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Archive for the ‘Protestantism’ Category

I’ve been wrestling with this Catholic vs Anglican thing for a while now. I’m happily part of a thriving Anglican parish now and my wife and I are growing deeper in our relationships with Christ and each other.

But in the background I’ve continued to consider the claims of the Catholic church and wrestle with the problems of biblical authority, interpretation and so on. I’ve also paid some attention to the views of the Eastern Orthodox on the matter of the primacy of Rome.

After all of the arguments back and forth, pro and con, I think I’ve come to realize something. I can get on board with a lot of things. I could handle praying to the saints. Properly understood I know that it is simply asking saints in heaven to intercede in prayer for us just like we have people down here on earth pray for us. I see no reason why I couldn’t ask Peter or Mary or Augustine to remember me in prayer before the Lord. I don’t think it’s a requirement, but not a problem for me either. Obviously being in the Anglican church I don’t have a problem with liturgical worship. I can even handle things like transubstantiation. And though it would be a leap of faith I think I’d be able to come around to the Catholic view on contraception and related issues such as IVF.

The stumbling block that I cannot seem to get over is the Catholic position on divorce and remarriage. What makes it even more difficult is how I’ve seen annulments handled with certain prominent Catholics in politics for instance, where the bishop seems to hand out annulments like a PEZ dispenser. Meanwhile folks who don’t have that kind of influence or who don’t have a neat and tidy excuse to have their marriage annulled suffer. I know too many Godly people who love Christ and strive to follow him with all that they have who nonetheless through no fault of their own have been divorced. Either their spouse left them for a younger model, or was physically and emotionally abusive, or was a serial adulterer who’d been forgiven and taken back many times before, or sexually abused their children or the couple simply married when they were young and immature and were unprepared for what marriage requires but now one of them has gotten serious about their walk of faith…the list of reasons goes on and on. Under Catholic doctrine, unless they can show some arcane reason as to why their marriage wasn’t a “true” marriage to begin with…maybe the spouse was gay and never told them for instance…they are stuck. They can’t date and remarry and find love again unless the spouse who was at fault and left comes to their senses.

I simply can’t come to grips with that. I know what the interpretations of the passage from Matthew are according to Catholic doctrine. When Jesus said that except for sexual immorality, divorcing and remarrying is committing adultery, Protestants and Catholics see it differently. Catholics say that the Greek word “porneia” that is translated as sexual immorality doesn’t simply mean “fornication” or “adultery”, it means something more specific such as the aforementioned “secretly gay spouse” or perhaps a partner that entered the marriage already cheating on the other and having no intention of being faithful sexually in the marriage. Or it could be something more perverted. But it’s not simply having an affair.

What gives me reason to doubt the Catholic take on this is that Paul also addresses divorce in 1st Corinthians. Paul says that if an unbelieving spouse abandons a believing spouse, the believer who was abandoned is not “under bondage” in that situation any longer. What “bondage” would there be in that situation except continuing to be tied to a spouse that has left you with no intention of ever returning? Or perhaps even having remarried themselves? It would seem to me that Paul would not mention abandonment as a reason for divorce if Jesus was really restricting it just to very specific instances where a valid marriage never took place to begin with. You can’t choose what Jesus said but disregard Paul’s words because after all, Paul was speaking as the Holy Spirit directed him to speak. The letter to the Corinthians is just as binding as the Gospel of St. Matthew.

Don’t take me the wrong way, I hate divorce. I know God hates it. The best and most ideal outcome in these situations is to work to repair the relationship, bring the offending party to repentance and have a healthy marriage come out the other side. But it takes two to tango as the saying goes. I do not believe it was Christ’s intention to create a doctrinal situation where an adulterer essentially gets to put their spouse in a state of indefinite limbo while they whore around and go remarry one of their lovers.

For this reason, and the many people I’ve met over my life who are divorced for reasons the Catholic church would not deem worthy of an annulment, and who are repentant and hate that their previous marriage failed but have remarried and are committed and fully faithful to that marriage, I cannot be Catholic. I understand that to be Catholic means you sign up for everything they teach. I cannot assent to such a view.

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I just finished the book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath.  First of all, I highly recommend the book.  It’s an excellent treatment of the issues surrounding the Reformation and all its major players from Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Bucer and others.

One of the things it talked about was how Protestantism, outside of the Lutheran and Calvinist camps especially, as been so remarkably adaptable to different times, different countries and different cultures.  For sure, there have been eras of missteps in missionary efforts where too much emphasis was placed on transplanting a Western European style of Christianity into countries where the cultural norms and such are vastly different.  But the overall history of Protestantism has been one of amazing malleability.  And to most Protestants, this is a sign of it’s vitality and a source of great strength.  Aside from being centered around a sermon, you can encounter scores of different styles from country to country or even within one city.  You might walk into a Baptist church that’s very “countrified” with Southern Gospel style hymns and right down the road walk into another with all the high church pomp and circumstance you’d see in a Catholic service.  And right down from that would be one with a kickin’ rock band leading worship, congregants in jeans and t-shirts and the pastor sporting a faux-hawk.  And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the predominantly African-American congregations.

On the other hand, worldwide, Catholic and Orthodox churches are largely the same.  This was especially the case prior to Vatican II and the Mass being in the vernacular.  You could go anywhere in the world and the Mass was spoken in Latin and was in the same form.  Even with the vernacular, because the form of the Mass is consistent, most experienced Catholics can follow the service fairly easily even with the language barrier.  And this consistency is viewed by Catholics as a sign of strength and vitality as well.  They feel they adapt in more subtle ways to each culture (such as Mass in the vernacular) but that the more consistent liturgy and emphasis promotes unity and cohesiveness in the Church.

And this adaptability vs consistency thing doesn’t just apply to different cultures and countries now.  Outside of high church Lutherans and Anglicans, Protestantism is nothing if not willing to change.  No matter what era Protestantism finds itself in, there seems to be a near constant desire to change and seek to be “relevant.”  This is especially true of the last 30-40 years or so, since those first hippies started coming to Christ during the Jesus Movement, but whether it was John and Charles Wesley, Charles Finney and Dwight Moody, the rise of Pentecostalism or the New Calvinists, this is has been a hallmark of Protestantism.

Catholicism (and to a similar degree Orthodoxism) on the other hand has been marked by its ties to history and (little “t”) tradition.  Some of the rites, creeds, prayers, music and other facets of Catholic worship have been around since the earliest days of the Church.  Many others have been in consistent use in Catholic services for centuries.  There’s a connectedness and a feeling of being anchored in something bigger than oneself but more importantly, bigger than “right now.”

To be honest, I’m torn over which is the best approach.  I’ve mentioned my feelings numerous times…how I lament the lack of historicity and the sense that we’ve lost something in all this manic striving to be culturally hip and relevant.  I find a depth and richness in traditional, liturgical worship that just seems lacking in much of contemporary styles.  But at the same time, I realize that everyone is not like me.  No matter how much you explain to some people the richness and deep meanings of the liturgy and its ancient roots, they don’t get it.  And it’s not that they don’t get it because they are non-Christians unattuned to the things of God.  These are wonderful, growing, sincere believers in Christ.  They might be able to appreciate elements of traditional worship from time to time, they prefer the more casual, modern style.  They feel like they connect with God on a more personal level in that kind of setting and that their relationship with God is much better partly because of the willingness of churches to loosen up and not be bogged down with attachments to songs and styles and cultural trappings that are no longer a part of modern life.  I even felt that way myself at one point, but as this blog attests, that’s changed with me.  It doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a well-done modern worship service, I just have different tastes and different things that matter more to me.

What do you think?  There are pros and cons to both approaches I believe.  What is more important…cultural relevance in worship style or a connection to the past and our Christian brethren from times gone by?  As long as the Gospel is being taught and people are being discipled and matured in the faith, should the form in which those things are conveyed matter?

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Just haven’t been inspired to write anything in particular lately and things are in sort of a holding pattern with regard to church.

I am reading Christianity’s Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath on the Protestant Reformation so I will probably be blogging on some of that stuff here soon.

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Back in the age of dial-up, when regular people were just beginning to get on the internet, the first things I discovered were message boards. There were tons of them. And the ones I seemed to gravitate to the most were theology boards and ones devoted to debating Christianity with atheists and agnostics. Generally speaking those debates generated way more heat than light, but every now and then you’d have a conversation that went deeper, perhaps via email off the boards or in private messages. And more than once a more level-headed, non-angry atheist would say something about how they appreciated my approach and kindness (I wish more would have felt prompted to say that about me, but I sometimes struggled to keep my temper and sarcasm in check) and that they looked at me or others on the boards and wished they could believe.

That always seemed to be so odd to me. Someone who looks longingly at Christian faith and sees beauty and peace and something desirable, but can’t bring themselves to say they actually believe it. It seemed so sad. All I could do was pray for them and try to answer whatever questions I could and encourage them to keep an open mind on it. You can’t just make someone see something they don’t see. I can’t imagine not believing in God so sometimes it’s hard for me to really put myself in their shoes and feel what it would be like to really NOT believe…until now.

I’m starting to understand where they are coming from, but it’s not what you may be thinking. I’m still a believer. The world literally makes no sense to me without God in it. I can’t “unbelieve” such a thing any more than I could unbelieve that my wife and children exist. But I do wish that I could believe something. My friend is so certain and so at peace with his decision to become Catholic. He did his homework, read a ton and came to the conclusion that the Catholic church was the church Christ founded and that it’s the church we all should seek to be reunited to. I on the other hand have read far more and for a longer time than he did, but I’m still wandering in the wilderness. I admire so much about Catholicism and find much about it to be so attractive. I have similar admiration for other traditions such as Orthodoxy, traditional Anglicanism and Lutheranism too, but particularly on the latter two (in addition to traditionally minded Reformed churches) I still run into the question of authority. Who has the ultimate authority to decide between widely divergent interpretations on Scripture and Christian doctrine? It just seems that splintering over and over becomes inevitable no matter which tradition you choose, except Catholicism.

But though I look longingly across the Tiber at what seems to be a much more stable and solidly rooted faith, I find myself thinking, “I just wish I could believe…” And the wishes are about many things. Among them, I wish I could believe:

…that the Pope and Magisterium truly were infallible on matters of faith and interpreting Scripture.

…that the bread and wine in the Eucharist truly were the literal body and blood of Christ.

…that the Marian dogmas were true and that asking her and other saints for their intercession was truly effective rather than idolatrous.

…that I could agree with the Catholic Church fully on their stances regarding divorce and contraception.

…that if I chose to cross the Tiber, that I wouldn’t be sitting there 5-10 years from now unhappy again and wanting more out of church and the Christian life but now being completely befuddled as to where to go next.

I could go on and on I suppose but I guess what this really speaks to is that I’m so tired and weary. Nearly exhausted mentally and emotionally. I’m tired of being restless in my spirit and mind. I’m tired of not feeling like I can really jump in with both feet somewhere because of all these unsettled theological questions.  I’ve been through the emotionalism of my Pentecostal days, the intellectual high of Calvinism and Reformed theological study and the seemingly endless quest to be “culturally relevant” (which seems to be closely related to some vague notion of “hipness” sometimes).   Right now I’m just attending church but I don’t feel like I can really engage with my whole heart because I question everything.  I just feel like I’m in this state of suspension with no solid foothold anywhere, not because there aren’t several options purporting to be solid footholds, but because I’m in a crisis as to which one to trust.  I believe the Bible, but on the deep stuff, it’s increasingly unclear as to who is viewing and interpreting it properly. It’s wearing me out. I just want the truth. And I need a place to stand.

I just wish I believed…

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A recent dustup on another blog inspired me to post something about this notion of repetitive or recited prayers. Typically, a certain canard gets thrown out when discussing liturgical worship with certain evangelical or fundamentalist Protestants. Catchphrases like “man’s traditions”, “dead ritual” and “repetition” are bandied about. You could set a sundial by this entirely predictable phenomenon. It centers around Christ’s commands regarding prayer.

But let’s examine the verse in question where Jesus talks about prayer, specifically repetitive prayer:

Matthew 6:7
“And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.”

The ESV does a slightly better job in my opinion of conveying the meaning of the Greek in this verse:

Matthew 6:7
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”

The Greek word translated as “vain repetitions” or “empty phrases” literally means “to stammer.” It calls to mind more of what you’d imagine a Buddhist monk doing during Eastern forms of meditation such as humming or repeating this one syllable over and over again in an attempt to empty their mind completely. This is obviously not the idea behind Christian prayer and meditation. In Christian prayer and meditation, we’re actually doing the opposite…we’re filling our minds with something such as passages of Scripture, thoughts about some aspect of God and His character, recalling His wondrous works or His promises, focusing on events in the life of Christ (the Incarnation, the Passion, His death and resurrection). These are all good things.

But sticking just to this notion that repetition itself is forbidden in Scripture…it’s completely off base. For instance, take Psalm 136:

Psalm 136

136:1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
4 to him who alone does great wonders,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
5 to him who by understanding made the heavens,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
6 to him who spread out the earth above the waters,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
7 to him who made the great lights,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
8 the sun to rule over the day,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
9 the moon and stars to rule over the night,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
11 and brought Israel out from among them,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
13 to him who divided the Red Sea in two,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
14 and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
15 but overthrew [1] Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
16 to him who led his people through the wilderness,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
17 to him who struck down great kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
18 and killed mighty kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
19 Sihon, king of the Amorites,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
20 and Og, king of Bashan,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
21 and gave their land as a heritage,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
22 a heritage to Israel his servant,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
23 It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
24 and rescued us from our foes,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
25 he who gives food to all flesh,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
26 Give thanks to the God of heaven,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

Twenty-six times the phrase “for his steadfast love endures forever” is repeated. There are other Psalms with similar repetitive patterns. Then there is this passage from Revelation:

Revelation 4:6b-8
And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”
(emphasis mine)

Are these living creatures that “day and night…never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” engaging in vain or meaningless repetition? Because we’ve already established that they are engaging in repetition. If God had something against repetition in prayer or worship, then He should banish these creatures from His presence right away so as not to contradict Himself!

The takeaway is this: Jesus did not condemn repetitive prayers. He even gave us one that we frequently repeat in church every Sunday known as “The Lord’s Prayer” (or for you Catholics, the “Our Father”). Repetition is not the problem, meaningless or vain repetition is the problem. Simply babbling a bunch of nonsense or repeating words over and over as if they are some sort of Christian equivalent of “abracadabra” that gets you what you want is the problem.

Don’t be put off or concerned about the misuse of the passage in Matthew if you like to use prayer beads, employ prayer books such as the Book of Common Prayer, follow the Daily Office or participate in a Liturgy of the Hours. Obviously, the content of the prayer is important (none of that mindless humming, people) and just as important if not moreso is the intent of the heart in praying. One can turn anything into meaningless repetition (even The Lord’s Prayer or a psalm) if they absentmindedly mumble their way through it thinking that merely uttering certain words scores brownie points with God. Spontaneity is not the hallmark of true prayer and worship. Meaning what you’re saying when you pray is where true prayer begins.

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Here’s an interesting dilemma for Protestants. We argue against the infallibility of the Pope on the basis that no man can perfectly hear God and infallibly declare doctrine. There’s also some confusion about the difference between infallibility on matters of doctrine and personal sinlessness but we won’t dig too much into that.

Now, at the same time, we affirm the infallibility of a book…a book written by humans that we know were not sinless, that we believe nevertheless were able to produce infallible teaching as they were guided and enabled by the Holy Spirit.

The difference in these two views is only by a matter of degrees. One accepts infallible teaching and doctrine directly from a man who occupies a specific office and believes that the Holy Spirit enables him to speak infallibly on matters of faith and practice. The other simply accepts the same thing from a variety of men in written form. And on top of that, the one that believes in the infallibility of the Pope when speaking ex cathedra on matters of faith and practice affirms that such teaching still must not contradict anything in the Bible.

So my question is, if you can accept by faith that imperfect men could be infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit to produce an infallible Bible, why is the notion that the Holy Spirit could infallibly guide a Pope in the same manner such a non-starter?

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I’m reading This Is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers The Real Presence by Mark Shea. It’s a short read, only about 50 pages long. But it’s really posing some interesting thoughts to me and one passage in particular stuck out. He’s speaking of the Protestant suspicion of anything that smacks of “works” religion or falling back into the same error the Galatians made over the issue of circumcision. This same sense of unease or outright suspicion is felt toward the Catholic doctrine surrounding the “Real Presence” in the Eucharist and seeing it as a “means of grace.” And Mr. Shea felt much the same way at one point. But he had some interesting thoughts as his evangelical pastor preached on the Bread of Life discourse in John 6:

Do not misunderstand. My pastor was certainly no exponent of Catholic theology. Rather, in classical evangelical fashion, this good man held that “the teaching of Christ is the true bread from heaven” and that the passage had no Eucharistic significance…he urged, we must become mature in Christ “by eating His word” and relying on the grace of God working in and through fellow Bible-believing Christians. Only thus, he said, could we hope to grow.

…It suddenly bore in on me that this grasp of biblical teaching as “food for maturity” was strikingly similar to the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. I saw at once that regular biblical fellowship and regular Holy Communion are both a form of ritual, both “means of grace.” The only difference is that in the former, God transubstantiates paper, ink, and the human voice into His Word; whereas in the latter, according to Catholics, He changes the bread and wine into something even more impressive. My difficulty, then, was not with the idea of ritual “means of grace” as such, but with a God Who might touch me in a non-verbal, non-cerebral, non-spiritual way.

This really is a crucial point. Protestants think in terms of receiving grace “by faith” and what we mean without explicitly saying so is that “by faith” means “intangible.” Grace in the biblical sense is only experienced by believing and trusting in Christ, not by any physical means. And this does explain much of our reaction against the Catholic view of the Eucharist as a “means of grace” (literally, a physical manner in which God’s grace is transmitted to us). Yet we also believe that we are spiritually fed and matured by tangible means such as reading our Bibles, sitting under solid Biblical teaching and fellowship and sharing life with other believers. What are these things if not tangible and physical? And in believing this, we certainly don’t mean to convey the idea that God does not transmit His grace to us in other ways such as prayer, the Holy Spirit quietly working on our hearts and so on. But we affirm the notion that God works through things in the physical world He created to nurture and mature us. These are “means of His grace” to us.

So why do we have such a problem with the Catholic notion of Holy Communion being a tangible way in which God actually gives us a measure of His grace? Why are we so suspicious of means that are “non-verbal, non-cerebral and non-spiritual” yet have this glaring blind spot when it comes to other such “Protestant” means like the written Scriptures, the teaching of the Word by our pastors or fellowship with other believers?

What say you?

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