Jesus is life

Today, I listened to a mix Spotify designed for me while I worked, and in it was included the Steven Curtis Chapman song, ‘Jesus Is Life’ — a song that was one of my favourites back in the day, in fact. Here is the song:

Chapman’s song is primarily focussed on how Jesus is my life, and this is right and good. Sometimes those of us who try to connect to the ancient ways forget that, while individualism is a problem, our faith is still part of our own individual lives as persons. Jesus is my life — the air I’m breathing, why my heart is beating, everything I’m needing, to quote the song. Truths not to be forgotten.

My mind went in a different direction, probably because I’ve been reading Irenaeus of late, and Justin is also on my mind. What these second-century Christian thinkers stir up in my mind is not only that that Jesus is ‘the very heart of everything I am’ (quoting Steven Curtis again), but, well, to cite the title of a book by Rowan Williams, Christ, the Heart of Creation.

The ancient Christians saw that Jesus was more than just a good teacher, and more than just your own, personal Jesus (the link is to the Johnny Cash recording). He is God the Word Incarnate. Jesus Christ is Godinflesh, the theaner, the Godman. Justin talks about how God the Word exists as a seed within the whole of creation, within the heart and mind of every man, as the rational, guiding principle of the universe. Irenaeus talks about how He is above and beyond, mighty to save.

John 14:6:

‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’

Our Gospel is cosmic.

Thus Clement of Alexandria (late second century):

But let us bring from above out of heaven, Truth, with Wisdom in all its brightness, and the sacred prophetic choir, down to the holy mount of God; and let Truth, darting her light to the most distant points, cast her rays all around on those that are involved in darkness, and deliver men from delusion, stretching out her very strong right hand, which is wisdom, for their salvation. And raising their eyes, and looking above, let them abandon Helicon and Cithæron, and take up their abode in Sion. “For out of Sion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem,” —the celestial Word, the true athlete crowned in the theatre of the whole universe. What my Eunomos sings is not the measure of Terpander, nor that of Capito, nor the Phrygian, nor Lydian, nor Dorian, but the immortal measure of the new harmony which bears God’s name—the new, the Levitical song. –Exhortation to the Heathen (Protrepticus), ch. 1

Of course, this does not leave out the personal reality of Christ in us, the hope of glory. In fact, this is part of the bigness of our God and our faith. That same cosmic Person who orders the stars and quasars and quarks and quantum realities gives life to each of us. He is life for your dog and life for you — and not just making your heart beat and your lungs breathe, but your spririt quicken and your soul survive.

The fifth-century bishop of Ravenna, Peter Chrysologus writes:

What the soul is to the body is what Christ is to the soul. Without the soul, the body does not live. The soul does not live without Christ. As soon as the soul leaves the body, stench, corruption, rottenness, the worms, ashes, horror and everything that is loathsome to the sight take it place. When God leaves, immediately the stench of faithlessness, the corruption of sin, the rottenness of vices, the worm of guilt, the ashes of vanities and the horror of infidelity enter the soul, and there comes to pass in the living tomb of the body the death of the soul now buried. -Sermon 19.5, in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: John, Vol. 2, p. 125.

This Lent, let us cling to that Life that enlivens the whole cosmos so that He may give life to our souls.

Christ on the Cross as the Tree of Life, San Clemente, Rome

Rediscovering the Transcendent God: A way forward for the West

I recently wrote a post at Read the Fathers about Irenaeus and divine transcendence. Over there, I try to keep things a bit dispassionate. My main goal is to be a guide to reading the Church Fathers — who were they? what did they say? what do they mean? what was their context? Over here, on the other hand, my goal is also to go a step beyond that to ask:

And so what?

I broke my rule about dispassion in that post very briefly at the end, admitting as much, and writing:

There are some of us who believe that a failure to preach or believe in a transcendent God is part of the sickness now besetting the church in the West. Perhaps Irenaeus and the Fathers can be part of our cure.

Consider this. I was reading a news article not too long ago about the potentially amicable split in the United Methodist Church in the States. This article cited someone claiming that many millennials are leaving the church (not just the UMC but church in general) over concerns about gay/LBGTQ+ rights. The author made it sound like this was a cause for a majority, but given the ongoing haemmorrhaging of the Protestant mainline, there’s more to it than that. Apologies for not having kept track of this article to link to it.

So let’s look at both sides for a moment. When I mentioned to a pastor once about the church in Canada and the USA having lost its sense of God’s transcendence and this being a cause of church decline, he quickly set off in the direction of the declining mainline. I had to gently course correct him, because evangelicals are as guilty as the mainline, they just go about it differently.

We all tend to tame God. So if a lot of people who grew up in theologically and morally conservative churches are leaving over LGBTQ+ rights and issues, and not just going to liberal churches (some do, I admit; and some who do eventually slip away from the faith as well), somehow the God being preached and encountered at evangelical churches is not bigger than the wider culture.

We are not debating whether same-sex sex acts are sinful, nor whether the sacrament of holy matrimony should be restricted to heterosexual monogamy. I like avoiding trolls and so avoid this question on this blog. But let us, as a premiss for this thought experiment, take evangelical sexual ethics as granted. If a person finds that they are having trouble with this part of evangelical Christianity, leaving the Church, or least leaving the Christian faith, doesn’t strike me as an option if this person has also encountered the transcendent God.

If God is big enough, shouldn’t we be willing to hold unpopular opinions, or to spend time with Him — and even His people despite some discomfort?

It strikes me that if evangelical preaching of traditional sexual ethics is enough to drive churched people away, evangelicals haven’t been preaching enough Gospel, enough of the explosive truth that the untouchable, incomprehensible God Whose essence is unknowable came to us in the flesh in order that we might know Him. LGBTQ+ issues may be the presenting, conscious issue, but I suspect much more lurks beneath the surface when people leave.

Let us now consider the liberal churches, such as my dear, old Anglican Church of Canada. The Anglican Church of Canada, it turns out, is in such decline that if rates of decline continue (which they probably will not), there will be no members in 2040. Now, to be sure, many of us who grew up Anglican don’t darken the door of an Anglican parish on a Sunday morning because we find Anglicans exhausting, LGBTQ+ issues aside. Nonetheless, if the author of the article was right, it strikes me that liberal Anglican churches and United Churches should be flourishing.

Instead, two of the Anglican parishes in my neighbourhood have merged, and I noticed that at least one of the downtown churches has closed its doors during the decade I was away. If people were leaving evangelical and conservative churches over LGBTQ+ issues alone, would they not say, ‘But Jesus is worth it, I’m going to the liberal Anglican or United Church down the road!’

I think, instead, people are going nowhere. Maybe some people try a more liberal church for a while. But both sides have their own special tamed gods to preach instead of the wild God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Haven’t we all met the God of being nice from both liberals and conservatives? Or the God of self-help/pop psychology? The genie God of Joel Osteen? The God of moralism and legalism? The God of ritual perfectionism? The God of feel-good emotions? The God of social justice?

Or that sort of preaching that doesn’t really need God at all, but is an interesting bit of religious thought/ethics/philosophy/literary criticism/psychology?

Now, I believe that Scripture and tradition teach a moral code, and that we can’t just avoid morality in our Christian walk. And I think love and justice for the poor, downtrodden, beaten, and bruised is part of a sound, biblical moral vision. And it’s probably a good idea to be nice. And that Jesus can bring mental and emotional healing to our lives.

But do you know what else the God of the Bible, the God of Irenaeus, the God of the Nicene Creed has done?

He made everything out of nothing. (By everything, I mean the entire, majestic universe, from quasars to the quantum realm.)

He made a bush burn without being consumed. (And talked out of it!)

He parted the Red Sea.

He also entered history as one of us. The Mighty God became a helpless baby!

After performing many miracles, this Mighty God died. (‘Tis mystery all — th’immortal dies!)

He trampled down death by death.

With the lightning flash of his Godhead, he broke the gates of Hades.

He rose from the dead.

He ascended to the heavens.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

And He invites us, poor, broken, dying, dead sinners to join Him in glory.

Not because we deserve it. Just look at the world around you. Does any of us really deserve glory? Left? Right? Centre? Rich? Poor? Young? Old? Think about.

But God, the Creator of the Universe, loves us so much that He took on flesh and died so that we could be with Him.

Let me tell you, this is a God Who is so much more thrilling than “5 Steps to a Better Marriage” (however helpful that may be).

Are we preaching Him and helping others find Him?

This question is one reason I write this blog and read the Fathers (and manage Read the Fathers!). We need to encounter this God Whom so many others have encountered, and bring His light to the world around us. For many, reading Irenaeus or Basil of Caesarea or John Chrysostom or Bonaventure or Gregory Palamas, or least meeting their ideas, is a gateway to worshipping the wondrous, transcendent God.

Recapitulation and the Lord’s Supper

Over at Read the Fathers, we encountered Irenaeus’ idea of recapitulation, or anakephalaiosis, for the first time yesterday. I blogged Unger’s discussion of the word from the notes to his translation as part of our journey through the Fathers. Recapitulation is a powerful, potent, idea in Irenaeus. It is the idea that all things are brought together under the head of Christ, united to Him, and transformed by him through his Incarnation. In particular, Jesus is the second Adam, and he fulfils all the promise that Adam held but at which the first man failed.

All things come together in Christ, human and animal, visible and invisible. The Incarnation is cosmic in scale, and by it we are able to become like God. In the Preface to Book 5, Irenaeus writes that God has

become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.

I first encountered the concept of recapitulation in Robert E. Webber’s book Ancient-Future Faith back when I first started getting into ancient Christianity, where he gives a good, succinct covering of the concept on pages 58-61. However, if memory serves me correctly, Webber also uses this term in reference to the Lord’s Supper in his book Worship Old and New.

As I recall, Webber’s idea in that book is that in the Eucharist, we recapitulate the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, I would say that we recapitulate the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus (and maybe Webber does, too?). The question that passed through my mind on the commute home yesterday was:

Is this a legimate use of Irenaeus’ concept?

The question is valid. St Irenaeus teaches that God the Word has been present in all of history, and His incarnation was part of God the Father’s plan for creation from the beginning. Thus, when God the Word, who is both fully a person and the ordering rationality of the universe, becomes human, this … ruptures (if you will) the cosmos, and all things are drawn to Him, and ordered under Him.

Can the same be said to take place on the Communion table? Or is Communion only recapitulation in a loosely analogous sense, or in a different sense entirely?

After all, what God the Word did in taking on flesh, dying, and rising again is utterly unrepeatable. As an Anglican, I embrace the words of the Book of Common Prayer:

Blessing and glory and thanksgiving be unto thee Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to take our nature upon him, and to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memorial of that his precious death, until his coming again. (Canadian BCP 1962, p. 82)

The key words:

a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world

At first blush, then, the BCP would tell me that whatever happens at the Communion table is ‘a … memorial of that his precious death’. But the BCP also teaches me that the bread and wine truly are body and blood, that Jesus Christ is present in the sacrament, that my sinful body may be made clean by his body, and my soul washed through his most precious blood.

Indeed, as the priest gives me the host, he even says, ‘The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life …’ Likewise the cup.

This is, in second-century terms, the medicine of immortality (St Ignatius of Antioch).

How can a ‘mere’ memorial hold such power? Indeed, from what I have read, it would seem that the whole ancient Christian witness proclaims that Jesus Christ communicates something of Himself, something of the benefits of his Incarnation, death, and resurrection through the most blessed sacrament of His body and blood.

But does this relate to recapitulation?

St Ephrem the Syrian points us the way forward. I quote Sebastian Brock’s splendid book, The Luminous Eye:

Ordinary time is linear and each point in time knows a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. Sacred time, on the other hand, knows no ‘before’ and ‘after’, only the ‘eternal now’: what is important for sacred time is its content, and not a particular place in the sequence of linear time. This means that events situated at different points in historical time, which participate in the same salvific content — such as Christ’s nativity, baptism, crucifixion, descent into Sheol, and resurrection — all run together in sacred time, with the result that their total salvific content can be focused at will on any single one of these successive points in linear time. (29)

Brock goes on to explain how Eucharist and baptism are a fulfilment now of the future paradise. In the chapter about Ephrem and the Eucharist, he also discusses the intimate relation between Incarnation and Eucharist, specifically the epiclesis, that moment in the liturgy when the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to descend upon the elements and make them into Jesus’ real body and blood:

The mystery that occurred at the moment of the Incarnation and the mystery that occurs at the epiclesis in the Eucharistic Liturgy are seen throughout all Syriac tradition as intimately connected. (108)

Take all of this together, and I would argue that the vision of sacred time found in St Ephrem means that when we partake of the bread and wine in the Eucharist, when we enjoy the benefits of Christ’s passion, this is because we are entering into sacred time. There is only ever one full and perfect sacrifice. There is only one Body broken for us in history, as part of the recapitulation of all things.

And we encounter that body and that sacrifice at the altar every Sunday.

Moreover, our whole liturgy of Holy Communion reenacts that sacred drama, draws us back into the biblical narrative, ties us into sacred time, and we find ourselves on Golgotha, with a silver chalice in hand to drink the Blood of our Creator.

This vision of time is not unique to Ephrem, I hasten to add. It is part of the theological rationale given in Leo the Great, Ep. 16, as to why baptisms should only occur in Eastertide — because the divine economy performed different acts at different times, and it matters that when we are baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, we do so at the same time as the death and resurrection in history.

This also, I would argue, does away with an argument I once heard from a post-Catholic Baptist, that if Christ is offered up on the altar every Sunday in the Eucharist, then his sacrifice on Calvary was not complete — and this is not the God of the Bible.

Christ is only ever offered up once, and that one time happens every Sunday, because the Resurrection Day, the Eighth Day of the week, ushers us into sacred time, and we find ourselves at the Tomb with the women, bewildered, amazed, rejoicing.

So, this Sunday, when you lift up your heart unto the Lord and give thanks unto him (for it is meet and right so to do), when your priest offers up the gifts of bread and wine, and the sacred drama occurs all around you — you are not in 2020 but at the foot of the Cross. And you are not eating bread but body. And this is more than a reenactment but a recapitulation of all things by Christ Himself, the Host at this feast.

Pope of the Month: St Victor I (also episcopal monarchy & dating Easter)

Two years ago, I decided to include a montly pope in with the Saints of the Week, but only managed three, St Peter, St Clement, and then alleged Anti-pope St Hippolytus, who I later learned wasn’t an anti-pope at all! Since the Saint of the Week returned the first week of November, enjoy the Pope of the Month on the last!

This month, we go back to the days before St Hippolytus to St Victor (Bp of Rome c. 189-198) — a contender for being the first ‘Bishop’ of Rome. One of the most important developments in church organization was that of the monarchical episcopacy, which emerged in the years following the deaths of the Apostles or leaders of the apostolic age in different places at different rates. The letters of St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 117) reveal that Antioch at the time had an episcopacy that seems to have presided over a board of presbyters. Ignatius as bishop had a liturgical function, a role in protecting orthodoxy, and a prophetic role in leading the church. His letters also show us that many churches in Asia Minor had men called bishops at their heads as well.

The story of the church at Rome is not uncomplicated in this regard. Was Clement the bishop the way we think of them, or one bishop among several? The Roman church was a large body of believers from early days and also relatively wealthy — wealth that was used by the church functionaries to feed the poor and support the ministers. They seem by the time of Clement to see themselves as a united church, not a varied selection of different communities.

1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas reveal a church structure that had a group of officials at its head whose titles were, in the last first and early second centuries, still fluid; is there much difference between a presbyter who presides and the episkopoi? By the middle of the second century, the various churches of the cities of the Mediterranean world were in increasing contact, and this necessitated mutual recognition of leadership. This was the time of proto-orthodoxy seeing various risks to its integrity and the doctrinal soundness of the church in the various groups labelled ‘Gnostic’ as well as the divergent Roman teacher Marcion.

Shortly before Victor’s episcopate in Rome, St Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, gives his famous Apostolic Succession (about which I’ve blogged here) of the city of Rome in Against the Heresies 3.3. Irenaeus finishes with Eleutherius, Victor’s predecessor. This strongly suggests that some form of episcopal monarchy was already established in Rome by the time of Eleutherus’ episcopate. The shape of the episcopacy was yet to be fully determined, however — was he a president over his fellow presbyters or what?

Yes, that Commodus

Victor comes onto the scene around 189 upon Eleutherus’ death. Victor exercised episcopal authority in a variety of ways. According to the Refutation of All Heresies, Book 9, Chapter VII, Victor used influence at the court of the Emperor Commodus to secure the release of Christian prisoners who were working in the mines of Sardinia. We learn from Eusebius (5.28.6) that he also excommunicated one Theodotus the Tanner for denying Christ’s divinity. Victor is using the office of bishop, that much is clear.

He is most famous, however, for his involvement in the Quartodeciman Controversy — a debate on the date of Easter. In this controversy, we see the international role that bishops play in each other’s churches, as well as the fact that the ancient, ‘primitive’ church was an international community that sought unity in all things.

Quartodecimans were Christians who celebrated Easter on 14 Nisan, at the same time as Jewish Passover. The primarily lived in Asia Minor. It seems to me that their tradition is probably as old as the accepted celebration of Easter on a Sunday. They included in their ranks the celebrated Bishop of Smyrna, St Polycarp. In the days of Anicetus, one of Victor’s predecessors, Polycarp visited Rome, and Anicetus received him warmly, despite their difference over the date of Easter.

In the mid- to late 100s, however, the debate heated up. The date of Easter is a big deal throughout Church history, cropping up here, then again around the time of the Council of Nicaea, then again in the 400s, and then famously at the Synod of Whitby in the 600s (my thoughts on that here). Many of today’s Christians probably wonder what the big deal is — who cares which day people celebrate Easter?

Well, two immediate thoughts. One is an official reason: Traditionally, people fast before Easter. To have some feasting while others are still fasting is just in appropriate. Second, Easter is the chief feast of the Christian year. It is the reason we are Christians. Jesus rose from the dead. To fail to celebrate Easter at the same time is to compromise Christian unity that is visible in the feasts.

When the issue of the divergent Asian celebration of Easter heated up, Eusebius says:

synods and conferences of bishops were convened, and without a dissentient voice, drew up a decree of the Church, in the form of letters addressed to Christians everywhere, that never on any day other than the Lord’s Day should the mystery of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead be celebrated, and that on that day alone we should observe the end of the Paschal fast. (Ecclesiastical History, 5.23, trans. Williamson)

The Asian bishops protested, and wrote in their defence that long custom and luminaries such as the Apostles Philip and John and the martyr Polycarp were on their side. Victor responded harshly and, to quote Eusebius, ‘pilloried them in letters in which he announced the total excommunication of all his fellow-Christians there.’ (5.24; this is no doubt why some consider him Rome’s first true bishop)

Other bishops felt that Victor had gone too far by breaking communion with every single Asian Christian, especially since they seemed to be pretty much orthodox. Amongst the more easygoing bishops were Irenaeus who pointed out that cutting churches off because they follow tradition is a bad idea. As Eusebius says, Irenaeus lived up to his name, peacemaker, and corresponded with Victor and other bishops to find a peaceful resolution to the issue.

I guess it seemed to work, since Eusebius does not return to the issue — however, pockets of Quartodecimans continued to exist in Asia Minor for centuries, tradition being on their side.

There is not much more to say about Victor. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes by J. N. D. Kelly simply closes:

According to St Jerome, he was the author of Latin works of moderate quality. Reports that he was a martyr and was buried near St Peter are routine and should be rejected. Feast 28 July.

Constantine and the ‘Jesus of faith’

Some day, I think I’ll write a book about the Emperor Constantine I (‘the Great’, r. 306ish-337) for the popular audience. It seems to me that quality research about the man has been conducted within scholarly circles in recent decades, yet popular audiences continue to believe not only old stories but new ones made up since the old stories were overturned in a scholarly discourse no one but other specialists reads.

And I don’t begrudge scholars the specialist literature. I am going to contribute to it the moment my first publication hits the presses. Nonetheless, sometimes this knowledge needs to step beyond the Ivory Tower to the mean streets of the ‘real world’.

I am at present thinking along these lines because of the following from Michael Wood in the October issue of BBC History magazine, who writes:

Christians have got used to the huge fissure between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. Not that the Jesus of history isn’t a compelling figure: a Jewish exorcist, faith healer and teacher swimming in the soup of Hellenistic mystery religions and millennial cults of first-century Palestine, an altogether more believable and human character. It was the pivotal role of Paul in the construction of the narrative, and the appropriation of that narrative by the Roman empire under Constantine in the 330s, that turned him into the Jesus of faith. (27)

The educated reader doesn’t go to Dan Brown for history because she is too busy reading the quite good BBC History magazine to fill her hours. And here we have Michael Wood basically giving us Dan Brown, at least as far as Constantine (Constantine!) is concerned. Wood may be a good scholar of Anglo-Saxon Britain, but he needs to put better investment in the history of Christianity.

I won’t deal with the enormously debatable things he says about Jesus, Paul, and how Paul apparently constructed the narrative of the Jesus of faith, although I understand that Pauline studies has got beyond that sort of thinking these days, and large books by clever people point to a collective belief in the Jesus of faith on the part of all the apostles, not just Paul. Whatever. People who do Biblical Studies can do that.

Let’s look briefly at Constantine, because not even PhDs seem to have a clue what influence he had.

Now, maybe my problem stems from the fact that Wood does not even tell us what the Jesus of faith looks like. It’s the sort of trigger phrase that I’d think Wikipedia would flag. It means too many things. And within the things it means, Wood’s description of the Jesus of history is included, simply amplified.

This leaves me no alternative but to imagine that Wood means, by the Jesus of faith, the Jesus who redeems the world and the Jesus who is God.

What does Constantine have to do with either of those?

The former — pretty much nothing. The idea of Jesus’ death and life as redeeming and atoning for sin and bringing humanity to God, besides being in the New Testament, is at the forefront of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, most especially St Irenaeus of Lyons (fl. 180s) but, if I could remember names, all over the place elsewhere.

The latter — well. That’s a funny story. You see, the Dan Brown version goes that there were these really happy, liberal, feminist Gnostics whom the angry, conservative, patriarchal orthodox destroyed at the Council of Nicaea under big, evil Constantine who wielded imperial power for the Church. I’ve shaken my head at this before.

Only the Gnostics have nothing to do with anything in the major events of church history starting in the 300s, a fact I’ve wondered at on this blog. Nicaea was a debate between ‘Arians’ and … um … ‘Nicenes’ … about the divinity of Jesus. And the remarkable thing is, the ‘Arians’ would have been willing to say that Jesus was/is God. Well, some of them. Not a homogeneous group (neither are the ‘Nicenes’). They just would have rejected the idea that Jesus is of the same substance (homoousios/consubstantialis) as the Father. I mean, at bottom-line Arianism.

The theology that was being argued at Nicaea was two sides of the theology borne not only from the New Testament Scriptures but the logos theology of St Justin Martyr (d. 165) and Origen of Alexandria (184-253) that takes John 1 with the utmost seriousness and tries to see how it works that Jesus, who is the logos, is also theos.

And, outside of the high-flying theology, we have Melito of Sardis, c. 170, proclaiming Christ as God in unequivocal terms. So also does Polycarp in his martyrdom and the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne in like manner. Christians believed that Jesus was God.

So what did Constantine do??

What Nicaea did was help settle an unsettling conflict about how the faith in Jesus as God was articulated and what it means for Christians to believe it. It wasn’t actually settled until 381 within the empire, and persisted amongst the ‘barbarians’ for centuries.

This is to say: the Jesus of faith existed long before Constantine, and someone like him would even have been believed in by today’s media-darling Gnostics.

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.

Things I’ve been up to re Justin and Irenaeus

I’ve been busy this week with preparations for my trip to Cyprus (I leave Saturday!) as well as with my regular research. Nevertheless, I have successfully written two posts at Read the Fathers. If you are interested, they are:

Justin and Christian Worship – In this post I discuss the importance of Justin’s First Apology for the history of Christian worship.

Irenaeus of Lyons – In this post I introduce Irenaeus’, his life, writings, and the major themes in his theology, with a strong emphasis on recapitulation.

Read them and enjoy! Hopefully something else will be forthcoming soon.

The Rule of Faith

Throughout his works, Irenaeus of Lyons (born in Asia Minor, d. c. 200) has many statements that could be termed ‘credal’. For a discussion of many of them, check out JND Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, pp. 76 ff. Here’s the most famous:

For the Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the incarnate ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole huiman race in order that . . . he should execute just judgement towards all; that he may send spiritual wickednesses, and the angels who transgressed and came into a state of rebellion together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into the everlasting fire; but may, as an act of Grace, confer immortality on the righteous and holy, and those who have kept his commandments, and have persevered in his love, some from the beginning, and others from their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. (Against the Heresies 1.10.1, in A New Eusebius, pp. 111-112)

The basic outline of the creeds, Apostles‘ and Nicene, is here, as Irenaeus combines the old baptismal-type formulae of, say, the Didache with 1 Corinthians 8:6:

But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him. (KJV)

Irenaeus proclaims that the whole church throughout the world believes this regula fidei, or ‘rule of faith’ (the Greek is lost). A regula is a rule as in a straight line or a ruler. The regula is a guide to the content of the faith. His multiple statements vary in wording and in how much Irenaeus puts in, but they never differ. This, for Irenaeus, is Apostolic orthodoxy, handed down to the churches through the Apostolic Succession (we looked at this here); it runs counter to his great opponents, the Marcionites and the Gnostics.

Some may wonder how widespread Irenaeus’ orthodoxy really was; I would wager it was common enough in Gaul (France) for him to be elected bishop of Lyons, common enough in Asia Minor for him to think it traditional. It was common enough in Rome for Justin’s regula to be about the same, as well as for Tertullian’s Carthaginian regula. It looks like earlier and contemporaneous eastern baptismal formulae as well.

What this means, friends, is that something that looks very much like orthodoxy pre-dates Constantine. It may not be as precise as Nicene orthodoxy, but it is part of the journey that leads through Nicaea to Chalcedon. Yes, there were competing ‘orthodoxies’ or ‘Christianities’ such as the various forms of ‘Gnosticism’ and the Montanists of last week and the Marcionites and the ‘Judaising’ elements (‘Ebionites’ and ‘Quartodecimans’) and, later on, Donatists and Meletians and Paul of Samosata.

It also reminds us that the Church has ever sought to keep itself aligned with Scripture and that lenses such as Creeds exist to help us read the Bible well. Some claim, ‘No Creed but Christ!’ But the Gnostics read many of the same Scriptures as us, as did the Arians, and they came to very different conclusions. How can we know what is the true deposit of the faith, how can we know our reading of Scripture is faithful?

Irenaeus, with his rule of faith, shows us. If we believe these things, we are on the right path. If you remain unconvinced, I recommend works by Baptist scholar DH Williams; the introduction to Scripture, Tradition, and Interpretation is the quickest, accessible route to his thought.

If you are convinced, I hope you will not discard the creeds and their content, even if you tire of their exact wording. They help preserve an unbroken line of teaching that brings us to the very feet of the Apostles who walked with our Lord Christ.

Thoughts on Apostolic Succession (with reference to Irenaeus & Tertullian)

The Seventy Apostles

In some church bodies, it is a big deal to be within the Apostolic Succession, for which there are certain rules of succession that apply. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy stand out in this way most prominently, but the Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, and the Armenian Apostolic Church all claim a direct line of episcopal descent from the apostles, as does the Anglican Communion, through the Archbishops of Canterbury, many of whom (as well as some others) were consecrated by the Popes of the Early Middle Ages.

This idea of a succession of church overseers crops up in Irenaeus (d. 202) for the first time, from what I can tell. In Against the Heresies, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in Gaul, calls to the reader’s mind the orthodoxy of the bishops of Rome, who can be traced from Peter (Pope of the Month here) through Linus and Clement (Pope of the Month here) to Eleutherus (c. 174-189).

Irenaeus is writing against various Gnostic sects and uses the apostolic origins of the bishops of Rome to demonstrate the truth of their teaching — if the apostles had secret knowledge, they would have passed it along to their successors. As it is, what is visible from the standard tradition of the Church of Rome in the days from Justin through Hippolytus (about whom read this but also this) is what we think of as ‘orthodoxy’ or, in some scholarly circles, ‘proto-orthodoxy.’ That is — not Gnosticism.

The purpose of the Apostolic Succession for Irenaeus is to demonstrate orthodoxy. The Bishops of Rome believe the following; they trace their teaching and authority from the Apostles; therefore, we can trust them. Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics, c. 190, uses the idea in a similar way.

This is important to consider. Today, Anglicans are passed over by the Church of Rome because a nineteenth-century committee decided we are outside of the Apostolic Succession. Anglicans are concerned about the viability of Methodist holy orders because John Wesley stepped outside the Apostolic Succession to promote their movement. The Orthodox at times claim that Protestants in breaking with Rome have removed themselves (ourselves?) from the Apostolic Succession and tradition, explaining the many strange journeys we have taken in the past 500 years.

For Irenaeus and Tertullian, however, Apostolic Succession is not simply a question of the validity of holy orders or whether a gathering of Christians is a true ‘Church’. Their concern with the Apostolic Succession is the guardianship of orthodoxy. We can trust these teachers to be true because we know where their teaching came from — especially important in a semi-oral culture that did most of its teaching orally. The Gnostics claim special knowledge but are distinct from the Apostles’ visible successors.

To take the question of the Methodists, we know where their tradition came from, and — even if their ordinations were irregular and uncanonical — we know that it is, in fact, within the bounds of orthodoxy. This seems to be the point of the earliest attestations of Apostolic Succession. Why, then, do we use it to exclude Methodists from our Communion?

How are we to interpret the Bible?

I have previously posted about Biblical interpretation in “Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms” parts one & two and in “Layers of Meaning.” Today’s post is spurred on by yesterday’s.

Sam Harris argues in Letter to a Christian Nation that the Bible does not offer a clear statement of morality (p. 33).  He uses the expected argument by taking civil laws from the Pentateuch and saying that the injunctions to stone various people and sell as slaves to be evidence that the Bible does not direct people to live lives of compassion and love.  He further argues that Jesus himself bolsters the Law by saying that not one jot or tittle of the Law will be erased.  He also argues that eschatological statements about God’s coming judgement will also make people violent (pp. 13 & 14).

Harris acknowledges that Jesus does say some good stuff, although Confucius beat him to the Golden Rule.  I don’t imagine that the rest of the Sermon on the Mount would sit well with people like Harris.  It’s true that all humans, Christian and otherwise, could probably follow the bulk of the Ten Commandments with no need of their being written down; even certain primates do so.  But what Jesus calls us to is more radical than the Golden Rule, is bigger than the Ten Commandments — “Love your enemies,” “Bless those who persecute you,” “Turn the other cheek,” “If an enemy soldier forces you to march 1 mile, go a second,” “If someone steals your cloak, give him your tunic,” etc.*

How can we reconcile this apparently garbled account of morality?  Indeed, the Good Book gives us leeway to kill heretics or to forgive them if we read the way Harris does.

We must read it systematically.  If you approach the Bible expecting it to be garbled and unclear, you will be rewarded with a garbled and unclear text.  If you approach it expecting it to be capable of being clarified, you will find that you can produce a systematic morality and theology from the Bible.

Nevertheless, you could potentially create a heretical morality and theology.  You could end up a polygamous Mormon.  You could end up an Arian.  Depending on your translation, you could end up Jehovah’s Witness.  You could end up Nestorian, or Monophysite, or the average Anglican.

Where do we turn?  We must abandon any idea that sola scriptura means the Bible interprets itself.  It does not.  And if sola scriptura means the Bible interprets itself, then sola scriptura is wrong.  Thomas C. Oden, in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, remarks that the texts of the New Testament were written as a way of preserving the oral tradition that had been handed down from the days of the Apostles.  The spoken word is alive, but — as anyone who has played the Telephone Game knows — it is fragile and open to manipulation, both accidental and malicious.

When we look at the community that accepted the New Testament documents as being authoritative, we see that various factors are at play when these early Church Fathers interpreted Scripture.  The first factor was the “Rule of Faith” or regula fidei, Irenaeus’ (d. c. AD 202) account of which looks a lot like the Apostles’ Creed (see Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 44 and Webber, Ancient-Future Faith).  According to Irenaeus, the Rule has been handed down from the Apostles through their successor bishops.  Tertullian (AD 160 – 220) said that the Bible was to be interpreted by the Rule of Faith.  This is the first piece of the Patristic puzzle of biblical interpretation.

The second factor at play is the lens of Christ.  As Christians, we are worshippers of Jesus Christ.  He is the cornerstone of our faith.  It is his teachings that we are following.  Therefore, everything should be read in relation to Jesus.  I cannot think of a patristic source for this at the moment (my apologies), but the idea is, first, that Jesus trumps all.

The Sermon on the Mount sets the standard for our conduct.  Thus, no longer is eye for eye and tooth for tooth.  Lustful looks count as adultery.  Hatred is murder.  The behaviour of Jesus, as encapsulated in the Woman Caught in Adultery, is to be our exemplar.  Thus, no more stoning of homosexuals, heretics, and witches (burning isn’t allowed, either).  Tertullian says that in disarming St. Peter, Christ disarmed every soldier.  Worth a thought.  I admit to not knowing how it is that not one jot or tittle will be removed from the Law while at the same time Jesus gives us standards of living that run counter to enacting the civil punishments of the law.

However, I think that if we take a third principle, that the Old Testament (aka “Hebrew Bible”) is to be interpreted by the New, then things move forward.  The lens of Christ tells us that Jesus has taken away our sins on the cross, and Hebrews tells us that we no longer need the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Temple because of the Cross.  Thus, out go Jewish ceremonial laws.  We are also freed from them by Acts 10, when St. Peter has the vision of the sheet full of unclean animals which he is told to eat.  St. Paul in his many letters also shows us that we are free from living under the civil & ceremonial Law when he says that we are saved and live by faith, and that the law won’t save us.

However, since Jesus takes the moral standards of the law very highly, then we are stuck following the morals of the Old Testament law.  This will show us that, while we can’t stone people for being homosexuals, heretics, and witches, we know that we shouldn’t engage in the practices associated with them.

Thus, when we read Scripture, the Rule of Faith (the Creeds), Christ, and the New Testament should be used as our keys to intepreting the difficult passages.  The clearer should also be used to illuminate the obscure.  This was the way of the Fathers, and it should be the way we follow as well.

*This is the source for nonviolence as practised by Martin Luther King, Jr.  King got it from Gandhi who, contra Harris (p. 12), did not get it from the Jains but from Tolstoy.  Tolstoy got it from Jesus and the simple faith of Russian Orthodox peasants.