The seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church

I am the sort of person who is attracted to high ideals, although I am far too spiritually lazy to live up to most of them. Hence my ongoing appetite for monks and friars, for ascetics and mystics, for academic standards of publishing. I am always struck by the seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church, as in the Apostolic Tradition attributed by some moderns to St Hippolytus.

In ancient Christianity, a person who is interested in becoming a Christian but not yet baptised is a ‘catechumen’. In the Apostolic Tradition, catechumens are expected to spend three years in preparation for their baptism (it is not the only text to do so; some ancient works on church discipline call for only three months) — during this time, they attend lectures about the Christian faith and are present at the liturgy on Sundays, but do not receive the consecrated elements.

At the end of this time, they are exorcised on multiple occasions, fast, and then spent the whole night before they are baptised ‘in vigil, hearing readings and receiving instruction’ (ch. 20.10, trans. Stewart-Sykes). Then, at cock-crow, the baptismal rite begins.

I am stirred by this idea of the ancient catechumenate. Consider the poor results of conversionism — people come to a church event or rally or ‘crusade’, or they sit with a friend or a random stranger who ‘shares the Gospel’, and then the pray ‘the sinner’s prayer’. After that, they are expected to tithe and come regularly to potlucks. (I’m not that cynical, really…)

But shouldn’t people weigh the cost of discipleship? Shouldn’t they be placed upon the pathway of spiritual growth?

I figure our churches should have as two main areas of focus:

  1. Worship God (‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever)
  2. Make disciples (both through conversion and spiritual growth)

The ancient catechumenate was part of focus #2, and everyone involved in it was also involved in focus #1.

When I mention things like this, suddenly people get edgy. If we make full involvement in the sacramental fellowship something that requires commitment, something arduous, something big and worthy, won’t people be driven away? I mean, if they’re into Jesus, won’t they just slip away to the nearest megachurch instead?

Maybe. But is easy-ism worth it? Butts in pews are not necessarily disciples.

How can we rearrange what we do as witnessing and worshipping communities both to evangelise and to help new disciples grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ? Some sort of adapted catechumenate might be part of the answer.

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Living tradition

A Gathering of the Holy Fathers

I am reading Gabriel Bunge’s book Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, and he is discussing what tradition is and how it works in the first chapter. Tradition is much-contested ground ever since the days of the Reformation when everyone, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic (for want of better words), was trying to sift through the mass of the deposit as it stood in the midst of Renaissance decadence, late mediaeval scholasticism, corruption amongst clerics and princes alike, and true devotion.

Which parts were true devotion? And which true devotion was rightly placed? Which parts of this deposit are either apostolic by antiquity or at least Spirit-driven consequences of apostolic tradition, which are man-made things to be abandoned, and which are adiaphora?

These debates are often framed in terms of pitting Scripture and tradition against each other. In Browne’s very capable Victorian book about the 39 Articles, he makes a good case against there being an oral tradition of things not in Scripture that must, nevertheless, be believed. In good Anglican form, he is careful to state that the tradition of exegesis and liturgy, especially of the Fathers, is important for devotion and the right interpretation of Scripture, but nothing independent of Scripture is to enjoined upon Christian souls as essential for salvation.

In these terms, tradition seems fairly dead, doesn’t it?

But, as the Eastern Orthodox apologists like to point out, we are all part of traditions, even Baptists at Bible study.

Bunge’s idea of tradition is something different:

The meaning and purpose of preserving the “tradition” is, then, for the Fathers, just as it was for the first “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”, not an unthinking adherence to what has been handed down, but the preservation of a living fellowship. (p. 24, emphasis original)

Two years ago, the book I read on the bus to visit my wife and son at hospital after he was born was Archimandrite Zacharias’ book Remember Thy First Love: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony. I was given this book by Father Raphael, from whom I have received much spiritual insight. The main source for Archimandrite Zacharias’ teaching is actually sacred Scripture, but the second-most popular citation in the notes is Elder Sophrony, followed by St Silouan the Athonite. Elder Sophrony was Archimandrite Zacharias’ spiritual father, and St Silouan was Sophrony’s.

As I read the book, I felt like I was encountering a living tradition, not simply a bunch of facts handed down, but an entire way of life, from Athos to Essex. In fact (now that I write it), Archimandrite Zacharias is Father Raphael’s spiritual father (after the falling asleep of Father John [memory eternal!]), and if I were Orthodox, I would hope Father Raphael would be humble enough to accept the challenge of being my spiritual father.

Tradition is the encounter and fellowship with those who have gone before, seeking to live and apply their encounter with Jesus to our circumstances now.

One of the richest loci for the tradition is, of course, the liturgy. As Father Andrew Louth points out in Discerning the Mystery, when St Basil the Great discusses the unwritten tradition of the church in On the Holy Spirit, the things he talks about are all liturgical.

Given that I am now reading Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, this point takes on a new kind of resonance. The Prayer Book was a way in which Christians of Cranmer’s world were able to accept that fellowship with what has gone before, but also sift through it, seeking what had gone awry (a task Rome was also doing; let’s not fight that fight today). I have written on the catholicity of the Prayer Book before, but it is worth repeating. When we pray with the Book of Common Prayer in spirit and in truth, we truly join in fellowship with the Christians of the centuries who have also used so many of those forms, from (at the latest) the Apostolic Tradition (modern attribution: Hippolytus of Rome, mid-200s), whether in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Old Church Slavonic, Elizabethan English.

We also, with greater specificity, join with the Anglicans around the world and through the centuries (until the liturgical movement of the later 20th century), whether in Australia or Kenya or Canada or Canterbury. We enter into that fellowship of faith, a Reformational liturgy rooted in the catholic tradition (note the lower-case c).

Arguably (and here perhaps I  become controversial), inasmuch as the Prayer Book’s theology is an attempt to restore to prominence certain apostolic and Augustinian themes obscured in England at the time of the Reformation, we could also argue that in using it we find ourselves in the august company of St Paul and St Augustine.

At prayer, we seek God. And God comes to us. We find ourselves in communion, in fellowship with Him, and through Him, with the Christians through the centuries who have also sought Him. And if we choose to submit ourselves to them in our own seeking of God, to fellowship with them — then that is living tradition.

The Patristic Middle Ages

It is only natural for the Anglican who becomes interested in pre-Reformation Christianity to turn to the writers, art, customs, liturgy, etc., of medieval England, or of Britain more widely, even encompassing Ireland. Many are thus drawn in the world of Bede and Cuthbert, or of Anselm and the scholastics. The great soaring cathedrals, ars anglicana embroidery, reliquaries, liturgical practices from England are used as aids in devotion.

Even if we restrict ourselves to writers, there are many great specimens from the English Middle Ages. Aldhelm, Alcuin, Aelfric, and Aelred spring to mind. Many are no doubt proud of the English origins of Alexander de Hales (d. 1245 at Paris). Alexander drives the mind to scholasticism and Robert Grosseteste. Aldhelm reminds us of the early days of English Christianity, and thus St Bede the Venerable.

The mystically-minded find themselves devouring The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle. Some even read Margery Kempe.

If not with Bede, many Anglicans seeking older roots find themselves in happy company amongst Celts — Columbanus, Columba, Adamnan, Brigid, Brendan, and more, from Ireland, Scotland, Wales.

But if we want to nourish ourselves on pre-Reformation English fare (porridge, mostly, I imagine), we should be aware of the nourishment the English themselves had — and that nourishment, whether we are thinking about Aldhelm (d. 709) or Grosseteste (d. 1253), was (besides sacred Scripture, of course) the Church Fathers.

This fact is seen, of course, in their writings themselves. I am at the moment looking at the transmission and influence of the Homiliary of Paul the Deacon (compiled in late 700s). This homiliary consists of patristic homilies organised according to the liturgical calendar, and it was definitely used in England — passages were used in the Old English homilies of Aelfric (and others; Aelfric d. c. 1010), and it influenced Cistercian homiliaries, and hence the works of Aelred of Rievaulx (d. 1167). We have multiple copies of homiliaries descended from that of Paul the Deacon from English monasteries.

Robert Grosseteste, an early scholar at Oxford, wrote a commentary on Dionysius the Areopagite’s Celestial Hierarchy. Much of Bede’s commentaries on Scripture is quotation from the Fathers. If we wish to claim Anselm (who did most of his writing either before he was Archbishop of Canterbury or in exile in Italy), he is heavily indebted to St Augustine of Hippo (Giles Gasper has done work on Anselm’s wider patristic sources in Anselm of Canterbury and his Theological Inheritance).

The manuscripts tell the same story. Looking through the handy (if sadly imperfect) list from the Durham Priory Library Recreated project, of books known to have been in the priory library, citing by where the appear in the list, we have works by:

  • Gregory the Great (many)
  • Boethius (I always think he should be included)
  • St Benedict of Nursia (both Latin original and English translation)
  • Jerome (many)
  • Isidore of Seville (several)
  • Augustine (many)
  • John Chrysostom (several)
  • Cassiodorus (I think he goes with Boethius)
  • the anonymous Opus Imperfectum in Mattheum
  • Origen
  • Didymus the Blind
  • Eugippius
  • John Cassian
  • the Vitae Patrum, which is largely lives and sayings of the Desert Fathers
  • Gregory of Nazianzus
  • Ambrose of Milan
  • Prudentius
  • Fulgentius of Ruspe (they also have the mythographer, but he’s someone else)
  • Ennodius
  • Julian of Toledo
  • Peter Chrysologus
  • Lactantius (mind you, this is a printed book from 1509)

In that list are many ‘etc’s, some of which are patristic. As well, there are many canon law books, which are largely topically-arranged excerpts from patristic-era canon law documents, such as the canons of church councils, papal letters, and writings from major church fathers like Augustine. There are also works of Peter Lombard; his Sentences are themselves by and large topically arranged patristic excerpts, and much of his Bible commentaries is chains of quotations from the Fathers (if I remember correctly). The ‘Omeliarium’, of which Durham has two volumes, is the patristic homiliary of Paul the Deacon, mentioned above. I see another two-volume set of homilies — not sure which. The Bibles are also very frequently glossed with commentary from the church fathers in the margins.

In other words, if you want to nourish your faith in a manner consistent with the English Middle Ages, I recommend reading the church fathers as well as Aelred and Aelfric. They certainly did.

Coming up soon: The interconnected Middle Ages.

Where do we find our mystics in Protestantism?

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

I was chatting with a Roman Catholic friend, formerly a very engaged Anglican of evangelical bent, recently. He was talking about the rise of “industry” as a virtue in the early modern period (“industry” is not a virtue in the ancient and medieval worlds) and how its rise is involved in the denigration of the contemplative tradition — I, myself, later thought of Gibbon’s criticism of the ‘idle mouths’ of the Later Roman Empire that included monks.*

Basically, today contemplation must always be subservient to action. If you want to sit around in silence, what you do is supposed to outweigh it. The contemplative person, the mystic, has no place in this worldview. They are idle, potentially lazy, and useless.

I remarked that this is the complete opposite of St John of the Cross (whom we both love, of course), and that everyone today thinks this way.

He said, ‘Not the Carmelites!’

And then he said something that I’ve felt sometimes as well. He said that one of the things he has appreciated about becoming Roman Catholic is the presence of an ongoing contemplative tradition in the Roman Catholic tradition, and that such a tradition is something that is lacking in evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is, by and large, devoid of this. It is upbeat and happy. It is also frequently shallow in its approach to suffering — let’s all read our Bibles and sing some happy songs!

This feels like caricature, but much depends on your corner of the evangelical world. (Much depends on your corner of Roman Catholicism, too, of course.) I can think of many times when simply reading the Bible has been presented by evangelicals as a cure-all, and of the discomfort one sometimes has with always singing at a fast tempo in a major key, despite the fundamental brokenness of all people.

I have often felt that Protestantism, and the evangelical world I have spent most of my life in (although that word evangelical is being destroyed and sapped of meaning by American politicising), is not sure of mysticism/contemplation. I think on the many people, including evangelical Anglicans, who say that they have no sympathy with or understanding of monasticism.

I, on the other hand, have had a longstanding interest in monks. The single-minded devotion of the Desert Fathers. The power of St Francis (whose legacy is both active and contemplative). The mystical writings of St John of the Cross. The daily grind of La Grande Chartreuse. Julian of Norwich. Cassian, Benedict, Anselm, Bernard. Cuthbert and Bede. I’ve blogged on all of these.

I have no doubt that there are faithful Roman Catholics who have no use for monks. However, Roman Catholicism has that rich, contemplative spiritual tradition alongside Roman Catholic social teaching and social action.

The mystical path for a Protestant does not usually involve going to your pastor for spiritual direction but, rather, books (and, today, the Internet). It is fraught with danger, but also excitement. And those who set forth are not alone.

There are Protestants who are seeking to plug into the ancient ways of contemplation/mysticism — James Houston, The Transforming Power of Prayer, and Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home both come to mind. But their engagement with the mystical tradition, whether Catholic or Orthodox, is not part of an ongoing living tradition. We Protestants have to go it alone, or make it up with each other as we go along.

I was going to put this forward as a liability, but maybe it is not, which derails anything further I wanted to write when I started this piece.

It forces us to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us into the darkness, the silence, hesychia.

And that’s a good thing, I’m sure.

*Note: Monks of Late Antiquity not actually idle mouths, since a great many of them were involved in the cottage industry or farming.

It’s not as though the crisis in western Christianity were new…

Michael Green in 1981:

When the church has grown so uncertain of its own beliefs, when it has become so preoccupied with its own structures, when it has degenerated very largely into a spectator sport for those who like that kind of thing, is it surprising that people have turned from it towards something that actually works? Ironically, the church may well prove to be the last sector in the community which comes to believe in the supernatural. –I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, p. 116

The un-sexy demonology of John Cassian

Having finished A New Kind of Christian, the next “book that ‘normal’ people read” I’m going through is Michael Green’s 1981 volume, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (from the ‘I Believe’ series). Obviously not a book that normal people read anymore, but I hope that some normal people read it in the 80s, because it is very good so far.

I have just finished Green’s chapter about temptation, and I am reminded of the awkward conversations I would have about demonology when I was researching John Cassian (d. c. 435). Specifically, the lack of any Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness or The Oath business. Cassian acknowledges this sort of demonology, but he is not going to spend time on it.

It’s a bit disappointing for the sensationalists. Why tantalise us with the idea of demons who wait at crossroads to mug people if you aren’t going to give us any details? Other stories from the Desert Fathers give us great details! I forget the source, but there’s this one time that a guy took shelter in an old tomb, and a bunch of demons turned up, and he overheard them talking about all the monks they tempted. Or there are the temptations of St Antony, wherein he wrestled with the denizens of Hell all night:

Including Funnel Butt:

John of Ephesus tells the story of some demons who made a woman levitate and appear like the BVM and fool some monks into praying to her.

Cassian doesn’t deny the reality of such things. After all, they say that The Exorcist is based on real events. But these sensationalist stories are not his main event.

Cassian’s demonology is all about temptation. How do the demons tempt you to sin? How do they try to distract you from prayer? What sorts of thoughts do they encourage? How much power do they have in terms of temptation? Can they implant an idea in your mind? Can demons really see the future?

Let me tell you, when you follow, ‘I study demonology,’ with, ‘specifically how demons tempt people to sin,’ your rocketing coolness plummets.

But the un-sexy demonology of John Cassian is just the demonology we need. I remember this scene in This Present Darkness (the aforementioned Peretti novel) where some dude is literally wrestling with demons in his living room. Let me tell you — you probably do wrestle with demons in your living room.

The demon of wrath.

The demon of greed.

The demon of gluttony.

The demon of laziness.

The demons of gossip and slander.

The demon of saying that malicious thing.

And so on.

Our passions are disordered, and the demonic prey on that. Their main goal, though, as Cassian’s Conferences would tell us, and which is, I believe, the lesson from St Antony’s battle with Funnel Butt, is to keep us from prayer. Watch out, then, for

The demon of distraction.

He comes clothed as a Netflix of Light.

A New Kind of Christian by Brian D. McLaren

The short version: This book is written in the genre of a novel which I think is a really good way to explore those ideas bundled together as ‘postmodern’. It is geared towards disillusioned American evangelicals who still love Jesus but find a lot of problems in the way church is done and stuff is talked about in the year 2000 (a lot of these problems persist to this day). It is good at asking hard questions, but the few answers are sometimes too vague as to actually be helpful or only highlight more problems. The concepts of modernism/modernity and postmodernism/postmodernity as assessed. Sometimes I think there are factual errors in these discussions. Nonetheless, this book is good at problematizing — and I think a lot of people found it refreshing to start thinking about different ways of being Christian that did not mean abandoning historic orthodoxy.

18 years later, I am not sure I would recommend the book. This is because McLaren imagined the imminent arrival of postmodernity, yet we have found ourselves living in the hypermodern instead. For example, instead of a pluralist culture where Christianity is one respected voice amongst many, we have a situation that I was recently told is called ‘postsecular’ — secularism is so deeply ingrained in our society’s ways of operating that we are living in the truly secular age forecast by Charles Taylor years ago. That is to say: The book is good, but limited in part because of the new directions our culture is taking and has taken, unanticipated by 2001’s new kind of Christian.

Cultural assessments and critiques like this are probably meant to only have a certain shelf life.

I’ll set aside where I suspect the factual errors are in the description of modernity, and focus on the conversations about Christianity. The conversation partners clearly want to rise above the division of conservative/liberal, which is nice but likely impossible. Throughout, the main pomo fellow, Neo, says, ‘People think in this binary fashion. The conversation is actually up here.’ It’s a nice way of dodging answers. Nevertheless, a question raised cannot be un-asked.

For example, when the question of salvation comes up, this book gets really twitchy. I think McLaren was reacting against some unhealthy approaches to the question used by American evangelicals and fundamentalists. One of the questions about salvation was the question of universalism vs inclusivism vs exclusivism; the first means everyone is saved by Jesus’ saving power; the second means everyone who puts their faith in Jesus is saved along with certain people of other religions like the Calormene in C S Lewis’ The Last Battle; the third means only those who put their faith in Jesus are saved. Neo says that this question isn’t the Bible’s main concern, and the Bible is more concerned with living out your salvation with fear and trembling.

Except the Bible does have things to say that have bearing on the question. I would rather the new kind of Christian be humble in his or her answer, whichever of the three, than come up with some pomo pseudo-logic to avoid answering.

This is only one example of many. It leaves the book intellectually unsatisfying. I am, perhaps, more ‘modernist’ than I’d like to admit, but since the first moderns were mediaeval, and I like the rigour of Boethius and Anselm, I’ll take the label.

I do agree that late twentieth-century American (and Canadian) evangelicalism (which, not modern Christianity at large, is the real target of the book) needed a readjustment regarding the word salvation. Neo insists that the way evangelicals approach the question, of ‘getting saved’ and going to heaven, is selfish. I’m not sure that it’s selfish; it’s too small, however, and I appreciate the bigness of Neo’s vision when he incorporates the cosmos into the question.

But human salvation means the salvation of persons, and this is part of the biblical doctrine of salvation. When I think of salvation on the human level, I am certainly not thinking of a ‘Get out of Hell Free’ card in a heavenly Monopoly game. My reading of the Fathers, medievals, and Orthodox thinkers has been leading me down new paths about participation in Christ and the ongoing work of salvation and such. This sort of richness of human salvation would have benefited the book simply because it tempers evangelicalism without gutting it.

This or something like it could be my tune for almost all of my disagreements with this book. For example, looking for a third way of ethics that is neither fundamentalist moralising nor liberal social works with no regard for inner character (that’s not quite how it’s phrased) — you mean Roman Catholicism? There’s a different kind of Christianity with a powerful social teaching and regard for the despised and rejected as well as moral standards as high as those of any evangelical — except at least Catholics can drink beer!

I could go on because it is easier to complain than to praise. There is much good in this book in terms of shaking things up — What do you believe about the Bible? What about salvation? Your own? Others’? Those outside the church? What is the relationship between church and kingdom? What do we do regarding other religions? Science and religion? etc., etc. Some of the answers are satisfying, some are correction course (‘Hey, the Bible is mostly stories!’), some are unsatisfying in the extreme.

In the end, this chief weakness still comes back to me, though. The characters foresee a future where Christians re-engage ancient and medieval spiritual practices (yay!). They imagine training for ministry that includes reading broadly through the whole tradition in terms of time and space (yay!). They engage in endless periodization (ancient – medieval – modern – postmodern) (blah). But the ideas of ancient and medieval, let alone Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, Christianity are never presented as options for those disillusioned with the options currently on offer in modern Christianity.

From what I see, this problem would plague the emergent movement until it fizzled out. They want the pretty, evocative stuff of ancient/medieval Christianity (incense, icons, candles, compline, pilgrimage, mysticism, even fasting and almsgiving), but not the intellectual rigour of an Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, or John of Damascus. The existence of Roman Catholics is noted, but the richness of the Roman Catholic tradition rarely engaged.

This is true of all three of McLaren’s books that I’ve read — and the reviews of A New Kind of Christianity show him ramping it up with his ‘Greco-Roman thesis’ that the biblical plot of creation – fall – redemption – glory was an importation from Platonic philosophy (it’s not; it bears little to no resemblance to Platonism; I do not know where he got this), or that if you reject penal substitutionary atonement theory you reject Christ’s death atoning for us (all Christians before Anselm must be confused, along with all of Eastern Christianity) — if he had read the Fathers and the medieval and Byzantine theologians deeply, he would not have made these errors. He may still have been a heretic, but at least an informed one.

In the end, if you are disillusioned with contemporary evangelicalism and want to find a different way of being Christian, this book may be helpful. On the other hand, why not just read Ephrem the Syrian, or Sebastian Brock’s excellent book about him, The Luminous Eye? Or Isaac of Nineveh? Both are online for free, after all. There you will find a different kind of Christian who yet affirms the reliability of Scripture and the Nicene faith without all the hazards of either evangelicalism or liberalism.