Cassian & Tradition

Just came from a discussion group on the selections from Cassian in The Philokalia, and found that a while ago, whilst thinking on tradition, I’d typed up this from Augustine Casiday’s Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian:

‘… Cassian’s writings propagate a teaching that he acquired in Egypt, refined and contemplated over the years, and eventually put forward with the explicit aim of providing something useful for his readers in Gaul. Tradition in this case indicates much more than the unthinking transmission of thoughts and beliefs. Tradition is itself an enterprise that creates and forms historical perspective and it therefore has a complex reltionship to history.’ (122)

Part of what Casiday is arguing here is that we should not simply shake our fingers at Cassian and say, ‘You are not transmitting a historically perfect/accurate account of what happened in Egypt and are therefore useless.’ Rather, we should see that Cassian has internalised what he learned in Egypt and is seeking to encapsulate these teachings/traditions in a way that will be of benefit to his new, Latin, Gallic audience.

This is what we all do, whether cautious traditionalists or highly conservative ones, I think. We seek to mediate the wisdom we have gained from those who have gone before us to a new audience, to our peers and colleagues and enemies who would profit from these experiences and traditions. Likewise, the traditions of others are of use to us as we listen to their mediation of what has gone before.

Sometimes, then ‘history’ and ‘tradition’ are not always the most important criteria as we examine these documents. What are we seeking from the patristic and monastic fathers? Wisdom to live by. The pathway to purity of heart, which is the short-term goal that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.

For a very helpful mediation of Cassian’s mediation of Evagrius’ teaching on akedia, read this article by Ryan Clevenger: ‘Akedia and Why Evangelicals Should Stay Put‘.

Why should I listen to Vincent of Lerins?

It’s all very well, I suppose, to say (as I do here) that St. Vincent recommends we turn to Scripture and tradition to learn what orthodoxy is, and all very well to figure out how to do this in today’s context.

But why should we listen to him?

I had originally envisaged this post beginning with a brief reminder the fact that most, if not all, Christians call upon us to listen to the voice of Scripture, and then moving on to a brief summary and discussion of the venerable line of teachers who call upon us to heed tradition, a venerable line beginning with Paul and moving through such luminaries as St. Irenaeus and St. Leo the Great, within which St. Vincent of Lérins stands.

But, really, tradition is a bit of a hairy beast.

Seriously.

I mean, it’s true that tradition includes the prayerful application of human resources to the Scriptures out of which can come beautiful things like St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae or the Cappadocians’ Trinitarian thought or the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or a Tridentine Mass or the Daily Office or stained glass in cruciform Gothic churches.

But some of the things that come down the pipeline in tradition leave me scratching my head at times; they certainly help keep me on the Protestant side of things.

  • Caves full of wax babies offered to an icon of the Theotokos by people suffering from infertility.
  • Stories involving talking beasts who get baptised.
  • Prayers and invocations of saints.
  • Transubstantiation (in the West).
  • The sacrifice of the Mass.
  • The Assumption of the BVM.
  • The Perpetual Virginity of the BVM.
  • Crowning the BVM Queen of Heaven (in the West).
  • Purgatory (in the West).
  • Also in the West: the Pope.

These are just off the top of my head, mind you. Some are not necessarily deal breakers — I am willing to concede the possibility of the Mother of the Lord having been assumed into heaven or having been a perpetual virgin; I simply refuse them as being necessary beliefs. Just because something is traditional, why ought I to believe it?

This, then, I guess, is where Augustine Casiday’s quotation about tradition being a creative fidelity to one’s origins is so compelling — it includes room for creativity. It leaves space for reason. It also means taking tradition as handed down (entrusted being our other definition) to us seriously.

Thus, I am a traditionalist enough to enjoy Conciliar Triadology and Christology, but partly on the basis of prayerful reason and some knowledge of the Arian, Nestorian, Miaphysite positions, thus believing that it is orthodoxy because it is the most biblically faithful and philosophically coherent position. No doubt the Arians, Nestorians, and Miaphysites would hotly contest this position — it would take a book, not a blog, to expound why and how I feel and believe and think this way.

I am a cautious traditionalist, though; not all new liturgies or translations are necessarily bad (they often are, if only on aesthetic grounds). New hymns can go to the same depths and heights as old ones (not that they always do). New theologians can expound fantastic, glorious truths about God and the universe (contemporary theologians I like? NT Wright and Miroslav Volf if we aren’t bringing the Orthodox or the dead into this). New religious art can bring vibrancy and truth to darksome places, to places where the traditional is no longer comprehended (but I do love stained glass and icons!).

Vincent of Lerins, Scripture, and Tradition

Given my post about how its opponents perceive heresy, how can we find out what exactly is heresy? It seems to have been very important to the writers of the Patristic age, so I reckon that being able to identify it is a worthwhile task.

Being able to perceive heresy or orthodoxy is especially important today, I reckon, given that the world is aswirl with varieties of teachings about philosophical/religious/biblical teachings.

When faced with Osteen’s blend of Pelagianism and prosperity, with Archbp. Richard Holloway’s rejection of the bodily resurrection of Christ, with Bp. John S. Spong’s rejection of God as Creator, with the ongoing efforts of scholars to rehabilitate those whom the ancient and mediaeval Church rejected as heretics (from Nestorius to Pelagius to Arius to the Cathars), with Bart Ehrman’s insistence that the Orthodox ‘corruption’ of Scripture makes the whole text untrustworthy, with the well-meaning pluralism of close, dear, intelligent friends — and so forth — when faced with such things, how do we really know what to do when we sit down to think theologically, ethically, biblically, philosophically?

Sometimes Bible passages have multiple interpretations. Sometimes Jesus doesn’t seem to be God. Sometimes he does. Sometimes the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be God. Sometimes the Kingdom of God seems to be the biggest deal out there. Sometimes the crucifixion/resurrection event does. Sometimes the logic of atonement doesn’t hold together. Sometimes it’s crystal clear. Sometimes … sometimes …

Vincent of Lérins, famous for the dictum that orthodoxy/the catholic faith is what has been believed everywhere, always, by all, said this:

Often, therefore, when I have sought thoroughly with great zeal and the highest attentiveness from very many men outstanding in holiness and doctrine in what way and by what certain and, as it were, general and regular way I could distinguish the truth of the catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical perversion, I always receive a response of this sort from pretty much all of them, that whether I, or someone else, were wishing to discover the lies of rising heretics or to evade their snares, and to remain whole and healthy in healthy faith, one ought to fortify one’s own faith in a double manner, with the Lord’s help — first, with the authority of clearly divine law, then from there with the tradition of the catholic church. (Commonitorium 2, my trans.)

Given that “orthodoxy” is right belief, we all think we’re orthodox, so let’s not argue about the word right now.

The first step, according to St. Vincent, is to turn to Scripture, ‘the authority of clearly divine law.’ This means that, while we should consider soberly the arguments of people such as Ehrman (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture) and Spong (The Sins of Scripture), we can still believe that God has inspired the words, however flawed the manuscript tradition is, however flawed some of the persons and events recorded therein are.

If a belief is riotously counter-scriptural — ‘God, while pretty cool, didn’t create the universe’, or ‘we should have sex with any consenting partner’ — we can safely reject it.

Nevertheless, this is probably still not good enough, for most Christians today, from Bp. Michael Ingham and Marcus J Borg to Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn to N T Wright and Miroslav Volf, claim to take Scripture very seriously.

This is where St. Vincent’s second criterion comes into play: the tradition of the catholic church.

Tradition is, literally, that which has been handed down (Latin trado, tradere). According to Lewis & Short, one of the definitions of trado is ‘entrust.’ Tradition is that which has been entrusted to us by those who have come before.

Augustine Casiday, in Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian, says, ‘Tradition … is a process of creative fidelity to one’s origins.’ (122)

Our origins, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, are the apostolic writers and the holy men and women of the patristic age. They preserved the tradition of Jesus and his followers, spread it throughout the Mediterranean basin, and meditated deeply upon it in prayer, philosophy, verse, and holiness in action.

Of course, what do we do with the fact that after 451 the Nestorians (Church of the East) broke away into their own tradition, and soon thereafter the ‘Monophysites’ (Armenian Apostolic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian Orthodox Churches) broke away from the imperial church, and then in 1053 there was an official split between the Byzantine Church and the Roman Church, and then in 1517 a long process of disintegration took hold of the Roman Church in the West?

What is the tradition we are to turn to today? Traditional forms of Anglicanism, Puritanism, Presbyterianism, Methodism, Baptist-ism(?), Pentecostalism? Or are we to turn to Rome or Byzantium or Cairo for answers?

These are tough questions. However, if we prayerfully read Scripture and turn to the exegesis of the first five centuries as well as writers beyond that who agree with the conciliar formulae, perhaps that will be tradition enough?

And then perhaps we shall be safe from the poison of heresy …