Tag Archives: Christ

Incarnation and compassion

passion medieval imageAnother “mini-post” that wraps up my series from the draft of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis:


A renewed incarnational awareness will also give us a renewed and particular energy toward compassionate ministry, as it did for 12th-13th c. Christians in the “charitable revolution” of those centuries – and indeed in the whole long Christian growth and development of the hospital. But more broadly in all forms of compassionate ministry. Medieval Christians’ acute awareness of the Incarnation was no theologically fuzzy, inward-turned “mysticism.” Especially as they began to enter emotionally into the events of the Passion, that horrific demonstration of God sharing in our embodied suffering, the compassion for Jesus that this stirred in them became “enabled them to perceive Jesus in other humans and to act compassionately for their benefit.” The resulting works of mercy helped build a strong, humane center holding together medieval society. Surely we need something like this again.

We have seen how attention to the humanity of Christ and his presence in others’ humanity encouraged hospitality and pastoral and even medical care, in Benedict’s and the Benedictines’ emphasis on “Christ in the guest,” in the particularity of the seven corporal (and spiritual) acts of mercy, in the specificity and concreteness of Aquinas’s ethical thought, and of course in the history of the innovative Christian institution we now call the hospital.

The Enemy of our souls will do anything he can to raise our eyes from the physical needs of others in a false super-spirituality, keeping us from achieving that incarnational awareness that would pour out from our hearts in compassionate ministry. As Screwtape tells the junior demon,

“On the seemingly pious ground that ‘praise and communion with God is the true prayer’, humans can often be lured into direct disobedience to the Enemy who (in His usual flat, commonplace, uninteresting way) has definitely told them to pray for their daily bread and the recovery of their sick. You will, of course, conceal from him the fact that the prayer for daily bread, interpreted in a ‘spiritual sense’, is really just as crudely petitionary as it is in any other sense.”[1]

[1] Screwtape Letters, letter 27, in Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 263-4.

What even Protestants can learn from transubstantiation and medieval atonement theory – you may be surprised!

In my previous post, I showed how the essence of heresy is to resolve a biblical paradox in one direction or the other in order to satisfy the human need for a consistent rational explanation of things; and how the early church, on the contrary, used reason not to resolve or dismiss paradox and mystery, but rather to protect it. Examples included the writings of Irenaeus, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa against heresy (protecting the essentially paradoxical nature of the whole Gospel message), and the “four fences” of the Chalcedonian Definition (protecting the paradox that Jesus was both fully God and fully human).

Now we move to the medieval period for two more examples of this use of reason to protect, rather than resolve or dismiss, the paradox and mystery at the heart of Christian theology – that is, the Incarnation.

The first example is the doctrine of transubstantiation, promulgated at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. This explanation of how the Eucharist “works” extends the Chalcedonian explanation that one person (Christ) can indeed be both 100% God and 100% human, to a nuanced piece of (Aristotelian) scientific reasoning on how the same sort of “this and also that” reality can be true of the Eucharistic elements. In other words, transubstantiation tried to explain, in terms accessible to scientific reason, how Jesus’ words “This is my body, this is my blood” can possibly be true.

The second example comes from the teachings of Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard, both of whom we’ve already met, and looks at their reasoned explanations of the bloody scandal that was the Crucifixion. Why on earth would God have to redeem his human creatures in such a bizarre and painful way? If you’re a thoughtful Christian or a thoughtful non-Christian considering the claims of the Christian faith, then you’ve likely wondered this yourself. Again, Anselm and Abelard used forms of reasoned explanation that made good sense in their cultural contexts to explain this paradox: God died.

In other words, the divine Being who “has His own being in Himself” ceased, as all creatures do, to be! Anselm and Abelard, both brilliant dialecticians, both refused to use reason (in the mode of the early heretics) to flatten this paradox in one direction (Jesus was not really human and thus God did not really die–the docetist heresy) or the other (Jesus was not really God, and thus God did not really die–the Arian heresy). Instead, each used cultural materials to protect that central mystery while offering reasonable explanations for why the God the Second Person of the Trinity found it necessary to die on the cross–the ultimate Being submitting, however temporarily, to death, just like a sinful human.

Here’s how I work all of this out in the “theology chapter” of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis: Continue reading

Reason: one use of it builds faith–the other creates heresy; the early and medieval church knew the difference


Having looked, in the “theology chapter” of the forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, first at our evangelical problem with Truth, then at the medieval scholastics’ way of understanding and teaching Truth, we now come to the central storyline of medieval theology: its unique attempt to hold faith and reason together.

I start my discussion of this heroic attempt with a brief account of where the early church thought heresy came from (surprisingly: an over-active use of reason) and how early theologians and councils acted to preserve the integrity of the apostolic faith.

The next post will show what medieval thinkers did with this early precedent when it came time to re-explain the mysteries of the faith for new socio-cultural realities.

When I say that medieval thinkers held reason and faith in a delicate balance, I am thinking of their ability to use reasoned understanding and argument not to erase mystery, but to carefully couch and protect it. This was a premodern trait. The modern tendency – let us say, post-Enlightenment – has been to put our trust in what Stanley Grenz called the “omnicompetence” of reason–its supposed ability to fix all humans problems and solve all conundrums. The postmodern tendency, on the other hand, is to point to the man behind the curtain, or the emperor who has no clothes–to assume that anybody who claims to have figured things out via reason is actually making a power grab, disguising baser motives.

I would argue that the postmoderns are now where the nominalists were at the end of the medieval period. They have looked cynically behind the claims that we may know truth, at least partially, via reason, and they have lost faith in our ability to see any truth beside the one each of us makes for ourselves. Conservatives today may even be tempted to identify postmoderns as those who, in the Dantean phrase, have “lost the good of the intellect”—they can no longer access moral truth. But that’s too easy: the fundamental insight of postmodernism is hard to argue with: people do in fact often claim to be following the direct dictates of reason when in fact their motives have little to do with reasoned understanding. (Nor is this even intentional much of the time!)[1]

But when we go back to a brilliant premodern Christian thinker such as the proto-scholastic Augustine of Hippo, we find a different process: Instead of claiming that “reason solves all,” he frequently looks up from an argument he’s just presented (say, on the nature of the Trinity), and he says:  “I didn’t say you had to like it.” Continue reading

Why do we have Christmas trees?

A Christmas tree in the United States.

Just why do we put these odd things in our houses?

When I have questions about church history, I often turn to one or the other of our family’s dear friends (and our older kids’ godparents) Jennifer and Edwin Woodruff Tait. So naturally, when my wife came back today from shopping for a Christmas tree (empty-handed! The trees at the only lot she could find were dried out and $75!), and I began musing over this odd tradition, I turned to an article by the Woodruff Taits that reminded me how odd, indeed, is the history of the Christmas tree:

The evergreen tree was an ancient symbol of life in the midst of winter. Romans decorated their houses with evergreen branches during the New Year, and ancient inhabitants of northern Europe cut evergreen trees and planted them in boxes inside their houses in wintertime. Many early Christians were hostile to such practices. The second-century theologian Tertullian condemned those Christians who celebrated the winter festivals, or decorated their houses with laurel boughs in honor of the emperor:

“Let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.” Continue reading

A Christ-and-culture case study: Why did the early Christians use the Greek word “Logos” for Christ?

Justin The Philosopher

Justin Martyr in his philosophers' robes

Roger Olson‘s The Story of Christian Theology is a big, rambling narrative compendium of juicy information about the development of Christian theology through history. Unlike almost any other book I can think of on historical theology, this one is accessible to a lay, non-specialist audience. Though it needed a good edit (it could have been trimmed to about half its size), it is still a compelling read.

One of the places where Olson shines is in describing the original and development of key theological concepts in the early church. And of these, one of the most fascinating is the use of the term Logos by the mid-second-century apologist Justin Martyr. Here we find a pagan philosopher converted to Christianity who still (of course!) uses the equipment of the Greek thought-world, in particular the term Logos–also used in the Hebrew tradition, to describe Christ to other pagans.

Here is my reworking of Olson’s account. As this is from lecture notes, I have not always used quotation marks when I am quoting Olson verbatim. Best assumption: much of this is in his own words. As always when I present notes from a book, my abbreviations are in play: X for Christ, xn for Christian, xnty for Christianity, etc.:

Without doubt Justin Martyr deserves his reputation as “the most important 2nd-c. apologist” because of his creative ideas about Christ as cosmic Logos and about Christianity as true philosophy. Continue reading