Protestant — but not Calvinist

¡Viva la Reformación! (credit: E Martin)

This week, for a course I’m taking, I had the opportunity to hunker down and read some confessional documents.  First I read The Augsburg Confession and the Catholic response, the Confutatio Pontificia, and then the more recent Joint Declaration on Justification.  I also read chh. 12 & 18 of Althaus’ The Theology of Martin Luther.

You may have noticed that sometimes I tag posts with “i might end up eastern orthodox at this rate”.  I think I may have used it only twice, but I could have used it more frequently.  Anyway, this feeling was increasing over Christmastide, not only with a lot of reading of St. Leo and a couple of trips to St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church, but also because of Frederica Mathewes-Green’s book, At the Corner of East and Now.  I admit there is something compelling in Eastern Orthodoxy.

But then I read Augsburg and Althaus’ discussion of Luther’s theology.  And I realised that I am still a Protestant, for I found Luther’s explanation of Justification by Faith entirely reasonable and compelling, remaining faithful to Scripture whilst setting forth its doctrine with reason.  It holds in tension simul justus et peccator and faith-works and law-gospel — all of these things that, beautiful as so many Orthodox descriptions of the Christian life are, make the most sense to me and give me the greatest spiritual comfort of all explanations.

We are all bound by our understanding of Scripture.

Tonight, for the same course, I finished reading the Second Helvetic Confession.  I am clearly not a Calvinist.  Certainly not of this Confession’s ilk.  This is not just the predestination issue.  It is the overbearing, heavy-handed reliance upon public preaching of the Gospel.  As though this and the rational world of the mind were all that true piety consisted of — thus, even if the confession didn’t consider images in holy spaces as idols, it would still oppose them on grounds of their needlessness.  People don’t need pictures if they can hear the Word of God preached to them (so says this confession).

This Confession also shows many Protestant weaknesses.  It gives a fairly decent account of Eucharist when discussing it directly, but sidelines it the entire time whilst always talking about preaching.  Indeed, the Eucharist seems at one point to be best understood as basically a sermon that you eat.

It seems to support a presbyterian church order over all and rejects the Daily Office out of hand, making claims about the order of the church as handed down from the Apostles — but makes the claim that the Apostles celebrated together on the Lord’s Day!  This is a practice that has evidence for it of the same antiquity as the episcopacy and the Daily Office — evidence not clearly shown forth in the apostolic writings.  What has happened has that the Church, seeking to submit itself to nothing other than Sacred Scripture has become not only the judge of tradition but, at times, even of Scripture herself (see the bit where James is subordinated to Paul to the extent that they would be willing to jettison him from the canon if he disagreed with “the Apostle”).

Some of Helvetic II mirrored the 39 Articles.  But much did not.  So if I must turn anywhere in the Reformation, it is not to Calvin, whose followers haughtily claim that he finished what Luther began, but to Luther and the Book of Common Prayer.  No matter how hard I try, I always come up Anglican.

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Tap into the Tradition: The Remedy for “Matthewism”

As may be known, I have a habit of listening to Ancient Faith Radio and reading Eastern Orthodox books (the most recent being Being As Communion).  The Eastern Orthodox are a voice worth listening to, and one of the main reasons they are worth listening to is because they, in turn, listen to the Fathers.  They are, thus, deeply traditional, preserving that which has been handed down to them.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, one of the many Orthodox converts on Ancient Faith Radio, says:

I realized that my selections [in my spiritual life] were inevitably conditioned by my own tastes, prejudices, and blind spots. I was patching together a Frankenstein God in my own image, and it would never be taller than five foot one. (Quoted here.)

This is the Christianised version of the religion cited by Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace of “Sheilaism” — whatever you feel like believing, however you feel like worshipping, however you feel like living is what comprises your worldview, religion, and lifestyle.

What Mathewes-Green discovered in Orthodoxy was the corrective of tradition.  We all have our idiosyncrasies that we bring to how we think and live, and as Christians we have them when we approach Scripture and worship.  Tradition is the accumulation of what has been handed down from the Apostles and generally approved of in each generation.  It challenges our presuppositions and idiosyncrasies, sometimes very uncomfortably, but when entered into prayerfully, the Spirit will use it to conform us more and more into the image of Christ rather than the accumulation of stuff and culture and self that we bring with us to begin with.

I decided that, while Orthodoxy is interesting and all, I already have a tradition of my own, and it sprang up in England around 596 with the arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury.  To ensure that I actually am part of this tradition, I recently re-read the 39 Articles of Religion, and I find myself in agreement with them.  So, besides reading the 39 Articles, what am I to do to engage with the Anglican tradition in all its richness?

1.  I have decided to plug into the Book of Common Prayer more frequently, using Morning & Evening Prayer and Compline, but also on occasion the Anglican Society of Saint Francis’ Celebrating Common Prayer for the divine office.  The daily office is an important part of traditional English spirituality.  It is a way to pray to and draw near to God while at the same time joining with believers within the tradition throughout the world and throughout time.

2.  I want to read the classics of the Anglican moral/ethical tradition.  This will first mean finishing off William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, but moving on to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and John Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection.  This aspect of the tradition includes both virtuous living and the call to social justice, both of which are part of the endless movement towards holiness and perfection (on this endless movement, see St. Gregory of Nyssa).

3.  The Anglican tradition also includes the English Reformers, so the Book of Homilies and Richard Hooker at large are to be part of my long-range plan, as is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

4.  The Anglican tradition has a large component of hymnody worth exploring, and since I have 3 copies of Canada’s 1938 Hymn Book, I am well-prepared for this angle.  Alongside hymnody are the poets — Donne, Herbert, et al.

5. The pre-Reformation English tradition, from St. Augustine of Canterbury to the Venerable Bede to St. Anselm to Lady Julian of Norwich and more is part of the tradition as well.  I think a study of the mediaeval roots of “Reformation” thought would be a worthy activity.  Despite the arguments over the date of Easter and monasticism, mediaeval English Christianity tried to adapt local Celtic customs as part of their own, thus making “Celtic” Christianity also fair game.

6.  Patristics is fair game, being the root of much mediaeval Christian thought as well as much Reformation thought.  The Fathers are the Fathers of all Christendom, not just the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox bits.

7.  The theologians other than the Reformers, up to the present day.  The emphasis on Tradition means that, while I should probably grapple with the likes of Spong, Ingham, and more, my emphasis should fall on the Wesleys, the Anglo-Catholics/Oxford Movement, C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, J.I. Packer, John Stott, and their ilk.

The above should probably last me until I’m dead.  Re those within Anglicanism who are divergent voices of dissent who attack and judge the tradition, I believe that the way to approach them is to look at them through the lens of the tradition, taking those bits that fall beyond the bounds of Scripture, the Creeds, and the 39 Articles, and providing cogent, reasonable, biblical, and traditional critique.

What about your tradition?  What are the roots and classic writings of Baptists, Mennonites, the Christian Reformed Church, Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism?  With these in one hand, the Bible in the other, large doses of prayer, and the enlivening of the Holy Spirit, we should be more clearly drawn towards the image of the likeness of Christ than when our own idiosyncrasies take control as we read our Bibles all alone in our rooms.  Oh, also, take along a worshipping ecclesial community for the journey.  God will use them to shape you mightily as well.

Evensong

There has been some discussion here of late regarding worship and liturgy and modern vs. traditional.  This past Sunday I worshipped at one of my favourite services in all of Christendom.  A traditional, BCP Evensong in and of itself is not necessarily my favourite.  It is Evensong at St. Alban the Martyr Anglican Church, Ottawa, Ontario, that I love (I have been at St. Paul’s in London and a couple of other high church variations — beautiful, but not what I truly love).

I slipped into a pew midway up the right side (Epistle) of the church beside my friend Clive and took off my big, grey coat then prayed a bit.  Clive and I chatted briefly, then I prayed some more (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Repeat 5x.).  The sanctuary was basically quiet save beautiful music wending its way from the pipes of the organ at the front.

The service begins with a proclamation from the priest that our Lord Jesus said that where two or three are gathered, he will be with them also — glad to know we tripled the minimum requirement!  We sang “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” then opened our red (1962) Books of Common Prayer to p. 18 (my tattered tome has a blue sticky to take me right there).

And then, having assembled and met together “to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at [God’s] hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul” (BCP, 19), we confessed our sins, prayed the versicles, then recited the psalm appointed for the day, alternately by the half verse.

This was followed by the First Lesson, from Isaiah 6.  And then we sang in the stark yet beautiful and (for me) comfortable plainsong the Magnificat (Mary’s song from Luke 1:46 ff).  This was followed by the Second Lesson, wherein our Lord and Saviour healed the man at the pool near Bethesda.  Following this, we sang in another stark yet beautiful plainsong the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon’s song from Luke 2: 29 ff).

We recited our faith in the words of the ancient baptismal creed of Rome, the Apostles’ Creed.  We prayed more versicles, then the Collect for Christmas, the Collect of the Day, the requisite Collects for Peace and Aid Against All Perils.

The priest sermonised about Isaiah and the Apostle John, about the great glory of God, and the cleverness of the early Church as they prepared their delivery of the Good News.

We proceeded to sing “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”  An offering was taken up during the hymn.  This was followed by the prayers from Morning Prayer, pp. 13-15.  We sang “Joy to the World.”  Richard played a beautiful postlude on the organ that made me glad to be there.

Then we (now numbering 8, not 6) drank Orangina and ate cookies, discussing various things.  Questions re my future were a topic of interest, since I only turn up about once or twice a year, and my future is a bit vague at this point.

I wouldn’t call this service high or low.  Simply traditional.  It was sung, but we all sang together.  Evensong at St. Alban’s is liturgy as it should be — the work of the people.  We are worshipping God using the words of Scripture, the hymns, the tradition, and so forth.  The music, the beautiful setting, the people, the stillness, the smallness — these contributed to an atmosphere wherein I (at least) was able to focus my attention on the words and their meaning and the God whom I came to worship.

This service of Evensong is very special.  I hope it stays as it is for many more years to come.

Traditional and Modern Meet in Steve Bell’s CD “Devotion”

AMC Casiday, in Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian, writes something along the lines of being traditional as creative interaction with one’s origins.*  This is, essentially, what Steve Bell‘s CD Devotion does.

The songs Steve chose for Devotion, save two, are by Gord Johnson, a songwriter from his (Anglican) church in Winnipeg, St. Benedict’s Table.  They would sing these songs in church, and, it seems, Steve really liked them and wanted to share them with the world; these riches were not to be hoarded.  So, with Johnson’s blessing, Steve Bell recorded the album Devotion, a worship album of relatively simple yet deep songs of worship and prayer, praise and supplication.

The lyrics of “Almighty God”, the very first song on the CD will be familiar to all who have been to an Anglican Eucharist:

Almighty God
To you all hearts are open
All desires known
No secrets are hidden
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
By the inspiration of your Holy Spirit
That we may perfectly love you
Worthily magnify your holy name
Through Christ our Lord

Two other songs draw upon older texts: Gayle Salmond’s “The Lorica”, a modern reworking of “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.”  I love the original hymn, but enjoy singing this new telling of it.  The other is “Benediction.”  For those of us who pray Compline, this is Johnson’s adaptation of the ancient office hymn “Before the Ending of Day” (“Te Lucis Ante Terminum”).

While few other songs are modern retunings and rewordings of old prayers and hymns, still, I believe, the spirit of these songs is the spirit of the Great Tradition.  One of my favourites is “Praise the Father, Praise the Son,” whose chorus is thus:

Praise the Father, praise the Son
Praise the Spirit, three in one
Who was and is and is to come
All praise and honour and glory and power
O praise his name forever

Also great is “Embrace the Mystery,” a very short Eucharistic song (“Behold what you are / Become what you receive / Take up this bread and wine / Embrace the mystery”).  The other songs are also great and notably singable and full of grace, beauty, and truth, the same truths and ideas found in the traditional hymns.

Worship is not about how you feel.  It is not about your ability to connect with God.  It is about rendering praise to God and telling Him how much He is worth (worth + ship = worship).  It is extolling his Name.  We are, however, to worship Him in spirit and in truth.  Songs such as these help us focus our spirit so that we are singing more than mere words, as our minds focus their attention on the words — empty diction, empty syntax, empty grammar — and infuse them with meaning.

Whether you feel good, bad, or indifferent, singing a Gord Johnson song will help you focus your mind on God.  This is worship.

*I’m in Ottawa; my notes are in Toronto.  I’ll let you know later what the proper quotation is.

Byzantine Syria: Oppressive Hierarchies vs. Personal Connection with God

Last night I read the article “The Forgotten Faithful: Arab Christians” by Don Belt in the June issue of National Geographic (I read it in print).  I do not doubt that Don Belt knows much more intimately the state of affairs for the modern Arab Christian; the article was very good and balanced and informed on that front.  However, the following statement makes me wonder at his knowledge regarding their Byzantine ancestors:

When the Musliam Caliph Omar conquered Syria from the Byzantine Empire around 636, he protected the Christians under his rule, allowing them to keep their churches and worship as they pleased.  But many Christians converted to Islam anyway, preferring its emphasis on a personal connection with God to the oppressive hierarchies of the Byzantine Church. (p. 94)

My issue is with the final sentence, not the first.  The first is true, verifiable, historical fact.  The second is speculation.  We do not know the motives behind most conversions of local populations at that time because most of them were unlettered — not necessarily illiterate, but not about to write a paperback about “My Conversion to Islam.”  I imagine that their conversion to Islam was similar to that of many Roman citizens in 313 or more likely 381.  This is the new religion in town, the rulers recommend it.

I acknowledge that the Church has had her times of “oppressive hierarchies” and that the Byzantines would not have been entirely free from them.  However, we should note a few things that make Byzantine Christianity different from Roman Catholicism (since most people imagine everything from Constantine to the Reformation to be the same sort of creature).

One fact is the lay nature of the monks.  Monasticism was a lay movement started and maintained by the laity of the Eastern Church, not governed or regulated by the clergy.  There were no bishops sitting around approving which orders were allowed to found monasteries; there are no orders in the East.  They are all just monks.  And often, especially in places like Syria and Palestine, the monks were local holy men, involved in the life of the community.  Lay monasticism was a source for popular piety amongst the Christians of the Holy Land, something not enshrined in the hierarchies.  These holy men would have stressed the importance of a personal connection with God.

Second, there was a robust Syriac and Aramaic Christian literature, as seen in the earlier St. Ephraim and the liturgies of the Syrian Church.  Many theologians would have been writing in Greek, the international language of the day.  St. John of Damascus, a Syrian, did, as did many across Asia Minor and in Egypt.  The existence of Christian literature in the vernacular speaks of the existence of personal piety in Late Antique/Byzantine Syria.

Third, the role of the clergy, this so-called “oppressive hierarchy” was to baptise, preside at the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist), and to teach the people.  In a proper setting, Eastern Christian clergy are not intermediaries between the lay people and God, but exhorters of the lay people, instructors of the lay people, shepherds who help keep the lay people on their pathway to their own personal connection with God.  The Eucharist is not about the priest standing between me and God; it is about God coming to me in the bread and wine.  Perhaps some people find the fact that it’s always a priest or bishop consecrating the elements oppressive; a proper understanding of the Eucharist creates popular piety and devotion to God (even a bad one can, both being seen in Mediaeval Catholic piety).

This personal connection with God would have been demonstrated in the attendance at morning and evening, and occasionally noon, prayers.  This is the same expression of a “personal connection with God” that Islam would have offered.  I could see an uneducated, uncatechised Christian not seeing much difference between Christianity and Islam due to similarities such as this; yet I do not imagine that they would say, “Great!  I am free from those oppressive hierarchies!”

Fifth, the whole point of Pseudo-Dionysius (aka Denys, before AD 532) was the accessibility of God to every Christian.  Mysticism is not meant solely for the monks and the priests.  That’s the point.  And Pseudo-Dionysius was very popular in the Byzantine world, as were many other mystical writers from St. Gregory of Nyssa to St. John Climacus.  Very popular as well was St. Ephraim the Syrian.

Sixth, if the hierarchies of this era were oppressive, what was a layman like St. John of Damascus doing producing such excellent and well-informed theology?

There was ample opportunity for a personal connection with God in the world of Byzantine Syrian Christianity, through monasticism and contact with monks, through the sacraments, through daily prayer, through the literature of Syrian Christians, through mysticism.  I think that a shift from Christianity to Islam on the part of the local inhabitants of the Middle East was fairly gradual and the result of a cultural form of Christianity that had not taken root in the hearts of the people.

Yet to this day there are many Christians residing in the Holy Land, praying where Christ and the Apostles prayed, walking where they walked, living where they lived, dying where they died.

The Ascetic Revival Begins Today

funnelbuttMy apologies for not warning you.  Put down that burger!  Lower the Slurpee!  Don’t even think about eating candy!  Flex your knees and get ready to pray!  Turn of the TV!  Rearrange your Internet schedule!

The ascetic revival has begun!  To read about the environmental benefits of asceticism, click here.

I’ve decided to take seriously the books I’ve read about simple living, prayer, and self-denial.*  I’ve read a lot of them.  But reading doesn’t mean learning.  A person could read the entire corpus of ascetic and spiritual literature and conceivably come away unchanged.  Or a person could simply hear the Gospels read once a week and be transformed from the inside out; or, like Abraham, someone could hear the voice of God without having any spiritual instruction or access to Scripture.  Palladius writes:

Words and syllables do not constitute teaching — sometimes those who possess these are disreputable in the extreme — but teaching consists of virtuous acts of conduct, of freedom fro injuriousness, of dauntlessness, and of an even temper.  To all these add an intrepidity which produces words like flames of fire. (The Lausiac History: Letter to Lausus 2, trans. Robert T. Meyer, ACW 34)

Therefore, a simpler life dawns.

I shall pray morning, noon, and evening.  Morning shall follow the daily office and sometimes noon and evening as well.  The flexibility will allow me to spend time using different forms of prayer.

I shall fast once a week.  You won’t know which day, and this isn’t the bragging Christ warns of.  It is, rather, an exhortation that we should all fast at least once a week.  They say it accrues much spiritual benefit.

My eating shall be moderate.  This includes no pop or Slurpees save in time of celebration.  I guess that’s the old rule surrounding wine, but I’m already too cheap to drink wine.  This also includes avoiding overeating and snacks between meals — this latter is practised by monks who follow Augustine’s Rule, such as Dominicans.

I shall spend time in Scripture-reading every day.  This has been a lifelong discipline that every once in a while I fall out of for days, weeks, or months at a time.  By God’s grace, I shall maintain this discipline.

I shall exercise my body.  The Benedictines believe in hard, physical labour.  I am an urban apartment-dwelling middle-class Canadian.  I have no garden, no chickens, no building to maintain or to build.  Therefore, I shall discipline my body through exercise, chiefly through my bicycle and through walking almost everywhere.  I’ll ride my bike three to five times a week.

What else?  Buy no unneeded stuff — books, CDs, DVDs.  Don’t rent when it can be borrowed for free.  Don’t waste time watching it or reading it when there’s a better option.  Spend more time with people in pleasant occupation and company, less time simply entertaining oneself.  Continue weekly attendance at church; possibly add an extra to ensure I receive Eucharist.  Hunt down time for solitude.  Talk with Jennifer about how we might be able to spend time in service to others.

Do you have any ideas how you and I can help start the ascetic revival of the 21st century?  If you think it’s already begun, show us where and how!

*The Lessons of St. Francis by John Michael Talbot; Celebration of DisciplinePrayer, and Devotional Classics by Richard J. Foster; The Inner Experience by Thomas Merton; Flirting with Monasticism by Karen E. Sloan; Finding God: The Way of St. Benedict by Esther de Waal; Ecstasy and Intimacy by Edith Humphrey, and other moderns.  The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius; The Life of St. Benedict by St. Gregory the Great; The Institutes and The Conferences by John Cassian; The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; The Life of Moses by St. Gregory of Nyssa; The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila (well, most of it); The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross; The Letters of Saint Antony the Great; the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto; The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer by Evagrius Ponticus; The Rule of St. Augustine and other classics.

Saint of the Week: Abba Giyorgis Saglawi

From an Ethiopian prayerbook
From an Ethiopian prayerbook

Abba Giyorgis (d. 1426) was an Ethiopian monk who was chaplain to Emperor Dawit I (r. 1380-1412).  According to “The Miracle of Saint Uriel the Archangel,” the English translation of which takes up pp. 9-13 of this document,* he was descended from the son of King Solomon whom Solomon sent to live among the Ethiopians.  Like many great men, Abba Giyorgis was born to parents who at first seemed infertile, but through constant prayer and supplication, their infertility was cured.

The second miracle, besides his birth, was when Abba Giyorgis was taught by the Archangel Uriel the alphabet.  He had spent 7 years at Hayq, “the Paradise of the East,” unable to learn his letters.  The Archangel, who had previously granted his parents the gift of this son, granted to Giyorgis the ability to read and write.

Immediately, as “The Miracle of Saint Uriel” relates, he began writing.  Abba Giyorgis Saglawi wrote a lot.  According to the Dictionary of African Christian Biography, he wrote

the “Arganona Wedase” (“Hymns of Praise”), the “Wedase Masqal” (“Praises of the Cross”), the “Matshafa Sebhat” (“Book of Thanks”), also called the “Matshafa Berhan” (“Book of Light”), the “Matshafa Mestir” (“Book of Mysteries”), which is a compilation of doctrines, completed two years before his death, and the “Matshafa Saatat” (“Book of Hymns”).

He also became abbot of the monastery of Dabro Damo as well as chaplain to Emperor Dawit, as mentioned above.  Like many men of active mind, he got himself into controversy and, thence, into prison.  He got out of prison as a result of a new emperor, Tewodros, who was one of his former pupils.

I became aware of Abba Giyorgis because of his role in the daily office of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.**  The last book in the list of his writings, the “Matshafa Saatat” is the book of the daily office.  Sa’atat is the Ethiopian hours or horologion.

The Sa’atat of Abba Giyorgis is the most common version of the daily office in use in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  To quote Taft on Giyorgis’ sa’atat:

This . . . sa’atat, apparently the only one still in common use, comprises nocturns and an eleventh and twelfth hour.  Nocturns and vespers or the eleventh hour are little more than a series of four Scripture lessons, with a responsorial pslam before the last, always a gospel, at nocturns.  This lection unit is enclosed in a framework of opening prayers and concluding intercessions, hymns, orations, canticles, etc.  The twelfth hour is a devotional office in praise of Mary.

Thus the Ethiopians can lay claim to having transformed the hours into a Liturgy of the Word centered on Scripture lections a century before Luther. (269, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West)

I hope this brief telling about Abba Giyorgis has been enlightening.  For me, it is a reminder of the international character of Christianity, that is not just Catholics, Protestants, and the Eastern Orthodox, but that there are Egyptians, Ethiopians, Iraqis, Indians, Iranians, and others who are part of the historic line of the Christian faith founded upon the teachings of the Apostles.

And the traditions of the Church, such as the praying of the daily office, are part of that historic, international tradition.

*If you know Amharic, the English translation is, of course, unnecessary.

**In Robert Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West (Liturgical Press, 1986), p. 269.