Sunday, December 26, 2004

Dear Elliot

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"If you listen to your heart, you will know a lot of people 'love' you."

I am loved. We are loved. You are loved. It's Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Where is Christmas?

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Fear not, for I bring tidings of good news for all mankind!

First, it's Christmas! Second, I've decided to post my latest sermon (mutatis mutandis) from our outreach English service at Banner Church, the Shelter. I preached at the Shelter (cf. Psalm 91:1-2) nearly every single Sunday last year, but have cut back to about 1.43 sermons per month this year (doctor's orders, dontchaknow). I was antsy about this sermon, not only because it is "a little deep" for a bilingual outreach service (as my translator told me afterward!), but also because it's themes were painfully close to my heart. Christmas has been a bit of a dark season for me this year; and it ain't the first time. I'm jubilant to tell you, however, that Christ's light is, once again this year, breaking in upon my darkness. And I am just as happy to tell you I found His light exactly where I describe it in this sermon: outside my fullness, in the shadows, and, yes indeed, with Mary.

I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new life in Christ! Adoring Him in (and in front of) the Eucharist has been miraculously "eucatastrophic" for me.

The Shelter
19 December 2004
Elliot Bougis

Where is Christmas?

Luke 2:1-19; Isaiah 11:1-6; Hebrews 13:10-14

Luke 2:1-19

[1] In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. [2] This was the first enrollment, when Quirin'i-us was governor of Syria. [3] And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. [4] And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, [5] to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

[6] And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. [7] And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

[8] And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. [9] And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. [10] And the angel said to them,

"Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; [11] for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. [12] And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."

[13] And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

[14] "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!"

[15] When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." [16] And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. [17] And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; [18] and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.

[19] But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.

Every year we ask similar questions: “What is Christmas?” “What is ‘the reason for the season.’?” “What does Christmas mean?” “In fact, WHY is Christmas?”

We ask these questions so we can “do” Christmas the right way. As I hope we all know, Jesus is “the reason for the season”, and unless we focus on Jesus each Christmas, we really aren’t “doing” Christmas the right way. Asking about the “what” and the “why” of Christmas is a good thing. But another important question we often overlook is, “WHERE is Christmas?”

This past week in my classes at Viator, I have been teaching about animals and geography. I’ve asked my students, “Why are we studying these two ideas together? Why not animals and plants? Or animals and humans? Or why not geography and history?”

We study animals with geography because geography and biology – life and location – go hand in hand. If you really study geography, you must also learn what lives in a certain place. And, if you know biology, you probably know where different species live. Knowing where a thing IS tells us a lot about its purpose or meaning. Books and libraries. Feet and shoes. Money and wallets. Bullets and guns. Location and meaning go together like hand and glove.

The same goes for us. What’s one of the first questions we ask when we meet new people? “Where are you from?” “你是哪國人?” As we say in English, “Home is where the heart is.” Asking WHAT a person is, or WHY she is doing something, usually requires asking WHERE she is or where she has been.

My point is that asking WHAT Christmas is today also requires asking WHERE Christmas comes from. We all know Christ was born in Bethlehem at Christmas – but we must also ask where Christmas was, so to speak, born in Christ. Where was the first Christmas?

The first Christmas was with Mary and Joseph in an animal pen with their baby – the Savior. Because the house was full of other people, Mary and Joseph had to sleep with the animals in a manger. Whether that was downstairs inside or literally outside the house is beside the point. The point is that at his birth, Christ the King was forced outside the central, comfortable life of the house. The point is that the first Christmas was below the vision of the emperors and rulers of the day. It was, in fact, springing up like a baby root of righteousness to overturn a whole empire of sin. Just as Isaiah prophesied (11:1-6):

[1] There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
[2] And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
[3] And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
[4] but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
[5] Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist,
and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.
[6] The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

Where is Christmas? Where does the little Christ child lead us each Christmas? Christmas is STILL with Mary and Joseph outside the inn, and it is still outside the full, comfortable lives of most people. We may not like it or understand it, but God, “in the fullness of time,” planted his root of salvation at the lowest, darkest point on earth. Mary and Joseph had been traveling for many miles. They were exhausted. And then they found themselves, the parents of the Messiah, sleeping with animals. What a disappointing Christmas!

I can just imagine the shepherds’ reaction to the angelic vision:

ANGELS: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.”

SHEPHERDS: “Okay, good – no fear is good. Great joy for everyone is nice too.”

A: “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

S: “Yes, yes! The Messiah, at last!”

A: “And this will be a sign for you…”

S: “Yes, yes, tell us! We want to see his glory!”

A: “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

S: [PAUSE, GAPING JAW] “Um, I’m sorry, could you repeat that? Is this some kind of weird angel-joke?”

Christ came to us in a way few politicians or celebrities would choose. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Christ was not only born on the level of the world, but even lower than the world” (_The Everlasting Man_).

The first Christmas – when a cosmic king was born as a beggar baby – is as bizarre as the Cross – when total victory was won by total defeat. Even in His birth, Jesus denied Himself. His life began and ended in weakness. His birth, in fact, was really just the first step He took towards the Cross. At Christmas we don’t celebrate the birth of our Savior; we celebrate the birth of our CRUCIFIED Savior.

Like it or not, we never lose this “crucified” feeling at Christmas. No matter how many lights we put up, no matter how much turkey we eat, no matter how many gifts we get, no matter how much commercial hype we hear, no matter how many Santas we hug, many people find the Christmas holidays one of the most confusing, draining and depressing times of the year. It’s cold. It’s busy. For at least two weeks, we obsess about what gifts to buy (and, of course, what to ask for). Even then, some poor (可憐的) people don’t even get gifts. At Christmas, another year of our lives, full of the usual failures and disappointments, slips away forever. Bing Crosby may be “dreaming of a white Christmas,” but the sad fact is, most people experience a very dark Christmas.

But why? Why is there so much darkness in this season of light? Christmas is and always will be a dark time full of light because every Christmas imitates the first Christmas. Where is Christmas? It is in our world, the valley of darkness, the house of sin, the home of Golgotha. At Christmas, Christ was not merely born under the power of the Roman Empire. He was born under the satanic powers of darkness.

When King Herod massacred all those babies to exterminate the Messiah, he was actually serving the powers of darkness. When Caesar Augustus decreed a census that tore Mary and Joseph from their home and put them on the run, he was actually just a pawn in the hands of the prince of darkness, trying desperately to terrorize Jesus the Messiah from the first moments of His life. The birth of Christ was an act of war by God against the armies of sin and death.

And every Christmas we re-enter this cosmic battle. Every Christmas carol is a battle song. At every Christmas the powers of darkness use the power of consumerism and anxiety and family feuds to exterminate the light of Christ in our starving, broken world.

And yet–! And yet, this dark, broken world of ours is exactly the world into which Christ CHOSE to be born! Christ chose to enter the darkness with us two thousand years ago and He wants to enter our darkness NOW! We must not fear the darkness and emptiness of Christmas time. We must face them with the light of Christ our crucified baby King. We must look OUTSIDE the inn. We must humbly step OUTSIDE the fullness of our own lives and look OUTSIDE for the needy and the lonely and the scared in the manger. As Hebrews 13:10-14 says,

[10] We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. [11] For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. [12] So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. [13] Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. [14] For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.

We must make room in our hearts, or we cannot receive Mary and her son, the Lord Jesus. Just like the shepherds, we must FIND Mary and Joseph outside the hustle and bustle with their son, the Savior. We must “ponder these things” with Mary as she adored her son, her Savior. Only there, with the shepherds, with Joseph, with Mary, with Christ, in the shadows, outside the inn – only there will we find Christmas.

Jesus was born in the shadow of the empire of man; but he brought the light of God’s love into it. Jesus was born under the boot of the powers of darkness; but He rose again so that someday every knee shall bow at His feet. The first Christmas was in the dirt and darkness of the manger; but it became the light and life of the Resurrection. The best Christmas gift has already come to us in Bethlehem, in a manger, without glory. And He will come to us again, someday – this time on the clouds, with glory.

[19] But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

A tidy blog is a happy blog

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As I said, I'm staying away from blogging for a season. But that doesn't mean my readers are. Ther has been an ongoing discussion in the combox of my previous post, which I felt was a little untidy, and far too ungainly, for one post. So I have decided to move a series of comments in that thread to a full post here.

In this thread, one of the problems is that Tom R is arguing two different lines. First, he began by challenging my rejection of Mathison's theory of councils/creeds (ie., as helpful but, in the final analysis, fallible summaries of faith). My contention was that this fallibist “faith” undermines the entire point of creedal Christianity. My point is that Mathison obliterates the basis for credence in *past* Church dogma. So far, nothing he has said addresses *this* problem. So I ask him (and Mathison): if the creeds are human and fallible, why do we keep them (aside from the sentimental reason that we, for now, each and all, believe they agree with our interpretation of Scripture)?

The second line of thought that Tom quickly followed -- which clouds the discussion of the first point -- concerns the status of *future* dogmatics. First, for some inexplicable reason, I find the question presumptuous. Why should we trust the Church tomorrow even if we trusted it yesterday? Suffice it to say that even to ask such a question betrays a deep (even if unconscious) suspicion of God’s order for the Church. The Church is not a set of doctrines; it is a body of believers under the leadership of real people, as they worship the same God according to the same truths. To squint suspiciously at the Church of tomorrow is to implicitly squint with distrust at the Church – and its concrete leaders -- of yesterday and today.

Second, Tom plays his hand too strongly by saying, with Luther, councils might err. This is a non-starter (what they call in advanced academics a "No duh" proposition). Councils can and do err. But infallible councils do not err. The question then becomes, of course, what constitutes a valid council. Protestantism claims the orthodox faith is the teaching of Scripture, but this is a truism; why else did the Reformers insists on the creeds? Apart from the understanding of Scripture in and by the Church, the “teaching of Scripture” is a wax nose. Orthodoxy is inclined to say conciliarity rests on broad ecclesial acceptance: what the faithful and the episcopacy of all ages, as a whole, accept is the orthodox faith. Alas, I find this outlook -- call it "hyper-Vincentianism"? -- naïve. Catholicism has its own (qualified, intricate and interlocking) answer: orthodoxy consists in the truths accepted by the faithful of all ages WHICH agree with the councils AS those conciliar doctrines are approved BY the episcopacy IN UNION WITH the bishop of Rome. Orthodoxy is, thus, a convergent rather than a mechanistically emergent phenomenon. There must be both a (materially sufficient) *pattern* of orthodoxy and a (formally sufficient) principle of discerning orthodoxy today.[1]

But hey, let’s be honest: at these theological heights, I’m at a loss. I cannot even begin to explain the “psychology” and “theory of action” of infallibility. I have no rock-solid answers. So, rather than rambling on and scuttling myself on the shoals of ignorant claims, I’ll pose a few questions and propose a few analogies.

First question: how does the inspiration of Scripture preserve the freely and authentically human authorship of the Bible, while papal/ecclesial infallibility does not?

First analogy: the work of the Spirit in inspiration is analogous to the work of the Spirit in infallibility.

Second question: Granting that inspiration is technically different from infallibility (cf. James Akin’s discussion of this in “Inspiration, Tradition, and Scripture"), I wonder how Tom can defend the action of the Holy Spirit in teaching a lone regenerate Christian the truth of the Bible without also accepting the possibility of that same Holy Spirit guiding the bishops to the truth over and with the laity.

Second analogy: the indefectibility of the Church is analogous to the irrevocability of regeneration in Reformed theology. You know the drill: Christians, only so-called, can and do fall away, but no true, regenerate Christian can or does fall away. But what’s good for the Calvinist, personal goose (ex hypothesi) is good for the Catholic, ecclesial gander. Apply the same kind of “non-falsifiability” to dogma as you (Tom?) do to personal salvation and see what we get.

Well, at this point, I’m sure I’ve butchered every strain of ecclesiology known to man. So, as I continue to learn (theology, German, Chinese, history, philosophy and science), I leave you with a couple leads. First, read Greg Krehbiel’s article, "Bible, Tradition, Church and Pope". Second, read James O’Connor’s _The Gift of Infallibility_ and Richard Gaillardetz’s _By What Authority?_. Ta ta!

[1] Speaking of mechanism, I think Tom is playing the advocatus diabli a little too strongly. Why *don’t* bishops and the pope just toss coins? I don’t know; but that’s the thing about mystery. It’s not as mechanistic as we might like.

Friday, December 3, 2004


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Alas, I'm back only long enough to report I won't be back until Chinese New Year. (I've also given up browsing until then.) My life offline is going well. Dane (my dog) is a handful (literally). My German and Chinese are improving slowly but surely. I recently finished Keith Mathison's _The Shape of Sola Scriptura_ and Roald Dahl's _Skin_. (Take a guess which I found more interesting and better written.) My update photos for the SAIBAT (Second Annual Beard-A-Thon) are available on my earlier blog. You have been warned.

I enjoyed Mathison's book but am still largely unconvinced. [This review may be incoherent and redundant at times. It’s late, I'm tired and I just wanted to get this “on paper.”] His book is thorough, impressively well researched and surprisingly non-polemical. The style is, however, painfully repetitive at times.

My basic objection is that sola scriptura does to the creeds what solo scriptura does to the Bible. Also, while Mathison does a good job of highlighting the coinherence of the regula fidei and the Scriptures in the early Church, he ignores the importance of sacramental succession of bishops as the third leg of the pillar of truth in the post-apostolic and ante-Nicene Church. Admitting the mechanism by which the Church guarded its regula fidei and the Scriptures seriously compromises his argument, an argument that basically relies on the (shoot me: semi-gnostic) assumption that the regula fidei can just be extracted from the patristic period by "serious" historical research and exploited by Reformeds who have no connection to the concrete sacramental lines of succession in which that regula fidei germinated and blossomed.

Perhaps my largest disappointment was with his attempts to "pinpoint" the Church based on the "common" primary dogmatic consensus across the many secondary denominational lines. His approach is, despite all his nuanced claims, very naive and simplistic. In effect, Mathison made the most commonly agreed upon tenets of Christianity the criterion for the whole truth of Christianity. But this quickly implodes because the points of "essential" agreement allow points of dissension to count just as strongly against otherwise settled doctrines. Any tenet we use to find a confessional unity, across time or space (and thus legitimize an allegedly Christian group) backfires by giving that Christian voice a footing to disqualify the consensus of tenets they reject.

For example, if Trinitarian baptism, the salvific crucifixion of Christ and the acceptance of the Bible are "essential" Christian beliefs, then Mormons are Christians. Yet, if they are Christians by these criteria -- and insofar as they also claim the title "Christian" -- their other heresies only nullify the "common" consensus of all Christians across time. The seat their agreement on essentials gives Mormons at the table of Christianity only allows them to undermine the consensus of otherwise. As a second example, if we use the same criteria, the rejection of Nicea by Arians and Chalcedon by Oriental Orthodox (both of which are otherwise ardently and deeply Christian groups) disqualifies the divinity of Christ and his hypostatic union as "universally accepted" doctrines. Of course, if we place those doctrines among the so to speak "essential essentials," then the necessity of baptism (as the sacrament of regeneration) is itself jettisoned as the tie that binds, say, Protestants and Catholics. At every turn, giving a slice of the Christian pie to a "fringe" group only takes slices away from the "mainline" groups. Mathison criticizes Orthodox and Catholics for being unable to explain the exact mark of an ecumenical council or an infallible papal decree, respectively, but he himself never gets around to explaining what the essential mark of confessional consensus is.

He criticizes the Orthodox for their "wait and see" approach to the validity of an allegedly ecumenical council, but he himself never explains why all generations haven't so far merely missed the boat and that the truth is yet to emerge. This immediately leads us to think "God betrayed his Church," but this does not follow, by Mathison's own logic. God totally committed his revelation to the Church and he most certainly will keep his promise to guide them into all truth. He just has his own timing for it. And it happens, sadly, we have yet to see the exact crystallization of the kerygma in the future "truly true" creeds. All our current creeds may LOOK correct and true because they are so universally accepted, but they are not infallible and could very well be rejected.

Further, I completely reject Mathison's denial of the infallibility of the early councils. His basic error is trying so hard to protect the inherent inerrancy of God's Word that he sacrifices the contingent but irrevocably infallibility of his Church. Mathison spills pages and page of ink insisting on the necessity of the creeds (as the crystallization of the early regula fidei to guide the Church under Scripture), but he seems to miss (or evade) the fact that treating them as fallible decrees about the (ex hypothesi) infallible deposit of faith immediately makes them reformable and revocable. The irrevocability of the creeds that Mathison swears upon demands their infallibility. The whole point of the regula fidei is, according to Mathison, to guide and balance our interpretation of Scripture. In turn, the whole point of the creeds is to guide and balance our knowledge of the regula fidei. But if the creeds are not infallible, then they really are just opinions and we quickly slide back into solo scriptura. For, if the creeds protect the regula fidei and the regula fidei protects our understanding of Scripture, then the latter surely cannot stand if the former falls.

A final objection I have is to Mathison's often startlingly facile treatment of papal history and the development of doctrine generally. First of all, he totally misrepresents the case of Pope Sixtus IV (1585-90), who never in fact promulgated his bull on the Vulgate. Second, he, like most critics, ignores the fact that Honorius's condemnation by the Sixth Ecumenical Council was received by the subsequent pope, Leo II (?), with the revised clarification that Honorius was guilty of failing to teach the truth, NOT for actually promulgating error. This papal revision was accepted by the Church as the standing canon of that council.

Third, one of Mathison's biggest points is that when the idea of papal infallibility was first introduced (by radical Franciscans in the 12th century), the then-pope rejected it as a novel heresy. Has Mathison never heard of the reception of "homoousios"? This too was rejected by numerous bishops and theologians as a novel, unbiblical concept, even though the Church ultimately decided it was true. Thus a clear innovation clarified and preserved a deeper, more subtle truth held from the very beginning. The irony is that this innovation was rejected by the very people that worshipped according to its truth! "We don't believe in the 'homoousios', we believe Jesus is God! Oh, wait, I see. We do believe in the 'homoousios'!" Why should it be any different in the case of the papacy? "I'm the pope, I don't believe in papal infallibility! Oh, wait. I see. I do believe in papal infallibility!" Must we expect every pope to be aware of every facet of his apostolate? No. We may as well expect every Christian to be aware of every facet of his own faith in Christ.

Thus, Mathison is amazingly arbitrary about legitimate doctrinal development. He admits the canon developed into its present form and that other features of the Church "emerged over time," so clearly the Church can “evolve” new and more precise normative boundaries (what I'll call "structures of authority"). What is Mathison’s criterion for discerning such developments? That silly consensus idea again? Even the canon is up for grabs if we take seriously the rejection of Revelation, i.a., by various early Christian groups. Worse, what are we to make of the more than one billion Christians that do accept the papacy as Christian revelation? Does that stunning consensus count for nothing?

It's a truism to say the early Church said to follow the Scriptures; the key is what that meant for concrete communities in terms of the CANON of the Scriptures. And the painful reality is that "the Scriptures" meant very different things for different canonical communites for centuries. Likewise, it's a truism to say the early Church was trinitarian. Before Nicea, Ephesus, Constantinople and Chalcedon, however, that brute trinitarianism meant very different things for different eucharistic communities. Mathison's chest-beating reliance on the "earliest" early tradition (Tradition I) over against Rome's reliance on Tradition II (ca. fourth century) sounds disturbingly like Mormons' and Jehovah's Witnesses chest-beating return to the pre-Nicene (ie., pre-Constantinize, pre-paganized) Church.

Moreover, it all looks a little silly when Mathison clings in one breath to the earliest (and thus less clearly articulated) views of tradition when he in the next breath clings to the later (and thsu more exactly articulated) views of the Trinity. It's just as much a truism to say the early Church said to follow the apostolic tradition. The key is what that meant over the course of many centuries. Strangely, Mathison accepts the later development of the canon and the Trinity, but rejects the later development of the idea of tradition. A peculiar and telling inconsistency, one that places the burden of proof on Mathison to explain why the basic flow of orthodoxy is toward progressive expansion and precision, while his view of tradition is static, vague and atavistic. Why should I accept the development of primitive Trinitarianism along later Nicene lines but reject the development of tradition along later partim-partim lines? Why did the Church, as a matter of plain fact, grow to accept a full-blown monarchial tripartite episcopacy but not grow in the same spirit of truth into Tradition II?

I repeat: my basic objection is that sola scriptura does to the creeds what solo scriptura does to the Bible.

Having said all that, I should make it clear Mathison’s book gave me many good pauses about key issues. More grist for the conversion mill! Sleep time! Bye till January or so!