally made baptism a requirement for either entering church membership or for salvation (or both), why does Paul take such a low view of baptism? If I had to choose Paul’s view or church tradition I would choose Paul.

It is important to quote James H. Moon at this point:

Peter did preach to the people and the Holy Spirit fell upon them as it had fallen upon others of them in the beginning, at Pentecost. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he said “John indeed baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Here Peter was made instrumental in baptizing with the Holy Spirit through Gospel preaching, and he recognized this to be the same baptism which his Lord had promised should supersede John’s water baptism and the same as that with which they were filled eight years before, in the beginning at Pentecost, and the Pentecost baptism he said was that which the prophet Joel foretold should be poured out upon all flesh; upon sons and daughters, servants and handmaidens, and that they should prophecy.

Can anything be plainer than that this Pentecost baptism and that the baptism which was poured out upon the household of Cornelius as Peter preached, and the baptism which our Lord promised in the place of John’s water baptism and the baptism which Joel foretold should be poured out upon all flesh are all one and the same baptism, and does it not follow that this is the baptism of the commission, the one baptism of the Gospel, and that this is Christian baptism and that there is no water in it?

Because Peter and others continued to baptize with water is no evidence to the contrary. They continued their old Jewish customs generally. They pronounced it necessary to abstain from certain meats. They insisted that Paul should adhere to circumcision. They refused to eat with Gentiles. With such Jewish proclivities how could they at once abandon water baptism? (p. 7-8)

I am not yet convinced that the apostles continued the practice of water baptism merely because they couldn’t completely abandon their Jewish customs. However, the power of culture is remarkable, and it could be true. I also do not know how often and in what contexts they performed water baptism, and in what contexts they did not.

What is fascinating to notice about the so-called “great commission” references is not only that baptism is rarely mentioned, and that water baptism seems absent altogether, but that there is no baptismal or liturgical formula given. They are all different in wording even if they are all the same in their underlying meaning. This would imply that in the early church the perspective was not formulaic regarding the “process” of becoming a Christian, rather there is the recognition that the Holy Spirit works to change men’s hearts, the gospel is proclaimed (in many possible ways and contexts), and receptive souls are added to the growing number of faithful. The apostles were told to take that message of hope to the world. They were not told, it would clearly seem, to convert people with baptism, though they are not barred from performing baptisms. I am not against Christian traditions growing up and becoming standard practice, at least not in principle, but it does not appear, at least from this brief overview, that our popular baptismal formulas go back as far as the apostles. If this is so then what we may have inherited are extra-biblical Christian traditions, for better or for worse. It must be emphasized that we are only looking at “great commission” verses here and drawing some conclusions.

Tentative conclusion: The early church may have practiced water baptism because they inherited that practice from their Jewish and pagan cultures. However, the apostles were not specifically told to baptize with water, rather to take the gospel to the world. Our various church traditions around baptism may be more Jewish and pagan than about following Christ. Though I cannot say for sure.

This leads me to several more questions. Can we derive a thesis statement like this: Without the gospel water baptism is meaningless, and with the gospel it is unnecessary. Or is that going too far? Was water baptism assumed and thus there was no need to specifically add it to the apostles charge? What do we do with Matthew 28:19, which does mention baptism? What do we do with church tradition?

* not Rev. Sun Myung Moon (just in case you were wondering).

Meditations on baptism (part 2)

The apostle John writes, quoting Jesus:

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:5-6, ESV)

I grew up believing that being born of water was a reference to being born from the mother’s womb. The idea here is that Spirit = Spirit and water = flesh. Nicodemus has just questioned Jesus how someone can be born again. He had in mind re-entering his mother’s womb, which he rightly saw as an impossibility. The argument, as I was told, is that Jesus says one must be born from the womb first and then again of or by the Spirit. It’s like saying, “Well, first one must exist, that is, be born, then one must be spiritually born.” But why would Jesus need to say one has to be physically born from the womb? That seems a bit strange. And if Nicodemus says womb, why would Jesus say water instead of womb? Maybe it refers to amniotic fluid, but that seems a stretch to me (though that was the teaching I grew up with).

Now, as I take a step back, I wonder if water is actually a reference to baptism (as so many others have argued). If given the choice between being born from the womb and being born via baptism, it seems to make the most obvious (on the surface) sense that Jesus had (water) baptism in mind. The idea here is that repentance and baptism are required to enter the kingdom of God, not merely born of the flesh, that is, not merely being a physical descendant of Abraham. Remember that entering the kingdom of God for Christians is akin to being a member of the nation of Israel for a Jew; to be counted among the saved is everything. If one wants to truly gain the inheritance of the Jew, one has to be physically circumcised as well as circumcised of the heart. It is both an internal and external reality. Could it be that to be a true Christian, to be a citizen of the kingdom of God, one also has an internal and external reality, that is, repentance and baptism? Of course repentance is outward as well. It is a turning of one’s life from one direction to another, from darkness to light. So repentance may not be internal as much as an outward sign, like baptism, that one’s heart has changed. In other words, if one truly has turned to God for salvation, and has embraced the gospel, then one should repent, that is, live differently. If that formula is true then one should get baptized too. Right? Is it not commanded?

The apostle Paul writes:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7, ESV)

What does “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” mean? For some the washing of regeneration is the act of water baptism. I think this is the view most common among the “church fathers” and has remained so in many Christian quarters. That the act is also spiritual is because it is combined with the renewal of the Holy Spirit. Is this the right way to understand Paul? Is he saying that water baptism and renewal by the Spirit make us heirs? If so, is the logic then that baptism is a part of the process of “being justified by his grace?” My sense is that the washing of regeneration may be referring to water baptism, but the washing and the renewal may be the same thing, that is the work of the Holy Spirit is in changing us because of God’s mercy and grace. Still, there are enough verses in the Bible linking baptism to the process of salvation to warrant consideration that baptism is in view here.

It is important to know that a sacramental version of Christianity will tend to see “washing of regeneration” as clearly indicating water baptism of some kind, and that a non-sacramental version of Christianity will tend to see it as clearly not indicating baptism. Each will view these words through their own worldview, their own theo-logic. I was raised non-sacramental. Baptism and communion, along with all the sacraments are, in my training, only outward symbols of an internal reality. Though powerful, these symbols are not required of the Christian. In these meditations on baptism I find my non-sacramentalist positions to no longer be air tight as I once thought, but I am not yet, not fully at least, a sacramentalist. (By sacramentalist I mean someone who believes the sacraments are commanded, are necessary to our salvation and are, in some way, causal in our growth in sanctification.)

The apostle Peter wrote:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22, ESV)

It seems that baptism, according to Peter, corresponds in some way to Noah and his family being brought safely through the flood, which may correspond to Christ’s death in some way. I find this a bit confusing. And then, in language surprising to the sola fide crowd, Peter claims that baptism saves us because it is an appeal to God for a good conscience. How can baptism save anyone? We see that Noah was saved by God and by the ark, that is, by divine providence and by the natural laws that make boats float on water. How, then, does baptism correspond to this, if it does? Or is the corresponding only to Christ’s suffering and his preaching to those in prison (which I take to be Hell or some kind of purgatorial limbo)? Or could the correspondence be that through baptism we make the appeal to God in the same way those in prison must have after meeting Christ face to face and hearing his proclamation? The fact is Peter says baptism saves us. How? If baptism is “only” symbolic, how can one be saved by a symbol? If (water) baptism comes only after turning to God, then how does it save us?

I am convinced that salvation is a gift from God. I am convinced that I came into this world with a deadly allergy to the truth of God, His gospel, and all things eternal. And I am convinced that were it not for the work of the Holy Spirit—against my very will—I would never have seen my need for salvation and never have turned to God for mercy and never have believed the foolishness of the cross as the great wisdom that it is. And yet, though I have always considered the classic Reformation creed of salvation through faith alone, I cannot help but notice that the apostles also included baptism as part of the process. Have I misunderstood the process of salvation? James says faith without works is a dead faith. I believe that too. Could faith without baptism be an incomplete faith? If so, would it be incomplete only if there is a community of faith within which the believer participates, and in which baptism plays a similar role to what a wedding ceremony plays? Is faith without baptism like a common law marriage, it’s real at one level but un-confessed or un-established at another?

Tentative conclusion: Though there can be no faith apart from God bringing it about, that is, causing faith in the individual as a gift, baptism is proclaimed by the apostles as important to the process of salvation. The correlation of baptism with salvation beyond mere symbolism is not clear to me. Could baptism be like Christ on the cross in that what I do with it, how I understanding it and it’s relationship to my faith, says a great deal about my faith. Christ on the cross is a touchstone of faith. If I look at Christ and do not see that he got what I deserve then my faith is nothing. Can we say anything similar about baptism? If I say I have faith but refuse baptism is my faith suspect? Is baptism a kind of touchstone? If so, is that it’s primary purpose?