Grace, Christology, and the disciplined life

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

My research has recently brought me into contact with Fulgentius of Ruspe, an African theologian who lived c. 467 to c. 532. Some say he is the greatest African theologian of antiquity post-Augustine. Fulgentius is not an original thinker. He is, however, articulate and a great synthesiser. His job is not to be original. When you read his letters, you see a man who knows what catholic doctrine is and who wants to help his correspondents understand this doctrine better.

My research interest is in his reception of Leo the Great (of course), so I’ve not actually got to the topic of this post in Fulgentius. Nonetheless, of note in Fulgentius’ corpus is correspondence with Scythian monks about Christology and the question of grace/predestination.

Normally, we separate these two concerns. Christology is a largely eastern concern on which the West does its best to be as unoriginal as possible and simply re-articulate Hilarius of Poitiers, Augustine, and Leo the Great. Grace/predestination/freewill is a western debate not often, therefore, connected to Christology. (This is a point made differently in the English translation of Fulgentius’ letters to the Scythian monks by Rob Roy McGregor [real name, I swear!] and Donald Fairbairn.)

This is related to a research question I have been toying with: Why are certain monks against Nestorianism?

Nestorianism, you will recall, is the teaching that Jesus Christ exists in two persons, one divine, one human. John Cassian, the alleged ‘semi-Pelagian’ monastic leader in Marseille (but, really, semi-Augustinian?), wrote a Latin tract On the Incarnation Against Nestorius on behalf of then-Archdeacon Leo of Rome. Mark the Monk, off in Ancyra and, later, Palestine, also wrote in Greek against Nestorianism. Third, Shenoute of Atripe, the greatest of Coptic writers, also wrote against Nestorianism.

I am uncertain about Shenoute, but Mark and Cassian also wrote about predestination and freewill, Mark in ‘On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous by Works’ and Cassian in Conference 13. Neither is a friend to the -ism associated with Pelagius, although neither fully embraces the -ism of the Augustinians. To the Latin West as represented by Cassian and Pope Celestine I, Nestorius’ association with Theodore of Mopsuestia was damning because of Theodore’s own friendliness towards Pelagius and Caelestius.

My hypothesis runs something like this. Part of the heart of the Pelagian debate is whether or not one’s discipline is what ‘saves’ him/her. How much is enough? Is it all my own will? How responsible am I for my own righteousness? My own sin? How does my freedom interact with God’s sovereignty?

To many people, the teaching associated with Nestorius undoes the divinity of Jesus. By bifurcating the Messiah, the human is not really assumed by the divine, they argue (thus abrogating communicatio idiomatum, on which I’ve blogged). If Jesus the man has to do everything as a man, then God isn’t really saving us, and Jesus the man has no saving power. I may be missing parts of anti-Nestorian polemic. Forgive me. This certainly is not meant to represent Nestorius, I assure you.

Think about this, then. God has not truly become man. He just gave a particular kind of special grace to Jesus. Jesus becomes just a moral exemplar. Regardless of what Pelagius, Caelestius, or Julian of Aeclanum actually believed, this is precisely the sort of thing their opponents were gravely concerned about. Grace is now inaccessible, really.

On the other hand, whether you are a conservative Cyrillian or a traditional Latin in the cast of Pope Leo, Jesus Christ is most assuredly completely and utterly God. You can also tell he is fully human. But in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God has rent the heavens and come down. He has entered to the fullest into the human condition. He did not simply join himself to Jesus or have a conjunction (the sort of language used by Nestorius and Theodore). The entirety of a unique human nature was experienced by God.

Grace can flow from him to us. Prayer matters. Union with God through Christ in Eucharist, in prayer, in baptism — this is freely available to all who truly repent and turn to him. Your disciplines may not save you, but they can make you more like the man Jesus. And the man Jesus is definitely God. So God can use them in you to perfect you and draw you closer to the mystical goal that is the end of all Christian ascetic practice — union with God, Godmanhood, theosis.

I think, then, that in ascetic theology, grace and Christology are intimately united.

I’ll have to see what Fulgentius has to say.

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The idea of the parish church

All Saints’ Anglican Church, Saskatoon

I recently went to my actual parish church (not pictured left) for the first time since moving here nine months ago. I found it mostly, if not entirely, composed of people who were 60+. My guess is that the other Christians living nearby don’t go to this church partly because of the service time, partly because they go to one of the younger, hipper churches in the city centre, whether C of E or otherwise. Maybe some go to the Anglo-Catholic churches in the centre. Some of us would go if our sons napped at a different time, though!

But imagine, if you will, a world where we allowed the parish churches to do what they were designed for. Imagine we didn’t decide that anywhere a bus/car can take us was part of a smorgasborg of Sunday morning options but were members of the neighbourhood congregation.

This is what parish churches were meant for, in a pre-automobile age. When the church started out, the local gathering of Christians was small enough, and most Mediterranean ‘cities’ were the size of modern villages, so all the Christians went to the same church. It was within walking distance.

In bigger cities, and especially after Constantine and the growth of conversion, it became necessary to develop a network of local churches that could service other neighbourhoods — but that were still part of the same acknowledged body of believers as the original ‘founding’ congregation. Eventually, these smaller manifestations of the original central congregation spread to the countryside.

These churches served the paroikia, the area where people lived nearby. That’s the etymology of parish.

The idea of the parish church, then, is that everyone can walk to church. There is a priest attached to your church who can preach, administer sacraments, and counsel you in need. There are deacons and deaconesses to help you in practical ways. All the Christians of the neighbourhood come together to pray, to worship, to learn, to encounter God in a meaningful way.

Now, the following scenario would only work if we did it en masse.

Imagination if we all switched membership to the nearest church in walking distance.

The charismatics would raise their arms next to the genuflecting Anglo-Catholics. The evangelicals would demand hard-core Bible teaching. The liberals would cry out for social justice.

If we started on Advent 1, we’d all be dead by Christmas.

But if we lived on into Lent, with the Anglo-Catholics shrouding the cross and the charismatics reminding us that repentance should lead to joy, while the liberals pointed out that the fast the Lord calls for is to do acts of mercy, and the evangelicals told us that none of this matters without entering into real, personal discipleship with the Lord Jesus — maybe we’d be better for it.

Rubbing shoulders with different ways of being Christian. Fighting for the Gospel side by side rather than scattershot and undirected.

And think what it would do for making disciples in our neighbourhoods.

‘What church do you go to?’

‘St Aidan’s.’

‘Hey, so does that other Christian I met.’

‘We all do.’

That’s a sign of Christian unity, as opposed to: ‘Oh, well, I didn’t like the way they sing Psalms at St Aidan’s, so I go Grace Church.’ ‘I really like the immediacy of the worship with the Vineyard.’ ‘The Bible teaching at King’s Church inspires me.’ ‘St Oswald’s has the best music besides the cathedral.’ ‘Christ Church takes a good line on evangelism.’ ‘Only the Orthodox have a clue what it’s all about.’ ‘All Saints cares for the poor.’

Or, even worse: ‘I had a fight with the minister.’ ‘I hear they’re shallow at that other church.’ ‘They compromise the essentials of the faith.’ ‘They’re not real Christians.’ ‘They aren’t open enough to the Holy Spirit.’ ‘Cathedrals are just about putting on a show.’ ‘They’re too casual at that church.’ ‘Oh, them. It’s all just ritual, from what I hear. No relationship with God.’ ‘You can only hear so many sermons about penal substitutionary atonement before you want to shoot someone in the face, I always say.’

Worshipping God and making disciples together.

That’s the idea of the parish church.

Dionysian Ponderings: Beyond the Beyond … and then Beyond

Eclectic Orthodoxy is embarking on some Dionysian musings. The Areopagite may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I do encourage you to go and start to grasp what it is that none of us are grasping. 😉

Eclectic Orthodoxy

“Dionysius adopts the doctrine of God as ‘nameless,’ ‘unknowable,’ and ‘beyond being’ from the Neoplatonic tradition established by Plotinus,” writes Eric Perl, “and his thought can be understood only in that context” (Theophany, p. 13). We will need to revisit Perl’s “only in that context.” The apophatic tradition of Eastern Christianity—embodied in the Divine Liturgy, stated in the writings of the Cappadocian Fathers and St Ephrem the Syrian (Dionysius was undoubtedly acquainted with both), and performed in monastic ascetical practice—should also be judged as the proper context for the interpretation of the Corpus Areopagaticum. We need to find a way to think together the metaphysical and ecclesial. But let’s follow along with Perl in his analysis of the Areopagite:

Dionysius expressly adopts the Parmenidean and Platonic account of being and thought as coterminous, and therefore locates God beyond both together: “For if all knowledges are of beings…

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Meditation and Intercession

Andrew Murray

I’m reading Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer just now. It’s been my devotional book since Easter. I wish I could say I’ve taken this long because I’m savouring and applying it, but, really, I’m just distracted and lazy. Anyway, many of the major lessons in this book about intercessory prayer are really about what historically we would call ‘meditation’ (with a bit of room for contemplation as well).

Historically, the Christian tradition has meant by meditation the active use of the mind to ruminate upon some passage of Scripture or some aspect of God or some deed in salvation history. To spend time with it and immerse the mind and heart into it as a way of drawing closer to God, of uniting the mind with the heart.

Murray counsels the reader at many times that in order to unlock the promises and mysteries of prayer, we need to enter into a richer relationship with God and a fuller understanding of His person and relationship to us. For example, one of the lessons Christ teaches us in the school of prayer is that our heavenly Father gives good gifts — or even the Holy Spirit — to his children.

The meditation on this verse takes two aspects. First, meditate on the Fatherhood of God. What does it mean for God to be our Father? And what does it mean, then, for us to be his children? What sort of gifts would a good Father give? What sort of children can expect to get anything they ask from their fathers?

The answer to the last question takes us to a meditation on how we relate to God. If we are not spending time with God, or if we are consciously living in a way that displeases God, how likely is it that God will give us what we ask? And how will we know what sorts of things God is likely to give?

Think on this: If you spend no time with your father, despite his desire to be with you, but want a car for your sixteenth birthday both for the awesomeness of the car and its practicality, is he really going to give you a car? He will give you a good gift, certainly. But not a car.

This is dangerous thinking. It can lead into moralism, legalism, the belief that we can merit God’s favour. It can lead into treating God like a genie. But then — if we spend more time meditating on the character and attributes of God, more time reading Scripture and meditating on its truths and God’s actions, more time being silent before the throne of God — frankly, if we spend more time with God, we will come to know Him well, and knowing Him will protect us from all the dangerous -isms of Christian thinking.

Throughout With Christ in the School of Prayer, Murray takes us on meditations and encourages us to be silent before God as well as to meditate upon Him and upon Scripture. The more we do these things, the better we know God and the more we are conformed to the likeness of Christ. The more our wills align with His. And the more we will see our own prayers answered.

Some people like to pit different kinds of prayer against each other. I have read pieces that are harsh on evangelicals because they do not know the great riches of contemplative prayer but only wade in the shallows of intercession. I have no interest in such ways of thinking.

All prayer is united, whether supplication, intercession, meditation, contemplation, adoration.

They flow and work together, and each is part of healthy Christianity. And there are probably more evangelical contemplatives than you’d think (and they may not even know that’s what they’re doing).

So: Meditation and intercession. They work together.

Review: On the Person of Christ, The Christology of Emperor Justinian

On the Person of Christ: The Christology of Emperor Justinian Against the Monophysites; Concerning the Three Chapters; On the True FaithOn the Person of Christ: The Christology of Emperor Justinian Against the Monophysites; Concerning the Three Chapters; On the True Faith by Justinian I
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is Kenneth Wesche’s translation of three treatises by the Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) on Christological topics: Justinian’s Letter to the Monks of Alexandria Against the Monophysites; A Letter on the Three Chapters; and The Edict on the True Faith. These are the three texts edited by E. Schwartz in Drei dogmatische Schriften. The notes throughout largely mirror Schwartz’s references, although I noticed that in one place, where Justinian cites Pope Leo I as having said something Leo did not say, Wesche did not include Schwartz’s note saying that Leo’s letter did not include the statement. Not to say that Wesche is deliberately fudging things, I guess, but he does have his own angle.

At the time of publication, Rev. Dr Wesche was an Orthodox priest in Minneapolis. He chose to make this translation because Justinian’s Christology is basic to the Byzantine understanding of Christ and endures in the Orthodox Church today. Moreover, although Wesche does not say this, Justinian is relatively straightforward in his presentation of Christological thought and his defence of his own position. One of the concerns some of the less famous bishops of Late Antiquity had in the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon was that, while they agreed with the council, they did not think it had anything to offer their own congregations. Christology at this level, they said, was for bishops to stop heresy, not for catechesing the faithful.

Justinian does an admirable job of trying to make clear what is easily obscure. The same problems plague him here as everywhere in the controversy from 451 onward — the obstinacy of his opponents, the lack of clarity on terminology, etc. Nevertheless, I can easily see even a bishop looking at the long citations from the Fathers with commentary and tiring of what lies before him. That may be no fault of Justinian, but rather of human frailty.

The two targets here are ‘Monophysites’ (aka Miaphysites aka anti-Chalcedonian Cyrillians aka conservative Cyrillians), in particular the acephaloi, and supporters of the ‘Three Chapters’. Concerning ‘Monophysites’, it can be difficult to keep them straight in our minds. Justinian’s focus is not the orthodox (or nearly orthodox) forms of belief espoused by Severus of Antioch and Philoxenus of Mabbug, but the radical, intransigent arguments of Timothy Aelurus and the acephaloi of Egypt, a group who rejected the Archbishop of Alexandria through a radical commitment to mia physis — ‘one nature’ — Christology. If his quotations are accurate, Timothy Aelurus looks truly heretical to me. The main point Justinian argues against the ‘Monophysites’ is that Cyril’s ‘one nature’ formula is perfectly compatible with ‘two natures’ when Chalcedon is interpreted properly.

The ‘Three Chapters’ are: the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia; the letter of Ibas of Edessa to Mari the Persian; and writings by Theodoret of Cyrrhus against Cyril of Alexandria. These three items were condemned by Justinian through various approaches as part of his attempt to reconcile ‘Monophysites’ like Severus of Antioch with the imperial church. The supporters of these ‘Three Chapters’ were mostly (but not entirely) Latin-speakers for whom anything that abrogated or seemed to threaten the authority of the Council of Chalcedon was anathema. They argued that condemning Ibas’s letter and the writings of Theodoret went against the council that welcomed both bishops into communion and rehabilitated them after they had been expelled from their bishoprics by the Second Council of Ephesus (449). They also objected to posthumous denunciations of people who died in the faith and peace of the Church like Theodore of Mopsuestia.

Justinian’s strongest argument was that neither Ibas nor Theodoret himself was condemned. Rather, particular writings that were not in accordance with the faith were condemned. Moreover, Theodore of Mopsuestia stands condemned for heresy by his own hand already, regardless of his position in the church at his death. Theodore was a particular target, for in the later stages of the Nestorian Controversy, after the Council of Ephesus (430), Cyril of Alexandria and his allies realised that the theology of Nestorius that they so detested and found so dangerous would still persist as long as Theodore’s teaching was allowed to be spread, since Theodore was the intellectual master of Nestorius. Therefore, through these condemnations, Justinian sought to heal the wounds of the eastern church.

Obviously, he failed. Indeed, his attempts at reconciling the East failed anyway, and they also brought about a schism in the West.

My one final concern about this book is Wesche’s assertion in the introduction to the ‘Edict on the True Faith’ that western and eastern approaches to Christology are very different, and the edict shows that. Perhaps I am simply a poor theologian, or I’ve spent too much of my own theological training reading patristic and eastern books, but I do not see anything in Justinian’s approach in this text that is counter to how I would think we do Christology.

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Review: Christ in Christian Tradition, Vol. 2, part 1

Christ in Christian TraditionChrist in Christian Tradition by Aloys Grillmeier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first part of the second ‘volume’ of Grillmeier’s magisterial history of Christology. The first volume takes the reader up to the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This part of volume 2 takes you from Chalcedon to around 532. This volume is largely devoted to the history of the unfolding post-Chalcedonian controversy — the perception, reception, and rejection of the council and its two-natures formula.

A few moments and figures get detailed analysis of their Christology, but nothing as in-depth as vol. 1. I think that the really in-depth studies of figures such as Severus of Antioch are in part 2 of volume 2.

The sweep is grand, and Grillmeier brings up some important points for the period that I think we often overlook. One point is the way the ‘Henotikon’ of Zeno was itself largely unknown in the West and interpreted in two different ways in the East, right up to the end of the reign of Anastasius — that is, those who think that abandoning this document spelled the end of any hope of eastern reconciliation have grossly overestimated its ability to hold pro- and anti-Chalcedonian forces together. They were already moving apart in the East, especially since many anti-Chalcedonians such Philoxenus of Mabbug and Severus of Antioch rejected the ‘Henotikon’, anyway.

I say this not to read Grillmeier’s book as teleological — that Chalcedon ‘had to’ triumph in the end. But it is a major corrective to ongoing treatments of the material that seem to think that a Miaphysite triumph would not have spelled schism and disaster as much as the Chalcedonian triumph did. People were using the same words in different ways with no interest or, at times, ability, to realise this fact. This can only lead to ruin, especially when you throw Latin into the Greek controversies, let alone the bulky Syriac-speaking population of the dioecesis of Oriens.

Anyway, that is the sort of historical treatment we find. Grillmeier wants to get beyond emperors this and popes that to the documents that reveal to us the ideas of the wider association of bishops, monks, and clergy. Thus, he uses Emperor Leo I’s Codex Encyclius as a means to discern how eastern bishops in 458 perceived the council of seven years earlier.

Grillmeier also corrects over-reading Emperor Anastasius as a Miaphysite. It becomes clear from the documents under discussion — often quoted at length, often paraphrased — that his support for the ‘Henotikon’ was not tied to any support of the more extreme Severan agenda. Indeed, the emperors emerge as a particular kind of force in geo-ecclesiology in this book — before Justinian, they do not enforce their own views, but use documents drafted by bishops to attempt to find some kind of compromise (e.g. ‘Encyclical’ of Basiliscus, the ‘Henotikon’ of Zeno), or gain the opinions of bishops on fractious issues (e.g. ‘Encyclical’ of Leo I), or councils (Marcian at CP, several local councils of Anastasius, early councils of Justinian, a planned council by Vitalian [who never became emperor]). They seek unity and see themselves as arbiters of unity within the imperial church, working alongside the bishops who are the ones who set the correct interpretation of the faith.

They are often compromisers as a result. A figure like Anastasius cannot afford to be unshakeable in doctrine the way Athanasius, Ambrose, Leo, or Cyril was. Too much is at stake. For him, it is not doctrinal purity but unity of the imperial church that matters; the content of doctrine is set by the specialists. He simply seeks the best specialists and tries to enforce their judgement.

This book also sees that the watchword for orthodoxy in the West was always and ever Chalcedon — not that no Latin ever wrote anything interesting in Christology in these years. Indeed, there is much of interest here still from the later years of Leo and especially the interpretation of Leo by Gelasius I. But anyone or anything that implies either a rejection of Chalcedon or fellowship with those who reject the council is immediately anathema to the Latins. This is to be kept in mind for the sequel to the events discussed here.

Finally, Grillmeier shows himself a man of his times, with the buoyant atmosphere of ecumenism in the 1980s. He often talks about the relevance of the different measures to find or enforce unity, or statements drawn up, to the modern situation of ecumenical dialogue. Alas, the great ecumenical experiment has petered out, by the ongoing liberalisation of the Protestant mainline and the ongoing support of every ancient ecclesial communion for its own heritage — I am thinking here of the statements made by Pope Shenouda III in favour of monenergism that remind us that, whatever the joint statements on Christology say re Chalcedon, the disputes of the seventh century live on in the twenty-first.

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Blogging Benedict: The Roundup

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

So I’ve blogged through the Rule of St Benedict in a haphazard way for the past several months, the goal being to consider what wisdom St Benedict may hold for us today. This was inspired by having blogged through Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. This post is, then, a roundup of all the Benedict posts from both sources as well as before I started this journey — just in case you were late to the party or missed something along the way. I’ve divided it into three parts: Blogging Benedict, The Benedict Option, and Other Benedict(ine)-related Posts.

I do believe that St Benedict’s Rule is a source that can help us in our own path of discipleship and make more disciples. Enjoy this table of contents to my thoughts on it!

Blogging Benedict

Introducing the Rule of St Benedict: Contexts

A Wake-up Call

A School for the Lord’s Service

Chapter 1 (the four kinds of monks)

Leadership (chapters 2-3)

Tools for Good Works (chapter 4)

Obedience (chapter 5)

Silence (chapter 6)

Humility (chapter 7)

The Divine Office (chapters 8 through 20)

St Benedict’s Recommended Reading (chapter 9)

How to Pray

Pastoral Care for All (chapter 21)

Sleep with Your Clothes on (chapter 22)

Punishment (chapters 23-30)

Property (chapters 31-34)

Service (chapter 35)

Reading and Suchlike

Monastic Life Is Always Lenten (chapter 49)

Food (chapters 39-40)

More on the Primacy of Prayer (chapters 50, 52)

Hospitality (chapter 53)

The Freedom of Simplicity (chapters 55, 58)

Humility vs Arrogance (chapter 57)

Entering the Monastery (chapter 58)

Visiting Monks (chapter 61)

Rank in the Monastery (chapter 60)

More on abbots (chapter 64)

Where’s Easter?

The Cloistered Life (chapters 66-67)

Obedience and Fervour (chapters 68, 69, 71, 72)

The Final Chapter

My Initial Thoughts When I Finished the Rule

The Rule and the Bible

Done Blogging Benedict: What Now?

The Benedict Option

The Benedict Option 1: 5th-century History

The Benedict Option: Why History Matters and 6th-century Monasticism

The Benedict Option: More History

The Benedict Option, Chapter 2: The Roots of the Crisis

The Benedict Option, Chapter 3: A Rule for Living (And Norcia!)

Benedict Option Politics: Local and Religious

Help Your Church Survive the Future by Rediscovering the Past

The Idea of a Christian Village (Benedict Option, chapter 6)

Benedict Option Education

What About University?

Work, work, work

Eros and Anthropology (More on The Benedict Option)

Technological Humanity (Almost Done The Benedict Option)

Final Thoughts on The Benedict Option: Take the Initiative!

Other Benedict(ine)-Related Posts

Benedictine Work and Human Dignity

Monks and the Goal of Reading in the Sixth Century

Lanfranc: Keep what is essential in adapting for today

Review of Lanfranc’s Monastic Constitutions

Some Benedictines

The Four Kinds of Monks

Early Monastic Rules

Insatiability, Medieval Benedictine Reform, and Freedom from Consumerism

Happy Feast of St Benedict!

Cistercian Posts:

Candles at Candlemas (Cistercians for Groundhog Day/Feast of the Presentation)

Guerric of Igny on Advent

The Cistercian World, selected and translated by Pauline Matarasso

Melrose Abbey

The Unimaginability of God

Belief and Understanding: Anselm, Augustine, William of St Thierry — and YOU!

Saint of the Week: St Bernard of Clairvaux

The rest of my St Benedict Posts are from 2011 or earlier:

Thoughts Springing from Benedict

Saint of the Week: Benedict of Nursia — The Rule and Its Legacy

Saint of the Week: Benedict of Nursia — The Man and His Life