The Conciliar Theology of Christmas Carols

For the past month, everywhere you go you will have heard Christmas and winter songs, ranging from ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ to ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside.’ Some of these are actual carols, unlike ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’, following my good friend the OED (with whom my wife agrees), sense 3:

a. A song or hymn of religious joy.

b.esp. A song or hymn of joy sung at Christmas in celebration of the Nativity. Rarely applied to hymns on certain other festal occasions.

A vast number recast the events of the Nativity. But some of these carols have obviously ‘conciliar’ verses and phrases — conciliar being the adjective used for that which is related to and derived from the theology of the seven ecumenical councils. The most obvious example is in ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’:

God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God,
Begotten, not created

This is pulled almost word-for-word from the ‘Nicene’ Creed (my translation here). Many other carols, such as ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Love Came Down at Christmas’, assert the divinity of Christ, no doubt intending a Nicene sense. One hymn that undoubtedly intends a Nicene sense is ‘Of the Father’s Love Begotten’*, which reads:

Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending he,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.

But to cite J M Neale’s translation of Prudentius (348-after 405) as evidence for how conciliar theology has impacted our Christmas carols is perhaps too easy. Yet the fact that people still sing this carol demonstrates that we are not all allergic to Nicaea yet.

One of the carols that actually provoked this post was Charles Wesley’s ‘Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.’ Several modern ‘revisions’ (including the CyberHymnal!) of the hymn have changed the second-last line of verse two to, ‘Pleased with us in flesh to dwell’, although the original was ‘Pleased as Man with man to dwell.’ This line comes in the most theological of the carol’s verses:

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail, the Incarnate Deity,
Pleased as Man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel!

This change was inevitably made to remove Wesley’s ‘sexist’ language. However, unlike some such modifications (e.g. ‘Good Christians All Rejoice’) this has changed the sense of the line. What the original line is stating is that Jesus became a human being, just like us in every respect. The revision makes the line repeat the fact that his flesh is real — thus opposing the Docetists, I suppose.

‘Pleased as Man with man to dwell’, however, takes aim not at Docetists but first at Apollinarians, who denied the full humanity of Christ by claiming he had no human soul. It also has in its sights, I imagine, Eutychianism, in which the human nature of Christ is swallowed up by the divinity — the heresy often confused with the ‘Mono/Miaphysitism’ of the Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches (see my post ‘Wait — Monophysites?‘).

I imagine that this line as composed by Charles Wesley could have had Chalcedon in mind; the Wesley brothers were knowledgeable in patristics. But to say, ‘This line makes “Hark!” Chalcedonian!’ is to miss the debates about Chalcedon that ensued in the following decades and centuries. It is as much ‘Chalcedonian’ as it is ‘Miaphysite’ — asserting the complete and utter humanity of the Incarnate Word. Nonetheless, that Christ was a perfect Man in the midst of men (archaic usage meaning ‘human persons regardless of gender) is the point being made here as well as in the ecumenical councils from Ephesus 1 (431) to Nicaea 2 (787).

The revisers will tell me that the problem of the sexist language persists. I would like to take this opportunity to remind the world that, although I think a contemporary writer should avoid using the words ‘man’ and ‘men’ to refer to human persons generally, this is its etymological definition, and one it maintained parallel to its being taken over by the other sense ‘male human being’ for many, many years. Therefore, why change the wording of something from the 1700s that was meant to include the whole human race? This hearkens back to my post about the scandal of the incarnation’s particularity — Jesus was a man in both senses, and feminists just have to deal with it. (Read also my post of a few years ago, ‘Leave My Hymns Alone!‘)

Anyway, hopefully this will help us sing our carols with gusto and meaning, perceiving the deeper truths that lie behind the poetry.

*Fouled by the Anglican Church of Canada hymn book Common Praise as ‘Of Eternal Love Begotten’.

Evangelicals read the Fathers ’cause they’re awesome

When I posted ‘Why Should Evangelicals Read the Fathers?’, I got some feedback to the very question from friends on Facebook. Scott, a pastor with the Church of the Nazarene, gave two answers I quite liked: ’cause they’re awesome and because they say things that are relevant to people today. Frank, formerly a pastor and now a PhD student in the field of New Testament studies, gave the challenging response: So we can learn how not to do exegesis.

I thought it would be fun for me to give my musings off these three springboards. You, too, can join in on the comments!

The topic now is thus the awesomeness of the Church Fathers.

This is probably one of the best reasons to read the Fathers. I suppose there is a certain utility in the Fathers — drawing us nearer to God, exhorting us to holier living, clearer theological thinking, a more spiritual understanding of Scripture, an appreciation of the history of doctrine. But why do anything save the sheer … greatness of it?

I was once in a van with some IV people back in high school. One of the university students wanted to know why I wanted to study history. I gave all the pious, useful reasons. He said that the best reason to study history was because one liked it and found it interesting.

This is true of many fields.

Evangelicals should read the Fathers because the Fathers are awesome. And don’t just take my word for it. Take that of Prudentius:

Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!

At His Word the worlds were framèd; He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean in their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun, evermore and evermore!

There we have one of the most theological, poetical Christmas carols. Written by M. Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, a Latin poet who lived from 348-413. Ancient Christian poetry is among the wonders of the ancient world, writing down the wisps of knowledge grasped by human minds in the meters and images of their cultures (Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic), the honey of poetry as the honey on the cup of theology. Read Prudentius or Ephraim the Syrian or Gregory of Nazianzus.

Awesome.

If theology stirs you, I refer you to my translation of bits of Leo’s christology for Christmas yesterday, or to Clement of Alexandria from December 4. Amongst the Fathers we find the keen minds of Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, of Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil of Caesarea, of Origen and Evagrius — men who had both the keen philosophical parsing of words, phrases and syllogisms as well as the mystical insight of hours spent at prayer before the Triune God.

Awesome.

Then we come to the prayers of the Fathers, such as the following by St. Clement of Rome:

Almighty God, Father of our lord Jesus Christ, establish and confirm us in your truth by your Holy Spirit. Reveal to us what we do not know, perfect in us what is lacking; strengthen us in what we know; and keep us faultless in your service; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.

St. Paul exhorts us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Is not this plea of St. Clement’s in keeping with the apostolic exhortation? The Fathers call us to deep lives of prayer through their liturgies, found in Hippolytus, or their practices of prayer as found in the Desert Fathers and the ascetic works of Basil of Caesarea. The classic Evangelical call has been to lives soaked in prayer, as we see in John Wesley rising at four o’clock in the morning to prayer for two hours before breakfast. It is a practice heartily recommended by the ancient Christian witness.

Awesome.

The Fathers inhabited a different thought-world than ours. These men and women were to sort of people who have visions, to dream dreams. Their philosophy was more than the keen exercise of the logical aspect of the mind, but a force of will, of prayer, of contemplation, of imagination, of ethical behaviour. The mystical call of Evagrius, Cassian, Origen, the Cappadocians — this is awesome, if foreign to far too many Evangelicals.

The Fathers are awesome. They are not perfect in ethics or in morals or in theology or in prayer or in mysticism or in asceticism. But they are awesome, even if more than a little odd upon first acquaintance. I hope you will make your acquaintance with them a long one and deep.

A Christmas-themed Sermon from a Year Ago, Part 1

I preached a shortened version of this sermon at Evensong at St. Alban’s Anglican Church, Ottawa, Ontario, on December 28, 2008.  The preaching began with a reading of the hymns by Ephrem the Syrian quoted in my last post.

It is Christmas.  I hope to share with you in this homily some thoughts on the ineffable mystery of Christmas.  The elusive “true meaning” of Christmas that every Christmas special seeks to hunt down is bigger than Santa, gifts, family, friends, carols, winter, snow or anything else that we human beings do.  The true meaning of Christmas, dear friends, is that of the Incarnation, as St. Ephraim says, “the God-man.”  It is this theological mystery I hope to investigate tonight.

People are often afraid of theology, and I’ll skip over a lot of jargon; I’ll use Scripture, hymns, creeds, the Fathers, etc, to bring out the beauty of the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation—with the understanding that the hymns, Fathers, creeds, etc, are in accord with Scripture.  When we see the beauty and glory and magnificence of this event, I hope that we will be drawn to worship and prayer.  True worship of the true God is the ultimate goal of all proper theology.

Diadochus of Photike says, “Divine theology brings into harmony the voices of those who praise God’s majesty.”  Similarly, Evagrius Ponticus declares, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly.  And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”  Worship and prayer are vitally important; both fuel us and drive us into action; may we thus also live better lives in the light of the truth of Christmas, when God came down and lived amongst us.

1. What God is Jesus?  The Creator God.

According to John 1, Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God.  And the Word is not only with God, but is God.  We read the Nicene Creed instead of the Apostle’s tonight so we could read its Christological formulae: Jesus, the Word, is “begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” (BCP)  The Word is not other than God.  God, in His fullness, is Jesus.  Anything we can say about God we can also say about Jesus.  So in Psalm 72, when the Psalmist says, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things; and blessed be the Name of his majesty for ever: and let all the earth be filled with his majesty.  Amen and Amen,” (BCP) we can substitute Jesus for the Divine Name, “the LORD”, and proclaim, “Blessed be Jesus, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things; and blessed be the Name of his majesty for ever: and let all the earth be filled with his majesty.  Amen and Amen.”

This truth is expressed most fully in the Creed of St. Athanasius, which can be found here.  The entire thing is worth a read someday; I encourage you to do so.  Verse 30 reads, “Now the right Faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both God and Man.  He is God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and he is Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born into the world; Perfect God; perfect Man, of reasoning soul and human flesh subsisting; Equal to the Father as touching his Godhead; less than the Father as touching his Manhood.” (BCP)

Perfect God.

God.  Jesus is fully God.  He is not some lesser being, some semi-divine creature, or an angelic being.  He is God Himself.  This is a mystery.  We cannot penetrate into the fullness of its glory.  Indeed, it boggles the mind to think on it:  God in the flesh!  There is so much that could be said about the God Who Jesus is—he is the God of the Old Testament, He set the people of Israel free from Egypt, He spoke by the prophets, He gave the law, He showed Moses a glimpse of His glory.  Let’s reflect for a moment on the fact that He is the Creator God.

a. The Creator God

God, according to Genesis 1, created everything.  He spoke, and it happened.  God said, “Let light come into being, and there was light.”  Since God created using speech, it comes as no surprise that we read in John 1, “All things were made through [the Word], and without Him nothing was made that was made.” (NKJV)  Jesus, the Word, created.  He is the living Word of God the Father, and He brought all things into existence.  He is the One Who creates out of nothing.  Before we rush off into these heights of glorious truth, let us recall the title of a book I once read, Jesus with Dirty Feet.  This Jesus we read of in the Gospels, the One with dirty feet, Who walked the shores of Galilee, Who threw the moneychangers from the Temple, Who wept at Lazarus’ death, Who told stories, Who was born a Babe in Bethlehem and laid in a manger by His mother—this Jesus happens also to be the Creator of the Universe.

Creator.  Of.  The.  Universe.

This is who Jesus is: the Creator of the Stars of Night; the Creator of nebulae and galaxies and comets and solar systems and suns and planets and asteroids and all stellar phenomena; the Creator of ants and whales and bacteria and diatoms and hair and mountains and goats and birch trees and mighty oaks and Niagara Falls and you and me.  As Creator of humanity, He gave unto us a certain creative faculty.  Therefore, all the works of beauty created by humans are traceable back to the Creator God: the architecture of this Church, beautiful poetry, paintings, stained-glass windows, fabulous novels, true philosophy—all because of Jesus.  He is the Creator of the Universe.  He made stuff by talking.  His Word went forth and made all that was, all that is, and all that ever shall be.  As we sing in the fourth-century hymn of Prudentius:

At his word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean
In their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
Evermore and Evermore.

This Creator God took on flesh at Christmas.  He was born of a Virgin as an infant.  The mind that hung the Pleiades in the sky was incapable of expressing itself in words and lived off the very milk of a woman whom He created.  Mindblowing.

b.  The God of the Old Testament

Briefly, let us remember that the Creator God has a specific character and history as revealed in the Old Testament; and Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem, is that God.  In fact, some of the early Church Fathers taught that the Word of God, Jesus, is the God who speaks in the Old Testament.  I’m not sure I agree, but the implications are that the Second Person of the Trinity is the One Who once on Sinai’s height did “give the Law in cloud and majesty and awe”;  He spoke to Elijah in the still small voice on Mt. Carmel;  He visited Abraham and Sarah; He spoke to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the prophets.

This God we worship in Jesus is not just a speaker and Creator.  He doesn’t just order the cosmos and talk to us every once in a while.  He acts.  Remember our Sunday School Bible stories: He brought Noah’s flood, He led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land, He caused the walls of Jericho to fall down, He gave Samson superhuman strength, He gave Solomon wisdom, He consumed the offerings that Elijah gave on the altar with a mighty flame, He saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.  The holy God of Israel, Who meets Moses in the burning bush and declares His Divine Name, “I am that I am,” manifests Himself as Jesus.

He is just, righteous, jealous for His holy Name, compassionate and merciful.  Anything we can say about Almighty God we can say about Jesus.  This means also that, in the New Testament, when John says that God is Love, the same applies to Jesus.  That God is Love helps unlock the mystery of why this God of power and might would choose to humble Himself as a poor infant, born into this world not into the halls of kings or emperors but into a manger of all places!

Leave My Hymns Alone!

Sometime in the past decade or so, the Anglican Church of Canada decided to get a new hymn book; this item is called Common Praise.  In this new hymn book, a good number of the hymns have the little abbreviation next to the author’s name, “alt.”  So, you’ll see, “Charles Wesley, alt.”  This abbreviation means “altered.”  One usually imagines that “alt.” simply means, “We made human beings gender-neutral,” as though the ancient English word and suffix “man” only ever had one meaning, not two, and that one meaning was “male human being.”

We’re not going to argue about so-called “inclusive language”.  If that were all that hymn books such as Common Praise or Voices United did when the letters “alt.” appeared, I’d get over it eventually.  However, the hymn-book editors, having started to alter hymns in some ways to suit their tastes, have altered them in other ways, thus reducing the timelessness of many hymns and marring both their aesthetic beauty and theological truth.

One oddity is “Good Christians All, Rejoice!”  wherein the word ye has been removed.  Christmastide, as my wife was quick to point out, is one time when people are willing to be old fashioned.  Why get rid of a perfectly good word?  This removal forced them to mess around with the entire hymn, since every verse has ye in it.

“Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending” was missing the third verse.  The loss of the third verse was very disturbing to me, for the original runs thus:

Those dear tokens of his Passion
Still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

It was on a cross our Saviour died.  By his scars we are healed.  There is no good reason why a Bible-believing theologically-orthodox Christian should shy away from these words.

They decided, as well, that “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” an ancient Latin hymn by Prudentius, ought to be “Of Eternal Love Begotten.”  Not only is this avoiding the biblical and traditional Name of one Member of the Godhead, it is also not what Prudentius wrote.  Now we see that we are smarter not only than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but even those centuries that forged our very faith.

Common Praise seems to dislike the Godhead, in fact.  In “To God be the Glory,” they removed all the masculine pronouns and put in the word “God.”  Thus: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!  Let the earth hear God’s voice,” and so forth.  I understand the reasoning behind this move.  It is the same as that which caused the change in “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”:  God is beyond gender, beyond personality.  However, God is not less than a person.  Theologically speaking, God is three Persons, in fact.  If we are to speak about God, we should be able to use pronouns in reference to God.  Otherwise, I have a feeling God becomes less, not more, than a person.

I cannot help but think of C.S. Lewis in this moment:

A good many people nowadays say, ‘I believe in a God, but not in a personal God.’  They feel that the mysterious something which is behind all other things must be more than a person.  Now the Christians quite agree.  But the Christians are the only people who offer any idea of what a being that is beyond personality could be like.  All the other people, though they say that God is beyond personality, really think of Him as something impersonal: that is, as something less than personal.  If you are looking for something super-personal, something more than a person, then it is not a question of choosing between the Christian idea and the other ideas.  The Christian idea is the only one on the market. (Mere Christianity, near the beginning of “The Three-Personal God”)

I believe that the removal of pronouns in reference to God makes Him less, not more, than us.  The best compromise I have seen is Madeleine L’Engle’s use of El, but I find it unsatisfactory.  I will continue to use “He, Him, His,” about the Divine Being, knowing that God is not male, that the Triune God does not have a penis (well, not more than one, anyway)*, that He is not a man at all, for I am a man, and I am by no means near the same sort of being that God is.

In “Joyful, Joyful,” Common Praise has marred the beautiful line, “Thou our Father, Christ our Brother”, making it, “Thou our Father and our Mother.”  Now, theoretically, since God is beyond gender, and since God, being perfect, as our divine parent carries within Himself the best of both fathers and mothers and even more and even better than they, God is theoretically both Father and Mother to us.  However, this is not cause enough to change a line that is bringing two Persons of our three-personal God into play and forcing it to reflect a modern liberal sensibility about the divine and push out one of the Persons.  God the Son has been shoved out in favour of non-traditional language about God the Father.  “All who live in love are thine”, the following line, is about those who are the FatherMother God’s, not those who are the Father’s and Christ’s.

I do not believe that editorial boards should tamper with hymns in any way other than making references to the human race gender inclusive.  I don’t even think they should do that, but I know they will.  If they must tamper with hymns, they ought to leave the theological content of the hymns alone.

We find ourselves turning to C.S. Lewis again, and his Introduction to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.  Here, Lewis tells us that we should read old books because they give us a point of view other than our own.  By reading only new books, we are trapped by the blinders of our own age.  By singing only new songs, we are similarly trapped.  By praying only new prayers, likewise.  By tampering with old hymns, by changing their theological content, by modifying their language of God, we are saying that we know better than 2000 years of Christian tradition; we are saying that our age is the only age that knows about God, and that we therefore have the right to change the words of our forebears.  We are depriving ourselves of wisdom that the hymn-writers have to offer us simply because their words do not fit with certain contemporary sensibilities.  We are turning aside from anything uncomfortable — yet isn’t God supposed to make us uncomfortable?

Thus, if you feel that we need to sing, “Thou our Father and our Mother,” and “Of Eternal Love Begotten,” do not tamper with someone else’s art, with someone else’s view of God, with a point of view that may have great wisdom behind it that we do not see.  Write a new hymn.

And if you cannot write a new hymn, wonder what on earth our culture has lost.

*Pretty sure Jesus has a penis.  I’m just sayin’.