4 Reasons to Get to Know Ancient Christianity

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

Many have found themselves and their faith unsettled as the West entered, enters, dwells in, the state of late modern existence called ‘postmodern’. As well, whether the ‘postmodern’ has had anything to do with it, in the same decades since I heard my father proclaim the death of Christendom in a 1998 sermon, many have found discomfort with the church of evangelicalism for many a reason.

Some left to the liberal side of the mainline. Others left to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Some of us stayed put as best we could but found ourselves slowly transforming into something different from what we once were. For example, last year, I was venting to my brother some frustrations with the church I attended (Reformed, biblicist, low church, evangelical, pseudo-Anglican). I said I didn’t think I was an evangelical anymore (even though my commitment to historic orthodox theology and ethics is as strong as ever), and he said I sounded like a catholic Anglican.

After all, at the time I was reading Alexander de Hales (1185-1245) on grace in the original Latin for comfort in my plight (a friend had sent it to me).

Of course, I have only stayed put ecclesially (-ish?). What I have been doing for most of my (as yet brief) adult life has been lunging into ancient, mediaeval, Byzantine, and Orthodox Christianity as my solace, alongside the English poets and the Prayer Book. Perhaps you, too, find yourself in an awkward place at your church — you affirm historic orthodoxy but rankle at the pulpit, shudder at things other evangelicals say, and don’t know if you’re becoming a liberal or an Anglican. (Become Eastern Orthodox, it seems the best option right now.)

If so, here are some reasons, regardless of where your ecclesiastical home lands, why theologically conservative Protestants should get to know ancient Christianity.

1. The New Testament

No ecumenical council determined which books are in the canon of the New Testament. And if you understand the way western canon law works, the 397 Council of Carthage with its canon is maybe not as important as it looks. Anyway, this is a thing we should all know. What happened instead was an unofficial growing consensus that manifested itself over centuries through the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that the 397 canon of Scripture was not controversial, nor was Athanasius’ in 367, nor would that of Innocent I be in the early 400s. This is very brief and not meant to be a historical investigation of the question of how or when the NT canon settled; please don’t troll me, I’m never in the mood.

What I want to say is: If these people were attuned to the Holy Spirit and filled with His grace to be able to discern between the inspired revelation of God and everything else (however valuable to the church’s life), shouldn’t we pay attention to what they have to say on other subjects?

2. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity

The ancient church fathers articulated with ever greater precision and beauty the doctrine of the Most Holy and Life-giving Trinity, finding a way to use human words that is both biblically faithful and philosophically sound. Read their writings on the Trinity, such as St Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations.

If you believe the Trinity is an essential doctrine for Christian orthodoxy, doesn’t it make sense to get to know it from the people who had to think through these dangerous new waters?

Moreover, reading the ancient theologians on the Trinity, not only does your appreciation for this doctrine grow, so does your love and awe of God. You want to praise and worship so wonderful a Persons as these.

Furthermore, the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are still out there, alongside Oneness Pentecostals, Christadelphians, and Richard Rohr. The beauty, elegance, and logic of these teachings, coupled with their biblical fidelity will help you navigate any future encounters with such as these. I enjoy bringing up St Athansius with Jehovah’s Witnesses, myself.

3. The Person and Work of Jesus

Alongside the Most Holy Trinity, the ancient church thought through what it believed about the person and work of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the God-man, who trampled down death by death. If you believe that Jesus Christ is one person who is at once fully human and fully divine, why not read the writings of the people who articulated this belief and wrestled with how to phrase it? Why not go and read the Chalcedonian definition of the faith right now?

Again, knowing how and why the church has come to its belief in Jesus Christ as one person existing in two natures, fully human and fully divine, will help you with Mormons, Richard Rohr, et al., but it will — once again — also bring you to your knees in worship of Christ Our God who was crucified for us.

Furthermore, maybe Brian D. McLaren and others who say that penal substitutionary atonement theory is ‘divine child abuse’ are getting to you — not necessarily that they annoy you, but that you fear they are right. Well, let me tell you something about ancient views on the atonement: None of them is penal subistitutionary atonement, for this was not articulated until the masterful work of St Anselm, Cur Deus Homo (c. 1100). Being a catholic Anglican, I agree with Anselm, but since I increasingly lean East, I also see that this is not the only way to view the atonement, which is an act of God like a diamond, casting forth different colours in different directions depending on the light.

What you will find is a central home for the cross (crucicentrism being integral to evangelical identity) alongside an embiggening of your vision to see that the Incarnation is a Big Deal, that when God answered the prophet’s call to rend the heavens and come down (Isa. 64:1), nothing could ever be the same. If atonement is an issue for you, the Fathers will bring you to your knees in worship of the suffering immortal God.

One of the Most Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us. Hallelujah!

4. Spiritual Disciplines

You read the New Testament. You believe in the Trinity and the two natures of Christ as well as his atoning work on the Cross. These are great reasons to get to know the Fathers. And as you get to know them, you’ll realise that they inhabited a world without the distractions of Twitter, Facebook, Game of ThronesAvengers films, or the Kardashians. They did, however, inhabit a world with the distractions of chariot races, imperial pomp, occasional persecutions, the theatre, gladiatorial combats, brothels, singing competitions, banquets, and more.

And you’ll find that many of them kept themselves grounded through spiritual disciplines.

Many of us have found (stereo)typical evangelical piety and pietism shallow. We want to love God more and go deeper and see real transformation in our lives. So did the Fathers. And they took to hear the exhortations to pray without ceasing and to love one another and to care for the poor and oppressed.

If you take seriously what they believed, shouldn’t you take seriously how they lived?

These are just the four that came to me tonight. What reasons do you have for reading the Fathers?

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Good Christology matters for Good Friday

My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence
My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence

In a little under two weeks, it will be Good Friday as we make the final push to the chief feast of the Christian year. Some preachers seem to dread Good Friday — they are uncertain what more could ever be said, or they feel that Protestant Christianity makes too much of the Cross and too little of the Risen Saviour, or they are awkward about how bloody the whole thing is, or they’ve decided to wash their hands of any theory of atonement or … or …

Well.

I can see their preaching predicament.

Good thing I’m not a preacher. 😉

One thing that will undoubtedly pass through the minds of many is that old, wretched ‘Divine Child Abuse’ line, or similar awkward thoughts about God unjustly lashing out against an innocent man to divert his wrath from ‘deserving’ sinners. That sort of thing.

I generally wonder what sort of Christology lies at the heart of their preaching when they question theories of atonement (how Christ’s death-and-resurrection make us one with God) from such angles.

If Nicaea I through Nicaea II have taught us anything about how to do theology that is at once (somewhat) philosophically coherent and biblically faithful, it is that God is Jesus. This is the meaning of all that high-flying ‘Hellenistic’ ‘philosophical’ jargon that gets thrown around in the patristic period and disparaged in the modern

(you know —

homoousios/consubstantial

hypostatic union

dyothelitism —

that sort of thing)

Consubstantial means that Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Word Incarnate of John 1 — the subject of our Faith and the author of our salvation — has the same substance or essence as God the Father, as the Person we tend to think of as ‘God’.

Hypostatic union means that the person (hypostasis) of Jesus is a single unity of both human and divine. Divinity does not swallow up humanity, nor does humanity deprive divinity of its reality. Jesus — who is fully God as articulated by consubstantial — is also fully human, a complete man with body and soul — to the point of (in later theology) somehow, inexplicably (as far as I’m concerned, though I know that Maximus has explanations) having two wills (dyothelitism).

So, what does this have to do with Good Friday?

I think the most powerful impact it has on many of the common objections to traditional atonement theories is that God is absolved from injustice and child abuse. Why? Because God is Jesus.

God chose to become a man and all that means.

God chose to be scourged, bloodied, and die an unjust death he did not deserve.

The result is not simply a quick and easy transaction whereby we get into heaven free. The result is that God has taken a human person into himself in some way. God is not distant. He has suffered all that ordinary humans suffer. He has tasted death and returned victorious.

And he did this because he loves us. We, through our rejection of the only true and right way to live, were heading — are heading — for destruction. We had incurred a debt greater than we could pay. God chose the path of love to remove that debt, he chose the hard path, the path that would lead him into the fullest depths of the human experience, thereby transfiguring human life and taking it into himself, and showing us that He knows us and loves and can relate to us.

And so, Good Friday.

While we were yet His enemies, God the Son, the Incarnate Word, died.

One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.

Next week, I’ll be posting some medieval poetry and art about this. I hope that you can be drawn into the mystery of Jesus and love Him more as a result…

Irenaeus and the Cross

Via Dolorosa Icon, Bellapais Abbey, Cyprus (post-1571 Orthodox icon; my photo)
Via Dolorosa Icon, Bellapais Abbey, Cyprus (post-1571 Orthodox icon; my photo)

One of the questions that arose in Cyprus was the place the Cross holds in the theology of St Irenaeus. The concern, and it is a not uncommon concern, is that Irenaeus has a very strong emphasis on the Incarnation and our salvation as a result of the Word having become flesh and having pitched his tent among us. This is a concern that Aulén addresses in Christuss Victor (itself a short book with an incisive chapter on Irenaeus), but I don’t have those notes with me in Firenze.

However, I have been trying to catch up with Read the Fathers. So here’s some of what’s been read tonight:

Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God — all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. (Against the Heresies 5.1.1)

For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such
as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins.” And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself
grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills1812). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies. (5.2.2*)

And in every Epistle the apostle plainly testifies, that through the flesh of our Lord, and through His blood, we havebeen saved. (5.14.3; more anti-docetic than pro-crucifixion, but there it is)

Jeremiah also says to the same purport: “The word of God cleaveth the rock as an axe.” This word, then, what was hidden from us, did the dispensation of the tree make manifest, as I have already remarked. For as we lost it by means of a tree, by means of a tree again was it made manifest to all, showing the height, the length, the breadth, the depth in itself (5.17.4)

For indeed the creation could not have sustained Him [on the cross], if He had sent forth [simply by commission] what was the fruit of ignorance and defect. Now we have repeatedly shown that the incarnate Word of God was suspended upon a tree, and even the very heretics do acknowledge that He was crucified. (5.18.1)

And, from earlier readings in Against the Heresies:

Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be “the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence,” the Prince of life, existing before all, and going before all.(2.22.4)

The main purpose of Against the Heresies is the refutation of the ‘Gnostic’ and other heterodox groups whom Irenaeus felt were a threat to the spiritual health of the Church. Therefore, he does not spend a lot of time on the Cross (although there is more about it than this; again, these are from the notes I have with me at present). Nonetheless, it is an inescapable fact that the Cross and death and saving blood of Jesus are an important part of Irenaeus’ theology.

As we enter Lent, let us ensure that the Cross is an important part of our own theology and, thus, of our lives.

*Here we see already in the second century the intimate link between Christology and the Eucharist, a link that was tied up in the fifth-century debates surrounding Nestorius, Cyril, and Leo.

Recapitulation

Pantokrator from Ayia Sofia

This is my third post on Irenaeus of late, and probably the last for a while. One of the important parts of Irenaeus’ vision of theology is called recapitulation. It is a beautiful theory that I first met in Robert E Webber’s book Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicallism for a Postmodern World (pp. 56ff).

The idea is that the human race by committing evil is tending towards destruction. We have turned from our sustainer and creator and therefore shall all die. God, in a grand rescue plan became a human being like us. In Against the Heresies, he writes:

Therefore, as I have already said, he caused man to become one wiht God. For unless a man had overcome the enemy of man, the enemy would not have been legitimately vanquished. And again: unless God had freely given salvation, we would not now possess it securely. And unless man had been joined to God, he could never have become a partaker of incorruptibility. For it was incumbent upon the Mediator between God and men, by his relationship to both, to bring both to friendship and concord, and present man to God, while he revealed God to man. (3.19.6, in A New Eusebius, p. 119)

For those, like me, who cannot read second-century theology without an eye to the future, will see shades of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and Gregory of Nazianzus’ famous dictum, ‘What has not been assumed cannot be healed.’ The incarnation, the irruption of God as a man into human history changes the game.

Many people have maintained that Irenaeus’ theology has no place for the Cross, that simply by being incarnate Christ effected our salvation. However, Gustav Aulén, in his class work on the subject Christus Victor, demonstrates that when Irenaeus says incarnation he includes crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension in the bundle. Aulén puts it thus:

Assuredly, then, the death of Christ holds a central place in Irenaeus’ thought. But, we must add at once, it is not the death in isolation; it is the death seen in connection, on the one hand, with the life-work of Christ as a whole, and on the other with the Resurrection and the Ascension; the death irradiated with the ligh tof Easter and Pentecost. (48)

Aulén immediately gives us this footnote:

Some words of Zankow (The Orthodox Eastern Church, p. 55) are as true of Irenaeus, and of the later Greek Fathers, as of Eastern Christianity in general: “Christ’s Resurrection is inseparably connected with His death on the cross. For the Orthodox Church, as well for its theology as for its popular conceptions, salvation is only finally complete in the Resurrection. Sin and death are conquered, and life is bestowed upon men. Only the Resurrection is the real earnest of salvation and of eternal life.” (n. 2, p. 48)

Who does Christ triumph over? Christ is the conqueror of sin and death. And the devil, who is bound up with both. Because of all that transpired in the incarnation, we are set free from the power of sin, death, devil.

And what is the recapitulation bit of this Christ the Victor?

Christ brings us back to what one may call the ‘Adamic’ state. As the second Adam, a concept Irenaeus develops, Christ undoes the evil of Adam. The cosmic effects of the fall as well as the human effects are reversed, and we are able to enter into communion with God through faith in Christ.

Part of the ethical consequences of the cosmic nature of Irenaean recapitulation is our attitude towards the rest of creation. If creation was cursed with us and healed with us, we must treat it well. We are to live now as though we have already come into the Kingdom of the Heavens. This is a good thing, seeking to live in harmony with ‘nature’ (as Zeno the founder of Stoicism once said).

Irenaeus puts it best, and Webber puts it better than I.

I do not believe that recapitulation nullifies other views of the atonement. I believe that it works alongside them and shows different nuances to the wilful sacrifice of God for humanity and how that relates to us and the world around us.

What makes a Protestant?

One evening, as a friend and I walked to Vespers at the local Orthodox Church, he remarked that he had invited some of our other friends who had responded by looking at him as though he had three heads. Another time, these same friends had chuckled in a, “Yeah, right,” sort of way when he said that he was as much a Protestant as they were.

The question has been raised here as to why I am not Eastern Orthodox, given that I seem to embrace so many Eastern Orthodox beliefs. The question is related to the response of more evangelical, Reformed Protestants who don’t see my Methodist/Episcopalian friend who appreciates Aquinas, incense, and Kallistos Ware as being “as Protestant” as they are.

What makes a Protestant?

GK Chesterton, in The Thing: Why I Am Catholic, takes issue with some of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century responses to this question, when people such as Dean Inge argued that basically being a Protestant was rising in protest whenever things were going wrong. He also has trouble with the fact that those things that make a Milton or a Bunyan delightful to the modern Protestant are things that Milton and Bunyan share with Catholics — not things that make them Protestant.

This question has needed answering for a good while, then.

According to Bruce McCormack at the University of Edinburgh’s Croall Lectures for this year, Protestants — the theologians, at least — should be working from within the framework of their confessional statements to produce a comprehensive worldview. He was not fond of those Protestants who produce either Catholicism light or a Patristic synthesis to theological issues. We should be identifiable through our adherence to the confessional statements of our tradition, according to McCormack. At least, that’s what I think he was saying.

For many contemporary Protestants, this is probably a bit of a problem, especially if we consider the very large number of Anglicans who are Arminians and thus cannot throw themselves wholeheartedly into Article of Religion 17, “On Predestination.” For me, saying that I must pledge my allegiance to a particular confession and produce theological thinking in accord with it is a definite problem, if we recall this post.

Nonetheless, I would still like to say that I am a Protestant. And being Protestant requires more than a rejection of papal claims. There are, I believe, certain doctrinal positions Protestants emphasise as well as certain approaches to doctrine and worship.

First of all, justification by faith. As a Protestant, I believe that nothing we do can make us justified before God. No amount of condign merit will justify me. It is the faith within the heart and life of the believer that justifies. God will justify those who have chosen to follow Him and put their trust in Him. From true faith will flow a life of good works, yes; but the good works are not what justify us but the fruit of the justified.

Second, the primacy (supremacy?) of Scripture for faith, life, and doctrine. A lot of Anglicans like pointing to Hooker’s three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, from which the removal of a single leg means utter disaster, saying that people like Mark Driscoll are troubling because of how much they overemphasise Scripture.

Well, the fact of the matter is, Scripture contains everything necessary for salvation. Other things might be okay, but they aren’t necessary. If it’s not in Scripture, it is not binding. Now, tradition and reason are important for the interpretation of Scripture. We can never escape them. That is the point of this whole website. But Scripture still stands supreme. If tradition, through the years, has come up with something counter to Scripture, the Church — the same Church who handed down the tradition — can jettison it after a long, painful process of prayer and searching the Scriptures together.

Third, I do not believe that a true Protestant will have a Roman understanding of the sacrifice of the Mass. That is to say, the idea that Christ himself is offered upon the altar as an immolation for our sins by the Priest who stands in Christ’s stead each Sunday. Now, the idea that there is a twofold sacrifice of ourselves, our souls and bodies, along with the gifts of bread and wine at the Holy Table — this is acceptable. It is also acceptable to say that the Eucharist recapitulates Christ’s atoning work and brings its benefits to the assembled Body through the Sacramental act (see Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New).

As regards other aspects of the Sacrament, Protestants are divided. I, myself, follow Luther in The Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, as explained here. I affirm with my Anglican heritage that the Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism are outward, visible signs of an inward, invisible grace.

If to be Protestant one must sign on to a confessional statement, most Protestants would have to believe in penal substitutionary atonement. And most of us do. And some of us believe in Christus Victor. Some of us, rascals that we are, believe in both. But this issue is more of an East vs. West question than a Protestants vs. the World question.

In fact, most of the major questions of Christology and Triadology (the study of the All-holy Trinity) do not have a particular spin from the Protestants, outside of heretics like Oneness Pentecostals. We tend to follow St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas on these issues. Some, like Reformed theologian T.F. Torrance, turn to Sts. Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria for their Christology. I, myself, follow a sort of Neo-Chalcedonian, Conciliar Christology with something of an Augustinian-Thomist Triadology for good measure. There’s nothing un-Protestant about that!

I’m getting tired. But I think that the issue of justification, the place of the Bible in the Christian life, and the question of the sacrifice of the Mass (tied into how you answer the first two) are among three of the defining points of Protestants.

I am a Protestant, and maybe even an Anglican.

Christ Is Risen!

He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!!

Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ trampled down death with death.  He rose from the grave and is the firstborn from the dead.  We who put our faith in Him shall share in His resurrection and shall one day put on immortal bodies.  Through His crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus took on the powers and principalities.  He defeated death.  He conquered the Devil and his minions.  He took on the curse laid upon humanity and the world since Adam and broke it.  He released the stranglehold that sin had on humanity.

How can we keep silent?  How can we not sing His great praises?  Christ is risen, let us rejoice!

As we sing the great praises of the most high God, as we hymn our Lord Christ, we sing not just of His victory for us human beings but for all creation as well.  He is Christus Victor, a fact demonstrated by His mighty resurrection.  I find that some of the Easter hymns we sang at Little Trinity on Sunday reflect a Christ the Victor mentality.

The chorus of “Up From the Grave He Arose” by Robert Lowry (1826-1899):

Up from the grave he arose;
with a mighty triumph o’er his foes;
he arose a victor from the dark domain,
and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

The chorus and final verse of “Welcome, Happy Morning,” by Venantius Fortunatus (c. 590), trans. John Ellerton (1868):

“Welcome, happy morning!” age to age shall say:
“Hell today is vanquished, Heav’n is won today!”

Loose the souls long prisoned, bound with Satan’s chain;
All that now is fallen raise to life again;
Show Thy face in brightness, bid the nations see;
Bring again our daylight: day returns with Thee!

The chorus of “Thine Be the Glory,” by Edmond Budry (1884), trans. Richard Hoyle (1923):

Thine be the glory, risen conquering Son,
Endless is the vict’ry, thou o’er death hast won.

When we see the debates about Christus Victor, people talk as though NT Wright were doing something new, or introducing into Western theology something long missing.  Robert E. Webber says that Christus Victor or the theory of recapitulation are often lacking in Western theology (see Ancient-Future Faith and Worship Old And New).  However, the hymnists of the 1800’s seem to see something of this theme of Christ’s triumph over his foes.  And it is not hard to see this great triumph extending not only to sin in humans but the brokenness of the entire world.

Finally, Christus Victor does not supplant the idea of Christ as victim, despite what some of its Western detractors and Eastern supporters may say.  They are two concepts that help bring out the fullness of what Christ did for us through his passion, death, and resurrection.  Indeed, if we are to look at the atonement fully, we will find it lacking if we support only one of these two views, Latin or Classic.

Christ is the victor!  He has triumphed over his foes!  He vanquished Hell!  He set free the imprisoned souls!  He defeated Satan!  He won an endless victory over death!  This is the glorious reality of the Easter miracle when a dead Man regained life.  That life is now life for us all.