This January I’ll be teaching The Historical Context of the Seven Ecumenical Councils

Boy, that’s possibly the longest title I’ve given a blog post yet! But it’s true! This January I’ll be teaching “The Historical Context of the Seven Ecumenical Councils” for Davenant Hall (the Davenant Institute’s teaching wing). If you’re already excited enough, you can register for the course here. If you need more convincing, read on…

Do you believe in the Trinity? Do you believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human, perfect and entire in each, without getting it all mixed up and turning him into a divinised man or a man adopted by a god or a god who merely uses a human body like an avatar or something?

Do you kiss icons?

If you have an answer to any of these (yes, no, what?), then the outcomes of the Seven Ecumenical Councils should interest you! These seven councils met between 325 and 787. All were called by emperors. All dealt with church-rupturing theological issues. All also dealt with some canon law, except for 5 and 6, so a special council was called after number 6 that we call the Quinisext Council. It’s exciting already, isn’t it?!

These seven councils were admitted by the imperial church to provide the dogmatic boundaries for orthodox thought and worship. They come to be considered as having universal jurisdiction in doctrine and canon law. These seven, and only these seven, hold such a status in the Eastern Orthodox Church. These seven plus a bunch of later ones hold such a status in the Roman Catholic Church. Three of these, if I understand aright, are embraced by the Oriental Orthodox. And I’m not sure if the Church of the East formally embraces any of them, but they espouse the doctrine of the first two.

Protestants tend to explicitly endorse the first four, but I see no reason not to embrace five and six as well, whereas many Reformed Christians reject the seventh because of its acceptance and promotion of holy images (icons). I, personally, accept all seven. I’ve been told that I am what they call, “based”.

These seven councils are:

  1. Nicaea (325): Jesus is of one substance with the Father
  2. Constantinople (381): Reaffirms Nicaea and pushes towards the full divinity of the Holy Spirit
  3. Ephesus (431): Jesus is only one person, fully human and fully divine
  4. Chalcedon (451): Jesus exists in two natures, one human and one divine
  5. Constantinople 2 (553): Jesus’ two natures come together in what we call the “hypostatic union”
  6. Constantinople 3 (680/1): Jesus has two wills
  7. Nicaea 2 (787): Images of Jesus and the saints are good

In my class, we are going to explore the events leading up to and the aftermath of each council. Some of them had some pretty crazy stuff going on at them (particularly Ephesus and second Constantinople), so we’ll look at how (or how not!) to run a church council. We’ll look at why these seven but not other ones (why not Serdica in 343? Why not the Lateran Council of 649? What about the council of 869?). And we’ll examine the writings of one major theologian associated with the teaching of each council.

It’s going to be a fun ride, and hopefully it will help you appreciate even more the glory of the Most Holy Trinity and the Person of Jesus Christ our Saviour and His work of redemption in becoming man.

The Gospel is Jesus, so these questions matter.

You can sign up here.

And for a foretaste, check out my December 16 lecture, “The Christmas Councils”.

Council of Chalcedon, from St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Sermon on Matthew 9:18-26 (Trinity 24)

The Woman with the Flow of Blood, Paolo Veronese, 1565-70

Derived from notes for a sermon I preached at the Urban Abbey, Thunder Bay, November 14, 2021.

This Gospel reading is a familiar story. Jesus performs two miracles, and, in Mark and Luke, one of them is almost by accident! I think the Mark-Luke version of events is more what we are used to, sort of as told here in Tatian’s Diatessaron which is a combined version of all four Gospels that tells the events in order, put together in the 100s:

And a man named Jairus, the chief of the synagogue, fell before the feet of Jesus, and besought him much, and said unto him, I have an only daughter, and she is come nigh unto death; but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live.  And Jesus rose, and his disciples, and they followed him.  And there joined him a great multitude, and they pressed him.

And a woman, which had a flow of blood for twelve years, had suffered much of many physicians, and spent all that she had, and was not benefited at all, but her trouble increased further.  And when she heard of Jesus, she came in the thronging of the crowd behind him, and touched his garments; and she thought within herself, If I could reach to touch his garments, I should live.  And immediately the fountain of her blood was dried; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her plague.  And Jesus straightway knew within himself that power had gone out of him; and he turned to the crowd, and said, Who approached unto my garments?  And on their denying, all of them, Simon Cephas and those with him said unto him, Our Master, the multitudes throng thee and press thee, and sayest thou, Who approached unto me?  And he said, Some one approached unto me; and I knew that power went forth from me.  And that woman, when she saw that she was not hid from him, came fearing and agitated (for she knew what had happened to her), and fell down and worshipped him, and told, in the presence of all the people, for what reason she touched him, and how she was healed immediately.  And Jesus said unto her, Be of good courage, daughter; thy faith hath made thee alive; depart in peace, and be whole from thy plague.

And while he was yet speaking, there came a man from the house of the chief of the synagogue, and said unto him, Thy daughter hath died; so trouble not the teacher.  But Jesus heard, and said unto the father of the maid, Fear not:  but believe only, and she shall live. And he suffered no man to go with him, except Simon Cephas, and James, and John the brother of James.  And they reached the house of the chief of the synagogue; and he saw them agitated, weeping and wailing.  And he entered, and said unto them, Why are ye agitated and weeping? the maid hath not died, but she is sleeping.  And they laughed at him, for they knew that she had died.  And he put every man forth without, and took the father of the maid, and her mother, and Simon, and James, and John, and entered into the place where the maid was laid.  And he took hold of the hand of the maid, and said unto her, Maid, arise.  And her spirit returned, and straightway she arose and walked:  and she was about twelve years of age.  And he commanded that there should be given to her something to eat.  And her father wondered greatly: and he warned them that they should tell no man what had happened.  And this report spread in all that land.

I wanted to read this story out loud in this version not only because it’s worth seeing how we all tend to think of these famous Bible stories, but also because it’s worth it just to hear the Scriptures over and over again, to allow them to penetrate our hearts, as in the meditative reading of Scripture from the medieval monasteries called Lectio Divina today.

I think there are some interesting questions to ask about why Matthew isn’t the same as the other two, but I’m not going to. What we see in any version, though, is the power of God at work in the lives of those around Jesus, and Jesus is the epicentre of that power.

What stands out to me first when I read it in the Matthew version is that the leader says, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” Unlike the others and the Diatessaron, the girl is already dead. Recently dead, yes. But dead nonetheless. And yet this man comes to Jesus expecting that Jesus will be able to heal his daughter.

When the Son of Man returns, will he find such faith on earth?

How deep does our faith go?

Think on that.

Jesus goes to see this girl. He goes because He has come from heaven, the God Word himself, to make everything sad come untrue. He is life, as the Gospel of John says. This is God’s rescue plan, and death is the final enemy who, because of Jesus’ victory, will lose its sting through the cross and resurrection at Easter. Indeed, for us here now, death already has lost its sting.

Along the way, embedded in this other miracle narrative, another person seeks Jesus out. This woman has spent all of her money on doctors. Some preachers will tell you these men were basically quacks. I’m not one of those preachers. Some probably were. But others had real knowledge, even if the theory was not sound. But it doesn’t matter; they couldn’t heal her. And that was a problem in Jewish life, because a woman during her period was ritually unclean, and so there were all sorts of things she couldn’t do, including certain forms of normal human interaction and religious practice. The clean/unclean distinction is part of many ancient religions, and I know a Hindu whose mother had a completely separate room to sleep in during her period. That’s the kind of life this woman had been leading. All she wants is to be a bit normal. She wants healing deep in her soul, and she believes Jesus can give it to her.

What do you want from Jesus today?

..

In the other Gospels and the Diatessaron, Jesus feels the power go out of Himself. He queries, “Who touched me?” Here, Jesus knows. He knows who has touched him. So he turns, and there she is. He looks at her.

Jesus Christ is God come down to meet with us. The incomprehensible, almost inaccessible King of the Universe, the Logos, the Word, who makes and orders all things, came down as Jesus of Nazareth to liberate his beloved people from sin, death, and the devil. He became man because of his unutterably deep love for us. “Jesus turned,” the Gospel says, “and seeing her he said…”

This is a simple, straightforward historical truth about a specific moment in the earthly life of our Saviour. He saw her and spoke to her.

Let me tell you something else. This is a powerful, cosmic truth about every moment in our earthly life with our Saviour. He sees you. He sees me. And he speaks to us.

And when he speaks to the woman with the issue of blood, he says, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” Faith, at its root, is trust. Trust is a great English word, related to tree and truth and tryst. Sturdy, dependable. Trustworthy. Her pistis, her relying on Jesus, her trust in him, made her well. Jesus healed her instantly in response to her faith. This is the truth and beauty of divine compassion let loose upon the world in Jesus the Christ, the God Word enfleshed for our salvation. Trust him. He will heal you—of course, last week our main pastor already noted that our physical afflictions may not always be healed. But what endures, Jesus can and does heal that. Your deepest wounds, sins, scars, soul, eternal self. This is healed and prepared to be raised up at the last day to reign with Him.

So Jesus looks at her. At you. At me. And he speaks, and he says, “Take heart, child; your faith has made you well.”

He continues on his way. And he comes to the home of Jairus, where the girl is dead. Here the mourners, some of them possibly professionals, have gathered already to make the public display of the family’s grief. Jesus sends them away with the astonishing, laughable words, “Depart; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.”

They laughed at Jesus. Ridiculed him. Once again: How do you respond to the God of the universe when He speaks? With faith, like the woman with the issue of blood, or with ridicule, like the professional mourners? Sometimes the things he says seem crazy.

Nonetheless, he came, took the girl by the hand, and she arose.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is the way, the truth, and the life. In him is life. He came so that we might have life, and life abundantly. Nothing can stop him. Not even death. And there’s something really cool about how Jesus performs these miracles that a friend of mine wrote about in a book. Here, and in all the miracles of Mark, Jesus just performs miracles. He doesn’t pray for God to intervene or use some other agent like Aaron’s staff, as the prophets in the OT had. He doesn’t say, “In the name of God…” like how the Apostles say, “In the name of Jesus Christ.” He just heals.

No one else in ancient history about whom miracle tales are told does this. They always defer to God if they’re Jewish or Christian, or maybe they use magic or a pagan deity or demon if they aren’t. But they don’t just go around performing miracles on their own power. The only person who does that is God. The weight of miracle upon miracle upon miracle in Matthew’s Gospel—the next story, just so you know, is Jesus performing a miracle—presses us to realise this beautiful, glorious truth, that sometimes we Christians take for granted. And this truth is:

God is Jesus.

Hence the power of the Jesus Prayer prayed by the monks of Mount Athos that gave them such grace:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

[NB: I preached this on the feast of St Gregory Palamas.]

This takes us right back to the Colossians passage I read earlier in the service, showing us what the miracles teach us about Jesus as God. This is the cosmic dimension of the Gospel we are baptised into, the glorious reality we grasp when Jesus looks at us, speaks to us, and we have faith in him:

Colossians 1:9-23 NIV

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[c] your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

My latest on YouTube — More on Liturgy!

In my latest YouTube video, I include a long quotation from Richard Hooker while discussing liturgical worship.

Hooker as quoted in the video:

The end which is aimed at in setting down the outward form of all religious actions is the edification of the Church. Now men are edified, when either their understanding is taught somewhat whereof in such actions it behoveth all men to consider, or when their hearts are moved with any affection suitable thereunto; when their minds are in any sort stirred up unto that reverence, devotion, attention, and due regard, which in those cases seemeth requisite. Because therefore unto this purpose not only speech but sundry sensible means besides have always been thought necessary, and especially those means which being object to the eye, the liveliest and the most apprehensive sense of all other, have in that respect seemed the fittest to make a deep and a strong impression: from hence have risen not only a number of prayers, readings, questionings, exhortings, but even of visible signs also; which being used in performance of holy actions, are undoubtedly most effectual to open such matter, as men when they know and remember carefully, must needs be a great deal the better informed to what effect such duties serve. We must not think but that there is some ground of reason even in nature, whereby it cometh to pass that no nation under heaven either doth or ever did suffer public actions [419] which are of weight, whether they be civil and temporal or else spiritual and sacred, to pass without some visible solemnity: the very strangeness whereof and difference from that which is common, doth cause popular eyes to observe and to mark the same. Words, both because they are common, and do not so strongly move the fancy of man, are for the most part but slightly heard: and therefore with singular wisdom it hath been provided, that the deeds of men which are made in the presence of witnesses should pass not only with words, but also with certain sensible actions, the memory whereof is far more easy and durable than the memory of speech can be. (Hooker, Laws, 4.I.3)

Ancient Christian Worship

Yesterday I made this video, but I wasn’t able to promote it on my blog. More shameless self-promotion for my upcoming Davenant Hall course, “Christianity Before Constantine”. Enjoy!

“God is not an old dude”, my latest on YouTube

The other day, my two-and-a-half-year-old son pointed at an image of God creating the world on a CD cover and asked, “Who’s this?”

Seven times.

I dutifully answered, and then later that evening I made this video that explores the question of God having a human form with a jolly ride through some ecclesiastical history around the year 400, from the Anthropomorphite Controversy to the Synod of the Oak and the deposition of St John Chrysostom. Enjoy!

Benedict, Sophrony, and Theosis

Every Sunday morning, I do a little bit of an introduction to the church season. In the vast sea from Trinity to Advent, that is usually a nearby saint’s feast. Last week, July 4, it was St Andrei Rublev (watch my video about his Trinity icon here), and today it was St Sophrony of Essex, who happens to share his feast (in the West, anyway) with St Benedict of Nursia.

St Sophrony (d. 1993) has a special place in my life because he was the founder of the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex, and Archimandrite Zacharias, his successor there, is the spiritual father of my own mentor, Father Raphael of Edinburgh, Scotland. Besides drinking in wisdom and Greek coffee with Father Raphael, I have also read St Sophrony’s book His Life Is Mine, and I began St Silouan the Athonite a while back.

St Sophrony was a fashionable Russin emigre in early twentieth-century Paris who made fashionable modern art and was fashionably agnostic. He believed that somehow this art would be a source of transcendence — but in the end, he found true freedom in Christ and the Russian Orthodox faith of his homeland, and became and iconographer and monk, founding an oasis in the south of England (as they say, the only way is Essex).

His Life Is Mine is a book chiefly on prayer, about the human desire and encounter with God, Who Is. Who is Primordial Being. Who is Love. Who is Trinity. Who is the one, true hypostasis, persona. Whom we encounter because of the Incarnation and through contemplation, the beginning of which is repentance. In discussing theosis, St Sophrony writes:

The doctrine that man may become godlike … lies at the root of our Christian anthropology. As the image and likeness of the Absolute, man … transcends every other form of natural being. In prayer we glimpse in ourselves divine infinity not yet actualized but foreknown. Perfection of likeness … does not remove the ontological distance between God the Creator and man the created.

Perfection of likeness, of course, shall not be fully achieved here but in the hereafter — if at all. I wonder what St Sophrony would say to St Gregory of Nyssa’s concept of epektasis that our likeness to God will mean an infinite growth in perfection, since we are finite but God is infinite. It is important to observe that St Sophrony says that even if we do ever achieve a perfect likeness to God, the ontological gulf still exists.

This ontological gulf, that God is “holy, holy, holy”, that He is wholly Other, that he is being itself, is absolutely vital to keeping eastern Christian teaching on theosis in proper perspective. Some seem to think that theosis means we are perhaps swallowed up in God as in some versions of Hindu mysticism, or that we actually become part of God in a truly essential way, or something else. But the general description of our deification is done in the terms of St Gregory of Nyssa, who himself sparsely uses this terminology, who speaks largely of our union with God.

To whatever extent we become godlike, we never become God Himself, the Trinity Who Creates.

At the heart of this eastern Christian theosis as expressed in the life and teaching of St Sophrony, St Silouan, Archimandrite Zacharias, and Father Raphael is the Jesus Prayer (here’s my introductory post to this prayer). A main feature of the common prayer life of the Monastery of St John the Baptist is communal praying of the Jesus Prayer. I’ve done this at the Orthodox Church in Edinburgh, in fact. It is a different experience from the normal communal liturgical worship and from the solitary use of the Jesus Prayer. But it is good.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

As I said above, today is also the feast of another famous monk, St Benedict of Nursia, whose little rule for beginners designed for establishing a school for the Lord’s service has been one of the most influential volumes in western spiritual history, as it became the norm for Latin monasticism — his spiritual sons and daughters (that is, those who follow his rule) include not only those that are part of the Order of Saint Benedict but also the Cistercians and Trappists and some independent Orthodox monasteries. I’ve written about the Rule of St Benedict and about Benedictines a lot.

At his moment in history, in the mid-500s, St Benedict did not found an order but a monastery. There was no wider organisation than that. This is in keeping with the general tenor of late antique monasticism, that monasteries would form under a charismatic abbot and follow his rule whether written or unwritten. It is the basic form of Orthodox monasticism that they have no monastic orders, and every house or associated federation has its own monastic rule.

But if we’re pondering similarities between St Benedict and St Sophrony, although I’m sure they can be found in a variety of exterior facts related to their common heritage as monks and ascetics, I think the single most importan thing is a radical commitment to prayer. Compared to many other late antique and early medieval monastic rules, the Rule of St Benedict is actually fairly light in its burdens. However, this has been done precisely so that the brothers (or sisters) who live under the rule are capable of pursuing prayer. St Benedict goes into great detail over several chapters of the Rule about how the monastery’s prayer life is to be ordered. He also discusses how their attitude at prayer.

And what is the goal of prayer, of the monastic life? Here again, it is the same for St Benedict as for St Sophrony. To quote a famous line from Chapter 72 of St Benedict’s Rule:

Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.

Amen. Let us follow the example of these holy men on the path to everlasting life and theosis.

“he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

This is the reflection I prepared this past Sunday for my worshipping community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey.

This week’s Old Testament passage is one of the most famous passages in Scripture. Adam and Eve have transgressed the one and only command given to them and eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This has resulted in them becoming aware of their own nakedness. They have hidden from God, with Whom they used to have a “face-to-face” relationship. God now comes looking for them and asks them what they have done. Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. And the serpent does not have a leg to stand on. Thus, God curses the serpent. The passage ends there today, but we know how it continues. Adam and Eve likewise are cursed and thrown out of the garden to toil for the rest of their lives, and then, with immortality lost, they will die. To gain the full import of the curse upon the serpent, we need to be aware of the Fall of the man and woman and what it means, for God says to the serpent in verse 15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” This verse is hugely important, so I will meditate on its meaning and significance hereon out.

First, who is the serpent? The serpent, of course, is the Devil, that fallen angel who leads the band of other fallen angels, unrepentant and in rebellion against God. Did he manifest himself literally in human history as a snake, or is this story more symbolic in its portrayal of Satan’s testing of humanity, of him luring our forebears and each of us ourselves into sin? I do not know. But it is certainly the case that every generation of humans finds itself confronting the serpent, whispering his lies about God into our hearts, luring us away from the truest, happiest path in the universe to pursue his path. And so we go, lured away by the Devil, thinking we are doing it “my way”, and abandoning the path for which we were made. The general testimony of the Bible about Satan is that he exists to accuse humans; he and his demons are in enmity with God and with us; he has some sort of claim over the souls of dead humans as a result of sin; he was cast out of heaven by the Archangel Michael; his final downfall at the hands of Christ is assured. Despite the sensationalism of Hollywood and Frank Peretti novels, the main business the Devil and his minions are up to in our own lives is tempting us to sin and distracting us from God.

Second, what is the primary part of the curse on the man and the woman? Earlier in Genesis, God had warned the man and the woman that if they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would “die die”, often translated in English as “you shall surely die” or “die the death”. In Latin, this manner of Hebrew emphatic speech is given as “die by death,” and Greek doubles it up with an emphatic verb for “die” as well as “by death.” And that this death would occur on that very day. Yet here we see Adam and Eve very much alive on the day they have eaten the fruit. And they live to be expelled from the garden for years before they finally die. Ancient Christians see here in this emphatic double death two deaths. The second death is the bodily death we immediately think of when we think of death. The first death, however, is the departure of God from their souls and lives. God, says St Augustine of Hippo, is the life of the human soul. He is the true Spirit. His departure, then, is the death of the human soul. Adam and Eve, and we ourselves, are no longer intimately united to God. They (we), in fact, fear Him. By the time God comes seeking them, Adam and Eve have already died the first death.

This death of the soul leads to a disjointed human life, self-alienation. We find ourselves living in and crying out from the depths. We wish to do good but cannot. Sometimes even the good we seek to do turns into evil in the very act! As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says in The Gulag Archipelago, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Thus, not only do humans die physical death, which itself can be a terrible thing and fills most humans with dread (even Our Lord groaned at the death of Lazarus—Lazarus whom He would momentarily raise to life!!), we die a spiritual death of the soul long before that. This state of sorrow as we walk this earthly existence is found at the beginning of today’s Psalm 130:1-3:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?

Third, how is verse 15 fulfilled? In today’s Gospel passage, Mark 3:20-35, we see Jesus accused of casting out demons by the power of the serpent. After scorning this idea, Jesus presents the image of the strong man who breaks into someone’s house. Unless that strong man is bound and the house protected, he’ll come back. Jesus is the One Who will bind the strong man. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is waging war against the powers of darkness. Although the serpent and his minions clearly don’t realise the full truth of Jesus’ identity, there is more demonic activity in the Gospels than in the Old Testament, Acts, or the history of the church. They see something going on in Him, and they fight back. Jesus is the son of Eve prophesied in Genesis 3. He has come to bruise the serpent. So the serpent lashes out—hence all the demons who meet with Jesus. But the serpent undoes himself by his own attack on the Lord’s Anointed. For his own plan, and that of the fallen humans who have lost sight of the one, true, and living God, culminates in the unjust, public, humiliating execution of the Messiah, seeking to crush any hopes of salvation for the human race.

The serpent bites the heel of Eve’s Son.

But He crushes the serpent’s head.

The paradox of how Satan’s own plan undoes itself is encapsulated in a few lines of poetry by the fourth-century poet St Ephrem the Syrian:

The evil one fled from Him for awhile.

In the time of crucifixion he arrived,

and by the hand of the crucifiers he killed Him

so that He fell in the contest with death

to conquer Satan and death.

Hymns on Virginity 12

Christ has not died the first death whereby God departs from the human soul. Christ has not sinned. He does not deserve this second death, the death of the body. The ransom the devil is owed for his human life is taken unjustly. Not only that, Christ Himself is the one, true, and living God. Mortality cannot hold Him. And so, trampling down death by death, He destroys the power of the serpent and the power of death, undoing the curse and enabling humans to live according to the true, good nature in which God had first created them. Us. All we need do is trust in Him and accept the gift that His conquest of the serpent provides us.

Fourth, what are the ramifications of this for the human race? The ramifications of the destruction of the power of the devil are manifold. We can live forever. We can be freed from the corrupting power of sin. We can, therefore, resist the temptations we face from the serpent and his fallen angels. Not only this, but with the death of God on a Cross, humanity will never be the same again. God did not merely take onto Himself the just penalty for our wrongdoings when He was crucified (but that is certainly part of it!), He also brought humanity into divinity in a mysterious manner. What this means is that the regenerated life that accepts the gift of God in Jesus Christ finds itself on a new, better trajectory than the one in Eden before the Fall, intimately united with the life of Christ, its head. God’s plan is ultimately for the good—or rather, the best. We find ourselves invited to participate in the divine life when we accept the saving death of Jesus, when we enroll as His apprentices, and when we die to ourselves and rise again through the waters of baptism. We participate in that divine life at the Holy Communion.

And we will participate in it in the most glorious fashion in the final days, in the new heaven and the new earth, when we behold God face to face in that vision that brings true, ultimate happiness. This is the destiny of all who accept the fulfilment of the promise of Genesis 3:15. Eve’s Son has crushed the head of the serpent, and everything sad is coming untrue. We will live forever in glory. This is the promise of today’s epistle reading, 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Fifth, what is our here-and-now response to this good news? Worship and praise of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, to close, a pair of hymns from the Orthodox hymn book, the Octoechos:

TROPARION

By Your Cross, You destroyed death.

To the thief, You opened paradise.

For the Myrrhbearers, You changed weeping into joy.

And You commanded Your Disciples, O Christ God,

To proclaim that You are risen,

Granting the world great mercy.

KONTAKION

The dominion of death can no longer hold men captive,

For Christ descended, shattering, and destroying its powers.

Hades is bound, while the prophets rejoice, and cry out:

The Saviour has come to those in faith.

Enter, you faithful, into the resurrection.

Prayer-Book Augustinianism

I had the blessed opportunity to attend a lecture by Sarah Coakley at the Vancouver School of Theology back in 2018 about Trinitarian theology and mysticism. During the Q & A, somehow liturgy comes up (amongst Anglicans, not very surprising), and Coakley said something that has lurked within me ever since — setting aside the BCP would be a great loss, in part because of the rich Augustinian theology of the collects.

This struck me this week in particular because the Prayer Book collect is this:

ALMIGHTY God, who through thine only begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life: We humbly beseech thee, that as by thy special grace thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Canadian BCP 1959/62

The opening to this prayer is taken from the Use of Sarum, with origins at least as early as the Gelasian Sacramentary (7th-c):

O God, by Your only-begotten Son you have overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life; grant us, we ask you, that we who celebrate the solemnities of our Lord’s resurrection, may by the renewing of Your Spirit arise from the death of the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

My modernised version for congregational use.

I have to confess that I prefer the medieval version, but perhaps I am too cautious of moralism.

I did not ask Professor Coakley to elaborate with examples, of course, but I wonder if this collect, or collects of this sort, are what she means by “Augustinian”. According to Barbee and Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, the very opening of this prayer is anti-Pelagian, for the -ism associated with the name of Pelagius argues that we can by our own merit live good enough lives to reach heaven, thus rendering null and void the mystery of the cross.*

Cranmer then writes his own petition for the collect. In his version, we actually have an interesting little phrase that was excised in 1959/62, “as by thy special grace, preventing us, thou dost…” Preventing us in contemporary English sounds like God’s grace is stopping us from doing something. In fact, though, it is a thoroughly Augustinian concept that has been hijacked in modern theology — prevenient grace.

Prevenient grace in the context of 1549 when Thomas Cranmer wrote the prayer (thus eleven years before Arminius was even born) is the idea that the grace of God goes before us (pre-vent, go before, praevenio) and thereby empowers us to choose the good. The term has been adopted by Arminian side of the Arminian-Calvinist debate, it would seem, but here in Cranmer’s collect, it rides closer to Augustine and Luther than Jacobus Arminius.

How does it do so? Well, Cranmer is using the phrase “preventing us” to describe God’s “special grace” in its activity in our lives. And, by that preventing grace, God does “put in our minds good desires”. The question if the resistability or otherwise of God’s grace does not arise, but what we do see is that our good desires are a direct result of the action of God’s grace in our minds.

The petition proper is also itself of the school of Augustine — “so by thy continual help we may bring the same [ie. good desires] to good effect”.

I think that the phrase “preventing us” renders this prayer solidly with Augustine — but does it exclude other perspectives? No, it does not. The nineteenth-century Russian St Theophan the Recluse continually haunts my thoughts on grace and prayer:

It is most important to realize that prayer is always God-given: otherwise we may confuse the gift of grace with some achievement of our own.

In The Art of Prayer, ed. Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. Kadloubovsky and Palmer, p. 98

This is not the only time he says something like this. He repeats it in similar words throughout the book. The fifth-century Greek writer, St Mark the Monk (who made it into the Philokalia) says similar things about grace. I think this is worth considering because when we think about “grace” and how we need God’s help to think and do good, we think we are being particularly Augustinian and/or Reformed. And this collect, I would argue, is certainly part of that tradition, expressing these ideas in an Augustinian fashion, so Professor Coakley is assuredly correct in this characterisation.

Yet the wider tradition also sees a necessity for grace in our lives. And I think Prof. Coakley would emphatically agree, particularly that we have a tendency to drive a wedge between “East” and “West” that does not really exist when we look at the deeper agreements of our theological traditions.

*I have not read Pelagius, Caelestius, or Julian of Aeclanum myself, so I set aside judgement as to whether this is a fair statement of what they believe, simply noting that it is what the -ism associated with Pelagius is understood to be.

A rubric worth following

This morning, to save battery on my phone and for a bit of variety, I prayed the morning prayers from A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers instead of the Prayer Book Society’s Daily Prayer App. Some of these prayers are worth praying over and over and over again as well as meditating on. What I want to blog about, however, is the final rubric (which really ought to have come first):

If the time at disposal is short, and the need to begin work is pressing, it is preferable to say only a few of the suggested prayers, with attention and zeal, rather than to recite them all in haste and without due concentration.

A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, p. 11

I think this is a very important instruction. In fact, in Living Prayer, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom goes so far as to say that it is better to pray just one line of the Lord’s Prayer carefully, attentively, and truly mean it than it is to pray the whole thing without much thought.

As any longish-time reader of this blog knows, I am a big advocate of the Book of Common Prayer for both personal and corporate prayer and worship. But sometimes, in the midst of two kids under five, managing a cafe, and the various other pressures of life, I find myself swiftly rushing to reach the end. I often skip the Scripture lessons, to be honest. Sometimes, then, it is a blessing to have something shorter, such as the Canadian 1959/62 BCP’s prayers for use by families, or the book Celebrating Common Prayer, or, when truly pressed, to be Franciscan and pause simply to pray the Lord’s Prayer before life consumes you.

The main thing with praying fixed-hour prayer is to pray the prayers attentively and seek the Lord’s face. If you have the time to do this with the BCP or the Roman Breviary or some other long-ish book of hours — glory to God! If not, do not think yourself a failure in your hour of prayer. Make the most of the time available through attention and devotion.

Of course, there’s another facet to prayer life that’s a topic for another post, and that’s the fact that we have more time available than we think…

Athonites at prayer