Time to dig into church history — this field should be booming!

If you’re going to dislike Zosimus, find a reason beyond, ‘He was Pope, dude!’

Back in 2010, my now PhD supervisor remarked that as confessional entrenchment/denominational attachment has decreased, so has interest in ecclesiastical history (is this one reason we rebranded ourselves here as History of Christianity?). I’m not sure if this is true or if it was simply a feeling she had, but if it is true, I’m not so sure it makes a lot of sense.

I think that church history as a field of study can truly blossom with lessened denominational hostilities. This thought came to me today while reading about this guy Apiarius of Sicca Veneria in North Africa. Briefly, he was a presbyter who was removed from holy orders by his local bishop and decided to appeal to Rome. Pope Zosimus got involved and — well, ecclesiastical history. An important moment in western canon law, despite how little attention it tends to receive.

The book I was reading, Merdinger’s Rome and the African Church in the Time of Augustine (complaint: Why always Augustine?), observed that this issue has been misread and obscured by a lot of scholarship because of the confessional commitments of the scholars discussing it. A crude caricature of the scholarship in this case is pretty much the same as it always is whenever the popes get involved:

Catholics: Well done Popes exercising your apostolic authority against those rebellious Africans.

Protestants: Well done Africans in resisting the arrogant self-aggrandisement of the Popes.

This is also not far from every time the Bishop of Rome butts heads with orthodox Eastern Bishops, Gallic bishops, Sicilian bishops, Spanish bishops, Welsh and Irish bishops, and so forth. The pope and/or his representatives or those who at least side with him are pictured by Catholics as representing good order and good government, putting right the wrongs of the world, and by Protestants as representing the arrogation of worldly power and the stamping out of true Gospel spirit in the provinces.

Sometimes one side has more of the truth than the other, but it’s not really what’s usually going on.

With weakened, once-ingrained confessional prejudices clouding our vision less, we are in a time when scholarship about ecclesiastical history can really flourish. No longer need Catholics be embarrassed by badly behaved popes to sweep under the rug. No longer need Protestants hunt for some sort of proto-Protestant resistance. No longer need Protestants ignore the entire history of the church from the death of Augustine to 31 October, 1517 — nor need they ignore the awkward Catholicky (emphasis on ‘icky’) bits from before the 430 cut-off date, where church fathers whose Christology and triadology, and even beliefs about salvation, they praise also do awkward things like, well, exercise monarchical episcopal authority in their hometown. Or send people relics. Or talk about Eucharist in terms of sacrifice. Or have anything to do with canon law. Or burn incense.*

Also, we can lay off the anti-papal polemic. Gregory the Great sent missionaries to England because he thought London would become a rival patriarchate? Really?

And we can turn our eyes to the world beyond Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Since we no longer feel compelled to obsess over our own Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran history, we can look at the history of the church in Mesopotamia or Ethiopia. We can ponder Franciscans in the Caliphate. We can take into consideration the Church of the East (‘Nestorian’) in China during the Middle Ages.

We have 2000 years of ecclesiastical history to play with. Just because something didn’t happen within one’s own confessional sphere of influence doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting and doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold wisdom for the church today.

*Fun fact: St John Chrysostom whose exegesis is much beloved by low-church evangelicals of late did all these things.

The Orthodox victims of powerful Christians in the messy, post-Constantine church

(Whew! Long title.) This is part of a series of posts on the messy reality of Church History After Constantine. The others are: The Messy Reality of Post-Constantinian Church History, Church After Constantine 2a: The Late Antique Targets, and Church After Constantine 2b: The Mediaeval Targets, with An Excursus on the Synod of Whitby, AD 664.

John Chrysostom before exile

What makes the truth about life after Constantine messy is that amongst those targeted and hounded and tortured and excommunicated by the official organs of church and government are some orthodox Christians, people whose theology most of those who subscribe to the Great Apostasy/Trail of Blood theory as well as those of us (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Magisterial Reformation) who still see our spiritual roots in the Patristic and even Mediaeval era agree with.

Some of them are even saints.

The reason why these people make it messy is that they don’t fit the triumphalist reading that says everything was peachy keen with imperial favour, but they also don’t really fit the idea that the wicked Catholic Church was persecuting true believers, since the latter body often canonised these folks as saints.

Like St Athanasius, great champion of Nicaea, as mentioned in the first of this series (and saint of the week here).

St John Chrysostom (347-407), one of the most beloved Greek Fathers amongst evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics, died in exile, hounded day and night by imperial soldiers after a kangaroo court (the Synod of the Oak) found him guilty of heresy. His preaching and exegesis of scripture are solid and worth a read. His theology is impeccable. Yet he found himself exiled for heresy and only had his sanctity formally acknowledged by a very vigorous post-exilic and post-mortem PR campaign.

St Maximus the Confessor (580-662) always comes to mind in this regard as well. In the seventh century, as part of imperial attempts to reconcile Mono/Miaphysite groups (i.e. Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic) to the Orthodox Catholic Church, a heterodox idea developed called monothelitism, saying that, regardless of the two natures, Jesus had one will that governed the whole thing. Maximus pointed out that this negates the fullness and perfection of Jesus’ humanity. The emperor told him to shut up. He did not, so his tongue was cut out, and he was sent into exile. Not a poster-boy for either side, really. Messy.

St John of Damascus (676-749; saint of the week here) was not persecuted by the Church, although he was formally excommunicated at one of the iconoclastic church councils. The only reason he was not personally persecuted was, well, because he lived in Damascus, already a part of the Caliphate. However, had he lived within the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, he would have been the object of government persecution for his iconodule beliefs.

… and this post just crashed and burned.

Right before your eyes.

This is the part where audience participation comes in! Who else is there??

Who else who is revered now as orthodox was targeted either by the government or church in his’er lifetime? Obviously we are not not not trying to rehabilitate heretics. I thought of adding St Thomas Becket, but his case is very different from the other three above. St Jeanne d’Arc is also an interesting case, but also different (fun post I should write: St Joan Is Why I’m not Roman Catholic).

I think you get the point, though. The kindly eye of the government can turn sour quite quickly when the secular authorities decide that your brand of orthodoxy or outspokenness are not what they are looking for.

Can orthodoxy change, then?

An important question arose in Cyprus during session on ‘The Bible in the Ancient Church.’ I had just quoted John Chrysostom on Romans 4:5 — to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness:

For reflect how great a thing it is to be persuaded and have full confidence that God is able on a sudden not to free a man who has lived in impiety from punishment only, but even to make him just, and to count him worthy of those immortal honors. Do not then suppose that this one [the one who works] is lowered in that it is not reckoned unto the former of grace. For this is the very thing that makes the believer glorious; the fact of his enjoying so great grace, of his displaying so great faith. And note too that the recompense is greater. For to the former [the one who works] a reward is given, to the latter [the one with faith] righteousness. Now righteousness is much greater than a reward. For righteousness is a recompense which most fully comprehends several rewards. (ANF trans.)

I said that I was not quoting Chrysostom out of a naive belief that the Fathers believed in justification by faith alone the same way we do; no one articulated that part of the faith in that way until Martin Luther. This raised a reasonable concern from one of the people present — if God’s truth doesn’t change, how can orthodoxy? (Sort of. It was more nuanced than that.)

The great concern is: if we are not saved by works, yet we trace so much of our heritage to Fathers, and the Fathers seem, at times, to teach that we are saved by works, what does that mean about the faith of the Fathers? Since justification by faith seems to be taught in the Scriptures, why would no one have articulated it until the Reformation?

These are vitally important questions for those of us who wish to have an orthodoxy in line with the majority, consensual teaching that flows from the patristic (and medieval/Byzantine and Reformation) meditation upon, reflection over, and wrestling with Scripture and life in this broken world. It is a vitally important question for those of us whose theology is daily informed by historical theology. I believe it is a vitally important question for all Christians, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant.

C. Michael Patton has this useful thought on the development of theology, especially in reference to the development of penal substitutionary atonement with St Anselm in the turn of the 11th/12th centuries, as well as to the question of justification by faith alone. The TRUTH about who God is, explains Patton, does not change. From our finite perspective, at that level, orthodoxy is ‘static’ (read book 11 of Augustine’s Confessions if you want to bend your mind thinking about the concept of time and how it relates to God).

Our understanding of God, however, has developed over time, through the direct revelation of the events and writings of Scripture, with their culmination in Christ, there was a gradual unveiling of the character of God and our relation towards him as fallen creatures. And, through Spirit-led meditation upon and grappling with Scripture, the interpretation of the TRUTH has led to a greater precision of what we know.

Yet still we see as in a glass darkly.

So what do we do about things that seem to have developed over history, and those who lived before their development? Patton says:

1. I could say that before these doctrines were understood and articulated according to my current Protestant understanding, no one was truly saved or, at the very least, orthodox. (Radical Restorationism)

2. I could say that these doctrines did exist before, just in unarticulated form. (Oden?)

3. I could say that these doctrines did exist in the earliest church, but the church became corrupted and lost them. (Reformers)

4. I could say that their immature state was sufficient for the time, but is now insufficient. (Conservative Progressives)

5. I could say that these developments, while true, don’t really matter with regards to defining orthodoxy. (Emerging)

The only option Patton is willing to completely ignore is number 1. I am uneasy with number 5, myself. I probably tend towards a blend of 2 and 4 most of the time — what we believe does matter, but there is a difference between ignorance and denial (as my friend Tim. If you had asked St Mark if Jesus was God, he likely will not have said, ‘Yes.’ But for me, with 2000 more years of thoughtful reflection on the Christ-event — if I reject the divinity of Jesus, I am no longer orthodox.

This is helpful as we all wrestle with the fact that our understanding of the things of God has changed over time.

Yet, with that in mind, we must always be humble. Can any of us, even with the doctrine of the Trinity and penal substitutionary atonement really say that we know God any better than Moses or Isaiah or John the Baptist or Paul?

After all that heresy, what about sin?

St Augustine Tiffany Window

Tonight, I gave my run-through of Christology up to Chalcedon in 2 h or less with a Greek translator. Whew! Bits may make it here as I reflect on things. In the questions at the end, one of my friends asked me a good question:

It seems that these guys spent a lot of time fighting against heresy, did they have anything to say about sin?

I think this is a great question because people like me (and, thus, the scholarly world at large) spend a lot of time discussing ‘the Fathers’ and heresy and how orthodoxy was forged on the anvil of heresy.

But what about sin, for St. Pete’s sake?

First, these people saw heresy and sin as intimately related. If you are an incorrigible sinner, you are probably a heretic. And if you are a heretic, you are probably a sinner.

Second, some of these heretical or non-mainstream (I don’t count Manichees as heretics but as members of an entirely different religion) groups engaged in what the (proto-)orthodox thought of as sin. Some Gnostics felt that what you did in the body didn’t matter, so they became gluttonous sex-aholics, basically. According to the report of Pope Leo I’s investigation into Manichaeism in the City, the Manichees were having ritual sex with underage virgins.*

Nonetheless, these people were concerned about holiness and sin, and not just my perenially-mentioned Desert Fathers. Augustine, for example, discusses in his Confessions that one of the reasons he delayed baptism was his enjoyment of pre-marital sex, and one of his falls after conversion was having vivid sexual dreams at night.

Since some people think Augustine was an over-guilty, Platonic, sexual deviant, I also encourage you to look at John Chrysostom’s sermons for their moral and ethical exhortations about things like lying or going to horse races or reading your Bible. Or take Augustine’s famous opponent Pelagius who was first targetted by the likes of Augustine for his moral rigorism.

Heresy is the doctrinal deviation of the human mind from God’s truth.

Sin is the moral deviation of human action from God’s path.

Both of them are matters of importance to the ancient Christians.

*For the full horror of this abomination, recall that a woman in the ancient world was ‘of age’ when she turned 12. I am actually cringeing having divulged that information.

The Untame Faith of Aphrahat and Chrysostom

Ephrem the Syrian, Isaac the Syrian, Aphrahat the Persian

If terms like aphthartodocetism don’t make you interested in Patristics, hopefully names like Aphrahat (called ‘the Persian’) and Chrysostom (means ‘Goldenmouth’) will. I blogged here recently about how the Fathers can help us untame the paltry god of our own making; the faith — trust, reliance — of the Fathers is also untame, as we see below.

First, a beautiful, lyrical passage from the Syriac Father Aphrahat the Persian (fl. 336-345):

Faith causes the barren to sprout forth. It delivers from the sword. It raises up from the pit. It enriches the poor. It releases the captives. It delivers the persecuted. It brings down the fire. It divides the sea. It cleaves the rock, and gives to the thirsty water to drink. It satisfies the hungry. It raises the dead, and brings them up from Sheol. It stills the billows. It heals the sick. It conquers hosts. It overthrows walls. It stops the mouths of lions and quenches the flames of fire. It humiliates the proud and brings the humble to honor. All these mighty works are wrought by faith. (Demonstration 4.17-18, from Ancient Christian Devotional, Year B, p. 160)

Imagine such a wild, untame faith taking a hold of your life! And it can, right down to those pesky passions:

By ‘his darts’ Paul means both temptations and perverse desires. He calls them fiery because that is the nature of the appetite. Faith is capable of commanding hosts of demons. How much more is faith capable of ordering the passions of the soul? (John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians 24.6.14-17, from Ancient Christian Devotional, Year B, p. 199)

Faith, the attitude of trust and reliance, of repose and assurance, in the All-mighty, Untame God can transform us and the world. We just need to actually have it — actually trust in what God can do in our lives by His good grace.

To close, Brennan Manning (paraphrased/half-remembered):

The difference between faith as believing in a God who may or may not exist and faith as trusting in God is enormous; the one can leave you unchanged; the other intrinsically brings change. (Somewhere in The Ragamuffin Gospel)

Too Awesome Not to Share

The Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, ll. 14-18:

Thy majesty, O my Lord, a thousand thousand heavenly beings and myriad myriads of angels adore and the hosts of spiritual beings, the ministers of fire and of spirit, glorifying thy name with the cherubim and the holy seraphim, ceaselessly crying out and glorifying and calling to one another and saying: Holy, holy, holy … (Trans. A. Gelston)

The prayer whence comes this quotation is a mediaeval East Syrian (ie. ‘Nestorian’) Eucharistic prayer, still recited to this day in Syriac in the Assyrian Orthodox Church and not much changed from its reconstructed fifth-century predecessor. This Eucharistic prayer is interesting to me because it has an unequivocal statement of God becoming incarnate and suffering and dying — the sort of thing one would expect from my Monophysite friends of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It serves as a reminder that to box in the living Church according to the disputes and anathemas of centuries past can make one lose sight of the true faith of the people involved.

Of course, the reason I draw your attention to this prayer is the passage quoted above. It is beautiful. It is a beautiful, lyrical passage, clearly stemming from the same people whence Ephraim the Syrian sprang. This brief moment from the East Syrian liturgy stirs my heart to worship the Almighty God — and much more so than the worship song the radio plays right now that has been repeating the line, “I’m so deep in love,” about ten times before getting around to, “with you.” (With whom? I was too focussed on myself and forgot.)

Noting the incongruity, I am now playing Striggio’s Missa “Ecco Si Beata Giorno”the Mass in 40 Parts.

I’m not actually here to rag on the contemporary worship music scene. I trust God enough to know that He does great work through it and receives due glory from those who worship with it. However, I am here to draw attention to the magnificent beauty of the ancient, Mediaeval, and Renaissance liturgies — their hymns, their prayers, their music.

“When through the woods and forest glades I wander / And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, / And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze,” not only does my soul want to sing, “How great Thou art,” unto the wondrous Creator God, it also wants to sing, “How beautiful thou art!’

God has created a wondrous, beautiful world, and it is only fitting that our worship of him be beautiful as well. This is part of the fabric of the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari. This is what drove men like Striggio to compose wondrous things like a mass in 40 (40!!) parts. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised!

Plunging into the tradition, rediscovering the riches of things like the Gelasian Sacramentary (as I currently am) is as important as rediscovering the ancient and mediaeval theologians. Often when we look upon the offerings from Patristic blogs or at the upcoming Oxford Patristics Conference or anywhere interested in the Fathers, we find a lot of thoughts about the theology and doctrine of the Fathers, maybe some information about Church History in the Patristic Age, but less about the worship of the Fathers.

Now, I realise that part of this is because of how complicated the liturgical legacy of the Fathers is. If you take any of the Eastern divine liturgies, such as the one quoted above, or those attributed to Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, you find the words and order for worship of something that has been in constant use since the fourth or fifth century (with roots stretching earlier than that).

How can we disentangle Chrysostom from the later Byzantine worshippers? It is a task scholars spend entire careers doing. However, we still have many individual prayers from the Patristic age as well as other poems and songs, such as:

St. Ambrose’s hymns (remember this from before?), St. Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns (such as those on the Nativity), St. Romanos the Melodist’s hymns (as here), and the hymns and poetry of Prudentius (as here) would probably be good places to start. They are allusive and beautiful, tuning and turning our thoughts upwards towards God Almighty and the worship of him alone.