Ancient religion got me into this mess, part 1

The following, while in earnest, should still be taken with a grain of salt since I did spend the last 7 years worshipping with the Free Church of Scotland.

Council of Chalcedon

Much of my difficulty with modern church worship and thought comes from my vocation as an ecclesiastical historian. Ancient Christianity got me into this mess, basically. I find it difficult to believe evangelical doctrine and reject liturgical worship and episcopal structure at the same time.

Many evangelical denominations have a desire to return to ‘apostolic’ or ‘New Testament’ Christianity. Not only is this impossible, it is undesirable. Evangelical Christians believe doctrines that were developed and hammered out, sometimes organically, sometimes through councils and polemic, by bishops who led Christian communities in regular liturgical celebration of Holy Communion. To do the impossible, to turn the clock back 1900+ years, is undesirable for anyone who believes in the Holy Trinity, the dual natures of Christ, the New Testament canon, predestination, Arminian free-will, or justification by faith. All of these require the patristic engagement with worship, Scripture, and philosophy to emerge — and the latter (if delineated in a Protestant way) needs medieval scholasticism to at least react against and St Augustine to be inspired by.

There are three main doctrinal areas where my study of the ancient church makes me take pause and consider the structure, liturgy, and devotional practice of the first five or six centuries: the canon of Scripture, the Trinity, and the dual nature of Christ. The two chief sacraments instituted by Christ — Holy Baptism and the Eucharist — are a further catalyst for my belief in the importance of ancient practices. Finally, I have a more nebulous relationship with ancient devotion.

This blog post will briefly look at the three doctrines, a second at the sacraments, and a third at the wider world of ancient devotional practices.

The Canon of Scripture

The canon of Scripture, on which I’ve blogged before, was not dropped, Qu’ran-like, from heaven. It grew organically over several centuries. Some orthodox Christians included books we today exclude; some excluded texts we today include. The Holy Spirit at work in the church brought her to a slow, general consensus on the 27 books of the New Testament. A good look at this is A High View of Scripture? by Craig D. Allert.

The central thesis for Allert is that there was a coinherence of authority in ancient Christianity, and the Rule of Faith (variously articulated, similar to the Creed) worked alongside the worshipping community to help them sort which texts belonged. Scripture upholds the Rule of Faith, and alleged ‘apostolic’ texts that clashed with it were rejected.

One aspect of this question that always emerges is that, when we read Justin and the others, it is clear that the early Christians were reading the proto-New Testament at worship. And if you study ancient worship, it becomes clear that their worship was a weekly liturgical celebration of Holy Communion, often headed by the local episkopos (the monarchical episcopate emerging in some places by the year 100, in others not until the 200s).

When people start writing their canons of Scripture, they are being written by the leaders of the ancient church — bishops who lead the community in both a teaching and liturgical office centred around Holy Communion.

I find it hard to reject the form of worship and church order that the Holy Spirit used in the church to inspire our ancestors in the faith to see what the canon of Scripture is.

The Holy Trinity

When I read Aloys Grillmeier’s Christ in Christian Tradition, Vol. 1: Up to the Council of Chalcedon, I realised how fortunate I am in some ways to live on this side of the ecumenical councils. Very few early Christians have left us records of Jesus as a mere man or prophet; but as to how he was ‘divine’, that was harder to understand. Was he actually an angel? Or a lesser divine being? How is he related to the Father and the Holy Spirit?

It was Origen’s teaching in the catechetical school of Alexandria that started the drive to sort out how these three persons work together, and it was the debates of the fourth century that led our fathers and mothers in the faith to affirm that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are three consubstantial persons who are one God, articulated by Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Ambrose, Augustine., et al Again, the bishops.

Part of what drove this fourth-century articulation of the church’s trinitarian faith was the fact that in her central act of (liturgical) worship, Jesus Christ was worshipped as God. St Athanasius used this to accuse the ‘Arians’ of idolatry (we’ll set aside the accuracy or fairness of that for now). I believe in the Trinity; I believe that it can be proven through a right interpretation of Scripture. But I also know that, humanly speaking, there is a certain amount of contingency in Christian orthodoxy.

If I affirm the Trinity, articulated by bishops who realised in their act of sacramental, liturgical worship that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are fully God, why should I reject the form of worship that in part drove them to that realisation?

The dual nature and complete unity of Christ

The fifth century is my area of expertise; my PhD was on the letters of Pope St Leo the Great, whose articulation of two-nature Christology was affirmed and accepted by the imperial church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

The bishops assembled at Chalcedon, and then at its reinterpretation at Constantinople in 553, were trying to find a way to keep Leo happy and affirm the teachings of St Cyril of Alexandria at the same time. Cyril’s Christology was driven, in fact, by his sacramental theology. Cyril, like most other ancient Christians, believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If Christ’s divinity and humanity are sundered, then how can the Eucharist even work? How can his flesh be real food and his blood real drink (Bible verse) if he is not a fully united person both God and man?

Leo, on the other hand, had a very evangelical concern. How can the church find a way of maintaining the truth of Jesus as fully God and fully man without destroying either? Jesus needs to be just like us in order to take our sin upon himself. But no mere man could do that; he needs to possess the fullness of God in himself. In traditional Latin theology (see Sts Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine), as synthesised by Leo, this was articulated by teaching that Jesus has two naturae, two natures, but is a single persona, person.

Both Cyril’s approach and Leo’s approach have many outworkings in our lives, in fact. How can I affirm their teaching, affirm the ecumenical councils’ doctrine, and at the same time cast aside the liturgical actions that nourished their faith and spurred on their thinking?

Final Thoughts

These are just three patristic doctrines that mean we cannot set the clock back to New Testament times. Other people will have slightly different lists. Perhaps a discussion not only of canon but of Scriptural authority would be salutary. Or predestination/free will. Or miracles. Or creatio ex nihilo. Setting the clock back is impossible and undesirable. The central beliefs of Christian orthodoxy originally hinged, historically speaking, upon bishops gathered in council on one hand and their leadership with the Christian community gathered liturgically around the Eucharist on the other.

I believe that sound, historic liturgy protects us from faddism such as Joel Osteen or the more divergent instances of charismania. Ideally, the historic episcopate has/should as well. It also guards evangelical doctrine from heresy and ‘liberalism’, as maybe I’ll discuss later.

I believe, finally, that I have not come to a love of the liturgy and orthodox faith of the ancient and medieval church willy-nilly. This has been conscious, at times agonising, work. It has been prayerful and rational. Is this not how God works in his people?

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Christ and submission

Annunciation by Antoniazzo da Romano, in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome
Annunciation by Antoniazzo da Romano, in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome

An interesting little piece recently appeared called ‘No More Lying About Mary’. It’s not bad, although it treads too closely to assumptions re the virginal conception (that is, I suspect [but may be wrong] the author denies it and thinks it is a story that tells Bad Things About Women and Sex, whereas it is a truth that tells us Good Things About Jesus) and verges on blasphemy on thinking that God would be pedophilic in choosing a teenage Mary to be the Mother of Our Lord.

Very little in the piece is new. The author rightly tries to take away the idea that Mary embodies a modern form of submissiveness, which is certainly not the case. Indeed, we see the Blessed Virgin carefully scrutinising the Angel Gabriel about his person and his news before she says, ‘Let it be unto me according to your will.’ And, as I like to observe, she is pretty much the only receiver of an angelic messenger in the Bible who, having heard all that was to be said, says yes without making excuses. None of the ‘great men of the Bible’ were so in tune with God that they were ready to embrace His will once they knew it.

So we need to praise St Mary, as the article encourages us.

Nonetheless, the author is keen to attack something called ‘submissiveness’.

‘Submissiveness’ seems to be something horrific imposed upon Mary by the patriarchy and used to subjugate women throughout history.

I don’t think it’s something I’m interested in.

And, given the long line of biblical and saintly women such as the warrioress Deborah, or Judith cutting of Holofernes’ head, or the BVM, or Sts Hildegard, Hilda, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, and Lady Julian of Norwich, I don’t think that traditional Christianity is actually interested in some form of submissiveness, and certainly not the subjugation of women.

Now, certain men throughout the history of the Church have clearly done their best to misuse Scripture and Tradition to that end, but that’s not the same thing. Just as we are to take neighbourliness, love, non-coercive preaching, and freedom to worship in synagogues from St Gregory the Great as the Christian approach to our Jewish neighbours, so we should look to the right thinkers in how Christian men and women love women (Christian and otherwise).

In the comments section, the author says, ‘Christ is never about submission, is always about raising us up and setting us free.’

Unfortunately, this isn’t true.

Christ is certainly about raising us up and setting us free.

But He is not never about submission.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m slowly working my way through St Augustine of Hippo, On the Trinity. It’s a good time. One of the issues that any reading of Scripture in relation to the Trinity and Christology must work through is what to do with statements such as, ‘The Father is greater than I.’ (Jn 14:28) (A more readable, modern discussion of such statements is Browne’s Exposition of the 39 Articles.) In his Incarnate state, as St Augustine shows, Jesus the Christ is clearly submissive to the Father.

Here are some of the passages where Christ, Who is God the Word Incarnate, mentions this submission to the Father (all NRSV):

for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. (Jn 12:49)

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. (Jn 5:19)

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. (Jn 4:34)

I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. (Jn 6:38)

Jesus Himself practised submission. What is remarkable is that these statements all come from the Gospel of John, which is notorious for having the highest Christology of the Gospels. John 1:1 says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ making it clear further on that Jesus is the Word. In this Gospel, Jesus says, ‘Before Abraham was, I am!’, and, ‘I and the Father are one,’ and, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father’, and various other similar things not at the top of my head.

Once we acknowledge that the Bible teaches us that Jesus Himself was submissive to the will of the Father, we have a couple of options. We can explain it away or maybe reject these parts of the Bible. Or we can read the Bible holistically and see what this submission to the Father tells us both about Christ and about submission. In so doing, I believe we will shatter the false dichotomy between submission and freedom.

My approach to the Bible, unlike (I imagine — I could be wrong) that of the author of the Patheos blog who, elsewhere in the comments section, embraces John Dominic Crossan as the foremost NT scholar of our age, is necessarily triadic and deeply Trinitarian. I blame John Zizioulas, St Gregory of Nazianzus, the Athanasian Creed, and my Dad’s confirmation classes.

The Holy Trinity is three Persons in one God. They are consubstantial. But there is only one God. There are three hypostaseis but only one ousia. For a biblical defense of the Trinity, I again refer the reader to chapter one of Browne. In the modern Greek reading of the Cappadocian Fathers offered us by Zizioulas in Being As Communion, the Persons of the Trinity are a communion, and this communion is the foundation of all being. It’s beautiful and profound; don’t forget my bit on why the Trinity matters.

By the logic of the Trinity, God the Word has always existed, being with the Father from all eternity. He, the Father, and the Holy Spirit exist in a union that can perhaps best be described as ecstatic, self-emptying love. If we can redeem the concept of eros, they are filled with a universe-creating desire for one another. They choose out of their love to make stuff — the universe we inhabit — so that there can be more stuff to love. Not because they have to. Creation is contingent on the Most Holy Trinity; not the other way around.

This mutual giving and receiving pervades the whole of their Creation.

And then, out reasons directly related to the overflowing love of the Trinity for the Creation, One of the Persons of the Trinity chooses to be incarnate as a Man.

But He is also sent. Sent by the Father. He comes to earth to do the will of the One Who sent Him. There is no clearer message of submission than that.

However, Christ our God and God the Father exist in a perfect love relationship. Each is perfect and holy. Each loves perfectly and holily (not a word, sorry).

Therefore, when Incarnation is on the table, One of Them submits gladly out of love, and the Other Two gladly send Him to us.

Biblical submission is not about submission to clerics or to forces of power or to men or to anything else. It is about perfect submission in perfect love to the one who loves you perfectly.

And this is why we, too, submit. We submit to the Holy Trinity not because He/They tell us to or because He/They is powerful or He/They is lording it over us, but because He/They love us perfectly and know us perfectly and know what’s best for us, so we, in a love relationship of trust, submit to Them and Their perfect relationship of perfect love and holy trust.

We are called elsewhere in Scripture to submit to one another, bearing each other’s burdens in love (Eph 5:21). St Paul doesn’t do so well in feminist circles today, but once again, the Scriptural virtue of submission is not the same as submissiveness. It is about willfully choosing to abandon self-love and self-will and self-fulfillment and self-importance to help others, choosing the obscure and uncomfortable path of service and love. It is about giving up myself and loving other people because Christ tells us that in others we will find Him. It is treating others better than ourselves, whether they are male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile, Greek or Scythian — and whether we are any of these things ourselves.

As Christ says, those who lose their lives for His sake will find them (Mt 16:25).

When we come against the perceived ‘traditional’ view of something, especially when it has been misused, we need to seek the true tradition and the biblical use of that word. Perhaps submission is unpopular today. But perhaps it is where freedom lies. Perhaps meekness is unpopular today — and that’s a shame, since the meek will inherit the earth! (Mt 5:5)

Mystery

When my wife and I were visiting our family back in Canada at Christmastide, a significant number of us dined at Boston Pizza in Prince Albert, SK, one day for lunch. As we enjoyed the tasty delights of our pizza and endless refills of pop, my brother who is an Anglican priest (as opposed to my brother who is a comic-book encyclopaedist or my sister who is an editor), sitting across from me, declared, ‘No one writes mysteries anymore.’

‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘P D James does. They’re pretty good.’ I flitted through my memory, noting that Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Sayers, and Christie are all, indeed, dead.

Then he said something along the lines of, ‘I mean no one writes actual mysteries. All people write are solutions. Everything has an explanation in what we write. People don’t write books that are about mysteries anymore.’

Something like that. It was longer, but it was also early January, so I forget. But the gist of what he and I exchanged in that moment at lunch was, indeed, that we don’t write mysteries.

If we meet a mystery, we want an explanation. We are uncomfortable with vast uncertainties, so we come up with systematic explanations of them so the mystery will go away. I recall that I pointed out that this was the key to Luther’s sacramental theology, that he did not believe in either transubstantiation or consubstantiation, yet certainly not the Zwinglian vision of a spiritual symbol. According to This Is My Body, these were all insufficient because they sought to explain with human philosophy what was ultimately a mystery to be left in reverence. Is means is. This is Christ’s body; this is Christ’s blood. End of story. Receive it in faith, do not explain it with philosophy.

God Himself(s) is a mystery as well. No matter how well an Aquinas or a Bonaventure can go into the relations of the Divine Persons, the very doctrine of the Trinity remains always beyond reach. And that is mere doctrine; FatherSonHolySpirit Themself stands beyond us in a big way.

Yet he does invite us in.

A mystery is not simply hidden. It is a hidden thing, or a hard-to-understand thing, that invites us in. We are called to go further and further in. This is how it is related to mystery cults, religions that involve secret initiation ceremonies that unite their worshippers with a god in some way. God invites us in, and we are drawn further into his mystery as we go through life with Him.

Thus the mystic enters the mystery of the Triune God through prayer, ascetic practice, meditation, contemplation, worship, sacrament, daily work, and daily life, finding These Person everywhere and pervading everything. St. Hildegard and Lady Julian are granted visions; St. Thomas Aquinas is given insight; St. Gregory Palamas enters the mystery of God and finds Him beyond articulation. Evagrius Ponticus says that contemplation of the HolyThree is the highest goal of the Christian life.

And the more we know El, the more we realise how little we know of This OneThree Who isare everywhere yet beyond everything.

And so, having delineated the boundaries of what it is safe to say in our tomes of systematic theology, having uttered the Creed with utter sincerity, having sought to see the Creator God in the face of the poor, we reach a place where only groans can express these thoughts.

We enter the cloud of unknowing, having ascended Mt. Sinai.

The apophatic takes over.

The DivinePerson(s) — ‘God’ as we like to call ‘Him’ — is without beginning and without end. Temporally and spatially.

Is not human.

Is not made of matter.

Is invisible.

Is unchangeable.

Is unchanging.

Is uncaused.

Is immortal.

Is a variety of things of which we can only really say what He is not.

He is a(3) Person(s) and ready to for us to encounter, love, and experience Him.

Are we ready to enter into this glorious mystery? Or shall we play in the shallows of definites and clear answers instead?