Icons: The Participatory Full Affirmation of the Incarnation

26 03 2015

Last night, at the recommendation of Fr. Raphael, I watched the second episode of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s 2007 documentary Art of Eternity, ‘The Glory of Byzantium’. In this episode, he visits some of the great sites of Byzantine art from c. 500 with St. David’s in Thessaloniki to 1315 with the Chora monastery in Constantinople.* In between, Graham-Dixon brought us to Ravenna — San Apollinare Nuovo and San Vitale — as well as Hosios Loukas Monastery in southern Greece and the 13th-c mosaics in Hagia Sophia. Before we go any further, the apsidal mosaic from St David’s, Thessaloniki:

Along the way, he interviewed an iconographer and a priest. The iconographer explained to Graham-Dixon the idea that a Byzantine icon has ‘rhythm'; this use of the word didn’t make a lot of sense to an Anglophone, so he had the iconographer explain. Basically, Byzantine icons are drawn in such a way that the perspective is not at all like looking through a window (which would be the goal of Renaissance art). Instead, the idea is that the image is coming at you out of the wood on which it is painted.

Apsidal mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna

This rhythm of the image, this movement towards you, explained the iconographer, brings you into the world of the image. It is no longer a strictly two-dimensional object, no longer merely geometric. You are participating in the image yourself. This, he said, is central to the Orthodox theology that lies behind Byzantine icons. In Orthodox theology, you know something by participating in it. We know God, to use the greatest example, by participating in God (an idea not without biblical precedent, if you get your ideas of ‘participation’ correct). Thus, when you behold an icon, you are participating in the image itself.

Later, Graham-Dixon interviewed an Orthodox priest. The priest explained many things about icons and their importance. He, too, brought out the significance of participation. When the Orthodox venerate an icon, they are not actually venerating the tesserae of the mosaic or the paint and plaster on wood, but the person of whom the image is made. This is an important distinction lost on many Protestants and, I fear, some Orthodox as well.

What this priest left out, or had cut from the interview, is the main reason icons are important. Icons are the full affirmation of the reality of the incarnation of God the Word. God became flesh and pitched his tent among us. He had two eyes, two ears, a mouth, and a nose. He walked on two (dirty) feet around the Judaean and Galilaean countryside. He touched real lepers with real hands. He preached with a literal voice from an actual larynx. He shed real tears at the death of Lazarus. He died a real death for us on the Cross. He rose again in just as real (if not more real) a body as before.

With the Incarnation, we behold God. Face-to-face. For 33 years He was literally present to the human race in an actual human form. This means that the prohibition on images doesn’t apply to Jesus. We may not know exactly what he looked like, but we do know this — he looked like a man. Because he was a man. Fully human, yet fully divine. As in this mosaic over the doorway into the church in Hosios Loukas Monastery:

By allowing images of Christ, we produce a tangible way of celebrating a full affirmation of the incarnation of the Creator God Who irrupted into human history and changed things forever.

When you take this theology of the incarnation that lies behind the theology of the icon, and then reflect on the idea of participation in Orthodox theology, you come across something beautiful. It is not truly the icon itself, the physical object, that is worthy of veneration, but the One Whom it represents. And when we behold an icon of Christ face-to-face, we are invited to participate in that image, to participate in the action of the image, to participate in the life of the Person Who looks upon us.

Graham-Dixon’s documentary is not available on DVD for normal people, unfortunately — I got it from the Edinburgh College of Art library, recorded from TV onto a DVD. I think it may be illicitly available on YouTube, though…

*If you have a date in Constantinople, she’ll be waiting for you in Istanbul.

“The joy of inquiry into God is a sufficient end in itself”

18 03 2015

Repost from elsewhere in 2008.

I just read a good piece by Thomas C. Oden (The Rebirth of Orthodoxy) that tells a bit about his journey from modernist neo-orthodox liberalism to postmodern paleo-orthodoxy entitled “Then and Now: The Recovery of Patristic Wisdoms“. He brings up some of the issues he mentioned in his book, noting that we will be forever spiritual children in the shallow end (my words, not his) if we do not rediscover the ancient Christian masters of spirituality and biblical exegesis.

He mentions how many of his friends from “then”, when he was a social activist who listened to the world around him to give him the agenda, ask him why he is not “on the street” engaging in social action. He says that his work of reading and writing is itself social action; by this work, he can change his mind to be more like God’s and the minds of others. In other words, our world will change if our worldview does. He writes:

No current moral issue is more deep-going than the acid destructiveness of modernity. No political project is more urgent for society than the recovery of classic Christian consciousness through the direct address of texts of Scripture and tradition. There is nothing better I can do for the moral dilemmas of our time than offer undiluted the ancient wisdom of the community of celebration.

I recommend this article if you’re curious about paleo-orthodoxy and one man’s journey into it and the hope that it offers us in these postmodern days.

Pope Question: Why study Leo the Great?

16 03 2015

pope clipartThis question, phrased in various ways, is a totally legitimate Pope Question that people ask, one that also falls definitively into the category of ‘Thesis Questions’. Why study Leo the Great? What makes Pope Leo I interesting?

First, I wanted to deal with the manuscripts and textual criticism of a fifth-century Latin text. So, apart from any intrinsic interest Leo holds, this was an overriding consideration when I decided to choose a topic — choose something that needs doing. And Leo I’s letters need doing, as one of my undergraduate proferssors pointed out to me.

Second, I’m also interested in the Council of Chalcedon of 451. I’ve translated its Definitio Fidei, after all. This event is a highly significant moment in the history of Christianity. To investigate Chalcedon is to end up looking not only into the history of Christology but also into the relationship between the imperial  and ecclesiastical powers, the formation of the Oriental Orthodox churches, the relationship between Eastern and Western Christianity, the development of papal power/authority, the development of canon law. Since Leo helped orchestrate the whole thing, he once again fits the bill.

From the pragmatic angle of choosing something interesting that needs doing, these are really the reasons I chose Pope Leo I’s letters as the area of my dissertation’s investigation. From today’s vantage point, after three and a half years of research into Leo and the tradition of his manuscripts, I can give a much bigger, fuller, and broader answer as to why someone should study Leo the Great.

First of all, there is still inevitably his Christology, tied up the with Chalcedon issue above. There have been some recent monographs on Leo’s Christology, and they are good; they show the integrated nature of his thinking and some of his relationship with the prior Latin tradition as well as with the Greek tradition represented by St Cyril of Alexandria. There is, however, always more to be done, new angles to be approached, new techniques to be employed. His Christology is of far-reaching importance in Latin Christianity — Leonine hardliners actually went into schism with Rome over what they perceived as an abrogation of Chalcedon in the sixth-century Three Chapters Controversy, for example.

What makes Pope Leo ‘the Great’? Precisely his Christological teaching, primarily in The Tome, but also in the ‘Second’ Tome and a variety of sermons, not to mention scattered throughout his letters, both pastoral and dogmatic. Whatever the faults in his thinking that many modern scholars have plucked at, he is a massively influential figure in western theology, probably not only because he was a pope whose teaching was enshrined at what was perceived as an ecumenical council but also because he wrote so much less than guys like Augustine and Ambrose.

Remember, Christology ties itself into the centre of all Christian theology — how you formulate the nature(s), person, and work of Christ touches upon the Trinity and salvation, and, as Leo’s sermons show, Christian ethics. Leo is worth studying for this aspect alone.

Second, Pope Reasons. Leo is worth studying not just for his Christology but how he went about promoting it as well as his views on a variety of canonical matters. Leo is one of the first bishops of Rome to articulate a theory of the papacy, the heart of which is the Petrine primacy. And not only does he articulate it, he acts on it. Not always in a heavy-handed way, and probably because he thought he was right (that is, not out of personal gain) — thus his engineering of Chalcedon, but also his wide variety of letters to western bishops on matters of canon law.

Third, he is an important source for early western canon law. Leo the Great provides us with more letters than any other Bishop of Rome before Gregory the Great (590-604), and of these, more decretals. A decretal is, in later mediaeval and modern canonistic discourse, a papal letter with a universal binding force in canon law. I doubt Leo saw his quite that way, although he would certainly not have minded. They are letters about canon law and ordering of the church. Leo’s decretals touch on issues ranging from when to baptise people and whether to rebaptise people baptised by heretics (no) to the reconciliation of heretics with the church and whether monks can join the army (no). He addresses a lot of issues in canon law, and our earliest surviving collections of canon law documents include Leo.

His letters are compiled into great collections for canon law ranging up to 102 letters in one case, and throughout the Middle Ages, people use excerpts from Leo in their canonistic compendia — over 60 such compendia, in fact.

Finally, Leo’s letters are a valuable source for the human side of some events. Many stories are left untold by the historians, but hints and traces exist in these letters. For example, the Bishop of Narbonensis wrote to Leo asking what to do about people who lost Christian parents when very young and are now, as adults, uncertain as to whether they were baptised. Narbonensis had been invaded by Goths in 436 and the city of Narbonne besieged. Leo’s response to Rusticus of Narbonne reminds us of the human face of war and the war orphans of the fifth century. That is one example — I could give many.

Leo the Great was pope for the central two decades of the fifth century. He died 25 years before the deposition of the alst western Roman Emperor. His letters are important for our understanding of the Later Roman Empire, for our understanding of the church and its theology in that age, as well as for the culture and history of the time more broadly.

Why not study Leo the Great?

“In Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit God gave us the full and final revelation of Himself”

16 03 2015


Beautiful truths from Elder Sophrony

Originally posted on Eclectic Orthodoxy:

In Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit God gave us the full and final revelation of Himself. His Being now for us is the First Reality, incomparably more evident than all the transient phenomena of this world. We sense His divine presence both within us and without: in the supreme majesty of the universe, in the human face, in the lightning flash of thought. He opens our eyes that we may behold and delight in the beauty of His creation. He fills our souls with love towards all mankind. His indescribably gentle touch pierces our heart. And in the hours when His imperishable Light illumines our heart we know that we shall not die. We know this with knowledge impossible to prove in the ordinary way but which for us requires no proof, since the Spirit Himself bears witness within us.

Elder Sophrony

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The ‘liberal’ convictions of a theological conservative

11 03 2015

Thomas Guthrie, DD, theological conservative and social reformer

This July in Paris, a ‘hippie’-ish friend from BC was in my French class. One day in class, we were discussing what we would change if we held the reins of power in government, and he said that he would stop extracting oil from the tar sands, that northern Alberta has become a moonscape. Apparently, this was said not only out of conviction but also to see my response, since I was raised in Alberta. However, I agree. Extracting oil from the tar sands, even if done cleanly, is destroying a unique ecosystem that will ultimately vanish forever, at best replaced by more boreal forest. But it’s not done cleanly, as the evidence of tumors in fish in the Mackenzie River demonstrates.

When he told this story to another friend (himself a theological conservative like myself; a Californian), this other friend jokingly remarked, ‘Guess Matt’s not as conservative as we thought!’

But, of course, I am. My commitment to responsible environmental stewardship stems precisely from my commitment to biblical ethics and theology. This second friend, before you get the wrong idea, is also in favour of wise treatment of the natural world, and sometimes expresses surprise that fellow evangelicals so rarely make a noise on the issue.

The other day, I was chatting with this Californian friend, and he noted that in the USA, I would be thought of as ‘liberal’ by many (not all) conservative evangelicals — apparently because I believe in such radical things as treating creation well and free health care provided by the government. He went on to observe that he doesn’t understand why more evangelicals aren’t in favour of free health care, since it would exist to benefit the poor, and the second most recurring theme in the New Testament — after the Gospel — is to care for the poor.

These two incidents are worthy of note. I must now say that I am a theological conservative. There is no way around it. I believe in ridiculous things like the Trinity — which, scandalously, comes with a wholehearted trust that the ‘historical Jesus’ of Nazareth was, in fact, God in the flesh pitching His tent among us, having been born of a virgin and rising from dead before leaving this plane of existence to Heaven in a fashion resembling ascending into the sky. Despite respect for the conservative Cyrillian camp (those ‘Monophysites’), I find that conciliar orthodoxy (including two natures and two wills in Christ as well as right use of icons) is the most philosophically coherent and biblically faithful account of the broad sweep of Christian theology. I also believe in the 39 Articles — I may even believe in the predestination one (but with some hedging around the edges).

I also, therefore, believe the Bible. Frankly, you can’t believe all that crazy stuff about the hypostatic union and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being homoousios without the Bible. I believe that the Bible is God’s primary, normative means of revelation to us and that, at least from Abraham to the Apostles, it provides us with a historically reliable account of His interactions with the human race — including the miracles and visions and prophecies.

Finally, as a theological conservative I also hold some very unpopular views on ethics and morality. Just ask me the hot button issues, and I’ll probably disappoint all my liberal friends, Christian or otherwise.

However, this belief in Scripture and tradition as the standards for Christian belief and ethics means that I believe in looking after the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien. I think the Church should be on the front lines of the battle against the social ills associated with these things. In my experience in Canada and the UK, it is, even if people don’t realise it.

My church growing up ran the local food bank (honestly, this means it was my dad, a hero of the faith, if ever there was one). In Toronto, Jennie and I helped out at Toronto Alliance when they served a hot meal to the local poor of the community (they also had a food bank, clothing room, and a nurse to look at people’s feet). In Edinburgh, my church recently took up a collection to help Syrian refugees in the Middle East; they are involved in helping refugees come to Scotland; they also help the Bethany Christian Trust run its care shelters for the local poor throughout the year; our Sunday School does the now traditional act of service by supporting two children through overseas charities. All of these churches fall under the heading of ‘theologically conservative’.

My theologically conservative aunt and uncle have lived in Angola for decades providing free health care to the poorest of the poor and have built a hospital there. Their hope and dream is for there to be a team of local Angolan doctors and nurses to run this hospital without them. This is what the Gospel calls us to do.

In the nineteenth century, churches were on the front lines in providing free education and health care to the poorest of Britain’s poor, as, for example, in the Ragged Schools Movement. Thomas Guthrie, the founding minister of our church here in Edinburgh (St Columba’s Free Church), was also the founder of a Ragged School. Our church in Toronto (Little Trinity) had also been involved in the running of schools for the nineteenth-century poor. When education became freely available through the organisational skills and financing of the government, this was in part because of the activities of Victorian Christians. The same goes for the establishment of free health care in Canada and Britain in the twentieth century.

The government has far more resources than the Church, especially today as our numbers fall. So it makes sense that we support them in their efforts to ensure that there is free education and health care available to all — in this way, we can help the most vulnerable in society. And we can turn our attention to other social ills that plague our cities, things that governments, perhaps, are less well-equipped to deal with.

It boggles the mind to think that there are Christians who are not involved, whether with their time or money, in caring for the poor. If we look in Scripture, we will see passage after passage, on page after page, telling the people of God to care for the poor. If God has a bias, it is for the poor (somebody said that somewhere, but I forget who).

This has run on too long, but I can assure you that my ‘liberal’ convictions concerning environmental issues stem also from my conservative reading of Scripture and the traditional doctrine of creation. The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. We humans were given a responsibility to tend the land, not pollute it, destroy it, burn it; not to turn it into desert, not to bring the bounty of animal species made by God to the brink of extinction. That doesn’t sound like good stewardship to me…

Pope Question: Was Leo one of the bad popes?

3 03 2015

pope clipartThe question of whether Leo was a bad pope is one of the most frequent questions I get. While the answer is short (‘No’), the question itself is revealing. It tells us a few things about the perspective of people today on the papacy.

This is a question I never asked. Perhaps it’s my upbringing, or the years I spent studying the Middle Ages for fun before coming to Late Antique popes for research, or the respect I actually have for the Church of Rome, but it never crossed my mind that a fifth-century pope would even be a candidate for the ranks of ‘bad popes’.

The first thing this question tells me about how people view popes is that the papacy is very frequently seen through the lens of the Reformation and Renaissance, when Bishops of Rome had enormous temporal power as well as mistresses and children. An age when the Bishop of Rome was as likely to be a sleazy, back-stabbing jerk as any secular prince. An age when the church hierarchy was inescapably corrupt, and the top of the pyramid most corrupt of all. Setting aside the question of the accuracy of this characterisation of Renaissance-Reformation popes, this is the image of the pope that people have.

Thus, they project this ‘badness’ back onto earlier ages, and imagine earlier Bishops of Rome as being as likely to be corrupt and as grasping after temporal power.

Second, sometimes the way people discuss popes reveals that they cannot see being Bishop of Rome as a spiritual vocation that a good man might strive towards. Thus, even if they can disassociate Late Antique popes from Early Modern ones, they still imagine that it’s the sort of job a wordly-type of ambitious man guns for. This is the cynicism of our age.

Being Bishop of Rome certainly had its advantages in Late Antiquity. It also, however, came with extraordinary duties and responsibilities with very little in the way of wealth or secular power. The Bishop of Rome was shepherd of the church in the city of Rome where he had liturgical and preaching duties. He was also Metropolitan Bishop of Suburbicarian Italy where he had canon-legal duties and administrative tasks.

Beyond that, he was, or was at least becoming (sometimes through his own connivance, I admit, but sometimes through the activities of those beyond his Italian sphere of influence), the most powerful ecclesiastical leader in the Latin Church, which is not all that glorious at a time when most of that church is beyond the Bishop of Rome’s effective control and in the slow process of being dismembered from the Roman Empire and reconstituted as Barbarian Kingdoms.

If the Roman Episcopacy were the sort of thing to which worldly, ambitious men were drawn for the reasons cynics imagine men become Pope, it is also worthy of note that the first aristocrat to become Bishop of Rome was Felix III (pope, 483-92). One would expect more aristocratic popes much sooner if the job were all that enticing in the temporal sphere.

As I said, the question is itself illuminating.

To answer it more fully, Pope Leo I ‘the Great’ (pope, 440-61) was not a ‘bad’ pope. He had no mistress. Was not a paedophile. Led no armies into battle. Had no ‘nephews’ promoted to high ecclesiastical or secular office. Did not misappropriate church funds for his own use. Did not elaborately furnish the Lateran Palace for his own use.

He did use church funds to restore churches, both their fabric as well as their liturgical goods, damaged in the Vandal sack of 455, though. He did try to use the expanding authority of the Bishop of Rome to see what he felt was good governance and good doctrine established in the Roman world, from Gaul and Spain to Egypt and Palestine. He did go on a diplomatic mission to stop Attila from sacking Rome.

Whatever you may feel about his place in history in other ways, Leo I was certainly not a ‘bad’ pope.

Pope Questions

27 02 2015

pope clipartI’ve decided to run a little series of posts called ‘Pope Questions.’  These are responses to questions that people invariably ask me in conversations about my work. Some of them are meant to clarify issues about who exactly Leo is, others are more specific to my own feelings concerning popes. The answers I’ll give here will not be the ones I gave in the moment — or, if basically the same, not verbatim.

Expect to see the following questions answered:

  • Is Leo one of the bad popes?
  • Why study Leo the Great?
  • What makes Leo Great?
  • What other popes are ‘the Great’?
  • Are all popes saints?
  • Who is the first pope?
  • It must be difficult for you to study a pope since you are a Protestant.
  • Who is your favourite pope?
  • What do you think of the current pope?
  • Is the Vatican hiding something in the Archive? What would happen if they made it all public?
  • Is that [Gregory the Great] the Gregory who went to war against Hungary?

Feel free to ask your own questions, of course!

I will not answer whether Leo was a Medici pope — I assume that person misheard the century ‘fifth’ as ‘fifteenth’. Or had Medicis on the brain. Or both. Nor will I answer if the Fall of the Roman Empire was near in time to the Reformation; I fear that person had little knowledge of European history.

Also, expect Montly Popes as of March, but not Weekly Saints. Too hard to keep up the saints.


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