The light burden

This past Sunday I took a couple of my sons to St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral in Wichita. If you’re not familiar with the Orthodox services, a good portion of them are conducted while the congregation stands. After a particularly long stretch of standing, Caleb leans in to me and whispers, “Dad, do we stand so that our legs will hurt and it will remind us of our sin?”

If you want to know what theological worldview you are imparting — and allowing to be imparted — to your children, listen to their questions. I suppose that’s the reason I’m working through so many theological texts when I haven’t the time, because after ten years of being a Christian, and a lifetime of Christianesque teaching before that, I’m beginning to suspect that much of what I thought I knew about God is terribly, monstrously wrong. There’s a Church history between Acts and Augustine, and it’s yet another sign of my pitiable education that I’m only now learning that fact.

It was easier when I smugly believed that John Calvin and his cohorts had sorted it all out. Now I find that the best antidote to Calvin is reading Calvin, which between the illogic and arrogance makes him pale in comparison to the reverence with which I learned to speak of him when I hadn’t actually read his treatises.

I haven’t the time for all this reading and praying, but I can’t set it aside until later. Later is now, because of questions like Caleb’s. I put my arm around him, and shake my head in reply to his question. “We stand because we are in the presence of God and the angels,” I tell him. “We stand because we love God, and that’s because he first loved us.”

Caleb smiles, and nods, and perhaps it’s just an illusion brought about by the strange interplay of lights in this spacious cathedral, but I think I detect a weight coming off his shoulders. Or maybe it’s just the peace that I feel, knowing that even as I’ve let down my children all too often, at least here, today, I found the right answer to a question.

Comments

  1. Bill

    wow…i was raised with 3 younger brothers in the Episcopal church (my dad was Catholic, my mom Methodist so it was a compromise) but we went less and less as we got older and hockey practices and other sporting events got in the way. I married my wife, a non-practicing Catholic, and have since gone thru RCIA and joined the Catholic church. I have been “re-confirmed?” “had first eucharist (again)? and my first reconciliation aka confession. We are raising our 4 children – 3 daughters and a son (9,6,4,1) in the Catholic church and I’m wondering if you have any reading recommendations for someone who feels as you do, but is probably years, if not decades, behind in my church knowledge.

  2. RockThrowingPeasant

    Now I find that the best antidote to Calvin is reading Calvin

    Along those same lines as above, what Calvin pieces did you find instructive?

  3. Tony

    Bill,
    I found an instructive place to begin was volume 4 of Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition, which deals with the Reformation (his entire series is amazingly well researched; he was a true scholar of church history, from the earliest roots).

    Peasant,
    If you’re looking for an illustration of Calvin’s illogic and arrogance, you might begin with his remonstrations on paedobaptism and paedocommunion (
    Institutes, book 4, ch. 16). Not only does he give an overly expansive reading of I Cor. 28, which is what many Reformers hang their hats on by way of forbidding the table to children, he makes a critical factual error about the practice of Passover (that it was similarly restricted), leaves out half the practicing Christian Church when he claims that it is “justly” abandoning the practice of paedocommunion (without troubling himself to ask why the early Church did so), and then attributes to his opposition that they haven’t “the least particle of soundness in their brains,” and that they are “blind.”

    I’ve found that when educated, experienced people disagree with me such that I cannot understand “how they can be so blind,” that’s a sign that it’s me who is blind, since I am unable to understand why they in fact believe what they do. In other words, if we can’t accurately articulate why our opposition has a particular belief, we are probably not well-positioned to criticize it.

    Calvin might have benefitted from a corresponding dose of that humility. Unfortunately, that same arrogance carries over to many of Calvin’s intellectual inheritors (myself, at one time, included) who are fond of remarking that all this predestination stuff is obvious, and that Catholics and Orthodox do what they do because they don’t understand the Word of God. We are, like Calvin, incapable of articulating why Catholics and Orthodox practice faith as they do, other than in slanderous form. That’s not proof, of course, that they are right, but it is proof that the issues are more complex than many of us allow, and further, that we need to step outside the Reformed literature if we are to really understand Church history and practice.

  4. Marc V

    I liked the answer to your son, except for the angel angle, but that’s personal preference. Could standing during the service be considered an act of worship as well? A worship “pose” typically involves bowing, kneeling, laid-out-on-your-belly with face on the floor like David, or some type of submissive stance. I have been to churches where it the church is expected to stand at the reading of Holy Scripture. This can make some sermons a little tricky if verses from the Bible are interspersed throughout the sermon.

    Can I skip reading the books on Calvin and just see the movie? ;]

  5. Matthew Snyder

    Great words, Tony. I’m actually from Wichita! I just moved to Michigan last week to work for the missions program I just completed this last year. What do you do in Wichita?

  6. Deb Johnson

    I’m a little foggy as to why the harsh words on John Calvin, or for that matter Greg Bahnsen from a post in December? I grew up Baptist and when heard some of Calvin’s ideas, went searching the scriptures. I was surprised to find God’s sovereignty singing gloriously over my long held questions regarding the problem of suffering of a much loved brother. I placed my brother’s suffering and death squarely on God’s shoulders where they belonged. There I found His Son, risen from the dead, having suffered from the worst crime in history, paying for the sins of His people though He, Himself was blameless.

  7. Tony

    Matt,

    What I do is a difficult question to answer without referencing several highly classified documents. Let’s just say that I sell encyclopedias.

  8. Tony

    Deb,

    In that second rambling blabfest of mine about sola scriptura, I took issue with Bahnsen for using circular logic to justify it. He assumes a version of sola scriptura in order to prove it.

    The truth of God’s sovereignty is not, of course, original to Calvin. What Calvin is notable for is his doctrine of double predestination, that God not only foreordains who shall be saved (a slender slice of humanity) but who shall be tortured forever in hell. In his Institutes Calvin claims that God intended from the beginning that Adam should fall, just as he intends to roast most of humanity for eternity, that he might be glorified. This is at odds with about a thousand years of Christian teaching, however. It is a horrific, slanderous view of a loving God.

    But your larger, implied point is well taken. Even the worst of heretics can be nice to their mothers and puppies, so I should be careful not to let my distaste for his doctrines become a general contempt for the man.

  9. Adam DeVille

    If you wanted a quick answer to why one stands in church, it would be to say that one does so because one is in the presence of royalty. (My Glaswegian grandmother met King George VI during the war when he came to see them after they were bombed, and the protocol person who came in just before the king said that everyone in the room absolutely had to stand the whole time the king was there unless he invited them to sit down, and that, moreover, they should under no circumstances turn their back on him.) If you wanted a more canonical answer to why one stands, and does not kneel, on a Sunday (at least in an Orthodox Church), you would need to know that the very first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 forbade the practice of kneeling on Sundays as being irreconcilable with the joy of the resurrection.

  10. Rachel Coleman

    Tony, those were the right words at the right time and place.

    I drove four hours from Liberal to visit St. George’s with my children. We went on a weekday and were allowed into the sanctuary, where I didn’t have to tell anyone to look because we were silenced by the beauty of holiness. (I never really understand that line in the Psalms before this visit.)

    When I looked around moments later, I saw my youngest — 7 at the time, I think — had knelt in front of the image of Jesus. When I went to her, I saw tears on her face. I didn’t talk to her right away because her eyes were closed, but I wondered and worried a little.

    As we left, she put her hand in mine and smiled reassuringly.

    “I just had to pray,” she said. “It was so beautiful there.”

    It made me want to fill my house with icons.

  11. Jonny

    What Adam said. Kneeling and, in particular, prostration, constitutes a gesture of penitence/repentence in the East. Thus arises the inconsistency between kneeling and the joy of the Resurrection on each Sunday.

  12. Jonny

    Deb,
    “I placed my brother’s suffering and death squarely on God’s shoulders where they belonged.”
    That’s very sad (and I mean that truly and not in some sarcastic or rhetorical sense). Instead of making God the cause of such evil, as does Calvin, why not place the blame for those things, instead, squarely on the shoulders of sin and Satan’s opening the door to sin in the Garden of Eden where blame for those things really belongs?
    — Jonny

  13. Deb Johnson

    Jonny,

    I place my trust in God, His plans and His purposes. God is good. God is sovereign. God has a sufficient reason for the evil He allows to exist. I will let the mystery of why He allows suffering rest with Him. I will not say it is easy, nor that questions do not arise at times, but ultimately, I trust Him, because He is our Creator, Lord and Redeemer.

    I am curious what you think of the book of Job in the Bible.

  14. Sweaterman

    Tony, this is probably strange coming from someone who hardly knows you, but for some reason I just knew a post saying you’d gone to an Orthodox church was coming. May God bless you richly on this journey.

    Now, something less strange than geeky: Beyond the Pelikan volume, what other standouts come to mind on the subject of church history? I am profoundly ignorant about this and would like to read more widely. Thanks in advance.

  15. Jonny

    Deb,

    The way you phrased your second post in terms of God’s “allowance” of evil and suffering is consistent with the God Who Is Love, as described in Scripture. However, your first post seemed, in a properly Calvinist way, mind you, to attribute the cause of evil and suffering to God Himself. Further, your statement that Christ paid for the sins of His people by suffering, despite his blamelessness, seemed to imply, again in a properly Calvinist way, that God had passed a sentence of condemnation for sin against mankind that could only be paid by suffering. I apologize for taking your first post in this way, if, as your second post seems to imply, I should not have.

    As for Job, Mary, and so many others who have suffered, I do think we simply have to admit that suffering is a mystery. If we suffer, perhaps we can recognize at least that pain and affliction bring us to God and cause us to cease our occupation with self-confidence and self-trust. Pain keeps us from arrogance. As Georgia Kounavi states in her incomparable little book “The Pain,”, that “the pain of the righteous, the pain of death of little children, and in general, the untimely death is explained only under the criterion of eternity. That mainly, life near God has value.” Somehow, our pain is connected with the redemptive suffering of Christ in a deep way, as Paul says. How? I don’t know– I haven’t suffered enough. If we suffer, perhaps at least God will grant us the grace to utter, as did St. John Chrysostom at the end of his tortured life, “Glory to God in all things!”

    — Jonny

  16. Jonny

    Rachel,

    Two things:

    (1) If you don’t want to make the long trek to Wichita, be aware that there is a small Orthodox mission in Garden City with some really great folks there.
    (2) Please feel welcome to come to the Cathedral any time. If the beauty of the surroundings moved you, the beauty of the services will move you even more.

    — Jonny

  17. Tony

    Sweaterman,

    Timothy Ware has a book called The Orthodox Church which is nice though of course from an Orthodox perspective (which many would say is the early Church. The Pelikan series is amazingly thorough and even-handed, though it’s more the history of theology than events. I’ll bet Jonny could come up with some book recommendations…

  18. Adam DeVille

    The Ware text is the standard introduction I use in my introductory course on Eastern Christianity–it’s lucid, accessible, relatively short, and quite affordable. There are many other introductions out there, but in my judgment the only other reliable, serious one is the new publication of Columbia’s John McGuckin, *The Orthodox Church* from Blackwell (2008). It’s first-class scholarship, as one would expect from McGuckin, but the only downsides are that this book is longer than Ware’s and a lot more expensive.

  19. Jonny

    Sweaterman,

    You can’t beat Pelikan for thoroughness on doctrinal history, but Henry Chadwick’s classic work in Penguin paperback form “The Early Church” is a pretty standard, approachable, and inexpensive intro to the history of the early Church, itself.

    — Jonny

  20. Jonny

    BTW, be a little wary of the Ware book, if you do pick it up. Over its many revisions, it has been revised in several areas of its theological discussions to reflect a liberalizing trend which is not reflective of the state of truly Orthodox theology (although it may be reflective of the views of many people who call themselves Orthodox).

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