The Desert Fathers and Anglican Devotion

Launcelot Andrews (1555-1626)

It’s pretty easy to make an argument for any Protestant to read the Church Fathers at large. Do you believe in the Trinity? Recite the Nicene Creed? Well, then, read St Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, St Augustine. Do you believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man? Well, then, read Sts Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, and Maximus the Confessor. Grappling with the question of religious images? Read St John of Damascus. Are you pondering why God became man? Well, then, read St Irenaeus of Lyons. Want to read the Bible better? Read St Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana.

From the perspective of Anglican devotion, St Augustine’s theology of grace gives us good insights into the theology of the Prayer Book collects. Sts Hippolytus and John Chrysostom show us something about the history of our Eucharistic liturgy — as well as the “Prayer of St Chrysostom”. At the heart of the Anglican daily office lies the Psalter: Here, Sts Athanasius and Augustine are a great help.

Spending time with these Fathers will only help us do a better job of being Anglican, Protestant, whatever.

But what about the Desert Fathers? What do we gain from celibate men and women who cut themselves off from normal society, were consciously sleep deprived, ate only once a day, and were professional pray-ers? What can ancient monks do for the devotional lives of Anglicans? And lay Anglicans, at that?

This question is particularly strong for people of my generation who grew up in Anglican churches, at least in Canada, that had a strong Sunday liturgical tradition of Holy Communion and even hymns, but whose devotional world, Monday-Saturday, was the same as that of the Baptist down the road. A lot of room to be truly healthy and holy, but not a lot that was specifically Anglican. At a certain level, hey-ho, that’s fine! Holiness is the goal, not Anglicanness.

But if a standard, evangelical “quiet time”, maybe with some charismatic elements tossed in, is what your devotional life is used to, then the Desert Fathers can be quite foreign, I can assure you.

They can also be quite reassuring and challenging in a good way, though. When I was an undergrad, like a lot of young people, I briefly flirted with the idea of not being purposely and consciously Anglican. And yet whenever I came up against something with which I disagreed, whether from Roman Catholics or evangelicals, I found myself simply Anglican. So I read the 39 Articles again and decided that, regardless of what it meant for other Christians to be Pentecostals, Ukrainian Orthodox, Baptists, or Free Methodists, I was, quite honestly, Anglican. It was silly to pretend otherwise.

Thus, one Lent I chose for my devotional exercise the praying of one office from the BCP (1962) every day. This ended up being Compline, and this time also ended up being my time of “conversion” (if you will) to the Prayer Book. Anyway, that was the same year I met the Desert Fathers and fell in love with their wacky monomaniacal devotion to the Triune God.

This compline-desert confluence is where the Desert Fathers help out the Anglican. The daily office, especially Morning and Evening Prayer, is fairly central to the Anglican devotional tradition. At the heart of the office, alongside the set canticles common to each day, are a monthly rotation through the Book of Psalms and a yearly cycle through the Bible.

Reading the Desert Fathers and learning about their rule of prayer is actually, at base, a simply encouragement for an evangelical Anglican who wants to discover the divine office, for here you will meet the antiquity of your own devotional practices. Not in a “Ha ha, Alliance Church!” sort of way, but in a reassuring way, that this is part of our own heritage and bigger than any single Christian tradition.

At the heart of the devotional life and prayer of the Desert and the tradition that flows from it, whether Benedictines and Cistercians in the West or Mount Athos and St Catherine’s, Sinai, in the East, is the Psalter, coupled with trying to live the words of Scripture. I’ll share some of the Desert Fathers’ wisdom on psalmody later, but their approach to the Psalms can really help transform the impact Psalmody has on the praying of the divine office.

I confess to not having read all of Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living, but it strikes me that one central aspect of his book is intentionality in what we do, as well as not attempting to seem holier than we really are. A large quantity of desert literature deals in this question of intention, using the term “watchfulness” (check most of Philokalia, Vol. 1). Watch your thoughts, watch the reasons you choose to do things, watch your feelings, watch your thoughts, watch your actions, watch your feelings, watch your thoughts. Seek purity of heart. Clear the mind of all but Christ.

And if you do decide to get down with the Anglican divines, you’ll discover that ascetic practices (fasting, regulating sleep, etc) are there in William Law and Jeremy Taylor, and the spiritual sense of Scripture peaks through Lancelot Andrewes. The Desert is not so far, after all.

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Reformed catholic? (Part two)

In my last post, I talked a bit about my slow development to a willingness to use the term “Reformed” — but what about catholic? How is a person both? Well, this has sort of a broad, historical answer, and a narrow, personal answer.

Broad, historical answer

The broad, historical answer is that the Reformers and others in the early Protestant movement considered themselves “catholic”. And a lot of them would have considered those whom we commonly call “Catholics” today Romish or Popish or Papist or at least members of the Roman Church. Now, we don’t need to get into the latter part. It is enough to note that the early Protestant movement saw itself as catholic.

Catholic, as you may know, means universal. The magisterial Reformation (Lutherans, the Reformed, Anglicans), tended to see themselves as the continuing life of the apostolic church. That strand in the Church of England that would come to define Anglicanism (and, thus, for self-definition, something that matters more for me than would the ideas of Luther or Melanchthon or Calvin or Knox) frequently saw itself as restoring the Church of England to an existence prior to the abuses of the later Middle Ages.

Matthew Parker (Archbishop of Canterbury, 1559-1575) was really into this vision of the Church of England. For example, he argued that what the reforms were doing was bringing the church back to how it was in 597 under St Augustine of Canterbury. This, sadly, is not true. But it’s a lovely idea, and it shows the ideals of the English Reformation. He also, notably, printed the sermon of Aelfric of Eynsham (d. 1010) on the Holy Communion to argue that transubstantiation was a later addition to the dogma of the church, and that the C of E was just restoring the ancient doctrine of the church on this matter. In this way, the Reformational, or even Reformed, Church of England was very catholic, seeking to stand in continuity with the universal church in history.

Similarly, Richard Hooker, who is often cited as being the progenitor of real “Anglican” theology, litters The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity with references to the Fathers. His treatment of the Eucharist, for example, cites many of the early fathers in support of his position. That said, you could just as easily deploy a different set of fathers against Hooker’s position, so his catholicity is not as cut-and-dried as all that.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the catholic church of medieval Latin Christendom was deeply and thoroughly Augustinian. Sts Augustine and Gregory the Great are the two most cited and read fathers throughout the entire Middle Ages. Whatever else went on in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, both movements were a reinvestment in the teachings of St Augustine of Hippo in the church’s approach to questions of justification, grace, merit, etc. Both sides are Augustinian, they just read him differently.

There’s more that could be said about the relationship of the early Protestants to Scholasticism and to the Eastern Churches and to more recent things like St Thomas a Kempis and the Devotio Moderna, but I’ll just leave it there, simply noting that a vast quantity of medieval theology and medieval piety was part of the inheritance of the Reformers and the Protestant Scholastics.

Narrow, personal answer

As I said in the last post, when I was going through a bit of a spiritual crisis during my year in Durham, my brother called me a “catholic Anglican”, and a friend sent me a copy of Alexander de Hale’s commentary on Peter Lombard about grace. Moreover, I had coffee with Father Andrew Louth at his home in Darlington. Father Andrew is a great man — he writes good, important books full of big thoughts, but is also ready to sit with a cup of coffee in his study with a young man searching for help and answers.

Anyway, those three facts about the hard year in Durham are indicative of my personal, spiritual trajectory for many years. I read books by desert monks and modern Athonite elders. I pray the Jesus Prayer. I sometimes (less than I’d like) pray Morning and Evening Prayer. I read medieval mystics. I sometimes attend Orthodox Vespers, maybe even the divine liturgy.

Add to this my embrace of the patristic heritage, including the spiritual sense of Scripture, not to mention the wonders of St Maximus the Confessor as he draws deeply from the Cappadocian well, bringing forth the beautiful synthesis of the trajectories of both Athanasius and Evagrius, and you start to see how I am pretty … catholic.

Nevertheless, I affirm the Articles of Religion, which excludes me from being Roman Catholic. I believe in justification by faith in a Luther kind of way. I also hold to a historically Anglican understanding of the relationship between Scripture and tradition. Some days, I admit that I’m not wholly certain about the Eucharist — but not because Baptist memorialists sway me to be “more ‘Protestant'”, but because St Cyril sways me to be less. Or, maybe, to be more Luther.

So, yes. Catholic. Most assuredly.

Things to like about Anglicanism

I have already blogged here about my inescapable Anglican identity. I would like to talk briefly about the things that consciously attract me in the Anglican church.

Historic liturgy

I love the Book of Common Prayer, as this blog can attest very well. Part of what I love about the BCP is the fact that it maintains more than a superficial link with tradition. It is a living part of the great tradition of liturgies that includes the Roman Mass, the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the Divine Liturgy of St James, the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, and more. It was born in the midst of Reform and schism, yet it keeps all that is best of the weight of the tradition, such that Protestants can safely use it, and Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox only tweak it just a little to make it their own.

Sacraments

We have sacraments! A whole two (2) of them! Even if we’re five short of Roman Catholics and a bazillion fewer than the Orthodox, these two (2) sacraments are at the heart of the communal Anglican encounter with God. Yes, we have historic liturgy to order our worship — but that could just as easily be Morning and Evening Prayer as the Lord’s Supper. But today, and growing up, most Anglicans celebrate the Eucharist on a weekly basis, which is how it was done for, like, 1500 years (until the Reformation, that is). Meeting together to meet Christ in the mystery of the bread and wine is important. This importance is difficult to articulate sometimes.

Protestant(?) theology

The official doctrine of the Anglican church is found in the 39 Articles of Religion. In their positive affirmations, they are for the most part fairly standard, western/Latin Christian orthodoxy: 1 God, Trinity, 2 natures in Jesus, 1 Bible with 2 Testaments, salvation only through Jesus, predestination, etc. It has some anti-Roman polemic, but if you remove the archaic pejorative adjectives such as “Romish”, these points are mostly ones where, frankly, if you disagree with the 39 Articles, you’d best convert to Roman Catholicism or maybe Eastern Orthodoxy. Except perhaps the bit about the saints.

Anyway, the theology of the 39 Articles is basic Protestantism, by and large: Scripture contains everything sufficient for salvation (Article 6); justification by faith (Articles 11-14); no Purgatory (Article 22); no praying to saints (Article 22); no transubstantiation (Article 28); no sacrifice in the Mass (Article 31). Fine with me.

The Fathers of the Church

That stream of the English Reformation that established what we call “Anglicanism” has always been friendly towards the Church Fathers. We may cringe a little at the idea that Archbishop Matthew Parker was helping Queen Elizabeth reset the church to how it was when St Augustine came to Canterbury in 597, but his earnestness and that of many other Anglican Reformers and divines was simply this: A lot of bad stuff has gone down, but most of it was fairly recent. Cut our losses with Rome, keep what is good from before, and rediscover the ancient Church.

Remember that the era of the Reformation was also a time when large quantities of editions of the Church Fathers were being printed. English clerics were purchasing them. The Protestant Reformation, especially Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican, was in many ways a rediscovery and appropriation of St Augustine of Hippo (not the guy who went to Canterbury). Anyway, the Fathers and the dogmatic definitions of the ancient councils are used by Anglican theologians from Parker and Hooker to Wesley through, of course, the Oxford Movement, and up to today in the likes of Rowan Williams, Oliver O’Donovan, and Sarah Coakley.

Poets

John Donne. Sir John Davies. George Herbert. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. William Wordsworth. C. S. Lewis. W. H. Auden. T. S. Eliot. Luci Shaw. Malcolm Guite. Need I say more?

Ancient religion got me into this mess, part 2: Sacraments

I am in favour of forms of worship and devotion (liturgy) as well as church order (episcopal structure) that reflect the ancient church for reasons of doctrine, as discussed last time, as well as the sacraments and, more nebulously, devotion.

As a good Anglican, I believe that ‘There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.’ (Article of Religion 25) My understanding of the sacraments, as well as of ancient Christian history, leads me to embrace the liturgical life of the Church.

Holy Baptism

The sacrament of holy baptism is as old as Christianity. It is all over the book of Acts, and different angles on baptismal theology are found in the letters of St Paul. Baptism is biblical (so I guess the Salvation Army, for all its good, Christian service, is not?). Baptism is, in fact, part of the foundation of Trinitarian belief, as I wrote about in this blog post.

The Didache and the Apostolic Tradition show me a baptismal practice that is liturgical, from as early as the year 90. And it is from the baptismal liturgy that our rules of faith emerged. And from the rule of faith emerges the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed.

To reject baptismal liturgy is to reject the foundations of my credal faith. And that faith is central to my self-understanding as well as to historic, orthodox Christianity.

More than this, however, I believe that sacraments are ‘outward, visible signs of an inward, invisible grace’ (Anglican catechism). Baptism, as Article 26 reminds us, is not simply a symbol. It is never treated as such in Scripture, and never by the ancient fathers. Indeed, in the ancient church, they took baptism seriously as the entry of a person into his’er new life in Christ and into the church, with a period of teaching, fasting, prayer, and discipline to precede the liturgical action. This makes sense to me — becoming a Christian is a big deal.

Historic baptismal liturgies take into account the ancient, biblical, patristic faith and understanding of the sacrament as a rejection of Satan, as a turning to Christ, as a grafting into the church, as either a seal (for adults) or a promise (for infants) of faith.

Baptism was handed down to us by the ancient church, who had a liturgy for it early on. How can I reject the baptismal practice of the people who gave us baptism?

Holy Communion

Of the two sacraments acknowledged by the Anglican Articles of Religion, the Eucharist is the only one that is repeatable. Once again, the ancient evidence shows a frequent celebration of Holy Communion as early as around 100, and this celebration seems to have been liturgical. If the Didache, Justin, and the Apostolic Tradition all use a liturgy centred on the death and resurrection of Christ and his words of institution from Scripture, why should I reject this practice?

Moreover, Holy Communion was believed by the ancients to be a potent reality. A true sacrament, whereby God communicates with us and is Really Present, giving us grace in a way that is distinct from his free-flowing grace that we may gain from silent, solitary prayer or word-centred preaching.

St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 117) calls it the medicine of immortality. St Ephrem the Syrian (4th-century) is similarly rich in his imagery for the Eucharistic feast. Holy Communion is a recapitulation of Christ’s death and resurrection. This is an idea find rich and running through St Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 180). Through the ritual action and the eating of the consecrated elements, we are participating in Christ’s death and resurrection. St Ephrem the Syrian would say that the eternal significance of Christ’s salvific death-and-resurrection penetrates our ordinary time, and that through the Sacrament we are actually participating in his one-and-for-all sacrifice (oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world).

Every Sunday, as traditional Presbyterians like to remind me, is Easter. So every Sunday should be eucharistic. This was the practice as far back as 150, and probably earlier (I think at Antioch, as far back as Ignatius, at least?) and right up to the Reformation.

As I stated in a recent post about liturgy, the Eucharistic liturgy brings forth the riches of the Gospel. A weekly, liturgical celebration of Holy Communion was the defining act of worship and, indeed, of corporate identity for the ancient church. And they did it using words you will still find in the BCP, BAS, Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Roman Catholic Mass, etc.

How can I be true to what I have learned over the past decade of study and prayer and struggle and spiritual growth and reject such worship?

Anglicans in Paris? Fine by me!

This morning I worshipped at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Paris, part of the Church of England’s Diocese of Europe. This morning was the most at ease I have felt at an Anglican church for a long time, and I am grateful for it.

First, unlike a lot of other low Anglican churches I’ve met outside of Canada, there was liturgy. We prayed a prayer of confession together from the words of the PowerPoint. We followed the words of the Eucharistic prayer similarly.

Second, the prayer of confession! I’ve been to a few Anglican churches lately, not just Scottish Episcopal but also the lovely parish of All Saints in Rome, where there is no real prayer of confession. At All Saints they had a section marked out as a prayer of confession but with no actual prayer — the minister would pray a blessing over water and then we’d all pray the Kyrie, leaving me scratching my head. Other places skip it entirely.

Third, since it was a baptism Sunday, the confession of faith was orthodox! No ‘alternative confessions of faith’ as I met at one church in Edinburgh, and no simple skipping of it as I’ve met at a number of others.

Fourth, we sang some classic ‘contemporary’ songs as well as two hymns. This use of old and new, this seeking for some sort of balance tends to make me comfortable these days. As did today’s song choices; the hymns: ‘Immortal, Invisible’ and ‘Amazing Grace’; the songs, ‘The Servant King’ by Graham Kendrick as the offertory and three others I actually knew during Communion.

Fifth, the Communion liturgy was modern but carried within it the content of tradition.

Sixth, the preaching was orthodox. The Gospel was Zacchaeus, the wee little man who climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And it was impressed upon us that Zacchaeus’ good works were the outcome and evidence of his salvation that came from Jesus, from grace alone. Also, we were reminded that love and invitation are where our interactions with ‘sinners’ should begin, not condemnation and judgement.

Seventh, the prayer team. Whatever your liturgical bent, I think it is a healthy thing for a church to have available people with whom to pray. For most Anglicans, these people are available while everyone goes up for Communion. It is a salutary practice, for the Holy Spirit is real and here and with us.

Finally, the church’s commitment to mission and ministry within the congregation, to the city, and to the world. Sometimes I feel like Anglicans exist just for themselves, or that everything but liturgy is social, or something. This is a church involved with the homeless of Paris as well as with the spiritual lives of its congregants.

All in all, despite the fact that the interior of the building hadn’t got the memo that Paris cooled down over last night’s thunder storm, I was at ease. I felt like I was in the midst of fellow believers who worshipped in ways that I do and appreciate things that I do. This is not always a common experience.

anglican?

Repost from elsewhere in 2007

Chancel of St Paul's Within the Walls Episcopal Church, Rome
Chancel of St Paul’s Within the Walls Episcopal Church, Rome

Here’s an adaptation of something I posted as a comment on my friend Rick’s blog. It seemed pertinent to my discussions of Anglicanism:

There was a period of time in which I tried being ‘merely Christian.’ But, try as I did, no matter what books I read, which people I spoke to, what churches I visited, I found that it wasn’t so much a LABEL as an adjective or a noun, a word, that describes me.

Unfortunately, that word is almost useless as it functions as a word.

ANGLICAN.

Oh, how diverse a word! Anglo-Catholic, traditionalist, pew-loving, liturgical, non-liturgical, modern, postmodern, emerging, crumbling, simply traditional, orthodox traditionalist, orthodox, neo-orthodox, evangelical, low-church, evangelical high-church, conservative, liberal, gay rights, women’s lib, charismatic, confused, frustrated, anguished, blind, joyful, dancing-in-the-aisles, genuflecting, apostolic, Apostolic . . .

But give me a Book of Common Prayer. Give me Gothic and Norman (Romanesque) architecture. Give me candles, stained glass, vestments, and hymns. Give me the faith of Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley, Hooker, Andrewes, Donne, Wesley, CS Lewis, NT Wright. Give me a living tradition that I am a living part of, give me symbolic actions. Give me visual symbols. Give me four readings from the Scriptures on a Sunday followed by a 15 min to half-hour sermon. Give me these, but most of all, give me Christ. Give me the Lord Jesus and a love for Him. Give me the Crucified God. Give me His gift-giving Spirit. Give me a love of the Scriptures. Give me respect for His holy Name. Give me these and I will gladly submit to the word, the label, Anglican.

Any of you who have viewed my Facebook profile know my ambivalence to the word, though — Religious Views: Christian — [insert appropriate adjective(s) here] Anglican.

It used to be, “Christian — confused, frustrated Anglican,” but that wasn’t descriptive enough.

Update 2014: It currently says, ‘Christian: Franciscan Orthodox Anglican (?) Currently attending the Free Church of Scotland’

Just some thoughts . . .

The difficulty of the ‘high-church’ evangelical

I write this as one raised within the evangelical, ‘charismatic’ wing of Anglicanism who treasures the Prayer Book and the theology it and the 39 Articles espouse yet who finds himself at worshipping with Presbyterians at present.

I know of another evangelical Anglican, raised low-church evangelical, who attends one of the highest Anglo-Catholic churches I know of, and who sometimes wonders if he should leave — even mentioning a Baptist church in his neighbourhood as a possible destination!

What we two represent are the result of the tough choice that the liturgically-minded evangelical must face. I, personally, am more attuned to liturgical worship as the space where I can set aside my wandering thoughts and focus on worship of God and enter into His presence. However, I am also powerfully, inescapably, at times vehemently, attached to orthodox, biblical, ‘evangelical’ Christian teaching in line with the historic creeds as well as the Reformation principle of justification by faith.

What this means is that here, in Edinburgh, I have to make a choice. Worship in a way that I think brings great glory to God and where I am at my most natural in my response to His unchanging glory, or hear sermons where the Gospel is preached and orthodox doctrine clearly and unashamedly espoused and expounded.

I have chosen the latter, and chosen it outside of Anglicanism (there is one Anglican church here that might do the preaching [orthodox theology, but rumour has it shallow teaching] but misses the liturgy; it is easier for me to worship with non-Anglicans than Anglicans who don’t act Anglican). I use the BCP in my own private worship and sometimes turn up at Anglican churches for weekday services as well as my local Orthodox Church.

Other people I know choose the former; they worship with beauty and elegance and power. But they also read the Scriptures on their own and gather with Christians in the week. The person I mentioned above worships with the music of Palestrina and reads the books of J I Packer.

Why do we have to make this choice? I do not wish to abandon my evangelical theology and commitment to mission when I settle on a church home. Why must I abandon my love of liturgy that encapsulates that theology in ritual action and that ties me to a tradition over  a millennium long?

What times we live in!

Episcopal (papal and otherwise) retirements as opportunities

The big news of last week was not that I was in Florence, as it turns out. Rather, the big news was that the Bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI (aka Joseph Ratzinger) announced his resignation, effective 28 February. This comes only a few months after the retirement of his fellow academic-turned-bishop Rowan Williams. Both of these are moments of opportunity for the historic Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

Will they take these opportunities?

Both men have been alternately loved and hated by those of whom they were to be the spiritual leaders. Both are writers of academic theology that many find deeply powerful and strong, even when they disagree. Both have left behind churches divided by ‘liberal/progressive’ movements in a declining West and a burgeoning ‘conservative/traditional’ movement in the Global South.

Anglicanism in its home countries has lost its way in many respects. Obsessed at times with issues of sexual ethics, not dealing with proper, outright heresy, losing sight of the Gospel many times in many places with declining numbers that different routes of ‘relevant’ are being touted as the solution — whether it is jettisoning the BCP or liturgy altogether or having a U2charist or putting left-wing art on the sides of the churches or reciting ‘alternative creeds’ or turning church buildings into community centres or adding a rock band to the liturgy … and so forth.

Will Welby be able to hold together the vast, spinning network of ideologies that is the Anglican Communion, or will the final ruptures come about in his episcopate? We shall see.

Roman Catholicism has, under B16, has introduced a needed update of the Missal that was sadly unintelligible in many parts, but also engaged in a proactive campaign of Bible accessibility and translation for the masses at the Masses. The New Evangelisation has continued. But there are still the paedophilia scandals, the emptying churches, the awkward 1970s music at ‘modern’ Masses, potential money-laundering scandals in the Vatican — plus a litany of Protestant concerns still unaddressed satisfactorily since the 1500s.

Both communions, that is, have issues. And so new leadership is always a moment of hopefulness and concern.

Let us pray for Justin Welby when he takes on his new role. And let us pray for the conclave when they meet to elect a new Bishop of Rome at the end of this month — whether you think the Pope is the Anti-Christ or not, the Church of Rome needs your prayers!

May both communions rediscover, far and wide, the dangerous and glorious Gospel of God’s dramatic rescue of the human race through His incarnate Son, Jesus. And may they worship him righteously. And may they, fuelled by His worship, bring that dangerous and glorious Gospel to a lost and dying world that greatly needs it!

May God grant wisdom to the new bishops, then. And may the New Evangelization focus primarily on Gospel and Jesus and only secondarily  missals and liturgies and culture wars.

The heebie-jeebies about tradition

I’ve blogged about tradition a few times in the past, most recently this post hereTradition, or in Greek paradosis, is what is handed along, what is handed down. Usually, in Christian circles, we differentiate between the unwritten tradition and the Scriptures, although Cypriot Greek Orthodox priests do not; there is only tradition, of which Scripture is the primary and most important and authoritative part.

The rest of us, because of the Reformation, are aware of two forces acting upon how we do Christianity. In its widest sense, this force of tradition is enormous and unwieldy. It includes not just the ‘core’ in my more recent post about tradition as well as saints’ days (and the whole cultus of the saints), purgatory, the immaculate conception of the BVM, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, your mom, most of the liturgy/-ies, Romanesque architecture, Gothic architecture, icons, stained glass, particular translations of Scripture, and so on and so forth.

And when, in the Reformation, the western Church was abusing certain aspects of these traditions, such as manipulating purgatory to get people to purchase papal indulgences to raise money to build St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the question was posed, and answered, forcefully: Why are all of these traditions binding?

And it was determined amongst we ‘Protestants’ that no tradition that was not supported by the force of Scripture was binding. Thus, in the 39 Articles of the Anglican religion, we have:

VI. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

Nonetheless, tradition is still a force at work within Protestantism, especially in the ‘magisterial’ Reformation (whose descendants largely reside in today’s mainline denominations: Lutherans, the Reformed incl. Presbyterians, Anglicans). Anglicans have bishops, priests, and deacons, and basically use a Reformed, English version of Sarum Use for the Lord’s Supper and the daily office. Only priests can consecrate at the Eucharist, only bishops can ordain priests and deacons. These are matters for which, despite perhaps Reformed Presbyterian outcries on the one hand and certain types of ‘Catholic’ voice on the other, Scripture does not lay down a clear, discernible rule.

So we follow tradition. These matters of church polity are not necessarily the central, core realities of the Christian faith. So how does one go about organising a Protestant church? Sort of like a mediaeval one, if you ask the Anglicans and Lutherans (though each group with its own modifications). This is the design of church governance handed down to us by tradition.

Tradition alone cannot be binding upon any Christian. For example, I believe that a robust theology of the incarnation leads at least to allowing icons, if not necessarily venerating them. But I do not consider iconoclast churches heretical; I do not think their souls are in danger of hellfire. Indeed, sometimes I worry more about iconodules and where their own emphasis lies in personal devotion.

Tradition is useful today when so many divergent readings of Scripture abound. The core of the tradition as found in the canon of the faith that I blogged about two posts ago is a lens of Scriptural interpretation that was in existence before the set limits of the canon of Scripture. As Baptist scholar DH Williams discusses in Evangelicals and Tradition, the two canons played off of one another as the church lived, worshipped, and meditated on the truth. That of the faith helped the church discern whether or not a text such as the Gospel of Peter was Scripture or not. The various documents of Scripture helped dictate the shifts in the canon of the faith that happened at Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381).

With the various twistings of doctrine and ethics justified by logically valid readings of Scripture, whether being proferred to us by liberal Christianity, Unitarians, Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists, or agnostics, those of us who hold to an ‘evangelical’ view of how Scripture is to be read, we ‘conservatives’ need the ancient, central tradition to help us justify why our readings are more true than others’.

Beyond the canon of the faith, there are also traditional readings of Genesis and certain ethical issues regarding the law and Christian morality, that we find in a broad consensus of the orthodox Fathers, mediaeval writers, and Reformers (both Protestant and Catholic). So, when people come up with reinterpretations of moral commands, we need not abandon our vision either of sola scriptura nor of the old morality; for sola scriptura works best with tradition as a hermeneutical tool (famously, alongside reason and then experience as a last resort [to make Hooker’s three-legged stool Wesley’s quadrilateral]).

This, in brief, is how I feel about tradition right now and most broadly.

Thoughts on Apostolic Succession (with reference to Irenaeus & Tertullian)

The Seventy Apostles

In some church bodies, it is a big deal to be within the Apostolic Succession, for which there are certain rules of succession that apply. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy stand out in this way most prominently, but the Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, and the Armenian Apostolic Church all claim a direct line of episcopal descent from the apostles, as does the Anglican Communion, through the Archbishops of Canterbury, many of whom (as well as some others) were consecrated by the Popes of the Early Middle Ages.

This idea of a succession of church overseers crops up in Irenaeus (d. 202) for the first time, from what I can tell. In Against the Heresies, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in Gaul, calls to the reader’s mind the orthodoxy of the bishops of Rome, who can be traced from Peter (Pope of the Month here) through Linus and Clement (Pope of the Month here) to Eleutherus (c. 174-189).

Irenaeus is writing against various Gnostic sects and uses the apostolic origins of the bishops of Rome to demonstrate the truth of their teaching — if the apostles had secret knowledge, they would have passed it along to their successors. As it is, what is visible from the standard tradition of the Church of Rome in the days from Justin through Hippolytus (about whom read this but also this) is what we think of as ‘orthodoxy’ or, in some scholarly circles, ‘proto-orthodoxy.’ That is — not Gnosticism.

The purpose of the Apostolic Succession for Irenaeus is to demonstrate orthodoxy. The Bishops of Rome believe the following; they trace their teaching and authority from the Apostles; therefore, we can trust them. Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics, c. 190, uses the idea in a similar way.

This is important to consider. Today, Anglicans are passed over by the Church of Rome because a nineteenth-century committee decided we are outside of the Apostolic Succession. Anglicans are concerned about the viability of Methodist holy orders because John Wesley stepped outside the Apostolic Succession to promote their movement. The Orthodox at times claim that Protestants in breaking with Rome have removed themselves (ourselves?) from the Apostolic Succession and tradition, explaining the many strange journeys we have taken in the past 500 years.

For Irenaeus and Tertullian, however, Apostolic Succession is not simply a question of the validity of holy orders or whether a gathering of Christians is a true ‘Church’. Their concern with the Apostolic Succession is the guardianship of orthodoxy. We can trust these teachers to be true because we know where their teaching came from — especially important in a semi-oral culture that did most of its teaching orally. The Gnostics claim special knowledge but are distinct from the Apostles’ visible successors.

To take the question of the Methodists, we know where their tradition came from, and — even if their ordinations were irregular and uncanonical — we know that it is, in fact, within the bounds of orthodoxy. This seems to be the point of the earliest attestations of Apostolic Succession. Why, then, do we use it to exclude Methodists from our Communion?