A New Twist to an Old Hymn

Among my favorite hymns is “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” by Joachim Neander. I grew up singing it to the hymn tune Lobe Den Herren, which is a nice martial tune that works with either organ or piano (God forbid) accompaniment.

As is typical with German hymns, it has a multitude of verses (I think Neander wrote seven stanzas in the original hymn), and so when I run across one that is unfamiliar, I am not surprised. Yesterday it was the appointed hymn for Evening Prayers in the Breviary, and it had a Trinitarian doxology as the last stanza that I had never seen. Hymns in the Breviary almost always end with such a doxology and many of them are written by the Breviary editors when the original hymn doesn’t finish with such a doxology

I was quite surprised when I saw this final doxological stanza in the Breviary’s version:

Praise to the Father most gracious, the Lord of creation! / Praise to his Son, the Redeemer who wrought our salvation! / O heav’nly Dove, / Praise to thee, fruit of their love, / Giver of all consolation.

Suddenly I found myself singing an -in-your-face example of the filioque and I was taken aback. Let me explain. During the great Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century, an Ecumenical Council (with representatives from Rome) hammered out what we call The Nicene Creed. In Greek the Creed says, following a direct quote from John 15:26, that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” When the Roman Bishop and theologians translated it into Latin, they added the Latin word filioque to the phrase, making it say that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

The Eastern Church was not amused by this non-biblical addition that reflected bad theology, and the event was a significant part of the split between the Greek eastern church and Latin western church several hundred years later.

The idea that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son led to some very weird theological conundrums that are still with us today. Certain ancient Greek philosophies (that were decidedly outside the Christian tradition) said that dualities were always at odds with one another. Latin theologians used this idea to explain the Holy Spirit. The Father and Son were never at odds with one another; they loved one another, and the product of that love was the Holy Spirit proceeding from both of them.

This always sounds weird. too cute by half, and just plain contrived to me when I hear it, so rather than have you take my word for it, I will quote C.S. Lewis from ch 26 of Mere Christianity,

 All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’ But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love. Of course, what these people mean when they say that God is love is often something quite different: they really mean ‘Love is God.’ They really mean that our feelings of love, however and wherever they arise, and whatever results they produce, are to be treated with great respect. Perhaps they are: but that is something quite different from what Christians mean by the statement ‘God is love.’ They believe that the living, dynamic activity of love has been going on in God forever and has created everything else. …

I know this is almost inconceivable, but look at it thus. You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the ‘spirit’ of that family, or club, or trade union. They talk about its ‘spirit’ because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they would not have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course, it is not a real person: it is only rather like a person. But that is just one of the differences between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.

Parallel to this conception of the Holy Spirit, the seeds of an idea that later came to be known as “Dialectical thinking” developed. The question of which came first is a chicken and egg question, but both ideas were adopted from Greek philosophy. Today we know this best in terms of Hegel’s dialectic of “Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis.” This is essentially what is going on in the Latin and Protestant doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Father is the “thesis,” the Son the “antithesis” and the Spirit, the “synthesis” of the Trinity. It is one of those items that is so patently foreign to scripture that it gives the Eastern Church a great deal of heartburn whenever there are talks between the Greeks and the Romans.

There are a host of reasons why Protestantism followed the Roman Catholic Church in adding the filioque to the Creed. It is surprising since the sine qua non of Protestantism is faithfulness to the Biblical text and this is one of those spots where the Latin Creed clearly veers away from scripture. But Protestants held the same Trinitarian conceptions that the Roman Church did, so it is no great surprise that the whole Western Church has adopted the filioque. It is beyond the scope of this essay to get into a detailed study of that history.

Rather, this explanation is evidence to why I was so taken aback when I was singing the Joachim Neander hymn. “O heav’nly Dove, praise to thee, fruit of their love, giver of all consolation.”  This sentence is a very precise summary of the filoque. When I stumbled upon it, I stumbled over it. Suddenly, rather than being in a prayerful mood, the spectre of an ancient theological battle came to the forefront of my mind and the moment of prayer was lost.

Ultimately the additional hymn stanza is neither here nor there. I am simply confessing my own weakness for a preference of ideas over prayer. No doubt my Protestant friends will tell me to just get over it and my Orthodox friends will tell me to quit using the Breviary. In the end I’ll ignore them both. I relish living in the gap between East and West and exploring all the rough terrain that I find there.

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Political Religion

I just read an extended review of Shadi Hamid’s new book Islamic Exceptionalism, and am intrigued. The book is now on my “to read” list. In his Washington Post review, Carlos Lozada focuses on the idea (from the book) that Islam is inherently political.

The prophet Muhammad was a theologian, preacher and warrior, but also builder of a new state. In Christianity’s origins, by contrast, governing was not the point; Jesus of Nazareth was a dissident against the political order. ‘Within the Christian tradition,’ Hamid emphasizes, ‘there was no equivalent of Islamic law – an accumulated corpus of law concerned with governance and the regulation of social and political affairs.

While it is true that classical Christianity had no “accumulated corpus of law concerned with governance,” over the centuries attempts at just such a corpus have been attempted. Originally there was “Christendom,” popularly attributed to Constantine, where the power of what would become the papacy and the power of the emperor were joined. But that system was specific to the rule of a monarch.

Social developments in northern Europe led to the rejection of both the divine right of monarchs and the pope. Protestantism became the norm and a new political philosophy of democracy, both in church and state developed. The result was the privatized Christianity and freedom of religion that we are familiar with today. Within Protestantism, while there is a highly developed theory of how Christians should relate to the state (Just Law theory, patriotism and conscientious objection, etc.) the idea of specific Christian governance, and the rules surrounding that, is not the norm.

History in England took a different turn than it did in northern Europe. England rejected the Pope without rejecting the Church/State relationship assumed in Catholicism. (The monarch remains the head of the Anglican Church to this day.) While not everyone in Britain was Anglican (the Scottish Kirk was Presbyterian, for instance), this close relationship between Church and State shaped theology as it did no where else in Europe. As a result the Westminster Standards (the confession, catechism, and a whole host of supporting theological writings) use the Old Testament Law as a model for our civil life.

This wholesale adoption of Old Testament law in a Christian context never took hold in England because England had a strong – and much older – tradition of common law that transcended Catholicism, Anglicanism, and the British monarchy.  And while English common law had a profound effect in the colonies, the marriage of Old Testament Law and Christian faith (sometimes called “Theonomy” – literally meaning “God’s Law”) had a great deal more influence in North America than in England.

So while Hamid is broadly correct that “within the Christian tradition there is no equivalent of Islamic Law,” in the American context there is a strain of Christian religion that does have the equivalent. Theonomy is technically a small offshoot of the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. It was expressly embraced by splinter groups such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and later, by a large segment of the Presbyterian Church in America.

But Theonomy has a history of punching above its weight. Thus the primarily Baptist “Moral Majority” was deeply influenced by Theonomy, as were some Roman Catholics and their particular take on Natural Law and Legal Positivism in the United States.

The effect of all this is that the U.S. has had a series of groups that attempted to create Theocracies in the United States (starting with Plymouth Colony and the “Shining City on a Hill,” which was originally a specifically Theocratic idea). Many of these attempts have ended in tragedy (Posse Comitatis, Jonestown, the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, etc.).

More significantly, because Theonomy tendencies run strong in American conservative Christianity, there is a certain respect for the idea of an Islamic state just as their is a respect for the idea of a Christian state. And furthermore, for Christians that are warm to the idea of a Christian state, there is typically an abhorrence of a competing state based on Islam.

Classical Liberalism privatized and individuated Christianity by making “freedom of religion” a basic human right. American conservatives (particularly those with Theonomist sympathies) promoted freedom of religion as long as the religion in question was Protestantism. Specifically, because there has always been a wishful idea that America was a Christian nation (in contrast to the Liberal Democratic Republic which was created in 1776), freedom of religion is more specifically understood as freedom of Protestant religion. (For instance, try to offer a prayer to Allah or Mary before a Texas high school football and wait to see what happens next!)

This riff on Theonomy does have a point. We Americans need to take seriously Shadi Hamid’s thesis that Islam is, in contrast to classic Christianity, inherently political. But hand in hand with that, we Americans need to take seriously that a very strong (but often ignored) strain of American Christianity is also inherently political.  For many, America vs. Islam is not so much political as it is inherently a religious war.

Donald Trump understands this and exploits it. I suspect that this is why a politician who in almost any other context would be considered in league with the Antichrist by conservative Christians has been embraced by conservative Christianity. This is not a political fight, it is a religious (dare I say it?) crusade that has led to a union of a blasphemous anti-christian demagogue with conservative Christians against the infidels.

I find the prospect frightening.

The Holy Spirit: No Ashleigh Keister!

The great people don’t need to act great. They understand that what they are (what we perceive as their greatness) comes not from what they do but from who they are. I saw this in action the other day among people none of you would know, so suffice it to say that one up-and-comer (who we will simply call Ashe Keister) was trying to do great stuff (and therefore getting in the way and mucking up the process) while the other person was perfectly content to be ordered around by the secretary, and managed to get a lot done (and save the day), not by announcing the fact that he was the Executive Vice President of All Sorts of Important Things in Life and the Universe, but rather by obeying the secretary.

It reminded me of the Holy Spirit and his relationship to the Father and the Son. Scripture tells us that the Son is begotten of the Father and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, two phrases that are also enshrined in the Nicene Creed. This is about all that we know about the Trinity. The eternal movement of Divine Life is outward to the Son and Spirit (and beyond), and the eternal movement of Divine Love is to flow back inward as an expression of their true union and unity.

This is their being: three equal persons in eternal dynamic relationship, flowing out and flowing in. Thus God is not a static entity, but a dynamic entity of love.

In contrast to their being, there is they’re work. I have in mind particularly John 15:26 (which I will quote from the KJV, since it uses the word “procession”) where Jesus says, “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.”

In terms of God’s work in the world, the Son will send the Spirit for the purpose of testifying of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the “economy” of God (that is, how God works in the world), the Son sends the Spirit. But in the “being” of God, the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (not “from the Father and the Son,” as the Latin translation of the Nicene Creed incorrectly says, if it is referencing John 15:26). This is why Jesus says, “I will send the Spirit to you “from the Father.”

Of course the Son has already been sent into the world by the Father, so in their work, one might go so far as to say that the Spirit is playing third trombone. If the Spirit was anything like Ashe Keister, he might get a bit huffy about this. He is, after all, of the same essence as the Father and Son, he is equal to the Father and the Son, and just as the Son is begotten of the Father, so the Spirit proceeds from the Father.

But like the Executive Vice President of All Sorts of Important Things in Life and the Universe, the Spirit is perfectly willing and glad to take orders from the secretary (or the Son, in this case), and it is through this invisibleness of person and willingness to work for the greater good, that the true glory and honor of the Holy Spirit is revealed.

Dissent During Prayer

I must start with confession, for when one is arguing with a prayer during prayer, one has failed to actually pray. The prayer I was arguing with is the prayer for Justin Martyr’s feast day (today, on the Western Calendar).

Lord God, in a wonderful way, through the folly of the cross, you taught your martyr Saint Justin the surpassing knowledge of Christ. Heed his prayer for us: dispel every deceiving error, and ground us firmly in our faith. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

I suspect for many a history lesson might be helpful. Justin (d. 165) desired to be known as a scholar and theologian. None of his theology is remembered; only that he desired that it be remembered. He died at the hand of the Roman Empire and is thus remembered for his martyrdom and not his scholarship.

The prayer says, “you taught your martyr St Justin the surpassing knowledge of Christ.” I was irritated that the prayer focused on knowledge. Justin was united with Christ … and we’re talking about knowledge!?

And then I realized it was a gotcha prayer. The “surpassing knowledge of Christ” isn’t “knowledge” as we typically think about it. The prayer is talking about seeing Christ face to face. It is (to borrow a favorite phrase from Michael Polanyi) “personal knowledge.” The prayer isn’t talking about facts, it’s talking about presence (being in Christ’s presence) and relationship.

And so I realize my initial disappointment is completely misplaced.
The surpassing knowledge of Christ” isn’t head knowledge at all, it’s fellowship, it’s union, it’s witness (the translation of the Greek word martyrion) of who Christ truly is face to face. Thanks be to God.