In two weeks, I am giving the Davenant Fellows lecture. My title is, “The Christmas Councils: Upholding Christ’s Humanity in the Ecumenical Councils, 451-787AD.” The official blurb and registration are here–it’s free! You don’t need to have watched my lecture from last December, entitled “Christmas and the Cross in the Ancient Church” and about Sts Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, but this one does pick up the chronology where that one left off. It’s on YouTube at this link.
This lecture will cover the period of the last four ecumenical councils (I’ll be teaching all seven for Davenant Hall this January — you can register here — it’s not free), but the focus will actually skip the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Constantinople of 553. In good, Protestant sermon fashion (or like a five paragraph essay), I’ll have three main points to explore:
Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon (451)
Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) and the Third Council of Constantinople (680/1)
John of Damascus (d. 749) and the Second Council of Nicaea (787)
Each of these men articulated the theological vision that was approved at the respective council. And each of them was fighting to maintain a full vision of the humanity of Christ, a humanity at risk of being swallowed up by divinity in Eutychianism in Leo’s day, a humanity at risk of being diminished to having no will in Monothelitism in Maximus’ day, a humanity at risk of being detached from history and becoming a mere point of dogmatic assent in Iconoclasm in John of Damascus’ day.
The teachings of this era in church history help us orient our hearts and minds to the God Word Incarnate with ramifications for our worship, our ethics, and our witness to the world around.
Jesus is the Gospel, so it matters if we get these things right or not.
You may have noticed that when St. Bede the Venerable was Saint of the Week on Wednesay that I mentioned his commentaries on Scripture being used in IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This may seem more than a little odd, given that the Venerable Bede is, well, mediaeval.
Indeed, Bede is thoroughly and indisputably mediaeval. He was born in the 600’s and died in 735. The fiction of a Roman Empire existed in the West as Italy was nominally under the Emperor in Constantinople, but in reality the Roman Empire in the West was long gone, with no Emperor in Italy since 476. Justinian, the great codifier of Roman law and sponsor of the last flourishing of Classical art as well as the first flourishing of Byzantine art had died in 566. Barbarians had divided the West into a variety of kingdoms — Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, Visigothic, and so forth.
Bede is not ancient.
So why include him in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture?
Those, such as Thomas C. Oden, who are calling for mainline and evangelical Christians alike to rediscover the Church Fathers and “paleo-orthodoxy” usually call us to the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought. Yet even Oden, general editor of IVP’s ACCS, knows that that isn’t really enough.
AD 500 is an acceptable cut-off point for the Classical world, although I’m willing to stretch it to Justinian’s death because of how monumental his reign was and how decidedly different the map of the world was — legally, artistically, politically — be the end of his reign. Yet if we cut of the age of the Church Fathers at 500, we’re missing Second Constantinople and its very important recasting of Chalcedonian doctrine into terms a Monophysite could hopefully reconcile with.
By cutting off the Age of the Fathers at 500, in the East, we’re missing Severus of Antioch and his brilliant statements of Cyrilline Christology in the 500’s. We’re missing St. Maximus the Confessor and St. John Climacus (saint of the week here) in the 600’s — one very important for Christology, the other for mysticism East and West — and St. John of Damascus (saint of the week here) in the 700’s — very important for his defence of icons and consolidation of orthodox doctrine.
In the West, we miss St. Benedict of Nursia and St. Gregory the Great in the 500’s — one vital for the development of monasticism and spirituality in the West, the other for biblical interpretation, conversion of the Germanic peoples, and pastoral concern — as well, of course, as Boethius and Cassiodorus, also very important and very popular Christian writers of the 500’s. We have to leave out Isidore of Seville from the 600’s — important for pretty much every idea under the sun (and beyond) throughout the Middle Ages.
Perhaps a temporal designation for “Church Father” does not quite work. The Eastern Orthodox do not do this, but instead consider the Fathers as a conceptual designation, thus including St. Simeon the New Theologian (1100’s) and St. Gregory Palamas (1300’s) as Church Fathers although they stand outside the Age of the Fathers.
Nonetheless, the idea of a Church Father tends towards the early, not the late, towards the ancient, not the mediaeval.
The Church Fathers are those who men* who have left behind a written legacy that is orthodox, who had a certain holiness of life, and who were part of the formation of Christian orthodoxy. So men like the Cappadocians or St. Augustine of Hippo who have laid foundations of theology that are so important that even today’s heterodox read them to gain insight, or those like St. Benedict and the Desert Fathers and Mothers who laid the foundations for monasticism and spirituality that are so important that our vision of monasticism would have been wildly different without them are easy choices for Church Fathers.
However, there is no ancient consensus, just as there was no mediaeval consensus, no Reformation consensus, and there is no contemporary consensus. What the early mediaeval and Byzantine theologians and spiritual writers provide us is a consolidation and synthesis of the patristic legacy.
Thus we get settlements over the date of Easter, the spread of Benedictine monasticism and Augustinianism in the West as well as a certain level of liturgical systemisation. By 735, the western church was inescapably mediaeval, but without the early mediaeval synthesists, the shape of the mediaeval church and beyond would have been very different.
In the East we have a similar story with Christology, icons, hesychastic monasticism and so forth in the early Byzantine world. By 749, with the death of John of Damascus, we have a thoroughly Byzantine church in the East.
Back to the Venerable Bede. What Bede provides us is the same thing any of the other Fathers provides us. He gives us a different perspective from today’s. He provides us an insight into an older form of orthodoxy and an older way of reading Scripture. He also gives us insight into the holiness of the people who lived in the age that forged our own orthodoxy and our reading of Scripture.
So, no, Bede isn’t ancient. But I believe that Bede is a Church Father and well worth reading, especially since he is the only Englishman whom the Church of Rome recognises as a Doctor of the Church!
*The “Church Mothers”, sadly, do not exist because most women in antiquity and the Early Middle Ages did not write. Our ancient Christian female writers are Perpetua (possibly), a few of the Desert Mothers (who are not so much writers as part of an oral tradition), and Egeria who left us a travelogue of her trip to the Holy Land in the fourth century. Sadly, the other holy women of this period did not leave us a written record, despite the high level of literacy amongst many of them.
Back in 2005, when JP2 died, a lot of people had a lot of really nice things to say about him. In response, an evangelical started circulating an e-mail full of nasty things about JP2 and the Church of Rome at large. This e-mail made its way to me, including a preface by a friend of a friend calling bowing to the Host ‘rank idolatry’ and said that, when the monstrance came out, he and his family
felt like Shadrack [sic], Meshack [sic] and Abednego, as most everybody bowed down around us and we remained standing there, sticking out like sore thumbs, in faithfulness to Christ and God’s 2nd Commandment.
Recently, I’ve been wondering if there’s not a way out of such a situation and if we may not find it profitable to form a synthesis of St. John of Damascus (saint of the week here), the ‘last’ Church Father of the East, and Martin Luther, Protestant Reformer.
John of Damascus on Holy Images
First, if you haven’t read St. John of Damascus, you really should. Now. Here’s the link.
John of Damascus speaks about veneration of the holy images rather than adoration. Veneration is the sort of thing you might do, for example, to an emperor, or a potentate, or a something like that. It is not what we would call, in current English usage, worship. Worship, or adoration, is reserved for God alone. Veneration can go around. It is a way of treating people or things with a special honour due to them.
When we kiss an icon or a cross, we are not adoring them. We are venerating them. In and of themselves, they are but
wood, paint, metal — they are things crafted by human hands. The sort of thing that is here today and firewood tomorrow. An icon cannot talk to you. An icon cannot answer your prayers. However, by treating this physical objects that are here in front of us with a special honour, we are reminding ourselves of the greater honour due to the invisible God.
FACT: You cannot kiss Jesus. He is in Heaven.
FACT: You can kiss an icon of Jesus. It’s right in front of you.
Kissing these objects is a way of honouring Christ, whom, in an Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world, you would kiss. Not full-out on the mouth or something, but on the hand or maybe the cheek, the former because He is the Great Teacher, the latter because He is our Brother.
Luther: ‘The Adoration of the Sacrament’ (1523)
Martin Luther, in ‘The Adoration of the Sacrament’ annihilates many points of view concerning the Lord’s Supper. Is means is, not signifies, not is a participation in. Thus, when our Lord and Saviour says, ‘This is My Body,’ and, ‘This is My Blood,’ He means just that. They are not symbols or signs thereof. They are not a participation therein.
Furthermore, the Body and Blood are there, but the sacrifice cannot be repeated, and the bread and wine are not destroyed. The text of Holy Scripture calls them bread and wine. While they must be Body and Blood, transubstantiation is merely Aristotle playing Sacramental theology. Finally, the action that takes place on the altar is not a sacrifice of Jesus. That only happened once.
FACT: You cannot touch Jesus. He is in Heaven.
FACT: You can eat Him. He is in the Sacrament of the Altar. It’s right in front of you.
If Christ’s life-giving ‘Body and Blood are truly present,’* then that little bit of Bread is His Body. While what matters most to Luther is the spiritual act of worship that goes on in our hearts, we are allowed to engage in physical acts of worship as well. Therefore, monstrances are allowed but not necessary.
Now, not everyone believes in the Real Presence. These people are wrong. However, they exist, and they love Jesus.
If John of Damascus is right, we can kiss an icon or a cross or a book of the Gospels and do so out of honour and love for the immortal, invisible God only wise. Our physical acts are in front of physical objects, but our hearts are turned to the metaphysical divinity, worshipping Him in spirit and in truth.
If we consider this along with Luther’s contention that monstrances — Host-holders — are indifferent, then there is no
reason why anyone who believes in the Real Presence or not need feel uncomfortable. Right? You are not bowing to a piece of Bread. You are bowing to the living, dynamic Christ Who is in your very midst, Who is glorious beyond compare, Who can see into your heart.
What matters is the inward person and the intention thereof. The Host is bowed to not because we think a bit of stale, circular bread is special but because we think that the living, risen Christ is superspecial, beyond special, holy, magnificent, majestic, glorious, all-powerful, worthy of all praise and all honour.
Part 2: What this means for me, and where on earth I’m going.
*’Corpus et sanguis vere adsint’ — Augsburg Confession, Article 10.