My latest YouTube video is a response to someone recently stating that the Later Roman Empire was a decaying civilization into which no one bought. I disagree. So I started a foray into Late Antique history which may last several videos (if not the rest of my life!). It’s not yet strictly ecclesiastical history/the history of Christianity, but the series of videos will get there.
If you find yourself interested in more Late Antiquity and simply cannot wait, I have written a series of posts under the heading “Discover Late Antiquity” over at my other blog.
Right now I’m writing from a place of bitterness (not my usual abode when blogging). I have finished Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. It ends with one of those middle-class exhortations to go out and find an adventure to live, to seek what your heart really desires, take risks, and then — then you’ll really start to live.
I do wonder how my working-class ancestors in the North of England would have felt about such advice.
Well, what have I always desired? Writing, teaching, learning. I love these things. I love literature, history, languages. I also believe the study of the humanities is an important part of a well-functioning society. Oh, hey! I know!
Why don’t I become a university professor?
Well. Golly. Here’s a career that I actually love. I’ve taken “risks” other men wouldn’t have taken. I’m holed up in my in-laws’ basement pursuing it. This is my dream. Teaching at a university and doing academic research is actually my dream, and from what students and colleagues say, I seem to be good at it.
So, why is that, having had my viva voce examination (“viva”) for my Ph.D. in August of 2015, I have had four one-year contracts since then and have been unemployed since August 31? For how long am I to continue this existence? How long should I drag out unemployment?
Am I betraying my true heart, giving up on adventure, letting the poser within or the world without crush the real me, every time I apply for a non-academic job?
Oh, John Eldredge. You took risks. And they paid off.
People like to say, “Jeremiah 29:11, brother. ‘I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD…'”
Well, let’s consider plans God has had for His people. For me, I keep circling back to the Russian Revolution, probably because I’ve read things by some of the Christians it exiled, like Archimandrite Sophrony and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.
I’m willing to see that God could use Bolshevism for the outworking of His providential plan for His church, for the purification of the soul of Russian Orthodoxy or something (?). But I’m not sure that it’s the sort of adventure Eldredge was writing about. Just think of the adventure Anthony Bloom got to live, being exiled from his native country in the 1920s and growing up in Paris!
Of course, Bloom did seek out his adventure. He became a monk, left a career in medicine, then became a priest and ultimately Metropolitan.
But he lived through the Russian Revolution first.
I am not pursuing academia for the money (no one does). All this crap people write about vocation says this is a place I could be happy.
Why will it not then take me into its warm embrace, provide me with employment and some money for my family?
Now, perhaps I need to rethink where and how I teach and write and learn. Perhaps. And perhaps I actually have to get a job that does not involve those things and make them my hobbies. That’s fine. My working-class ancestors wrote articles about fishing in a local magazine in the late nineteenth century. You can do more than one thing.bu
But please stop telling men that if they chase their dreams they will come alive.
Every once in a while, I think that those of us who write about the disciplines or about mysticism/contemplation really have no idea what we are saying, and that the true contemplatives are not bloggers, but more likely people like my friend Father Raphael who doesn’t even have Facebook and spends a lot of time praying the Jesus Prayer, serving his parish, and studying the Scriptures and the Fathers.
Some of us, though — we just can’t help writing or talking about this stuff, even though we fall afoul of St John of the Ladder (‘Klimakos’ being Greek for ‘of the Ladder’) who says that unless you engage in praktiké, you’re not qualified to teach it.
Anyway, here are four types of people interested in these things; you’ll find us all on the web.
Readers. This is my group, so I’ll start with us. We read a lot of spiritual books, and sometimes we talk about them. If we’re in a braggy mood, we might even list some (Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle, John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, John Cassian, the Rule of St Benedict, The Philokalia vol. 1, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Dorotheos of Gaza, Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, a Cistercian anthology, St Bernard of Clairvaux, Aelred of Rievaulx, the Venerable Bede, Cyril of Scythopolis, St Jerome, some Origen, some Evagrius Ponticus, Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Kallistos Ware, William Law, Julian of Norwich, and so forth). Somehow, we think this means that we are spiritual, even if we don’t put into practice a vast amount of what we read. We are deceived.
Mysticism and asceticism lite. This is the group that hasn’t read the primary sources of ancient, medieval, and early modern Christianity but only a few contemporary authors who talk about them. We Readers pridefully show contempt for them. “I read St Ignatius of Loyola,” the Reader will say, “and the prayer of examen is much deeper and more difficult than what these people say.” There is a chance that, if the Readers could peer in the mysticism-lite heart, we would see shallowness that imagines itself to be deep. On the other hand, at least these guys actually engage in some of the disciplines instead of reading about them and then feeling good about themselves. They are probably closer to the Kingdom of the Heavens than we Readers are in our pride.
Mysticism as therapy. This is an interesting group. They rightly grasp hold of the fact that Christ heals our wounds and cures our diseases. They have also had contact with some of the psychological literature that shows how things like “meditation” and practising thankfulness lead to stronger emotional health. So when they read Julian of Norwich or The Cloud of Unknowing, they gravitate towards how contemplative practice is there to help us feel better. They are not wrong — only partly right. The great truth we should all grasp from John Cassian, St Hildegard, Julian of Norwich, or The Cloud is the greatness and majesty of God and how that is the main purpose of ascetic exercise and contemplative pursuits. One again, at least this group seeks to put into practice the tradition.
Social action as asceticism. This group is probably holier than the rest of us, even if I think they are inaccurate in their understanding of the tradition. These are the people whose main concern is the really active life of serving the poor, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoners, etc. For them, this is the true heart of the Christian spiritual tradition, and the rest of us are off-base. They may be right.
These are probably not exactly fair, I admit. And some of us veer between the different groups. All of us need grace to draw near to God wherever he wants to meet us, whether we read too much and practise too little, do too little but think big of our doings, do things for slightly off-base reasons, or spend our time in service of others but not seeking pure prayer.
I was surprised to find David Talbot Rice having written the following in Art of the Byzantine Era:
The Egyptian Christians had broken away from the Orthodox persuasion of Constantinople after the Council of 451, as a result of disputes as the true nature of Christ, and Alexandria had become the centre of a heresy known as the Monophysite. According to this, Christ had but one nature, the divine, and the Virgin was in consequence always designated as Hagia Maria, ‘Saint Mary’, for it was not accepted that she could be ‘Mother of God’, or ‘Theotokos’, as she was called in the Byzantine world properly speaking. (28)
You may wish to absolve Prof. Talbot Rice by observing that 1963 was well before the invigorating work of, say, Sebastian Brock on Syriac Christianity or Alois Grillmeier on Christology, but, in fact, there was already solid work on what these people actually believed, and even translations of their own works into modern European languages such that even in 1963 there is no reason why an academic who spent his career studying Eastern Europe and the Middle East should get the Monophysites so wrong as in the above quotation.
I also wish to be on the record that I greatly appreciate and admire the work of David Talbot Rice. He was probably better at what he did than I am what I do, and I have read with profit his little book Russian Icons, and I am already learning a lot about art and art history from Art of the Byzantine Era.
What is wrong in the above?
Almost everything, in fact. We must move backwards, for the last is perhaps the worst error to make, at least in terms of simple ignorance. The movement called ‘Monophysite’ was and is a conservative Cyrillian reading of Christology; that is, deeply indebted to St Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444). Their rallying cry was, ‘One incarnate nature of God the Word!’ — a phrase from St Cyril. The term Theotokos is eminently Cyrillian — this is the word that the Council of Ephesus in 431 was fought over. The entire purpose of the title Theotokos is to secure the full Godhead of Jesus. The infant carried in St Mary’s womb was fully God. God the Word was in Mary from the moment of conception when the Spirit of God overshadowed her.
Second, and this is an understandable error (I guess), the mainstream of this movement does not, in fact, believe that Jesus Christ has one nature that is only divine. Certainly, that is a way of reading the term ‘Monophysite’, and it would certainly rank as a heresy. Moreover, it is the very thing that Eutyches may have believed (I am still fuzzy as to what exactly he thought he was saying), that led to his condemnation at Chalcedon in 451. But, although the Coptic Church and the rest of the Monophysites reject Chalcedon, they also reject Eutyches.
What they actually believe
Monophysites, that is, the Oriental Orthodox — Coptic, Ethiopian Tewahedo, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian Churches — believe that Jesus is God the Word incarnate. He is also fully man, contrary to the teaching of Apollinarius of Laodicea who denied Jesus a human psyche/soul/mind. However, he has one nature, one will, and one action. This is because he is a single, fully united person — hypostasis in the Greek.
There is a union between the divine and human in Jesus according to hypostasis (kat’hypostasin). The result is that what we can say about the divine Christ we can say to the human. Christ’s divine activities are predicated of him as a man and vice versa. Accordingly, they reject any teaching that says he has more than one nature. If there are two natures, so argue people like Severus of Antioch, there is no longer a hypostatic union but, rather, two hypostases (or persons) — this is what Nestorius got condemned for in 431.
Very, very briefly, this is what the Monophysites believe.
Prof. Talbot Rice’s passage above is also why living members of these churches reject the term ‘Monophysite’. Used properly, it can certainly designate what they believe (see Lebon, Le Monophysisme Sévérien). But usually it is used improperly, of a belief that there is only one divine nature in Christ, which is completely contrary to everything their forebears fought for in the fifth and sixth centuries. They mostly use the term ‘Miaphysite’ today, although I have not used it in this piece…
More on Monophysites!
Lebon, J. Le Monophysisme Sévérien. Louvain, 1909. This is an early but still helpful examination of what Severus of Antioch and Philoxenus of Mabbug, two of the great Monophysite theologians, taught.
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
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).
One reason, I suspect, why some evangelical Anglicans have dropped liturgy is a desire to engage the culture around them, to be more evangelistic, to be missional, to make disciples. The storyline thus goes that liturgy, whether Common Worship or the BCP, is not relevant to our post-Christian culture, and Sunday morning must be made accessible to the unchurched ‘seeker’ who may wander in or who has been invited by a friend.
Thus, make church look as little like ‘church’ as possible.
If my initial premiss is correct, it is worth noting that even a ‘seeker-friendly’ church service will still, in fact, look nothing like any ‘normal’ event your unchurched ‘seeker’ has ever been to. Prayers of any sort are not part of the secular culture. Preaching, Bible reading, singing songs led by a guitarist, shaking hands with strangers — none of these things is part of a normal event that I can think of, except for those ‘humanist’ churches that have consciously modelled themselves after Christian worship.
The ‘seeker-friendly’ church service thus fails, anyway.
Nonetheless, the concern is, to a degree, valid: How can we help the curious unbeliever find Jesus and be part of the Sunday morning worship event? How can we worship God in a way that does not simply leave the uninitiated confused?
Liturgy need not leave the unchurched or non-Christian visitor bewildered or turned off.
To keep our focus on the Eucharistic liturgy (or ‘Holy Communion’ or ‘the Lord’s Supper’), I have seen churches that print out leaflets with marginal notes to help those unfamiliar with liturgy to understand what is going on. Liturgy itself is no longer an obstacle to the unbeliever.
Not only that, the liturgy itself is a recapitulation, a symbolic (with all the weight of symbolon in Greek) re-enactment of the Gospel as well as a prefiguration of the heavenly banquet we all look forward to. We evangelicals like to proclaim the Gospel that is Christ crucified for us. In word and action, the Eucharistic liturgy brings to the mind this very Gospel we love to preach. And it does so in words almost entirely drawn from Scripture.
The Canadian BAS and the BCP (and, I assume, Common Worship) include penitent confession as well as a proclamation of absolution through Christ’s redeeming death on the Cross. The ‘Comfortable Words’ of 1662 (a series of Bible verses about repentance and forgiveness) are a proclamation of God’s willingness to forgive the repentent sinner as powerful as any Billy Graham Crusade, I would argue.
Moreover, in a BCP service of Holy Communion, there are at least two Bible readings; if it is preceded by Morning Prayer, increase that to four plus a Psalm(s)! We evangelicals believe that the word of God is living and active — it can cut to the quick and save souls, can it not? And if it can be obscure, is that not what the homily is for?
Add to this the rich tradition of evangelical hymnody that proclaims in beautiful verse the Gospel of Christ crucified.
I truly believe that a service of Holy Communion done with clarity and even a little guidance is not only not a hindrance to the unbelieving visitor but proclaims the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Finally, while there may be some who would be turned off by liturgy of any sort, there are others in our culture who are drawn to symbol and sacrament and turned off by touchy-feely, folksy church services. If we are to be utilitarian about liturgy, why reject our Anglican heritage in the name of evangelism, doing things in a way that will actually keep some unbelievers (let alone folks like me, who seem not to matter) from returning?
This is why it saddens me to see evangelical Anglicans jettisoning our rich liturgical heritage in favour of faddish ‘seeker-friendly’ church services — it need not be this way.
When I was a kid, we used to sing a song in church with the lines:
They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love
I’m not disputing that most Christians I know are, in fact, genuinely lovely and loving people. However, many of us have managed to produce a public face that does not look so much loving as angry. Possibly bigoted (which may be accurate of true Christianity, depending on a. how you define bigotry and b. how you define true Christianity). But not necessarily loving, and not necessarily filled with the love of Christ.
Today, I read the piece by George Takei (of Mr Sulu fame!) criticising the practice of Indiana and some other US states to allow business owners to refuse services to people on the grounds that so doing would contravene the owners’ sincerely held religious beliefs. Given that bar owners technically already have a legal responsibility to keep people from getting drunk, the only application for this that I can think of is if an unmarried heterosexual couple or a gay couple wanted to spend the night at a hotel owned by a conservative Christian/Jew/Muslim (most likely Christian, quite frankly).
There is a variety of responses to this, but the one that hits me first is: Where is the uncompromising love and the Gospel witness at a moment such as this? Is my job as a Christian to police the morality of my fellow citizens? Or is it my job to love them effluously while at the same time being a strict policeman of my own morality?
It’s not just the battle over what sorts of relationships the secular government wants to extend certain protections to that is distracting, though — so don’t let the George Takei piece blind you to other issues.
Elsewhere in the USA, a politician has apparently said that rape is beautiful if it results in the conception of a child. It is one thing to say that, regardless of how a child was conceived that child has a right to live and a mother a duty to carry the child to term, and quite another to use complimentary adjectives about a heinous, hideous, destructive act that can leave serious emotional, psychological, and physical wounds in a person. Even if this may be a misquotation, it is a very clear instance of how culture wars distract from the Gospel, in my opinion. Whatever the politician said, this is what the world heard.
Rather than scoring points in a culture war, shouldn’t we be providing refuge for the victims of terrible acts of male aggression? How many rape victims would feel safe in churches associated with such rhetoric? How many young women who have had abortions would feel loved in churches who rail against the practice vociferously? Where is the Gospel witness? Or are we just moralising yet again?
Science has also come under fire in the culture wars. One woman goes so far as to say that dinosaurs never existed. I’m not kidding. The video is here, at ‘Crazy Christian Mother Thinks Dinosaurs Never Existed.’ American anti-establishment culture combined with a variety of evangelical anti-intellectualism has led to people making us look like a bunch of idiots. A friend commented on Facebook concerning the dinosaur video that either religion makes you stupid, or if you are stupid, you’re drawn to religion. (Or something along those lines.)
A disconcerting moment came to me whilst listening to the Newsboys album God’s Not Dead. The beginning of the title song is either recorded live at a concert or from the film (which I’ve never seen). Michael Tate (of former DC Talk fame) is talking to the crowd about ‘scientists’ telling us there’s no God and all the usual stuff, and in his dismissal of the naturalists/atheists, getting big cheers from the crowd. But when he moves to Gospel proclamation, when he starts proclaiming the power of God to save us from the power and penalty of sin, evil, and death — then the cheers dimish a little.
Shouldn’t these be our biggest cheers? Not only that ‘God’s not dead’, not only that there’s a Creator (I mean, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and certain Buddhists can claim the same), but that He is the God of unconditional love who chooses to spill over into our mundane (world-bound) history and raise us to heaven, not simply in spite of our own sin and wickedness, but precisely because He loves us more than we can imagine. That’s Good News! Shouldn’t our proclamation of the Gospel of Grace be the loudest, clearest message we send to an unbelieving world?
I’m not saying we shouldn’t hold firm as individuals to a traditional, scriptural viewpoint on issues of ethics. But what is the public faith — the public face — of the church? Are we (figuratively) washing the feet of unbelieving neighbours or (sometimes literally) yelling in their faces? Are we telling them the resplendent glory of the story of the God Who became a man to set us free, or are we telling them all about how they’re sinners (and we, presumably [as they think it], are not)? Are we preaching Christ crucified, or simply some pat answers and apologetics?
I realise that even broaching these topics can bring a firestorm of activity in a blog’s comments. So, please, take a breath and think carefully about what you’re going to post, and please keep to the main thesis of this post, which is not whether gay marriage is right or abortion is right or evolution is true, but whether issues like these are distracting us from authentic Gospel witness in Anglophone Christianity — if you disagree with me on that issue, feel free to do so lovingly. If your comments are uncharitable or libellous, I reserve the right to remove them as moderator of my blog.
I recently remarked to a couple of Master’s students groaning about reading Homer that if they’re interested in Late Antiquity, Homer’s not totally irrelevant, given that Gregory of Nazianzus wrote poetry in Homeric verse. A (very pleasant and overall thoughtful) young convert to Eastern Orthodoxy remarked that he really liked Gregory’s theological poetry. I said that I liked his poems, too. Then this fellow said that you don’t find theological poetry in western theology, and that a reading group of which he is a member had been reading the Second Theological Oration and he loved some of the poetry in it.
I asked if the ‘poetry’ was written in verse.
No, it was just very beautiful.
I said that that’s actually rhetoric, and that that’s the Fathers for you. They have rhetorical training, and such beauty comes through in their theology, that people like Gregory, Augustine and Ambrose didn’t study rhetoric for it to have no effect on their style of writing.
Our conversation moved on, because I’m bad at confronting people face to face when they say stuff like that.
In the above exchange, there was one category error and (at least) one misrepresentation of western theology. Now, I’m not going to say that Gregory of Nazianzus at his high-flying, rhetorical, ‘poetic’ best isn’t magnificent and stunning. He is. And his theology is good, too. And other eastern Church Fathers, like Gregory of Nyssa or Basil of Caesarea or Athanasius or, in Syriac, Ephraim the Syrian (literal poetry, in his case), have all displayed to me the stylistic beauty of their writings over the years.
But to say that anything beautiful is poetry is not to know what poetry is. And to say that western theology has no poetry is not to know the western heritage.
Sometimes I think a lot of people leave the western churches for Eastern Orthodoxy because we’ve been holding back our own riches of a variety that Eastern Orthodoxy spreads out lavishly. I do not imagine that my acquaintance has read beautiful, ‘poetic’, rhetorical western theology and failed to recognise what it is. I imagine that he has not read it.
So, first: Western theology has poetry. Literally. This should go without saying on this blog, given the series of holy week poems I posted this year, including ones by Theodulph of Orléans (9th c), Ambrose of Milan (4th c), Venantius Fortunatus (6th-7th c), Thomas Aquinas (13th c), and a couple of anonymous ones. I have also discussed Ambrose of Milan’s hymnography. It is worth observing that two of the greatest theological minds of the western tradition, Sts Ambrose of Milan and Thomas Aquinas, were both, literally speaking, poets. So were Peter Abelard and Bonaventure, one a controversial theologian, the other a mystical theologian. Others who are famous as poets also wrote theologically, such as Prudentius and Sedulius. Also, Dante has more than a little theology in his poetry, and of the moderns, we need look no further than the Holy Sonnets of Donne, or the theological work of Spenser, or the world of Francis Thompson or Gerard Manley Hopkins to find westerners (Anglican & Roman Catholic) writing theological poetry.
And, second: Western theology can be poetic. In prose. So, figuratively? Today, when a lot of people say ‘western theology’, they actually mean either something that looks like mediaeval scholasticism (which is both a way of thinking as well as a style/genre of approach) or something that looks like the Enlightenment. That all western theology is about precision and order and sets itself out in Aristotelian syllogisms and spends its time being obsessed with the rational and forgets the mystical and so on and so forth.
This is largely a caricature, and it is entirely inappropriate for western, Latin theology before some time in the Middle Ages, and not always inappropriate thereafter. Not only do western theologians produce a good supply of poetic, beautiful, rhetorical work, eastern theologians use their fair share of logic and reason (so John of Damascus, most of Basil of Caesarea’s On the Holy Spirit, much of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations, Cyril of Alexandria, and so forth). The style of theology we are caricatured as doing exclusively is not our exclusive domain. And the style we are imagined as not engaging in is part of our territory, too.
Lift up your eyes to the light itself, and fix them upon it if you can. For so you will see how the birth of the Word of God differs from the procession of the Gift of God, on account of which the only-begotten Son did not say that the Holy Spirit is begotten of the Father, otherwise He would be His brother, but that He proceeds from Him. Whence, since the Spirit of both is a kind of consubstantial communion of Father and Son, He is not called, far be it from us to say so, the Son of both. But you can not fix your sight there, so as to discern this lucidly and clearly; I know you can not. I say the truth, I say to myself, I know what I cannot do; yet that light itself shows to you these three things in yourself, wherein you may recognize an image of the highest Trinity itself, which you can not yet contemplate with steady eye. Itself shows to you that there is in you a true word, when it is born of your knowledge, i.e. when we say what we know: although we neither utter nor think of any articulate word that is significant in any tongue of any nation, but our thought is formed by that which we know; and there is in the mind’s eye of the thinker an image resembling that thought which the memory contained, will or love as a third combining these two as parent and offspring. (De Trin. 15.50)
Not necessarily theology at its most poetic/rhetorical/beautiful. But not lacking in what a Romantic eschewing verse might call ‘poetry’. If you’ve spent your time with Latin Christianity through the medium of text books or of dry dogmatics, refresh your understanding of it. Grab One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas by P G Walsh and Christopher Husch, or St Bernard of Clairvaux, or Lady Julian of Norwich, or any of a multitude of western theologians and poets, and reacquaint yourself with the tradition we all seem to have forgotten and then scorned.
In this case, it is not familiarity that has bred contempt.
Yesterday I met a couple of Mormon missionaries in the Meadows, and we had a bit of a chat because I decided, for once, not to be rude and not to basically ignore them. I saw them in the distance and even prayed the Jesus Prayer, saying that I’d talk to them if they spoke to me. And, of course, they spoke to me.
I think it would be really hard to be a Mormon these days. Not only do you have to work through all the arguments against belief that non-heretical Christians have to work through, you have to work through all the arguments against Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon and all of that as well.
The elder who did all the talking brought up the Great Apostasy as an explanation for why The Book of Mormon was necessary. According to Mormons, at the death of the last apostle, there was a Great Apostasy, and all Christians everywhere turned away from the truth, and God waited around for 1800 years or so until it was the kairos and he granted a new revelation to Joseph Smith and cleared out terrible heresies such as the Holy Trinity.
Now, this Catholic website has some solid biblical arguments against the Great Apostasy, so I encourage you to read it and work through it.
I’m going to take a tack that uses my own special expertise. Church history.
According to a tradition Mormons would maybe reject since the ‘apostate’ church teaches it, the last Apostle to die was St John the Evangelist, around the turn of the second century. Everything that the church did after that doesn’t count because we fell into apostasy. At this time, if we accept the traditional attributions of the New Testament texts, the entire New Testament existed.*
But, if the whole New Testament existed, did all Christians believe that all 27 books thereof were the inspired revelation of God? What about other books? Were there other things they may have gone for that we and the Mormons don’t?
The answer to the first question is No. The answer to the third question is Maybe. In A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon, Craig D Allert addresses the related issues of authority and the canon of Scripture, and he demonstrates that it took centuries for the organic process of sifting out what qualifies as the ‘canon’ of Scripture to transpire; he also demonstrates that the unwritten ‘rule of faith’, such as the Apostles’ Creed, was seen as authoritative alongside the growing sense of authority applied to the apostolic writings. It was the coinherence of this growing Christian canon alongside the authority of the rule of faith (and church leaders, no doubt) that helped settle the Christian canon of Scripture.
We start getting lists in the late 100s, such as the famous Muratorian fragment (ca. 170, to date it early), but most are much later, many emerging from the pens of, say, St Athanasius or St Augustine in the 300s, or as late as Pope Gelasius in the late 400s. Of course, it does seem that along the way a lot of prominent Christians were drawing from the same collection of apostolic documents and treating them as Scripture, even if the boundaries hadn’t been formed up yet.
One story I like is that in the 200s, a clergyman wrote the Bishop of Antioch if it was okay to use the Gospel of Peter at Church. The bishop said, ‘Sure!’ After, the Gospel is the Gospel, and Peter is Peter. Then he got his hands on a copy and saw that it’s a bit … wonky. I imagine this sort of thing happened more often in the Early Church than we are comfortable with — but less than extreme, pro-Gnostic cynics/skeptics would have us believe.
One canonical text that took a while to gain universal acceptance was the Book of Revelation. I understand it never quite passed muster to enter the Byzantine liturgy, but I could be wrong.
One non-canonical text that pre-dates the alleged ‘Great Apostasy’ and which many ‘proto-orthodox’ treated as Scripture for a long time is 1 Clement. Another text that a lot of people really liked was The Shepherd of Hermas — its popularity lasted so long that in the fifth century, John Cassian cites it the same way he cites canonical texts (this is the only non-canonical text he so treats).
The ins and outs make for a fantastic, messy story. But in the end, if you want to accept the 27-book New Testament, you have to accept that the Holy Spirit was working in the Church for centuries after the year 100, helping the people of God come to grips with the new faith and new life produced by the Jesus Event, and that only through much prayer and meditation was this 27-book canon sorted out.
And it was sorted out by people who often read like Trinitarians, some of whom were fully-fledged Nicene Trintarians, others possibly ‘proto-Trinitarians’ before Nicaea, others of whom would have rejected a bodily God even if they couldn’t yet push belief towards Trinitarianism, all of whom live during the alleged Great Apostasy of Mormonism.
So — why trust the New Testament if you’re a Mormon? Why trust the judgement of a church you condemn as apostate and heretical? If our forebears were inspired enough to choose the right revealed texts, why would they also perpetrate what Mormons consider one of the greatest heresies — belief in the Most Holy Trinity?
I admit that orthodox Christian history and orthodox Christianity are less tidy than the Mormon solution. Maybe that’s why they are more true.
*I’m not actually arguing that, say, 2 Peter was actually written by Peter or even before ca. 100 — just saying this for the sake of argument.
Everyone once in a while, someone, maybe a friend in conversation, maybe a preacher from a pulpit, will come down hard on traditional western images of Christ, saying that that pale, blond, slender Jesus is a remote image of someone who is very close. Or, as Mark Driscoll says, he can’t worship a Jesus whom he could beat up. Or there is a complaint that the white Jesus is just another example of western, imperial triumphalism over the Middle Eastern, Jewish roots of Christianity.
A few words about how misguided the above representations are in order, then.
Starting with the last first: Most of these images are too old to be imperialist. In fact, they’re often so old and from places so far removed from the Middle East that it would surprise me enormously to see a swarthy Jesus. In, say, mediaeval Norway. Third, I have a feeling that, even if the artists were thinking, ‘Let’s make Him look Jewish’, they would have made him pale, given that a lot of European Jews are, in fact, pale.
So, if you ever see a blond Jesus, why would that be? (Blond Jesuses are actually hard to find; mind you, my experience of looking is mostly Italian and Orthodox art.) The answer, as always with mediaeval art and architecture, is theological (who’d’ve guessed?):
These images are not supposed to be perfect, mimetic, historically accurate pictures of Jesus as he actually was whilst on earth. Byzantine icons (which are definitely never blond) and western mediaeval paintings/mosaics are, as Rowan Williams puts it, ‘theology in line and colour.’
Jesus is perfect. Jesus is God. He is, spiritually speaking, beautiful. In fact, He is Perfection. He is Beauty. He is the Good/Beautiful (to kalon) that Plato aspires to in the Symposium.
As a result, Jesus has a tendency to adhere to cultural standards of beauty wherever he goes. This is the short and simple answer why northern Europeans would make a blond Jesus — because they are blond. Because blond in their culture is beautiful. So Jesus is beautiful. So he is blond. And white. Like them. It is the enculturation of Christian theology and Gospel.
This, when combined with the spiritualising of the human form I blogged about earlier, produces our pale, slender Christ Crucified. Put Him in stained glass, and He also is a reminder of the Uncreated Light, drawing us upward into God with Gothic architecture and its spirituality of light and of height.
People still do this — we have black Christs, First Nations Christs, Chinese Christs. By doing this, we take the particularity of the Christian narrative — that God became a man in first-century Roman Judaea to save us — and make it universal — He did so for you, here and now in this remote corner of the world. Here in Paris, in Toronto, in Timbuktu — Christ is for you.