Tag Archives: grace

Medieval stupidity? Works-righteousness? Monastic uselessness? Getting beyond the caricatures


We all know medieval people were ignorant, gullible bumpkins who didn’t even understand the gospel message of grace, right? After all, they believed in a flat earth, salvation by works, and a monastic life completely shut off from culture and society. Uh . . . no.

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Graced and communal: More lessons from monasticism


monks

If traffic on this site is any indication, it looks like this discussion of monastic discipline is resonating with readers. Today we’re looking at two surprising ironies of the monastics’ way of living: (1) though marked by heroic effort, it was vividly aware that nothing happens without grace, and (2) though born out of a solitary discipline, its best wisdom has always been relational and communal.

A potential objection and the role of grace

Some readers may be nervous about the term “mastery” that I’m using here. Surely that’s the wrong term for the spiritual life. What we’re really after is being mastered by God – isn’t it? Doesn’t this analogy of technical mastery risk making the Christian life a matter of earning salvation by works? When we turn to Bishop Athanasius’s biography of the proto-monk Antony of Egypt, we find the bishop describing the monastic life as being animated by twin energies. This double dynamic, learned from the apostles and early martyrs, consisted on the one hand of athletic, near-heroic self-exertion and self-interrogation, and on the other of God’s gracious help from heaven through Christ—a duality that would shape all future monastic movements. The importance of both of these elements to the Christian life was the key theological point of the book, and the book became the pattern and manual for Christian monasticism East and West, and the compass of correction whenever a monastic group or tradition felt themselves going off course and wanted to return to the purity of early understandings.

In other words, monasticism always understood its human effortfulness as working in synergy with the transformative energy of God’s grace, through which (alone! said the monastics and the main, Augustinian tradition of medieval theology) the monks were saved from sin into blessedness.

Another confusion revealed in our nervousness about this “mastery language” is a confusion between means and ends: of course in the end, we seek to be mastered by God – the question is how we get there. Continue reading

Paralyzed by grace? What we can learn from monastic discipline


discipline-of-prayer-the

We wonder today why we are spiritually anemic. This post from the monasticism chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis moves on from the first of the “principles of mastery”–passion–to the third–discipline:

Holiness is not optional, and it requires effort

All this talk of passion may make us think that what is required it the single big, heroic action: casting ourselves into harm’s way for the sake of our loved one. But wise teachers of the spiritual life have reminded us of something we have sometimes forgotten: our lives as Christians are not all about single crisis experiences—single events that change our lives. The imagery of sawdust-trail conversions and emotional “altar calls” may sometimes lead us to think in that way, seeking a sudden, emotional experience as the solution to all our ills—but it just ain’t so.

John Wesley, to take just one example, reminded us that those powerful moments of repentance and coming to faith are just the “porch” or the “door” into the Christian life. The substance of the Christian life, which lasts as long as we live, is holiness. Wesley had a favorite phrase to explain holiness. Continue reading

A little guide to Augustine’s thought on sin, freedom, and grace


TolleLege

"Tolle Lege" - Augustine's famous garden conversion, in a later, fanciful rendering

Following up on a previous post, this is something I cooked up while working as a “preceptor” at Duke–that is, leading seminars for students taking a course (in this case Dr. David Steinmetz’s CH13: Church History to the Reformation), in which we interacted in more depth with the primary documents.

This one’s on that Great Brain of the early church, Augustine of Hippo. It includes a few “notes to myself” about how to lead such a seminar, since as a doctoral student I was still wet behind the ears on this important matter of pedagogy. I wish I could remember which sourcebook we were using for the Augustine quotations. I could go try to figure it out from old syllabi, if anyone’s interested:

A pronunciation suggestion

One of the first and most basic problems we have to deal with when we talk about this great North African theologian is this:  [write on board]  Is it AUG-us-teen or au-GUS-tin?  It makes no difference to me which we say, but somewhere along the way, I was told that if you want to make it at a party with a bunch of church historians, you need to use au-GUS-tin for this man from Hippo, and reserve AUG-us-teen for the archbishop installed in England by the Pope around the year 600, who tried to bring the Celtic [or is that SSSeltic?] church into line.

In any case, it doesn’t matter to me how we pronounce it today.  Saying AUG-us-teen won’t lower your grade…much.

Getting into Augustine’s thought:

1.  Write on the board:  “posse non peccare,” “non posse non peccare,” “non posse peccare.”

2.  Start with the background from Latourette, to put Augustine in context with (1) the E/W distinctions S. has made, (2) some other “fathers,” (3) Augustine’s own personal history.

3.  Deal with quoted sections from Augustine, below, one by one, allowing conversation to develop as it will.  If this serves to jumpstart the process of “dealing with Augustine on freedom,” well and good.  I needn’t return to the quotations.  If things slow down, however, I can reopen with, “what about this statement: [quotation].  What is Augustine saying here and what do we think about it?”

4.  Throughout the process, resist going too far off into either what we think about Augustine (though that’s inevitable) or, especially, whether Wesley (Calvin, Luther, Joe Blow) would have agreed with Augustine.  It is OK to do this now and again, but as in a Bible study, let’s return to the text.  We need to discipline ourselves to do that because it is often so much easier to talk about our own opinions or those of our church traditions, than to confront and work through the thought of the person we are studying.

5.  For the second half (or third, or quarter, or last five minutes) of the class, survey Augustine’s thought on (1) the status, (2) person, (3) and work of Christ, as well as (4) the Holy Spirit, (5) the Trinity, (6) the Church, (7) the Sacraments, and (8) the Last Things. Continue reading

Roger Olson follows C S Lewis in proposing a “Protestant purgatory” . . . heated discussion ensues


H/t to scientia et sapientia for alerting me to Baylor prof Roger Olson’s suggestion that perhaps Protestants today should take C S Lewis’s cue and consider the possibility of a purgatory-like intermediate state between death and heaven. You’ll see a variety of responses, some quite heated, at Roger’s blog. Also, scientia links a thoughtful critical response from Dallas Seminary grad and theological educator Michael Patton.

Roger’s proposal emerges from his understanding that there are “saints” in the history of Christianity–he singles out Augustine and Calvin, among others–who did terrible, hate-filled things. Do those people (or anyone else with such extreme “baggage”) get to leap straight from their deathbeds to the presence of the Holy God? Here are a few brief excerpts from Roger’s reflection: Continue reading

The book that started the Pietist renewal: Johann Arndt’s True Christianity


Johann Arndt, True Christianity (Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press)

What follows is a summary and commentary I created while reading this famous pre-Pietist book during the course “The Pietist Renewal” with Dr. Richard Lovelace at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 1994-5. Arndt’s book was a touchstone for the whole Pietist movement. Spener, Francke, and other Pietist leaders were raised on it. It expressed key concerns for holiness and the Christian life that characterized the whole Pietist movement–in reaction to trends within state-church Lutheranism toward “cheap grace” teaching and a hyper-focus on doctrinal dispute. For other posts on Pietism and the Pietists, you can use the “search” box on this blog. I have posted similar summary/commentaries on works by Philip Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke:

This is a reactive work.  It is reacting to a brand of Christianity that majors on doctrine and dispute and minors on Christian practice (prayer, morality, the “works of repentance”).

The first twenty chapters of Book I—Liber Scripturae, although quite broad, tend to stick with the theme of original sin and its effects on man, and thus the need for ongoing, strenuous vigilance for, repentance from, and mortification of the “Adamic nature”—which prevents us from receiving God’s grace and enjoying his fellowship.  These chapters tend to state their main theses negatively, and so seem at times dour and forbidding. Continue reading