Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Getting Ready for Lent: Reading Suggestions?

Ash Wednesday falls on 01 March this year, and perhaps it not too early to be thinking about a good book to read during Lent. If you would like to make some recommendations, please add a comment to this posting and tell us about your book suggetions. Maybe we can all agree to read something together and share our thoughts?

February 1: Remembering Saint Bridig

Today many Christians remember Saint Bridig, c. 450-523. After you read a little bit about her, you may wish to pray something like this:

O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that, following the example of thy servant Bridget, we may serve thee with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Responding to Mason's Post on Wesley's Conviction that "a concept of sin was central to Wesley's message, and one of the keys to his success."

I'm not sure my response is apropos to your posting, Mason, but your comments on reading about Wesley's theology reminded me of an article I read on the plane while coming back from Hawaii. In the magazine section of yesterday's New York Times, Danial Berger writes an essay, "The Call," in which he describes in detail how an evangelical missionary family is trying to share the Gospel with the Samburu, seminomadic herders of cattle and camels and goats. Culturally, the African Samburu have little or no sense of sin; as a consequence, missionary Rick says that the first lesson he has to impart, the first truth he has to instill in the people, is 'a sense of sin and separation from God'- a separation that could be reconciled only through Jesus. " That sounds like something Wesley would wish to say. But imparting a sense of sin to the Samburu is exceptionally difficult. Berger, speaking for missionary Rick, explains why:

But few around Kurungu seemed much interested in [the missionaries'] religion. The Samburu faith is monotheistic. It holds its own sacred history in which, I was told, humankind had once been linked to Ngai by a ladder made of leather. Ages ago, a Samburu man, enraged by the death of his herd, cut the ladder, and ever since the people have been disconnected from their deity. Yet when the Samburu spoke to me about Ngai, they evoked not a divinity that is abstract and removed but one that is, though invisible, close at hand, especially on the steep mountains that bound the valley, and most especially on a particular set of ridges and rocky peaks known collectively as Mount Nyiru. This, the tribe's most hallowed mountain, about 9,000 feet high, rises immediately to the west of Kurungu. It looms over the family's backyard. Ngai is up there, taking care of his people. He had granted the Samburu the knowledge of how to survive on cow's blood, Andrea and his crew said. And he was forgiving when the people did wrong. He had placed a spring at the spot where the leather ladder had been cut. The Samburu told me that their religion makes no prediction of a messiah. They didn't seem to feel the need for one.

One might wish to ask: can the Gospel of Jesus be relevant to a people who do not, for cultural and historical reasons, find it nearly impossible to sense separation from God because of sin? Must we somehow first make them "western" or "Judaic" before they can appreciate the Gospel? Or can the Gospel somehow also speak to people who have little or no sense of sin? Might it be possible to talk about separation from God apart from an understanding of sin? For example, could one make the Gospel relevant to someone or some people who feel the sadness of separation (say perhaps that of a young child from its parents, that of husband from his wife and children, that of a immigrant from his homeland) without feeling or experiencing a sense of sin? In other words, must alienation from God--and wonderful union with God--always be require a notion of sin and subsequent forgiveness as Wesley requires?

Back from Hawaii !

We're back. It was a wonderful two weeks. Nonetheless, as wintery as Kentucky looks in comparison, we're delighted to be home. To those of you--especially Mason!--who kept the anthrakian fires burning while we were gone, I want to say "Thank you." And on behalf of all of us, I'm glad to say that Mary Lou Stephens has accepted our invitation to participate. Welcome, Mary Lou! Tomorrow I be sure to post a few observations and comments that I've made in my journal while in Hawaii, and I hope you return to take a look and join once again in our conversation.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


anthrakia: Thoughts on Translating the Faith

This week I've been reading a recent book by William J. Abraham, Wesley for Armchair Theologians. As the title suggests, it's a popular book on the thought of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. At the end of Chapter 5, (p. 106) Abraham says Wesley, thoughout his career, opposed "the evangelistic strategy of accommodation" of the world.

Specifically, Abraham says:

"In these circumstances the stragegy of translating the language of the faith into the jargon of the streets is superficial. The intention is good, and there is even a grain of truth on offer. It is wise to develop contemporary analogies that will capture in a vivid way the great truths of the gospel. Charles Wesley's poetic skills were a godsend to early Methodism in this arena. However, the mistake is to think that folk are ready to roll over and accept the Christian faith if only we could find a way to make it intelligible to them. This ignores the offense of the faith. To see what is at stake in salvation requires an intellectual revolution that shakes the foundations of one's standard conception of oneself. The darkness and cognitive malfunction are so great that the active grace of God is required to wake us from our dogmatic slumbers. We should permit the claims of the faith the call into question the common intellectual assumptions of our day rather than capitulating at the first sign of opposition. Moreover, it is not always easy to explain the deep things of God even to veteran believers. Thus, to rely on strategies of translation, or on cute analogies, or on church growth techniques, in order to relieve our anxieties is disastrous for the church in the long run. We need to keep our nerve, pray for divine assistance, and launch forth boldly in the teeth of opposition and ridicule. Cutting a deal with the world at this poitns and reworking the faith to accommodate its wishes is simply wrongheaded and ineffective."

This paragraph concluded a complex discussion of Wesley's theology. (In fact, the discussion was quite over my head.) In summary, Abraham says Wesley taught that a new believer must come to understand sin in order to really understand grace. In other words, if a person doesn't recognize his-or-her sinful nature, then God's gift of grace won't mean much. So a concept of sin was central to Wesley's message, and one of the keys to his success.

I cite the paragraph here because it reminded me of a comment C.S. Lewis made somewhere--probably in Mere Christianity--that the main stumbling block to recruiting new Christians was not the reality of miracles, but the reality of sin. If you take sin seriously, then you can't act like you did before. In other words, people know that accepting Christianity means rejecting the way they act today, perhaps even giving up their current lifestyle.

They don't want to do this, so they stay away from church.

Thoughts? Comments? Are some churches opening their doors too wide?

Mason Smith

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Your Family Blog

Friday, January 13, 2006



If any other members of this blog would like to enter a new thread or write a longer message than is appropriate for a comment box, you may do so by clicking the button at the top-center of the page titled, "Blog This!"

You'll be given a sign-in page to enter your user name and password, and then a screen appears for writing your message. An orange button at the bottom of that screen titled "Publish Post," will display your message on the main screen of the blog.

It's all pretty simple. (If I can do it, anyone can do it.) I'm sure there are ways to include links and photos also, but I haven't experimented with those yet.

Our blog moderator, Andy, has invited us all to keep Anthrakia active while he is out of town for a few weeks.

Best wishes,
Mason Smith


Site May Be 3rd-Century Place of Christian Worship

While commenting on Mason's previous post and trying to include a link to Site May Be 3rd-Century Place of Christian Worship, I was unable to do so in the small comment box. I'm providing a link here to this important article by Scott Wilson in The Washington Post (November 7, 2005). When you get to the article, be sure also to look at the slideshow, "Discovery Made at Israeli Prison." Once again, Mason, thanks for the post!

Thursday, January 12, 2006


Has anyone been following the news reports in the media and in journals like Biblical Archaeology Review and Christianity Today about the discovery of the oldest Christian church in Israel?
Toward the end of the excavating season 2005 a mosiac floor was discovered inside a prison compound in Megiddo, Israel. According to Christianity Today, "the fish mosiac [on the floor] dates the building before the fourth century when Constantine popularized the cross."
To continue quoting from the Christianity Today article (Jan. 2006, p.17), "The pottery and mosiac style suggest a date earlier than A.D. 313, when Constantine announced the Roman Empire would tolderate Christianity. The building could be one of the world's oldest churches."
One of the media's articles (the CNN online article, I think) claimed the discoverey would rewrite early Christian history. If the building dates from this early date, then Christianity must have been more visible in those early years than scholars thought. Church historians had believed the persecuted believers met only in house-church settings. But if this new discovery turns out to be an actual free-standing building--and quite a large one at that with elaborate mosiacs on the floor clearly identifying it as a Christian structure--then the standard picture needs revision.
Currently the floor is being removed for safety and further study. I'm sure the site will be given more attention when the new digging season gets underway this spring.
I love reading reports like this because it helps me imaginatively revisit those early believers. What was life like for those people who had to risk their lives to worship God? Could I have found the courage to do what those people did?
Also, current biblical archaeology reports illustrate the on-going debate between "biblical minimalists" who think the Bible contains little history, and "biblical maximalists," who think the Bible can be used as an historical document. Recent discoveries have tended to support the maximalists--for example, King David's palace in Jerusalem may have been located this fall. This discovery flies in the face of claims by Israel Finkelstein (sp?), an important scholar on the minimalist team, that David was largely fictional as was Solomon and in fact the entire united monarchy.
You see, there's a lot of excitement right now in archaeological circles.
So, if the group has any interest in these matters, I'll try to post archaeology news as I run across it.
Best wishes,
Mason Smith


Going to Hawaii

June and I will be travelling to Hawaii for two weeks, from January 14-30; and shortly after that, we'll be in Georgia for a surprise party, celebrating our son Stan's fiftieth birthday. God willing, we should be back about February 8. Most likely I'll not be able to post much for the next three weeks. But you can keep things going by creating new posts yourselves. Please post on any topic you think might be interesting, worth discussing. If perchange I get on the net in the next two weeks, you can be sure that I add a comment or two.

Martin Childfont and John Bapstead Talk Things Over

Following up on our Bible class discussion last Sunday, here's a story and a conversaton you might like to read: It's the "Introduction" of Uuras Saarnivaara's Scriptural Baptism: A Dialogue between John Bapstead and Martin Childfont (New York: Vantage Press, 1953).

Martin Childfont and John Bapstead were neighbors in the city of Zion. The former was a member of a church that practice infant baptism. The latter belonged to a church that taught that baptism is the immersion or dipping of a person in water, on confession of faith in Christ, administered in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. [1]

Martin and John had originally been members of the same church, and both of them had been baptized as infants. But John had become converted to the faith of those who opposed infant baptism, whereas Martin had come to a personal faith and knowledge of Christ as his Savior in his own church. For a while he too had struggled with doubt about infant baptism; but his study of the Scriptures and literature on baptism had led him to the conviction that the baptism that he had received in his infancy was a Biblical baptism, and that he did not need to be baptized anew.

John and Martin had occasionally exchanged opinions on baptism. But one night they decided to discuss the subject more thoroughly. Although the conversation lasted several hours they were unable to reach a conclusion and agreed to continue it the next day. John starts the actual discussion.

John Bapstead: You remember, Martin, the time when we both were members of your church. You also remember how I left it and joined the congregation of which I am now a member. The reason was that the Lord led me to a new understanding of His will concerning baptism. I wanted to obey His word and to have a Scriptural baptism. It was not easy to sever the ties that bound me to the church of my childhood and youth, and to join another church. But I had to do it in order to be obedient to the Lord, and He always blesses those who do. Since that time I have hoped and prayed that God would also reveal to you His will concerning baptism. As you know, we reject infant baptism because it is without warrant, either express or implied, in the Scripture. First, there is no express command that infants should be baptized. Second, there is no clear example of the baptism of infants. Third, the passages held to imply infant baptism contain, when fairly interpreted, no reference to such a practice. [2]

Martin Childfont: It's nice that you have such an affectionate concern for me. Before we start our discussion on baptism we should agree on the principles of the interpretation of the Scriptures. You stated that there are passages in Scripture which are held to imply infant baptism, but that those passages contain no reference to such practice when fairly interpreted. We should have a common understanding of the "fair interpretation" of God's word. Will you accept as a basic principle of fair interpretation the old statement: If the plain and obvious literal sense make good sense, seek no other sense?

John: I will. I believe that all sound interpretation of Scripture should follow that principle.

Martin: Will you also accept the principle that the Bible must be used as its own interpreter, so that passages which are not clear in themselves must be interpreted with the help of other Scriptural passages which speak of the same thing?

John: I think that that principle is also sound as a fair interpretation of the Bible.

Martin: Fine. We are getting off to a good start in our conversation. When we study the Scriptures, it may happen that there appears to be a discrepancy between its statements and the teachings of the church, or the denomination to which we belong. There are people who in practice, though perhaps not in express statements, think: "Scripture is right since it is God's word, and we are right because our doctrine is true. If, therefore, a Scriptural statement seems to be in conflict with our doctrine, it must be interpreted in harmony with the latter." Do you in any way agree with that principle?

John: No, certainly not. And who are those who follow such an impossible principle?

Martin: The majority of churches and denominations seem to be. A large amount of theological work is done according to the principle although it may not be expressed, or even admitted. But I think that we should be on our guard primarily in our own case, lest we follow that deceptive principle. Let us take care that we remove the beam first from our own eye, and then see how we can take the mote from our brother's. We all have a strong tendency to follow that erroneous principle without being aware of it -- but we have a rather sharp eye that sees when our brother follows it.

John: I admit that you're right with regard to that danger. The Bible should be the supreme and only source and norm of our faith and life, not only in principle but also in practice.

Martin: We agree, then, on this point. Scripture should be understood and interpreted according to its obvious literal sense, whenever it makes good sense, and it should be used as its own interpreter. Our confession of faith and doctrine must be corrected according to the word of God and not the Bible according to the doctrine of our church. There is, however, one more question that requires an answer, namely, the question of the use of reason in the interpretation of the Scriptures. Your remark about a "fair interpretation" seems to imply this problem. I think we agree on the principle that human reason and its conclusions should never be placed above the statements of Scripture. If there appears to be conflict between the Bible and our reason, or the apparent results of human science, psychology, and such, in questions pertaining to the Christian faith, which should follow the Bible, not human reason, psychology or science. Do you agree with me on that point?

John: I do. If we were to follow our reason, human science, psychology, and such, we would be rationalists and not Christians.

Martin: Well, it's fine that we find ourselves in concord on this question. I think that human reason has its legitimate and necessary place in the interpretation of Scripture and theology, for it is the means by which we humans perceive and think. When God speaks to us in His word He uses human language, and thus He follows logic and grammar, for otherwise we could not understand what He means. The Holy Spirit is logical and grammatical in speaking to us through the men who have written in the Scriptures. The Bible and Christian faith are logical and in that sense reasonable. All fair interpretation of Scripture should therefore be grammatical and logical. Anyone who errs in grammar cannot but err also in this doctrine. All interpretation of the Bible which is in conflict with the simple rules of grammar and logic must be wrong. Do you accept this principle?

John: Of course, I do. How could we ever know what the Scriptural text means if we did not take it in its simple grammatical sense, when that sense makes good sense?

Martin: Would you accept as good sense a grammatical sense that runs against natural human reason and psychology?

John: I would, for the natural reason of man cannot understand the things of God. Our reason must be enlightened by the Holy Spirit in order to understand the truth and will of God.

Martin: Would you substitute in any question a so-called enlightened reason, sometimes known as Christian consciousness, Christian experience, or Christian conviction for the word of God in its simple grammatical sense?

John: No, I would not. Being Bible-believing Christians we should follow the word of God. Our reason, Christian consciousness, experience, and conviction must be brought into harmony with the Scriptures, and not vice versa.

Martin: One more question. There are many things on which the Bible says nothing but which still belong to Christianity, or at least are necessary things in the life of the Church. For instance, the New Testament never speaks of women having participated in holy communion; neither does it speak of Sunday schools, church edifices, of the use of automobiles for going to church. Do you think that the Church has a right to have these things, and also to regard them as being in harmony with the will of God, although they are not mentioned in the Bible?

John: Of course, I do. In whatever thing the Bible gives no commandment or instruction, we are free, if only it is in harmony with the spirit of the word of God.

Martin: Do you think that a thing is in harmony with the spirit of God's word if it can be logically deduced from its plain statements, although it is not expressly stated?

John: I do. For instance, although women are never mentioned as having participated in holy communion we made deduce it from the fact that it is never forbidden, and that, according to the teachings of the New Testament, there is neither man nor woman, but all are one in Christ.

Martin: Fine. let us remember these principles in our discussion on baptism.

John: One more remark. Some pedobaptists admit that there is neither clear precept nor example in the New Testament to commend the practice infant baptism. They hold, nevertheless, that the general spirit of the Gospel favors it. Fundamental truths are taught there and from them the practice may be inferred. [3] I think that by basing our doctrine and practice on what we regard as the general spirit or scope of Scripture, we're able to prove anything and regard any doctrine as Scriptural. I believe that every doctrine must be based on the plain and clear statements of Scripture. We know the "spirit" of Scripture only from its plain statements.

Martin: I am in complete agreement with you on that point, too. All the falsifiers of Christianity have used that trick: the men who have originated or develop it have replaced the plain teachings of the word of God in its simple grammatical sense with what they have thought to be its "Spirit" or "general scope."
Since we agree on the principles of the interpretation of Scripture, and on the Bible as the source and norm of the Christian truth, but us turn to the discussion of the problem of infant baptism.

Continue reading here!

[1] Edward T. Hiscox, The New Directory for Baptist Churches (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1894), p. 123.
[2] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (5th ed., revised and enlarged; New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1896), p. 535.
[3] Hiscox, op. cit., p. 486.

Monday, January 09, 2006

January Calendar

Among various Christian churches, the following Sunday festivals, special days, and remembrances are being during this January:

January 8: The Baptism of Jesus
January 9: Adrian of Canterbury, teacher, c. 710
January 13: George Fox, renewer of society, 1691
January 14: Eivind Josef Berggrav, Bishop of Oslo, 1959, Norwegian bishop; author; resistance leader against Adolf Hitler.
Martin Luther King Jr., renewer of society, martyr, 1968
January 17: Antony of Egypt, renewer of the church, c. 356
January 18: The Confession of St. Peter
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Begins
January 19: Henry, Bishop of Uppsala, missionary to Finland, martyr, 1156
January 25: The Conversion of St. Paul
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity ends
January 26: Timothy, Titus, and Silas
January 27: Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Pastor Strange's Sermon on Baptism

This morning, after hearing Matthew's account of Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist, Pastor Strange preached a wonderful sermon, "Remember Your Baptism," in which he carefully shared what baptism means for us Christians. I especially appreciated the clear and emphatic emphasis on the graceful activity of God within the baptizing community, the baptismal welcome we extend to the newly baptized, and the inclusive manner in which the modes of baptism were explained and visually presented. We were blessed to see the various ways many accepted and publicly affirmed the invitation to remember their baptisms. After the 8:30 hour or worship, our Bible class spent the whole of its time in an extended discussion about what Pastor said. We shared our baptismal experiences and the implications of our baptisms for daily living as Christians. If you had the opportunity to hear the sermon, perhaps you like to share your thoughts about it.

C. S. Lewis on "the devotional life"

For the past two weeks June and I have been visiting our children and grandkids in Tennessee and Georgia, and we plan to do some more traveling during the last two weeks in January (yes, rumor has it that we're going to Hawaii). As a consequence, I've not been able to keep up the more or less daily postings because I've had little or no Internet access. Now that I'm back home and have opportunities for the remainder of this week, I hope to make one or two postings daily so that we have lots to think about, lots to share. While in Georgia, I read three or four books on C. S. Lewis and entered quite a few observations in my "spiritual chapbook." Here's a quotationI coopied on January 2; it's from the Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. W. H. Lewis (New York: Harbrace, 1966); the quotation comes from a letter written to Mrs. Ursula Roberts, dated 31 July 1954:

I am certainly unfit to advise anyone else on the devotional life. My own rules are (1). to make sure that, wherever else they may be placed, the main prayers should not be put 'last thing at night.' (2). To avoid introspection in prayers--I mean not to watch one's own mind to see if it is the right frame, but always to turn the attention to God. (3). Never, never try to generate an emotion by will power (4). To pray without words when I am able, but to fall back on words when tired or otherwise below par. With remembered thanks. Perhaps you will sometimes pray for me?

I find Lewis's suggestions worth serious consideration. First, I think he's right about the best time to make one's "main prayers." I wonder what Lewis meant by "main prayers." Perhaps as an Anglican he was using what's available in The Book of Common Prayer. I suspect so. For me, very early in the morning or late afternoon for "main prayers"--traditional Matins or Vespers--works best. Second, Lewis's advice to "avoid introspection" is a good one. Years ago when I was in training at a Buddhist monastary, I learn how watch my thoughts come and go. In some ways that was a helpful discipline, but it surely encouraged me to be introspective viewer during exceptionally impersonal investigations of the "self." That, of course, is not what prayer guided by the Holy Spirit is about. "Always turn[ing] the attention to God," as Lewis sees it, is the better way, the way of the Psalms, the desert abbas and ammas, the way of Scriptural prayer. Third, we are not to "generate an emotion by will power." I've never tried or been able to do that, so I'm not quite sure what Lewis is talking about. And four--and this is an imporant insight into Lewis's prayer life, we are encouraged to pray "without words" whenever possible. Now that's a bit of a shocker because I didn't realize that Lewis was so profoundly attuned to the possibilities of apophatic prayer, prayer, for example, as decribed in fourteenth-century classic, The Cloud of Unknowing. But then again, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. Lewis was a medievalist and he would have known. It appears as though he practiced--and preferred--the ancient tradition of wordless prayer, something much like Centering Prayer as encouraged by Basil Pennington and Tom Keating among others. If so, that makes me feel very close to Lewis.

Wanting to know more about Lewis's interior life, and I've placed Lyle Corsett's Seeking the Secret PlaceThe Spiritual Formation of C. S. Lewis on my amazon.com wishlist. Maybe some of you have read the book? At any rate, let us know what you think about Lewis's suggestions to Mrs. Roberts about one's devotional life. Do you think more might be said? Something qualified?
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