February 25, 2015

Objectivity Redivivus? Holloway vs. N.T. Wright

If you live in the world of biblioblogs, you've heard about Paul Holloway's criticism of N.T. Wright and (Holloway's own) Sewanee, the University of the South, for giving Wright an honorary doctorate for his work in New Testament studies. Holloway's attack was met with surprise by many and hurrahs by others. In light of the many criticisms of his criticism, Holloway has attempted to further justify his insistence that Wright is a mere apologist and not a scholar. One of his claims struck me as particularly interesting: 
What I dared to say in my letter is that properly speaking Wright is not a “scholar” who comes to the evidence with honest questions to be puzzled out and whose conclusions are always subject to revision, but an “apologist” who comes with ideologically generated answers that he then seeks to defend.
Two points and a question are worth raising:
  1. If ideological motivation an apologist makes, then everyone is an apologist. I thought we had all learned this grand lesson of post-modernity. Neutrality is a myth. There's no such thing as objectivity. Everyone comes to the data with presuppositions, ideologies, perspectives, prejudices, and their own matrix of subjective experiences that drive the questions they ask and the answers at which they arrive. Does ideology somehow preclude honest questions? Is not the distrust implied in the historical critic's maxim to "doubt everything" not also ideologically driven? And if ideology has no place in scholarship, then why are so many sections at SBL focused on narrow ideological topics? That Holloway frames his criticism of Wright in terms of the contrast between honest (and supposedly objective) questions in contrast to Wright's ideologically driven research reveals Holloway's own attempt to resurrect modernistic ideological presuppositions. The trick is not somehow to achieve objectivity; the trick is to be clear on one's biases. And Holloway's attempt to justify his critique suggests he may not be altogether clear on his ideological motivations.
  2. Holloway criticizes Wright for holding to a sola scriptura presupposition. Very well. But it's not as if Wright has gone around defending the traditional Protestant readings of the New Testament. He's been roundly criticized by traditional Reformed folks for his work precisely because it shook up standard Protestant interpretation. They don't call it the New Perspective on Paul for nothing. 
  3. And the question: Why must one choose between scholarship and apologetics? Shouldn't we hope our apologists have done their research and submitted their findings to the wider world of New Testament scholarship as Wright has done? Perhaps Wright hasn't published in as many of the journals Holloway would have liked, but this does not mean that his work has not been evaluated by the scholarly community. In fact, entire journal issues have been devoted to evaluating Wright's work. Much of his work has been accepted while portions of it have been criticized more heavily. It seems to me that this is precisely how scholarship is supposed to work.
What do you think? Is defense of the faith mutually exclusive with scholarship?

February 19, 2015

Don't Just Give Up, Take Up: A Lenten Reflection #UMC

A sermon preached on Ash Wednesday 2015 at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama.

The invitation to observe a holy Lent is an invitation to sacrifice and self-denial. It is an invitation to give something up. This has been the common practice of Christians around the world century after century. Many of us have in recent days asked the question: What will I give up for Lent this year? And many have selected something and resolved to fast from it, to do without it for these forty days. For some it may be a particular sort of food or drink. For others it may have to do with the way they use their time. But whatever it is, the common theme is sacrifice. We give it up. As we enter this Lenten season, however, I want to suggest that giving something up is not enough. We must take something up as well. To put it succinctly: Don’t just give up, take up. 

The Means and the End

Here’s what I mean. When we give something up for Lent, we are committing ourselves to the spiritual discipline of fasting. But the purpose of fasting is not simply the act of giving up. The purpose of giving one thing up is to make room for something else. So, we might choose to fast from a meal in order to use that time for extra prayer. We might give up some luxury in order to give more resources to missions or to ministry with the poor perhaps. In each case, we deny ourselves in one way in order to grow in another way. The discipline of giving something up is a means that leads to a different end. We give up so that we can take up.

The Danger of Lent

But therein lies the danger. All too often we perilously allow the means to become the end. We give up chocolate or soft drinks or something and focus so much on the giving up that we neglect to take up. We neglect to devote our energy and resources and attention to growing in grace and faith and holiness. When that happens we have allowed the means to become the end, and we miss the point, and we miss the benefit of the Lenten sacrifice. Don’t just give up, take up. 

What do we take up?

This, of course, invites the question: what should we take up? We should not be surprised that one answer to our question can be found in the liturgy. The law of prayer is the law of faith, after all. When we receive the ashes on our forehead, we hear the minister call upon us to “repent and believe the gospel.” What do we take up during Lent? We first take up repentance. Whatever you elect to fast from during these forty days, take time to allow the Spirit of God to convict you of indwelling sin, and repent. Turn from it. Forsake it. Give it up! Sacrifice whatever you want during this season, but be sure, whatever you do, take up repentance. 

And take up faith. Not only are we exhorted to repent, the liturgy instructs us to believe the gospel. How well we would do to take the extra time we have from giving something up and use that time to meditate on and give thanks to God for the beauty of the gospel, the good news that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, that he was raised for us, that he lives and intercedes for us, and works within us by his Holy Spirit to make us new, and to make us holy. 

And take up holiness. By all means, take up holiness. Allow this season of giving up and clearing out to function as a means to the end of making room for holiness in your life. Let me be clear. I do not mean some sort of legalistic checking off of items on a list. I mean being set apart for what Christ wants to do in you and through you. I mean having a heart overflowing with love for God and for neighbor. Allow God to do what he wants to do, namely to fill you with his Spirit so that you consistently embody his character, with all its extravagance, with all its magnificence, with all its beauty, with all its joy. 

Finally, take up the cross. If Ash Wednesday is about anything, it is about that. We receive on our bodies a smudge of ash in the shape of the cross as a declaration that we are followers of the crucified Christ, the one who denied himself and took up his cross. And he calls to us and says, “If any want to be my followers, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” So don’t just give up, take up. And remember, as you take upon your body the sign of the cross, that all of life is to be lived in the shape of that cross. In this way, Ash Wednesday informs the whole year and our whole lives. This is what it means to be people of the cross. It is to carry the cross on our bodies as a continual declaration that we are a people set apart for Christ and his kingdom. 

So, during this Lenten season, give something up. But don’t just give something up. Take something up. Take up repentance. Take up faith. Take up holy love. And take up the cross. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

February 9, 2015

5 Benefits of Baptism according to John Wesley #UMC

What happens when someone is baptized? The question is important not only because baptism is the ritual that marks entrance into the Christian Church, but also because because different strands of the larger Christian tradition have come to different conclusions with regard to the meaning of baptism. Is it primarily a sign of faith? Is it an instrument of God's grace to us? Should it be given to adult believers only? Or are the children of believers proper candidates for baptism? Well, we won't answer all these questions today, but since a couple of recent posts (here and here) have dealt with John Wesley's "Treatise on Baptism," I thought I'd keep the topic going and share Wesley's account of the benefits of baptism. One question you may want to ask along the way is this: Who, for Wesley, is the primary actor in baptism? God? Or the baptized? 

1. Guilt Cleared

For Wesley, baptism clears the guilt of original sin, a doctrine Wesley believed wholeheartedly and which asserts that every person comes into the world in a state of brokenness and guilt. No one starts off in a right relationship with God. Baptism deals with that handicap and paves the way for further workings of grace. Wesley points to scripture, the baptismal liturgy, and the ancient fathers to make his case.

2. New Covenant Status

Baptism brings us into covenant with God. Whether infant or adult, baptism marks a person's
entrance into the the new covenant. It is God's everlasting commitment, Wesley says, "to be their God, as he promised to Abraham, in the evangelical covenant which he made with him and all his spiritual offspring" (II.2.). Wesley here sees baptism as analogous to circumcision in that it is a covenant sign, but also surpassing circumcision as the sign of the realized new covenant.

3. Church Entrance

Baptism also marks a person's entrance into the Church. For Wesley, the sacrament incorporates a person into the body of Christ, who is the head of the Church. He points here to Galatians 3:27, "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ." This is one of the key ways that Wesley understands baptism as a means of grace. Grace is nothing more or less than Jesus. To be baptized is to be connected to the Church, which is to be connected to Christ, which is to be worked on by his grace as we participate in its privileges and the promises Christ has made to it. 

4. Made a Child of God

Now this one will make evangelical types squirm a little (or a lot!). I should know. It does me, at least a little. But Wesley believed that "By baptism, we who were 'by nature children of wrath' are made children of God" (II.4). Wesley was apparently quite comfortable using the language of baptism alongside the language of regeneration: "By water then, as a means, the water of baptism, we are regenerated or born again" (II.2). He was comfortable with this because he found it in the Bible. Check out Titus 3:5, to which Wesley appeals along with John 3:5. He was, after all, homo unius libri. Now if you believe that salvation, once given, cannot be lost, this is going to feel a lot like some sort of legalistic works righteousness, where you do something to gain God's favor. Remember, though, that Wesley didn't have a "once saved, always saved" theology. Grace must always be responded to with faith; otherwise salvation can be lost. Note the conditional statement he makes later in the treatise, "Baptism doth now save us, if we live answerable thereto; if we repent, believe, and obey the gospel" (II.4., emphasis added). To put it differently, the means of grace are only effective for salvation when received through faith in Christ. So, his theology of baptismal regeneration does not mean that a person will necessarily be fully and finally saved. It simply means that God is working in them by grace to renew them in a substantial way that must be received by faith, lest they fall away and lose this benefit of their baptism.

5. Heirs of the Kingdom

If baptism makes us children of God, then it also makes us heirs of the kingdom of God. Wesley turns to Romans 8:17 to make this point: "if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ." But again, don't make the mistake of thinking Wesley believed that inheritance could not be forfeited. 

Well, there you go. Baptism according Wesley. Grounded in scripture. Shaped by worship. Striving to hold fast the ancient faith. What do you think? Does Wesley's attitude toward baptism make you feel uncomfortable? Has he missed the mark? Or does it shed light on a mysterious means of God's good grace?  

February 5, 2015

New Name for this Blog: Incarnatio is now Orthodoxy for Everyone


I've been toying with the idea of changing the title of this blog for a long while now and have finally decided to go for it. So, without further ado, allow me to introduce you to Orthodoxy for Everyone. The new title reflects a double desire that has been growing in me for years to be aligned as fully as possible with the historic Christian faith and to make that faith intelligible, available, and credible to as many as possible. Or to put it more briefly: orthodoxy for everyone. I will, of course, still write with a Wesleyan accent. I wouldn't know how to stop. But that shouldn't be a problem because, as far as I can tell, Wesley simply wanted to be an orthodox Christian. Even his distinct emphasis on holiness should be seen as a recovery of the ancient faith not innovation. I'll try to make the transition as painless as possible. The only thing that readers will need to update is the feed address, which is now: http://feeds.feedburner.com/mattoreilly. So, be sure to update your reader. Thanks for being a part of the conversation. Now on to the next chapter. 

February 2, 2015

United Methodists deserve more from Mefford, GBCS (@umreporter, #UMC)

You may have heard about a United Methodist leader mocking participants in the recent March for Life. Bill Mefford, who is the Director of Civil and Human Rights at the General Board of Church and Society, tweeted a picture of himself in front of marchers holding a sign that read, "I march for sandwiches." An article at First Things picked up the story and got a fair bit of circulation on social media, and the picture showed up on a variety of other websites that were highly critical of Mefford's unwise photo. A friend and fellow clergy person suggested that I write a piece for the United Methodist Reporter in response, which I did. I'm grateful to the UMR team for publishing the article. You can read the whole thing at their site. Here's an excerpt:
Given the negative attitude of Mefford and the GBCS toward the lives of the preborn, many might be surprised to learn the United Methodist Social Principles affirm, “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life” (2012 Book of Discipline, 161J). And while our Social Principles could certainly take a stronger stand for justice for preborn girls and boys, our Church is committed to reducing the number of abortions and opposes late term abortions. We also oppose the use of abortion as a means of birth control, which is by far the most common reason given by women for choosing abortion according to a Guttmacher Institute poll. According to the Book of Discipline, the GBCS is responsible for implementing the Church’s Social Principles, but there is no evidence whatsoever that it has worked to advance the United Methodist belief in the sanctity of unborn human life. In fact, Mefford’s mockery of pro-life marchers is symptomatic of the larger GBCS opposition to preborn human life. United Methodists deserve more.

January 26, 2015

John Wesley: New Testament Baptisms Probably Not Immersions #UMC

The New Testament does not explicitly define any required mode for Christian baptism. As a follow up to last week's post on Wesley's argument that Christ's baptism was probably not by immersion, here's an excerpt from the same treatise arguing for the probability that baptism in the New Testament was by pouring or sprinkling:
And as there is no clear proof of dipping in Scripture, so there is very probable proof of the contrary. It is highly probable, the Apostles themselves baptized great numbers, not by dipping, but by washing, sprinkling, or pouring water. This clearly represented the cleansing from sin, which is figured by baptism. And the quantity of water used was not material; no more than the quantity of bread and wine in the Lord's supper. The jailer "and all his house were baptized" in the prison; Cornelius with his friends, (and so several households,) at home. Now, is it likely, that all these had ponds or rivers, in or near their houses, sufficient to plunge them all? Every unprejudiced person must allow, the contrary is far more probable. Again: Three thousand at one time, and five thousand at another, were converted and baptized by St. Peter at Jerusalem; where they had none but the gentle waters of Siloam, according to the observations of Mr. Fuller: "There were no water-mills in Jerusalem, because there was no stream large enough to drive them." The place, therefore, as well as the number, makes it highly probable that all these were baptized by sprinkling or pouring, and not by immersion. To sum up all, the manner of baptizing (whether by dipping or sprinkling) is not determined in Scripture. There is no command for one rather than the other. There is no example from which we can conclude for dipping rather than sprinkling. There are probable examples of both; and both are equally contained in the natural meaning of the word (Works of John Wesley, Jackson ed., 10.189-190).
Two observations here. First, archaeologists have discovered pools known as mikva'ot (singular, mikveh) in Jerusalem which were used for ritual washing. These pools were yet to be discovered in Wesley's day; so he wouldn't have known of them as such. Nevertheless, as Wesley observes with regard to the pool of Siloam (probably a mikveh), its difficult to imagine thousands of people being immersed in a single day in a small pool. (cf. Acts 2:41). And the presence of a few such pools only demonstrates that a means by which some people might have been by baptized by immersion was available. It doesn't demonstrate that anyone was actually baptized by immersion. Other evidence is needed in order to reach any conclusion with regard to the baptismal practices of first century Christ followers. 

Second, Wesley mentions that sprinkling is an appropriate image of baptismal cleansing from sin. One New Testament text in which sprinkling is used alongside baptismal imagery is Hebrews 10:22, which speaks of having, "our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." This is not, of course, an explicit statement that sprinkling is an authorized mode of baptism, but you do have the cleansing of the heart by sprinkling set alongside the washing of the body with water. At the very least, sprinkling is here associated with Christian ritual washing. 

Wesley's last statement that the word "baptize" equally contains the sense of immersion or sprinkling is still a topic of debate. Perhaps we'll take that up in the next post.

January 22, 2015

Was Jesus Baptized by Immersion? John Wesley Thinks Not!

Most people probably assume Jesus was baptized by immersion. But John Wesley was unpersuaded that immersion (or dipping, as he calls it) was the typical mode of baptism in the New Testament. Here's part an excerpt from his "A Treatise on Baptism" in which he argues that there is no conclusive proof that Jesus was plunged under water in his baptism. 
Baptism is performed by washing, dipping, or sprinkling a person, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, who is hereby devoted to the ever-blessed Trinity. I say, by washing, dipping, or sprinkling; because it is not determined in Scripture in which of these ways it shall be done, neither by any express precept, nor by any such example as clearly proves it; nor by the force or meaning of the word baptize.
That there is no express precept, all calm men allow. Neither is there any conclusive example. John's baptism in some things agreesdwith Christ's, in others differed from it. But it cannot be clearly proved from Scripture, that even John's was performed by dipping. It is true he baptized in Enon, near Salim, where there was "much water." But this might refer to breadth rather than depth; since a narrow place would not have been sufficient for so great a multitude. Nor can it be proved, that the baptism of our Savior, or that administered by his disciples, was by immersion. No, nor that of the eunuch baptized by Philip; though "they both went down to the water:" For that going down may relate to the chariot, and implies no determinate depth of water. It might be up to their knees; it might not be above their ankles.
And as nothing can be determined from Scripture precept or example, so neither from the force or meaning of the word. For the words baptize and baptism do not necessarily imply dipping, but are used in other senses in several places...It is true, we read of being "buried with Christ in baptism." But nothing can be inferred from such a figurative expression. Nay, if it be held exactly, it would make as much for sprinkling as for plunging; since, in burying, the body is not plunged through the substance of the earth, but rather earth is poured or sprinkled upon it (Works of John Wesley, Jackson ed., 10.188-189).  
He goes on to make the case that New Testament baptisms were most likely done by pouring or sprinkling. But we'll save that for another post.  

December 19, 2014

What Mr. Tumnus Can Teach Us About Advent

After stumbling into the snowy wood of Narnia through the doors of a magical wardrobe, the first person Lucy met in that mysterious new country was a faun named Mr. Tumnus. Her presence startled him as much as his did her, so much so that he dropped the brown-paper parcels he was carrying. Knowing nothing of this strange new land, Lucy observed that, "What with the parcels and the snow it looked just as if he had been doing his Christmas shopping." Lucy would soon learn, however, what all who love the story already know, that Narnia is under the spell of a cruel witch, who makes it always winter and never Christmas. These parcels, therefore, could not have been Christmas gifts as Lucy had assumed. She was mistaken. Or was she? Could it be that her assumption, no less than her very presence in Narnia, foreshadows the coming reality, a reality for which all Narnia waited with eager longing? Perhaps her presence and her perception of the faun's parcels are designed to reveal that winter would soon end and Christmas soon come.

That Tumnus is the one carrying these would-be Christmas presents is no small detail. For he carries in his arms that which portends the liberation of Narnia, yet he himself is in the employ of the one who keeps Narnia in bondage to decay. He intends to hand the innocent Lucy over to the one who would destroy her, the false queen who will stop at nothing to keep her power and exploit the land and its people. As the story begins Tumnus is a coward and treacherous. And he knows it. And so the fact that this two-faced faun is carrying in his arms the packages which not only introduce the tension that carries the story but also the potential for its resolution is even more pronounced. He carries with him the sign of hope and freedom, even though he is himself part of the problem. 

He is part of the problem because he has not yet learned to wait. To be sure, he dreams of the day when the snow will melt and spring arrive, but in the meantime he has hedged his bets as he colludes with the Witch to save his hide. Like her, he has chosen to do what is necessary to preserve himself without regard to who might be hurt along the way. He is not waiting. He has capitulated.  

What then can Mr. Tumnus teach us of Advent? He teaches us first that waiting for the King born on Christmas morn is no passive thing. To the contrary, the waiting we do in the season of Advent is active resistance to the powers that rage against the Christ child, as we proclaim the gospel truth that there is another king, namely Jesus. For Tumnus, waiting for Aslan in holiness would have meant suffering, which is precisely what he feared. You only have to read his account to Lucy of what will happen if he releases her. His horns cut off; his beard plucked out; he will be turned to stone. You see, Mr. Tumnus understands that sometimes waiting means dying. 

Second, Tumnus reveals that no one is ever without hope, if, of course, they are willing to repent. In the end the faun chooses to release Lucy, to turn from evil in service to the Witch and face the grim reality that he will suffer for doing right. In this way Tumnus is being conformed to the image of the one who will soon suffer on the cold hard slab of a stone table. And because Tumnus is repentant, the Lion who overcomes even death, will soon breath on him and give him back the life that he gave up for Lucy's sake. He has learned the meaning of Advent. He has learned to wait. 

December 16, 2014

Four Thoughts on the Four Virtues

Upon the recommendation of a very good friend, I began reading through Joseph Pieper's The Four Cardinal Virtues. Not surprisingly, the book is divided into sections of chapters dealing with each of the four virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. I found the opening pages to be quite thought provoking and offer here four reflections that came to mind as I worked through the first chapter:
  1. We don't speak this way anymore. Until, I think, fairly recently, the language of virtue was part and parcel to (at least) Western civilization. Pieper's discussion begins with prudence, the first virtue, and he argues that contemporary minds are uncomfortable with the notion that prudence is preeminent among the virtues. It ranks the highest, and all others depend on it. Beyond that, I would suggest that, as a society, we not only resist the idea of a hierarchy of virtues, we have come to the point where we don't really see virtue as essential or even important. The cultivation of virtue is no longer a value common to Western civilization. Rather, we have elevated the pleasure of personal preference to the place of highest value. And when preference replaces virtue, the result is hedonism. 
  2. Right worship cultivates virtue. To become virtuous is to become good. But a person cannot live into the fullness of their potential to be good apart from a life of discipleship following Christ our Lord. And one of the ways - indeed, the primary way! - that Christ forms us into good people is through worship. To pray the liturgy is to develop habits of worship that cannot be attained anywhere else, habits that lead to consistent goodness, or (as it is called in our Wesleyan tradition) holiness, which brings me to the next point. 
  3. Virtue is essential to holiness. As Pieper's discussion unfolded, I couldn't help but conclude that virtue and holiness are intimately connected, though I'm not altogether settled on how to talk about the connection. For now, suffice it to say that holiness may be more than virtue, but it is not less. Pieper puts it this way: "All Ten Commandments of God pertain to...the realization of prudence...every sin is opposed to prudence. Injustice, cowardice, intemperance are in direct opposition to the virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance; ultimately, however, through all these virtues, they run counter to prudence. Everyone who sins is imprudent." To be free from sin is to be both virtuous and holy. And I am inclined to say that the highest virtue is actually holiness. One benefit of including the cultivation of virtue in our talk of holiness is that it defines holiness in positive terms. All too often, we think of holiness negatively as avoiding sin. And it is that. But it is also the positive cultivation of consistently godly character, and godly character is nothing if not virtuous. Pieper calls it, "impulses and instincts for right acting."
  4. The Greeks and Romans went far with what they had. C.S. Lewis described Christianity as "the true myth." He deployed this term against those who suggested that the presence of parallel stories to scripture among pagan religions suggest that the Bible is simply one myth amongst many. Lewis rejected this line of thinking and argued instead that the presence of similar themes in pagan mythology and Christianity simply indicated that the pagans had picked up on some truth, even if they didn't get it all right. The presence of similar themes in varied traditions meant that there was some common reality or revelation that all observed. Christianity is the true myth that gets the story right. Likewise, I suggest, the Greco-Roman writers who saw the cultivation of virtue as an end of society were working in the right direction. Even if, apart from Christ and the Holy Spirit, they were unable to achieve what they were after, namely the fullest and best expression of human life, they got a long way in the cultivation of virtue, though they could not reach the pinnacle. The stunning thing about it is that the Greeks and Romans at least knew they should be virtuous, which is perhaps more than can be said of us. 

December 12, 2014

New Podcast: Body of Christ, Bread of Life @StMarkMobile #UMC



When we want to read about the birth of Jesus, we usually turn to Matthew and Luke. After all, that's where we find angels and shepherds, magi and the manger, Mary and Joseph, and, not least, baby Jesus himself. We don't usually turn to the Gospel of John. John doesn't have all the nativity stuff. Nevertheless, the opening chapter of John is telling a Christmas story, because it's telling the story of the Word of God made flesh in the person of Jesus. It's the story of the incarnation. And Christmas is about nothing, if it's not about the incarnation. John is not quite so interested in who was there when Jesus was born. He is more interested in the implications of God taking a body in Christ. And one of the reasons John is interested in what it means for God to take a body in Christ is because John understands that the body of Christ is the bread of life. And John wants to be sure the sheep are fed. 

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