This is a work that should justifiably come under the heading ‘scholastic’. Using the scholastic method, shared with Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and Peter Lombard (1100-1160), Gratian discusses canon law and the discrepancies available in the sources for canonistic thought. Unlike Abelard, Gratian provides attempts to resolve the discrepancies; Abelard, controversially, left the sources of theology/philosophy unresolved inSic et Non. At the bedrock of such an approach to canon law is determining what law is, what canon law is, and then what the authorities for canon law are.
In Distinction Nine, Gratian begins to move from defining different kinds of law to a start on the hierarchy of authorities. At the pinnacle is Scripture. He has already established, through citations and discussions chiefly of Sts Isidore of Seville, Augustine of Hippo, and Gregory the Great, that we are bound by the ordinances/enactments of kings. But not, as Distinction Nine tells us, if they run counter to natural law, the best source of which is Scripture.
Thus, Distinction 9, c. 3, he confronts us with Augustine:
Do not treat my writings as if they were the canonical Scriptures. When you find something you did not believe in the latter, believe it without hesitation; in the former, do not take as fixed what you did not think to be certain unless you know it is certain. (Aug., De Trin. 3, Prologue)
In Capitulum 5 of this Distinction, we read a letter of Augustine to Jerome:
I learned that such respect and honor are alone to be rendered to the writings now called canonical, that I dare not impute any errors of composition to them. And so, if anything in them offends me because it seems contrary to truth, I have no doubt that either the text is corrupt, the translator has not properly construed the text, or I have totally misunderstood it. But when I read other authors, however much they abound in sanctity and wisdom, I do not for that reason take something as true simply because they thought it so, but only when they been able to persuade me from other authors, canonical Scriptures, or probable arguments that they have not departed from the truth. (Aug., Ep. 82.3)
This is a different sort of approach to the authority of Scripture than I think most of us have. It must also be stressed that this is not necessarily the same thing as modern evangelical and fundamentalist (two different groups) and some Roman Catholic approaches to the authority of Scripture. Augustine is not, overall, a biblical literalist in the same way many moderns are. For example, his On Genesis According to the Letter does not necessarily mean that Augustine believed in a literal creation over 6 24-hour periods. His other writings are more than ready to seek the spiritual and allegorical.
In fact, other patristic writers who would agree with Augustine’s statements here would also, conversely, argue that some things that a modern would argue as literal are, in fact, metaphors and allegories for spiritual edification.
Nonetheless, this humility before the text of Scripture, as well as an implied hierarchy of sources of authority, is something all Christians could do with learning.
To circle back to Gratian and the High Middle Ages, one of the benefits of this approach is that you can see a number of different ancient and patristic sources on a question and topic. It is, in a way, a sourcebook of patristic legal and canonistic thought — in fact, D. H. Williams even recommends this translation of the ‘Treatise on Laws’ to that end. Nonetheless, it is something else as well. When the authorities contradict, we also get Gratian’s dicta, his own attempt to reconcile the authorities, or to explain which is to be followed.
Thus the medieval mind, at first blush ever ready to submit to authorities such as Isidore, Augustine, and Gregory, is also ever ready to deploy reason in the quest for understanding the world, our place in it, and how to live in what often seems a mixed-up place.
This book is the intellectual side of ecclesiastical history, and Hart’s goal is not simply to debunk misconceptions that the so-called ‘New Atheists’ have been spreading abroad (without cease, despite this book having been out for 8 years) but also to introduce the ancient Roman world and what distinguished the Christian revolution from its pagan predecessor and how it impacted western culture in Late Antiquity and beyond.
For those interested in some of the deep debates about philosophy and the history of ideas, the notes are few. Hart says this is because the book is really an extended essay. Nonetheless, this choice is too bad, because I suspect that some of his judgements regarding Late Antiquity would be challenged by other scholars (not just Ramsey MacMullen, whose misuse of evidence Hart takes on with full force). But this is not really a book to win converts, anyway — the title is too provocative, the prose, at times, too biting to allow its opponents the peace of mind to engage deeply. This is not a criticism — it strikes me that Hart knows the audience for such a book as this, and it is not Richard Dawkins.
One strength of the book is that, while Hart (an Eastern Orthodox Christian) believes in Christianity and the Christian gospel, and thus Christian morality and ethics, he is not triumphalist about certain aspects of the story he tells. For example, the Emperor Julian is duly noted as, in terms of general character and policy, more ‘Christian’ than the Christian emperors of Late Antiquity. He also sees the transformation of Christianity into the state religion of the Roman Empire as a great disaster — for both Christianity and the Empire.
Yet he sees with clear eyes the glories of the Gospel and what Gospel means for society. God became man; in fact, he took on the form of a slave, according to Philippians. This casts the pitch of biblical anthropology an octave higher than the glorious truth that we are made in God’s image (Gen 1) — God has partaken of our nature. He loves each of us. All human beings, finite and changeable and weak and powerless, are of infinite value, beloved by the infinite God: men, women, slaves, free, Jews, Gentiles. What we gain from the Christian revolution, that paganism never (and, in Hart’s view, never could) gave is the human person.
What we gain, then, over centuries of a culture imbued with this charity — despite all the many failures of the institutional church and of particular Christians — are the abolition of slavery, hospitals, advances in medicine, human rights, innumerable charitable organisations, love of the unlovely, justice for the unjust, and more.
The great cloud that hangs over the final chapters is: Will we lose all this in a post-Christian society? He notes ethicists such as Peter Singer who calls for the abortion and infanticide of the severely disabled. To what end is it morally acceptable to kill, to murder, to destroy people with Down syndrome? People who, as Hart observes, despite any suffering they endure, are often much more filled with joy than we who lack disabilities. Why should they not have the right to life?
The book ends with a reminder of the Desert Fathers who, at Christianity’s alleged ‘triumph’, retreated from the institutional church into the wild to seek to live out pure prayer, perfect charity, and purity of heart, to gaze upon God and the world with the luminous eye. He does not say that we need a new monastic movement, but that the same high impulse that drove many of the Desert Fathers (setting aside the human failings of certain members of the movement, of which Hart is aware) might inspire us to find ways to live with Gospel witness and courage on the fringes of post-Christendom. I wonder what he would say to fellow Eastern Orthodox Christian Rod Dreher, who wrote The Benedict Option? (Not having read Dreher, I have no clue, but from what I’ve heard, Hart has a much more secure grasp of the intellectual history of the period.)
A former youth pastor of mine once quipped, ‘If you aren’t preaching the Gospel, then what the h-ll are you doing?! It’s all mumbo-jumbo!’ A very evangelical sentiment, if not expressed quite the way your average Baptist would choose. So: What of liturgy and the Gospel? Is it all mumbo-jumbo? Is it just hocus-pocus (allegedly from ‘hoc est corpus’)?
Let’s take a Eucharistic liturgy from one of the most ornate liturgical assemblies out there, the Eastern Orthodox. I am particularly fond of this one, the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great. I do not know enough about the history and criticism of liturgy to know if St Basil (330-79) actually composed any of it; if he did, it was probably the Anaphora or Canon of the Mass.
Priest: Let us lift up our hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord.
People: It is proper and right.
This is in every eucharistic liturgy I’ve seen from the Apostolic Tradition c. 230 to Common Worship (2000).
Priest: Master, Lord, God, worshipful Father almighty, it is truly just and right to the majesty of Your holiness to praise You, to hymn You, to bless You, to worship You, to give thanks to You, to glorify You, the only true God, and to offer to You this our spiritual worship with a contrite heart and a humble spirit. For You have given us to know Your truth. Who is worthy to praise Your mighty acts? Or to make known all Your praises? Or tell of all Your wonderful deeds at all times?
Here we have worship, praise, glory and honour. It may look like a mere piling up of attributes and actions, but is it not all true? This the worship of our minds and spirits! And we need to remember that worship is the endgame of evangelism; as John Piper argues ad nauseam in the popular evangelical book on evangelism, Let the Nations Be Glad, mission only exists because worship does not. So here, the priest is leading the people into worship, into the glorification of God.
Next comes our first glimpse of the Gospel riches to come as the Trinity is introduced — and don’t forget the link between Trinity and mission:
Master of all things, Lord of heaven and earth, and of every creature visible and invisible, You are seated upon the throne of glory and behold the depths. You are without beginning, invisible, incomprehensible, beyond words, unchangeable. You are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the great God and Savior of our hope, the image of Your goodness, the true seal of revealing in Himself You, the Father. He is the living Word, the true God, eternal wisdom, life, sanctification, power, and the true light. Through Him the Holy Spirit was manifested, the spirit of truth the gift of Sonship, the pledge of our future inheritance, the first fruits of eternal blessings, the life giving power, the source of sanctification through whom every rational and spiritual creature is made capable of worshiping You and giving You eternal glorification, for all things are subject to You.
And in the final, complicated sentence we see the all-important evangelical doctrine of grace! It is by Christ that ‘every rational and spiritual creature is made capable of worshiping’ God.
We turn again to worship, drawing images from Scripture (that all-important evangelical source) as throughout:
For You are praised by the angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, principalities, authorities, powers, and the many eyed Cherubim. Round about You stand the Seraphim, one with six wings and the other with six wings; with two they cover their faces; with two they cover their feet; with two they fly, crying out to one another with unceasing voices and everresounding praises:
Priest: Singing the victory hymn, proclaiming, crying out, and saying:
People: Holy, holy, holy, Lord Sabaoth, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna to God in the highest.
And now we enter into salvation history:
Priest: Together with these blessed powers, loving Master we sinners also cry out and say: Truly You are holy and most holy, and there are no bounds to the majesty of Your holiness. You are holy in all Your works, for with righteousness and true judgment You have ordered all things for us. For having made man by taking dust from the earth, and having honored him with Your own image, O God, You placed him in a garden of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Your commandments. But when he disobeyed You, the true God who had created him, and was led astray by the deception of the serpent becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, You, O God, in Your righteous judgment, expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ. For You did not forever reject Your creature whom You made, O Good One, nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but because of Your tender compassion, You visited him in various ways: You sent forth prophets; You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation have pleased You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants the prophets, announcing to us the salvation which was to come; You gave us the law to help us; You appointed angels as guardians. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through Your Son Himself, through whom You created the ages.
This is precisely the history of salvation as you’ll read it not only in the Bible but in Reformed discussions of the structure of Scripture, such as Vaughn Roberts, God’s Big Picture (a re-working of Graeme Goldsworthy’s work). It culminates in God’s oikonomia in Jesus Christ.
He, being the splendor of Your glory and the image of Your being, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal with You, God and Father. But, being God before all ages, He appeared on earth and lived with humankind. Becoming incarnate from a holy Virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory. For, since through man sin came into the world and through sin death, it pleased Your only begotten Son, who is in Your bosom, God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary; born under the law, to condemn sin in His flesh, so that those who died in Adam may be brought to life in Him, Your Christ.
Central to our Gospel is the Person of Christ — Who is Jesus? as Nicky Gumbel puts it. This passage above gives Basil’s — and the Bible’s — answer.
And what did Jesus do?
He lived in this world, and gave us precepts of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He guided us to the sure knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He acquired us for Himself, as His chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us by water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. So He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things. Ascending into heaven, He sat at the right hand of Your majesty on high and He will come to render to each according to His works.
This is the Gospel, is it not?
WAIT! ‘Each according to His works’! This is not evangelicalism, is it? Well, this is the awkward reality of Christianity that we have obscured through our incessant harping on ‘justification by faith alone’ and penal substitutionary atonement — Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that we are saved by works of mercy; James says that faith without works is dead; Paul says to work out our faith in fear and trembling. And the Gospel descriptions of the Final Judgement do feel a bit ‘works-righteousness’, don’t they?
Here is my solution — St Basil has already brought grace into play. Grace saves us. Absolutely. And once we are saved, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to actually do good works. The works are the evidence of our faith, the seal — they are not what will justify us before the dread judgement seat of Christ. But He Himself will make them a reality in our hearts. This, perhaps, goes against Graeme Goldsworthy, for it draws us towards Orthodox synergy contra Reformed monergism.
Nonetheless. Gospel. Rich. Beautiful.
As memorials of His saving passion, He has left us these gifts which we have set forth before You according to His commands. For when He was about to go forth to His voluntary, ever memorable, and life-giving death, on the night on which He was delivered up for the life of the world, He took bread in His holy and pure hands, and presenting it to You, God and Father, and offering thanks, blessing, sanctifying, and breaking it:
Priest: He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles saying: Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you and for the forgiveness of sins.
Priest: Likewise, He took the cup of the fruit of vine, and having mingled it, offering thanks, blessing, and sanctifying it.
Priest: He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles saying: Drink of this all of you. This is my blood of the new Covenant, shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.
Priest: Do this in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this Bread and drink this Cup, you proclaim my death, and you confess my resurrection. Therefore, Master, we also, remembering His saving passion and life giving cross, His three; day burial and resurrection from the dead, His ascension into heaven, and enthronement at Your right hand, God and Father, and His glorious and awesome second coming.
Priest: We offer to You these gifts from Your own gifts in all and for all.
People: We praise You, we bless You, we give thanks to You, and we pray to You, Lord our God.
Priest: Therefore, most holy Master, we also, Your sinful and unworthy servants, whom You have made worthy to serve at Your holy altar, not because of our own righteousness (for we have not done anything good upon the earth), but because of Your mercy and compassion, which You have so richly poured upon us, we dare to approach Your holy altar, and bring forth the symbols of the holy Body and Blood of Your Christ. We pray to You and call upon You, O Holy of Holies, that by the favor of Your goodness, Your Holy Spirit may come upon us and upon the gifts here presented, to bless, sanctify, and make this bread to be the precious Body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. He blesses the holy Bread.
Priest: And this cup to be the precious Blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. He blesses the holy Cup.
Deacon: Amen. He blesses them both.
Priest: Shed for the life and salvation of the world.
Deacon: Amen. Amen. Amen.
I’ll close here — but, for me, this is it: the Words of Institution, the body and blood of Christ ushering us into the heavenly banquet, into the wedding feast of the Lamb, being united to Christ and each other through the Blessed Sacrament. This is Gospel in action.
What is the most righteous way of worshiping God? For no one should think that God desires victims, incense, or valuable gifts. Since He doesn’t experience hunger, thirst, cold, or a desire for earthly things, the things presented in temples to earthly gods aren’t useful to Him. Just as physical offerings are necessary for physical beings, so spiritual sacrifices are necessary for a spiritual being. Since all the world is under God’s power, He doesn’t need the things He gave people to use. Since He dwells in the entire world, He doesn’t need a temple. Since the eyes and mind can’t comprehend Him, He doesn’t need an image. Since He kindled the light of the sun and stars for our sake, He doesn’t need earthly lights. So then, what does God require from us? Pure and holy worship of our minds. For those things that are made by hand or outside of people are senseless, frail, and displeasing. But true sacrifice isn’t from the purse but from the heart. It is offered not by the hands, but by the mind…. What’s the purpose of incense, clothes, silver, gold, or precious stones if the worshiper doesn’t have a pure mind?
First, I would say that I agree with the essence of Lactantius. Thus, automatically one asks how liturgical worship fits into this — especially the lush, lavish and beautiful worship of the Orthodox Church, the Anglo-Catholics, the Tridentine Catholics.
The really simple answer is that liturgical worship, when offered up in humility and love for God, is the outward manifestation of the mind, the heart, the spirit. Another strand of patristic theology will remind us that we are neither disembodied spirits nor entrapped ones. We were created by God to be psycho-somatic unities. The human person is, by nature, both body and soul; flesh, spirit, and mind. A united whole.
Therefore, we must ‘offer unto [God] ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice’ (The Book of Common Prayer). Everything we do is embodied; a good (evangelical!) Protestant discussion of such embodied Christianity is Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines. The result of our embodiedness is that our spiritual worship, our worship in the mind, will involve action.
Thus: Sitting, standing, kneeling. Genuflecting, making the sign of the cross. Orthodox prostrations. Lighting candles. Smelling the incense. Walking in processions. Singing with our lungs full to bursting with gusto. Closing our eyes in silence. Opening our ears to an organ voluntary. Tasting the bread on our tongues, feeling the warmth of the wine down our throats.
All of these, while offered with ‘the hands’, are means for our minds to offer unto God the sacrifice of pure and contrite heart. And the words we utter help us focus our thoughts, directing our minds to the truths of God and His salvific activity in the world.
My study of ancient Christianity has made life difficult for me, these days. I find myself committed both to liturgy and to historic orthodoxy. My commitment to historic orthodoxy, discussed here, drives me to seek liturgy. And my understanding of the sacraments, under the influence of the ancient church, drives me to seek weekly Eucharist, celebrated liturgically.
But my study of ancient Christianity did not begin with doctrine, liturgy, sacrament, episcopate.
It began in the Desert.
Although I am now a scholar of medieval manuscripts and papal letters, I started out with a desire to apply the methodology of classical philology and ancient history to ancient monasticism. In undergrad, after a love affair with St Francis of Assisi and flirtation with St John of the Cross, I met St Antony the Great and the Desert Fathers . Here was a new, strange phenomenon. Here were the roots of the monastic tradition of Francis of John!
I wrote an undergrad essay on the Desert Fathers, drawing largely on The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks and the Life of St Antony published by St Athanasius. In my first Master’s degree, I wrote about John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus, drawing in a variety of other desert sources along the way. My second Master’s thesis was about the monastic lives written by Cyril of Scythopolis and John of Ephesus in the age of Justinian, and one of my coursework essays was on St Gregory Palamas.
Between degrees, I visited Cyprus where I first really met the Orthodox world. I inhaled their incense. I considered their icons. I read the first few authors of The Philokalia — themselves ancient Greek monks! On a return visit to Cyprus, I visited Machairas Monastery in the Troodos Mountains. I have subsequently spent time with the Benedictines of Sankt Paul im Lavanntal, Austria.
Furthermore, in the first year of my PhD studies, I organised a reading group about ancient monasticism (but we also brought in a little St Hildegard for good measure).
My engagement with the teachings, lives, spiritual practices, and oddities of ancient monasticism from St Antony through St Benedict to St Isaac the Syrian has changed me in subtle ways, I believe. I crave the kind of single-minded devotion to God they sought and sometimes attained. I go through spells of praying at least Morning Prayer. I used to fast. I love reading their writings, even when they are hard to grasp or impossible to apply to my situation as a married layman.
Loud music, emotive worship leaders, forced happiness, a feeling of being untethered from tradition — none of these things is conducive to the contemplative life sought by the ancient monks. And I think that rock concert worship events are part of the rootlessness of modern evangelicalism, part of why we often feel like we can preach morality but seem incapable of teaching it.
A richer, calmer setting that makes room for the contemplative alongside the active, for prayer beside preaching, for meditation alongside proclamation — perhaps this can help us.
As I say, this part of who I am is more nebulous a reason why I crave liturgy and believe that it is important.
And, to say it one final time, if God has used the ancient church in my life through these ways, why should I go back on what He is doing in my life? This is the subjective reason that tugs at me all along the way. What is the point of all the thinking and studying I have done if I just end up going to same sort of happy-clappy, non-liturgical church that I would have attended anyway? Shouldn’t our private faith have public ramifications?
I am in favour of forms of worship and devotion (liturgy) as well as church order (episcopal structure) that reflect the ancient church for reasons of doctrine, as discussed last time, as well as the sacraments and, more nebulously, devotion.
As a good Anglican, I believe that ‘There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.’ (Article of Religion 25) My understanding of the sacraments, as well as of ancient Christian history, leads me to embrace the liturgical life of the Church.
The sacrament of holy baptism is as old as Christianity. It is all over the book of Acts, and different angles on baptismal theology are found in the letters of St Paul. Baptism is biblical (so I guess the Salvation Army, for all its good, Christian service, is not?). Baptism is, in fact, part of the foundation of Trinitarian belief, as I wrote about in this blog post.
The Didache and the Apostolic Tradition show me a baptismal practice that is liturgical, from as early as the year 90. And it is from the baptismal liturgy that our rules of faith emerged. And from the rule of faith emerges the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed.
To reject baptismal liturgy is to reject the foundations of my credal faith. And that faith is central to my self-understanding as well as to historic, orthodox Christianity.
More than this, however, I believe that sacraments are ‘outward, visible signs of an inward, invisible grace’ (Anglican catechism). Baptism, as Article 26 reminds us, is not simply a symbol. It is never treated as such in Scripture, and never by the ancient fathers. Indeed, in the ancient church, they took baptism seriously as the entry of a person into his’er new life in Christ and into the church, with a period of teaching, fasting, prayer, and discipline to precede the liturgical action. This makes sense to me — becoming a Christian is a big deal.
Historic baptismal liturgies take into account the ancient, biblical, patristic faith and understanding of the sacrament as a rejection of Satan, as a turning to Christ, as a grafting into the church, as either a seal (for adults) or a promise (for infants) of faith.
Baptism was handed down to us by the ancient church, who had a liturgy for it early on. How can I reject the baptismal practice of the people who gave us baptism?
Of the two sacraments acknowledged by the Anglican Articles of Religion, the Eucharist is the only one that is repeatable. Once again, the ancient evidence shows a frequent celebration of Holy Communion as early as around 100, and this celebration seems to have been liturgical. If the Didache, Justin, and the Apostolic Tradition all use a liturgy centred on the death and resurrection of Christ and his words of institution from Scripture, why should I reject this practice?
Moreover, Holy Communion was believed by the ancients to be a potent reality. A true sacrament, whereby God communicates with us and is Really Present, giving us grace in a way that is distinct from his free-flowing grace that we may gain from silent, solitary prayer or word-centred preaching.
St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 117) calls it the medicine of immortality. St Ephrem the Syrian (4th-century) is similarly rich in his imagery for the Eucharistic feast. Holy Communion is a recapitulation of Christ’s death and resurrection. This is an idea find rich and running through St Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 180). Through the ritual action and the eating of the consecrated elements, we are participating in Christ’s death and resurrection. St Ephrem the Syrian would say that the eternal significance of Christ’s salvific death-and-resurrection penetrates our ordinary time, and that through the Sacrament we are actually participating in his one-and-for-all sacrifice (oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world).
Every Sunday, as traditional Presbyterians like to remind me, is Easter. So every Sunday should be eucharistic. This was the practice as far back as 150, and probably earlier (I think at Antioch, as far back as Ignatius, at least?) and right up to the Reformation.
As I stated in a recent post about liturgy, the Eucharistic liturgy brings forth the riches of the Gospel. A weekly, liturgical celebration of Holy Communion was the defining act of worship and, indeed, of corporate identity for the ancient church. And they did it using words you will still find in the BCP, BAS, Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Roman Catholic Mass, etc.
How can I be true to what I have learned over the past decade of study and prayer and struggle and spiritual growth and reject such worship?
The following, while in earnest, should still be taken with a grain of salt since I didspend the last 7 years worshipping with the Free Church of Scotland.
Much of my difficulty with modern church worship and thought comes from my vocation as an ecclesiastical historian. Ancient Christianity got me into this mess, basically. I find it difficult to believe evangelical doctrine and reject liturgical worship and episcopal structure at the same time.
Many evangelical denominations have a desire to return to ‘apostolic’ or ‘New Testament’ Christianity. Not only is this impossible, it is undesirable. Evangelical Christians believe doctrines that were developed and hammered out, sometimes organically, sometimes through councils and polemic, by bishops who led Christian communities in regular liturgical celebration of Holy Communion. To do the impossible, to turn the clock back 1900+ years, is undesirable for anyone who believes in the Holy Trinity, the dual natures of Christ, the New Testament canon, predestination, Arminian free-will, or justification by faith. All of these require the patristic engagement with worship, Scripture, and philosophy to emerge — and the latter (if delineated in a Protestant way) needs medieval scholasticism to at least react against and St Augustine to be inspired by.
There are three main doctrinal areas where my study of the ancient church makes me take pause and consider the structure, liturgy, and devotional practice of the first five or six centuries: the canon of Scripture, the Trinity, and the dual nature of Christ. The two chief sacraments instituted by Christ — Holy Baptism and the Eucharist — are a further catalyst for my belief in the importance of ancient practices. Finally, I have a more nebulous relationship with ancient devotion.
This blog post will briefly look at the three doctrines, a second at the sacraments, and a third at the wider world of ancient devotional practices.
The Canon of Scripture
The canon of Scripture, on which I’ve blogged before, was not dropped, Qu’ran-like, from heaven. It grew organically over several centuries. Some orthodox Christians included books we today exclude; some excluded texts we today include. The Holy Spirit at work in the church brought her to a slow, general consensus on the 27 books of the New Testament. A good look at this is A High View of Scripture? by Craig D. Allert.
The central thesis for Allert is that there was a coinherence of authority in ancient Christianity, and the Rule of Faith (variously articulated, similar to the Creed) worked alongside the worshipping community to help them sort which texts belonged. Scripture upholds the Rule of Faith, and alleged ‘apostolic’ texts that clashed with it were rejected.
One aspect of this question that always emerges is that, when we read Justin and the others, it is clear that the early Christians were reading the proto-New Testament at worship. And if you study ancient worship, it becomes clear that their worship was a weekly liturgical celebration of Holy Communion, often headed by the local episkopos (the monarchical episcopate emerging in some places by the year 100, in others not until the 200s).
When people start writing their canons of Scripture, they are being written by the leaders of the ancient church — bishops who lead the community in both a teaching and liturgical office centred around Holy Communion.
I find it hard to reject the form of worship and church order that the Holy Spirit used in the church to inspire our ancestors in the faith to see what the canon of Scripture is.
The Holy Trinity
When I read Aloys Grillmeier’s Christ in Christian Tradition, Vol. 1: Up to the Council of Chalcedon, I realised how fortunate I am in some ways to live on this side of the ecumenical councils. Very few early Christians have left us records of Jesus as a mere man or prophet; but as to how he was ‘divine’, that was harder to understand. Was he actually an angel? Or a lesser divine being? How is he related to the Father and the Holy Spirit?
It was Origen’s teaching in the catechetical school of Alexandria that started the drive to sort out how these three persons work together, and it was the debates of the fourth century that led our fathers and mothers in the faith to affirm that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are three consubstantial persons who are one God, articulated by Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Ambrose, Augustine., et al Again, the bishops.
Part of what drove this fourth-century articulation of the church’s trinitarian faith was the fact that in her central act of (liturgical) worship, Jesus Christ was worshipped as God. St Athanasius used this to accuse the ‘Arians’ of idolatry (we’ll set aside the accuracy or fairness of that for now). I believe in the Trinity; I believe that it can be proven through a right interpretation of Scripture. But I also know that, humanly speaking, there is a certain amount of contingency in Christian orthodoxy.
If I affirm the Trinity, articulated by bishops who realised in their act of sacramental, liturgical worship that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are fully God, why should I reject the form of worship that in part drove them to that realisation?
The dual nature and complete unity of Christ
The fifth century is my area of expertise; my PhD was on the letters of Pope St Leo the Great, whose articulation of two-nature Christology was affirmed and accepted by the imperial church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
The bishops assembled at Chalcedon, and then at its reinterpretation at Constantinople in 553, were trying to find a way to keep Leo happy and affirm the teachings of St Cyril of Alexandria at the same time. Cyril’s Christology was driven, in fact, by his sacramental theology. Cyril, like most other ancient Christians, believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If Christ’s divinity and humanity are sundered, then how can the Eucharist even work? How can his flesh be real food and his blood real drink (Bible verse) if he is not a fully united person both God and man?
Leo, on the other hand, had a very evangelical concern. How can the church find a way of maintaining the truth of Jesus as fully God and fully man without destroying either? Jesus needs to be just like us in order to take our sin upon himself. But no mere man could do that; he needs to possess the fullness of God in himself. In traditional Latin theology (see Sts Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine), as synthesised by Leo, this was articulated by teaching that Jesus has two naturae, two natures, but is a single persona, person.
Both Cyril’s approach and Leo’s approach have many outworkings in our lives, in fact. How can I affirm their teaching, affirm the ecumenical councils’ doctrine, and at the same time cast aside the liturgical actions that nourished their faith and spurred on their thinking?
These are just three patristic doctrines that mean we cannot set the clock back to New Testament times. Other people will have slightly different lists. Perhaps a discussion not only of canon but of Scriptural authority would be salutary. Or predestination/free will. Or miracles. Or creatio ex nihilo. Setting the clock back is impossible and undesirable. The central beliefs of Christian orthodoxy originally hinged, historically speaking, upon bishops gathered in council on one hand and their leadership with the Christian community gathered liturgically around the Eucharist on the other.
I believe that sound, historic liturgy protects us from faddism such as Joel Osteen or the more divergent instances of charismania. Ideally, the historic episcopate has/should as well. It also guards evangelical doctrine from heresy and ‘liberalism’, as maybe I’ll discuss later.
I believe, finally, that I have not come to a love of the liturgy and orthodox faith of the ancient and medieval church willy-nilly. This has been conscious, at times agonising, work. It has been prayerful and rational. Is this not how God works in his people?