We can’t all be Michael Jordan – The tension of discipleship

In response to my recent post about the professionalization of asceticism in Late Antiquity, a friend of mine commented:

It’s tempting to lower the bar, but also hard to expect everyone to play like Michael Jordan.

He makes a good point. The life of discipleship is, like most of Christianity, a matter of upholding tensions. We are justified by faith, not works, but works are evidence or at least fruit of faith. God is a single essence but also three persons. Jesus is a single person who has two natures. The Kingdom of the Heavens has broken through into history and is amongst us, but it will not fully come until the Last Days and the return of Jesus.

Discipleship, then, exists in tension. I affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone as articulate by Richard Hooker and, last I checked, Martin Luther (whose teaching bears a resemblance to St Mark the Monk, but that’s a different question). We do not enter into a right relationship with God, or become citizens of the Kingdom of the Heavens, or escape Hell, or find our way into the New Heaven and the New Earth on Judgement Day because of anything we have done. Nothing we do holds any merit with God. It is all grace.

But we are called to be Jesus’s lifelong students. We are disciples. Faith without works is dead. Antinomianism, cheap grace — these are not the path of discipleship. In the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Jesus tells his students to make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit — and “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19 NKJV)

The path of discipleship is figuring out how to live that last bit, seeking to love God and neighbour better and better every day. The tension is that we are already justified by our trust in God and his saving mercy upon us, yet we are still seeking to lead holy lives. Nevertheless, while we cannot become holy without doing something, we cannot do anything without God’s unmerited favour helping us.

The question, then, is how do we help people become better disciples of Jesus without lowering the bar on the one hand (“It’s okay if you sleep with your boyfriend, God’ll forgive you — we’re saved by grace, after all!”) or expecting everyone to play like Michael Jordan on the other (“If you eat meat during Lent you are re-committing Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden”)? Both parenthetical statements are real statements I have heard, not hyperbole!

I am not sure. I think we need to exercise grace on the one hand, but also discernment as we sift through the disciplines to see what will help us grow into greater love of God and of neighbour. What we need, then, is each other: People to encourage us and help us see what we need in order to grow spiritually. Loving community helps maintain the tension of discipleship and foster spiritual growth. This is what the old abbeys or the communities gathered around the elders of the Desert were about.

I wish I could create or find that today.

Christology and Ascetic Theology

From 428 to 431, the Bishop of Constantinople was a man named Nestorius who got the heresy “Nestorianism” named after him. To what degree Nestorius was actually “Nestorian” is immaterial for what follows. When I look at the literature surrounding this controversy, three anti-Nestorians stand out in particular: St John Cassian, St Mark the Monk, and St Shenoute of Atripe. Although my actual research into their anti-Nestorian tractates remains to be done, their existence serves as the inspiration for this post, for all three of these opponents of Nestorianism are much more famous as ascetic writers than as theologians.

What is the relationship between ascetic theology and Christology? It is easy enough to see how a monk might object to either Pelagianism or Augustinianism. But what about Christology?

Sound Christology, I believe, lies at the heart of ascetic theology, and therefore of ascetic practice. We have to recall the purpose of the ascetic life, whether lived by a hermit, a monk in community, or the devout Christian today: participation in the life of Christ and an encounter with God, the Most Holy Trinity. In Eastern terms — and all three of the aforementioned monks had their faith nourished in the sands of Egypt — it is theosis, in the beautiful passage from Cassian I keep linking back to.

Asceticism is not just about cultivating a pure heart; seeking purity of heart or apatheia or hesychia is simply … getting the house ready for meeting with God.

Nestorian Christology undermines this. Nestorianism (again, not necessarily Nestorius himself) teaches that Jesus Christ exists as two persons, one human and one divine.

It turns out that the Protestant Reformation has something to say here. One aspect of English Reformation thought I have encountered in the last year (first in Oliver O’Donovan’s On the Thirty-Nine Articles) is the idea that from eternity, God’s good pleasure upon us, upon the elect, is a direct result of God the Father’s loving embrace of God the Son. We are mystically united to Christ through baptism and Eucharist; we are His mystical body. Thus joined to Him, when God the Father looks at love upon God the Son, he looks upon the Church as well.

I have probably expressed that poorly and without full justice to the idea. But that’s how I grasp it, anyway.

In the past month or so, I have been spending time with Richard Hooker and his contemporary interpreters. For Hooker, Chalcedonian Christology was part of the necessary apparatus of our sanctification and union with God, as Ranall Ingalls discusses in a book chapter about Sin and Grace in Hooker. Recall the Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith (which I have translated here), that Jesus Christ exists in two natures but as a single person, without separation and without mixture/confusion. One of the theological results of the explication and elaboration of Chalcedonian Christology is the adoption within Chalcedonian circles (that is, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox) of St Cyril of Alexandria’s concept of the communicatio idiomatum (I’ve written about this before and also here) — what can be said of Christ as God is also said of Christ as man. Richard Hooker makes a clear articulation of this doctrine in Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.53.3.

An outworking of Chalcedonian Christology in Richard Hooker, then, is that we are able to be united to God the Holy Trinity through the human nature of Christ, fully united to his divine nature to that full extent laid out in the communicatio idiomatum (implied by his teaching at Laws V.50.3. Thus we read (I modernise the spelling):

Christ is whole with the whole Church, and whole with every part of the Church, as touching his person which can no way divide itself or be possessed by degrees and portions. But the participation of Christ imports, besides the presence of Christ’s person, and besides the mystical copulation [union] thereof with the parts and members of his whole Church, a true actual influence of grace whereby the life which we live according to godliness is his, and from him we receive those perfections wherein our eternal happiness consists. Thus we participate Christ partly by imputation, as when those things which he did and suffered for us are imputed unto us for righteousness; partly by habitual and real infusion, as when grace is inwardly bestowed while we are on earth and afterwards more fully both our souls and bodies made like unto his in glory. -Laws V.56.10, quoted in Ingalls, p. 174

The -ism associated with Nestorius, by breaking the indissoluble unity of the communicatio idiomatum makes this impossible. The union of two persons is not full enough a union to allow for theiosis, essentially. The hypostatic union — which is to say, union according to person — of the reigning Christ, bringing together the fullness of humanity and divinity as one is what allows the end goal of asceticism. If the humanity and divinity are not fully united according to hypostasis, according to person, then the fullness of the human has not been drawn upward into the Godhead.

Therefore, we cannot be united to Christ our God through ascetic effort, maybe not even through pure grace. After all, as St Gregory of Nazianzus said, what has not been assumed has not been healed. The hypostatic union is the result of the full assumption of humanity by God the Word.

This is the entire theological — true theology, true thinking upon and contemplation God Himself — basis of mysticism, and things mystical are the entire point of asceticism. We wish to be pure of heart so that we may see God.

Nestorianism makes sitting on a pillar, praying all night, fasting, wearing uncomfortable clothing, watching one’s thoughts carefully, eating plain food, getting rid of earthly possessions meaningless. It is just ethics, not a pathway to God.

No wonder the monks reject the teaching associated with Nestorius.

Richard Hooker and the Coronavirus

Here’s a helpful and readable explanation of Richard Hooker’s doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It’s only marginally related to Coronavirus inasmuchas Anglicans who are missing the Eucharist right now actually are missing something Real, according to the English Reformation’s greatest theologian.

via Richard Hooker and the Coronavirus

Grace and labour working together in sanctification (more Richard Hooker)

Hopefully not wrenching this passage out of context, I have just found another bit of Richard Hooker that is germane to the relationship between grace and works in sanctification. It was quoted in David Neelands chapter on Predestination in Brill’s A Companion to Richard Hooker, p. 189. I am going to do something I usually avoid, and give it to you with modernised (i.e. readable) spelling:

For let the Spirit be never so prompt, if labour and exercise slacken, we fail. The fruits of the Spirit do not follow men as the shadow does the body of their own accord. If the grace of sanctification did so work, what should the grace of exhortation need? It were even as superfluous and vain to stir men up unto good, as to request them when they walk abroad not to loose their shadows. Grace is not given us to abandon labour, but labour required lest our sluggishness should make the grace of God unprofitable. Shall we betake ourselves to our ease, and in that sort refer salvation to God’s grace, as if we had nothing to do with it, because without we can do nothing? Pelagius urged labour, for the attainment of eternal life without necessity of God’s grace, if we teach grace without necessity of man’s labour, we use one error as a nail to drive out another. …. In sum, the grace of God has abundantly sufficent for all. –Dublin Fragments, 13.

What I think Hooker is saying is that we need grace to be able to do good. But once we are justified, our labour is a real part of the life of the justified Christian. Sure, our works won’t save us in terms of making us right with God. But they are part of us becoming holier. Those who reject such teaching are replacing one error with another — the idea that the Christian life does not require our labour.

This sort of thinking is what lies at the root of what inspired Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Protestants (he was looking at his own Lutheran tradition) take seriously Luther’s statement that justification is by faith alone. However, we have forgotten that this is essentially the beginning of our life in Christ. The rest — the rest involves, to use Hooker’s word, our labour.

I believe that an excessive focus on the doctrine of justification and a fear of over-reliance on our works has led to what Dallas Willard calls “the great omission.” We need to rediscover how grace works in our hearts to enable us to perform the good works that make us holy. Or how grace works in our hearts to make us holy, using our labour to that end.

We need to reject cheap grace and grace abuse, and recall St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 108), who said on the way to his martyrdom, “Now I begin to be a disciple.”

Here is the cost of discipleship:

Martyrdom of St Margaret, Santo Stefano Rotondo, Rome, early 1600s

Justification is not sanctification: Foundations for Protestant asceticism

I have been getting into Richard Hooker recently — first, the Learned Discourse of Justification, then a bit of secondary material on his understanding of sin and grace by Ranall Ingalls in A Companion to Richard Hooker. Next will be David Neelands chapter on predestination, then the book by my colleague and almost friend Brad Littlejohn, Richard Hooker: An Introduction (Brad and I would be friends if we knew each other better).

My initial reason for this current foray into Hooker was seeking teaching from deep in the Anglican tradition about the relationship amongst grace, works, and sanctification. What I’ve found on these topics and more I have liked. I told my brother, “Richard Hooker makes me want to be an Anglican.” He said this was good, since I am one.

Anyway, one of the things I’ve been having clarified is that the real distinction between justification and sanctification is fruit of the Reformation. At least, I think so. The sixteenth century is full of so many writers and so many academic opinions, I’m sure someone disagrees with me. Anyway, grasping this little thread of conceptual framework explains both how Reformational Christianity differs from Roman Catholicism and how we are able to embrace patristics (as Anglicans since Cranmer on the one hand and Parker on the other have done).

Basically, what I’m seeing is this. There is grace coming from God — when you get what you don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing. This grace is necessary at every stage of the Christian life, from conversion and baptism to extreme unction and burial. In terms of justification, the only thing we “do” is have faith. We trust Christ and His promises. This faith is objectively strong because Christ is, no matter how subjectively weak it may at times be. This grace makes us, sinners that we are, righteous in God’s eyes.

The fruit of this justification is good works. We live holy lives. And we become holier by the works we perform. Some of my Presbyterian friends shy away from this as “works righteousness”, but it seems to me that the work of sanctification is precisely something that only happens at every moment because of God’s grace, but that the tool in God’s hands is our own works. That is not an image of Hooker’s. Hooker is much less straightforward on this point than I am being.

We can be holy. And God’s grace makes us holy. The means by which grace makes us holy is our own works. Therefore, we must continually throw ourselves upon God’s grace if we wish to be holy, meanwhile working out our salvation in fear and trembling. This is sanctification.

Making this distinction between justification by faith alone and sanctification — both by works, all in Christ and by Christ — enables us to have Protestant asceticism. I am speaking here of what Kallistos Ware refers to as “natural” asceticism — so, not Stylites or flagellants or such things. Rather, frugal spending, simple eating, plain clothing, combined with fasting, regular prayer, regular engagement with Scripture, partaking of the Holy Communion. That sort of asceticism.

We do these things knowing that the works themselves avail nothing. But we do them knowing that the grace that makes them even possible is also at work in us to make us holy by these works.

This perspective sets us free from the Presbyterian fear of “works righteousness”, for one thing. We can freely perform our training (for that is what askesis means), knowing that God Himself undergirds it all. Second, it sets us free from the sort of late mediaeval anxiety that comes from works righteousness — none of our works can provide satisfaction, none of them holds any merit in relation to God.

We are already in a right relationship with God. We perform these works out of love for Him, out of a desire for holiness (and here I mirror John Cassian, Conference 11). In terms of meeting God, entering into relationship with Him, and escaping Hell — it is not by fasting and almsgiving that we are saved but by the Blood of Jesus. In terms of knowing God better, how else than by spending time with Him and doing what Our Father asks? How else can be transformed than by our own deeds?

(I do hope this makes sense.)

Wednesday in Holy Week: “Christ is the Mediator of the new covenant”

Continuing with the BCP lessons for Holy Week, today’s Epistle is Hebrews 9:15-28. Yesterday I gave the lesson in a modern translation; if you’d prefer one, here’s a link to ESVUK. But today, I give you the richness of the Prayer Book’s lessons:

WHEREFORE Christ is the Mediator of the new covenant, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions which were under the first covenant, they which are called might receive the promise of an eternal inheritance. For where a covenant or testament is, there must also, of necessity, be the death of the testator; for a testament is of force after men are dead; it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth. And therefore the first testament also was dedicated with blood; for when Moses had spoken every commandment to all the people, according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book and all the people, saying, This is the blood of the covenant or testament, which God hath commanded you. Moreover, he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry. And according to the law, almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. It was necessary therefore that these symbols of heavenly things should be purified thus; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices; for Christ hath not entered into holy places made with hands, which are only figures of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us. Nor need he offer himself many times like the high priest who entereth into the holy place every year with blood that is not his own: for then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world; but now, once for all, at the end of time, he hath appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement: so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time apart from sin unto salvation.

There is so much richness in this passage, where would I even begin? I think it is especially worth thinking on this year because the calculations for western Easter mean that Passover is today-tomorrow, so pretty close to when it would have been in relation to Christ’s death and resurrection. Now, Passover, of course, is not the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) mentioned here. Nonetheless, Christ dies at Passover as a sacrifice, a ransom for many. To quote the Prayer Book’s Order for Holy Communion:

by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world

This week we are entering into the very heart of the Christian Gospel. Keeping things Anglican, I recently read Richard Hooker’s A Learned Discourse on Justification. He says many worthy things there, asserting again and again, ” Salvation therefore by Christ is the foundation of Christianity.” All the other things which may be necessary or helpful for a healthy spiritual life — prayer, fasting, almsgiving, Scripture, the Holy Communion, etc., etc. — are of nothing worth compared with the sacrifice made by Christ to save us.

Whatever we do this Holy Week and Easter, let us throw ourselves at the foot of the Cross, where the blood spilled by God Himself may cleanse us and save us.

Processional Cross, St. George’s Anglican, Prince Albert, SK

A little Richard Hooker on the Eucharist

I cannot shake this idea of writing something deep and involved about eucharistic soteriology, so I just Googled “Richard Hooker on eucharist”, whereby I found this article from The Continuum on just that topic. It is mostly about Hooker’s understanding of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Hooker (1554-1600), if you don’t know, is one of the greatest theologians of the Anglican tradition, and he is one of the people who really set the stage for what the Church of England would grow to be over time. He has been called a Catholic Protestant. Or perhaps a Protestant Catholic.

Anyway, I have lifted a quotation from the aforelinked article for your perusal, hoping that you can handle the Elizabethan English. It is worth reading. Hooker is a man of his age, and he does not shy away from vivid imagery such as ‘in the wounds of our Redeemer we there dip our tongues.’ The bit that relates to my research trajectory is at the end; I have bolded it for easy skimming. 😉

Let it therefore be sufficient for me presenting myself at the Lord’s table to know what there I receive from him, without searching or inquiring of the manner how Christ performeth his promise; let disputes and questions, enemies to piety, abatements of true devotion, and hitherto in this cause but over patiently heard, let them take their rest; let curious and sharpwitted men beat their heads about what questions themselves will, the very letter of the word of Christ giveth plain security that these mysteries do as nails fasten us to his very Cross, that by them we draw out, as touching efficacy, force, and virtue, even the blood of his gored side, in the wounds of our Redeemer we there dip our tongues, we are dyed red both within and without, our hunger is satisfied and our thirst for ever quenched; they are things wonderful which he feeleth, great which he seeth and unheard of which he uttereth, whose soul is possessed of this Paschal Lamb and made joyful in the strength of this new wine, this bread hath in it more than the substance which our eyes behold, this cup hallowed with solemn benediction availeth to the endless life and welfare both of soul and body, in that it serveth as well for a medicine to heal our infirmities and purge our sins as for a sacrifice of thanksgiving; with touching it sanctifieth, it enlighteneth with belief, it truly conformeth us unto the image of Jesus Christ; what these elements are in themselves it skilleth not, it is enough that to me which take them they are the body and blood of Christ, his promise in witness hereof sufficeth, his word he knoweth which way to accomplish; why should any cogitation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this, O my God thou art true, O my Soul thou art happy!” Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.67.12

This is the great, central, catholic, classic teaching on the effect of Holy Communion in the life of the believer. This is what I want to expound..