Nov 29, 2008

Advent: A Season of Preparation

I could have just as easily titled this post "How to find the true meaning of Christmas." It never fails year after year that I hear someone inquire about or pray for a discovery of the true meaning of Christmas. Usually what they mean is that they long for a meaningful Christmas. I think at least part of the answer is found in the observance of Advent.
Advent is a time of preparation and anything worthwhile takes preparation. Christmas/Epiphany and Easter are the two great festivals of the Christian year and each are preceded by a prolonged penitential season. The main principle is fast before feast. Advent is a season of preparation for one long festival that begins on Christmas Eve, continues through the twelve days of Christmas and ends on Epiphany.
The history of a penitential season before Christmas/Epiphany goes back to at least the forth century in Gaul where it was originally called St. Martin’s Lent as evidenced in the writings of St. Hilary. In the Lectionary of St. Jerome there are Collects, Epistles, and Gospels appointed for the season. While it is recognized in the Eastern Church as the Fast of St. Philip or the Nativity Fast, in the Western Church since the time of St. Gregory the Great it has been known as the season of Advent.
The name Advent is a translation of the Latin word Adventus which means "coming." Advent always begins on the Sunday nearest to St. Andrew’s Day which is Nov. 30th. This year St. Andrew’s fall on Sunday so it’s moved to Dec. 1st and Advent begins on Nov. 30th. Advent, as the name suggests, is a time where our thoughts and devotion turn to Christ’s coming. The primary focus is on Christ’s coming in the flesh, but there are themes of His coming at the Last Day as well as His coming in Word and Sacrament.
The following quote contains some encouraging words for those who may be new to the idea of observing Advent.
"Many families use an Advent calendar to mark the days leading up to Christmas as a wonderful way to engage children and all family members in the anticipation of the birth of Jesus.
Another widely used symbol of Advent is the Advent wreath. Advent wreaths are made of evergreen branches shaped in a circular pattern and decorated with five candles of varying colors, depending on tradition, to be lit on each of the four Sundays of Advent.
Three candles are purple or blue, a fourth is rose-colored or pink, and a fifth one placed in the center of the wreath on Christmas Day can be either white or red.
The purple or blue represents the royalty of Christ our King. On the third or fourth Sunday of Advent, the pink candle is used as a symbol of joy for the coming feast of Christmas. The wreath denotes God’s unending love, and the candles represent Jesus, the light of the world.
Sacramental Christians appreciate the ebb and flow of the church calendar, especially the preparatory seasons of Advent and Lent. Advent is a time for somber reflection on our own lives as well as on the amazing act of God’s Incarnation, God’s breaking into history through the birth of his Son, Jesus.
It is a time for deepened prayer and special meditations on the season. There are many wonderful books available for use during Advent that are written with special prayers and daily meditations.
One can worship in a church that is not liturgical, and surely the Holy Spirit moves Christians deeply in those settings. But there is a marked return to traditional Christian practices, including the use of ritual and the observance of the church calendar, which is occurring in certain Protestant churches, especially evangelical and non-denominational churches.
Traditional Christian practices have the potential to deepen faith and create links to other fellow Christians and Christian history.
The cover story of U.S. News & World Report magazine from Dec. 24, 2007, was titled "A Return to Ritual." Among other examples, the article cited an evangelical pastor in Texas who began using liturgy and other Christian traditions to help members deepen their spirituality by adopting practices such as weekly celebration of the Eucharist, reciting the Nicene Creed and using a church calendar.
Our spiritual lives should be vital and dynamic, reflecting our new life in Christ. Could some churches be missing out on new ways to deepen members’ spirituality through "the sustaining power of liturgical observance?
Does your church observe the season of Advent?" ~ Paul Greve - Eucharistic minister, verger and Christian education teacher at Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Wayne, IN.
Fast before Feast; anticipation before celebration; penitential rather than festive. That means no Christmas candy or Christmas tree until Christmas Eve! Instead, try to implement prayer, Bible reading, and works of mercy as part of your Advent devotion; and Communion on Sundays if possible. The Book of Common Prayer is a valuable resource for Advent prayer and Bible reading.

Nov 22, 2008

Justification: Patristic, Medieval, and Reformed

This essay is designed to show that the ancient fathers taught a doctrine of Justification based on a non-meritorious faith and that the reformers were correcting Roman errors by returning to the doctrines taught by the ancient Church and Holy Scripture.
The Early Church
The early Church’s teaching concerning the nature and purpose of Christ’s work of redemption can be summarized in the following points:
1. They relied solely on the mercy of God through the merit of Christ for salvation.
2. They believed that all the baptized who continued in faith and repentance were members of the body of Christ and in a state of grace.
3. They also taught that faith is that state of salvation in which we receive justification and life.
4. As will be shown later, the fathers taught what the reformers believed to be the teaching of Scripture: that (in the words of the Thirty-nine Articles) "we are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and not for our own work or deservings."
The preceding summary is substantiated by the following quotes from the early Church fathers with comments relevant to the question at hand.
Ante-Nicene Fathers
St. Clement of Rome
"They were all therefore greatly glorified, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness that they themselves wrought; but through His will. And we also, being called by the same will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, neither by our own wisdom, or knowledge, or piety, or any works which we did in holiness of heart, but by that faith by which God Almighty has justified all men from the beginning: to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen."
This is the earliest as well as the most explicit statement concerning Christ’s redemptive work.
Concerning the nature of justifying faith, it is clear in this statement from St. Clement that there is no element of merit on the part of the sinner.
St. Polycarp
"Let us without ceasing hold steadfastly to Him, who is our hope, and the earnest of our righteousness, even Jesus Christ, who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree; who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth; but suffered all for us that we might live through Him."
St. Polycarp insists that our only hope of obtaining righteousness is found in the merit of Jesus Christ.
"For this cause did our Lord vouchsafe to give up His Body to destruction, that through the forgiveness of our sins we might be sanctified; that is, by the sprinkling of His Blood."
Again, there is no mention of any merit on the part of the sinner.
"By His stripes healing is conferred on all who come to the Father by Him."
Justin is using language from Isaiah 53 which speaks of the death of Christ as the ground of justification.
"All men fall short of the glory of God, and are justified not by themselves, but by the coming of the Lord."
It is explicitly stated that men are not justified by themselves but by the Lord.
Implicit in this statement is that justifying faith does not contain any merit on the part of man.
Post-Nicene Fathers
"I will not glory because I am righteous, but because I am redeemed. I will glory, not because I am free from sins, but because my sins are forgiven me; not because I have profited, nor because any one hath profited me, but because Christ is my Advocate with the Father, and because Christ’s Blood hath been shed for me."
St. Ambrose gives all the glory to God for his redemption.
He excludes any credit (profit) for himself but gives all credit to Christ.
It is implied here that only because of the atoning work of Christ is man justified before the tribunal of God.
St. Augustine
"Our righteousness . . . . is such in this life that it consists rather in remission of sins than in perfection of virtue."
The righteousness that man receives from God is due not to any degree of holiness (perfection of virtue) on man’s part, but rather to God’s grace and mercy through Christ.
St. Bernard
"Not to commit sin, is the righteousness of God; but man’s righteousness consists in the mercy of God."
Again, merit on the part of man is excluded and God’s mercy is stated as the ground for man’s righteousness.
The following observations should be noted concerning the teaching of the ancient fathers on the nature and purpose of Christ’s work of redemption before we proceed to a discussion of the teachings of Medieval Scholasticism.
1. They did not use the precise language of controversy. Rather, they spoke in a manner very close to that of Scripture. Their language is pastoral as opposed to polemical.
2. They did not distinctly separate justification and sanctification. Although justification is a declarative act on God’s part and sanctification is a progressive work in which both God and man cooperate, in point of time they occur definitively and simultaneously at baptism. Thus the fathers were not compelled to make precise distinctions as would be necessary if they were embroiled in controversy.
The Romanist Innovations
Medieval Scholasticism
The following five doctrines of Medieval Scholasticism form the basis for the Romanist innovations in regard to the redemptive work of Christ.
1. The doctrine of Meritum de Congruo: merit of fitness. According to this doctrine God is just and good. Therefore, He is predisposed and even obligated to grant grace to the sinner in spite of the fact that these good works are performed in a state of mortal sin.
2. The doctrine of Meritum de Condigno: merit of debt. The sinner, having obtained grace through works of congruity and thus made acceptable to God, God Himself becomes a debtor and is again obligated on the principle of duty to grant grace leading to eternal life.
3. The doctrine of the efficacy of attrition: Attrition has reference to the feeling of guilt and remorse for sin before grace is given. It is distinguished from contrition which is remorse caused by the work of God’s Spirit. It was taught by the Scholastics that God uses attrition as a means to incline the sinner to receive grace. Thus, attrition earned merit de congruo.
4. The doctrine of Satisfaction: works of satisfaction were those works done in order to ease ones conscience, avert God’s temporal punishment, and to achieve a degree of assurance that there was in fact genuine contrition on the part of the sinner.
5. The doctrine of Ex opere operato: according to this doctrine, the sacraments work in such a way as to exclude the necessity of faith on the part of the recipient and thus grace came automatically merely by the performance of administering the sacraments.
Although The Council of Trent adopted these doctrines as their own, it did not come without some debate.

The Council of Trent: Two main parties.
The Franciscans.
1. Maintained the doctrine of merit de congruo.
2. Denied the forensic sense of justification.
The Dominicans.
1. Denied the doctrine of merit de congruo.
2. Accepted the term to impute as it related to justification.
The Franciscans, being the majority and sharing a common enemy with their rival party, won the day.

The Council of Trent: Decrees on faith and justification.
An examination of the Canons of the Council of Trent reveals that Rome adopted a doctrine of Pelagian works-righteousness and Forgiveness through Sanctification.
While many ambiguities exist in the decrees of the Council of Trent, the Seventh decree states somewhat explicitly the Roman position: "Justification consists not in the mere remission of sins, but in the sanctification and renewal of the inner man by the voluntary reception of God’s grace and gifts."

Rome’s problems begin with a failure to adequately distinguish Justification from Sanctification.
This confusion stems from the doctrine that Justification is brought about by the infusion of grace and includes both remission and renovation.
The failure to distinguish between Justification and Sanctification leads to:
1. The obliteration of the objective ground of Justification which is Christ’s imputed righteousness and consequently a confusion between spiritual acceptance and spiritual attainment.
2. A tendency to base Justification on our own merit.
3. A denial of the Biblical doctrine which affirms that Justification in the Scriptural sense is independent of the spiritual state and condition of the one being justified.
4. The doctrine that Justification is not a change of position, but rather the actual conversion of a sinner into a righteous man.
5. A complete reversal of the Scriptural teaching of Sanctification through Forgiveness.

The Reformers Recovery

The Continental Reformers.

Luther reacted against a distinction made by the Scholastics between fides informis and fides formata. A summary of Luther’s concerns can be stated under these two heads:
1. Fides informis: a faith that is speculative in nature and in no way connected to love and holiness. Luther, because of his fiery temperament sometimes sounds as if he embraced something similar to this kind of faith as justifying faith. However, a closer look at Luther’s views will reveal otherwise.
2. Fides formata: a faith perfected by love and the good works that spring from it. The Scholastics affirmed that it was this kind of faith that justified. While not embracing fides informis as justifying faith, his strongest objection was against the doctrine which affirmed that fides formata was the faith that justified.

Luther observed that the Scholastics and the Romanist that followed them taught that:
1. Faith indeed justifies.
2. Faith, however, in order to justify must be perfected by charity.
3. Charity and good works thus embellishes faith and adds efficacy to it.

Luther countered by insisting that:
1. Jesus Christ rather than good works adorns and perfects faith.
2. Faith not charity apprehends Christ.
3. Thus he says: "Christ apprehended by faith and dwelling in the heart is the true Christian righteousness, for which God counteth us righteous, and giveth us eternal life."

Unlike Luther, Bucer was much more moderate in his a approach. This is evident in that he lamented the fact that faith and love or faith and holiness should even be separated at all. In light of the teaching of St. Paul that true faith is a "lively" faith he did not object to formata being applied to justifying faith.

The English Reformers.
Thomas Cranmer.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer expressed his belief in the doctrine of Justification by faith alone in his Homily of Salvation citing three things which must coincide in the justification of man:
1. God’s part: "His great mercy and grace."
2. Christ’s part: "the satisfaction of God’s justice."
3. Man’s part: "faith in the merits of Jesus Christ."

In stating his views on justification, Cranmer was self-consciously stating what he believed was not only the teaching of Scripture, but that of the early fathers as well: "This faith the Holy Scripture teacheth ... this doctrine all old and ancient authors of Christ’s Church do approve."

John Jewel
Bishop Jewel stressed in his Apology of the Church of England the necessary assertion that, while good works cannot precede justification, they must follow it: "Though we say we have no meed at all by our own works and deeds, but appoint all the means of our salvation to be in Christ alone, yet say we not that for this cause men ought to live loosely and dissolutely, nor that it is enough for a Christian to be baptized only and to believe, as though there were nothing else required at his hand. For true faith is lively, and can in no wise be idle."

Richard Hooker.
Richard Hooker portrayed the doctrine of justification in poetic fashion using Scriptural language: he pictured faith as "the only hand which putteth on Christ unto justification; and Christ the only garment, which, being so put on, covereth the shame of our defiled nature ..."

A summary of the English Reformers’ recovery of the early Church’s teaching on justification:
1. They were self-consciously and deliberately returning to the doctrines taught in the Scriptures as understood by the ancient fathers.
2. They followed the example of the ancient fathers in that they held closely to the language of Scripture as they formulated doctrinal statements.
3. In classic Anglican fashion, they were careful to avoid extremes. They were able to avoid the extremes of Solifidianism, Antinomianism and Legalism, some of which appeared from time to time in the Continental Reformation.

We can only conclude then, that the English reformers were not teaching new (sectarian) doctrines, but simply returning to the old (catholic) doctrines that were held by the Church from the beginning.

Nov 13, 2008

Why St. Vincent?

The purpose for this weblog is to raise awareness of the need for Christian unity - a unity based on and grounded in truth and not at the expense of it. St. Vincent’s Commonitory and especially the Vincentian Canon speaks strongly and relevantly to the Church’s current state of affairs.
St. Vincent’s concern in writing his Commonitory was in his own words to "be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood" of heresy. Again let me clarify the meaning of "Catholic" as used by St. Vincent as well as its use on this blog. By Catholic Vincent intended to convey the idea of the universal Church both the eastern Church and the western Church, Greek and Latin. The word Catholic was used by the early Church to distinguish the true body of believers from those who followed false teachers. Today there is much confusion among professing Christians as to what the truth is. I honestly believe that if we take seriously the implications of what St. Vincent has written it will go a long way in healing the various fractures that cripple the body of Christ.
A unity based on truth is a unity based on the Word of God and that is where Vincent begins. The concept of the word of God can be understood in to ways: First. There is the Incarnational Word. This is God’s revelation of the truth in Christ. Jesus himself said "I am the way, the truth and the life."There is also the Scriptural word of God. This of course is the word of God written. St. Paul makes the connection between the written word and truth where he calls it "the word of truth."
Catholic unity begins with faithfulness to Christ and Scripture.
Vincent begins with Scripture and continues with the Church. Vincent however, raises a crucial question. His question is essentially this: "what are we to do with all the various interpretation?"
His answer is that we hold to the traditions of the Church and her interpretation of Scripture. With that statement I couldn’t help but notice red flags going up in the minds of my Protestant brothers and sisters! It’s that dreaded "T" word that non-Catholics despise. Just like the word Catholic the word tradition requires an explanation. In a nutshell tradition refers to the creeds and councils which are interpretive declaration of the undivided Church. Many Protestants are unaware that they rely heavily on the creeds and councils in order to maintain traditional Christian beliefs such as the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Without tradition the Church ends up in interpretive confusion. One of the tragedies of the Reformation was the Anabaptist’s rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity because the word Trinity is not found in the Bible. The Church came to her understanding of the Trinity over a period of almost two centuries as she contended with heresy and relied on the great councils of the Catholic Church to declare the teachings of the apostolic Faith.
St. Vincent’s method and conclusion fall squarely in line with Scripture. In His high priestly prayer recorded in St. John 17 Jesus petitions the Father for the unity of the Church. He make a definitive connection between truth and unity. His first request is "Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth." Next He prays" that they all may be one." Jesus prayed for the unity of God’s people based on the truth. What about the authority of the Church in regard to the interpretation of Scripture. In his instruction to Timothy St. Paul refers to the Church as "the pillar and ground of the truth." Basically what Paul is saying is that one of the God given functions of the Church is to support and maintain the truth of Scripture. In other words the Church has authority in matters of faith. Likewise if the Church is ordained by God for this purpose then it follows that she is qualified for the task as well.
There are essentially two devices that work to attack the unity of the Church, heresy and schism. Heresy is a violation against the essential doctrines of the Church. Schism is a violation against the communion of the Church. Applying the Vincentian Canon is the ancient and Biblical model for maintaining the unity of God people.

Nov 1, 2008

Who was St. Vincent of Lerins?

Church and monastery of the LĂ©rins Abbey

St. Vincent was a fifth century monk who resided at the monastery of Lerins in Gaul, the region we know as modern day France. He is famous for a treatise he wrote entitled "A COMMONITORY" which means a calling to remembrance. His stated purpose for writing this treatise is to provide himself with a general rule whereby to distinguish Catholic truth from heresy. The word Catholic here is best understood in the words of the Vincentian Canon itself. Catholic means "universal." So the Catholic Faith is that which has been believed "everywhere" meaning every region where the undivided Church has been extended; "always" meaning during the entire span of time while the Church remained undivided; "by all" meaning the entire populace of the undivided Church. In other words Catholic means universal with respect to geography, time and people. The following is a selection from St. Vincent's Commonitory to put my comments in context:

[3.] But now, in the Lord’s name, I will set about the object I have in view; that is to say, to
record with the fidelity of a narrator rather than the presumption of an author, the things which our
forefathers have handed down to us and committed to our keeping, yet observing this rule in what
I write, that I shall by no means touch upon everything that might be said, but only upon what is
necessary; nor yet in an ornate and exact style, but in simple and ordinary language, so that the
most part may seem to be intimated, rather than set forth in detail. Let those cultivate elegance and
exactness who are confident of their ability or are moved by a sense of duty. For me it will be
enough to have provided a COMMONITORY (or Remembrancer) for myself, such as may aid my
memory, or rather, provide against my forgetfulness: which same Commonitory however, I shall
endeavor, the Lord helping me, to amend and make more complete by little and little, day by day,
by recalling to mind what I have learnt. I mention this at the outset, that if by chance what I write
should slip out of my possession and come into the hands of holy men, they may forbear to blame
anything therein hastily, when they see that there is a promise that it will yet be amended and made
more complete.