Anglican Tradition and the Bible

The other night I listened to Alastair Roberts read Homily 1, “A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading of Holy Scripture” from the 16th-century Anglican Book of Homilies (Book 1 first published 1542). I had lots of thoughts, most of which have escaped me, but here are two:

First, go and read the Bible. If you’re feeling a bit like you aren’t into it or haven’t read it for a while or anything like, go listen to Alastair read the homily. It’s only 18 minutes long, and it will fruitfully exhort you to read the Bible.

Second, one of the thoughts I had was how this reinforces ideas about Anglican worship and spirituality that I’ve heard people say and observed from inference. In particular, this homily reinforces the Reformation-era Anglican idea that the words of Holy Scripture are themselves powerful.

Reading the Bible or listening to someone read the Bible is good for you.

Sometimes you meet people (or read them on Twitter, I guess) who seem to think that a church loves the Bible because congregants spend a lot of time listening to a person talk about the Bible. I’m not saying those people don’t love the Bible. Nor am I saying that Anglicans love the Bible more.

However, Homily 1 represents a robust trust in the power of sacred Scripture to transform hearts and minds, to make us holier, to make us more Christ-like. In the Bible we encounter God, and God can transform us.

This trust is reflected liturgically in the Anglican tradition’s historic cycle of services. Historically, the Anglican liturgical tradition on a Sunday would have included Morning Prayer, followed immediately by Communion (or Antecommunion), and then Evening Prayer in the evening (naturally enough), coupled with a requirement for clergy and encouragement for laity to pray Morning and Evening Prayer every day, and for the lay folk to join their local cleric in the church if possible.

This centrality of Morning and Evening Prayer to Anglican worship is well worth noting, because these services differ most from their medieval Sarum precursors precisely in the question of Scripture. If you grab a Roman Breviary or Benedictine Breviary, you will find that the passages of Scripture selected for the daily office are … brief, in large part because of how complicated the Roman church’s daily office is, partly also because, for monks, at least, there is an expectation that you will read the Bible at some other part of the day. I would also hasten to add that medieval liturgy has all sorts of Scripture in use in different parts of the various services and offices; when you simplify your liturgy and reduce the number of offices, this needs rebalancing — as the BCP does.

In the BCP, on the other hand, the passages for Morning and Evening Prayer are quite substantial. If you follow the Prayer Book lectionary for daily prayer, you will read the entire Old Testament every year, the New Testament twice a year, and the Psalms every month. That’s a lot of sacred Scripture!

And if you look at the rubrics, there is no expectation that there will be preaching at any service outside Holy Communion. What matters are the words of Scripture themselves. Yes, Anglicans believe in preaching the Word (the Homily discusses that as well). But we also believe in the naked power of the raw Word of God, bringing us into contact with the God Word Himself Who lies behind the word written.

This sturdy belief in the power of the Bible is implicit in the Prayer Book, and explicit in Homily 1.

More of us should read or listen to these.

Evil is not part of God’s original creation – Evagrius

Christ on the Cross as the Tree of Life, San Clemente, Rome

I’m working through Robert E. Sinkewicz’s translation of Evagrius of Pontus’ ascetic works preserved in Greek — partly for my own growth, partly as a critique of the Enneagram, partly as preparation for teaching him alongside other Desert Fathers this fall (sign up here!). And today I found, left over from when I was revising a forthcoming article about Evagrius, this draft post here on WordPress, with the above title and these two passages:

5.14 I was almost in all evil in the midst of the congregation and assembly

62. There was [a time] when evil did not exist, and there will be [a time] when it no longer exists; but there was never [a time] when virtue did not exist and there will never be [a time] when it does not exist. For the seeds of virtue are indestructible. And I am convinced by the rich man – almost but not completely given over to every evil – who was condemned to hell because of his evil, and who felt compassion for his brothers (Luke 16:19-31). For to have pity is a very beautiful seed of virtue.

The first is Proverbs 5:14, and the second is an Evagrian scholion from Father Luke Dysinger’s excellent Evagrius website. I was working through these texts as part of a study of Evagrius’ and Cassian’s demonology, and so the origins of evil are part of the question of demons. It struck me because until I studied Cassian for the first time those many years ago, the question of evil’s origins had not fully imprinted itself upon me.

And one of things that I learned from Cassian is that nothing is by nature evil. God does not create evil. Therefore, everything is created good. Evil comes later. And what we see in Evagrius is that not only does evil come later — evil will cease.

There is a pastoral dimension to this, of course. Consider whatever evils one faces, whether it’s temptations to sin or the evils wrought by others against us. Virtue is stronger. Virtue will be there at the end of all things, for it is good and part of the good.

Evil is weak. Evil is a lack.

Good (virtue) is strong. The good is plenitude of being.

So take heart: Evil has not always existed. It will not always exist, either.

Household as monastery

The other day, I — @mjjhoskin — tweeted that one way to incorporate monastic wisdom into your life is to imagine that the members of your family are fellow monastics. Like that time my five-year-old ran through the kitchen naked. That could have happened in the deserts of Egypt or Syria.

One commenter noted that climbing a tree and refusing to come down for 30 years also fits. (See Mar Abraham the Dendrite in the Lives of Eastern Saints by John of Ephesus.)

My fellow monks at leisure last week.

This thought was inspired by St Evagrius Ponticus, Foundations of the Monastic Life. Evagrius argues that marriage and children are distractions that will keep him hesychia, closing the first section with the exhortation:

Do you want therefore, beloved, to take up the solitary life for what it is, and to race after the trophies of stillness? Leave behind the concerns of the world, the principalities and powers set over them (Eph. 6:12); that is, stand free of material concerns and the passions, beyond all desire, so that as you become a stranger to the conditions deriving from these you may be able to cultivate stillness properly. For if one were not to extricate himself from these, he would not be able to live this way of life successfully.

Evagrius Ponticus, Foundations of the Monastic Life, ch. 3, trans. Robert E Sinkewicz, in Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus (Oxford, 2003), p. 5.

The telos of the monastic life is life-with-God. It is contemplation/theoria of the most holy Trinity (Keph. Gnos. 1.27). It is pure prayer where we lose the vision of our conscious selves, as described most beautifully by Evagrius’ student, Cassian, here. For Evagrius, we seek apatheia (dispassion, purity of heart) in order to reach out for the invisible God in a place of hesychia (stillness, calmness, peace, rest).

The married man, as St Paul even notes, will have his thoughts divided and not be able to achieve hesychia as purely as the solitary, the anchorite, the monachos.

The brothers at work.

What if we took the intrusions into our stillness that a family readily provides and turned them into opportunities of grace? Consider the two photos in this post so far. One is of my sons on a slip-and-slide (although I see only one child). The other is of them at “the work site” (aka the dirt beside the house). In both, they are playing hard. Play is the serious business of childhood, after all. The running, the noise, the laughter, and so forth — these can all be a hindrance to classic theoria, classic contemplation. And certainly, I, as the supervising adult, cannot lose myself in prayer like a monk alone in a cave.

But I can still use these patches of Godlight (a Father Tim phrase from Jan Karon’s Mitford novels) to find a kind of rest, stillness, peace. Enjoy the little boys now — everyone tells me to. Their laughter and silliness and all of that — that is grace and joy and happiness. Resting in these moments, enjoying these moments, laughing with them, and not begrudging their madnesses — these are how to turn the chaos of family life into inner hesychia.

Consider two scenarios. A father with his morning coffee wishes to read some Evagrius (this father is me). However, the boys wish to dance around arhythmically to John Michael Talbot, hop like bunnies, bounce like kangaroos, spin like tops, even. Scenario one: Annoyed father tries to do some spiritual reading (this father is sometimes me). Scenario two: Thankful father puts book down and watches children, grateful to God for the gift of the small sons (this father is sometimes me).

Which scenario contains a closer approximation of hesychia?

Not exactly St John’s Ladder of Divine Ascent

Now, making the household “monastic” in other ways, with regular rhythms for corporate and private prayer, doing family devotions, pursuing simplicity in various areas, etc., feels like it should go without saying. It’s really the question of how you deal with your fellow inmates that I want to prod here today.

Take the happy times as grace and find God there.

Take the hard times as grace and find God there.

Consider, as parent, that you are an abbot as St John Cassian describes, and that therefore your greatest concern is the spiritual growth of the monks. Take that more seriously than anything, and then your own times of theoria or lectio divina or whatever your prayer rule includes.

What I’m really pressing at, then, is a combination of Paul Evdokimov’s interior monasticism and Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s sacrament of the present moment. Take hold of the moment that God has thrust you into as a spouse and parent, whether it is cooking food, doing laundry, playing with children, reading a book of your own choosing, gazing longingly at a fast-cooling cup of coffee, and find God in it.

Then you can find holy hesychia and contemplate the Most Holy Trinity.

Reformed catholic? (Part one)

I think I might be Reformed?

The labels we give ourselves are not always that important — what matters in, say, a religious/spiritual “label” is that a person is seeking to know and live according to the truth. Sometimes getting the words just right can be a bit of an unhealthy obsession, though — either because you are trying to overdefine yourself, or because you are trying to watch out for every possible misinterpretation someone else could have. Beyond religion (or, rather, in the false religions of fandom):

“Not a mere Trekkie — a Trekker.” This, when I liked Star Wars more than Star Trek, led to, “What do you call a Star Wars fan?”

Anyway, why might I cautiously say I might be Reformed? What do I mean by this? Why the hesitation? Why do I couple Reformed with catholic? Am I a Calvinist papist?

For most of my life, like so many in the pre-schismatic Anglican church, I was happily and proudly Anglican, embracing the 39 Articles and BCP (and Solemn Declaration of 1893) as doctrinal norms, but fighting with the article about predestination. So, by no means a Calvinist. In fact, the common view for many of us in the Anglican Church of Canada, at least, whether liberal, conservative, evangelical, charismatic, was that we are our own thing, our own branch of Protestantism, growing in our own crooked path beside Lutherans and the Reformed, but perhaps twisting our path on some patterns clser to Rome than either, especially the Reformed.

As a teenager, the whole “Calvinism” vs “Arminianism” debate was a Thing. I remember a friend’s dad — a Baptist fellow and big fan of John Piper — asking me whether the Anglican Church was Calvinist or Arminian. And I happily said neither. I mean, when pressed, the 39 Articles skew closer to Dordt than to Arminius, but to slap the word “Calvinist” on a doctrinal standard that has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the Augustinianism of the western church — well, that seems misguided. Not that my answer at age 17 was anything like that!

But I recall asking an Anglican ordinand about this sort of thing, and he said he preferred calling himself Reformed to Calvinist. The Reformed tradition is bigger than John Calvin and is not simply his church, although he is one of its early founders. This makes sense.

But when I was asking that ordinand about such things, I was also meeting a variety of people within Anglican circles (we’re still pre-schism here, folks) who were probably New Calvinists, some of whom read more Presbyterians than Anglicans, who said things like, “Luther started the Reformation, and Calvin ended it,” who were laying claim to Anglicanism for themselves in a way that seemed to say to me, “Any vision of Anglican theology that is not New Calvinist is not real Anglicanism.”

I wasn’t interested.

As we entered the age of social media, I had my chance to play with my religious descriptors. “East-leaning, Franciscan Anglican” was one that I recall using on Facebook. I knew “Anglican” would never be enough. Anglican could mean almost anything doctrinally. And after some of the liturgical free-for-alls I’ve met, it may sometimes mean nothing liturgically, to boot!

But then I spent six/seven years in Edinburgh (9 months of this time I was going back and forth between Edinburgh and Rome). My regular Sunday church of which I eventually became a member was the Free Church of Scotland, a Reformed denomination if ever there was one. Reformed and evangelical. And, when we started, super-old school with naught but a cappella Psalms. I also frequently attended Greek Orthodox Vespers and had the local Orthodox priest as a spiritual mentor.

By the time we went to England in 2017, I was still not Reformed, but I was no longer allergic to them.

However, the church we attended with greatest frequency in Durham led to some problems in terms of self-identification. People said some crazy stuff up at the front, such as how grace does not make us holy, it only justifies us (in a narrow, forensic sense), and we stay otherwise the same. That was whack. At the same time, I was reading a lot of mediaeval canon law and Eastern Orthodox stuff, not to mention a deep dive into St Benedict. Was I even Protestant anymore? A friend of mine wondered if these labels were that helpful these days, and to help guide me pastorally, gave me his edition and translation of Alexander de Hales’ commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, specifically the sections on grace. Well, Alexander helped with the question of grace, but not the question of Protestantism!

And my brother unhelpfully said that I sounded like a catholic Anglican. That’s probably still my go-to.

Fast forward, please, to my year of unemployment, 2019-2020. During this year, I sent out tendrils everywhere seeking academic work. One place was Davenant Hall — Brad Littlejohn, the President of the Davenant Institute, did his PhD at Edinburgh a few years ahead of me, so I knew him from the time we overlapped. I was also nudged by a friend to consider doing a Cascade Companion on my favourite monastic author; these two things dovetailed in reading Brad’s Cascade Companion to Richard Hooker, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work.

Brad Littlejohn’s work on Richard Hooker opened my eyes to what my ordinand friend had said so many years previously, about the bigness of the Reformed tradition. It also helpfully laid to rest some notions about early Anglicanism and Richard Hooker you’ve probably heard, most notably that he consciously pursued a “middle way” (via media) between Roman Catholicism and the Reformed. In fact, Richard Hooker was very much part of a large, Reformed world on both sides of the Channel. In essence, Hooker believes that those “Catholic” of Anglicanism as simply part of healthy, Reformed Christianity. I’ve no doubt misrepresented both Brad and Hooker; read the book for yourself.

Well, that made me more comfortable with the idea of being Reformed and Anglican — I didn’t have to become a New Calvinist or move to Sydney or agree with the style of preaching at St Helen’s Bishopsgate in London. *whew*

In January 2021, I started teaching for Davenant Hall, and engaging with a lot of the wonderful people associated with the Davenant Institute. My first course was “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy”, and my second was “Augustine: The Major Works.” And now, although I’d read huge quantities of Augustine before, I read Augustine on predestination at great length for the first time (I’d read On Grace and Free Will ages ago [2006?], actually), and I really couldn’t see a way around Augustinian predestinarianism. I’d rather it were otherwise, for I have a soft spot for St John Cassian, and ever will. I will always take note of what Cassian is attempting to do in Conference 13 and why that pursuit of balance between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is important. But I simply think that Augustine is right. [Enter trolls in the comments, I assume?]

And so, over the past year, as a guy who thinks he believes in predestination, I’ve been interacting with these really great people, a lot of whom are Reformed, and I’ve even read some Bavinck, and then also, at a quicker pace, James K A Smith’s Letters to a Young Calvinist, and I’ve been seeing the breadth and diversity of the Reformed tradition, how these great thinkers old and new engage with the patristic and medieval heritage in a thoughtful way, seeking retrieval where possible, but always letting Scripture win while also pressing our forebears in the faith in terms of logic and reason.

And so I’ve learned about people like Franciscus Junius and Peter Martyr Vermigli and their relationship with Scholasticism, besides seeing living Reformed thinkers engaging with Thomas Aquinas and Maximus the Confessor and Hilary of Poitiers and all the rest — all of this in a time when I’ve also been revising my book about medieval manuscripts of a patristic pope, teaching the Fathers, teaching the medieval church, and maintaining my usual round of Orthodox thinkers.

And one of the terms I’ve seen a few times is Reformed catholic. And I’m starting to like it.

Those medieval mystics!

My own copy of The Cloud of Unknowing

Last Monday, I had the joy and delight of giving a lecture about medieval mysticism, focussing on some foundations (so, Evagrius and Cassian, basically) and then really on the fourteenth-century English mystics — Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, The Cloud of Unknowing, The Abbey of the Holy Ghost. All of my students were required to read a large chunk of Julian of Norwich, and for-credit students will also have read one of the others for an essay assignment.

One student read The Cloud of Unknowing, Rolle’s Fire of Love, and then The Cloud of Unknowing again while working on the essay, and then Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love for class. She declared that she wanted to become a medieval mystic. Another student admitted to being bitter a lot of the time, but that reading The Cloud and Julian filled him with sweetness.

I, too, am fond of reading medieval mystics. Of those covered for this class, I like best Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing. I also have a fondness (almost typed fandom!) for early Cistercians, especially St Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St-Thierry. I have to admit, though, that my exposure to St Hildegard is too shallow, and the promising beginning I made in reading St Catherine of Siena was cut short by other affairs.

As you may guess, the contemplative/mystic types I spend more time with are late antique and Byzantine besides modern Orthodox pray-ers — St Theophan the Recluse, St Porphyrios, St Sophrony, Met. Anthony Bloom, and others.

I must confess, however, that I am very poor mystic/contemplative. Reading about high ideals stirs my heart, makes me want to climb those mountains and put in that hard labour. But acedia sets in. Sloth is easier than asceticism, right?

I recently went through a stretch where I had not been reading any Orthodox elders or late antique monks. One night, I decided to push through a portion of St Silouan the Athonite by St Sophrony (a very dense but powerful book). And I felt my spirits lightened and my resolve quickened by this experience. Reading holy literature is not wasted.

I remind myself of a story from the Egyptian desert about a monk complaining to an old man that he listens to the elders and hears the Scriptures but can’t for the life of him remember the teachings. The old man told him to take two clay pots that were dusty and dirty. Leave one alone, and pour oil into the other. Then pour the oil out. Then repeat several times. “Which is cleaner?” the old man asked. “The one I poured the oil into,” was the response.

Let’s bring this back to the mystics, then. I have expressed my misgivings about us unspiritual meatheads reading The Cloud of Unknowing on this blog. Yet perhaps the story from the desert is telling us that if we have the will or desire for these good things, then even advanced books like that are not lost on us.

So go on reading your medieval mystics, gentle reader. May you be made more pure of heart as a result.

Demons: From sword and sorcery to civilizational collapse

My latest YouTube video is a discussion of demons, sparked by some thoughts I was having about sword and sorcery, and then coupling them to my upcoming course on St Athanasius, thus tying in On the Incarnation and The Life of Antony. Enjoy!

What separates me from an Athonite monk

Athonites at prayer

One of the remarkable things about the tradition of ancient monasticism, from the Egyptian Desert to Jeremy Taylor to Mt Athos, is its concern about oversleeping. I recall reading about a monastery amongst the Desert Fathers where the monks were purposefully prevented from getting what we call “a good night’s sleep.” It was believed that the ascetic with less sleep was more able to fight demons.

When I mentioned this fact to my father, he remarked that he found himself less equipped to fight evil with less sleep. I feel the same way — more irascible, more likely to skip prayers, more likely to eat that which I should not. More likely to snap at my kids. That sort of thing.

And yet the life of St Silouan the Athonite, as recounted by St Sophrony, tells us of the opposite. St Silouan (St Sophrony’s spiritual father on the Holy Mountain of Mt Athos) would spend hours in the night sitting up praying. Sometimes he would get as little as two hours of sleep. Sometimes he would have vigils.

Yet St Silouan, despite his lack of sleep, was regarded as an even-tempered, loving man, more upset at his own sins than those of others.

And here’s what separates me from an Athonite monk:

Prayer.

What am I doing if I’m up late? Well, sometimes I’m working. Or doing chores/errands for the household. Sometimes I’m reading for pleasure. Or watching shows. Or just mindlessly surfing the worldwide web.

Now, I think for most of us a good night’s sleep does a lot of good.

But so would a good night’s prayer.

I’ve been in hospital the past few days for hernia surgery. The down time has enabled me to reset morning and evening prayer. Let’s pray the Lord gives me the blessing of duration in devotion.

Some thoughts about St Anselm

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

I had the opportunity to teach about St Anselm last night. Much of the lecture was taken up with investiture, and I’m still sorting that out in my mind — hopefully, thoughts to follow. I also had the opportunity to linger on his Prayers and Meditations. I believe that these are very important for us to understand the whole man of this Archbishop of Canterbury. St Anselm is more than the clear, systematised logic of his philosophical and theological treatises. He is also a man of great “religious feeling” (if you will), a man animated by his love of Christ, Christ’s church, as well as awareness of his own smallness and sinfulness.

This positioning of Anselm through the Prayers and Meditations helps us see that true Christian theology is always done in Evagrian mode: “If you truly pray, you are a theologian; if you are a theologian, you will truly pray.” The logical treatises, such as De Casu Diaboli are not detached from the saint’s life and worship. This is also a perspective potentially gained from the Life of St Anselm by Eadmer as well, which is why I chose to assign a portion of that text to my students.

A second approach to St Anselm requires us to grasp foundational truths that St Anselm affirmed. I say this because Anselm is famous today for two things:

  1. The ontological argument for the existence of God (in the Proslogion)
  2. Penal substitutionary atonement (in Cur Deus Homo — check out The Major Works)

The second of these is often misunderstood, most famously and egregiously as “divine child abuse.” To understand why Anselm’s atonement theory of satisfaction is not “divine child abuse”, it is worth knowing both what Anselm believes about God, and second, what penal substitutionary atonement theory actually teaches.

Anselm is a traditional, western Trinitarian. He believes that God is/has one essence/substance in three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three are co-equal and co-eternal. And one of these three, who is Himself fully God, chose to become human and die. Once you catch a glimpse of the historic doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that penal substitutionary atonement theory is “divine child abuse” is untenable, because it is not a father forcing or sending a son to die for other people because the father is angry. It is God choosing to take his own anger upon Himself in order to save other people.

I’m not saying this is an argument for why you ought to agree with St Anselm — it’s simply an argument that should make you set aside this caricature.

The theory itself is this: In Cur Deus Homo, St Anselm argues that offence against God requires balance, it requires an equitable return, something proportional to the offence. This is a basic principle of law and justice. Since God is infinite, offence against God carries with it infinite weight. No human being can redress the balance of sin against God. In the courtroom of heavenly justice, we will always be found guilty of infinite offence and thus sentenced to infinite punishment, eternal damnation. Therefore, God, in his mercy, chooses to condescend Himself to our weakness, take our flesh upon Himself, and take our place as a substitution by dying on the cross. This substitution of an infinite, perfect, good God in place of finite sinners, redresses the balance and pays the penalty for our sin in our place. By removing the penalty of sin from us, God makes it possible for us to be oned (to use the later language of Julian of Norwich), united, to him and participate in the divine life.

Penal substitutionary atonement theory has fallen out of fashion today. It was first articulated by St Anselm, and it came to dominate western theological discourse about the atonement until Aulen’s book Christus Victor in the 20th century. A quick example of this theory’s dominance is that it is the model of the atonement used by Edmund Spenser in A Hymn of Heavenly Love.

A final point on Cur Deus Homo. I read it and found it convincing. This does not mean that I do not also believe in the classic or Christus Victor model found in fathers like Athanasius and Leo. The two theories are not mutually exclusive but, rather, complement one another. Perhaps western theology lost sight of one for a while and thereby suffered — but this does not mean that rejecting Anselmian atonement theology redresses the balance.

In closing, St Anselm was a deep, profound thinker, steeped in prayer, in scripture, and in the tools of logic and dialectic from the classroom at Bec. He made two original and lasting contributions to theology as well as some important gains in the king-bishop relationship (but that’s perhaps for another post). Read his devotional works, read his theology, read his life.

The grace of God can make you a better Christian thereby.