The Christmas Councils

In two weeks, I am giving the Davenant Fellows lecture. My title is, “The Christmas Councils: Upholding Christ’s Humanity in the Ecumenical Councils, 451-787AD.” The official blurb and registration are here–it’s free! You don’t need to have watched my lecture from last December, entitled “Christmas and the Cross in the Ancient Church” and about Sts Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, but this one does pick up the chronology where that one left off. It’s on YouTube at this link.

This lecture will cover the period of the last four ecumenical councils (I’ll be teaching all seven for Davenant Hall this January — you can register here — it’s not free), but the focus will actually skip the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Constantinople of 553. In good, Protestant sermon fashion (or like a five paragraph essay), I’ll have three main points to explore:

  1. Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon (451)
  2. Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) and the Third Council of Constantinople (680/1)
  3. John of Damascus (d. 749) and the Second Council of Nicaea (787)

Each of these men articulated the theological vision that was approved at the respective council. And each of them was fighting to maintain a full vision of the humanity of Christ, a humanity at risk of being swallowed up by divinity in Eutychianism in Leo’s day, a humanity at risk of being diminished to having no will in Monothelitism in Maximus’ day, a humanity at risk of being detached from history and becoming a mere point of dogmatic assent in Iconoclasm in John of Damascus’ day.

The teachings of this era in church history help us orient our hearts and minds to the God Word Incarnate with ramifications for our worship, our ethics, and our witness to the world around.

Jesus is the Gospel, so it matters if we get these things right or not.

Register for the lecture for free here.

Register for my 10-week class starting the week of January 10 here.

Watch last year’s December fellow’s lecture here.

Justin Martyr on baptism

Relevant to my last post, here’s some undigested Justin Martyr (c. 150):

I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”1894 Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above;1895 he thus speaks: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”1896

And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed. (First Apology, ch. 61)

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“One baptism for the remission of sins”

Obviously none of this refers to Jesus the Christ

So I’ve recently come into contact with those who deny baptismal regeneration, initially through a discussion of the Nicene Creed and its statement on baptism:

ὁμολογοῦμεν ἓν βάπτισμα εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν

We confess one baptism for the remission of sins

The concern was raised that baptism is not “essential” to salvation. And during the discussion, I realised that I have definitely moved into a position of believing in baptismal regeneration. But I because it’s something I’ve just sort of … slid … into, I do not have any robust argumentation (unlike, say, predestination, which I only came around to through the gentle ministrations of St Augustine this past Spring).

There are two places to begin in a question like this. Either you ask, “What does Scripture say?” or you ask, “What is the Rule of Faith?” And, given that it was the Nicene Creed that gave rise to the debate, I think it only reasonable to ask, “What does the Rule of Faith mean?”

Once we know what the Nicene Creed is actually talking about, then we can more thoroughly inquire as to whether it is in accord on this point with Scripture as it is on its other points. This, then, is merely an initial foray. A second foray will inquire whether I am right about the Creed insofar as the ancient church is concerned. A third will consider Scriptures about baptism. And a fourth will ask about Scripture and “remission of sins”/”salvation”.

What is “remission of sins”, then? Actually, let us go one step back. What is “for”, εἰς? This is a preposition and can mean many things depending on context, of course. It seems uncontroversial that LSJ definition V.2, “of purpose or object” is correct — “one baptism with the object of ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν“.

ἄφεσις, “remission”, is the noun derived from ἀφίημι, a verb that means to let go, to release, even divorce depending on context. The verb is the one used in the Lord’s Prayer for “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us,” (BCP) or “forgive us our debts…” (KJV). The use of “debts” in the KJV reminds us of the semantic range of ἀφίημι. This is the normal word in the New Testament for forgiving sins, and ἁμαρτια (neuter plural) is a normal word for “sins”, those times when we literally “miss the mark” of God’s holiness.

Basically, our ἁμαρτια are not held against us. They are forgiven, remitted, let go, released.

So, one baptism for the purpose of releasing sins, I guess?

But what does that really mean? It sounds like it means baptism is necessary for us to be forgiven — that the simple act of being dunked thrice in water with the words, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” remits our sins. Ex opere operato — you’re baptised, you’re saved!

Of course, that last clause, “you’re saved” already dredges up some Protestant baggage and has presuppositions about what the “remission/release/forgiveness of sins” actually means.

Without consulting the Fathers on this point, I would lean into the teaching that forgiveness of sins is not simply a question of “Get out of Hell free,” or “Get into Heaven,” but a matter of relating to God here, now, immediately, and that the grace conferred at baptism somehow is involved in this forgiveness. What I have seen the Fathers say about “salvation”-type questions generally tends to be holistic.

We’ll have to see, considering Sts Cyril of Jerusalem and John of Damascus (if not others) next time.

My latest on YouTube — More on Liturgy!

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

Hooker as quoted in the video:

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

Ancient Christian Worship

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

Pentecost and the Allegory of the Holy Grail

Enjoy my latest offering on YouTube wherein I talk about the allegorical meaning of the Quest for the Holy Grail, referencing Malcolm Guite, Pauline Matarasso’s translation of The Quest for the Holy Grail and its introduction (and thereby Etienne Gilson and Myrrha Lot-Boroodine), St Bernard, and William of St-Thierry. And the Canon of the Mass in the Use According to Sarum. It’s a good time, I promise!

Prayer-Book Augustinianism

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

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

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

Canadian BCP 1959/62

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

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

My modernised version for congregational use.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palm Sunday reflection

This is a reflection I put together for my church, Urban Abbey, in Thunder Bay for this past Sunday.

Since ancient times, Palm Sunday has had two Gospel readings—a short reading for Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and then a long reading of a passion narrative, recounting Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and execution at the hands of sinners. The English word passion comes from the Latin passio, the word for suffering. This suffering and death, recounted to us in Mark 14:1-15:47 in today’s Gospel, is something that I have meditated on in these reflections the past few Sundays, pointing to Jesus, high and lifted up, glorious and dead, saving us, drawing us to the Father with whom he now reigns in glory.

A surface reading of this passage in Mark shows us a beaten man, dying unjustly under the thumb of an imperial power. Yet when we unite this with the events of Palm Sunday, something starts to peek out, as the crowd calls, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13, quoting Psalm 118:25, 26) and our Lord’s fulfillment of ancient prophecy, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (John 12:15, quoting Zechariah 9:9). On Palm Sunday we glimpse Jesus as the King of Israel, the Messiah, the anointed one of the God of Israel.

Philippians 2:5-11 brings out the deep meaning of Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This passage is thought to actually be an early Christian hymn incorporated by St Paul from the church’s worship into his letter. Here we read that although Jesus was “in the form of God” he chose to “take on the form of a slave”. Most modern English Bibles have “servant” here—the ESV unhelpfully gives us the antiquated word “bondservant” in the notes as an option for “servant”. The Greek is doulos. It means slave. It’s worth thinking on this mystery.

Jesus is fully God—completely and utterly God, as much God as the Father is God. Anything we can say about God we can say about the Christ: immortal, invisible, wise, almighty, eternal, omniscient, just, loving, merciful, compassionate, infinite. He is also fully man—that is the upshot of Philippians 2:7, that he has the “form of a slave” and was made “in the likeness of human beings.” God in His very Self knows precisely what it means to be the lowest of the low—there is no one in ancient society lower than the slave. A Roman slave was the legal property of another human being. It was part of the regular process of Roman law to simply torture slaves if they were witnesses at trials—not even if they were defendants. If a master was killed by a slave, the entire household of slaves was liable for the murder and put to death; they should have known better or done better to protect him. This is how far God chose to come down to be with us.

God knows everything about being human—he is not aloof.

For us to consider to how deep the love of God the Word for us is, the next verse brings us to the cross—”he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:8) First, Christ our God took on the form of a slave, the lowest of human society. And then he did not merely suffer, he died. And he did not merely die, he died the death reserved for the lowest of the worst criminals. Romans crucified those they considered the scum of the earth, such as Spartacus and 6000 of his fellow slave rebels, the thieves and murderers on either side of Jesus, or 2000 Jews who rebelled against the Romans around the time when Jesus was born. It is a terrible way to die, as many Good Friday sermons enjoy describing for us.

Just as a reminder, here are of some of the divine attributes ancient Christians and Jews believed in and passed along to us—God is immortal. God cannot suffer. God is eternal. God is infinite. As Charles Wesley put it: “’Tis mystery all, the Immortal dies!”

What is the result in the divine plan of his action in human history, his taking on our flesh and dying as one of us? “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:10-11) Because of the basic nature and order of the universe, humans and the rest of the creation are meant for loving and worshipping God; as has been said, our main purpose in life is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” In falling away from the worship of God, we have fallen from our truest life, and therefore we have gone away from our truest joy and happiness and source of contentment.

Part of our salvation is for God’s glory because, when we give glory to God, we are living our best life now. This is what the Paradise we lost was and what the Paradise we shall regain is going to be. Following Jesus means going through suffering to glory. The grand narrative of the Bible is not simply creation to fall to redemption, but also from redemption to glory, to the new heaven and the new earth of the book of Revelation.

Let us now go back to Philippians 2:5. I quote my own translation, “Therefore, let that mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” From here, St Paul describes the mind that was in Christ Jesus. Ethics and theology are intimately united in the Bible. The ethics that flow from the theology that I have just described, the way of living that we disciples (or better, apprentices) are called to follow by our master and teacher, is given in Philippians 2:6-11. We are called not to grasp for power and authority but to pour out our whole selves in love for others. We are called to humble ourselves and deny ourselves daily. To take up our cross and follow Him—Jesus the Messiah, God the Son, Saviour, Lord, Prophet, Priest, King. His mind is a mind filled with loving humility, with humble love.

Humility, of course, is a strong biblical virtue, and through the centuries, disciples of Jesus have had much to say on the subject. Since we at the Urban Abbey follow a version of the Rule of the seventh-century Irish abbot St Columbanus, I thought I would commend some of his words to you this Palm Sunday:

if … we first hasten by the exercise of true humility to heal the poisons of pride and envy and vain glory, through the teaching of our Saviour Who says for our example, “Learn of Me for I am meek and lowly of heart’’ (Matt. 11. 29), and so on, then let us all, made perfect with no further blemish, with hatred rooted out, as the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, love one another’ (cf. John 13. 35) with our whole heart. (Letter II.4)

The only pathway to humility, as with all virtue, is grace. St Columbanus reminds us of God’s grace in his third sermon, where he urges those pursuing eternal life to

call on God’s grace to help [your] striving; for it is impossible for anyone to acquire by his own efforts alone what he lost in Adam. (Sermon III.2)

In closing, here is the prayer of the day (called a “collect”) for Palm Sunday from the Book of Common Prayer, bringing together many of these themes:

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Crucifixion, Studenica, Serbia. 1310s.