The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition by Andrew Louth (review)

The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to DenysThe Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys by Andrew Louth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a fine piece of introduction and analysis of what may, rather then ‘mystical’, more precisely be considered the contemplative strand of Christianity as it took on and then adapted (or at times rejected) the Platonic inheritance. The 2006 edition is definitely to be preferred, for in this edition Louth closes with a very challenging Afterword wherein he confronts the very concept of mysticism. We all think we know what the word means, but probably we don’t.

After chapters on Plato, Philo, and Plotinus, Louth discusses Origen; ‘Nicene Orthodoxy’ which includes Athanasius (who raises an anti-‘mystical’ challenge to Platonism) and Gregory of Nyssa; ‘The Monastic Contribution’ which considers Evagrius of Pontus (the rich but problematic Origenist/Platonist), the Macarian Homilies, and Diadochus of Photiki who brings out strands in both of the other two in this chapter; Augustine of Hippo’s contribution; then Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (whom he refers to as ‘Denys’).

Living in a post-Carmelite age whose understanding of Christian ‘mysticism’ is indelibly marked by the late medieval and early modern inheritance, Chapter 9 is an important discussion of St John of the Cross and the patristic inheritance. Louth argues that there is, indeed, some difference, but more often of style and perspective than content. The final chapter is ‘The Mystical Life and the Mystical Body’. This final chapter reminds us of a chief difference between ancient Christian ‘mysticism’ and the philosophers, for the ancient Christians always thought in terms of the Christian community, the liturgy, and the communion of saints, rather than Plotinus flight of the alone to the Alone.

In each of the ancient philosophers or patristic authors analysed, Louth gives us a run-through of what we may consider his ‘mystical’ teaching, looking both at their reception and at their challenge of Platonist ideas. It is a helpful book in many ways, although one is reminded that most of the praktike of the contemplative tradition in Christianity is the pursuit of moral virtue and askesis rather than the delineation of particular psychological practices as taught by the baptised Buddhism of Anthony de Mello, S.J., in Sadhana. I would have liked to have seen more on Diadochus and the Jesus Prayer, since the Jesus Prayer is the heart of so much of what we may consider Eastern Orthodox ‘mysticism’ today.

In the end, I recommend this book. At times it is challenging to read. At times, since it is introductory, it feels not quite deep enough. But overall, it gives you some idea of the landscape of these authors and this strand, as well as questions to take with you on your own journey into the broad literature of Christian spirituality.

View all my reviews

The Unknowability of the Trinity in Ps-Dionysius

Following on from yesterday’s post about the dangers of overreliance on logic and Aristotelian philosophy as we do theology, here is a quotation I’ve found in Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, in his chapter about Pseudo-Dionysius (or ‘Denys’ as Louth calls him, flourished c. 500). ‘Cataphatic’ theology is when we make positive statements about God, the kind of theology we tend to do in academia, and ‘apophatic’ theology is the pathway of negation, where we assert that we can only explain God by negative comparison. That is to say, God is infinite, timelessimmortal, whereas we are finite, timebound, and mortal. In apophatic theology, you make the cataphatic assertions of Trinitarian dogma, and then realise that you are already entering into the cloud of unknowing, for who can truly express the homoousion of three persons?

The quotation is from Vladimir Lossky, and the internal quotation is Ps-D’s On the Divine Names:

This is why the revelation of the Holy Trinity, which is the summit of cataphatic theology, belongs also to apophatic theology, for ‘if we learn from the Scriptures that the Father is the source of divinity, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the divine progeny, the divine seeds, so to say, and flowers and lights that transcend being, we can neither say nor understand what that is.’ (DN II. 7)

The passage is from Lossky’s article, ‘La notion des “analogies” chez le Pseudo‐Denys l’Aréopagite’, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Âge, 5 (1930), 279–309, at p. 283. Cited by Louth on page 161.

 

Trinity and Philosophy in ancient Christianity

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico, San Marco Priory, Florence

One of the great difficulties facing Christians as we seek to think properly about God’s self-revelation to us through Scripture, the Incarnation, and the ongoing life of the church at prayer and worship is how to think rationally, clearly, and intelligently about the things of God. Sometimes our attempts to provide possible solutions to problems, solutions that seem to be philosophically coherent, bring us into some trouble — thus, pitfalls such as Apollinarianism and Nestorianism; these are ways of thinking about Jesus Christ, the God-Man, the Second Person of the Trinity Incarnate that, in some way, do violence to either the Scriptural narrative or the reasoning mind. Orthodoxy is the attempt to avoid such violence in how we think about God.

One of the great dangers facing Christians as we seek to think properly about God is to imagine that human reason is a flawless tool that cannot err. Ancient and early mediaeval Christians, Platonists though often they were, had a somewhat different relationship to reason and philosophy. We often read anti-philosophy statements, such as the famous Tertullian dictum, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ The medieval monks were constantly back and forth on the subject of philosophy, as to whether it was good or bad — indeed, the same monk may take up either side of said cause at different times. But what those who stayed the course and found themselves within the bounds of orthodoxy found was that the revelation in sacred Scripture had to be upheld, as understood by both reason and tradition. This is, indeed, how the doctrine of the Trinity was put together — prayerful, reasoned reflection on Scripture in light of the worshipping tradition of the gathered Christian community.

In the fifth century, a fellow named Socrates (obvs not the pagan philosopher) wrote about a particular heretic of the second half of the 300s, Aetius, in his Ecclesiastical History as follows, saying that Aetius

began to astonish those who conversed with him by the singularity of his discourses. And this he did in dependence on the precepts of Aristotle’s Categories; there is a book of that name, the scope of which he neither himself perceived, nor had been enlightened on by intercourse with learned persons: so that he was little aware that he was framing fallacious arguments to perplex and deceive himself. For Aristotle had composed this work to exercise the ingenuity of his young disciples, and to confound by subtle arguments the sophists who affected to deride philosophy. Wherefore the Ephectic academicians, who expound the writings of Plato and Plotinus, censure the vain subtlety which Aristotle has displayed in that book: but Aëtius, who never had the advantage of an academical preceptor, adhered to the sophisms of the Categories. For this reason he was unable to comprehend how there could be generation without a beginning, and how that which was begotten can be co-eternal with him who begat. In fact, Aëtius was a man of so superficial attainments, and so little acquainted with the sacred Scriptures, and so extremely fond of caviling, a thing which any clown might do, that he had never carefully studied those ancient writers who have interpreted the Christian oracles; wholly rejecting Clemens and Africanus and Origen, men eminent for their information in every department of literature and science. But he composed epistles both to the emperor Constantius, and to some other persons, wherein he interwove tedious disputes for the purpose of displaying his sophisms. He has therefore been surnamed Atheus. But although his doctrinal statements were similar to those of the Arians, yet from the abstruse nature of his syllogisms, which they were unable to comprehend, his associates in Arianism pronounced him a heretic. Being for that reason expelled from their church, he pretended to have separated himself from their communion. Even in the present day there are to be found some who from him were formerly named Aëtians, but now Eunomians. For some time later Eunomius, who had been his amanuensis, having been instructed by his master in this heretical mode of reasoning, afterwards became the head of that sect. But of Eunomius we shall speak more fully in the proper place. (trans. NPNF2, vol. 2)

Aetius is thus said to be the teacher of Eunomius, who is accused by the famous Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa) of being a logic-chopper. Eunomius is one of the most purely logical and reason-driven of the various persons called ‘Arian’. Here we see the concern that many ancient Christians had with pure reason. Aetius’ chief problem, from the way Socrates describes him, is his dependence upon Aristotle. He has treated the Categories almost as a divine book of truth to which all ways of thinking should be subsumed.

To cherry pick simply to demonstrate the point:

Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith’s sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrine so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture. -Athanasius, De Synodis, 6.

But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to thee by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures . . . Take heed then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which ye now receive, and write them and the table of your heart. -Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 5:12.

The other ‘Arians’ or ‘Semi-Arians’ or ‘Homoians’ were themselves conservative in this respect — in the creed of Rimini, their main case against consubstantial or homoousion is that it is unscriptural (see Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 2.37). The supreme authority in the Christian faith is not, was not, shall not be, human reason. Reason alone cannot impose any belief on the Christian. And if you believe that reason has brought you to a conclusion that runs counter to Scripture and Tradition, then what you believe is not Christian. But if it is true, then perhaps Christianity is not.

As John Anthony McGuckin says in the introduction to his new volume on first-millennium church history, The Path of Christianity, Christianity itself is a strangely conservative institution, even when it is radical and disruptive. Ancient and medieval Christians were always looking back, back to Scripture and to the long line of living tradition that brought them to where they were. Or they were looking around themselves at the worship offered to the Father through the Son in the Spirit and meditating on that in light of Scripture.

People like to imagine where ‘western Christianity went wrong’ — the Orthodox imagine it one way, Protestants in others, Mormons in a new way yet again. Sometimes I wonder if the symptoms are not present already in St Anselm (whom I love). He makes clear, articulate use of Aristotle, including The Categories. However, rather than arguing that the Trinity cannot be deducted by reason, he seeks to prove with pure logic not only that there the Supreme Good is Trinity, but that it is and must be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now, he does not slide into falsehood. And a great many of the Scholastics who follow him, such as Sts Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great, do not fall into falsehood.

But High and Late Medieval logic-chopping gets underway, alas, leading to a rejection of analogical language for God, thus producing ideas such as ‘being’ for God is the same as ‘being’ for my chair. In some respects, this adulation of Aristotle is part of the problem that we western Christians need to shake. Anselm has it, ‘I believe in order that I may understand,’ but today many think they understand but have no faith. The life of faith will ever be a matter of tension, I think, and one of those tensions lies in accepting revelation and thinking articulately with logic.

For other musings on Eunomius, see Fr Aidan’s recent post at Eclectic Orthodoxy, ‘The Curious Trinity of Dale Tuggy’.

Christological thoughts from 2007

I thought I’d re-post this here, a long-lost piece from 11 November 2007 that I referred to in my most recent post. My thoughts have probably shifted and matured in 10 years. At least, I hope they’ve matured. They’ve definitely shifted — I would retract some things I say about Nestorius, and I definitely reject Jenson’s reading of Leo. But this fresh discovery of ancient Christianity and the excitement it brought me is worthy of remembrance…

Behold your God

… I got out a little light reading, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy by Thomas C Oden and Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century edited by Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A Hall.

And so, between walking and reading, and sitting in St. Alban’s Square reading, I had my mind blown away.

My mind was blessedly cracked open and happily split by Robert W. Jenson, whose essay “With No Qualifications: the Christological Maximalism of the Christian East”* (I told you it was light reading) delved into the depths of what it means for Jesus to be Lord.

He said nothing especially revolutionary–this is, in fact, the whole point of the book. Indeed, what he did was merely articulate what I already know to be true. What he said resonated with my spirit as well as with the universe and the revelation of Holy Scripture. Yet he articulated truths that are so rarely articulated and so rarely articulated well, and thus my brain is thinking about this and meditating and whirling and wanting to tell you–all of you!

So: Jesus is Lord.

And there is only one Lord–Yahweh, the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer of all things, the One Who exists from everlasting to everlasting, the Holy God, the King and Ruler of ALL–who is perfectly holy and perfectly just and perfectly loving and perfectly perfect and wholly God and wholly other and beyond all and in all and through all and all of it.

Jesus is Him.

And when we say, “Jesus is God” — or, rather, “Jesus is the Son, and the Son is God,” (17), we are to say unequivocally. There is no mincing of words as with Nestorianism (that sounds awfully a lot like some of the freaky weird “esoteric” Christianity out there as found in Tom Harpur):

the Son so “inhabits” Jesus that the man Jesus is a temple wholly transparent to his presence, or that the Son is so personally “conjoined” with Jesus that from our point of view they cannot be told apart, or that they too will be in fact one person at the End, after the suffering is over. (18)

And sorry to my Catholic brothers and sisters. I agree with Jenson, Pope Leo missed the boat, too [2017: I disagree with Jenson on this now]. Leo’s theology is what one of my undergrad profs described succinctly as follows: Jesus is like a marble cake. Leo says (and this is an actual quote from the Tome of Leo, which I think is online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library somewhere):

Each nature is the agent of what is proper to it, working in fellowship with the other: the Word doing what is appropriate to the Word and the flesh what is appropriate to the flesh. The one shines forth in the miracles; the other submits to the injuries. (19)

To skip over a large amount of the following controversies, the truth as I believe it is to be found when one reads the Scriptures and applies his mental faculties to them, when one finally admits to the entirety of the claim that Jesus is Lord is as follows, to quote Jenson:

the man Jesus, exactly as his personhood is defined by the life story told in the Gospels, is the one called the Son, the second identity of God. Jesus is the Son, with no qualifications. (22)

Thus, finally, what sort of blew my mind away was when Jenson applied this to the reality of who God is. Whoever the Gospels reveal Jesus to be, is exactly who God is–not just in character. Thus:

Mary is the Mother of God. Unus ex Trinitate mortuus est pro nobis. [One of the Trinity died on behalf of us.] One of the Trinity is a Palestinian Jew who came eating and drinking and forgave sin and prophesied implausible glory. Jesus saves. These and more sentences are the great metaphysical truth of the gospel, without which it is all religious palaver and wish fulfillment and metaphorical projection. Jesus really is Lord because he is one of the Trinity, and that is our salvation. (22)

Like I said, nothing new–indeed, St. Maximus the Confessor was saying these things in the 600s (some of his works are available through the St. Pachomius Library), and people were believing them from the Apostolic Age, and have believed it until now–”‘Tis mystery all, th’Immortal dies!” (Charles Wesley). This is the reality that causes The Bridegroom, an icon of Christ bound and crowned with thorns and stripped of all but the mocking purple robe and the stalk (hyssop?), my favourite icon, because it speaks a very profound truth about Who God Is. He suffers with us. He died for us.

In ways we cannot fully express with words, the eternal God, coeternal and consubstantial Father and Son, has human flesh as part of Him, while still maintaining His transcendence, His otherness, His holiness, His perfection, His immutability! Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. He is crowned and throned in Glory and Eternity, with real flesh and bone because He took on flesh and pitched His tent among us, He set aside His glory out of love in order that we could know Him and be saved from sin and death! And so the Man Jesus is the Word, the Son. He is God–wholly God, entirely God, with no ifs ands or buts–no qualifications.

But these truths are not always so starkly and boldly stated.

They do leave us Protestants with some uncomfortable phrases. Like “Mary the Mother of God.” I’ve always been a fan of, “Mary, the mother of the human fleshly part of Jesus, the mother of Jesus’ human nature.” But Jesus, God the Son, kept that flesh when He ascended. He is not some ethereal Spirit, He has, is flesh! He took that flesh born from the womb of His mother and made it part of the Divine Nature. The Word took on flesh and pitched His tent among us! In a very real way, although Jesus is pure, preexistent, eternal God from everlasting to everlasting, Mary is God’s mom. But that’s not really what blew my mind.

Merely the simple, hard, earthy fact that Jesus with dirty feet, whom I love, whom I exalt, whom I praise, adore, extol, worship, point to, is, in fact, in Heaven ruling the Universe. And His hands are still scarred, along with His feet, His side, His brow. His heart broke for us. And He took that heart to Glory.

And it also messes with our ideas of God being transcendent. God the immutable was hungry. God the perfect pooped his swaddling cloths. God the holy thirsted. God the wholly other wept at the death of a friend. God Himself got tired and slept. He got angry. He laughed. He cried. In a very real, very orthodox, and extremely unheretical way, God was human. And when He left us to carry on His mission on earth, He kept that flesh, glorifying it and perfecting it.

Some of my other light reading recently was a book called The Trivialization of God by Donald C McCullough. In this book the author discusses how the church in the West has placed God off to the side and put up some pretty nice-looking golden calves in His place. He then discusses how we are to topple the golden calves, and how God Himself topples them, and what the foundations of our thinking really ought to be.

One thing that really stood out for me was his insistence on awe and wonder as necessary for our relationship with God. We need to realise that God is bigger than everything, that God is beautiful, that God is beyond our total comprehension, and that God loves us. And since God loves us unequivocally, He bridged the divide that our wickedness created between us and Him and came as a Man. Therefore, our thinking about God begins in agnosticism — we just don’t really know, and then it always moves through Jesus, through the God-Man, to find out who God is.

And so I’ve tried praying and thinking through that paradigm: I know nothing. God is hugemongous. And Jesus, being God, is His perfect revelation.

So this essay by Jenson was absorbed by me quite willingly. I recommend it highly.

*The random numbers (in brackets) represent page numbers from the essay, which is found in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A Hall, ed. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002, pp. 13-22.

William Lane Craig and heresy: The need for greater historical awareness amongst evangelicals

Council of Chalcedon

In seeking to clear Dr William Lane Craig of the stain of heresy as spread through rumour, Kevin Harris interviewed Craig over at the Reasonable Faith Podcast. Unfortunately, what Craig outlines in the interview is, in fact, Apollinarianism, and not something inspired by it — not even Cyrillian Christology. His defence in offering this Christology is that he sees it as a mere possibility, stating:

By offering this model I suggest that this is not at all logically incoherent, and moreover that this is a biblically faithful portrait of Jesus as well.

Craig’s position is this:

What I suggest is:

  1. We agree with the Council of Chalcedon that in Christ we have one person with two natures – human and divine.
  2. The soul of the human nature of Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the Logos. The human nature of Christ is composed of the Logos and a human body.
  3. The divine aspects of the Logos are largely concealed in Christ’s subconsciousness so that he had a waking conscious life that would be typical of any human being and that like the mass of an iceberg submerged beneath the surface so in his divine subconsciousness there lay the fullness of divinity. The waking consciousness was typically human.

Those are the three planks of the model.

The problem with these three planks is that planks 2 and 3 contradict plank 1. Plank 1 rests on the Council of Chalcedon, and that council states that Jesus is ‘perfect in humanity’ with ‘a reasoning soul and body’. The Chalcedonian Definition goes on to say, ‘the property of each nature [is] preserved, coming together into a single person [prosopon] and a single subsistence [hypostasis].’ If the soul of the human nature of Christ is the Logos, then Jesus does not have a human soul. That is a necessary aspect of having a full human nature; that is one of the properties of human nature as indicated by the Chalcedonian definition. That Christ is ‘perfect’ in his humanity means that his humanity is complete.

Craig elucidates his position as follows:

Apollinarius’ original view was that Christ didn’t have a complete human nature. He had a human body but he didn’t have a human soul. He didn’t have a human nature. As a result he wasn’t really truly human. That calls into question the reality of the incarnation and also the effectiveness of Christ’s death on our behalf since he did not share our nature.

What I argue in my Neo-Apollinarian proposal is that the Logos brought to the human body just those properties which would make it a complete human nature – things like rationality, self-consciousness, freedom of the will, and so forth. Christ already possessed those in his divine nature, and it is in virtue of those that we are created in the image of God. So when he brought those properties to the animal body – the human body – it completes it and makes it a human nature. Against Apollinarius, I want to say that Christ did have a complete human nature. He was truly God and truly man. Therefore his death on our behalf as our representative before God was efficacious.

What he describes is honest-to-goodness Apollinarianism. The reason Apollinarius doesn’t give Jesus a human soul is because the divine Logos has taken the place of the human soul in Jesus. This is exactly what Craig is saying. As soon as the divine Logos takes the place of the human soul in Jesus, Jesus does not possess a complete human nature, even if Craigs wants to say that he did.

Craig is explicitly concerned in the interview with ensuring the unity of Christ, that the divine and human natures of Jesus are essentially two persons in the one body (‘Nestorianism’ as we call it). This is Apollinaris’ concern:

Whoever teaches that there are two types of reason in Christ, I mean the divine and the human one, acts as if he were able to engrave letters in a rock with a finger. For if each type of reason is in control of itself because it is motivated by the aspiration unique to its being, it is impossible for two reasons whose strivings are set against each other to exist with one another in one and the same subject, since each performs according to the nature of its will — for each is self-moving. (Frag. 150, quoted in H. Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, p. 265)

To deal with the fact that a human nous and a divine nous, or human and divine hegemonika, could lead to something like Nestorianism, Apollinaris came up with the idea that the divine Logos took the place of Jesus’ human nous. This is what it means when we say that Apollinaris denied Jesus’ full human nature — he takes away the human soul and replaces it with the divine principle. And this is exactly with Dr Craig has done.

I see here the ongoing problem of evangelicalism. Rather than immersing ourselves in the tradition, and sorting out what Chalcedon means, or what the ‘Neo-Chalcedonian’ resolution of the council meant 100 years later, or what St Maximus the Confessor meant a century after that, we look at the problem of the two principles in Christ — a human nature and a divine nature — and try to come up with a solution to the problem. What Dr Craig proposes here is exactly what I had once thought up about a decade ago, although he does it with better philosophy and more nuance.

Although I am sharply opposed to his reading of Leo the Great, a good starting place for any evangelical looking at Christology is Robert W. Jenson, ‘With No Qualifications: The Christological Maximalism of the Christian East’, in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity by Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A. Hall. Here you get a taste of the Christological thought and trajectory of Greek theology from Justin Marty (c. 155) to Maximus the Confessor (d. 662). This piece, part of my introduction to patristics and ‘paleo-orthodoxy’, had a great impact on me and my vision of the absolutism of Christ’s divinity held in tension with his humanity.

I’m not saying that Craig is not a clever man, nor that he is bad at philosophy. His bibliography demonstrates a thorough engagement with modern and contemporary philosophical movements. But he seems to be bad at historical theology. Not wanting to cast aspersions, since I don’t know his bibliography, this interview reads as though Craig had read a summary of what ‘Chalcedonianism’ is, what ‘Apollinarianism’ is, and what ‘Nestorianism’ is without having actually read a single Chalcedonian, Apollinarian, or Nestorian document. Perhaps I am wrong, and it is the brevity of the interview that is the problem. However, if that is the case, then I fear that Dr Craig has woefully misunderstood his reading of the Church Fathers.

Craig is right that we need to safeguard orthodoxy against Nestorianism. Unfortunately, he has offered us, at least in this piece, something that is Apollinarianism. There is tension and mystery in all orthodox theology. We hold the tension that somehow God is three persons with a single essence/substance, that the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty, but there are not three almighties but one almighty. There are ways of elucidating the doctrine of the Trinity, and some of them are orthodox (Augustine, the Cappadocians) while some of them are not (Oneness Pentecostals).

Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, possessing a rational human soul and a human body, but is also the Second Person of the Trinity. There is a tension to this, and orthodoxy is maintaining a balancing act between Nestorianism and Apollinarianism. It is seeking to affirm the fullness of his humanity and of his divinity at the same time. Jesus Christ must have an actual human mind in order to be human. To have a divine mind that is pretending to be human is not to be human; the great anti-Apollinarian statement of Gregory of Nazianzus holds true, ‘What has not been assumed has not been healed.’ If Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, does not have a soul of the same nature as man, if all he has is a human body and a divine soul masquerading as human, then he is not just like me except without sin. He is completely different from me. A full human nature requires a full human psychology, not the parade or show of one.

I could go on, and maybe I will in a future post, giving sign-posts for evangelicals on Christology. But here is yet another reason why people like me feel like we are increasingly on the fringe of the evangelical world as well as presenting the need for a robust evangelical ressourcement as called for by D. H. Williams, Robert E. Webber (‘Ancient-Future Faith’), and Thomas C. Oden (‘paleo-orthodoxy’).

Origen and divine dereliction

As I mentioned a while ago, I am ruminating on Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition. At present, I am working through the chapter on Origen of Alexandria (184/5-253/4). Origen is the first Christian in the book, and his adaptation of Platonist mystical theory and allegorical readings of the Bible have had a lasting impact on Christian spirituality and theology, right up to this day. One of the things that Louth makes clear is how Origen’s Christian belief impacted his mystical ideas and transformed the Platonic heritage.

Of interest to my most recent theme on this blog is the fact that Origen anticipates St John of the Cross in the famous idea of a mystic’s perceived abandonment by God:

The Bride then beholds the Bridegroom; and he, as soon as she has seen him, goes away. He does this frequently throughout the Song; and that is something nobody can understand who has not suffered it himself. God is my witness that I have often perceived the Bridegroom drawing near me and being most intensely present with me; then suddenly he has withdrawn and I could not find him, though I sought to do so. I long therefore for him to come again, and sometimes he does so. Then when he has appeared and I lay hold of him, he slips away once more. And when he has so slipped away my search for him begins anew. So does he act with me repeatedly, until in truth I hold him and go up, ‘leaning on my Nephew’s arm’. (Homily on the Song of Songs I. 7: GCS, 39, quoted by Louth, p. 69)

Louth has a chapter on St John of the Cross and the Patristic heritage, so I’ll be interested to see how he picks this up. Nonetheless, at the roots of the Christian mystical tradition, this idea of feeling that God at times suddenly leaves the seeker alone is found, embedded in both Origen’s personal experience and his reading of the Bible.

Part of what this illustrates, besides the germ of the idea of the Dark Night of the Soul, is the uncontainability of the Christian God. He comes and goes as He pleases. Those Christians who have been blessed with ‘mystical’ encounters with Him know through such experiences as the above that it was not any trick on their part but His very grace that made Him come in that way — this is the teaching and experience of St Bernard, St Thomas Aquinas, St Seraphim of Sarov, Archimandrite Zacharias.

Thomas Merton warns, indeed, against seeking these mystical encounters with God (see The Inner Experience). We are to engage in the practices of contemplation; we are to seek God. But whether we have any particular kinds of mystical experience is solely the gift of God’s grace, given by Him as He wills, according to His divine economy and our need. To seek these experiences is what Merton calls iluminism, a mystical heresy that puts more emphasis on the gifts than their giver. Whether mystic or charismatic, the modern Christian should beware!

Nevertheless, it strikes me that somehow these teachers all promise some sense of the presence God, whether the Uncreated Light or the still, small voice, as well as the dereliction of his absence.

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?