Grace, Christology, and the disciplined life

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

My research has recently brought me into contact with Fulgentius of Ruspe, an African theologian who lived c. 467 to c. 532. Some say he is the greatest African theologian of antiquity post-Augustine. Fulgentius is not an original thinker. He is, however, articulate and a great synthesiser. His job is not to be original. When you read his letters, you see a man who knows what catholic doctrine is and who wants to help his correspondents understand this doctrine better.

My research interest is in his reception of Leo the Great (of course), so I’ve not actually got to the topic of this post in Fulgentius. Nonetheless, of note in Fulgentius’ corpus is correspondence with Scythian monks about Christology and the question of grace/predestination.

Normally, we separate these two concerns. Christology is a largely eastern concern on which the West does its best to be as unoriginal as possible and simply re-articulate Hilarius of Poitiers, Augustine, and Leo the Great. Grace/predestination/freewill is a western debate not often, therefore, connected to Christology. (This is a point made differently in the English translation of Fulgentius’ letters to the Scythian monks by Rob Roy McGregor [real name, I swear!] and Donald Fairbairn.)

This is related to a research question I have been toying with: Why are certain monks against Nestorianism?

Nestorianism, you will recall, is the teaching that Jesus Christ exists in two persons, one divine, one human. John Cassian, the alleged ‘semi-Pelagian’ monastic leader in Marseille (but, really, semi-Augustinian?), wrote a Latin tract On the Incarnation Against Nestorius on behalf of then-Archdeacon Leo of Rome. Mark the Monk, off in Ancyra and, later, Palestine, also wrote in Greek against Nestorianism. Third, Shenoute of Atripe, the greatest of Coptic writers, also wrote against Nestorianism.

I am uncertain about Shenoute, but Mark and Cassian also wrote about predestination and freewill, Mark in ‘On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous by Works’ and Cassian in Conference 13. Neither is a friend to the -ism associated with Pelagius, although neither fully embraces the -ism of the Augustinians. To the Latin West as represented by Cassian and Pope Celestine I, Nestorius’ association with Theodore of Mopsuestia was damning because of Theodore’s own friendliness towards Pelagius and Caelestius.

My hypothesis runs something like this. Part of the heart of the Pelagian debate is whether or not one’s discipline is what ‘saves’ him/her. How much is enough? Is it all my own will? How responsible am I for my own righteousness? My own sin? How does my freedom interact with God’s sovereignty?

To many people, the teaching associated with Nestorius undoes the divinity of Jesus. By bifurcating the Messiah, the human is not really assumed by the divine, they argue (thus abrogating communicatio idiomatum, on which I’ve blogged). If Jesus the man has to do everything as a man, then God isn’t really saving us, and Jesus the man has no saving power. I may be missing parts of anti-Nestorian polemic. Forgive me. This certainly is not meant to represent Nestorius, I assure you.

Think about this, then. God has not truly become man. He just gave a particular kind of special grace to Jesus. Jesus becomes just a moral exemplar. Regardless of what Pelagius, Caelestius, or Julian of Aeclanum actually believed, this is precisely the sort of thing their opponents were gravely concerned about. Grace is now inaccessible, really.

On the other hand, whether you are a conservative Cyrillian or a traditional Latin in the cast of Pope Leo, Jesus Christ is most assuredly completely and utterly God. You can also tell he is fully human. But in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God has rent the heavens and come down. He has entered to the fullest into the human condition. He did not simply join himself to Jesus or have a conjunction (the sort of language used by Nestorius and Theodore). The entirety of a unique human nature was experienced by God.

Grace can flow from him to us. Prayer matters. Union with God through Christ in Eucharist, in prayer, in baptism — this is freely available to all who truly repent and turn to him. Your disciplines may not save you, but they can make you more like the man Jesus. And the man Jesus is definitely God. So God can use them in you to perfect you and draw you closer to the mystical goal that is the end of all Christian ascetic practice — union with God, Godmanhood, theosis.

I think, then, that in ascetic theology, grace and Christology are intimately united.

I’ll have to see what Fulgentius has to say.


A brief note on Pelagians

I was  surprised tonight to read this in Celtic Daily Prayer:

But soon [Pelagius] was criticized for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. He did not deny the reality of evil or its assault on the human soul, or the habitual nature of sin. Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil, and polluted by the sexual activity which causes conception to occur. (141)

Clearly misinformation and caricature are the best things to fill our devotional books. Thank you, Northumbria Community.

Now, I know that almost every heresiarch had a group in the 20th century seeking to rehabilitate his memory and prove his true orthodoxy, including Arius, Nestorius, and Pelagius. I have not read books on Pelagius himself, but Pelagianism, those things for which he got in trouble, is something of a different story than the caricature produced by people who imagine that “Celtic” Christianity is something special and unique, different from imperial, “Catholic” Christianity in the Mediterranean, represented by free spirits like Pelagius rather than horrible men like Augustine.

First, lots of women read Scripture. This is not part of the substance of any argument that could have brought Pelagius down, given St. Jerome’s tendency to be surrounded by virgins, some of whom could read the Old Testament in Hebrew.

Second, I understand that the question is not whether the image of God is present in new-born children but whether those children, like adults, are fallen and in need of redemption. The orthodox answer is that, yes, children are fallen; thus do we baptise them. Yes, they are in the image of God. We all are.

Third, even Augustine would agree that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. What makes sex dirty is the fact that it is through sex that the man transmits the original sin of Adam. No doubt in his more Neo-Platonist moments, Augustine would also argue (along with St. Thomas Aquinas) that sexual intercourse is not always a good thing because it involves passion, not reason, and reason is the best part of a human. Part of the solution to this “problem” of sexual passion (as I believe explicated by Tertullian) was to say that Adam could engorge his membrum virile at will, rather than having it beyond the power of his reason.

We are not polluted by sexual activity, but our sin has irrevocably polluted it, since it is the means whereby sin is transmitted. This, as I understand it, is the Augustinian position.

To return to the second point, the Northumbria Community maintains that Augustine sees us as “essentially” evil. If we are to consider terminology, this is inaccurate. The Augustinian human being is not “essentially” evil; that would mean evil by essence, by nature. God does not create evil things. Human beings are necessarily evil, due to the fall of original sin.

Our essence is marred by evil, but not innately evil. This is how God is able to redeem us. Remember that for someone with so strong a Platonic background as Augustine, evil is essentially non-being. It is the absence of the good. Therefore, we cannot be evil by our own essence, or essentially evil. We can have a lack of good where it ought to have been. We can have ourselves marred so badly by evil that only a strike force from the heavenly realms can save us in a rescue mission (cf. Irenaeus and Athanasius). But this is not being “essentially evil” as the Northumbria Community contends.

Now, to say we are all evil in our very selves seems like a very pessimistic view of humanity to our “enlightened” ears. It is my contention that Augustine formulated it so very sharply because he was dealing with the very real, dangerous ideas of Pelagius’ followers (if not of Pelagius himself).

God’s grace, according to the Pelagian Julian of Eclanum, does not help us do good. We can not only choose God for ourselves (what most Calvinists think when they hear “Pelagian”), we can live a perfect, sinless life and attain salvation just as Christ lived of our own free will. God does not give us his grace in this endeavour. If He were to do so, He would contravene our free will and our good actions would be null and void.

Pelagianism (even if not Pelagius) teaches not simply that we can do good without God, but that we can be good without God. It teaches that we do not need God’s grace at any stage of our salvation because we have the capability within ourselves to live a holy life free of divine intervention.

This is not biblical orthodoxy. Whether you believe in the talking snake or not, the whole point of Gen 3 is to explain the very real condition of humanity as being basically cursed and sinful, fallen, lost. We need God’s grace to be saved. Now, some of us may fall in line with the Massilians (not Messalians who are heretics) like St. John Cassian and believe that there is some sort of synergy between our will and God’s (that’s a terrible way of putting it; read it for yourself); others may fall in with Predestinarians like St. Augustine of Hippo.

We all believe that we cannot be perfect without God’s help. We all believe that Christ is unique and “Adam” is more than a bad example, that our genes are hardwired for sin. Some of us believe in total depravity. Some of us don’t, believing that we can do good deeds without God. But we do not believe that we can save ourselves.

Believing that you, yourself, all alone, can save yourself free from God’s divine intervention is heresy.

We call it Pelagianism.

Whether or not Pelagius himself believed it, it’s the real reason he was condemned, not the mocking caricature provided for us by the Northumbria Community in Celtic Daily Prayer.

John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances (Pt 2)

Where does Part 1 land me?

I am a self-professing Anglican who currently worships at a Reformed church. I have found, for a long time, that I tend fall in line with the 39 Articles of Religion. However, ever since I worshipped at a Tridentine Mass, things have been moving in … different directions; and the Orthodox have not really moved those directions back towards low-church Protestantism.

I remember the day I started to make a mental break with the 39 Articles for the first time. It was at St. Thomas’ Church in Toronto (aka Smokey Tom’s), and we were worshipping in Latin according to the Use of Sarum. You can read some of my thoughts from that event here and here. Various un-Reformation things occurred besides not worshipping in a language such as the people understandeth (vs. Article 24). They also bowed to the Sacrament (vs. Article 28). There were prayers to saints (vs. Article 22). But, dangnabbit, it was beautiful!

And so I reconsidered how tightly we should hold to the Articles of Religion, even though I tend to see adherence to the Tradition as the safest way to avoid falling into the Pit of Heresy. I am still of a mind that Article 24 is of great importance for regular Sunday worship. But some of these others … I am becoming ‘iffy’ or noncommittal or ‘agnostic’ as to whether they are as important for faith as once I thought.

Furthermore, regarding avoiding the Pit of Heresy, for a long time many Anglicans, from the Welseys onward if not earlier, have not held to Article 16, ‘Of Predestination and Election.’ As well, many others go against Article 37 that embraces Just War Theory. And I’m not sure how long certain Anglo-Catholics have been bowing before monstrances and invoking saints, but certainly longer than I’ve been alive. So there seems to be a grand tradition of ignoring inconvenient Articles of Religion. Nonetheless … nonetheless …

Back to John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances, then.

First, I have been having my Eucharistic thought-life shaped by the Fathers for  a while now, and this year many of my patterns for thinking have been if not challenged by the Fathers, nuanced and immersed in the Fathers due to my own immersion in them, from Justin to Leo, Ignatius to Chrysostom, Severus to Maximus to John of Damascus.

Second, I have actually been reading the ipsissima verba of Reformers, and Luther with greater pleasure than the Reformed side (inevitable, I guess).

And once a week(ish), I step through a little black door with a bronze Russian cross on it, light a candle, then kiss an icon of Christ Pantokrator, and icon of the BVM, and an icon of St. Andrew. I cross myself numerous times and bow whenever the incense comes by.

These things stand in the trajectory of my life post-Latin Mass.

I am now able to comfortably kiss objects, having soaked in the teachings of St. John of Damascus. There is no Article of Religion against this. However, he has made it easier for me to bow to the Eucharistic elements. We have seen this in the last post; given that I have moved to a Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist, this is even easier for me.

Thus, Articles of Religion I am non-committal on as of now:

  • Article 17: Of Predestination and Election: This is a long-standing issue of mine; I dance back and forth re predestination/free will. And St. Augustine only confused the matter.
  • Article 22: Of Purgatory, thus: ‘Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques … is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.’
  • Article 25: Of the Sacraments, thus: ‘The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about …‘ While I believe that chiefly, they are best used in … use … I am not so hard-core re not gazing upon or carrying them about.
  • Article 28: Of the Lord’s Supper is a trickier one, because the entire first paragraph is precisely what Luther has demonstrated to me, and I’ve never believed transubstantiation no matter what Innocent III says. But I do not wish to go so far as to say, ‘The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner.’ This makes me think of one man, and his name starts with Z. It also reiterates the bit I’m unsure of from Article 25 against reserve sacrament, carrying it about, lifting it up, worshipping it.
  • Article 27: Of the Civil Magistrates, thus: ‘It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.’ I’m not sure if I’m entirely comfortable with this, but I’m willing to let it stand at present.

The upshot is, at one level, that it’s not 1563 or 1662 anymore. Issues of praxis that were very important to the English reformers are less important today. But this is a foundational document. How can we say that we are within the Anglican tradition if we start pulling out Articles of Religion willy-nilly because people like me have grown iffy in our compliance with them?

I ask because this makes me some sort of monster, a creature with no nature proper to itself but which may fit in with nature as a whole (cf. John Philoponus, In Phys.). There are people who are uncomfortable with the Nicene Creed because they claim it’s just a lot of Hellenistic philosophy (vs. Article 8). There are people who think science has proven miracles — including the Resurrection — false (vs. Article 4). Some think the Holy Trinity not actually scriptural (vs. Article 1). Some are actual Pelagians (vs. Article 9). Many believe in a real free-will (vs. Articles 10 & 17). I know of some who believe in Purgatory, icons, relics, invocations of saints (vs. Article 22). Some engage in Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament (vs. Article 28).

There is no body of thought or persons that says which Articles of Religion are ‘essential’. Anyone who has tried keeps getting censured by the voices of the official bodies of the Anglican Communion or their local Provinces. What makes an Anglican? Whatever you please?

But whatever it is, am I it anymore?