Christological thoughts from 2007

I thought I’d re-post this here, a long-lost piece from 11 November 2007 that I referred to in my most recent post. My thoughts have probably shifted and matured in 10 years. At least, I hope they’ve matured. They’ve definitely shifted — I would retract some things I say about Nestorius, and I definitely reject Jenson’s reading of Leo. But this fresh discovery of ancient Christianity and the excitement it brought me is worthy of remembrance…

Behold your God

… I got out a little light reading, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy by Thomas C Oden and Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century edited by Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A Hall.

And so, between walking and reading, and sitting in St. Alban’s Square reading, I had my mind blown away.

My mind was blessedly cracked open and happily split by Robert W. Jenson, whose essay “With No Qualifications: the Christological Maximalism of the Christian East”* (I told you it was light reading) delved into the depths of what it means for Jesus to be Lord.

He said nothing especially revolutionary–this is, in fact, the whole point of the book. Indeed, what he did was merely articulate what I already know to be true. What he said resonated with my spirit as well as with the universe and the revelation of Holy Scripture. Yet he articulated truths that are so rarely articulated and so rarely articulated well, and thus my brain is thinking about this and meditating and whirling and wanting to tell you–all of you!

So: Jesus is Lord.

And there is only one Lord–Yahweh, the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer of all things, the One Who exists from everlasting to everlasting, the Holy God, the King and Ruler of ALL–who is perfectly holy and perfectly just and perfectly loving and perfectly perfect and wholly God and wholly other and beyond all and in all and through all and all of it.

Jesus is Him.

And when we say, “Jesus is God” — or, rather, “Jesus is the Son, and the Son is God,” (17), we are to say unequivocally. There is no mincing of words as with Nestorianism (that sounds awfully a lot like some of the freaky weird “esoteric” Christianity out there as found in Tom Harpur):

the Son so “inhabits” Jesus that the man Jesus is a temple wholly transparent to his presence, or that the Son is so personally “conjoined” with Jesus that from our point of view they cannot be told apart, or that they too will be in fact one person at the End, after the suffering is over. (18)

And sorry to my Catholic brothers and sisters. I agree with Jenson, Pope Leo missed the boat, too [2017: I disagree with Jenson on this now]. Leo’s theology is what one of my undergrad profs described succinctly as follows: Jesus is like a marble cake. Leo says (and this is an actual quote from the Tome of Leo, which I think is online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library somewhere):

Each nature is the agent of what is proper to it, working in fellowship with the other: the Word doing what is appropriate to the Word and the flesh what is appropriate to the flesh. The one shines forth in the miracles; the other submits to the injuries. (19)

To skip over a large amount of the following controversies, the truth as I believe it is to be found when one reads the Scriptures and applies his mental faculties to them, when one finally admits to the entirety of the claim that Jesus is Lord is as follows, to quote Jenson:

the man Jesus, exactly as his personhood is defined by the life story told in the Gospels, is the one called the Son, the second identity of God. Jesus is the Son, with no qualifications. (22)

Thus, finally, what sort of blew my mind away was when Jenson applied this to the reality of who God is. Whoever the Gospels reveal Jesus to be, is exactly who God is–not just in character. Thus:

Mary is the Mother of God. Unus ex Trinitate mortuus est pro nobis. [One of the Trinity died on behalf of us.] One of the Trinity is a Palestinian Jew who came eating and drinking and forgave sin and prophesied implausible glory. Jesus saves. These and more sentences are the great metaphysical truth of the gospel, without which it is all religious palaver and wish fulfillment and metaphorical projection. Jesus really is Lord because he is one of the Trinity, and that is our salvation. (22)

Like I said, nothing new–indeed, St. Maximus the Confessor was saying these things in the 600s (some of his works are available through the St. Pachomius Library), and people were believing them from the Apostolic Age, and have believed it until now–”‘Tis mystery all, th’Immortal dies!” (Charles Wesley). This is the reality that causes The Bridegroom, an icon of Christ bound and crowned with thorns and stripped of all but the mocking purple robe and the stalk (hyssop?), my favourite icon, because it speaks a very profound truth about Who God Is. He suffers with us. He died for us.

In ways we cannot fully express with words, the eternal God, coeternal and consubstantial Father and Son, has human flesh as part of Him, while still maintaining His transcendence, His otherness, His holiness, His perfection, His immutability! Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. He is crowned and throned in Glory and Eternity, with real flesh and bone because He took on flesh and pitched His tent among us, He set aside His glory out of love in order that we could know Him and be saved from sin and death! And so the Man Jesus is the Word, the Son. He is God–wholly God, entirely God, with no ifs ands or buts–no qualifications.

But these truths are not always so starkly and boldly stated.

They do leave us Protestants with some uncomfortable phrases. Like “Mary the Mother of God.” I’ve always been a fan of, “Mary, the mother of the human fleshly part of Jesus, the mother of Jesus’ human nature.” But Jesus, God the Son, kept that flesh when He ascended. He is not some ethereal Spirit, He has, is flesh! He took that flesh born from the womb of His mother and made it part of the Divine Nature. The Word took on flesh and pitched His tent among us! In a very real way, although Jesus is pure, preexistent, eternal God from everlasting to everlasting, Mary is God’s mom. But that’s not really what blew my mind.

Merely the simple, hard, earthy fact that Jesus with dirty feet, whom I love, whom I exalt, whom I praise, adore, extol, worship, point to, is, in fact, in Heaven ruling the Universe. And His hands are still scarred, along with His feet, His side, His brow. His heart broke for us. And He took that heart to Glory.

And it also messes with our ideas of God being transcendent. God the immutable was hungry. God the perfect pooped his swaddling cloths. God the holy thirsted. God the wholly other wept at the death of a friend. God Himself got tired and slept. He got angry. He laughed. He cried. In a very real, very orthodox, and extremely unheretical way, God was human. And when He left us to carry on His mission on earth, He kept that flesh, glorifying it and perfecting it.

Some of my other light reading recently was a book called The Trivialization of God by Donald C McCullough. In this book the author discusses how the church in the West has placed God off to the side and put up some pretty nice-looking golden calves in His place. He then discusses how we are to topple the golden calves, and how God Himself topples them, and what the foundations of our thinking really ought to be.

One thing that really stood out for me was his insistence on awe and wonder as necessary for our relationship with God. We need to realise that God is bigger than everything, that God is beautiful, that God is beyond our total comprehension, and that God loves us. And since God loves us unequivocally, He bridged the divide that our wickedness created between us and Him and came as a Man. Therefore, our thinking about God begins in agnosticism — we just don’t really know, and then it always moves through Jesus, through the God-Man, to find out who God is.

And so I’ve tried praying and thinking through that paradigm: I know nothing. God is hugemongous. And Jesus, being God, is His perfect revelation.

So this essay by Jenson was absorbed by me quite willingly. I recommend it highly.

*The random numbers (in brackets) represent page numbers from the essay, which is found in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A Hall, ed. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002, pp. 13-22.

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Love and the moral code

Greater love hath no man...
Greater love hath no man…

Two evenings ago, the Second Lesson for Evening Prayer in the Canadian BCP included this famous passage:

Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, ‘Which is the first commandment of all?’

Jesus answered him, ‘The first of all the commandments is: “Hear, O Isreal, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’

So the scribe said to Him, ‘Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’

Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ But after that no one dared question Him. (Mark 12:28-34, NKJV)

This morning included 1 John 4:7-8:

Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God, and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love.

I have discoursed on 1 John 4 here before.

I think we have an easy tendency to start to focus on all of the rest of the law. Or to immediately follow ‘love thy neighbour’ with, ‘Of course, the rest of the moral code is important as well’, or ‘Not that this means condoning sin, mind you…’ And, well, yes. Of course, the rest of the moral code is important. No, loving others doesn’t mean condoning sin.

But if that is the first thing we do after affirming our belief that loving other human beings is the second-highest calling of the Christian, are we loving others by doing so?

Loving others is a risky business. Opening your arms in embrace of someone else means that person might stab you in the back. Standing alongside those with whom we disagree might be misconstrued by everyone. Entering into someone’s life and pain might consume us.

Then again,

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

Nevertheless, it is worth asking how the law of love and the moral code of Scripture live together. Love is the highest and greatest command — and, as St Augustine is paraphrased, ‘Love God and do as you please.’ There is a chance that simply loving God and neighbour will take care of this question. Nonetheless, Scripture can serve as a guide for when we are uncertain.

I am one of those rare beasts — the Anglican who subscribes to the 39 Articles, the seventh of which says:

Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet not withstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

The 39 Articles elsewhere affirm that our salvation comes entirely from the grace of God, not our ability to live according to the moral code of Scripture. Such good works as we do perform come as a result of that grace and the justification that is by faith.

The moral code is succinct in the New Testament:

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, KJV)

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21, KJV)

This leads straight into:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-24, KJV)

These are commandments to believing Christians, who are also commanded to live in love with everyone around them. They must be taken not only with ‘love thy neighbour’ but also with:

Judge not, lest ye be judged. (Matthew 7:1)

I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. 10 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. 12 For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? 13 But those who are outside God judges. (1 Corinthians 5:9-13, NKJV)

It does seem that unrepentant, sinning Christians are to fall under censure from church authorities. That is not most people. Most people are either not Christians or repentant. None of us is truly free from sin, so it is no use using these verses to judge others even within the church — when churches do make use of such discipline on very rare occasion, it is after much prayer and consideration, and after different parties involved have been hurt or are causing hurt.

The rest of the time? LOVE. God will judge, and He will do what is most just, most holy, and most loving.

And now, some ancient Christian wisdom (taken from the Facebook page of that name):

Whoever sees in himself the traces of hatred toward any man on account of any kind of sin is completely foreign to the love of God. For love toward God does not at all tolerate hatred for man.

+ St. Maximos the Confessor

To judge sins is the business of one who is sinless, but who is sinless except God? Who ever thinks about the multitude of his own sins in his heart never wants to make the sins of others a topic of conversation. To judge a man who has gone astray is a sign of pride, and God resists the proud. On the other hand, one who every hour prepares himself to give answer for his own sins will not quickly lift up his head to examine the mistakes of others.

+ St. Gennadius of Constantinople

And the Desert Fathers (similarly from Facebook):

A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest. Abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying, “I, too, am a sinner.”

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

From Abba Agathon (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; Cistercian Publications pg. 23):

“Whenever his thoughts urged him to pass Judgment on something which he saw, Abba Agathon would say to himself, ‘Agathon, it is not your business to do that.'”

I doubt that all of my thoughts are clear. All I know is that as I strive to live a righteous life, three important aspects of that are not judging others, being aware of my own sins, and figuring out how to love.

Pope Question: What makes Leo Great?

pope clipartA not uncommon question that arises when people hear that I did my PhD on Pope Leo ‘the Great’ is: What makes Leo great? Sometimes there is the usual anti-Catholic/anti-papal subtext of, ‘Let me guess: Power politics ’cause that’s all popes do,’ but usually, it’s simple curiosity. I like curiosity. It’s less polemical.

The basic reasons for why Leo is Magnus, ‘the Great’, came up in Why Study Leo the Great? Nonetheless, it’s worth reiterating some of this here, if only to dispell the power politics part — but also to continue to encourage people to read Leo!

So, why Leo Magnus? What’s so Great about Leo I?

Answer: The Council of Chalcedon and two-nature Christology.

Some people want to make Leo’s greatness about his foundational role in western canon law, or his ability to exercise authority throughout the western church, or his articulation of papal primacy, or his energy in promoting western interests in the eastern Mediterranean. There is a desire to see why we might think him great. Or there is a desire to see how he was great in his own geo-ecclesiological context.

True as much of the above might be, these are not the reasons we call him ‘Leo the Great.’

C. H. Turner put together a compendium of the early sources for people expressing their esteem for this pope and calling Leo Magnus in his excellent 1911 article about the dogmatic collection of Leo’s letters. (If I could be a C. H. Turner for the 21st century, I’d do it.) And when I look at the testimonies in the manuscripts I work with, the answer is the same as what Turner found:

Leo is called Magnus, ‘the Great’, because of his role in the consolidation, development, and spread of western Christology, as enshrined in his ‘Tome’ (Ep. 28), ‘Second Tome’ (Ep. 165), and the convening of the Council of Chalcedon.

From a modern perspective, Leo the Great may not be what everyone is looking for in a theologian. We prefer pioneers and ‘original’ and ‘innovative’ thinkers, or ‘subversive’ ideals. So western Trinitarianism as expressed by St Hilary of Poitiers or St Augustine of Hippo is more likely to get people really excited today. But Pope Leo the Great plays a very important role in the history of western dogma.

I’m about half-way through St Augustine’s De Trinitate. It’s not an easy ride. It’s interesting, for sure. In many ways, it’s an education in itself — Augustine faces questions of epistemology, the use of categories in thought, love, words, memory, human psychology, and more, alongside the proper interpretation of Holy Scripture, as he seeks to articulate why we should express a belief in the Trinity. Along the way, he expounds what we would recognise today as two-nature Christology, just as St Hilary had done before him.

But De Trinitate is not the sort of document you can sent around to fifth-century bishops, expect them to read and comprehend, and then get a consensus of the church’s thought on any issue. Not really. That’s what Creeds are for — in the Creeds, you can get everyone to assent to their belief in the unity in Trinity and Trinity in unity.

But Nestorius and the Eutyches were expressing ideas about the person of Christ that they believed perfectly acceptable within the boundaries of credal Christianity. As far as Nestorius is concerned, St Cyril of Alexandria, St John Cassian, Pope Celestine I, et al., were pretty sure that his expressions of faith were, in fact, beyond the pale of credal truths, especially in some of the quite damning evidence in the creeds he was trying to get people to sign that his opponents produced at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Regardless of what Nestorius actually meant/thought, he was perceived as dividing Christ into two persons who simply coinhabited the single body of Jesus of Nazareth.

Eutyches was perceived as so fully subsuming the humanity in the godhead that Christ had simply become nothing but a God in a human body.

Now, by Leo’s day, Nestorius had been officially condemned by the Imperial Church in the Council of Ephesus in 431. Nonetheless, in 448 there arose the case of Eutyches. In his dogmatic writings, Leo sought to sail between the two perceived extremes of Nestorius and Eutyches. In Nestorius, the division between divine and human in Christ was so starkly contrasted that the divinity was at risk; in Eutyches, it was the unity that was too strongly expressed, placing the humanity at risk.

Whatever faults Leo may have had in expressing himself at different moments in the ensuing controversy, what his response to Eutyches provided the western church was an articulation of traditional, Latin Christology in a simple, apprehensible document. Leo largely reiterates Sts Augustine and Hilary with recourse to a certain amount of St Cyril of Alexandria as well. Bishops throughout the western church were able to read, understand, and subscribe to Leo’s dogmatic statements.

These statements were also circulated in the East, and at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the ‘Tome’ was approved as the teaching of the imperial church alongside St Cyril’s First and Second Letters to Nestorius and, later in the council proceedings, a further clarification of the faith that included the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 in its full text, but which we usually just quote for its contribution to Christology.

Leo was hoping to achieve unity and consensus throughout the church with the ‘Tome’ and the Council of Chalcedon. He didn’t, as history has borne out. His theology was disputed at the council and immediately following it in the East, especially in Syria-Palestine and Egypt.

In the West, Leo’s dogmatic theology was never controversial. As a result, western bishops were never interested in compromises that would seem to undermine either Leo’s teachings or the Council of Chalcedon. The result of this Leonine intransigence meant schism with Constantinople later in the century (the Acacian Schism) — making Leo that much more important to western Christian self-identity. It would also mean schism between northern Italy and Rome for a few centuries (the Istrian Schism).

It would also mean that the interpretation of Chalcedon put forward in the 600s by St Maximus the Confessor would find a welcome audience in the West, where he went into exile, one-handed and tongueless, as well as a lot of other Greek-speaking eastern clerics, who would leave their mark on the liturgy and organisation of the church of Rome in the seventh century.

Leo Magnus is central to western Christianity’s theological self-identity in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Thus is he depicted on the walls of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (as I learned over dinner tonight!).

Whatever else Leo did, it was his Christology that made people regard him as Magnus.

Temptations of Christ, Lent, and ourselves

… by Thine agony and bloody sweet, good Lord, deliver us.

I would like to briefly draw your attention to an article in the Anglican Planet written by a friend of my brother’s, the Rev. Dustin Resch, entitled, ‘The Vulnerable Jesus: What a Monk and a Movie Can Teach us About Lent‘. In this article, Resch, an Anglican priest and patristics scholar, begins his discussion of the temptation of Christ and Lent with Kazantzakis/Scorsese, The Last Temptation of Christ, before moving on to a discussion of St Maximus the Confessor and the importance of Dyothelite Christology — two wills — for the Church.

It is a great article, reminding us that all dogmatic theology has important pastoral dimensions — in this case, if Christ is truly, fully human, he was truly tempted. So are we. He resisted. So can we (by the grace of God).

Holiness: A Reflection on All Saints’ Day

Typically, in the liturgical churches of Protestantism, we are reminded on All Saints’ Day or All Souls’ Day (which is tomorrow) that all Christians are saints, based on how St Paul uses the word, not just those who get ‘the big ST’. This is true, but what does that ‘big ST’ mean?

Saint comes from the Latin sanctus and means holy.

There are different ways of looking at holiness, and I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. One is the typically Protestant way of viewing it, jumping off from Luther’s ‘justified by faith alone’ — we are viewed as being already holy, set apart, by God in light of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and our putting our trust in Him. Something similar is maintained by Maximus, that we do not merely imitate Christ but become like Christ through faith in him (as blogged by me here).

The other is the idea of our ability to progress in holiness. This is sanctification. We are being made clean or set free from the presence and power of sin in this lifetime, as Bp Eddie Marsh once said in a sermon; justification is our being set free from the penalty of sin; glorification is the final liberation from the presence of all sin on Judgement Day.

This type of holiness is something we are all to strive towards, ever mindful of the need for the grace of God. It is, I believe, what St Paul means when he says to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). Resting in the power of God to transform us, we are to lead holy lives, trusting in the grace of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to transform our inner person.

The sorts of things that are part of holiness are, I believe, going beyond basic moral virtues as we think of them. We tend to think of morality being a question of the Ten Commandments and attendant actions, of being nice to others, of honesty, of ‘putting ourselves in the other fellow’s shoes’. These are certainly part of a holy life.

But I think Christ calls us beyond that to more, to a holiness where we can actually turn the other cheek, rejoice when others persecute us, never look at a woman lustfully, never gossip, pray without ceasing, pray for our enemies, bless those who persecute us, refrain from speaking and thinking ill of others, and so on and so forth. I’m not espousing Wesley’s ‘Christian Perfection’ here, but I think holiness is a goal we are to seek, what Cassian in the fifth century calls ‘purity of heart’.

Holiness is, therefore, a matter of our hearts and minds. Our thoughts are to be turned to Christ at all times and in all things. As the title of a Serbian Orthodox book says, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. I believe that the classic spiritual disciplines are a valuable aid in helping us pray continually and set our minds on things above.

Besides the obvious discipline of prayer, in his book Celebration of Discipline, evangelical Quaker writer Richard Foster lists meditation, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. I am better acquainted with some of these than others, but I can say that days I start with prayer or pray early on, days I fast, days I spend in Scripture or devotional books, days I choose the simple over the complicated and unnecessary, days I actually submit to others and seek to serve — these are the days I feel nearer to Christ and more ready to tune my heart and thoughts to him.

I encourage you to take up a new spiritual discipline as of today. Perhaps fast once a week? Pray at the canonical hours (whether with a liturgy or not)? Start volunteering at a homeless shelter? Spend time meditating on different Scriptural passages throughout the week? If you’re not in a Bible study, can I recommend you join one?

Today I remembered to pray Morning Prayer — a discipline I want to cultivate but frequently forget. What will you do?

Freedom from the Passions: New Old Ways of Talking about $!n in Public

From left to right: Evagrius Ponticus, John Climacus, and some other dude. The first two are well-known guides to the passions of the human heart. Who knows about the other guy.

Apologies for not having blogged here a bit more of late. I’m in Paris, and the blog where I publicly disclose my name has been getting more attention (I have a slight paranoia about the religious nature of these postings and my future). But today, I had a thought worthy of the pocket scroll. So here it is.

One of the images/concepts of human salvation that is part of the older Christian tradition, and has been continually popular in Eastern Christianity, is the image of salvation as healing. Christ is our Physician, and he cleans and heals our wounds. Each of us wounded in spirit, in soul, in mind.

Part of this disorder of the human heart is misdirected and misguided desire. The Fathers, especially the desert ascetics, (and Aquinas) call this concupiscence. Rather than seeking first things first, we seek second things first, thus losing both (as CS Lewis once famously noted). Concupiscence reveals itself in the pleasures of the senses — in gluttony, in fornication, in other sensuous excesses that can lead us down the dangerous road of addiction, of alcoholism and sexual compulsivity.

Our concupiscible part exists to direct us towards goods that are there both for our survival and our pleasure. Food and booze are tasty on purpose. Sexual intercourse is supposed to feel that way. However, we must allow these pleasures to be enjoyed according the rules of God’s law and natural law. Concupiscence drives us away from that aspect.

Another aspect of our human disorder is irascibility. When ordered rightly, this produces righteous indignation, when we see the poor downtrodden, the alien shunned, the planet raped of her resources. When disordered, it produces selfish and proud rage, ire, and flares of temper that do not lead us to righteousness.

Irascibility and concupiscence are traditionally termed ‘passions’ in those parts of Christian moral and ascetic theology that treat of them, places where our similarities to Aristotle, Plato, and the Stoics are clearly visible. A passion is something that you yourself undergo, something that acts on you, that moves you (hence its relation to passive verbs, patience, and patients).

The passions are not themselves sinful. Some people have claimed that they are, but these people are wrong. The passions are part of our human makeup. And, just as we can grow fat or our bones can become brittle in the physical realm, so our passions can go wrong in the metaphysical.

What the ascetic fathers, such as the Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian, and Maximus the Confessor, recommend is that we control our passions. In your anger do not sin, as the Psalmist says.

The question for the straight, young, red-blooded, Christian male is not, ‘Do you find hot chicks hot?’ or, ‘Do you like boobs?’ Rather, it is, ‘What do you do about the fact that you are attracted to hot chicks and boobs?’ If the answer is honestly, ‘I choose not to lust,’ then one has gone a looooooong way to overcoming a certain aspect of concupiscibility.

We could repeat this process. Not, ‘Do you like wine/beer/coffee/chocolate?’ but, ‘Do you consume wine/beer/coffee/chocolate in moderation?’ Not, ‘Do people who jump the queue anger you?’ but, ‘Will you treat queue-jumpers with love and respect?’* And so forth.

And thus we come to a point I’ve avoided very carefully on this blog. When people ask Christians who are traditionally-minded about homosexuality, the question seems often to be, ‘Do you think homosexuality is a sin?’

This is an inane question.

Homosexuality is a passion, not a sin.

What the traditionally-minded Christian would have to say, to follow what seems to be both a biblically-faithful and tradition-adhering approach, is, ‘The question is not, “Do you find other men/women attractive?” but, “Do you have sex with them?”‘ That is, sin is in the action, not the desire.

This draws us now closer to the inevitable question of overcoming these desires, of reordering our passions as we were meant to, to be able to live lives of fullness and wholeness in the arms of our Bridegroom and Lover, Jesus Christ.

And that, my friends, is a subject for another time. But it a path as hard for each person as any other. If conservatives seek to lay the burden of celibacy upon homosexuals, they should also consider which of their own many disordered passions need treatment from the great Physician.

People Who Wrote on the Passions

The Desert Fathers. A band of ascetics living in Egypt-Syria-Palestine in the fourth through sixth centuries. Most famously quoted in the compendiums of sayings: The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. B. Ward. There is also a short collection at OrthodoxWiki. My page about them here.

Evagrius Ponticus. Try his Chapters on Prayer, online here — there’s also a translation from Cistercian that I couldn’t find on amazon at a reasonable price; mindblowing and awesome is the Kephalaia Gnostica.

John Cassian. People who endured with me for the few long years of this blog will know Cassian, subject of my first MA thesis. Books 5-end of his Institutes treat of the eight ‘thoughts’, beginning here.

*’There are no queues in France.’ Real quotation.

The Venerable Bede a Church Father?

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.