Yesterday was Father’s Day, so I made sure to have a video chat with my Dad and to watch Cars 2 during a thunderstorm with my kids. And crack open a cold one in the evening while preparing tonight’s lecture about Wycliffe and suchlike. I also thought a bit about God as Father.
Most of us think of God as Father in three ways:
Creator of everything. Thus, Father of all humans by analogy.
Adopter of redeemed humans. Thus, Father of some humans by divine will.
Father of the God Word, God the Son, Jesus the Christ. Thus, Father by his own nature.
Actually, most people today, no matter how orthodox their idea of the Trinity, probably rarely think of number 3. St Athanasius (sign up for my Athanasius course today!) did, and when I encountered his ideas early on in my journey into the Fathers, they cemented for me two facts:
The Trinity must be true.
It good and healthy to speak of God as Father, despite the failings of human fathers.
It’s point number 1 that came home to me time and again. Basically, if we take seriously the Bible as being revelatory of God’s nature, then biblical names mean something. The names the Bible uses of God reveal to us something of His nature. Thus, if a biblical name for God is “Father”, we need to take that seriously. The name “Father”, rather than something we came up with like, say “unbegotten”, is revelatory of the divine nature. It means that God has always existed as Father, according to St Athanasius. And therefore, there has always been a Son from eternity.
St Athanasius nuances this with the analogy from human fathers, an analogy that some felt divided Father and Son so that the Son could not be fully God. According to St Athanasius, sons have all the same essential and natural attributes as their fathers. I am a human by nature; so are my sons. Whatever is necessary to my humanity is necessary to theirs — this is in virtue of my having begotten them.
Likewise in the Godhead. Anything that can be predicated of the Father — eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, immortal — can be predicated of the Son. Grasp this with the biblical teaching of God being only one, with the doctrine of divine simplicity, and you are headed straight for the Trinity.
Point number 2 is partly related to this. We need to be able to speak of God as Father because that’s how the Bible does. And biblical names matter. By speaking of God as Father, Athanasius was able to see how Father and Son are homoousios.
Furthermore, in the life-and-worldview of the ancient Christians, influenced by both Scripture and Plato, the reality of human fathers failing did not bear on God the Father at all. God, as Father in all three ways listed above, is the perfect Father, of whom every human father is an imperfect image. Think of the absolute best Dad, and then multiply him by infinity — then you have a poor analogy for the perfect divine Father, God the Creator, and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And once we embrace these biblical names and the transcendent realities they point us toward, there is no fear of uttering the Scriptural names of the Three Persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In rereading St Bede the Venerable, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book 1, in preparation for this past Monday, I encountered (unsurprisingly) Evagrian resonances in Pope St Gregory the Great’s letters to St Augustine of Canterbury in 1.27. Evagrius of Pontus was a late fourth-century mystic and ascetic master amongst the Desert Fathers of Lower Egypt at Nitria and then Kellia. Father Luke Dysinger has an accessible biography of Evagrius here. Despite being controversial in posthumous Origenist controversies, Evagrius remains foundational for ascetic and mystical theology and practice both East and West. In the West, his teachings were transmitted and refracted through the work of St John Cassian, and then further refracted through the works of Pope St Gregory.
The Evagrian resonances were most explicit for me in St Gregory’s response to question 9.
First, Gregory recapitulates teaching common to both Evagrius and St Cassian that fornication and gluttony are intimately linked. The immediate context is the ongoing, perplexing question raised by ancient monastics as to whether someone who has nocturnal emissions has sinned or not.
Pope Gregory writes that the illusions that accompany such emissions are sometimes caused by overeating, that one’s body is essentially overburdened by eating. The correlation between gluttony and fornication is made by Evagrius in the “Texts on Discrimination” excerpted in The Philokalia Vol. 1:
For one does not fall into the power of the demon of unchastity, unless one has first fallen because of gluttony…
Trans. Sherrard et al., p. 38
One of the basic realities I discovered when I did my first dive into John Cassian was the interconnectedness of our whole lives, including the life of sin. Succumb to one sin, and you are setting yourself up for being bound to the others. Excel at one virtue, and you gain strength to fight all the sins. I confess here and now that I have yet to read Gregory the Great on the Seven Deadly Sins (which he adapts from Evagrius-Cassian), but I imagine his concept is much the same.
But what really got my Evagrian gears turning was this passage in Bede, EH 1.27, Q IX:
all sin is committed in three ways, namely by suggestion, pleasure, and consent. The devil makes the suggestion, the flesh delights in it and the spirit consents. It was the serpent who suggested the first sin, Eve representing the flesh was delighted by it, and Adam representing the spirit consented to it: and when the mind sits in judgement on itself it is necessary to make careful distinction between suggestion and delight, between delight and consent. For when an evil spirit suggests a sin to the mind, if no delight in the sin follows then the sin is not committed in any form; but when the flesh begins to delight in it then sin begins to arise. But if the mind deliberately consents, then the sin is seen to be complete.
Ed. McClure and Collins, pp. 53-54
Gregory the Great goes on. But this is enough to see the Evagrian anatomy of sin. The suggestion comes first — that is, the initial temptation as we would see it. We like the idea — sure, why not have another goblet of wine? We succumb; our spirit consents. (Another goblet … or three?)
It is a sublte, psychologically real approach to sin that attaches all the responsibility for action upon the human agent. Gregory notes that one may have the suggestion, and be delighted by it, but resist so as not to consent with the spirit. This circumstance, of being delighted by sin yet able to resist, is what St Paul spoke of in Romans 7:23,”But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” So we are able to fight these thoughts when they come.
This fight is what much of the surviving work of Evagrius is about, and it is also the chief business of many writers in the Philokalia. One of the chief skills Philokalic and Evagrian spirituality seeks to hone is watchfulness. We must watch our thoughts, “to recognize the difference between angelic thoughts, human thoughts, and thoughts that come from demons.” (Evagrius, On Discrimination 7, p. 42)
Watchfulness and the discernment of the thoughts and the battle against temptation are central to Evagrian praktike, but central to his whole program, central to St Gregory, to the Venerable Bede, to the missionaries of Anglo-Saxon England, is the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, to be met in contemplation, theoria, and worshipped and adored.
Two nights ago, I sat reading at the top of the stairs within earshot of my sons’ room. I was ready to lay down the law if the goblins weren’t keeping quiet. I did — some stern words were uttered. Silence reigned. If they don’t get enough sleep, they are increasingly unmanageable. As I sat uncomfortable and only able to half listen, I was reading The Old English Boethius.
Sort of appropriate.
I’m not comparing completely normal parenting woes to being imprisoned on suspicion of treason by King Theoderic the Great (which was Boethius’ situation when he wrote the Consolation of Philosophy). But the underlying theme of the Consolation is that age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the wicked prosper? This question is the cry at the heart of Boethius the character as he engages in conversation with Wisdom/Philosophia, a cry stretching back at least to the book of Psalms. Psalm 73:1-15:
TRULY God is loving unto Israel : even unto such as are of a clean heart. 2. Nevertheless, my feet were almost gone : my treadings had well-nigh slipt. 3. And why? I was grieved at the wicked : I do also see the ungodly in such prosperity. 4. For they are in no peril of death : but are lusty and strong. 5. They come in no misfortune like other folk : neither are they plagued like other men. 6. And this is the cause that they are so holden with pride : and overwhelmed with cruelty. 7. Their eyes swell with fatness : and they do even what they lust. 8. They corrupt other, and speak of wicked blasphemy : their talking is against the most High. 9. For they stretch forth their mouth unto the heaven : and their tongue goeth through the world. 10. Therefore fall the people unto them : and thereout suck they no small advantage. 11. Tush, say they, how should God perceive it : is there knowledge in the most High? 12. Lo, these are the ungodly, these prosper in the world, and these have riches in possession : and I said, Then have I cleansed my heart in vain, and washed mine hands in innocency. 13. All the day long have I been punished : and chastened every morning. 14. Yea, and I had almost said even as they : but lo, then I should have condemned the generation of thy children. 15. Then thought I to understand this : but it was too hard for me,
When I first read Boethius’ Consolatio I was 20 or 21 (I think). I typically have two books on the go for leisure reading — something fictional and something Christian. I recall at the time having a conversation with the friend who first mentioned Boethius to me that it didn’t really feel very Christian to me, and certainly not as “helpful” as my then-standard fare (I honestly can’t remember what Christian books I read in undergrad besides CS Lewis stuff, Bonhoeffer’s Christology, and Ridenour’s How to Be a Christian without Being Religious).
Maybe I just hadn’t suffered enough. Now, round three through Boethius, I find his concerns eminently relatable and the teaching of Wisdom (in OE, rather than Philosophia in Latin) something of a balm. Being parents has not always been easy on my wife and me. I was unemployed for a year within recent memory. I never landed the academic job I wanted. I am actually mostly between jobs just now.
This list is not exhaustive.
I am, 18 or so years on from first reading Boethius, in a place where reading the modern English translation of the Old English translation of the Consolation of Philosophy is blessing me. As I sit in the midst of uncertainty with various troubles besetting my world, I am called to consider what are those goods that endure.
Position? Influence? Power? Money?
Pat Sajak spins the wheel, and you fall from these at the snap of Wyrd’s fingers (Wyrd, or Fate, takes Fortuna’s place in Old English).
Wisdom calls us to a different life, and not just the life of the mind, not just the life of reason (although he certainly does this). The Old English Boethius makes explicit the moral and ethical demands Wisdom makes upon those who would pursue him, demands implicit in the original in its discussion of Philosophia.
And what do you enjoy if you pursue and hold tight to wisdom?
Therefore the wise always lead an untroubled life without change, when they renounce all earthly good and also remain untroubled by those evils, looking for the eternal things which come afterward. Then almighty God keeps him in every way perpetually continuing in his mind’s own blessings through the grace of the creator, though the wind of worldly troubles may greatly afflict him and care may constantly hinder him when the wind of worldly fortunes blows cruelly and fiercely on him, and though the distraction of these worldly fortunes may always terribly afflict him.
I find this more comforting in the midst of worldly trouble than people quoting Jeremiah 29:11 (For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. [NIV]), because I think, “Well, the Lord’s plans for Russia in 1917 included Bolshevism, and his plans for Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley involved being burned at the stake.”
But the Christian philosophy of Boethius, drawing on the best ideas of Aristotle and Augustine, knows such realities all too well. Thus, he doesn’t and cannot look to a “better future” unless that future is rooted in his own inner man, his own conduct, his own mind. And that is where hope and consolation are to be found.
Boethius aligns well with the Psalmist. And so I close with the final verses of Psalm 73:
20. Thus my heart was grieved : and it went even through my reins. 21. So foolish was I, and ignorant : even as it were a beast before thee. 22. Nevertheless, I am alway by thee : for thou hast holden me by my right hand. 23. Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel : and after that receive me with glory. 24. Whom have I in heaven but thee : and there is none upon earth that I desire in comparison of thee. 25. My flesh and my heart faileth : but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever. 26. For lo, they that forsake thee shall perish : thou hast destroyed all them that commit fornication against thee. 27. But it is good for me to hold me fast by God, to put my trust in the Lord God : and to speak of all thy works in the gates of the daughter of Sion.
Full disclosure: While this post does represent something that’s been on my mind, I’ve chosen this particular topic tonight to encourage you to sign up for my course with Davenant Hall, The Church in Medieval England! Registration closes on Thursday, March 24.
I recently read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. (1) I’d been planning on reading it since the summer, but some medieval Arthuriana and my reading load for teaching prevented me until now. Beowulf is greatly enjoyable — monsters, adventure, sword-wielding swimming contests, and only 3182 lines versus The Odyssey with 12,109 lines. (2) Beowulf was my second epic (the Odyssey my first), and my second piece of long-form medieval literature (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Tolkien, when I was 13). It has stuck with me these many years, appealing for all the reasons ancient and medieval epic and romance stay with me — poetic artistry, a good story, some wise utterances.
One of the many reasons Beowulf continues to resonate with me is a characteristic that is eminently medieval, although it is an impulse the Greeks, Romans, and Mesopotamians also demonstrate, albeit differently. The poem is itself deeply religious, deeply Christian, but the characters are pagans. While I concede that around the time Beowulf was composed, there was some concept of the “secular”, (3) there is very little in art of this period that would look such to us today.
Beowulf is interesting in this regard because, as I say, it is a deeply Christian poem. Yet none of the characters of the poem are Christians. They are all pagans, and explicitly acknowledged as such; there is not even an attempt by the Beowulf poet to imagine them as “noble pagans” who are Christians before Christ who maybe make the cut on Judgement Day (or Doomsday to be more OE).
That said, the frequency of mentions of God in Christian terms renders the tone of the poem pius in a properly Christian sense. Pietas here means rendering the proper respect and honour and duty to those around you and above you. In a Christian sense, it includes worship of and obedience to God, as well as honouring your human father and mother. It is also often seen to include fulfilling obligations for the political community, something that obviously becomes culturally conditioned depending on your context. In Beowulf, this last means kings giving gifts to thegns (a good king is a ring-giver) as well as helping your friends and harming your foes (in a Homeric rendering of accounts). Harming your foes is not exactly Christian, but it is unclear to me whether the feuds of Beowulf are approved by the poet or simply recorded, whereas aiding friends and giving gifts are both approved of.
The pagan cast of the epic, however, has misguided pietas towards the false gods of ancient Germanic religion, and the poet makes this clear, interweaving his own Christian commentary on the pre-Christian tale. Several times, the poet draws the reader out of pagan glories to the final judgement, lamenting the deaths of the unbaptised pagan heroes of the past.
However, throughout, there is also an almost unconscious pietas, a sort of natural law (to misapply the term) in Beowulf himself. Here I confess that I am borrowing from Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics.” In the poem, as Tolkien observes, Beowulf goes from trusting solely in the gift of God in the fight with Grendel, to trusting in weapons, armour, shield, in the fight with the dragon. Beowulf consciously chooses to trust in God for the outcome of the fight with Grendel, not in the weaponry or art of war devised by men:
… And may the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side He sees fit.
trans. Seamus Heaney, lines 685-687.
Beowulf meets Grendel in the night, grapples with him, and rips his arm off. Grendel will bleed to death as a result.
The second monster is Grendel’s mother, whom Beowulf confronts with weapons. His first sword, Hrunting, fails him, and he almost loses this fight, needing the aid of a magic sword to gain the victory.
The third monster is the dragon. This time, Beowulf wins but dies in the process, slain by the dragon he and his thegn Wiglaf slay together. The poet says of him as he goes off to the fight:
The fabled warrior in his warshirt and helmet trusted in his own strength entirely and went under the crag. No coward path!
trans. Seamus Heaney, lines 2539-2541.
Whereas with Grendel, Beowulf trusted in God to guide the outcome, here, with his weapons, he trusts in himself. He defeats the dragon, but the cost is his own life. The theme drawn through these episodes is that of Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God.” The less Beowulf trusts in God, the more dire becomes his own individual situation.
Yet there is also a high regard for Beowulf as a king saving his people, as a faint image of Christ. Beowulf sets out with twelve companions, his own apostles. And he is abandoned at his moment of keenest need save by one, Wiglaf, just as Christ was abandoned by all the (male) disciples save by St John the Evangelist. Like Christ, his death saves his people. To kill the dragon, the king dies; and in biblical imagery, the dragon represents the devil, defeated by Christ on the Rood.
In these and many other ways, Beowulf is a deeply Christian poem. The poet is not setting out to be “authentic” about these pagan characters. To his own self and his own religion he remains true. Yet his vision of their lives is capable of seeing the swift, sure hand of Almighty God at work.
This intertwining of pagan and Christian, or in other circumstances secular and sacred, is one of the things I love about the Middle Ages. So much of it has these layered readings and meanings and beautiful takes, just waiting to be fleshed out, or even enfleshed. It means that you can’t separate a study of medieval England (or a course!) into “secular” and “sacred” in any easy way.
Derived from notes for a sermon I preached at the Urban Abbey, Thunder Bay, November 14, 2021.
This Gospel reading is a familiar story. Jesus performs two miracles, and, in Mark and Luke, one of them is almost by accident! I think the Mark-Luke version of events is more what we are used to, sort of as told here in Tatian’s Diatessaron which is a combined version of all four Gospels that tells the events in order, put together in the 100s:
And a man named Jairus, the chief of the synagogue, fell before the feet of Jesus, and besought him much, and said unto him, I have an only daughter, and she is come nigh unto death; but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live. And Jesus rose, and his disciples, and they followed him. And there joined him a great multitude, and they pressed him.
And a woman, which had a flow of blood for twelve years, had suffered much of many physicians, and spent all that she had, and was not benefited at all, but her trouble increased further. And when she heard of Jesus, she came in the thronging of the crowd behind him, and touched his garments; and she thought within herself, If I could reach to touch his garments, I should live. And immediately the fountain of her blood was dried; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her plague. And Jesus straightway knew within himself that power had gone out of him; and he turned to the crowd, and said, Who approached unto my garments? And on their denying, all of them, Simon Cephas and those with him said unto him, Our Master, the multitudes throng thee and press thee, and sayest thou, Who approached unto me? And he said, Some one approached unto me; and I knew that power went forth from me. And that woman, when she saw that she was not hid from him, came fearing and agitated (for she knew what had happened to her), and fell down and worshipped him, and told, in the presence of all the people, for what reason she touched him, and how she was healed immediately. And Jesus said unto her, Be of good courage, daughter; thy faith hath made thee alive; depart in peace, and be whole from thy plague.
And while he was yet speaking, there came a man from the house of the chief of the synagogue, and said unto him, Thy daughter hath died; so trouble not the teacher. But Jesus heard, and said unto the father of the maid, Fear not: but believe only, and she shall live. And he suffered no man to go with him, except Simon Cephas, and James, and John the brother of James. And they reached the house of the chief of the synagogue; and he saw them agitated, weeping and wailing. And he entered, and said unto them, Why are ye agitated and weeping? the maid hath not died, but she is sleeping. And they laughed at him, for they knew that she had died. And he put every man forth without, and took the father of the maid, and her mother, and Simon, and James, and John, and entered into the place where the maid was laid. And he took hold of the hand of the maid, and said unto her, Maid, arise. And her spirit returned, and straightway she arose and walked: and she was about twelve years of age. And he commanded that there should be given to her something to eat. And her father wondered greatly: and he warned them that they should tell no man what had happened. And this report spread in all that land.
I wanted to read this story out loud in this version not only because it’s worth seeing how we all tend to think of these famous Bible stories, but also because it’s worth it just to hear the Scriptures over and over again, to allow them to penetrate our hearts, as in the meditative reading of Scripture from the medieval monasteries called Lectio Divina today.
I think there are some interesting questions to ask about why Matthew isn’t the same as the other two, but I’m not going to. What we see in any version, though, is the power of God at work in the lives of those around Jesus, and Jesus is the epicentre of that power.
What stands out to me first when I read it in the Matthew version is that the leader says, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” Unlike the others and the Diatessaron, the girl is already dead. Recently dead, yes. But dead nonetheless. And yet this man comes to Jesus expecting that Jesus will be able to heal his daughter.
When the Son of Man returns, will he find such faith on earth?
How deep does our faith go?
Think on that.
Jesus goes to see this girl. He goes because He has come from heaven, the God Word himself, to make everything sad come untrue. He is life, as the Gospel of John says. This is God’s rescue plan, and death is the final enemy who, because of Jesus’ victory, will lose its sting through the cross and resurrection at Easter. Indeed, for us here now, death already has lost its sting.
Along the way, embedded in this other miracle narrative, another person seeks Jesus out. This woman has spent all of her money on doctors. Some preachers will tell you these men were basically quacks. I’m not one of those preachers. Some probably were. But others had real knowledge, even if the theory was not sound. But it doesn’t matter; they couldn’t heal her. And that was a problem in Jewish life, because a woman during her period was ritually unclean, and so there were all sorts of things she couldn’t do, including certain forms of normal human interaction and religious practice. The clean/unclean distinction is part of many ancient religions, and I know a Hindu whose mother had a completely separate room to sleep in during her period. That’s the kind of life this woman had been leading. All she wants is to be a bit normal. She wants healing deep in her soul, and she believes Jesus can give it to her.
What do you want from Jesus today?
In the other Gospels and the Diatessaron, Jesus feels the power go out of Himself. He queries, “Who touched me?” Here, Jesus knows. He knows who has touched him. So he turns, and there she is. He looks at her.
Jesus Christ is God come down to meet with us. The incomprehensible, almost inaccessible King of the Universe, the Logos, the Word, who makes and orders all things, came down as Jesus of Nazareth to liberate his beloved people from sin, death, and the devil. He became man because of his unutterably deep love for us. “Jesus turned,” the Gospel says, “and seeing her he said…”
This is a simple, straightforward historical truth about a specific moment in the earthly life of our Saviour. He saw her and spoke to her.
Let me tell you something else. This is a powerful, cosmic truth about every moment in our earthly life with our Saviour. He sees you. He sees me. And he speaks to us.
And when he speaks to the woman with the issue of blood, he says, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” Faith, at its root, is trust. Trust is a great English word, related to tree and truth and tryst. Sturdy, dependable. Trustworthy. Her pistis, her relying on Jesus, her trust in him, made her well. Jesus healed her instantly in response to her faith. This is the truth and beauty of divine compassion let loose upon the world in Jesus the Christ, the God Word enfleshed for our salvation. Trust him. He will heal you—of course, last week our main pastor already noted that our physical afflictions may not always be healed. But what endures, Jesus can and does heal that. Your deepest wounds, sins, scars, soul, eternal self. This is healed and prepared to be raised up at the last day to reign with Him.
So Jesus looks at her. At you. At me. And he speaks, and he says, “Take heart, child; your faith has made you well.”
He continues on his way. And he comes to the home of Jairus, where the girl is dead. Here the mourners, some of them possibly professionals, have gathered already to make the public display of the family’s grief. Jesus sends them away with the astonishing, laughable words, “Depart; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.”
They laughed at Jesus. Ridiculed him. Once again: How do you respond to the God of the universe when He speaks? With faith, like the woman with the issue of blood, or with ridicule, like the professional mourners? Sometimes the things he says seem crazy.
Nonetheless, he came, took the girl by the hand, and she arose.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is the way, the truth, and the life. In him is life. He came so that we might have life, and life abundantly. Nothing can stop him. Not even death. And there’s something really cool about how Jesus performs these miracles that a friend of mine wrote about in a book. Here, and in all the miracles of Mark, Jesus just performs miracles. He doesn’t pray for God to intervene or use some other agent like Aaron’s staff, as the prophets in the OT had. He doesn’t say, “In the name of God…” like how the Apostles say, “In the name of Jesus Christ.” He just heals.
No one else in ancient history about whom miracle tales are told does this. They always defer to God if they’re Jewish or Christian, or maybe they use magic or a pagan deity or demon if they aren’t. But they don’t just go around performing miracles on their own power. The only person who does that is God. The weight of miracle upon miracle upon miracle in Matthew’s Gospel—the next story, just so you know, is Jesus performing a miracle—presses us to realise this beautiful, glorious truth, that sometimes we Christians take for granted. And this truth is:
God is Jesus.
Hence the power of the Jesus Prayer prayed by the monks of Mount Athos that gave them such grace:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
This takes us right back to the Colossians passage I read earlier in the service, showing us what the miracles teach us about Jesus as God. This is the cosmic dimension of the Gospel we are baptised into, the glorious reality we grasp when Jesus looks at us, speaks to us, and we have faith in him:
Colossians 1:9-23 NIV
9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[c] your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
A friend queried on Facebook yesterday, “Whose politics look more like God’s? Jesus’ or Constantine’s?” This is a friend I know well enough to know that he’s not being actually anti-Constantine or anything like that, but, rather, trying to provoke us to think about Jesus.
Now, this friend tends to use the Revised Common Lectionary, yet when I was preparing for Sunday using the BCP/Sarum/pre-Vatican II Roman/pre-1980s Lutheran lectionary (remind me why we needed a different one to be “common”?), this was the Gospel for Trinity 23, Matthew 22:15-22:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (ESV)
In other words, the most famous “political” passage in the Gospels.
I have to confess I’m not 100% sure what “Jesus’ politics” look like. Perhaps this is the effect of evangelicalism — I see the ethical teaching as personal and have trouble applying, “Turn the other cheek,” to this-worldly politics. Nonetheless, I’m not sure how Jesus-y Constantine’s politics were after his conversion c. 312.
For example, Constantine used alleged “persecution” of Christians by his imperial colleague Licinius as a cause for war in 324. And then he used imperial power to make bishops abide by the Council of Nicaea (a council with which he himself didn’t necessarily agree). He gave tax breaks to Christian clergy. In 335, he decided to go to war against the Persian Empire to protect the Christians there from persecution. He closed pagan temples (maybe). He also probably had his son and wife assassinated.
All in all, Constantine was a Roman Emperor. He did things that one would expect of a Roman emperor — self-aggrandizement, assassination, and war among them. But are his Rome-focussed politics the politics of God?
It’s not as though the history of the church from Constantine to the wild free-for-all after the Reformation just accepted that a good, Christian king acts like an Old Testament king such as David or Josiah, or models himself after Constantine, or what-have-you. There is, actually, a tension in Christendom between the Gospel call to die for your friends and the temporal call to protect your borders.
Thinking on this, my mind naturally and immediately went to the teaching given to Lancelot by his foster-mother, the fairy known as the Lady of the Lake:
… understand this, that knighthood was not created and set up light-heartedly, nor because some men were originally more noble or of higher lineage than the others, for all people are descended from one father and one mother. But when envy and greed began to grow in the world, and force began to overcome justice, at that time all men were still equal in lineage and nobility. And when the weak could no longer withstand or hold out against the strong, they established protectors and defenders over themselves, to protect the weak and the peaceful and to maintain their rights, and to deter the strong from their wrongdoing and outrageous behaviour.
To provide this protection, they established those who were most worthy in the opinion of the common people. These were the big and the strong and the handsome and the nimble and the loyal and the valorous and the courageous, those who were full of the qualities of the heart and of the body. However, knighthood was not given to them frivolously, or for nothing, but with it a great burden was placed on their shoulders. And do you know what that was? Originally, when the order of knighthood began, a man who wished to be a knight, and who was accorded that privilege by right of election, was told he should be courteous without baseness, gracious without cruelty, compassionate towards the needy, generous and prepared to help those in need, and ready and prepared to confound robbers and killers; he should be a fair judge, without love or hate, without love to help wrong against right, without hate to hinder right in order to further wrong. A knight should not, for fear of death, do anything which can be seen as shameful: rather, he should be more afraid of shame than of suffering death.
The knight was established wholly to protect the Holy Church, for she should not avenge herself by arms, or give back evil for evil; and for that reason the knight was established to protect the Church, who turns the left cheek, when she is struck on the right.
Lancelot of the Lake, trans. Corin Corley. Oxford, 1989/2000, pp. 52-53.
The Lady of the Lake goes on to describe the knight’s arms and armour, giving each its symbolic, spiritual meaning, just as writers such as John Cassian do for the monastic habit. Interestingly, in a later stage of the same cycle of romances, the liturgical vestments of priests are referred to as “the armour of Holy Church” (or something like that).
What this shows us as we ponder the question of worldly politics and the kingdom of heaven is that Christians who can hold worldly power are profoundly aware of the ways in which imperial policy or knightly behaviour, or life at Court, or any number of circumstances are at odds with turning the other cheek.
St Martin of Tours chose to leave the Roman army in the 360s. Many other disciples of Jesus chose to remain soldiers.
Circling back to making these sorts of questions point us to Jesus, then. Real world politics is a messy business, and living in a representative democracy means I have rights and responsibilities other than just paying taxes and following the law. I can elect people, vote in referenda, and write letters to the powers that be.
When I exercise these rights and responsibilities, am I turning to the wisdom of Jesus, reflected even in the Lady of the Lake, seeking to serve the poor and outcast, or am I turning the wisdom of this world? That, I suppose, is the Jesus-y question for today, even if any actual vote cast may vary from Christian to Christian.
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)
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.
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  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)