Classic and Charismatic 2: The Spirit of Truth

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne.

The charismatic renewal is sometimes stereotyped, whether by high-church catholic types or biblicist evangelical types, as being pure emotionalism with a shallow understanding of the faith, relying upon one spiritual high after another, driven by charismania and manufactured emotional experiences that are mistaken for encounters with God. No doubt this is accurate about some people.

But my experience within charismatic Anglicanism included not only the lady who saw a miracle in everything, not only the weepers, but also the people who had a concern for orthodoxy. Of course, a concern for orthodoxy and doctrinal truth can be a great danger. It can become a concern for being right, a concern for your own side ‘winning’, a means of judging everyone. But I have found, over the years, that my conservative Presbyterian friends can as easily fall into that pattern as the charismatics, as the Roman Catholics, and as the large group lumped together as ‘liberals’ or (now) ‘progressives’.

Nevertheless, my own experience was, thankfully, more of a generous orthodoxy of the Anglican charismatics. And people were certainly interested in what the truth of Scripture was and how to apply that to our lives. At the charismatic parish where I grew up, a group once gave my father a copy of St Augustine’s City of God — a lovely, hardback that I have enjoyed reading, myself. Pentecostalism has also given us the liturgical theologian Simon Chan, and John White was a member of the Vineyard here in Vancouver. I have also caught glimpses of the charismatic in the work of the recently deceased Anglican Michael Green.

There is a concern for God’s truth amongst the charismatics. They want to know it, and they want to live by it.

It is not a movement simply about experiencing God or emotions or special experiences.

If the charismatics are truly having the Holy Spirit poured into them, it only makes sense that mature charismatics, Christians with a deep spiritual life, would also have a concern for knowing the truth and articulating it well. After all, one of the names given to the Holy Spirit is ‘the Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17, 15:26, 16:13; 1 Jn 4:6, 5:6).

The coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles at Pentecost did not merely result in them praying in tongues, it also resulted in St Peter’s first sermon, as the Apostle’s finally ‘got it’. Jesus promised as much in John:

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (Jn 16:12-14 ESV)

I am no longer the fiery seventeen-year-old who hung on every word uttered by Charles Alexander when he came to do a parish mission. I wish still for that fervour, mind you (more later, perhaps). But my own journey has gone a particular route. As far as doctrine is concerned, my articulations of the truth sometimes veer into language used by ancient authors or by the Eastern Orthodox. The actual content may even have changed.

Certainly, I hope my intellectual grasp of some doctrines has improved as well as deepened. In some ways I have become more catholic. My approach to the Bible is different as I embrace ancient and mediaeval pathways of knowledge. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate what has changed. For example, I have never not believed in the Most Holy Trinity. And I would certainly not claim to understand how three Persons share one essence — but by reading the Cappadocians (especially St Gregory of Nazianzus) and St Augustine of Hippo, my appreciation for this doctrine and its importance has certainly deepened.

The charismatic Christian who turns to historic Christianity for more than just a few examples of the manifestational gifts of the Spirit, but as a source for doctrine and such, will find truth resident there. This has been the case for me. I have not turned my back on my old travelling companions — Dennis J Bennett, Nicky Gumbel, Anglican Renewal Ministries — but I have found some new-old ones who have only deepened my approach to the faith — Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and people with names that start with other letters as well.

This only makes sense. Christ sent the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. He indwells every Christian. We are all part of the same mystical body of believers as existed in first-century Jerusalem, fifth-century Hippo, fourteenth-century Athos, and sixteenth-century Wittenberg. As we encounter that body throughout history, enlivened by that same Spirit of truth, we will meet truth, whether from the pen of St Isaac the Syrian or Martin Luther, of St Maximus the Confessor or Richard Hooker, of St Ignatius of Antioch or St Ignatius Loyola or John Wimber.

This is perhaps less a vindication of my charismatic background than a call to others from a similar place to seek the Spirit of truth as He has quickened the minds of believers throughout the ages. It is a journey worth taking.

Sometimes theological controversy is … theological

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil
Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

I often find myself in situations where I feel a bit awkward, or naive, or as though I had missed something in my own readings as a historian of ancient Christianity. Wisdom tells me to keep quiet; or, hey, write an anonymous blog post so no one will know it was me, right?

For example, I recently heard a scholar state the fact that the problem in the Pelagian Controversy was that wealthy laypeople were doing their own ascetic thing in their homes separate from the authority of the bishops.

I admit to not having reviewed all of the evidence of the Pelagian Controversy, and not having thought much about it for a few years. Nonetheless, it strikes me that a controversy that starts in Rome but has its fiercest opponents in North Africa can’t simply be about power. And if Pelagius and his supporters are seen as threats to the local bishop, why does Pope Innocent I at one point actually exonerate them from heresy?

Regardless of which side you support in this debate, it is also clear that there are substantive theological differences between St Augustine of Hippo and the Pelagians, especially Julian of Eclanum. To reduce it to power politics requires a certain kind of extreme cynicism that I cannot accept.

Now, I don’t imagine that the bishops of Late Antiquity were always grand heroes seeking the true good and spiritual health of the world. Nor do I imagine that, when they were seeking the spiritual good of others, their methods were those of which I would approve.

The coercion of Donatists as approved by St Augustine, for example, is a bad idea. Similarly the legal restrictions against heretics, pagans, and Jews, largely supported by the bishops, are not the way a free and just society lives. By the grace of God, Christianity has largely rejected such coercive methods, and need never have used them. But ideology and power make for a dangerous combination.

Nevertheless, to imagine that Augustine vs Donatism (or vs Pelagianism or vs Manichaeism) is simply about him trying to get more power in the hands of North African ‘catholic’ clergy is reductionist to the extreme. It goes hand in hand with the sort of unintellectual anti-clericalism that must be espoused by people who have never actually spent quality time with clergy. I have met both on the same day, sometimes in the same person.

If we want to create a properly nuanced view of the history of Christianity in the Late Roman and Early Medieval worlds, we need to be open to sincerity as well as politicking. St Cyril of Alexandria, for example, is notorious as one of those ‘bad people’ who went to war against his fellow bishops to try and keep his own episcopal see in a position of power and prominence. He did. It’s true.

Yet on what grounds did Cyril attack Nestorius? On Christological grounds that, if you read Cyril’s pre-Nestorius writings, you will realise he already believed. And if you read his theology, you’ll realise that his is a brilliant mind to be neglected at our loss. We need not agree with how he went about things, and we may acknowledge that part of the animus against Nestorius was due to shifting balances in geo-ecclesiology — but, based upon his theological writings and biblical commentaries, Cyril was honestly opposed to the theology of Nestorius.

Or take St Caesarius of Arles and his attempts to root out practices in the countryside that he consider ‘pagan’ or ‘superstition’. It is perfectly likely that the local people did not think these practices were incompatible with their Christian faith. They may have seen some things as non-religious and others even as part of Christianity as they understood it. However, we need not move immediately to, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices and religious expressions because he wanted a monopoly on religious power.’ Is not as easy to say, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices because he believed they were spiritually dangerous to his flock‘? I can assure you, when I witnessed a young M.A. student suggest this to senior scholars, he got patronising shakes of the head and blank stares before they moved the discussion elsewhere.

When I mention such ideas, people query my ability to judge sincerity.

What about their ability to judge insincerity?

Why straight to cynicism? Why the reductionism of all theological and pastoral activities in Late Antiquity to ecclesiastical power politics, of bishops trying to consolidate all power in themselves?

Consider the fact that many Christians in Late Antiquity — bishops, monks, educated laypeople — believed that heresy spelled eternal damnation, right alongside paganism and Judaism, and maybe we’ll have a different view of their activities. Again, we can disagree with their measures without having to disagree with their goals and without assuming them to be ‘bad people’ or ‘bastards’ or simply out to gain power.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes theological controversy is actually theological.

What is ‘orthodox’?

Fra Angelico’s fresco of St Dominic adoring Christ on the Cross, San Antonino cloister, Museo di San Marco, Firenze

Yesterday morning, with only City of God and a largely-unreadable-due-to-uncut-pages copy of Dante’s De Vulgaris Eloquentia to keep me company, I did a little websurfing over/after breakfast before hitting the mean streets of Firenze and visiting San Marco Priory (aka Museo di San Marco) where I saw Fra Angelico‘s work in situ and was stirred to worship of that Person of the Holy Trinity Who was crucified and died for us.

Fra Angelico’s art takes us to the heart of orthodoxy with his numerous crucifixion scenes depicted in the cells of the Dominican friars housed in the Renaissance priory.

And the question of what orthodoxy is came up before my departure. I wandered through the Internet Monk, but find the site a bit lacklustre since the falling asleep of the iMonk himself, so then I popped over to Bill Kinnon, and reread this post about Brian McLaren’s departure from orthodoxy. I was then ultimately led to this good post by Jeremy Bouma about his journey into, through, and ultimately beyond Emergent Christianity.

Which, after almost 200 words, brings me to the starting point of this post. One of the commenters on Bouma’s blog said this:

Something is only orthodox after a larger body holds it for long periods of time. But that doesn’t make it true.

This statement is a common thought amongst tradition-averse evangelicals and progressive liberals alike: Orthodoxy is a construct made by the majority opinion or the victors of the Church councils. It is not, therefore, true.

Well, it is not necessarily true.

First, then, what is orthodoxy? This sort of question is the sort of thing that Emergent stuff was good at when evangelicals were still willing to listen and be unsettled by the conversations McLaren et al. started/fuelled.

Here is a moment when etymology is not a fallacy (unlike some PoMo/Emergent attempts to make church = called out because of the etymology of ekklesia). Orthodoxia is right belief or right worship. Both are important — one is the worldview, the other how we live in light of the worldview. Do we worship rightly? Do we worship the right God? Do we believe the right, or true, things?

In his book A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren affirmed that at the heart of orthodoxy lies the Apostles’ Creed. I spoke on this in Cyprus; the Apostles’ Creed encapsulates the Gospel and the Canon of the Faith which were also elaborated in the so-called Nicene Creed in 381. This Canon of the Faith existed as the oral tradition of the Church at a time when the New Testament canon was still loose and somewhat in flux; it helped the Church set the boundaries of what was and was not Scripture, in the end.

We have evidence of it in use in the early 100s and in various forms throughout that century.

The Canon of the Faith is, then, the central core of orthodoxy, the heart of the tradition.

If this is what we mean by orthodoxy, then, yes, a lot of people have believed it for a long time. While that does not make it necessarily true that makes any of the other contenders not necessarily, properly speaking, Christianity. If the people who chose our Scriptures and evangelised the world believe something to be central to their religious identity, and we deviate from that, we are no longer actually part of the same religious group as they were.

We have become something other.

Now, there are lots of other bits of orthodoxy that Emergent people have questioned. Some of them are in Scripture, others are logical outworkings of Scripture but not the only possible results, some of them are the majority opinion for most of history, some of them are the widespread beliefs of modern evangelicalism. These, like theological hymnody and the cult of the saints, should be evaluated individually. Of these parts of what is called ‘orthodoxy’ all truly orthodox?

And if we do this in humility and with prayer, perhaps we’ll have a different vision of faith. So long as it ever drives us upward to the Crucified God, questioning things beyond the core of orthodoxy is a helpful habit.

But remember, weary travellers must find at least an inn, if not a home. Let us not endless deconstruct with never resting in God’s Truth.

Vincent of Lerins, Scripture, and Tradition

Given my post about how its opponents perceive heresy, how can we find out what exactly is heresy? It seems to have been very important to the writers of the Patristic age, so I reckon that being able to identify it is a worthwhile task.

Being able to perceive heresy or orthodoxy is especially important today, I reckon, given that the world is aswirl with varieties of teachings about philosophical/religious/biblical teachings.

When faced with Osteen’s blend of Pelagianism and prosperity, with Archbp. Richard Holloway’s rejection of the bodily resurrection of Christ, with Bp. John S. Spong’s rejection of God as Creator, with the ongoing efforts of scholars to rehabilitate those whom the ancient and mediaeval Church rejected as heretics (from Nestorius to Pelagius to Arius to the Cathars), with Bart Ehrman’s insistence that the Orthodox ‘corruption’ of Scripture makes the whole text untrustworthy, with the well-meaning pluralism of close, dear, intelligent friends — and so forth — when faced with such things, how do we really know what to do when we sit down to think theologically, ethically, biblically, philosophically?

Sometimes Bible passages have multiple interpretations. Sometimes Jesus doesn’t seem to be God. Sometimes he does. Sometimes the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be God. Sometimes the Kingdom of God seems to be the biggest deal out there. Sometimes the crucifixion/resurrection event does. Sometimes the logic of atonement doesn’t hold together. Sometimes it’s crystal clear. Sometimes … sometimes …

Vincent of Lérins, famous for the dictum that orthodoxy/the catholic faith is what has been believed everywhere, always, by all, said this:

Often, therefore, when I have sought thoroughly with great zeal and the highest attentiveness from very many men outstanding in holiness and doctrine in what way and by what certain and, as it were, general and regular way I could distinguish the truth of the catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical perversion, I always receive a response of this sort from pretty much all of them, that whether I, or someone else, were wishing to discover the lies of rising heretics or to evade their snares, and to remain whole and healthy in healthy faith, one ought to fortify one’s own faith in a double manner, with the Lord’s help — first, with the authority of clearly divine law, then from there with the tradition of the catholic church. (Commonitorium 2, my trans.)

Given that “orthodoxy” is right belief, we all think we’re orthodox, so let’s not argue about the word right now.

The first step, according to St. Vincent, is to turn to Scripture, ‘the authority of clearly divine law.’ This means that, while we should consider soberly the arguments of people such as Ehrman (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture) and Spong (The Sins of Scripture), we can still believe that God has inspired the words, however flawed the manuscript tradition is, however flawed some of the persons and events recorded therein are.

If a belief is riotously counter-scriptural — ‘God, while pretty cool, didn’t create the universe’, or ‘we should have sex with any consenting partner’ — we can safely reject it.

Nevertheless, this is probably still not good enough, for most Christians today, from Bp. Michael Ingham and Marcus J Borg to Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn to N T Wright and Miroslav Volf, claim to take Scripture very seriously.

This is where St. Vincent’s second criterion comes into play: the tradition of the catholic church.

Tradition is, literally, that which has been handed down (Latin trado, tradere). According to Lewis & Short, one of the definitions of trado is ‘entrust.’ Tradition is that which has been entrusted to us by those who have come before.

Augustine Casiday, in Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian, says, ‘Tradition … is a process of creative fidelity to one’s origins.’ (122)

Our origins, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, are the apostolic writers and the holy men and women of the patristic age. They preserved the tradition of Jesus and his followers, spread it throughout the Mediterranean basin, and meditated deeply upon it in prayer, philosophy, verse, and holiness in action.

Of course, what do we do with the fact that after 451 the Nestorians (Church of the East) broke away into their own tradition, and soon thereafter the ‘Monophysites’ (Armenian Apostolic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian Orthodox Churches) broke away from the imperial church, and then in 1053 there was an official split between the Byzantine Church and the Roman Church, and then in 1517 a long process of disintegration took hold of the Roman Church in the West?

What is the tradition we are to turn to today? Traditional forms of Anglicanism, Puritanism, Presbyterianism, Methodism, Baptist-ism(?), Pentecostalism? Or are we to turn to Rome or Byzantium or Cairo for answers?

These are tough questions. However, if we prayerfully read Scripture and turn to the exegesis of the first five centuries as well as writers beyond that who agree with the conciliar formulae, perhaps that will be tradition enough?

And then perhaps we shall be safe from the poison of heresy …

The Phenomenon of Heresy as Perceived by its Opponents

The inspiration for this post is Leo the Great (saint of the week here) who makes many colourful references to Nestorians, Eutychians, and Manichaeans in his letters, referring, for example, to heresy as ‘blasphemous and hostile to evangelical truth,’ (Ltr 60) and making mention of ‘heretical depravity’ elsewhere (Ltr 109).

What Leo made me think about was how heresies opponents characterise heresy and its effects. I am not concerned with the particular beliefs of the ‘heresies’ but, rather, with the more general question of heresy and its foes; Leo is not alone in characterising heretics and heresy in such fiery, negative ways.

John Moschos (early 7th c) tells a story in the Spiritual Meadow about a monk who would sometimes go to a Chalcedonian Church for Eucharist, sometimes to an anti-Chalcedonian (=Monophysite) one. A friend warned him that this was a bad idea, so he prayed about it.

This monk had a dream in answer to his prayers, and there he saw Arius, Origen, Nestorius, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Eutyches, and Severus of Antioch burning in Hell. The message was not to communicate with heretics — and anti-Chalcedonians were heretics.

What Moschos’ tale tells us about his view of heresy is that it is damnable.

Cyril of Scythopolis (mid-6th c) typifies his Origenist opponents’ teachings as poison, corruption, and soul-destroying heresy amongst others. His anti-Chalcedonian contemporary John of Ephesus has nothing good to say about the ‘Synodite persecutors.’

No doubt we would have similar findings amongst other defenders of orthodoxy, from Irenaeus to Athanasius to Severus of Antioch to Justinian.

What we learn from the above is that the ancients took their theology seriously. They weren’t simply opposed to the beliefs of their opponents because ‘I’m right, and you’re wrong,’ or because they wanted power for their own episcopal sees, or because they were jerks.

They were opposed to these beliefs, and hotly opposed very often, because they believed that knowing and believing the truth was of vital importance. To live and die apart from the truth was to live a false life and die an eternal death.

I’m not sure if heretics end up in Hell or not. But if ‘salvation’ is more than just ‘Get out of Hell Free’ card, then heresy is dangerous for living a life of freedom here and now. By understanding the truth and living by it, we can know God better, worship more fully, and love our neighbours more perfectly.

Heresy, untruth that strives to be accepted as orthodoxy, is perhaps, then, soul-destroying and poison. It will draw us away from our true love and wither our worship here and now (leaving the hereafter to Almighty God).

Let us seek to know God more fully in as much of his glory and richness as our minds can handle.

Origen and the Development of Orthodoxy

I have been reading Origen’s On First Principles recently, and a thought came to me which had come to me before (you can thank me for being suitably vague later). This newly-recurring thought is that Origen and “Origenism” are the formative source and root for Christian controversy and Orthodoxy.

Now, you’re probably going to tell me that it’s actually biblical interpretation, such as the interrelation of Proverbs 8:22 with John 1. And you’d be right. But whose biblical interpretation do you think everyone was arguing about?

Origen’s.

Case One: Arianism. Origen’s Christology, as represented both in On First Principles and his Commentary on John is subordinationist, and, although he does not believe, “There was when he was not,” he at times calls Christ “created” and could be read through an Arian viewpoint, especially given the lack of homoousios theology. However, in On First Principles, Origen is also fond of the image of the Son being like the rays of light from the sun — this is an image favoured by Athanasius, the great opponent of Arianism. Hm…

Case Two: Pneumatomachianism (aka Macedonianism, literally “Spirit-fighter-ism“). Origen’s theology of the Holy Spirit is relatively undeveloped, in my opinion. When, in On First Principles, he comes to discussing the Spirit, he gets himself sidetracked with a discussion about spirit more broadly. He once again has a subordinationist view, saying that the Father’s being overflows into the Son who overflows into the Spirit.  The Spirit at times feels more like a personification of spirit, not necessarily a self-subsisting person or hypostasis.

This ambiguity of the treatment of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity ended up with Origenists such as the Pneumatomachians arguing against the Spirit’s divinity and other Origenists such as Didymus the Blind in On the Holy Spirit arguing for the Spirit’s divinity.

Case Three: The First Origenist Controversy. This controversy was specifically about Origen and some of his less … mainline … teachings and his approach to Sacred Scripture; some people (Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome) were certain that he was an out-and-out heretic and deserved condemnation, and that his allegorical interpretations went too far. Others (John Chrysostom, John Cassian, Rufinus of Aquileia) argued that Origen was largely orthodox. In the heat of it all, Chrysostom ended up dead, Rufinus and Jerome ruined their friendship, and the golden age of Egyptian monasticism was gone forever.

His defenders found precisely where he was worth fighting for, and his opponents found the places where he was worth attacking. What constitutes orthodoxy was, as a result, more clearly defined, but, thanks, in the West at least, largely to Rufinus’ translations of Origen and John Cassian’s work in Gaul, allegorical readings of Scripture were never fully lost.

Case Four: The Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory Thaumaturgus was a student of Origen, and the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) were students of Thaumaturgus. They were also involved in the later stages of both the Arian and Pneumatomachian Controversies. Gregory of Nyssa was able to produce theological writings after the triumph of Nicene Orthodoxy in 381.

Within the bounds of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan understanding of the Trinity, these three Orthodox Fathers par excellence produced Trinitarian theology that follows the trajectory set out by Origen. Origen, unlike his Platonist predecessors, rooted the being of God (His ontology) in being a Father, not in being a Creator. This meant that there never was a time when the Father lacked the Son. It also meant that the Godhead is a distinct being from creation who depends not at all upon the created order. It also means that the very root and source of the universe is rooted in communion (see John Zizioulas, Being As Communion to have your mind blown on this count). These were points taken up by Athanasius, but their nuances were really explored and set forth for us by the Cappadocians.

Case Five: The Second Origenist Controversy. This was a controversy about a number of Origen’s cosmological statements that were being espoused by a group of “fanatical” Palestinian monks. In 553, in meetings before the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II), Justinian and the Fathers determined that certain Origenist statements were outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and in the Acts of the Council itself, Origen and Evagrius are condemned outright as heretics.

This meant that such teachings as celestial bodies having souls or apocatastasis (seriously, get into Patristics for the awesome terminology) which teaches that at the end of all things God will reconcile all rational beings to Himself (presumably the Devil as well — Evagrius certainly thinks so) — such teachings are officially outside of orthodoxy. It also means that very few of Origen’s writings survive, and far fewer of Evagrius Ponticus’ — although one of his writings survived under St. Basil the Great’s name, another under Nilus. People will circulate what they wish, no matter how many books you burn.

In the end, so many of the big controversies of the early centuries of Christianity revolved around Origen, his understanding of Scripture and of God, and the Church’s understanding of Origen. He’s not exactly one of the early Christian theologians for one to start with, but he’s definitely worth reading, and certainly important.

Vespers

Christ Pantokrator, Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens

The little chapel was lit only by ambient light from the sides, the chandelier from the ceiling turned off — this, of course, augmented by the lights on Fr. Raphael’s lectern and the glowing candles in the lamps before the iconostasis and those lit by the faithful before the icons near the door.

Icons hung on the four walls of the room as well as on the iconostasis, although not completely covering this piece of ecclesiastical furniture which was made from simple timbers and boards, no fancy carvings in sight.  Although the chapel had no dome (I believe Fr. John lives upstairs), a circular icon of Christ Pantokrator was mounted to the ceiling above the nave.

When the curtain in the iconostasis opened, I could see the Holy Table* with an ornate cross with two other ornate objects flanking it; they reminded me of monstrances, but I knew they couldn’t be since Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is a western phenomenon associated with the 13th-century feast of Corpus Christi.

Fr. Raphael stood at his lectern in the back left corner of the chapel and chanted and sang Vespers.  There were Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, Kyries, and many others.  Amidst these beautiful hymns and chants were hymns for St. Ambrose of Milan whose feast was the next day.  These were beautiful and complex, verse homilies in miniature, teaching us of the life and teachings of St. Ambrose, praying that our faith might mirror his.

My Sundays of worship at Evensong at St. Alban’s in Ottawa as well as the many nights I have prayed Compline alone gladdened my heart when Fr. Raphael sang the Nunc Dimittis.  I mouthed the words silently along with him.

Every once in a while, I would see Fr. John behind the iconostasis, standing before the Holy Table, bowing, praying, and chanting a few portions of the order for Vespers himself.  At one point, Fr. John censed the Holy Table and then proceed out from behind the iconostasis with the censer.  He censed the doors, the icons of the day posted near the doors, Theodore, me, and Fr. Raphael, before proceeding back to his position behind the iconostasis.

Theodore, a young Romanian student of electrical engineering at the University of Edinburgh, and I were the only two congregants for most of Vespers last night.  We stood at the back, crossing ourselves at the right moments and lifting up our hearts to God.  Using skills developed at Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic services, I kept half an eye on Fr. Raphael to know when to cross myself.  I tried to listen to the words of the service, but sometimes, especially when the chanting became singing, I got caught up in the melody and lost track of the words.

I prayed the Jesus Prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’) many times over.  My charismatic upbringing also manifested itself in the quiet praying in tongues through the movement of the Holy Spirit in that quiet, holy space.  At times, my mind wandered as I stood there, thinking about Eastern Orthodoxy, liturgy, and worship, as well as St. Ambrose.  Inevitably, my thoughts turned to the fact that my back was hurting.

I sat down.  Theodore had already done so, so I didn’t feel bad about it.

Within about a minute of having sat down, Fr. Raphael called me over to his four-platformed spinning lectern to read.

I read the Trisagion, the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer to St. Ambrose, and a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  I may have prayed something else, but those are the prayers that stand out in my mind.  Fortunately, I know enough of Orthodox liturgy to have been able to pray the Glory Be without printed words properly.

After this beautiful service, we retired to the church hall for tea and cake.  I met Theodore and Dimitri, and had a conversation with Fr. Raphael about Pope St. Leo the Great and St. Cyril of Alexandria.  Then, as it was about 8:15 and I hadn’t had supper, I went home.

I’m glad I stopped in at the Orthodox Community of St. Andrew the Apostle.  The Lord blessed me through that visit, and I worshipped him in spirit and in truth.

*If I recall Fr. Alexander Schmemann properly, the entire space involved in the iconostasis is the altar.  Not knowing the Orthodox word, I give you the Anglican.

Tap into the Tradition: The Remedy for “Matthewism”

As may be known, I have a habit of listening to Ancient Faith Radio and reading Eastern Orthodox books (the most recent being Being As Communion).  The Eastern Orthodox are a voice worth listening to, and one of the main reasons they are worth listening to is because they, in turn, listen to the Fathers.  They are, thus, deeply traditional, preserving that which has been handed down to them.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, one of the many Orthodox converts on Ancient Faith Radio, says:

I realized that my selections [in my spiritual life] were inevitably conditioned by my own tastes, prejudices, and blind spots. I was patching together a Frankenstein God in my own image, and it would never be taller than five foot one. (Quoted here.)

This is the Christianised version of the religion cited by Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace of “Sheilaism” — whatever you feel like believing, however you feel like worshipping, however you feel like living is what comprises your worldview, religion, and lifestyle.

What Mathewes-Green discovered in Orthodoxy was the corrective of tradition.  We all have our idiosyncrasies that we bring to how we think and live, and as Christians we have them when we approach Scripture and worship.  Tradition is the accumulation of what has been handed down from the Apostles and generally approved of in each generation.  It challenges our presuppositions and idiosyncrasies, sometimes very uncomfortably, but when entered into prayerfully, the Spirit will use it to conform us more and more into the image of Christ rather than the accumulation of stuff and culture and self that we bring with us to begin with.

I decided that, while Orthodoxy is interesting and all, I already have a tradition of my own, and it sprang up in England around 596 with the arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury.  To ensure that I actually am part of this tradition, I recently re-read the 39 Articles of Religion, and I find myself in agreement with them.  So, besides reading the 39 Articles, what am I to do to engage with the Anglican tradition in all its richness?

1.  I have decided to plug into the Book of Common Prayer more frequently, using Morning & Evening Prayer and Compline, but also on occasion the Anglican Society of Saint Francis’ Celebrating Common Prayer for the divine office.  The daily office is an important part of traditional English spirituality.  It is a way to pray to and draw near to God while at the same time joining with believers within the tradition throughout the world and throughout time.

2.  I want to read the classics of the Anglican moral/ethical tradition.  This will first mean finishing off William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, but moving on to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and John Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection.  This aspect of the tradition includes both virtuous living and the call to social justice, both of which are part of the endless movement towards holiness and perfection (on this endless movement, see St. Gregory of Nyssa).

3.  The Anglican tradition also includes the English Reformers, so the Book of Homilies and Richard Hooker at large are to be part of my long-range plan, as is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

4.  The Anglican tradition has a large component of hymnody worth exploring, and since I have 3 copies of Canada’s 1938 Hymn Book, I am well-prepared for this angle.  Alongside hymnody are the poets — Donne, Herbert, et al.

5. The pre-Reformation English tradition, from St. Augustine of Canterbury to the Venerable Bede to St. Anselm to Lady Julian of Norwich and more is part of the tradition as well.  I think a study of the mediaeval roots of “Reformation” thought would be a worthy activity.  Despite the arguments over the date of Easter and monasticism, mediaeval English Christianity tried to adapt local Celtic customs as part of their own, thus making “Celtic” Christianity also fair game.

6.  Patristics is fair game, being the root of much mediaeval Christian thought as well as much Reformation thought.  The Fathers are the Fathers of all Christendom, not just the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox bits.

7.  The theologians other than the Reformers, up to the present day.  The emphasis on Tradition means that, while I should probably grapple with the likes of Spong, Ingham, and more, my emphasis should fall on the Wesleys, the Anglo-Catholics/Oxford Movement, C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, J.I. Packer, John Stott, and their ilk.

The above should probably last me until I’m dead.  Re those within Anglicanism who are divergent voices of dissent who attack and judge the tradition, I believe that the way to approach them is to look at them through the lens of the tradition, taking those bits that fall beyond the bounds of Scripture, the Creeds, and the 39 Articles, and providing cogent, reasonable, biblical, and traditional critique.

What about your tradition?  What are the roots and classic writings of Baptists, Mennonites, the Christian Reformed Church, Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism?  With these in one hand, the Bible in the other, large doses of prayer, and the enlivening of the Holy Spirit, we should be more clearly drawn towards the image of the likeness of Christ than when our own idiosyncrasies take control as we read our Bibles all alone in our rooms.  Oh, also, take along a worshipping ecclesial community for the journey.  God will use them to shape you mightily as well.

Ancient Theology Blows My Mind

Some of you may recall my first encounter with paleo-orthodoxy in 2007, when, to quote my other blog, “My mind was blessedly cracked open and happily split by Robert W. Jenson.”  Well, as I read Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (see post), Hall’s chapter “Christ the Son, Begotten and not Made,” which deals with St. Athanasius contra Arius, a similar event occurred.

To describe such a brain-cracking is hard.  It seems silly when I review the chapter.  It seems like, “Well, yes, this is Nicene theology, Matthew.  This is the mindset you were reared on.”  My Father is a big fan of St. Athanasius.  Nevertheless, the Truth comes bounding into my life and mind sometimes, and the shock of it is explosive.  Suddenly, my brain-pain is split wide open.  I gape in wonder at the beautiful simplicity of orthodoxy and proclaim, “Yea, verily!”  or “Sweet deal!”  So, at the risk of sounding like a pedestrian, small-brained kid from rural Alberta . . .

St. Athanasius primarily blew my mind by pointing out that when we talk of the Divine, we are talking about a categorically different Being than when we talk about anything else in the universe.

Thus, begetting with God is not the same at all as begetting with men.  How can it be?  Men are bound by time, and thus beget in time.  God is not; God is eternal and exists outside of time.  Thus, He would not necessarily beget in time.  In fact, since like begets like—were I to have a son, he would be consubstantial with me by nature—God cannot but beget anything other than God.  Therefore, whatever God begets is like God.

As Hall puts it, “whatever is predicated of the Father must be predicated of the Son . . . .  That is, if the Father is sovereign as an attribute of deity, the Son possesses that same attribute.  If the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord.  If the Father is Light, the Son is Light.  [Quoting St. Athanasius], ‘Thus, since they are one, and the godhead itself is one, the same things are predicated of the Son as of the Father, except the title of ‘Father.’” (p. 44).  I was also especially fond of St. Athanasius’ analogy of the Sun and its radiance; you cannot separate the two.  Thus it is between the Father & the Son.  Clearly this analogy, like all analogies (especially those used of the Godhead) could break down, but it is firm enough to do the job.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus sort of blew my mind also.  In Hall’s recounting of his Theological Orations, St. Gregory never goes beyond the bounds of Scripture yet uses logic to demonstrate certain truths of the Holy Trinity.  First of all, we see an element of Patristic methodological thinking that is absent today.  Hall, paraphrasing St. Gregory, writes, “Theology, while employing the mind, also involves the heart.  A pure heart, one grounded in the worship of the church and a life of prayer, will produce clear and fruitful theological reflection.  A murky heart and a dark mind, on the other hand, will produce a sick, thorny theology; it will offer no nourishment, only harm.” (p. 56)[1]

I once took a correspondence course from a prominent Protestant college in Australia.  This course was an introduction to the Bible, and its goal was to get us students acquainted with Scripture and the main foci and themes running throughout the divine narrative.  According to the authors of this work, using the interpretive method laid out by the book, anyone—Christian or pagan—would be able to correctly interpret Scripture and see what its plain sense was. St. Gregory and others would likely raise an eyebrow at this.  Really?  If we Christians see as through a mirror darkly, what about those who do not have the grace of the Holy Spirit to enlighten their hearts and minds?  This modernist approach also fails to take into account the human heart, something that St. Gregory of Nazianzus does first off—theology is both of the mind and the heart.  If we want to be true theologians, we should seek to be pure of heart.  How many academic theologians operate that way today?

However, these foundational challenges were not what blew my mind as I read about St. Gregory.  What blew my mind was the simple statement in a cool, logical fashion of the truth:

For indeed, it is not some deficiency in the Son which prevents his being Father (for Sonship is not a deficiency), and yet he is not Father. . . . For the Father is not Son, and yet this is not due to either deficiency or subjection of essence; but the very fact of being unbegotten or begotten, or proceeding, has given the name of Father to the first, of the son to the second, and to the third . . . of the Holy Ghost, that the distinction of the three persons may be preserved in the one nature and dignity of the godhead.  (71)

He blew my mind elsewhere, but I can’t find the reference just now.

May the Lord God Almighty blow all our minds by the stark reality of His Truth now and again.


[1] This sentiment is echoed in John Cassian’s Eighth Conference when Abba Serenus says that the pure of heart alone can properly interpret the high points of Scripture, and that a holy life is necessary for anyone who wishes to discern the true meaning of the Bible.

Saint of the Week: John of Damascus

Photo by A Whistling Train on Flickr
Photo by A Whistling Train on Flickr

While I was house-sitting for my parents this summer, I read Princess Ileana’s Meditations on the Nicene Creed (yes, this is what I do with my spare time).  Throughout the course of this most delightful and invigorating little book, she frequently quoted from the Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by St. John of Damascus (some say “John Damascene”).  I wrote none of the quotations down, however, thinking to nab a copy from a library when I wanted to reread any.

I’ve never read Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, but the portions I encountered were quite good.  St. John of Damascus was one of those men with an unafraid mind.  He lived from 676-749, born into a Syrian Christian* family of high-ranking officials under the Byzantine Emperors and then, during his lifetime, the Arab Caliphate, for which he himself was an official.  Indeed, since most of the population of the Near East would have been Christian at this time, the Caliphate employed many Christians in the civil service.  This is also common practice of most ancient empires — so long as you get your tribute from them and they leave your soldiers alone, the conquered can do business as usual.

Business for usual for John included more than being an official for the new aristocracy, however.  He is most famous for his defense of icons, which is where I first discovered him.  He argues that in Deuteronomy, when YHWH makes the prohibition on images, the argument made by God is that no one had ever seen Him.  However, when Christ became incarnate, suddenly people were able to see the Second Person of the Trinity.  Therefore, icons are an affirmation of the Incarnation, and the Incarnation is essential to salvation.

One other thing I learned in my reading of his thoughts on icons was the incorporation of the senses into worship.  In most of contemporary Western Christianity, especially certain branches of Protestantism, the only physical sense we incorporate is the sense of hearing.  We worship with our minds.  However, John of Damascus points to the incorporation of all the senses.  We not only hear the hymns and the sermon, but we smell the incense, taste and feel the Eucharist, and behold the icons.  Through these physical media, our giving glory to the Holy Trinity becomes an act of the whole person.

St. John of Damascus wrote in defense of icons because at the time the Eastern Church was going through the Iconoclastic Controversy (726-843).  The Controversy was started by Emperor Leo III who removed all images from Constantinople and sought to impose his will in this matter over the whole Empire.  843 is called the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” by the Eastern Orthodox, and I believe that the Iconoclastic Controversy is the reason why images are more important to Eastern Orthodox worship than Roman Catholic worship — once you have fought for something, you have a greater attachment to it.

Anyway, since St. John was living in Damascus, and Damascus had been conquered by the Muslim Arabs, he was beyond the reach of the iconoclastic emperor.  Therefore, he was able to write in favour of images with impunity.  Although Muslims disapprove of images in their own worship, it seems they did not impose this prohibition upon the dhimmi, which worked in the favour of iconodules such as St. John of Damascus.  Thus he produced his treatises On Holy Images, and they have become central to the Orthodox theology of worship (you can buy modern English translations from Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press here).

St. John of Damascus is also notable because of his dealings with Islam.  To the modern Protestant, with rock-star worship styles and auditorium-like worship spaces, the worship practices of Muslims are strange and foreign.  They pray five times a day.  They bow in a certain way.  They pray specific prayers at specific times.  They go on pilgrimage.  They fast.  However, all of these things are part of the worship of Christians in the Middle East.

So when Damascus was conquered and the Arabs rode in on their horses, built a mosque, and prayed toward Mecca, John didn’t look at them and say, “Oh, a new religion.”  Instead, he said, “Oh, another heresy.”  He did not see Muslims as being something totally other from Christians but simply heretics, and Mohammed as another heresiarch like Arius, Apollonarius, or Emperor Leo III.

I haven’t read On Heresies thought I would like to.  However, one aspect of Islamic theology he found especially unsettling is the denial of the divine and most Holy Trinity.  The treatise includes this as it closes:

But, if you are curious about God, first tell me of yourself and the things that pertain to you. How does your soul have existence? How is your mind set in motion? How do you produce your mental concepts? How is it that you are both mortal and immortal? But, if you are ignorant of these things which are within you, then why do you not shudder at the thought of investigating the sublime things of heaven?

Think of the Father as a spring of life begetting the Son like a river and the Holy Ghost like a sea, for the spring and the river and sea are all one nature.

Think of the Father as a root, and of the Son as a branch, and the Spirit as a fruit, for the substance in these three is one.

The Father is a sun with the Son as rays and the Holy Ghost as heat.

The Holy Trinity transcends by far every similitude and figure. So, when you hear of an offspring of the Father, do not think of a corporeal offspring. And when you hear that there is a Word, do not suppose Him to be a corporeal word. And when you hear of the Spirit of God, do not think of wind and breath. Rather, hold you persuasion with a simple faith alone. For the concept of the Creator is arrived at by analogy from His creatures.

Be persuaded, moreover, that the incarnate dispensation of the Son of God was begotten ineffably without seed of the blessed Virgin, believing Him to be without confusion and without change both God and man, who for your sake worked all the dispensation. And to Him by good works give worship and adoration, and venerate and revere the most holy Mother of God and ever-virgin Mary as true Mother of God, and all the saints as His attendants.

Doing thus, you will be a right worshiper of the holy and undivided Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Ghost, of the one Godhead, to whom be glory and honor and adoration forever and ever. Amen (taken from this webpage)

In the above quotation he takes into account many of the Islamic problems with the Trinity and the Incarnation.  No doubt there are arguments against St. John of Damascus from the Islamic position, for no argument in theology or philosophy is completely unassailable (this also covers many in the natural sciences).  However, in those early days of Islam, we see something important between the Muslims and Christians when they encounter one another.

It is not jihad or Crusade.

It is not an attempt to ignore differences.

It is not a whitewashing of how their theologies are almost completely incompatible.

It is, rather, respectful dialogue and debate.

When someone disagrees with your theology or religion, you produce an argument against him.  You do not take him to court.  You do not fine him large sums of money.  You do not bomb his place of worship.  You do not silence him by force.

Silence him with reason and love.

This is a lesson for both Christians and Muslims today.

As a Prayerbook Anglican, I don’t dig invocations of Saints.  However, let’s at least read these words of an Orthodox hymn as we close:

Champion of Orthodoxy, teacher of purity and of true worship,
the enlightener of the universe and the adornment of hierarchs:
all-wise father John, your teachings have gleamed with light upon all things.
Intercede before Christ God to save our souls.

*Wikipedia says “Arab”, but I disagree.  They cite Peter Brown, so they may well be right; I’ll have to check The Rise of Western Christendom myself to be satisfied.  I think he was probably of local Syrian descent, Syriac and Aramaic (the local languages) being Semitic languages like Arabic, and ancient Syrian culture would have had many cultural similarities to the conquering Arabs — so a Syriac-speaking Syrian could be mistaken for an Arab, especially if Arabs give him an Arabic name that’s almost exactly the same as his Syriac one.  Most people of the Middle/Near East were not and are not ethnic Arabs, although they have similar culture and today speak the language.