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Augustine vs. Chrysostom: How to read Genesis 1-2

[This is a guest post from Steven Leckvold, a Th.M. student at Western Seminary.]

In the last few years, movie theaters have become inundated with origin stories. They often manifest in the form of science fiction or super hero movies: Captain America, Hulk, Ironman, the Star Wars prequels (I’m almost ashamed to mention these), the new Star Trek prequel, Spiderman (undergoing yet another remake), X-Men: Origins, and X-Men: First Class, just to name a few among many. In their entertainment choices, American’s flock to movies that show us where the famous, the infamous, and the superhuman find their beginnings. We love to be told stories of humble beginnings, tragedy, and redemption. We root for the hero, and we feel his pain along with him as he struggles to conquer evil and overcome obstacles, even those within himself. No matter one’s worldview, we’re fascinated with origins, particularly the origin of our world and our people. Even the atheist would agree that the study of the origin and fabric of the universe captivates them, and rightly so. We want to know where it all came from, and different perspectives provide different hypotheses.

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Was Ignatius of Loyola a Reformer?

Ignatius of Loyola was born on December 24, 1491. He  grew up to become a Spanish knight and was wounded by a cannon ball wound to the leg. While in the hospital, he asked for reading material, and all that was available was Christian text about the lives of the Saints and Jesus Christ. He became a follower of Christ, later to become a renowned theologian and ascetic. He is known for being the founder of the Jesuits, a movement of Catholic spiritual renewal during the counter-reformation. He was strongly opposed to the Protestant reformation, which makes our relationship with him even more interesting – at least those of us who are part of the Protestant tradition.

Should us Protestants disregard this Catholic thinker? One of my (Protestant) spiritual mentors studied Ignatius for his dissertation topic because he believes that much of what Ignatius taught is to be applied to the Christian spiritual life. Ignatius realized that the Catholic Church needed to be transformed, just as Luther realized did. However, Ignatius always remained within the church, and was astonished that Luther  and others would work from without.

Ignatius will always be remembered for contributing the two following ascetic traditions, The Examen of Consciousness and the Spiritual Exercises.

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Augustine on the Monsters among Us

Different is dangerous. If you don’t look like me or act like me, there must be something wrong with you. You’re odd, deviant, abnormal…broken.

Maybe you’re not even human.

People have always had categories for understanding those who weren’t like them. In the ancient world, you had three standard options: (1) you’re a human like me and are part of my community; (2) you’re a human like me even though you’re a part of that weird community over there; and (3) even though you have human characteristics, you’re not actually human at all.

It’s the third category that I find fascinating. This is where ancient thinkers would often place anyone with a significant deformity. The ancient world was rife with stories of babies born with two heads, people who were neither male nor female (i.e. hermaphrodites), and one-eyed giants, among other things. Such creatures are too human to be mere animals, but not human enough to be human. They’re something else.

They’re monsters.

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George Whitefield on Presenting the Bride to the Bridegroom

George Whitefield was born December 16, 1714. My how the times have changed! Yet, the same Gospel he preached still remains true. He was a revivalist preacher with a voice that could be heard by anyone! He often preached an open air sermon to crowds gathering between 20,000 and 30,000 people. That is why I find it most fitting to quote one of his sermons on his birthday:

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All hail, (I must again repeat it) thou Lamb’s bride! For thou art all glorious within, and comely, through the comeliness thy heavenly bridegroom hath put upon thee. Thy garment is indeed of wrought gold; and, ere long, the King shall bring thee forth with a raiment of needle-work, and present thee blameless before his Father, without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing. In the mean while, well shall it be with you, and happy shall you be, who are married to Jesus Christ: for all that Christ has, is yours. “He is made of God to you, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and eternal redemption.” “Whether Paul, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours.” All his attributes are engaged for your preservation, and all things shall work together for your good, who love God, and, by being thus married to the Lord Jesus, give an evident proof that you are called according to his purpose. What say you? When you meditate on these things, are you not frequently ready to cry out, What shall we render unto the Lord for all these mercies, which, of his free unmerited grace, he hath been pleased to bestow upon us? For, though you are dead to the law, as a covenant of works, yet you are alive to the law as a rule of life, and are in, or under the law (for either expression seems to denote the same thing) to your glorious husband, Jesus Christ….

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Do I have to write my own sermons?

In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine raises the question of what to do with people who are gifted communicators, but not gifted teachers. In other words, they can present a sermon powerfully, but they can’t write a powerful sermon. And he argues that it’s perfectly legitimate for them to memorize sermons written by other people and present them to the congregation (presumably without suggesting that they’d actually written the sermon themselves).

There are, indeed, some men who have a good delivery, but cannot compose anything to deliver. Now, if such men take what has been written with wisdom and eloquence by others, and commit it to memory, and deliver it to the people, they cannot be blamed, supposing them to do it without deception For in this way many become preachers of the truth (which is certainly desirable), and yet not many teachers; for all deliver the discourse which one real teacher has composed.  On Christian Doctrine 4.29

Augustine doesn’t elaborate, but he seems to envision a situation in which one gifted teacher prepares a sermon that is then presented by several different preachers, each in their own community. And, since these are preachers who aren’t cut out for writing their own sermons, this appears to be an ongoing situation. In other words, these aren’t preachers who just borrow an occasional sermon, but people whose entire preaching ministry would be based off material written by someone else.

When I first read this years ago, I rejected it out of hand. Of course preachers should prepare their own material. I could see presenting some famous, historical sermon on occasion. But for at least three reasons, I could ever see the value of doing this regularly:

  • A good preacher needs to be shaped by the text.  Before preaching the sermon, preachers need to soak in the text and allow it to shape their lives.  And the only way to do that is to do your own homework. You have to wrestle with the text yourself before you can challenge others with it.
  • A good preacher needs to contextualize the text. A good sermons is written for a particular audience. Granted, the greatest sermons hit on universal themes, making them applicable to a wider audience. But in general, good preachers write the sermons they do because they know that these are the sermons that this people needs to hear at this time.
  • A good preacher needs to adapt the sermon. Even people who manuscript their sermons know that a good preacher should be able to adjust the sermon on the fly. Reading the audience, you can tell when you need to dwell on a point just a bit longer or explain something just a bit more clearly. But that means you have to own the material well enough to make such adjustments without losing the thread of the sermon.

After reflecting on it a bit more, though, I’m wondering if there’s more wisdom in Augustine’s idea than I first appreciated. Over the years, I’ve met quite a few people who fit Augustine’s description. They were gifted communicators, but they were somewhat less gifted (I’m being charitable) in the other skills required for good sermon preparation. And it wasn’t laziness. People are just wired differently. So, rather than saying that such people can’t be preachers–or worse, that their churches should be condemned to bad preaching–why not conclude that sermon preparation can be a team effort and pair them with people who are gifted in ways that they are not? (This would also address the converse problem: people who are gifted exegetes but horrible communicators. And I’m sure we can all think of at least a few people who might fit in this category.)

Assuming that my three earlier concerns are still valid, though, here are some principles that would need to be in place for this to work:

  • The “teacher” must be local. I still don’t think this would work if the person writing the sermon is not connected to the local community of believers. But, if we’re talking about someone who lives and ministers with that local community and works in partnership with the one who presents the sermon, then this gets more interesting.
  • The “preacher” must study. This isn’t a “get out of jail free” card for the preacher. You shouldn’t teach a text that hasn’t first taught you. So the preacher still needs to wrestle with the text. But the preacher no longer needs to do so alone.
  • The “preacher” must own the sermon. And the preacher can’t simply take the completed sermon and present it to the congregation (i.e. no emailing the completed sermon the night before). The preacher will need time to digest and own the sermon so that it can be presented effectively and adapted when necessary.

I know many churches have “preaching teams” where they’ll plan sermon series and discuss ideas for upcoming sermons. But I don’t know many churches where the actual work of exegeting and constructing a sermon is done in collaboration like this.

What do you think?

  • What would you think if you knew that someone was providing significant help in exegeting and writing your pastor’s sermons? Would it affect the way that you listened to the sermon? 
  • Do you think this would be a legitimate way of affirming and using different gifts? Or do you see this as a copout for lazy preachers?
  • Do you know of any churches that are actually doing this?

A Prayer for Sunday (St. Ambrose)

[The feast day for Ambrose of Milan was earlier this week (Dec 7). So it seems appropriate that our prayer this morning come from this great leader of the early church.]

Lord Jesus Christ, I approach your banquet table
in fear and trembling, for I am a sinner,
and dare not rely on my own worth
but only on your goodness and mercy.
I am defiled by many sins in body and soul,
and by my unguarded thoughts and words.

Gracious God of majesty and awe,
I seek your protection, I look for your healing.
Poor troubled sinner that I am, I appeal to You, the fountain of all mercy.
I cannot bear your judgment, but I trust in your salvation.
Lord, I show my wounds to You and uncover my shame before You.
I know my sins are many and great, and they will fill me with fear,
but I hope in Your Mercies, for they cannot be numbered.

Lord Jesus Christ, eternal king, God and man, crucified for mankind,
look upon me with mercy and hear my prayer, for I trust in You.
Have mercy on me, full of sorrow and sin,
for the depth of your compassion never ends.

Praise to You, saving sacrifice,
offered on the wood of the cross for me and for all mankind.
Praise to the noble and precious blood,
flowing from the wounds of my crucified Lord Jesus Christ
and washing away the sins of the whole world.
Remember, Lord, your creature, whom You have redeemed with Your Blood.
I repent my sins, and I long to put right what I have done.
Merciful Father, take away all my offenses and sins;
purify me in body and soul, and make me worthy to taste the holy of holies.

May Your Body and Blood, which I intend to receive, although I am unworthy,
be for me the remission of my sins, the washing away of my guilt,
the end of my evil thoughts, and the rebirth of my better instincts.
May it incite meto do the works pleasing to You
and profitable to my health in body and soul,
and be a firm defense against the wiles of my enemies.

Amen.

In memoriam Karl Barth

[This is a guest post from Michael Fletcher, a Th.M. student at Western Seminary.]

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”

The genius and theologian, Karl Barth, was asked if he could summarize his Church Dogmatics. He pondered momentarily, then began singing the child’s song: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Can you picture it? Church Dogmatics is 6 million words long, and he summarized it by singing “Jesus loves me,” that is profound. How I long and pray for all of us to truly see the simplicity of the Gospel. Barth (May 10, 1886 – December 10, 1968) contributed so much to theology, and had he been a Catholic or Orthodox Christian, there is no doubt they would already have given him the title of a Saint. He is a blessing to the Church and I thank God for this man, today may we remember this man after God’s own heart. The following is taken for Church Dogmatics:

The first statement, namely, that Christ is in the Christian, has the further meaning that Christ speaks, acts and rules ­and this is the grace of His calling of this man ­ as the Lord of his thinking, speech and action. He takes possession of his free human heart. He rules and controls in the obedience of his free reason (2 Cor. 10:5). As a divine person it is very possible for Him to do this in the unrestricted sovereignty proper to Himself and yet in such a way that there can be no question whatever of any competition between His person and that of the Christian, whether in the attempt of the latter to control His person, or conversely in its suppression or extinction by His person. It is very possible for Him to do it in such a way that the human person of the Christian is validated and honoured in full and genuine freedom, in the freedom of the obedient children of God. That Christ is in the Christian means, then, that as the Mediator between God and man He does not exist merely for Himself and to that extent concentrically, but that in His prophetic work, in the calling of His disciples and Christians, with no self-surrender but in supreme expression of Himself, He also exists eccentrically, i.e., in and with the realisation of the existence of these men, as the ruling principle of the history lived by them in their own freedom.

The second statement, namely, that the Christian is in Christ, has not only the local but also the higher meaning that his own thinking, speech and action has its ruling and determinative principle ­ and herein it is the work of his gratitude corresponding to grace ­ in the speech, action and rule of Christ. His free human heart and reason and acts are orientated on Him, i.e., on agreement with His being and action. In the power of the Word of God which calls him, and therefore in the power of the Holy Spirit, this orientation is his only possibility, already in process of realisation. Again, there is no rivalry between the human person and the divine. There is thus no danger that the former will be overwhelmed by the latter. There is no danger that it will necessarily be destroyed by it and perish. Rather, the human person, experiencing the power of the divine, and unreservedly subject to it, will necessarily recognise and honour it again and again in its sovereignty, finding itself established as a human person and set in truly human and the freest possible movement in orientation on it. That the Christian is in Christ means mutatis mutandis for him, too, that as one who is called by the one Mediator between God and man in the exercise of His prophetic office he cannot exist for himself and to that extent concentrically, but that, without detriment to his humanity, awakened rather to genuine humanity, he also exists eccentrically, in and with the realisation of his own existence, being received and adopted as an integral element in the life and history of Christ.

This, then, is the Christian’s unio cum Christo. We recall that in this high view and doctrine we are not presenting a climax of Christian experience and development in face of which the anxious question might well be raised whether we have reached the point, or will ever do so, where in respect of our own Christianity we can sincerely say: “Christ in me, and I in Christ.” On the contrary, we are presenting the last and most exact formulation of what makes us Christians whatever our development or experience. We have seen that Paul particularly in the New Testament does not think of restricting his insight in this regard to himself and a few other Christians of higher rank, but that as he speaks of himself he also speaks of the generality of Christians, not excluding the very doubtful Christians of Galatia and Corinth and not excluding the doubtful nature of their Christianity. If, as we have attempted in concentric circles, we think through what it means that the goal of vocation, and therefore of Christianity as divine sonship, is always attachment to Christ, coordination and fellowship with Him, discipleship, appropriation to Him with the corresponding expropriation, life of and by the Holy Spirit, then we are infallibly led at last to the point which we have now reached and described, namely, that a man becomes and is a Christian as he unites himself with Christ and Christ with him. And we remember that from the purely material standpoint this is the starting-point for everything else which is to be thought and said concerning what makes the Christian a Christian.

(Church Dogmatics; Vol. IV, Part 3.2, “The Doctrine of Reconciliation.” Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 1988)

How to Speak of an Unspeakable God

Here is a great little passage from Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine in which he reflects on how a person can say anything about a God who transcends anything we could possible say.

“Have I spoken of God, or uttered His praise, in any worthy way? Nay, I feel that I have done nothing more than desire to speak; and if I have said anything, it is not what I desired to say. How do I know this, except from the fact that God is unspeakable? But what I have said, if it had been unspeakable, could not have been spoken. And so God is not even to be called “unspeakable,” because to say even this is to speak of Him. Thus there arises a curious contradiction of words, because if the unspeakable is what cannot be spoken of, it is not unspeakable if it can be called unspeakable. And this opposition of words is rather to be avoided by silence than to be explained away by speech. And yet God, although nothing worthy of His greatness can be said of Him, has condescended to accept the worship of men’s mouths, and has desired us through the medium of our own words to rejoice in His praise. For on this principle it is that He is called Dues (God). For the sound of those two syllables in itself conveys no true knowledge of His nature; but yet all who know the Latin tongue are led, when that sound reaches their ears, to think of a nature supreme in excellence and eternal in existence.” (On Christian Doctrine 1.6)

Would the Real Saint Nick Please Stand Up?

[This is a guest post from Michael Fletcher, a Th.M. student at Western Seminary.]

May I have your attention please? Would the real Saint Nick please stand up, please stand up? So many people have tried to impersonate this person throughout history, but who in fact is the real Saint Nick? After seeing so many people pretending to be him, it is easy to begin wondering if Santa Clause was real? It turns out he is! And yes, he stood up and he even “decked the halls” when he punched Arius in the middle of a Church council in the year 325! The following is the real story of Saint Nick taken from the Prologue of OhridI hope you enjoy it.

Saint Nicholas of Myra

 This glorious saint, celebrated even today (sometimes celebrated on Dec 5, but usually on Dec 6) throughout the entire world, was the only son of his eminent and wealthy parents, Theophanes and Nona, citizens of the city of Patarain Lycia. Since he was the only son bestowed on them by God, the parents returned the gift to God by dedicating their son to Him. St. Nicholas learned of the spiritual life from his uncle Nicholas, Bishop of Patara, and was tonsured a monk in the Monastery of New Zion founded by his uncle.

Following the death of his parents, Nicholas distributed all his inherited goods to the poor, not keeping anything for himself. As a priest in

Patara, he was known for his charity, even though he carefully concealed his charitable works, fulfilling the words of the Lord: Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth (Matthew 6:3). When he gave himself over to solitude and silence, thinking to live that way until his death, a voice from on high came to him: “Nicholas, for your ascetic labor, work among the people, if thou desirest to be crowned by Me.” Immediately after that, by God’s wondrous providence, he was chosen archbishop of the city of Myra in Lycia. Merciful, wise and fearless, Nicholas was a true shepherd to his flock.

During the persecution of Christians under Diocletian and Maximian, he was cast into prison, but even there he instructed the people in the Law of God. He was present at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea [325] and, out of great zeal for the truth, struck the heretic Arius with his hand. For this act he was removed from the Council and from his archiepiscopal duties, until the Lord Christ Himself and the Most-holy Theotokos appeared to several of the chief hierarchs and revealed their approval of Nicholas. A defender of God’s truth, this wonderful saint was ever bold as a defender of justice among the people. On two occasions, he saved three men from an undeserved sentence of death. Merciful, truthful, and a lover of justice, he walked among the people as an angel of God.

Even during his lifetime, the people considered him a saint and invoked his aid in difficulties and in distress. He appeared both in dreams and in person to those who called upon him, and he helped them easily and speedily, whether close at hand or far away. A light shone from his face as it did from the face of Moses, and he, by his presence alone, brought comfort, peace and good will among men. In old age he became ill for a short time and entered into the rest of the Lord, after a life full of labor and very fruitful toil, to rejoice eternally in the Kingdom of Heaven, continuing to help the faithful on earth by his miracles and to glorify his God. He entered into rest on December 6, 343.

A Prayer for Sunday (John of Damascus)

[This Sunday is the feast day of Saint John Damascene, Doctor of the Church (676 – 4 December 749). He is most famous as one who defended the veneration – not to be confused with worship! – of sacred images and icons. In significance, his writings in the Eastern Church are comparable to those of Aquinas in the West. There are so many of his writings I would love to share; but, today I will simply leave you with two examples of his work, one is a prayer.]

Heal our passions, Cure our diseases, Help us out of our difficulties, Make our lives peaceful, Send us the illumination of the Spirit. Inflame us with the desire of thy son. Render us pleasing to Him, so that we may enjoy happiness with Him, seeing thee resplendent with thy Son’s glory, rejoicing forever, keeping feast in the Church with those who worthily celebrate Him who worked our salvation through thee, Christ the Son of God, and our God. To Him be glory and majesty, with the uncreated Father and the all-holy and life-giving Spirit, now and forever, through the endless ages of eternity. Amen. (from Sermon 3 on the Dormition)

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So, then, He had by nature, both as God and as man, the power of will. But His human will was obedient and subordinate to His divine will, not being guided by its own inclination, but willing those things which the divine will willed. For it was with the permission of the divine will that He suffered by nature what was proper to Him. For when He prayed that He might escape the death, it was with His divine will naturally willing and permitting it that He did so pray and agonize and fear, and again when His divine will willed that His human will should choose the death, the passion became voluntary to Him. For it was not as God only, but also as man, that He voluntarily surrendered Himself to the death. And thus He bestowed on us also courage in the face of death. So, indeed, He said before His saving passion, Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me , manifestly as though He were to drink the cup as man and not as God. It was as man, then, that He wished the cup to pass from Him: but these are the words of natural timidity. Nevertheless, He said, not My will, that is to say, not in so far as I am of a different essence from You, but Your will be done, that is to say, My will and Your will, in so far as I am of the same essence as Thou. Now these are the words of a brave heart. For the Spirit of the Lord, since He truly became man in His good pleasure, on first testing its natural weakness was sensible of the naturalfellow-suffering involved in its separation from the body, but being strengthened by the divine will it again grew bold in the face of death. For since He was Himself wholly God although also man, and wholly man although also God, He Himself as man subjected in Himself and by Himself His human nature to God and the Father, and became obedient to the Father, thus making Himself the most excellent type and example for us. (Exposition of the Faith, Book III, Chapter 18)

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