The disparate nature of tradition

Council of Chalcedon

I am at present reading Justinian’s Letter to the Monks of Alexandria Against the Monophysites. As I read, many questions arise: Did Justinian himself write this? When did he have time? Did he ever sleep? If he didn’t, who did? How was this text received? How would Leo the Great have felt about this text? What about Cyril of Alexandria?

Leo the Great (d. 461) would probably have been fine with this work. I am not sure Cyril (d. 444) would have been, however. This is an interesting reality of our theological tradition. Many people, even within the church, have an idea that theological orthodoxy is monolithic. It is not. Leo the Great did what he could with what of Cyril he had in Latin — not all of Cyril, and Latin is not Greek. So Leo’s Christology is not the same as Cyril’s.

For example, I do not think Leo’s Tome and Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ are actually perfectly compatible.

Yet Leo’s Tome was acclaimed and accepted at the Council of Chalcedon (that he helped engineer) in 451 on the grounds that it said what Cyril says. Which, if we consider the Cyril of the letter of reconciliation with John of Antioch Laetentur Caeli, I suppose it is. Both of these fifth-century bishops are accepted as authoritative by the imperial church and are regarded as Fathers of the Church by modern Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, and non-heretical Protestant churches.

But their entire corpora are not entirely compatible, despite what Justinian tries in his reading of Cyril as a supporter of two-nature Christology.

Moving forward a couple of centuries, what about Maximus the Confessor (d. 662)? Again, I am not sure that the Cyril of On the Unity of Christ and some of Maximus’s arguments about the operation of Christ’s two wills in the Garden of Gethsemane are perfectly compatible.

Moving beyond christology, Augustine (d. 430), who is actually considered a saint by the eastern churches, teaches a dual procession of the Holy Spirit, that even Maximus agreed to in a way, although its offspring, the filioque in the creed, is a major point of division between the eastern and western churches. Yet here they stand, part of orthodox (note the lower-case O) tradition.

Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) taught the Apocatastasis, the idea that all will be saved (patristic universalism). He is considered a Father in both East and West, although many reject this teaching. The ecumenically popular Isaac the Syrian (seventh century) also taught this.

Western accounts of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity tend to start with the doctrine of God and His unity; in the East, they tend to start with the persons and the threeness. This is a generalisation, but it does tend towards a different feel and different emphases in our presentations of dogma. Yet these presentations, whether by Augustine or Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390), are all orthodox though they differ.

Or consider the fact that our tradition includes alleged ‘Semi-Pelagians’ as saints (Faustus of Riez) alongside Augustinians like Prosper of Aquitaine.

Theological orthodoxy is not monolithic. Many other very specific cases could be found, but these will do. It is worth keeping these realities in mind as we ponder the great richness of the tradition that has brought us to where we stand today.

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The Resurrection is not an appendix to the Crucifixion

Ever since I heard someone on Easter Sunday praying and leading worship with almost no mention of the Resurrection but many references to the crucifixion (the sermon was good!), this has been rolling around in my head, taking shape along the way. Since it’s still Easter, it’s still seasonal. And, hey, it was Orthodox Easter two days ago! Anyway, as the title of this post says:

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not an appendix to his crucifixion

Resurrection, from Notre Dame de Paris (my photo)

This should be obvious, if you ask me. It clearly isn’t, as my anecdotal introduction demonstrates. I also watched, around Eastertide, a video someone posted on the Facebook of some hillbilly (he actually called himself a hillbilly; I have nothing against hillbillies, they are a noble people) saying that the point of the resurrection was to show that the crucifixion worked. Perhaps not so crudely, but that was the gist.

A lot of evangelicals express their faith this way. I was at a big evangelical church in London on Sunday (the Second Sunday After Easter by how people reckon Sundays today), and we sang a hymn that had several lovely lines in it about the crucifixion, and one (one!) about the resurrection. And the minister did not preach on the Resurrection. Easter is, apparently, a one-day event that comes once a year. Otherwise, this whole Eastertide thing might interfere with your plans to do a sermon series on one of the Pauline epistles.

One year on Easter Sunday, one of my Truly Reformed acquaintances remarked, ‘I know why, historically, Jesus had to rise from the dead, but I don’t get the theology of it, since the crucifixion atoned for sin.’

Not that evangelicals and Protestants are alone in this. Consider the crucifixes and statues of Christ’s slain body of Roman Catholic Europe, the magnificent medieval poetry of the Passion, the plays of the Passion, the paintings of the crucifixion, the medieval devotion to the dying Christ, the fact that Julian of Norwich explicitly had a vision of Christ on the cross.

Sometimes, I think people forget that we are oned to God because Jesus lives.

Indeed, the resurrection is the very real, living heart of the Christian faith.

After all, if Christ was not raised from the dead, you (we!) are still dead in your (our! my!) sins. (1 Cor. 15:17)

In 1 Corinthians 15, St Paul gives a summary of the faith that some scholars (like Gerald O’Collins, The Easter Jesus) think is an early liturgical, credal statement. It takes verses 3-7; 3 and a phrase in 4 cover the crucifixion. 4-7 are about the Resurrection appearances of Jesus. A man coming back from the dead changes everything.

Jesus did not simply die to save you from your sins.

Jesus Christ rose from the dead to kill death itself.

Death has lost its sting. (1 Cor 15 again)

Death is the great leveler of human existence, and we all avoid it. Survival is one of our base, animal instincts. Achilles, in Hades in The Odyssey 11, tells Odysseus that he would rather be a slave among the living than a prince among the dead (that was Achilles, right?). Death is so noxious that even Jesus Christ groaned/wept at the death of Lazarus — before raising Lazarus from the dead!

With the lightning flash of his Godhead, as the Orthodox pray, Jesus has slain death. Magnificent. This is Easter.

If you are blessed to go to a Prayer Book church, this Easter faith would be unmistakable — behold the Easter anthems, the heart of the Easter faith, biblical Christianity:

Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast;

Not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor 5:7)

Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.

For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.

Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive unto God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Ro. 6:9)

Christ is risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept.

For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor. 15:20)

Let’s stick with BCP for the rest of this post, considering the heart of the book, the Epistles and Gospels for Eastertide.

Easter’s epistle is Col. 3, starting at verse 1, ‘If ye then be risen with Christ…’ The Gospel is John 20. If you have a second service that day, 2 Tim, starting at verse 8:

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, of the seed of David, according to my gospel … For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him. If we endure, we shall also reign with him.

The Gospel for a second service is the Resurrection in Mark 16.

Monday in Easter Week. Lesson: Acts 10:34ff., Peter preaches the Resurrection of Jesus. Gospel: Luke 24:13ff., disciples on the road to Emmaus (Resurrection!).

Tuesday in Easter Week. Lesson: Acts 13:26ff., Paul preaches the Resurrection of Jesus. Gospel: Luke 24:36ff., Jesus visits the disciples.

First Sunday After Easter. Epistle: 1 John 5:4ff., about the victory of God & eternal life. Gospel: John 20:19ff., more Resurrection.

Morning Prayer for Easter (Canada 1962 BCP). First Lesson: Exodus 12:1-14, the Passover. Second: Rev. 1:4-18, deals with various things, but Jesus is primarily known as ‘firstborn from the dead’.

Evening Prayer for Easter. First: Exodus 14:5-end, crossing the Red Sea (type of baptism, which is dying and rising with Christ). Second: John 20:11-12 (RESURRECTION!)

Elsewhere in the daily office at Eastertide, we see prophecies of God conquering death, of reclaiming his people to himself, of the great and glorious day of the Lord, or praise and rejoicing in the face of God.

I assume the Revised Common Lectionary is similar.

Easter is our salvation. Jesus proves his innocence by the empty tomb. Jesus, in fact, leaves the tomb precisely because he is both God incarnate and an innocent man. This is not the proof that Good Friday worked, but a glorious, amazing event all by itself.

It is the Resurrection that fuelled the disciples into apostles. It is the resurrection of Jesus that points to our future resurrection, when we shall sow a corruptible body and be raised incorruptible! (Again, 1 Cor 15)

Recently, someone posited that if we set 1-2 Corinthians at the centre of Paul’s corpus instead of Romans and Galatians, we would have a different emphasis in our theology. I see here that we would, perhaps, do a better job at keeping the Resurrection, the rising of a dead man from the grave, the restoration of fulness of life of a person who was completely dead, at the centre of our faith.

I wonder how our Christian walk, worship, churches, Bible reading, love of others, would change if we (myself included) lived in a daily remembrance and joy at the fact that Jesus Christ has ‘overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life’ (BCP Collect for Tuesday in Easter Week).

Why “sound Bible teaching” is slippery, starting with Grosseteste

I have just been enjoying some truly great times with friends in London, including a day trip to Canterbury. In the middle of this holiday, I took a jaunt to Oxford to give a paper about canon law in the era of Robert Grosseteste’s early career, in 1190s England. In explaining to my friends why Grosseteste is an interesting and even important figure, I am quick, quick, quick to point out that he is not a proto-reformer, or even a precursor to Wycliffe, although he levels some very serious words and criticisms at the papal court of Innocent IV (pope, 1243-1254).

The main reason is that, as Southern points out in his biography, Robert Grosseteste, Grosseteste is a thirtheenth-century man. He cannot imagine a church without a pope. As far as he is concerned, if the pope or curia is Antichrist, then the end of the world is nigh. Moreover, Grosseteste was the sort of mind that sought a unifying principle for each field of study. For church order, that principle is the pope.

This is the sort of idea I live with all the time, so it doesn’t sound strange to me anymore.

Now, saying this to Protestant friends who are fans of ‘sound’ Bible teaching (as they call it) and expository preaching and biblical principles, I suddenly realised that this sounds bizarre to this modern context. Indeed, the idea of the pope and papacy is considered by most Protestants as ‘unbiblical’.

But is it?

Specifically, is it ‘unbiblical’ to thirteenth-century man?

It is not as though the rationale behind the plenitude of power and authority resident in the Bishop of Rome has no biblical foundation. (Blasphemy! cry the Reformed.)

We need, when considering people like Grosseteste and Francis and Bernard and Anselm and Aquinas, to keep in mind their understanding of Matthew 16:18, part of an exegetical tradition of the exposition of Sacred Scripture that was 900 years old by Grosseteste’s day, a tradition that saw Christ entrusting the keys to St Peter and making St Peter the foundation of the church. Couple that with a tradition that was 1100 or 1200 years old that traced the authority of Rome’s bishop through a succession of bishops beginning with St Peter, it only makes sense that someone like Grosseteste would consider the Bishop of Rome the visible, ruling head of the church.

Also, don’t forget that the New Testament episcopipresbyteri, and diaconi are uncontroversially still bishops, priests, and deacons.

So, when we think about the medieval reader, it seems pretty straightforward to their perspective that the office of pope is perfectly biblical. And if you read St Bernard’s De Consideratione from 1153, it seems pretty straightforward that the Bishop of Rome has a range of important pastoral duties, drawn from Scripture. De Consideratione is soaked in Bible teaching.

So what on earth, then, is ‘sound Bible teaching’? Can we be sure that we have it and they don’t?

I wonder.

Trinity and mysticism in East and West

There is a famous statement by Pope St John Paul II (or JP2 to his homeys) that the Church must start to breathe with both her lungs once again — that is, East and West. I don’t know the original context of the statement, but it seems to emerge in discussions about the more ‘rational’ approach to the faith in the western tradition and the more ‘mystical’ approach in eastern Christianity. A false dichotomy, to be sure.

Nonetheless, as the chapter about St John of the Cross in Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition shows, there are differences in the approach to mysticism found in East and West. Someone such as Vladimir Lossky would probably boil it down to the differences in our approach to the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.

This may be part of it.

The problem with Lossky, however, is that the opening chapter of The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church raises a sharp irreconcilability between the two traditions. He argues that our view of the Trinity is, in fact, false — but does so through a misreading of St Thomas Aquinas and thus the whole of western Trinitarian thought.

And here lies my main thought.

Setting aside for the moment the vexed issue of the procession of the Holy Spirit, I think that we need each when we think about the Trinity, precisely because we are in certain respects different. Our foundation is, however, the same. As St Anselm writes:

Latins call these three things persons, Greeks substances. For as we Latins call the one substance in God three persons, so the Greeks call the one person three substances, they meaning here by substance the very same thing that we mean by person, and not differing from us in faith in any way. (On the Incarnation, ch. 16)

Yet if you read Latin Trinitarian theology, we often start with the unity of God — thus Anselm’s Monologion and Proslogion. Greek theology, on the other hand, often starts with the three Persons — thus St Gregory of Nyssa’s That There Are Not Three Gods. Lossky argues that our insistence on the divine unity posits a fourth hypostasis in the Trinity, a fourth thing that is the ground of being of the three Persons. However, and I forget the title of the book that brought this home to me (it was about Aquinas and Bonaventure’s triadology), what we really mean by that unity is all three persons at once. The unity is a conceptual articulation, not a substance of its own.

Rather than arguing us vs them in Trinitarian theology, East-West dialogue should FIRST acknowledge the incomprehensible and unapproachable mystery here. And then we should see what nuances we can gain from each other. And then, perhaps, we can start to breathe with both our lungs.

And as we breathe with both of these lungs, we will be reminded that the Trinity, the persons beyond personality who are a single God yet three persons, is bigger than any of our doctrinal statements (no matter how true those statements are). And so we will seek Him out in prayer and contemplation, questing after the Uncreated Light, the Beatific Vision, the grace of a meeting with God that is theosis.

But as long as we begin in a position of hostility, our ability to love each other will be hampered. And if we cannot love our brethren whom we can see, how can we love God whom we cannot see?

Faith and the arts

Pinturicchio fresco in Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, Rome (my photo)

At the start of this new year, my friend Talita from high school put on her debut concert as a singer-songwriter, livestreamed over Facebook (Thunder Bay, Ontario, is far from Durham, England) from the Urban Abbey. It was the story of her journey as a musician, and a good number of friends from high school as well as her dad and sisters made appearances on the platform, performing alongside her, including Ryan Marchand who is actually a rock star.

It was a wonderful event, and there was a strong element of Talita’s faith in the midst of the theme of her emergence as an artist. Many of the beautiful songs, including her own compositions, were songs of the Christian faith, reflecting the beautiful truths of our beautiful God. It was great to watch this event. And I am so glad that the Urban Abbey provides a space for artists — performers and others — to ply their trade.

But few churches and Christian communities really do. It’s probably seen by some as a hipster sort of move. Historically, however, churches have not needed to sponsor the arts so consciously as this — it was natural. Notker ‘the Stammerer’ was not Sankt Gall’s Artist in Residence (and certainly not a hipster), but he wrote them beautiful poetry. The mosaicists of Palermo were simply plying their trade. The anonymous liturgists of the Gelasian Sacramentary did not need to make special pleading in the church.

But today, spaces like the Urban Abbey can be rarely found.

In Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, one piece of wisdom Chris R. Armstrong imparts is for evangelicals to get into art more — that the Incarnation makes Christian art important. God Himself became His creation. All creatures matter. Not only this — and this is not from Armstrong but is Tolkien language also expressed by Sayers in The Mind of the Maker — but we are made in the image of God, and one of the foundational properties of theism is that Our God is Creator. We then, are sub-creators in some way.

Turning back to Armstrong, evangelicals have not always made good art. Think of the King of the Hill line about how Christian rock doesn’t make Christianity better but rock’n’roll worse. Armstrong mentions Richard Wilkinson’s study of English literature 1860-1960 that found the only orthodox Protestants producing high literary art worth mentioning in that century were C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot, both sacramental Anglicans. I don’t know how accurate that is, but it’s worth thinking about.

How can we make great art and beauty a natural part of evangelical faith?

The Gospel — the evangel of evangelical — is the most beautiful true thing in the world. The God who dies. The myth that is real. The cosmic-rending reality of Incarnation. The piercing of the Virgin’s Mary’s soul. There is high drama here. It is worthy of great art, and great art has been made about Christianity forever.

People of faith have always made art, often of a very high degree of skill and beauty. Just think on the Parthenon and temples of the Acropolis, the Pantheon of Rome, the tales told of the cult statue of Zeus at Olympia, or consider the Dome of the Rock, the Great Mosque of Damascus, the calligraphy on the exteriors of so many mosques. Think of the Homeric Hymns, the Poetic Edda, the Rg Veda. Greek tragedy and comedy began as part of a religious festival.

Christianity, in its worship of the Triune God, has given us the beautiful prose of the Book of Common Prayer, the verse of Gregory of Nazianzus and Prudentius and Ambrose, the glories of Byzantine and Renaissance liturgy, the fine intricacies of ars anglicana embroidery, the hymns of Charles Wesley, of Romanos the Melodist, of Ephrem the Syrian, of Isaac Watts, of Notker the Stammerer, of J. M. Neale, as well as the architecture of liturgy — Hagia Sophia, St Peter’s, Notre Dame, Chartres Cathedral, the mosaics of Santa Prassede, of Palermo, of Hagia Sophia, of San Marco in Venice.

Beyond the formal worship event, Christianity has given us so much (and so much more than the following): The Dream of the Rood, Dante (!!), The Quest for the Holy Grail, Fra Angelico,  Mozart’s Mass in C Minor and Requiem, William Byrd, countless mosaics and frescoes throughout the Mediterranean world, the Christian Latin epics of Late Antiquity, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, J. R. R. Tolkien, and so many more without delving into Protestantism.

For the churches descended from the Reformation have their own rich heritage in the arts. St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes, the prose of the 1611 KJV Bible, Sir John Davies, Henry Purcell, Thomas Tallis (who was also Roman Catholic — he lived in interesting times), J. S. Bach, C. S. Lewis, Malcolm Guite, and undoubtedly so many others who escape me just now.

Let us drink deep from the beauty of the beautiful God, and we shall produce beauty ourselves.

Mother Teresa on Silence

Following from yesterday’s post about silence in the Rule of St Benedict:

“In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.”
― Mother TeresaIn the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers

Into Great Silence

I recently re-watched Philip Gröning’s film Die Grosse Stille, or in English Into Great Silence. This film is an immersive experience and possibly one of the better ways to bring people into the world of Christian monasticism and the contemplative tradition.

When I first watched it, I watched it over more than one sitting. Although this film is a bit long — 2 h 42 min — it is, I think, important to watch an immersive film such as this in a single sitting. Into Great Silence is about the monks of La Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. This is the mother house of the Carthusian order. Carthusians do not talk to each other. They sing the office and chant the readings. The few times they eat together in refectory, a brother reads to them, and they keep silent as they eat.

The first non-singing human voice in the film is the monk who takes care of the cats, about 20 min in.

The sounds you hear in the great silence are footsteps in the cloisters. Feet treading up stairs. The sound of a kneeler creaking beneath monastic weight. The rustle of white robes. Birdsong. Spoons in bowls of soup. Rain. The river. Scissors cutting fabric. The rasor shaving their heads. The food trolley rolling down the corridor. A shovel in the snow. You hear the bell ring and watch the monks kneel to pray wherever they are. You hear them shuffle in, taking turns at the chapel bell and arranging themselves in the choir. You hear them sing the night office in Latin.

There is no voice over. Just the great silence of the Carthusian life.

La Grande Chartreuse

The film covers about one year of life at La Grande Chartreuse. It begins and ends in winter, with shots of blizzards in the Alps. You see La Grande Chartreuse covered in snow. You see the majestic backdrop of the Alps surrounding it. You watch the spring melt-off. You see the rivers and streams swell. You see two young men make profession as novices. I found it interesting that the prior seemed to roll his R’s in French like an Italian (maybe he’s Italian). You see a monk sitting at his table in his hermitage reading. You see a monk preparing  celery. You watch the monks get their heads shaved.

It is a very simple life. They seek to live that monastic ideal ora et labora. They cut their own wood for their fireplaces; Carthusians live in little houses, each with its own garden. There are also larger, communal gardens. These all grow vegetables. They pray, they read, they prepare food, they take care of the cats, they take care of the cattle, they clean the monastery, they keep the spring water flowing to the charterhouse. They work. They pray. They sleep. They pray. They sleep. They pray. They work. Repeat.

There is a bit of modern plumbing, a few electric lights, electric rasors, and an IBM Thinkpad. But most of what they use looks mediaeval. You see a monk washing his dishes in his room with a jug and a bucket, and the water flows out a hole to the outdoors.

They do talk, though. Gröning edited the material very well — at the one communal meal in the film, the reading is from the constitutions of the Carthusians, talking about how they eat supper together on Sundays and solemn feasts, and that after the meal they have the chance for conversation, so that they can experience some of the joy of family life. They also get to go for a walk once a week because of how refreshing a walk in the forest is for frail humans after all the strictness of the Carthusian way of life.

What do they talk about? Whether they should maintain the tradition of handwashing, and if getting rid of the handwashing would be the start of a slippery slope into indiscipline.

They also go sliding in the winter. Their laughs are very highpitched.

In the end, this is a beautiful film of extraordinary power. I recommend it highly, whether you are into monks or not. For me, I really felt like this was a taste of the kind of spiritual tradition and spirituality that I could get into. Maybe never actually as a Carthusian, but this world of silence, calm, prayer, service, is enchanting.

Finally, if you get the collector’s edition, it has a second disc full of interesting information and slideshows about the making of the film and the history and spirituality of Carthusians.