Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Speech Has a Moral Texture

Speech has a moral texture, an ethical dimension. Speech involves more than giving voice to words and thoughts, it is also the act of a moral agent. Most obviously, to lie is to act immorally, but to equivocate is unethical in most contexts (think of an ordinand equivocating on his ordination vows - it happens) and to evade an honest question is to respond unjustly to the questioner. Yet we are most likely all guilty of these sins to some extent, such is the disordering impact of original sin upon the human psyche. Most people, one would like to think, catch themselves when they use the divine gift of speech immorally in this way; the lie may escape their lips but their conscience immediately accuses them. Then there are those who seem to be compulsive liars or who apparently believe that their occupation gives them a license to use speech immorally - no, I'm not referring to the military but to politicians, who routinely equivocate, evade and even lie to the press and consequently to their constituents. The public reads this behaviour as disdain, both for truth itself and for them as electors. Is it any wonder that public discourse is becoming increasingly toxic? Immoral speech is an acid dissolving the bonds of the civil society.

Even theologians are not above using speech unethically or even immorally, and by doing so publicly they are failing to provide a model of communication different from the world's. Evasion and equivocation are rife among theologians, and unfortunately the ad hominem attack seems to be the usual parry when they seek to block or deflect a difficult question (so, instead of dealing with an opposing argument, the proponent of the opposing position is personally denigrated). I've witnessed this on occasions more numerous to count in seminary lectures and pastors' conferences, and I've even been on the receiving end. Why should theologians be different, after all (that's an open, not a rhetorical question)? But it does, or should, disappoint their readers/fans when they behave in this way habitually. Click on the post title to read an analysis by a philosopher of a recent example of the unethical use of speech by a well-known theologian.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Not So 'Fair Trade'

Since many churches, in an effort to do the right thing by Third World farmers, use or endorse Fair Trade coffee at their after service 'coffee hour', I thought this report was worth circulating. A German economic study has found that Fair Trade has tended to further impoverish Third World coffee growers and, in their efficiency-motivated drive to re-structure farms on a co-operative basis, often doesn't respect the strong tradition of family ownership in some cultures. According to the author of the article, independent Canadian coffee merchant Lawrence Solomon, free trade makes pawns of the farmers and is a joke on the customers. It seems to amount to little more than a profitable marketing angle for the middle-man.

Click on the post title for the article.

As for me and my house (and church), we shall drink tea!
(I recommend 'Dilmah' tea from Sri Lanka - a better quality product than the international companies produce, family owned and socially responsible too)

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Praying for the Folk of Joplin, Missouri

This isn't a news blog, so I don't generally comment much on current events, but this post is simply to say that I'm praying for those affected by the horrific tornado that has devastated Joplin, Missouri, leaving 116 dead and much destruction of property. Lord, have mercy! Click on the post title for relevant news from the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Apparently four homes belonging to teachers at the local LC-MS school are among the many destroyed. I'm thinking also of a retired pastor and his wife from one of the congregations I serve who are currently on holiday in...Missouri! The Lord bless you and keep you Norm and Joy,and also you Cathryn (a former parishioner who resides presently in St Louis).

A pastor colleague of mine has reported that the worst years for tornadoes in the US have been 1925, 1974 and 2011. Not co-incidentally, I was able to add, those were all years of significant and devastating floods in Australia. The common factor behind the extraordinary weather on both continents in those years was the 'La Nina' warming of the Pacific Ocean. Yes, Virginia, we really are interconnected! I noted with great interest a recent scientific report that concluded that the oceans may in fact have more influence on our planetary climate than the atmosphere. Perhaps the ancient Israelite fear of the sea as the source of chaos and disorder was not entirely misplaced?

How Are the Mighty Fallen

The Church of Scotland has voted to allow homosexual men and women to be ordained, effectively opening up the path to recognition of homosexual marriage. Further, in what seems a very strange decision, the General Assembly has appointed a theological commission to investigate the impact this decision will have upon the church, Scotland's oldest historically Protestant church body. Wouldn't you want to investigate the likely repercussions before voting on such a question, I ask?

In fact, the decision is likely to lead to the departure of a large minority - estimated to be about a quarter of the membership - of evangelical and theologically conservative ministers and layfolk (the last such division occurred in the 1840s and led to the formation of the 'Free Church of Scotland'). One ministerial delegate said in a speech to the Assembly that voting on this issue was like being asked to pull the pin on a live grenade, and warned of the destructive consequences of the subsequent "explosion". Click on the post title to read a report from the UK's Guardian newspaper. The pic shows the standard of the Church of Scotland, the Burning Bush superimposed upon the Cross of St Andrew.

- Historical Note -

The Church of Scotland is a 'national church' but not an 'established church', as is the Church of England. It retains the allegiance of some 42% of the Scottish population. It traces its origins to the dawn of Christianity in Scotland, but historically dates from the Scottish Reformation of 1560.

- Why am I interested in it? -

The 'Church of Scotland' has a little-known significance in Western history that belies its size and geographical distance from the centres of ecclesiastical politics. Following the Reformation, the church established a system of universal education which led to Scotland becoming the most literate society in Europe at the time, even though it was also the poorest society in Europe - no mean feat! High literacy rates and the quality of the general education provided the necessary foundation for the extraordinary 'Scottish Enlightenment' of the 18th century (when Edinburgh was known as "the Athens of the North"), whose ideas and values profoundly shaped British and North American culture and enabled that culture to rise to dominance in the modern world (see Arthur Herman's little book 'How the Scots Invented the Modern World' for an exploration of this thesis). For almost every department of science or learning that one can enrol in today at a university in the 'Anglosphere', a progenitor in the Scottish Enlightenment can be identified - e.g. Adam Smith (economics), William Buchan (medicine), James Hutton (geology), Joseph Black (chemistry), James Watt (engineering), David Hume (philosophy. Of course, not all of the contributions of these men are happy ones, but their profound influence on the modern world cannot be denied.

Thus it is not an exaggeration - or only a slight exaggeration! - to suggest that 'the modern world' was born in the classrooms of schools operated by the Church of Scotland. Hence the heading of this post - "How Are the Mighty Fallen" (2 Samuel 1:27). While many of the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as David Hume, abandoned orthodox Christianity, the movement itself could not have arisen apart from the milieu created in large part by the Church of Scotland, and the original Christian stream of the Scottish Enlightenment is exemplified by the contribution of the philosopher Thomas Reid, who was in his own day regarded as a more significant thinker than his contemporary Hume and who continues to influence Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff today.

Then also, apart from the general historical significance of this decision and the way in which it reflects the decline of a once great institution, my paternal family line descends from 'Church of Scotland' members and ministers who were part of the Scottish migration to southern New South Wales in the early 19th century. Scots featured prominently in early Australian history, notably Governor John Hunter (the NSW colony's second governor), Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the person most responsible for establishing the viability of the colony of New South Wales (the 'Father of Australia'), and his successor Governor Thomas Brisbane (also an amatuer astronomer). Each of these figures typifies the values of the Scottish Enlightement as they filtered down to men of a practical nature, most notably the commitment to empiricism. Indeed, even Captain James Cook, the great navigator and discoverer of Australia's eastern coastline (not to mention his charting of the coastlines of New Zealand and Newfoundland), though born in Yorkshire, had a Scottish father.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Cyril on Scripture and Tradition

"But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to thee by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures. For since all cannot read the Scriptures, some being hindered as to the knowledge of them by want of learning, and others by a want of leisure, in order that the soul may not perish from ignorance, we comprise the whole doctrine of the Faith in a few lines. This summary I wish you both to commit to memory when I recite it , and to rehearse it with all diligence among yourselves, not writing it out on paper, but engraving it by the memory upon your heart, taking care while you rehearse it that no Catechumen chance to overhear the things which have been delivered to you. I wish you also to keep this as a provision through the whole course of your life, and beside this to receive no other, neither if we ourselves should change and contradict our present teaching, nor if an adverse angel, transformed into an angel of light should wish to lead you astray. For though we or an angel from heaven preach to you any other gospel than that ye have received, let him be to you anathema. So for the present listen while I simply say the Creed, and commit it to memory; but at the proper season expect the confirmation out of Holy Scripture of each part of the contents. For the articles of the Faith were not composed as seemed good to men; but the most important points collected out of all the Scripture make up one complete teaching of the Faith. And just as the mustard seed in one small grain contains many branches, so also this Faith has embraced in few words all the knowledge of godliness in the Old and New Testaments. Take heed then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which ye now receive, and write them an the table of your heart. Guard them with reverence, lest per chance the enemy despoil any who have grown slack; or lest some heretic pervert any of the truths delivered to you."

Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386), Catechetical Lectures, 5:12-13 [italics mine]

Cyril wrote his catechetical lectures as a presbyter for the instruction of those preparing for church membership. As such they are a fascinating insight into the world of the early church, and they positively brim with scriptural references and allusions which display just how central the study and knowledge of the scriptures was in the life of the early church. This is an intriguing quotation, for it clearly reveals that Cyril regarded tradition ("that which is handed on to thee") as entirely derived from and subordinated to scripture (see italicised sentences). Tradition for Cyril seems to be basically the rule of faith. We have already seen that for Cyril, nothing is required to be believed as an article of faith unless clearly derived from scripture (see last post on Cyril), and here we can see that for him tradition is simply the content of scripture passed on to the catechumens in creedal form, particularly for the benefit of the illiterate and the working class, from which most of the converts of the early church came. There is no thought here of tradition containing extra-scriptural teachings or revelations.

Whether Cyril, or the other early church Fathers, were consistent in their application of the primacy of scripture is another matter, as is also the question of whether their exegesis of scripture was always sound; but what is clear is that the principle of the primacy and authority of scripture as set forth by Cyril is in its essentials the same as that set later by the Lutheran Fathers (see the discussions of scripture and tradition in Chemnitz's 'Examination of the Council of Trent' and Gerhard's 'Theological Commonplaces'*). Tradition, in the form of creeds and confessions, has its place in the life of the church, not as a source of doctrine, but as a means of collating, confessing and teaching the doctrine of scripture, and as subordinate standards of doctrine - a 'norma normata', a rule which is itself ruled by a higher authority.

* Note - I have referenced these theologians rather than the Book of Concord because the "human traditions" discussed in the Book of Concord are mostly traditions of worship instituted to merit grace, a different category of traditions from that under discussion here.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Blog Matters

'Blogger' has been very contrary lately, refusing to publish approved comments! I've therefore had to cut and paste a few comments from my e-mail, where they originally appear for moderation. So, if you don't see your name in the comments list, just check my comments, where I may have cut and pasted your comment. We don't want to alienate our readers by appearing to not publish their comments ;0)

Friday, 6 May 2011

Cyril of Jerusalem on Scripture's Authority

"Have thou in thy mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures."

Cyril of Jerusalem [c. 318-386], Catechetical Lectures,
NPNF2: Vol.VII, Lecture IV:17.

Recently an Orthodox commenter asked me what my authority was; this question came in the context of a discussion about the Biblical authorisation, or lack of it I should say, for the practices associated with relics of the saints in Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and more generally in regard to their promotion of 'sacramentals', broadly defined as extra-sacramental means of grace, from holy water to healing icons. I wonder if there was not, behind the question, the implication that Lutherans are ecclesiastical anti-authoritarians? This is, in my experience, a commonly held misconception among Orthodox and Catholics concerning Lutherans, based upon a fundamentally mistaken construal of Luther's stance at the Diet of Worms, where he was called before the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to give account of himself and his teachings on April 16, 1521 (it is customary to date the beginning of the Reformation to the posting of the 95 Theses in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 but it is the Diet of Worms which, in my view, marks the more decisive historical turning point).

It was at Worms that Luther uttered the famous words, "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. May God help me. Amen."

Catholics and Orthodox are prone to cite this moment as the decisive and fatal intrusion of the Lutheran spirit of individualism and anti-authoritarianism into Christianity, and to point to the baneful consequences for Christendom which followed. Yet Luther does not insert his own will into the matter but actually binds his will to the Word of God, and submits to that Word as a higher authority than popes or church councils, which have demonstrably erred. In the face of the trade in indulgences and the theology of human merit attached thereto, Luther was effectively challenging the church of the day to restore scripture to its primacy as the sole infallible and inspired authority for the church, not by merely giving it lip-service, but by actually allowing scripture to function as both authority and judge in theological matters. Luther's speech at Worms was not an attack on legitimate authority, it was a call to restore a proper hierarchy of authorities in the church, which had usurped to itself the right to institute means of grace without divine warrant. Luther was not the innovator at Worms, but was reprising an ancient stream of patristic theology which finds concise expression in these words of Cyril of Jerusalem, "concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech."

Many of the distinctive doctrines and practices of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are, I grant, set forth with skillful appeals to 'plausibility' and framed with great 'artifice of speech' and 'ingenious reasoning', but where are the demonstrations from Holy Scripture that important witnesses from church history like Cyril (and Luther) say are absolutely necessary?

For more quotations from the Fathers on the authority of scripture and other topics, see my other blog, Lutheran Catholicity [link provided at top of column to the right of this page].

Monday, 2 May 2011

King James Bible Anniversary

Today marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Authorised or 'King James' translation of the Holy Bible. Under the heading 'Video' in the right-hand column you can view an interesting documentary on the translation process, 'When God Spoke English'. The AV has shaped the English language over the subsequent centuries, leaving its indelible imprint upon even the language we speak today, with many of its felicitous phrases becoming proverbial. Even Richard Dawkins, no friend of Christianity, could say of the AV "not to know the King James Bible is to be, in some small way, a barbarian".

For instance, today, the following seems an appropriate verse to quote, Matthew 26:52b:

"...all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword."

Other proverbial phrases derived from the AV include "my brother's keeper," "salt of the earth," "give up the ghost," "scapegoats," "an eye for an eye," "casting your pearls before swine," "scarlet woman," "writing on the wall", "the blind leading the blind" and "a house divided against itself."

But most importantly, the AV served to bring the Gospel to the people of the day in their own language, it was a Bible "understanded of the people":

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Argument From Antiquity As it Pertains to Relics

The argument from antiquity (argumentum ad antiquitatem)...you've all probably heard it or been on the receiving end of it in religious discussions - the church has always believed this/done it this way, therefore it is right and true! A commenter on my recent post on relics suggested that because the church had always venerated relics, the practice was legitimate, and it was up to objectors - like me! - to prove otherwise. However, we don't need to go down the evidentiary path to dispose of the argument for relics from the supposed antiquity of their veneration. The argument from antiquity has a superficial appeal, particularly because most Christians have an innate respect for tradition; indeed, even Lutheranism is known as 'the conservative Reformation' because it kept so much of the liturgical and theological tradition of Western medieval Christianity intact (how the Lutheran confessors measured and sifted tradition is a subject for another post). But in actuality the appeal to antiquity is an informal logical fallacy which proves nothing and should not be used in argumentation.

There are two difficulties with it as it relates to the question of relics: 1) the empirical difficulty of proving the antiquity and universality of the veneration of relics (the New Testament, which all parties to the discussion agree is authoritative, does not mention the practice, so we may reasonably assume that at some point it was an innovation, just as was the veneration of images - this is actually where the burden of proof enters in to this discussion); and 2) the logical difficulty that the antiquity of a practice simply does not prove its truth or goodness (otherwise we might all still happily be sacrificing our children to Molech!). Even the church fathers themselves knew to avoid this fallacy; as Cyprian once wrote, "custom without truth is simply the antiquity of error".

Without institution by the Lord, or apostolic authorisation (and it is really differences in how dominical and apostolic authority are conceived which are behind this discussion), churches which use relics as 'sacramentals' and display them or carry them about for the purpose of veneration, or who claim to heal and bless by them are simply arrogating to themselves an authority which belongs to God alone. God has given the church the means of proclaiming and distributing his grace - his Word, the rite of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, all clearly attested to in scripture. Are they incapable of effecting grace and salvation, that the church should feel the need to invent more?