Nicaea and the principle of church councils

The Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Today, my local Orthodox Church (Ecumenical Patriarchate of CP) was celebrating the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. I was hoping to slip into the Divine Liturgy, but no one unlocked the doors of the church, so I went for a short walk instead. Nonetheless, I felt it was timely, since this past Sunday my friend Cory was preaching on Acts 15, the ‘Council of Jerusalem’, wherein the Apostles gather to discuss whether Gentile Christians need to follow Mosaic ceremonial law or not.

The answer, as you know, is, ‘No.’

Actually, it’s a very interesting answer, because it includes this wonderful little phrase, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:28). It was not simply 12 Jewish dudes sitting around offering their own opinion on what level of commitment to Jewish law followers of the Way ought to have. Rather, the holy Apostles and the elders were gathered together in council, in dispute, and in prayer, and the Holy Spirit inspired them to see the way forward for the Jesus movement.

On what authority do these Apostles and elders decide that they know what seems good to the Holy Spirit?

Well, on the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom they had travelled for a few years, whose resurrection they witnessed, whose deep teaching they received, and whose ascension into heaven left them dumbfounded. Not only that, but the Holy Spirit Himself has descended in miraculous power upon these people. They were selected by Jesus before He ascended. And they were anointed by the Holy Spirit in a stunningly palpable way afterwards.

The principle governing the Acts 15 council at Jerusalem was that when the leaders of Christ’s church, set apart for headship and anointed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, prayerfully meet together, the Holy Spirit can communicate through them.

This, whether you agree with the Council of Nicaea and the other six ecumenical councils, is the biblical foundation of the authority of the councils. It is an application as logically applied to these councils as any application your local Baptist or Presbyterian minister is likely to give you for your own life from any other passage of Acts.

Arguably, more so.

I once heard one of the guys who was at some point associated with the word ‘Emergent’ (honestly, it was my sole encounter with him, years ago) state that he didn’t want to have to believe the Nicene Creed just because a bunch of guys said this was orthodoxy. Who, he said, were they to tell him what to believe?

The argument is this: They are the church’s chosen, anointed leaders.

The bishops gathered together in council. They argued. They prayed. Some guys may have been punched (unlikely — sorry, St Nicholas fans). They argued. They put together a faith statement. They argued about it. They signed off on it.

According to the ideal church structures of the time, each of these bishops was an actual spiritual elder. For example, St Spyridon was a shepherd of such great holiness of life that he was chosen to be bishop by the local community in Cyprus. The theory of episcopal election was that the local bishop, the overseer of local church life, was chosen — elected, even — by his local community, both clerical and lay. So each of the alleged 318 ‘Fathers’ at Nicaea was an elected representative of the Christian community in his home city. That, at least, is the theory.

Another fact is that they did not see themselves as a bunch of unrelated, discrete units, entirely autonomous of each other. They believed that the individual Christian believers, their local congregations, and the congregations of cities reaching from London to Adiabene, from Gallaecia to Alexandria, were united through the simple fact that they were Christ’s mystical body. Therefore, if you could get a majority of their elected, anointed leaders to agree about something, it was something to which to pay heed.

Now, you may think that is still all nonsense. And, in fact, the councils for which we have the blow-by-blow records show us how fractious these assemblies of Christ’s elected, anointed ministers could be. Furthermore, orthodoxy should probably be better determined than simply a majority vote. I, personally, agree with the seven ecumenical councils because I think they are the most philosophically defensible and biblically faithful expression of Christian doctrine out there.

But that’s a different argument, isn’t it?

Leo the Great, Second Sermon for the Ascension

Let’s stay in the fifth century and go back a few decades from the Rogations to Pope St Leo the Great’s Second Sermon for the Ascension. It begins thus:

The mystery of our salvation, dearly-beloved, which the Creator of the universe valued at the price of His blood, has now been carried out under conditions of humiliation from the day of His bodily birth to the end of His Passion. And although even in the form of a slave many signs of Divinity have beamed out, yet the events of all that period served particularly to show the reality of His assumed Manhood. But after the Passion, when the chains of death were broken, which had exposed its own strength by attacking Him, Who was ignorant of sin, weakness was turned into power, mortality into eternity, contumely into glory, which the Lord Jesus Christ showed by many clear proofs in the sight of many, until He carried even into heaven the triumphant victory which He had won over the dead. As therefore at the Easter commemoration, the Lord’s Resurrection was the cause of our rejoicing; so the subject of our present gladness is His Ascension, as we commemorate and duly venerate that day on which the Nature of our humility in Christ was raised above all the host of heaven, over all the ranks of angels, beyond the height of all powers, to sit with God the Father. On which Providential order of events we are founded and built up, that God’s Grace might become more wondrous, when, notwithstanding the removal from men’s sight of what was rightly felt to command their awe, faith did not fail, hope did not waver, love did not grow cold. For it is the strength of great minds and the light of firmly-faithful souls, unhesitatingly to believe what is not seen with the bodily sight, and there to fix one’s affections whither you cannot direct your gaze. And whence should this Godliness spring up in our hearts, or how should a man be justified by faith, if our salvation rested on those things only which lie beneath our eyes? Hence our Lord said to him who seemed to doubt of Christ’s Resurrection, until he had tested by sight and touch the traces of His Passion in His very Flesh, because you have seen Me, you have believed: blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed (John 20:29).

Sermon 74, 17 May 445

The Ascension by Phoebe Anna Traquair at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, my photo

Rogations (Late Antique Christianity today?)

Most of us pay no heed to the Rogations or ‘Rogationtide’. Most Anglicans observe these three days, Monday-Wednesday before Ascension, by not observing them. Or simply noting a different collect from Sunday and a shift from the lectio continua and round of Psalms in the Prayer Book lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer. Everything has an origin. In this case, fifth-century Gaul.

St Mamertus (Bishop of Vienne, dca 475, brother of Claudianus Mamertus) introduced the Rogations, as we read in Sidonius Apollinaris (430-89) in a letter to his friend Aper:

The solemn observance of these [Rogations] was first inititaed, and introduced to us by the father and pontiff Mamertus, who thereby set an example worthy of all reverence and launched a most salutary venture. Before this the public prayers (with all respect to the faith, be it said) were irregular, lukewarm, sparsely attended, and, so to speak, full of yawns; their purpose was frequently obscured by the disturbing interruptions for meals, and they tended to become for the most part petitions for rain or for fine weather; indeed, to put it mildly, the potter and the gardene ought not to have attended them together. 3. But in these Rogations, which the aforesaid chief priest has both made known to us and made over to us, there are prayer and fasting, psalmody and lamentation. I beg your presence at this festival of humbly bowed heads, this fellowship of sighing suppliants; and if I am a true judge of your spiritual leanings you will come all the more promptly now that you are summoned not to a feast but to tears. Farewell. (Letters 5.14; trans. W.B. Anderson, Loeb Classical Library)

Sidonius also mentions the Rogations in a letter to Mamertus, saying that they are a consolation to the people of Auvergne in the impending invasion of the Goths (Letters 7.1), saying later in the letter:

This people of Clermont, knowing that these calamities all came upon your people of Vienne before your intervention and have not come near them since, eagerly follow the lead of your hallowed instruction, diligently entreating that one so blessedly supreme in spirituality may grant the support of his prayers to those to whom he has now sent copies of the Rogations.

Later in the century, Alcimus Ecdicius Avitus, Bishop of Vienne (ca 494 – ca 518) preached homilies on the Rogations. Avitus says:

The bishop therefore tested the initial enthusiasm, being particularly concerned to hold the prayer of the first procession at the basilica which was then nearer the walls of the city, so that the observation should not immediately become contemptible at its inception, with few supporting it, on account of the slowness of the people to take it up. It went with great speed, large numbers and the greatest remorse, so that the procession truly seemed short and narrow to the tears and labours of the people. But as soon as the holy bishop saw signs of greater things from the effect of the lesser ones, there was instituted on the following day what we are about to undergo first, i.e. tomorrow, if God assents. The churches of the Gauls subsequently followed the action that set such a pleasing example, but in such a fashion that it was not celebrated among all on the same days on which it had been instituted among us.

… And if we ought assiduously to confess that we have sinned, there is a need for the duty of confessing and of the humility of repenting – above all because the compunction of the united populace can thus be combined with the incitement of good works, so that the recalcitrant may blush yet more appropriately, if, contradicting the whole multitude in the solitude of his own mind he does not lament his sins or vice along with the weeping populace. It is therefore necessary to conspire in good work. Each takes from the other either an example from humility or solace in confession. Excessively dangerous and for the few is that lonely combat, in which the strength on the other side is tested. But truly, when the approval of the multitude fights against the common enemy, the courage of another man drags along even the timid soldier. (Homily 6 on the Rogations, trans. Ian Wood for Translated Texts for Historians)

The 511 Council of Orléans uses the fantastic adjective quadraginsimalis to describe the Rogations — ‘Lent-like’. The penitential character is thus key, along with public prayers to God (litanies), combined with processions. By the 590s, Gregory of Tours seems just to assume that the Rogations are a regular part of liturgical life.

I shall not trace the history farther because it would take me too long to learn it. Nonetheless, the practice spread from Gaul; it likely went to England with the Roman missionaries who had a lot of contact with Gaul (recall that Augustine of Canterbury was consecrated by the Metropolitan of Arles). Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Christianity interacted a lot in the Early Middle Ages, and then England got conquered by William the Bastard in 1066, himself from France.

As I say, I don’t know any congregation that practices this Late Antique solemn observance, although they probably exist. Whether they do processions, who can say? Nonetheless, for the past three days, I’ve prayed the Litany at Morning Prayer, as well as this Collect:

Assist us mercifully, O Lord, in these our supplications and prayers, and dispose the way of thy servants towards the attainment of everlasting salvation; that, among all the changes and chances of this mortal life, they may ever be defended by thy most gracious and ready help; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We may no longer see natural disaster as God’s judgement for our sins (and no good Augustinian should!), but we should nevertheless live lives of repentance as well as intercessory supplication. The Rogations are as good a time as any to readjust our focus, and in observing them we can join with our forebears in the faith back to the year 473.

 

 

Perfection is infinite

When I was in undergrad, there was a friend of some friends who was interested in Christianity, but who believed that God/Christ being ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever’ and being perfect would mean that God could not act. Sameness, he argued, implied stasis; God cannot be a dynamic being if He is the same, but, rather, a static one. So God can’t do things, because doing things implies changing.

However, God is perfect, so He is perfectum, which means he is complete and lacks nothing. If we consider this idea in terms of fulfilling your our purpose or (since God is self-sufficient) being eminently what you are by nature or essence (ontologically), then we see that God can act and still be perfect; indeed, perhaps if God did not act, he would be imperfect. If perfection implies being what you are at its fullest, and God is love, then perfection would logically mean that God acts, but that none of his acts are imperfect. He loves perfectly.

He also, as I’ve argued here before, loves infinitely.

From this question, let us ask another. How can we fulfil Jesus’ command to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect? (Mt. 5:48) Or how do we understand Hebrews 10:14, where it is said, ‘by one sacrifice he [Christ] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’? What does it mean when we think on heaven/paradise, where there seems to be an expectation that there will no longer be sin? Does this mean we sit around doing nothing?

By no means! In fact, it doesn’t even mean that we will have no room for growth and development. St Gregory of Sinai (c. 1260-1346) says:

It is said that in the life to come the angels and saints ever increase in gifts of grace and never abate their longing for further blessings. No lapse or veering from virtue to vice takes place in that life. –Philokalia, volume 4, p 222

The idea here is one that goes back at least to St Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) who discussed in The Life of Moses that since God is infinitely good, then we finite beings will never stop progressing in goodness. It is an interesting idea. Perfection for the finite means progress (true progress) in holiness, in becoming more like God (that is, theosis).

As far as this life is concerned, we must realise that we can always be holier, even if we are less sinful than we used to be. Our finite state of goodness is not simply marred by sin but limited by its own nature. St Athanasius (296-373) expresses the idea that Adam and Eve would have progressed in knowledge and maturity and holiness of a divine sort even if they hadn’t disobeyed in the Garden (see On the Incarnation).

Even the angels progress in grace.

This is what a better understanding of infinity and finitude can do for us. Ever upwards!

Review of The Ancient Path by John Michael Talbot

The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life TodayThe Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today by John Michael Talbot
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book will most appeal to Roman Catholics and fans of John Michael Talbot. I read it because I am a JMT fan, having listened to his music my whole life, and having read three of his other books (The Lessons of Saint Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily LifeThe Lessons of Saint Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily Life, The Music of Creation: Foundations of a Christian Life, and Reflections on St. Francis) — and I am a Patristics scholar. I was interested to see what this Francisco-Benedictine musician had to say about the Church Fathers. Oh, and I was pretty sure the book deserved better than a single one-star review on amazon.co.uk!

However, I can see why someone might be disappointed by this book. It honestly does not do what it is advertised as doing, not even what the Foreword by Cardinal Donald Wuerl says. It is not an introduction to the Church Fathers. Not by a long shot. This is part memoir, part invitation to the Fathers, part personal and devotional discourse on the Fathers. Furthermore, the sayings and teachings of the Fathers have been digested thoroughly by Talbot’s own life experience as a modern Roman Catholic; this results in them sometimes being taken at face value, and the book often reads, for example, as though he unproblematically assumes that Ignatius of Antioch was a bishop the same way John Chrysostom was a bishop 300 years later.

What we do see as we read, though, is a vision of the historic Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches as being the successors to the Fathers. Talbot is aware of the ‘development’ of tradition — he believes, then, the fullness of the Patristic trajectory is found in Roman Catholicism. Therefore, what he is finding in the Fathers is not always the same things their ancient readers or hearers would have found. Instead, what he finds is wisdom for today that speaks to the Roman Catholic soul, finding either timeless gems or modern readings that are themselves worth pondering.

That may sound patronising or damning with faint praise. I hope not! I, myself, read the Fathers in my own context for their wisdom. Certainly, the great historical analyses of the Fathers that expound what they meant in their context, what the causes and effects of their tradition were, are of great value. That’s what some of us get paid to do. But all of us, as Christians, should also ask: What is the perennial wisdom and value in the Church Fathers? This is what Talbot offers. Furthermore, you can tell that Talbot, too, has profited from historical-critical research into the Church Fathers.

The book begins with the story of the fire of 2008 that destroyed the main building of Little Portion Hermitage, including the library and archives and monuments to Talbot’s recording career. And thus a rediscovery afresh of the community’s, and Talbot’s, own fathers. Then we learn a bit about how Talbot came to Roman Catholicism, and his time amongst Franciscans before founding the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, and taking us through various themes of his life and career to today, when he is an itinerant teacher. Throughout, he offers some of his favourite teachings, fathers, and texts and discusses how they have influenced his life and spiritual journey as a Roman Catholic.

In this book you’ll be introduced to the Didache, St Ignatius of Antioch, St John Chrysostom, St Diadochus of Photiki, St Cyril of Jerusalem, St Cyril of Alexandria, St Irenaeus of Lyons, as well as a host of others more cursorily. I had hoped for more discussion of the content of Chrysostom, as well as of mystagogy — his chapter on mystagogy is more of an example of mystagogy for the Mass as celebrated in the USA today. I had also hoped for a wee bit more on St Benedict (I guess I’ll have to read his book Blessings of St. Benedict for that!

In the end, I would recommend this to a Catholic friend or fellow fan of JMT (as I said at the top) who is curious about how we can live in the light of the Fathers today. Demonstrating that point is something that JMT has done admirably, and I hope we can all come to a place where we have become so suffused with Scripture and tradition that the Fathers come naturally to mind at any time.

View all my reviews

Boethius on divinity and happiness

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy 3.10:

Since it is through the possession of happiness that people become happy, and since happiness is in fact divinity, it is clear that it is through the possession of divinity that they become happy. But by the same logic as men become just through the possession of justice, or wise through the possession of wisdom, so those who possess divinity necessarily become divine. Each happy individual is therefore divine. While only God is so by nature, as many as you like may become so by participation. (Trans. V.E. Watts)

Boethius (or, rather, Philosophy) goes on to argue that happinessgoodness, so you are not truly happy unless you are truly good. This is part of the argument that only God, the Supreme Good, is ultimately happy. That’s a necessary piece of context. (For more context, read my review.) It’s important, because if committing murder or lying to people or stealing make you have feelings you call ‘happy’, this does not mean you are participating in divinity. In fact, according to Boethius, you wouldn’t be happy at all because evil is itself a tendency towards non-existence.

Upon reading this passage, those of us who spend time with the Eastern Orthodox will immediately cry aloud, ‘Ah, theosis!’ And, indeed, it is part of what is going on here, part of the passage from praktike to theoria symbolised by Philosophy’s gown as she stands before the senator in his prison cell. Of these latter two words, theoria is usually Englished as contemplation. So we are back in our sixth-century contemplative context, a few decades before Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury.

This, I would argue, is the philosophical basis of Christian mysticism. God is good. To be truly happy, one must be good. God is wholly good, so he is perfectly happy. Therefore, for us to become happy, we have to connect with God and have communion with Him.

Suffering (St Mark the Monk and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom)

An illuminating interview with Anthony Bloom is at the bottom of this post. Skip to it if you only have 22 minutes…

Holy Saturday.

Countless sermons and Eastertide devotionals remind us of what Our Lord’s disciples must have felt this day.

Bewilderment. Loss. Fear. Disillusionment. Suffering of an existential variety.

The day before, Good Friday.

One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.

Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, Who was crucified for us, have mercy.

Kyrie eleison!

Christ rests in the tomb. Some days, it feels like maybe He stayed there — personal suffering blocking theological perspective. Illness of oneself or a loved one, poverty, bereavement, loss of employment, tenuous employment, tense work/family/household/school/church situations, mental illness.

There are actually no easy answers for suffering. Brother Lawrence in The Practice of the Presence of God says that we should accept illness, in particular, as God’s will for us, that we may learn to live under His will. My friend with chronic illness found this singularly unhelpful.

In God and Man, Met. Anthony Bloom says that as Christians, we must be ready to suffer. Indeed, he says that Christianity necessarily involves suffering. This is in stark contrast to what we usually think about religion. I remarked to a group of students recently that many people join different religions or ancient mysteries because they are promised happiness through religion — except, I said, by Met. Anthony.

At the bottom of this article, I am posting a video interview with Met. Anthony from CBC back in what looks like the 1980s. I’m a bit surprised to find this interview coming from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but I’ll take it! Anyway, in the interview, Met. Anthony believes that our suffering can be truly transformative and redemptive in our lives — if we suffer with love.

Love is what makes all the difference for Met. Anthony, although he also believes that fortitude and endurance can make suffering good for us as well. This is in contrast to how most of us view our own sufferings and those of others today. It is, however, in keeping with the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

St Mark the Monk (or ‘Ascetic’ or ‘Solitary’) wrote in the early to mid-400s, at a time when Nestorian and Pelagian ideas were hot topics. He is the next author in The Philokalia after St John Cassian on whom I blogged fairly extensively in February. I find St Mark hard to grasp at times, and I do not always agree with him. But he is worth wrestling with.

Some thoughts from ‘On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts’ (trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware):

42. Afflictions bring blessing to man; self-esteem and sensual pleasure, evil.

43. He who suffers injustice escapes sin, finding help in proportion to his affliction.

65. To accept an affliction for God’s sake is a genuine act of holiness; for true love is tested by adversities.

66. Do not claim to have acquired virtue unless you have suffered affliction, for without affliction virtue has not been tested.

67. Consider the outcome of every involuntary affliction, and you will find it has been the destruction of sin.

Numbers 65-67 resonate particularly with the teaching of Met. Anthony. I believe that part of what we see in these verses is a redirection of the heart. What matters is not, ultimately, blame, or origin of suffering. What matters is not its intensity. What matters is our response to it. This is part of the arguments found in Cassian’s Conferences, in fact; their philosophical roots are Stoicism.

If suffering comes our way, it is best, ultimately, to respond with reality. I was going to say, ‘If suffering comes our way, do we blame God, or see how we can respond to suffering in faith and virtue?’ But, really, how many of us have reached such a state of purity of heart that such is even possible. The Psalms teach us to be real with God.

The Psalms also push through disappointment, anger, frustration, grief, etc., directed towards God and draw us up into joy and glory.

So, perhaps, we should certainly give God whatever true feelings we have in the moment. But maybe the reflective and meditative exercise on sufferings is to see how we can become more virtuous through them? Maybe we can use the things over which we have no control to better our lives and the lives of others in areas where we do have control?

There are no quick, easy answers to suffering. But I think Met. Anthony Bloom of Sourozh is onto something.

I’d certainly take his view on suffering over Joel Osteen any day.