The professionalisation of asceticism in late antiquity

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

In a couple, or a few, weeks I am going to be giving some online seminars about church history for my churches. I’ll make sure this blog is kept informed. The theme tying together the seminars will be spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity. At the same time, I am attempting to forge a book about St Benedict’s Rule. As these two forces collide in my mind, I can’t help but think about the history of monasticism and its relationship to the ante-Nicene church.

And its relationship to non-monastic followers of Jesus — this post could just as easily be the appropriation of discipleship by monks in the Later Roman Empire.

John Cassian gives an account of the origins of monasticism that, although historically worthless as Columba Stewart notes in Cassian the Monk, is nevertheless of interest when we consider the definition of a monk and of asceticism — for this is how Greg Peters uses it in The Monkhood of All Believers — and, from there, the actual origins of the Christian ascetic tradition.

According to Cassian, the first Christians were cenobitic monks — that is, monks who lived in community with shared property — citing Acts 2 as his evidence. And this Acts 2 parallel will continue to be used in descriptions of the monastic ideal for much of the western ascetic tradition. But, sighs Cassian, this didn’t last. As more people converted, things got lax. It was up to the fourth-century monks to bring discipline, true asceticism, back.

Except, of course, when they did it, asceticism was appropriated by a distinct set of Christians who lived lives set apart from the increasingly Christianised population of the Roman Empire (and its successor states as well as easterly neighbours — the non-monk ascetic Ephraim the Syrian finds himself portrayed as a monk in later Syriac literature; East Syrian monasticism is its own flourishing form of asceticism in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages).

Cassian is right that the primitive church was essentially ascetic, although we may quibble about calling them monks. This is the contention of David Bentley Hart in the notes surrounding his translation of the New Testament. Hart believes that the New Testament authors actually expect members of the Christian community to abandon all of their possessions and lead lives of simplicity and prayer (in a nutshell; I’ve not read his notes, only about them — I may have details wrong). However far that may actually go, it is certainly the case that simplicity is certainly a mark of the apostolic lifestyle, and many Christians did abandon all to gain everything (St Clare’s laudable exchange).

Other early Christian literature bears witness to an ascetic, even rigorist, ideal. I do not recall all of the details, but the Didache expects Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and to pray three times a day. The Apostolic Tradition seems to expect members of the community to pray all seven canonical hours and to attend teaching at church before work when it is available.

Clement of Alexandria, who comes between Didache and Apostolic Tradition, believed in the simple life: simple food, simple dress, not owning fancy dishes and furniture. Eat in moderation. Study the Scriptures. Pray. These are a few of Clement’s recommendations; he believes in training, askesis, of the body and mind to be able to ascend to apatheia and in the state of dispassion to encounter the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Other figures have expectations for Christian living surrounding food, dress, personal property, and prayer, that we today would consider ascetic, such as Tertullian and Origen. These expectations are coupled in Origen with a belief that a contemplative life and meditation on Scripture can help us enter the Cloud of Unknowing and encounter the impassible God.

To what extent these ante-Nicene ascetics represent mainstream Christianity is hard to say. Well, they represent mainstream thinking. How most Christians lived for most of history is actually hard to judge. But this strand of thought is taken up by Antony and his associates and soon becomes the preserve for a special, higher class of Christian: the monk.

The monk, for these purposes, is the professional ascetic who goes above and beyond the requirements of the “normal” Christian. He or she is single-minded in devotion to God and does special things for Him. The rest of us simply have to go to church and follow the Ten Commandments — or whatever else emerges from the systems created by institutionalised Christianity.

But the idea that we are all called to fast (truly fast, not simply abstain from certain foods), to pray the canonical hours, to give away unnecessary possessions, to be single-minded in our pursuit of God — this is lost. We non-monastic lay people are there for moral instruction, not ascetic labour.

This is perhaps a gross oversimplification, but I believe something along these lines happened to Christian discipleship in Late Antiquity, within the Empire as well as outside it, and persisted throughout the Middle Ages.

Thinking about the hours of prayer in the 21st century

‘Orans’ figure, Catacombs of Santa Priscilla. 3rd/4th c.

Prayer, I think, is the heart of the spiritual life. A certain breed of fellow Protestant may protest that fact, but I cannot help but think on the myriads of illiterate Christians in history and the world today whose only access to Scripture was/is in preaching, hearing others read, or looking at pictures. But any illiterate person can pray.

Moreover, I cannot help but think of the literate Christians who seem to know the facts about the Bible and have read the Bible but seem also to have little charity and grace in their dealings with others.

Third, and last, to get the most out of Scripture, before any of our methodologies or study guides, we need prayer.

So, of the two disciplines all evangelical children are encouraged to undertake — read your Bible, pray every day — prayer is at the heart of the spiritual person’s life. Of course, this probably makes too strong a distinction, for Scripture informs prayer, and prayer will lead the literate Christian to pick up a Bible and read it prayerfully, and (hopefully) better.

Anyway, although prayer is at the heart of the spiritual life, many of us seem to have trouble praying. Either we don’t make the time, which signals that we don’t really, truly believe it is worth the time (whatever our conscious minds tell us), or we have trouble going through with prayer when time is made. Our minds wander. Our lips are there, but our hearts aren’t in it. We race through our prayers (whether extemporaneous or written). We find ourselves saying the same things over and over and wonder if there isn’t more to it than this.

If God’s a person, then shouldn’t prayer be a conversation?

There are many ways to revitalise our prayer lives, as discovered through the ages of Christian belief and practice. Some are directly encouraged by Scripture, others come from the tradition, others are recommended by the experiences of particular Christians.

One that seems to arise in the tradition itself, and not amongst the monks, is praying at certain times of the day. I’ve noted it in relation to The Apostolic Tradition recently, as well as in relation to St Benedict, and as a general point of discussion, amidst other posts on the topic.

When I think about my own spiritual flabbiness in contrast to my high spiritual ideals, I wonder how this might apply to me. I used to own a copy of Benedictine Daily Prayer, but when we moved from England back to Canada, it was among many books left behind to lighten the load. I left it behind because I could never actually organise my day to pray most offices, so it was mostly dead weight or, to use an image of St John of the Cross, it was a symptom of spiritual gluttony.

In fact, since my first son was born, I have not really got into an ongoing, steady groove of devotion, including the Prayer Book office (once the heart of my daily prayer).

I think that many of us are spiritually flabby, and I also think that most of us do not have spiritual fathers like Archimandrite Sophrony to help us grow up, nor even spiritual friends like St Aelred of Rievaulx to encourage us to good deeds. Without guides, or in a world where our guides are books and blogs, how can we work our way to spiritual strength and fortitude?

Is it wimpy to suggest starting small?

The idea is to take the seven canonical hours and use them, but not to use the set liturgies. Or at least, not all of them. Take your phone or calendar on your computer and set reminders at the hours throughout the day. And then determine what sort of prayer will take up the different hours.

An example might be:

  • On waking: Thank God for day and commend it into His hands before getting out of bed.
  • Third hour (9 AM-ish): Arrow prayer (e.g.g. ‘O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me’; ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’). Most people start work at 9 AM, so that may be all there is time for. Is there a better way to start work?
  • Sixth hour (Noon): 10-20 minutes of Jesus Prayer during lunch break (I think Dallas Willard would recommend a similar practice with the Lord’s Prayer). Or prayerful meditation on the Cross and its meaning since that is when Jesus died for us.
  • Ninth hour (3 PM-ish): The Lord’s Prayer.
  • Evening Prayer: Evening Prayer (take your pick: BCP, Celebrating Common Prayer, Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, Orthodox Daily Prayer)
  • Prayers before bed: Maybe Compline? Or time for prayer with spouse.
  • Middle-of-the-night prayers: Arrow prayer on the way to the bathroom to pee. Or more extended prayer if you’re involved in caring for an infant.

My two main thoughts are:

  1. Make sure there is a time for longer, undistracted prayer.
  2. Make sure the Lord’s Prayer is there.

Structure may not give the oomph! back to prayer life. It may not work miracles. But it will guarantee that we at least pray. And if we do it not because it is a duty or because we think it’s magical, God, Who is faithful, will turn up. Hopefully we’ll notice Him.

Sorting out a ‘Rule of Life’

One of the recommendations in the Catechism of the Canadian 1962 Book of Common Prayer is the creation of a personal rule of life. I’ve not investigated previous editions to know if they include this instruction. Nevertheless, I imagine few Canadians since 1962, let alone Anglicans at large beforehand, have followed through with this recommendation.

It is something that I have attempted before. I blogged about one attempt, and was told in the comments that I needed a spiritual father, otherwise I’d just fail.

As I reflect on the recommendations for individuals in The Apostolic Tradition as well as the reminders of asceticism for all believers that run through David W. Fagerberg’s On Liturgical Asceticism, I find myself musing on what my own ‘asceticism’, or askesis — the Greek word for training — or disciplina would look like.

As I sort it out, dealing with the passion of gluttony is one concern of mine, remembering that gluttony is not just eating too much (as yesterday here in Canada we celebrated Thanksgiving) but eating the wrong food and at the wrong time.

The other foundations must be prayer and Scripture-reading. I’ll post soon on the hours of prayer, I think. But I wonder if finding some way of praying at those times, as the ancient Christians and living monks do, might not be possible. Not a full-blown liturgy of the hours with set prayers, but times of prayer and remembrance, with maybe one or two offices proper mixed in?

What disciplines are you seeking to pursue in your own rule of life today?

On the Apostolic Tradition ‘by Hippolytus’

Now that I’ve written a few posts of reflections on The Apostolic Tradition, I think it a good idea to give a quick review of sorts. I read the second edition of the translation by Alistair Stewart-Sykes for SVS Press’s Popular Patristics Series; for some reason he goes by Alistair Stewart on this volume, even though I’ve only seen the double-barrelled last name on his other work, including the first edition.

One thing you may have noticed in my Apostolic Tradition posts has been a certain ambivalence as to its author. This text, which is not transmitted to us in its original Greek besides fragments, comes down to us anonymously in Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic (three different dialects), and Arabic. In no manuscript is it attributed to Hippolytus. However, a text of this name is attributed to him elsewhere. Therefore, based on some similarity of ideas as well as fitting the highly reconstructed context of Hippolytus, in the early twentieth century it was attributed to him, and most people now taken is as uncontested ground that Hippolytus of Rome wrote On the Apostolic Tradition.

I think it is possible but not airtight. Stewart accepts the attribution and gives many reasons, drawing on the heavy reconstructions of third-century Roman Christianity conducted by Allen Brent. Brent and Stewart are both clever, so if I am skeptical of their conclusions, this doesn’t mean I am right. I think there are far too many unknowns and uncertainties to say for certain. Indeed, a colleague of mine is even uncertain that the person who lies behind the Hippolytean corpus even lived at Rome!

This should not keep you away from Stewart’s or anyone else’s translation, however. The text is probably of a similar age to Hippolytus, even if maybe it originated in Asia Minor as some believe. It represents the traditional form of many aspects of church life in a particular community in the pre-Constantinian age. For this reason alone we should give it some air time, regardless of authorship.

The Apostolic Tradition will appeal to people interested in the history of liturgy and sacrament and the history of church order. We have here what I think might be our oldest eucharistic and baptismal rites, which is very exciting. A number of other prayers and practices are also here — anointing the sick, blessing bread for those not present at church, personal prayer, communal teaching events, ordaining a bishop, the sign of the cross, and so forth. We see presbyters, bishops, and deacons doing their jobs, as well as catechists and other people with a largely teaching role.

I find it comforting to see the eucharistic liturgy’s similarity to the liturgies we use today, whether Anglicans, Methodists, Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans. There is a thread of tradition connecting this text and its community to us and our communities. A thread of faith in Jesus Christ and his precious death and glorious resurrection.

Besides the question of the catechumenate, I am also interested in the text’s promotion of ongoing teaching/learning and the rigour implied. Like some of the early Protestants, the members of this worshipping community are encouraged to attend a teaching session before work on weekdays. This sort of rigour is what I imagine myself liking and doing, even though spiritual laziness all-too-often wins.

The text is not long, so I do encourage you to read it.

Here are my other recent posts on The Apostolic Tradition:

‘Daily devotions’ in ancient Christianity (more on the Apostolic Tradition)

Someday I hope to be able to write a book about spiritual practices of the ancient church, so I’ve been in contact with people I know to see what they would like to see in such a book. One question that arose was: Did they have daily devotions? What would this look like?

A starting point: The sort of standard evangelical version today consists of daily prayer and Scripture reading and the reading of other Christian books along the way, whether labelled ‘devotional’ or simply theology or biblical commentary or the like. The shape of prayer, determination of readings, and relationship of the two to our Christian books vary from person to person and tradition to tradition.

The catechists, presbyters, bishops, monks, and learned believers who left us our vast body of ancient Christian literature expect a pattern of personal, daily prayer from the ancient Christians. Many of them give great advice about how to pray. The third-century Apostolic Tradition attributed to St Hippolytus gives us a daily round for the members of the ecclesial community that consists of these times for prayer:

  • Third hour (9:00 AMish)
  • Sixth hour (Noonish)
  • Ninth hour (3:00 PMish)
  • Bed-time
  • Midnight
  • Cock-crow (hopefully dawn, although roosters crow whenever they please, in my experience)

A little moment of liturgical history: The canonical hours of prayer clearly pre-date monasticism. These were handed down to the author of the Apostolic Tradition through tradition itself, so they are undoubtedly older even than the third century. Indeed, Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240) in On Prayer 25 recommends the same round of prayer. I might even argue, if I were more acquainted with the context of the Apostolic Tradition, that the communal service of lamplighting gives us seven hours for prayer, which matches the monastic pattern of later centuries, but I do not know for certain that the service of lamplighting was daily or not.

The first three hours listed above are set aside because of their association with Christ’s passion, an association they will maintain throughout tradition. When we combine them with the Apostolic Tradition‘s teaching on the sign of the cross, we see regular, daily devotion to Jesus and the salvation wrought for us by his precious death and glorious resurrection.

The Apostolic Tradition also encourages the ordinary Christian to attend teaching in the morning if there is any. If not, then the believer is encouraged to spend time in personal study of a book.

There is no mention of the private, personal reading Scripture, although it is definitely part of the teaching and worship of the corporate church.

The only other personal devotional practice I have noted in this text is fasting, which people are encouraged to engage in at any time. One text may mean fasting before Holy Communion, but may actually mean having Communion before the love-feast (see Stewart-Sykes, 2nd ed., pp. 191-192).

These are the non-corporate devotions of the Apostolic Tradition. Can we live up to them or adapt them as we progress in piety?

The seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church

I am the sort of person who is attracted to high ideals, although I am far too spiritually lazy to live up to most of them. Hence my ongoing appetite for monks and friars, for ascetics and mystics, for academic standards of publishing. I am always struck by the seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church, as in the Apostolic Tradition attributed by some moderns to St Hippolytus.

In ancient Christianity, a person who is interested in becoming a Christian but not yet baptised is a ‘catechumen’. In the Apostolic Tradition, catechumens are expected to spend three years in preparation for their baptism (it is not the only text to do so; some ancient works on church discipline call for only three months) — during this time, they attend lectures about the Christian faith and are present at the liturgy on Sundays, but do not receive the consecrated elements.

At the end of this time, they are exorcised on multiple occasions, fast, and then spent the whole night before they are baptised ‘in vigil, hearing readings and receiving instruction’ (ch. 20.10, trans. Stewart-Sykes). Then, at cock-crow, the baptismal rite begins.

I am stirred by this idea of the ancient catechumenate. Consider the poor results of conversionism — people come to a church event or rally or ‘crusade’, or they sit with a friend or a random stranger who ‘shares the Gospel’, and then the pray ‘the sinner’s prayer’. After that, they are expected to tithe and come regularly to potlucks. (I’m not that cynical, really…)

But shouldn’t people weigh the cost of discipleship? Shouldn’t they be placed upon the pathway of spiritual growth?

I figure our churches should have as two main areas of focus:

  1. Worship God (‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever)
  2. Make disciples (both through conversion and spiritual growth)

The ancient catechumenate was part of focus #2, and everyone involved in it was also involved in focus #1.

When I mention things like this, suddenly people get edgy. If we make full involvement in the sacramental fellowship something that requires commitment, something arduous, something big and worthy, won’t people be driven away? I mean, if they’re into Jesus, won’t they just slip away to the nearest megachurch instead?

Maybe. But is easy-ism worth it? Butts in pews are not necessarily disciples.

How can we rearrange what we do as witnessing and worshipping communities both to evangelise and to help new disciples grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ? Some sort of adapted catechumenate might be part of the answer.

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?

Ancient and Early Mediaeval Prayer – 2: Why

Christ the King at the centre, Notre Dame de Paris
Christ the King at the centre, Notre Dame de Paris

Sometimes when a post like my most recent one appears on the Internet, someone immediately thinks the writer believes that the period in question is a Golden Age, or a more ‘pure’ age of Christian spirituality. I remember once I sent an article about first- and second-century evangelism to a friend, and it came up in the comments section of his (now dead) blog, and someone came in with all guns flaring as though he and I believed that everything done in the ancient church was perfect.

This is not how I view ancient and early mediaeval Christianity.

We have to immediately admit that things back then were not perfect — as early as Paul’s letters to the Corinthians  or the message of the Spirit to the churches n Revelation we have evidence that Christian persons are not perfect. This trend is visible not only in Patristic and Mediaeval texts that try to solve and reform problems, from 1 Clement to Gregory of Tours or the letters of Gregory the Great, but also in texts that claim to bear weighty authority — some of these are visibly heretical to post-Chalcedonian eyes, others tread near to it, others have problems mingled in with the good, invisible to their authors.

Notker the Stammerer’s Life of Charlemagne, for instance, gives us a vision of Christianity and Christian liturgy that is mostly about doing exactly the right thing at the right time; I feel that his is one of the most ritualistic (in a bad way) and legalistic texts I’ve met.

So if ancient and early mediaeval Christianity are so obviously flawed, why would I favour them in the prayerful commission of new liturgies for today’s context? Why not just, say, construct liturgies out of Bruce Cockburn lyrics or attend U2charists?

I will dispense with the absolutely subjective first. I like ancient and mediaeval prayers. I like the way they sound. I like they way they are constructed. I like the stuff they say. I like the contexts they fit. I enjoy their perspective. Furthermore, well-translated they are more beautiful than Cockburn or U2. Here an example from the Central Middle Ages, a prayer of St Anselm as translated by Sr Benedicta Ward:

Hope of my heart, strength of my soul, help of my weakness, by your powerful kindness complete what in my powerless weakness I attempt. My life, the end to which I strive, although I have not yet attained to love you as I ought, still let my desire for you be as great as my love ought to be. (The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm)

I have that on a Post-It Note on the endpage of my Book of Common Prayer. I just love it.

Another slightly less subjective reason is the connection with the historic faith and believers through the ages. Sometimes, when I receive the Eucharist, I am filled with awe at the fact that I am joining with millions of other faithful Christians on that same day to partake of the precious Body and Blood of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Nothing can compare with that mystical act. But when we pray using the old forms and old words, we are joining brothers and sisters in a transtemporal and transnational expression of piety towards the Triune God. It is not good for the man to be alone, says the LORD in Genesis. Praying ancient and mediaeval prayers is a way to unite with the rest of Christ’s mystical body and not be alone.

Furthermore, ancient and early mediaeval prayers contain powerful Gospel truths. I was raised in the evangelical, charismatic wing of Anglicanism. The glorious and wonderful Gospel of Jesus Christ — that God became a man to save us poor wretches, and that He died a terrible death for us poor sinners, and that He rose again victorious from the grave, and that He ascended, and is now present with all who call upon His Name, that we are not saved by any of the good things we may do but simply through His grace, which we must accept in faith (you know that Gospel), and so forth — is the heritage of all faithful Christians.

These truths, and other ‘Bible truths’ and theological profundities are readily available in the ancient and early mediaeval prayers. Take this one from the Gelasian Sacramentary (sections of which are 6th-century, others 7th, and a modified form after 750):

O God, Who by the Passion of Thy Christ our Lord hath dissolved that hereditary death of the ancient sin, to which the whole race of Adam’s posterity had succeeded; grant that having been made conformable unto Him, as we by necessity of nature have borne the image of the earthly, so by the sanctification of grace we may bear the image of the Heavenly, even of Christ our Lord, Who with Thee… (trans. W. Bright, Ancient Collects and Other Prayers Selected from Various Rituals)

A fourth reason is that ancient and early mediaeval prayers can speak to us in ways our own words and worlds cannot. This reason would be a reason to use any historic liturgy, be it 1662 or the Tridentine Mass or the Use of Sarum or the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom or the hymns of the Oktoekhos or Aelfwine’s Prayerbook. If our prayers are temporally bound to this moment, there is a danger of them becoming earthbound rather than heavenward.

I think there is an intuition along these lines in the liturgical reforms of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Cranmer, for instance, mined the riches of the Gelasian Sacramentary as well as seeking to establish a more ancient form of what is basically Sarum (in English with no saints, mind you). The Council of Trent explicitly sought to re-establish the worship of ‘the Fathers’. Later, Pius X in the early twentieth century was interested in reinvigorating the worship life of Roman Catholicism through Gregorian chant of all things.

If we produce new liturgies based solely upon the past several years or decades, we will be timebound, trapped by U2 or by Cockburn, by the Gettys or by Graham Kendrick, praying all the latest fads instead of deep, uncomfortable truths we may never have thought to pray about.

Fifth, these prayers are not merely old, they are tested and true. Not every prayer or ritual act found in a mediaeval manuscript and dateable to the centuries of my interest is worth our time. I think. I admit to not being sure about that, but I’ll concede the hypothetical point. Nevertheless, many of the prayers from this period made their way into the liturgies of the great branches of Christianity — take the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom or of St Basil the Great, or the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, or the Catholic Mass, or the Book of Common Prayer, or the various breviaries and liturgies of the hours — many of the prayers we find in the earliest traceable liturgies have made their way to us in these texts.

By way of example, the next time you encounter this (or similar words):

The Lord be with you.

And with thy Spirit.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up unto the Lord.

Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.

It is meet and right so to do.

It is indeed meet, right, and our bounden duty …

Thank the Lord for St Hippolytus (d. 230s) in whose day this was already traditional in the Church of Rome. And realise that this ancient liturgical moment in the ‘Anaphora’ crosses not only between Anglican/Lutheran and Roman Catholic, but across to the Eastern Orthodox and historic Oriental churches as well.

Generations of Christians have found ancient and early mediaeval prayers to be nourishing. By praying these prayers, they are able to lift their souls to heaven. By reading these words, they have found themselves in the throne room of God. By meditating on their truths, they have come nearer to the Most Holy Trinity in their frail, human understanding.

Should we not join them?

Evangelicals and Tradition: The Canon of the Faith

Greek Evangelical Church, Nicosia

Last Saturday morning, with the able help of a volunteer from the Greek Evangelical Church, I gave a seminar on ‘Evangelicals and Tradition.’ What I hope from this seminar is for evangelicals to be less … wary? afraid? of tradition but to develop the necessary skills of discernment to judge which parts of it are good, which are bad, and which are … adiaphora. Marginal. Not worth fussing over every time you meet an Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christian.

Following D H Williams’ lead in the very good book Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influences of the Early Church, I started us off with a discussion of the history and usefulness of the Canon of the Faith, beginning briefly with the Apostles’ Creed as a summary of the Gospel that we, as evangelicals, claim to be attached to so fiercely. Then I gave a wee history of such things, starting with Justin’s proclamation at his martyrdom in the mid-100s and Irenaios’ ‘Rule of Faith’ of the late 100s, then moving on to baptismal creeds such as the Dêr Balyzeh Papyrus of the early 100s and Hippolytos of the early 200s:

When each of them to be baptized has gone down into the water, the one baptizing shall lay hands on each of them, asking, “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” 13And the one being baptized shall answer, “I believe.” 14He shall then baptize each of them once, laying his hand upon each of their heads. 15Then he shall ask, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose on the third day living from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, the one coming to judge the living and the dead?”  16When each has answered, “I believe,” he shall baptize a second time.

17Then he shall ask, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?” 18Then each being baptized shall answer, “I believe.” And thus let him baptize the third time. 19Afterward, when they have come up out of the water, they shall be anointed by the elder with the Oil of Thanksgiving, saying, “I anoint you with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ.” 20Then, drying themselves, they shall dress and afterwards gather in the church. (From an online translation of Hippolytos.)

This led to a fruitful, I believe, discussion of how similar Hippolytos’ baptismal ceremony is the Orthodox ceremony — triple immersion and anointing with oil! I said that the Orthodox got this from the ancient days; it is a tradition that they have maintained since the earliest days of the Church. Perhaps one evangelical-Orthodox wall was weakened by that realisation.

From there, I brought forth the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Creeds of 325 and 381. The complaint could be made that the statements of 325 and 381 use non-biblical language, and that the Bible already teaches all of these things. However, as with Irenaios vs Gnostics who used Christian Scripture, so also in the battle against those who denied the divinity of Jesus. The argument was not over what was Scripture but how we understand it; so the Church came up with an interpretative lens, almost as old as the apostles themselves, drawn from Scriptural ideas and truths but using the language of Greek philosophy, to state unequivocally what the Scriptural and Traditional teachings about Jesus are.

And at the complaint that the Eastern Orthodox believe these creeds more than the Bible, I must protest. These creeds are but summaries of Gospel truth, created to meet a need that the Church had at that time. It is impossible to believe them more than the Bible. Ioannis Kassianos, a Romanian monk who lived for a time in Bethlehem then Egypt before settling in Marseilles, wrote this in the early 400s:

There is nothing wanting then in the Creed; because it was formed from the Scriptures of God by the apostles of God, it has in it all the authority it can possibly have, whether of men or of God. (De Inc. 6.4, NPNF trans.)

Another complaint I know of is that encapsulating the Gospel in such statements takes the life from it. This is a possibility—but it is a possibility even with the writings of Scripture, depending on how we use them. I prefer to view these statements of the centre of Christian tradition as fences or the boundaries of a playing field. We can say things they do not say, but if we say things that are counter to them, we find ourselves standing outside of the biblical, apostolic tradition that the Church has handed down to us as encapsulated in these creeds.

The purpose of all of this was to show how unchanging the central core of Christian tradition was throughout the ancient church, and how it is important for us today. Furthermore, when we go back to Irenaios, we see the importance of a central, unwritten Apostolic tradition that exists in tandem with the Scriptures, because the Gnostics, using the same Scriptures, claimed that their interpretation was the right one, and their unwritten tradition the true one. So what are we to do? Recourse to the Scriptures alone cannot save us when they, too, are using the Scriptures.

When most evangelicals think of tradition, we think of these ‘unwritten’ aspects of Christianity, we think of accretions adding up over time, we think of bishops, priests, and deacons, we think of saints and theologians, we think of stained glass, of Gothic architecture and Byzantine domes. In a very large, encompassing vision of tradition, these things are all part of tradition.

But what I hope to have shown here today is a core of tradition that remains very little modified over the centuries—that creed of 381 just discussed and on your handout is believed and affirmed by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Syrian Orthodox, the Church of the East from Iran to China and India, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, the Dutch Christian Reformed, and the Nicosia International Church. Here is an aspect of tradition that we affirm today which was affirmed long ago by the Christians of the later Roman Empire.

If we want to get involved with ancient Christians, we must take the long view of Christian history. And in taking this long view, the question that arises is whether any given development is faithful to Gospel belief and Gospel living—to the Tradition as discussed above and enshrined in the Bible, as we’ll see in my next talk.

The Christians before the year 500 determined that Gnosticism, Monarchianism, Arianism in its various forms, Pneumatomachianism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Manichaeism, Eutychianism, certain strains of Origen’s thought, and many others were deviations from the truth handed down from the apostles, the paradosis, tradition in its truest sense. And we today owe much to this ancient tradition.