12 October 2011

Spiritual Warfare: Three Tactical Errors

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (10)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

In the battle against the passions (i.e., spiritual warfare) there are three tactical errors we can make, three approaches to Christian living that should tell us we have gone wrong. A knowledge of these wrong ways will keep us from injuring ourselves.

The first tactical error involves the body and the belief that a purely mental approach to the spiritual life can and will bring the growth we seek. we need to bring the body into our spiritual life. The fact is, we really have no spiritual duties which do not require us to employ our bodies. Even if a purely mental approach to spiritual living were acceptable, that approach would still involve the use of our brains, a physical organ.

Nevertheless some of the desert monks went wrong by deciding that the body is evil. Many of the monks who believed this were Syrians and were influenced by Manichaeism (e.g., Augustine). The Manicheans, like many Greek philosophers, thought of the soul as being a prisoner in the body, needing to be set free. Monks of this persuasion engaged in all sorts of activities intended to deny the body's urges: living in trees, eating grass, binding themselves hand and foot, preaching that marriage is evil and the sexual intercourse (even with one's spouse) was sinful. These monks counseled Christians not to accept communion from married priests because, being married, he engaged in sexual intercourse.

This teaching, thankfully, was condemned at the Council of Gangra, in the fourth century. Naturally, that hasn't stopped anyone continuing to teach these things. Nevertheless, they commit a tactical error in their warfare against the passions, going about achieving growth in the wrong way.

The fact is, the body, while capable of being employed in the commission of evil, is not itself evil. And Christian theology does not know a soul trapped in a body. In Christian theology, the human is a conditional unity of material (the body) and immaterial (the soul, or spirit), both given by God.

Now, we may not engage in the same body-denying practices as those monks influenced by Manichaeism. But we may nonetheless think we can control our bodies' sinful impulses by various other means, such as, for example, the well-known practice of self-flagellation, performed by some Roman Catholic monks. We might attempt fasting to the extent of starvation, as if starving ourselves is a successful means of doing away with gluttony, pride, or lust.

The fact is, while all our spiritual duties may involve the body, when it comes to sin, sin starts, not with the body, but in the human heart. It is the heart of man that is desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17.9), not the body of man. So our efforts in resisting the passions are not to be against the body, as if that is the problem (i.e., that which hinders our growth in love for God and others), but for the body. Since we have no spiritual duties which do not employ the body, we want our bodies to conform to godliness. Abusing our bodies, regardless our intentions, will not move us so much as a millimeter in the direction of holiness.

The second tactical error is the practice of any rule for the rule's sake. We cannot practice disciplines as if the disciplines are ends in themselves. Fasting is good spiritual discipline, but undertaken for its own sake, it's just refraining from eating, and nothing more.

There were those desert monks who thought they would be saved by practicing the Church's rules. And while Protestants don't necessarily believe they can be saved by their rule-keeping (though some do seem to come very close), they do often live as if they can lose salvation by failure at rule-keeping. Then there are those who would say that while justification is by faith, sanctification is by obedience; that is, sanctification is God's reward for obedience. But since sanctification, like justification and glorification, is part of our salvation, the implication of this approach is that salvation is at least somewhat the result of works. Don't get me wrong, like all Reformed theologians I too believe that obedience and good works are essential to salvation, but not as cause is to effect. They are essential, according to the, Confession in that they are "the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life" (emphasis mine).

In the denomination to which I belong, the rules we live by are the Ten Commandments as explicated in the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. One perennial debate concerns what it means to keep the Christian Sabbath. Of the Sabbath, the Confession, Chapter XXI, section 8, says:
[The] Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs before-hand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.

Is eating out in restaurants after Church consistent with keeping the Sabbath "holy unto the Lord"? This is very contentious. On one hand are "strict sabbatarians" who would say that the Confession does not say the Sabbath is "kept holy unto the Lord" and leave it undefined. Keeping the Sabbath "holy unto the Lord", according to this section, is defined as being "taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy." In what way, they ask, is visiting a restaurant consistent with that? Is it a public or private exercise of worship? A duty of necessity? Mercy?

On the other hand are those who say that the strict sabbatarians need to be freed from their legalistic ways. Eating out is really something akin to "plundering the Egyptians" (see Exodus 12.36). (I would point out that, while eating at a restaurant on the Sabbath may not violate the Sabbath, when the Israelites plundered the Egyptians, they didn't pay the Egyptians for the goods they received. The Egyptians today aren't giving their goods away.)

Some are just about rule-keeping even if it means being a jerk. I try to imagine how Jesus would respond to an invitation to eat at a restaurant on Sunday. Some people think they know he would because he ate with publicans and sinners. But this begs the question. If true observance of the Sabbath means not eating at restaurants, then Jesus wouldn't accept an invitation to dine out, just because he ate with publicans and sinners any more than he'd hire a prostitute just because he ate with publicans and sinners.

Whatever we do on the Sabbath, much depends upon how we go about it. What is our attitude about it? What is our motivation? Is the most important thing that there is (arguably) a rule which is just to be followed? Or is something about our practice motivated by the desire to grow in love for God and others? As I observe arguments back and forth between the two camps, I notice a great deal of vitriol; and I don't know which side is worse, or correct.

Whichever side is correct, being correct, rather than growing in love for God and others, seems to be sole motivation, even if it means destroying opponents in the process of arguing the case. And the bottom line is this: if our sabbath-keeping doesn't somehow increase our love for God and others, there isn't much to argue about either way.

Fortunately, one's position on the Sabbath is not grounds for excommunication. I do, however, have some scruples about eating out and shopping on Sundays. I acquired these scruples listening to an interview with D. James Kennedy. He was asked about his own Sabbath observance and answered that it was not his practice to do any eating out or shopping on Sunday. In explicating his position, he told a story of being in a restaurant with his wife. During the course of their meal, Dr. Kennedy struck up a conversation with one of the employees. At a certain point, Dr. Kennedy asked the gentlemen he was talking to about his church attendance and the man said he didn't attend church. Curious, but not argumentative, Dr. Kennedy asked why. The man replied, "Because of people like you." The man's point was that, apart from a large demand, he wouldn't have needed to work on Sunday. In other words, "Don't pretend to care about where I am on Sunday morning when your presence in the afternoon for lunch requires my presence in the morning to being preparing for your lunch." This may be something to consider when thinking about our Sabbath observance as something which should increase our love for God and for others.

The desert monks thought love mattered much more than when and where food was eaten. The story is told of two old monks, nearing the time of their departures and wanting to visit with each other a last time.
One day, Saint Epiphanius sent someone to Abba Hilarion with this request, "Come let us see one another before we depart from the body." When he came they rejoiced in each other's company. During their meal they were brought a fowl. Epiphanius took it and gave it to Hilarion. The old man said to him, "Forgive me. But since I received the habit and became a monk, I have not eaten meat that has been killed." Then the bishop answered, "Since I took the habit, I have not allowed anyone to go to sleep with a complaint against me. And I have not gone to rest with a complaint against anyone." The old man replied, "Forgive me. Your way of life is better than mine." ~ From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, "Epiphanius No. 4."

The point is obvious. Abba Hilarion made a big deal out of food. He said he couldn't eat meat because he vowed never to eat meat when he became a monk. For Epiphanius, forgiveness was more important. Members of various schools of thought give the appearance of being more concerned with having the higher ground in their arguments, than with the practice of Christian charity. Our sabbath-keeping cannot become an end in itself.

The third tactical error is probably the most dangerous. It is the belief that, since good works do not make one righteous, we need not bother about them. In the history of the Church the relation between faith and works has been highly contentious, particular in the West, where it resulted in the “Great Western Schism” (i.e., the Reformation). Historically, however, the contention has usually involved the assertion that works do, in fact, make us righteous.

The desert monks were not immune to this, and had their own skirmishes, most notably in the fourth century. The chief defender of the orthodox position was St. Mark the Ascetic. In his book, On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous by Works, he says that no one can be made righteous before God by doing good works. It was precisely because some of the monks had made this error in their battle against the passions that he wrote. The people who moved him to write, believed that they could merit God's favor, even their salvation, by praying, fasting, attending worship, engaging in vigils, and so forth--things we should be doing. Those who make this error have made the mistake of believing God owes them something in return for their labors. They believe that when they leave this world, God is going to weigh up their good deeds on a scale against their bad deeds. If the good outweigh the bad, then he owes them.

Here is what St. Mark (Text 22) had to say about this error:
When scripture says he will reward every man according to his works, do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or the kingdom. On the contrary, Christ rewards each man according to whether his works are done with faith or without faith in himself. And God is not a dealer bound by contract, but God our creator and redeemer.


Our good works are essential to our salvation, but they don't save us; they are expressions of our faith in Jesus Christ. Works are meaningless without faith. Words worthy of any Calvinist writing on the subject.

In general, Reformed Christians don't have much difficulty believing that works won't make us righteous. If anything, we're so successfully convinced of this that it's difficult to get us very far at all in scrupulous obedience to the moral law. After all, if works won't make me righteous, the lack thereof won't make me unrighteous. One could easily believe that Reformed Christians believe that since works of obedience don't make us righteous, then disobedience won't make us unrighteous. Consequently, it's easy for one who asserts the necessity of obedience to be labeled a legalist. And the issue isn't so much gross, and obvious, disobedience, but of subtle acts of disobedience.

For example, the Larger Catechism asserts (Question 138) that among the duties required by the 7th Commandment is the preservation of chastity in ourselves and others and that (Question 139) among the sins forbidden by the 7th Commandment are "lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays; and all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others."

Interesting things begin to happen if and when one attempts to talk to Reformed people about the clothes they wear (or don't wear), the songs they not only listen to but enjoy, the movies they watch and encourage each other to see. Many Christians who object to pornography, don't object to the near- or virtual pornography they watch. We are supposed to be promoting our own chastity and the chastity of others. Is one with a "crush", or worse, on an actor or actress really doing that? If one cheerfully sings, "Save a horse, ride a cowboy instead" is one really promoting chastity?

It would be beyond my scope to pursue this further. I need only say that, while the Reformed may have little to fear when it comes to thinking works can make them righteous, their spiritual state is hardly better, for that reason alone, than the state of those who do.

The fact is, according to the Confession, Chapter XIX , in the battle against the flesh, obedience, while not justifying, is indispensable:

Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them...in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of His obedience. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to shew what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, shew them God's approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof: although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. So as, a man's doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and not under grace.


The kingdom of God is a gift of God's grace. So while, we cannot count on acts of obedience to earn our way to heaven, when done in faith, we can count on deriving great spiritual benefits from them.

So, there are three tactical errors in the battle against the passions: (1) believing that the body is evil; (2) confusing the means of battle with the ends, living by strict observance of rule and disciplines; (3) misunderstanding the relation of obedience to salvation.

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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 22 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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