Pope Questions

pope clipartI’ve decided to run a little series of posts called ‘Pope Questions.’  These are responses to questions that people invariably ask me in conversations about my work. Some of them are meant to clarify issues about who exactly Leo is, others are more specific to my own feelings concerning popes. The answers I’ll give here will not be the ones I gave in the moment — or, if basically the same, not verbatim.

Expect to see the following questions answered:

  • Is Leo one of the bad popes?
  • Why study Leo the Great?
  • What makes Leo Great?
  • What other popes are ‘the Great’?
  • Are all popes saints?
  • Who is the first pope?
  • It must be difficult for you to study a pope since you are a Protestant.
  • Who is your favourite pope?
  • What do you think of the current pope?
  • Is the Vatican hiding something in the Archive? What would happen if they made it all public?
  • Is that [Gregory the Great] the Gregory who went to war against Hungary?

Feel free to ask your own questions, of course!

I will not answer whether Leo was a Medici pope — I assume that person misheard the century ‘fifth’ as ‘fifteenth’. Or had Medicis on the brain. Or both. Nor will I answer if the Fall of the Roman Empire was near in time to the Reformation; I fear that person had little knowledge of European history.

Also, expect Montly Popes as of March, but not Weekly Saints. Too hard to keep up the saints.

Modern Roman Catholic churches: A superficial reason to stay Protestant?

Yesterday after work at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Site Richelieu) I wandered through St-Germain l’Auxerrois. This is a church dedicated to St Germanus of Auxerre (readers of Jack Whyte will know the character), a Gallic bishop of the fifth century (yay fifth century!). The church of St-Germain l’Auxerrois is a fantastic piece of Gothic architecture, with one of only two Flamboyant Gothic porches in Paris (the other is that of La Sainte Chappelle whose interior is Radiant Gothic; this is a fifteenth-century style of Gothic arthictecture) — this is also the style of the Tour St-Jacques at Châtelet in Paris. The outside of St-Germain is clearly Flamboyant Gothic:

To compare, here is Tour St-Jacques:

So that should set the scene well enough.

The interior of St-Germain l’Auxerrois is not all Flamboyant Gothic. I only took a brief look, but there is some woodwork that is clearly Renaissance, and the nave looks to be an early stage of the Gothic era. Several pillars also look Renaissance, and there are portions rumoured to be Romanesque. Like all good Gothic churches, it has a rose window:

What the traditional architecture of St-Germain shows is the ability of these different styles of classical church architecture to join together and form a united whole. None of it feels awkward. None of it feels out of place. It all works, whether one type of Gothic or another, whether Romanesque or Renaissance.

This is the sort of beauty and grandeur that would have attracted me to the Roman Catholic Church a century ago.

Today, alas, visiting St-Germain l’Auxerrois makes me repeat this quote from a wee piece of mine entitled ‘The Allure of Eastern Orthodoxy‘:

If Jesus handed on his teachings to His Apostles, and these traditions were handed on down the ages, they would help provide the key to proper interpretation of the Bible.  And this is what you have in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

In the West, we used to have it with Rome and the Anglicans, but both of these institutions have reck lessly dived into the world of modernity as modernity flounders and sinks.

Today, where the transepts cross the nave, to align with Vatican II requirements, a Holy Table has been placed in the church besides the High Altar in the chancel. This sort of disruption of ecclesiastical architecture is frustrating, but I could maybe live with it. However, they have not chosen to produce something beautiful infused with the history and tradition and weight of the glory of God and his Saints and his Church on the new post-V2 furniture.

I didn’t have my camera with me yesterday, so I can’t show you the hideousness. But it does not match. It is beaten metal of silvern colour with what looks like an eye wrought in it from golden colour. A square table. An awkward lectern. This is what the Roman Catholic faithful approach every Sunday morning to take in their mouths the Most Sacred Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ?

At first glimpse, this is a superficial reason to stay Protestant, isn’t it? I mean, what about my other areas of disagreement — ‘St’ Joan of Arc, church governance, transubstantiation, justification, Marian dogmas, the cultus of the saints, and so forth? Church architecture and furniture? Really? Has the Scholiast really wandered that far down the traditionalist position?

To me, this new furniture that is jarring and matches NOTHING within sight is symptomatic. The Church of Rome has been trying to reform herself for centuries. What ‘reform’ itself is has changed over time, of course, and meant something different to eighth-century St Boniface (saint of the week here) as to thirteenth-century St Francis (saint of the week here) as to sixteenth-century Luther and Erasmus as to the men of Vatican II in the 1960s.

I believe in some of her 1960s reforms. But the liturgical repositioning and cutting down has allowed a swathe of hideous modern art to flood the churches of Europe in a way that does not integrate with the artistic integrity of their setting. Furthermore, these hideous monstrosities (visible amongst Anglican churches as well) fail to communicate the beauty, truth, and power of the Triune God in any meaningful way. All they can capture of our God is that he is enigmatic …

… in an age when ‘enigmatic’ is about as far as most people are willing to concede to defining the divine, shouldn’t we go a bit farther?

Gothic architecture makes my heart sing. I am too inadequate an art lover/critic to explain what La Sainte Chappelle does to me. But it is powerful and profound. And it was meant to do this to me. As I have discussed, Gothic architecture is meant to bring physical light to us as a manifestation of the uncreated light of the Trinity as well as to draw our eyes ever upwards in a search for the invisible God, symbolically in the ‘heavens’. Modern church architecture, whether a barren Megachurch(TM) auditorium or frankly monstrous Roman Catholic post-V2 furnishings does not, cannot, do this to me.

Where is the glory of God for a lost generation? Where is the splendour of the resplendant Son of God for my thirsty soul?

Finally, what St-Germain l’Auxerrois says to me is: We used to know who we were and Whom we worshipped. But now we are chasing culture along with the Protestants and have forgotten.

Catacombs and Controversy

Orans or ‘Pray-er’ in the Catacombs

I’m not an art historian, as this post that still leaves me dissatisfied will show. But I do like art and architecture and sometimes even have coherent thoughts about them. This coherence is typified in my posts about Gothic art and architecture here and here. Part of what makes Gothic architecture easier to write about is the fact that it comes with a guidebook, almost. When Abbot Suger redesigned St. Denis, he wrote all about it.

This clarity is not the case for much early Christian art.

And today, I had to lead a tutorial seminar on the Catacombs of Rome, which lack much clarity and coherence because they were first excavated during the Reformation and were thus marshalled for the ‘Counter-‘ or ‘Catholic’ Reformation as Anti-Protestant/Iconoclast propaganda. Today, the Vatican still controls access to these subterranean lands full of wonderful images, thus making it harder to re-evaluate them based upon new techniques and better knowledge of the early history and art of Christianity from other sources (such as Dura Europos).

The propaganda value of the Catacombs comes from attempts to proclaim all of the art Christian and all of it pre-Constantinian. This often comes coupled with the belief that the Christians lived and hid in the Catacombs during times of persecution. The idea is that if you can prove a major role for bishops and the Bishop of Rome before Constantine, as well as the centrality of martyr (ie. saints’) cults in Ante-Nicene Christianity, as well as the prominence of Christian figural art including images of Christ before Nicaea, you can prove to Iconoclast Protestants who want to separate from Rome and abolish the cult of the saints that they are treading a fine line with overturning early stages of the very tradition that gave us the Scriptures.

However, I do not believe that you need to espouse this 16th-century propaganda to be Roman Catholic — not that I’m a Roman Catholic. The newer interpretations of the Catacombs are that they are subterranean necropoleis like those of other Mediterranean cities and that they housed the corpses Christians, Jews, and pagans. This view explains why there are so many pagan motifs in the art down there (you’d think it would be welcome to the Roman authorities).

Catacomb Banquet

Although such a view leads to re-dating some art as well as proclaiming other art pagan, the art that seems to date from the mid-third century still has many of the major Catacomb motifs — banquet scenes, Bible stories, Christ the Good Shepherd on the ceiling, fish, chi-rhos, and the like. Thus, arguments for Ante-Nicene figural images can still stand against Iconoclastic opponents.

Of course, when the material is re-dates, there is some trouble with the fact that none of the crosses or crucifixions pre-dates the fifth century. But this merely makes the Catacombs like every other place with Christian art. Christians were very slow to go about publically painting and carving crosses. My hunch is that in a culture where people are actually crucified, it’s still too raw; Christians have to spend enough time working through the shame as it is, as evidenced in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho.

I think the lack of crosses also points to the purpose of the art. While it’s likely that some Christian martyrs were buried there, no evidence exists for regular Church services down there, apart (one imagines) from martyrs’ festivals. The Bible stories tend to be images of people being saved, not of Christ’s salvific act. They are reminders of the hope all Christians hold.

Good Shepherd, ceiling of cubiculum in Catacomb of Priscilla

Another idea countered by younger scholars is that every banquet scene in the Catacombs is Eucharist. Since some of them are pagan, this need not be so. They could be images of the heavenly banquet; they could be images of the banquets Romans (Christians included) held at the tombs of loved ones on the anniversary of their death; they could be images the Christian love-feast. Who knows?

Alas, however, these views are hard to find, as an art historian/archaeologist friend was explaining today over coffee. Since access to these sites is so closely controlled, and the official line so loudly proclaimed, it is hard to find a book that will break the silence and tell the truth in all its messiness and with all its uncertainties.

But I like the image of the Catacombs as common cemeteries where Christians told their stories in frescoes, even if they are not always the stories we expect. It adds another angle to the evidence provided by the also scant but much more numerous documentary evidence that I usually deal with.

G. K. Chesterton and the Modern Protestant

NAMESAKE

Mary of Holyrood may smile indeed,
Knowing what grim historic shade it shocks
To see wit, laughter and the Popish creed,
Cluster and sparkle in the name of Knox.

G. K. Chesterton

That little poem by a large man, c. 1932, is part of the wider bewilderment with which Chesterton beheld the modern(ist?) Protestant, something he brings out fully in his book The Thing: Why I Am Catholic (my favourite quotations here).

In The Thing, Chesterton is not impressed by the Protestants he sees around him, for they seem unable to properly define a Protestant, for one thing. For another, the virtues they find in the writings of famous Protestants such as Milton and Bunyan are not things that are peculiarly Protestant. Rather, they are things that he sees as being peculiarly Catholic.

I would argue with dear Mr. Chesterton, however, that these things are not simply Catholic but more properly catholic. That is to say, the things that modern Protestants love about Milton and Bunyan, Shakespeare and Donne, may not be peculiarly Protestant things, but they are not Catholic in the sense of Roman/Romish/Papist/what-have-you, but catholic in the sense of universal — they are part of the common store of all Christians everywhere at all times, be they Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant.

Nevertheless, GKC has a point here. Chesterton is right in berating modern Protestants for not really liking the things that, historically, define them as Protestants. In the forefront of his mind seems to have been a dislike of some form of Calvinistic Predestination, which is a bit amusing, given that Predestination itself is as much part of the Catholic theology as Protestant, both groups being inescapably Augustinian despite their best efforts in recent times.

There is something troubling about a group that dislikes the things that define it and loves only those things that it has common with everyone else. Why, exactly, should one be part of said group? Why be a Protestant if the only things you like about Protestantism are things Protestants hold in common with Roman Catholicism? Why be a Christian if the only things you like about Christianity are things Christians hold in common with all religions?

While I do not argue we must all adhere strictly to the confessional documents of the 16th and 17th centuries, I do think we should take them into account, we should figure out if these adjectives of old — Protestant, Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Orthodox — actually refer to our particular set of beliefs or if we are merely followers of the heresy of Scholiastism (insert your own name before the -ism).

St. Francis and Why You Like Him

Re-post from elsewhere in 2008.

St. Francis of Assisi by Count Berthold von Imhoff

Despite real, living human beings like one old woman in Chasing Francis who declared in horror, “Isn’t Francis of Assisi a Roman Catholic Saint?” many people love St. Francis, Christian and otherwise. Among the Christians, friends of Francis are found across denominational and theological boundaries, with “Low” and “High” Anglicans loving him, “liberals” and “conservatives” being inspired by him, “evangelicals” and “progressives” chasing him.

So let’s get Francis to cut through all the barriers and labels and help us see what a real Christian looks like!

Ecologists love St. Frank because he was green. He preached to animals and rejoiced in creation, seeing it as a vehicle for the beauty and glory of the Creator. If he were to see what we do to the planet today, he would be shocked and appalled. He would call out for us to stop, to take a look at Sister Earth and her moaning, to see that the majestic trees are our fellow creatures, made by the same loving God! Yes, the earth is ours to till, to use, but not to abuse or destroy! We must be stewards of creation, not overlords.

Evangelistic evangelicals love Francis because he was a gospel preacher before he was a creation-lover. He and his friars would preach to poor that they had to repent, that the Kingdom of Heaven was nigh. They cared about and for the poor spiritually in a time when many reserved the gospel of salvation for the rich and noble. They preached a gospel of the extravagant love of God in an age of hellfire, brimstone, Crusades, and indulgences. St. Frank believed that everyone had a chance of heaven, and he wanted them to have that chance. He loved Jesus and he wanted everyone else to see why Jesus was worth loving.

Social activists love St. Frank because he bathed the lesions of lepers. Once, when the brothers gave him a cloak because it was a cold evening, he gave it to the first freezing beggar that he saw, then proceeded to thank the beggar for giving him this opportunity for generosity. The message of repentance the little brothers brought to the rich and powerful was that of mammon, of money and its grip on life. Sometimes they didn’t use words, and this was effective enough for many rich young men to sell all they had, give to the poor, and go join the little brothers. At other times, if the brothers were at prayer and a rich man rode by in his carriage, one would stand and preach about the evils and money and the deception on wealth while the others continued at prayer.

Mystics love St. Francis of Assisi because he was one. He would spend days in prayer — spontaneously. Once he was walking with some of the brothers and became overcome by an urge to pray. A friend had a place nearby, so they went there, and St. Francis spent the next three days in prayer. Another time, when he and St. Claire were deep in conversation for hours and their spirits were caught up in the heavenlies, the locals ran to the building because it looked like it was aflame. But when they went in, they saw that the light was produced by a gathering of the saints with Francis and Claire. St. Francis had visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary as well as the stigmata. The event that started his ministry was a vision of Christ.

Why do you like St. Francis of Assisi?

Return to the Sources (Ressourcement)

In the 1920’s, there was a papal call to ‘return to the sources’ which produced a number of Catholic theologians who worked on the ancient and mediaeval theologians, seeking to bring their wisdom to today and seeking to make their words available today, both through scholar editions such as Sources Chrétiennes and translations such as Sources Chrétiennes. This movement was and is the Ressourcement, and produced major works such as Henri de Lubac’s Exégèse Mediévale.

In the English-speaking world, today’s Christian who is seeking to discover the Fathers has many thanks to render unto the Catholics and their publishing houses.

Paulist Press – Ancient Christian Writers and The Classics of Western Spirituality

Paulist Press, the publishing house of the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle, has produced two great series of English translations and editions, the Ancient Christian Writers and The Classics of Western Spirituality. The former is a series of highly scholarly translations of a vast range of ancient Greek and Latin Christian texts. A full list is available here.

The Classics of Western Spirituality is broader than Ancient Christian Writers, covering mediaeval and modern texts as well, including Protestants such as John & Charles Wesley alongside the Catholic mainstays such as Sts. Francis & Clare of Assisi. This series comes with very competent introductions, but at times the selections have been edited, as with John Cassian’s Conferences which are incomplete (however, the ACW translation is complete). The Patristic resources in this series are:

Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings, The of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus by Athanasius, Apocalyptic Spirituality includes selections from Lactantius but is mostly mediaeval, The Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa, The Conferences by John Cassian, The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus, Maximus the Confessor: Selected Writings, Origen: Selected Writings, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter by Pseudo-Macarius, Hymns by Ephrem the Syrian, and On the Song of Songs and Selected Writings by the Venerable Bede.

While this series covers the Western Church very well for the Middle Ages, it is too bad they are missing much of Western Patristic spirituality.

Catholic University of America – The Fathers of the Church and The Library of Early Christianity

The Fathers of the Church is a long-running, high-quality series of English translations of the Fathers. A list of works translated is available here. This series is very large.

The Library of Early Christianity is a new venture started by CUA, and I’m excited about it. It seeks to present Loeb-style editions of early Christian texts in Latin, Greek, and Syriac (I’m not sure if other languages such as Coptic will be included) with facing-page English translations. This series will be a blessing to many as it gets up and running, I am sure!

Apart from these series of translations, Catholic scholars have been involved in translation projects with Routledge’s Early Church Father’s series, SVS Press’s Popular Patristics Series, Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and so forth.

To go into the Ressourcement work beyond translation would be too much for now, but Eerdmans’ Ressourcement: Retrieval and Renewal in Catholic Thought series is worth looking into here. The series includes the English translation of Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis.

For later: The Evangelical Ressourcement?

What makes a Protestant?

One evening, as a friend and I walked to Vespers at the local Orthodox Church, he remarked that he had invited some of our other friends who had responded by looking at him as though he had three heads. Another time, these same friends had chuckled in a, “Yeah, right,” sort of way when he said that he was as much a Protestant as they were.

The question has been raised here as to why I am not Eastern Orthodox, given that I seem to embrace so many Eastern Orthodox beliefs. The question is related to the response of more evangelical, Reformed Protestants who don’t see my Methodist/Episcopalian friend who appreciates Aquinas, incense, and Kallistos Ware as being “as Protestant” as they are.

What makes a Protestant?

GK Chesterton, in The Thing: Why I Am Catholic, takes issue with some of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century responses to this question, when people such as Dean Inge argued that basically being a Protestant was rising in protest whenever things were going wrong. He also has trouble with the fact that those things that make a Milton or a Bunyan delightful to the modern Protestant are things that Milton and Bunyan share with Catholics — not things that make them Protestant.

This question has needed answering for a good while, then.

According to Bruce McCormack at the University of Edinburgh’s Croall Lectures for this year, Protestants — the theologians, at least — should be working from within the framework of their confessional statements to produce a comprehensive worldview. He was not fond of those Protestants who produce either Catholicism light or a Patristic synthesis to theological issues. We should be identifiable through our adherence to the confessional statements of our tradition, according to McCormack. At least, that’s what I think he was saying.

For many contemporary Protestants, this is probably a bit of a problem, especially if we consider the very large number of Anglicans who are Arminians and thus cannot throw themselves wholeheartedly into Article of Religion 17, “On Predestination.” For me, saying that I must pledge my allegiance to a particular confession and produce theological thinking in accord with it is a definite problem, if we recall this post.

Nonetheless, I would still like to say that I am a Protestant. And being Protestant requires more than a rejection of papal claims. There are, I believe, certain doctrinal positions Protestants emphasise as well as certain approaches to doctrine and worship.

First of all, justification by faith. As a Protestant, I believe that nothing we do can make us justified before God. No amount of condign merit will justify me. It is the faith within the heart and life of the believer that justifies. God will justify those who have chosen to follow Him and put their trust in Him. From true faith will flow a life of good works, yes; but the good works are not what justify us but the fruit of the justified.

Second, the primacy (supremacy?) of Scripture for faith, life, and doctrine. A lot of Anglicans like pointing to Hooker’s three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, from which the removal of a single leg means utter disaster, saying that people like Mark Driscoll are troubling because of how much they overemphasise Scripture.

Well, the fact of the matter is, Scripture contains everything necessary for salvation. Other things might be okay, but they aren’t necessary. If it’s not in Scripture, it is not binding. Now, tradition and reason are important for the interpretation of Scripture. We can never escape them. That is the point of this whole website. But Scripture still stands supreme. If tradition, through the years, has come up with something counter to Scripture, the Church — the same Church who handed down the tradition — can jettison it after a long, painful process of prayer and searching the Scriptures together.

Third, I do not believe that a true Protestant will have a Roman understanding of the sacrifice of the Mass. That is to say, the idea that Christ himself is offered upon the altar as an immolation for our sins by the Priest who stands in Christ’s stead each Sunday. Now, the idea that there is a twofold sacrifice of ourselves, our souls and bodies, along with the gifts of bread and wine at the Holy Table — this is acceptable. It is also acceptable to say that the Eucharist recapitulates Christ’s atoning work and brings its benefits to the assembled Body through the Sacramental act (see Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New).

As regards other aspects of the Sacrament, Protestants are divided. I, myself, follow Luther in The Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, as explained here. I affirm with my Anglican heritage that the Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism are outward, visible signs of an inward, invisible grace.

If to be Protestant one must sign on to a confessional statement, most Protestants would have to believe in penal substitutionary atonement. And most of us do. And some of us believe in Christus Victor. Some of us, rascals that we are, believe in both. But this issue is more of an East vs. West question than a Protestants vs. the World question.

In fact, most of the major questions of Christology and Triadology (the study of the All-holy Trinity) do not have a particular spin from the Protestants, outside of heretics like Oneness Pentecostals. We tend to follow St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas on these issues. Some, like Reformed theologian T.F. Torrance, turn to Sts. Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria for their Christology. I, myself, follow a sort of Neo-Chalcedonian, Conciliar Christology with something of an Augustinian-Thomist Triadology for good measure. There’s nothing un-Protestant about that!

I’m getting tired. But I think that the issue of justification, the place of the Bible in the Christian life, and the question of the sacrifice of the Mass (tied into how you answer the first two) are among three of the defining points of Protestants.

I am a Protestant, and maybe even an Anglican.

Christianity and Eastern Religions

I just read an essay by the late Michael Spencer (the Internet Monk) about Thomas Merton and why Merton appeals to iMonk so much. Thomas Merton is one of the 20th century’s most popular spiritual/religious authors, a fact that probably immediately draws the ire and fire of fundamentalists and other likeminded folks (not to mention his being a Roman Catholic!).

One of the aspects of Merton’s writing that seems to draw a lot of fire, however, is neither his popularity nor his Roman Catholicism, but his interest in Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism (see here). Thomas Merton is not the only Christian writer to get in trouble for learning of and drawing from Eastern religions — CS Lewis has been accused of being a Taoist and a heretic here! I have no doubt others have suffered similar fates (Anthony de Mello would have if he were popular enough).

This branding of Christian thinkers who have an interest in Eastern religions and who are able to draw ideas from them as heretics or false Christians troubles me. It troubles me because Christians are bound to the Bible as the full revelation of God as far as we need to know, containing nothing superfluous and lacking nothing necessary (see Rick Dugan’s brief but illuminating post to that effect).

Yet to say that the Bible is all true is not to say that there is no true outside the Bible. What it means is that if we find truth elsewhere, it will not run counter to Scripture, nor will it be necessary for human salvation. It will not complete the picture of God we can find by faithfully searching the Scriptures. But Christians must surely be able to learn from Eastern religions.

We certainly learn from pagan Greeks — we are all fans of pagan logic-chopping. We tend to be pleased with readers of Plato’s Republic. I once saw a quotation from Marcus Aurelius — Stoic philosopher and Christian persecutor — in a calendar full of Christian quotations! It was there because it was wise. We like a certain type of pagan Stoic ethics, or a certain type of seeking happiness put forward by the likes of Aristotle.

It’s true that we spent a good long time after dear Origen delineating how closely we should dance with Neo-Platonism, and that aspects of mediaeval philosophy were hopelessly pagan and Platonic, while aspects of late mediaeval theology are heavily Aristotelian. And we have had to disentangle Christian truth from those pagan elements since then.

But what about the paganism of “Enlightenment” thought? Or the paganism of capitalism? Or the paganism of the Renaissance? Or the paganism of secularism? These are ways of thinking that are so bred into our culture that Christians often operate by their assumptions while claiming to be spiritual beings who are inseparably tied to the immortal God who transcends the rational world!

Let us return, then, to Eastern religions, to Taoism and Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.

Is it necessarily wrong to read their writings and find wisdom there? I sure hope not! In The Inner Experience, his final work, Merton paints an expressly Christian mysticism, one rooted in the reality of the Incarnation, the Scriptures, and the tradition. He also mentions Zen Buddhism, but under the belief that Zen meditation is a form of psychological action that alone does not guarantee contact with God — yet it can help calm the mind and help the mind focus.

Is this so bad? I mean, this is what Christian mystics, Orthodox and Catholic, call for — the dispassionate focussing and, to a certain extent, emptying of the soul/nous/mind to be able to focus on the tangible Presence of God. If a Buddhist practice that is decidedly psychological can help us without denying the Scriptures or the tradition, is that so wrong?

If we are set free by the Scriptures and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we can read any pagan — ancient or modern, Greek or Indian — and be able to find the wisdom of God himself dwelling there. And we should expect this, actually. Justin Martyr discusses the fact that the Word (that Person of the Godhead who became incarnate as Christ) is the underlying principle of the cosmos, that he orders all things and is present to some extent in all human beings.

All human beings can catch a glimpse of God, of how to reach Him, of what His way of life is to be.

This practice is called spoiling the Egyptians. We read the unbelievers* and, using the twin lens of Scripture and Tradition, we can safely find the wisdom of God residing there. The practice is an ancient Christian practice certainly consciously practised by Origen and St. Clement of Alexandria; St. Justin Martyr became a Christian from having been a Platonist and considered himself a Christian philosopher. Its more recent pedigree includes Erasmus’  Handbook of the Militant Christian (where I first encountered it, though not under this name, if I remember aright).

The idea is set out in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses (I was going to quote for you, but I left my copy in Canada). Basically, if you’ll recall the Exodus story, when the Israelites go out of Egypt, the Egyptians give them a vast amount of wealth — gold, silver, jewels. The allegorical or spiritual reading of this passage is the teaching that, because of the general grace of God there is wisdom in the writings of pagans. This wisdom is their wealth, and it is open to spoliation by Christians — ie. any wisdom in the pagans may be taken by the Christian reader and applied to his’er own life and beliefs.

Such beliefs are never to be binding unless corroborated by Scripture,** but they can help make our lives fuller and richer. If you have a terrible job, the Stoic idea that freedom resides within you and you can be truly free whilst a slave can be liberating. Or if you have, say, anger problems, breathing practices from Eastern religions can help calm and focus your mind.

So, if you’re halfway through the Bhagavad Gita, keep reading. Just don’t forget to read the Bible while you’re at it!

*The secularists, atheists, agnostics, Greeks, Egyptians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists, Confucians, Native North Americans, Maori, Aborigines, African animists, Zoroastrians, Sumerians ……

**When we try to make them binding, we end up with embarrassing things like vociferous religious opposition to Copernicus and Galileo (although Galileo got into trouble because, even though correct, he had insufficient evidence and kept on teaching his ideas after promising not to until he had more evidence).

Liturgical Translations

Tonight I began translating the Gelasian Sacramentary (a digitised version is here). Given that a. my current research is into sixth-century Greek & Syriac saints’ lives and b. my future research is into fifth-century papal correspondence, this project will take a while.

Nevertheless, I believe a translation of this sacramentary is a worthwhile and important object — and not only of this sacramentary but of the Leonine and Gregorian Sacramentaries as well. Why?

I’ve been thinking about the (New) Liturgical Movement — the move for modern liturgies that began in the 1960’s and has given us the Book of Alternative Services (BAS) for the Anglican Church of Canada, the Alternate Service Book and Common Worship for the Church of England, the Novus Ordo for Roman Catholics, similar liturgies for Lutherans (Book of Worship?), a host of prayer resources such as Celtic Daily Prayer or Celebrating Common Prayer, and a proliferation of liturgies for special occasions or individuals at the local church or small group level. And the Taizé office and music.

All of this is well and good, although sometimes I have my reservations about particular moments in the Liturgical Movement. One of the reservations I have is that sometimes the Liturgical Movement, like the evangelical equivalent of Contemporary Worship, does not drink deeply enough.

Edith M. Humphrey, before she became Eastern Orthodox, recommended that writers of new songs of worship begin by drawing on the Psalms. I would echo that, calling them also to immerse themselves in the old hymns both musically and textually for a while.

For the liturgists, an immersion in the Psalms would be helpful. Also helpful would be the vast resources of the ancient and mediaeval church. For the liturgical reformers of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, this was a real possibility. Men like Quignon, Luther, Cranmer, and the editors of the 1570 Roman Missal, all knew Latin and probably Greek as well.

This meant that as they sought to reform the liturgy, they had access to centuries of liturgical writing, and we can see that Cranmer certainly put this to good use in his famous Collects that draw heavily upon the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries and his daily office includes a prayer from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (which, incidentally, is also present in that of St. Basil the Great).

Today’s liturgists, be they clergy or worship leaders or diocesan committees or church-wide committees often lack this knowledge of obsolete languages. Thus, it is harder for them to drink deeply as did their forebears. One result is collects that aren’t even properly collects, for example (as lamented somewhere on Liturgy).

Accessible translations of ancient and mediaeval liturgical texts is a worthy endeavour. As you can see, I have already done some of this with the Mediaeval Wedding and the Mediaeval Vespers (both Sarum Use). More needs to be done, for although the Sarum Missal has been translated into English (here for the Mass, here for the book on Amazon), the Sarum Breviary has not (at least, not in its entirety).

I believe that translations of liturgical texts from the long and venerable tradition of western liturgy would be a blessing to the Liturgical Movement. What do you think?

More on Pelagians and Myself

There have been some comments (finally!) on my post about Pelagians, so I should set the record straight on a few things. If you are here for Pelagians and sex, you can skip the stuff about me and scroll down to the bold words “Pelagians, Augustine, and Sex”.

First, I have rightly got into trouble for this:

“Clearly misinformation and caricature are the best things to fill our devotional books. Thank you, Northumbria Community.”

That was gall, not righteousness. Mea culpa.

Second, I have been accused of two things: never having read Augustine and being “one of the Calvinist illiterates who believes whatever [my] deranged pastor tells” me. So, these require full treatment, I feel.

  1. I have not, it is true, read much of Augustine. I have read The Confessions, various homilies, On Grace and Freewill and things he says about demonology. Oh, and portions of De Doctrina Christiana and of On Marriage.
  2. I am not Calvinist. This is an amusing thought, given this post and this post amongst others. I wish I were more easily labelled (does Franciscan Orthodox — Eastern — Wesleyan Prayer-book Anglican even cover enough bases?), but if we wish to concern ourselves with grace & freewill, I prefer the imperfect ideas of John Cassian’s 13th Conference, sometimes called “Massilianism” (NOT the Eastern heresy “Messalianism”, an unrelated thing) or “Semi-Pelagianism”. Catholic scholar Boniface Ramsey prefers to see Cassian as Semi-Augustinian; Eastern Orthodox Scholar AMC Casiday wishes to eliminate all “semi’s” from the discussion and read the authors on their own terms.
  3. Also, I don’t believe whatever my pastor tells me, deranged or not. I’m unfortunately critical of most sermons, although those at my local church do better than many elsewhere.

Pelagians, Augustine, and Sex

I will agree with my opponent, rey, that Augustine and the tradition that follows from him, as well as many of the Fathers, had a confused view of sex. While I disagree categorically with diagnosing any historical person as “a classic case of insane transference whereby a nutcase asserts that everyone else is as messed up as he is” or even as necessarily sexually deviant — except in cases such as Nero, and even then the record is incredibly biased against him — because we don’t know enough about him. The only non-modern people we really know that much about are Cicero and the merchant of Prato, and I don’t think we should diagnose them, either.

Augustine’s animosity towards intercourse no doubt comes from his own previous years with a concubine with whom he had at least one child. At the point of his conversion, although St. Monica wished to arrange a marriage with a lovely young lady, Augustine devoted himself to the monastic life (contra rey: “He remarried a wealthy Catholic woman, and this helped him achieve the status of bishop. [To be bishop, you needed wealth.]”) We know of this from the most popular text of Late Antique Latin Christianity, The Confessions. That the only sex Augustine ever had was in a more or less sinful state (concubines are a foggy area even to ancient Christians sometimes) no doubt helps contribute to his views on sexual intercourse.

Concerning Augustine on sex in marriage, see “On the Good of Marriage.” Here we see some rather convoluted things, and it is clear that Augustine would prefer a world without sexual intercourse, but he has to admit that it is not actually sinful in marriage. Given the enormous quantity of Augustine’s corpus, he may have said elsewhere that sexual intercourse in marriage is evil; I know that Aquinas at least implied it in the 13th century. Indeed, it is rather absurd to imagine that living like a celibate with your own wife is the best pathway; yet he still concedes that having intercourse is allowable. That which is allowed is not sin, is not evil.

This odd sort of teaching is the sort of thing that comes from monastic discourse throughout the Mediterranean and Near East and is not peculiar to Augustine. People seem to imagine that, while it’s okay to have sex and raise children, it’s best to be celibate. I have discussed this issue in relation to St. Gregory of Nazianzus here. I do not agree with these people (much to my wife’s relief). If Julian called St. Augustine out on this silliness, this is a good thing.

Regarding rey’s statement that one needed wealth to be a bishop in Late Antiquity, I would like evidence. I do not think that this is true. One certainly tended to need class, but class and wealth are not the same thing. If we consider how many poor ascetics were made bishop, I cannot see how wealth is a prerequisite to the office of bishop.

Moving on to grace. Rey says, “Grace is not magic power to enable you to do things you couldn’t do before.” No one ever said that it is. Gratia, lexically, as my opponent has said, is favour. It is:

Favour which one finds with others, esteem, regard, liking, love, friendship

as well as:

Favour which one shows to another, mark of favour, kindness, courtesy, service, obligation (Lewis & Short’s Latin Dictionary; I don’t yet have the OLD — apologies).

In Souter’s A Glossary of Later Latin to 600 A.D. we also find this amongst the usual suspects:

any benefit or blessing from God.

Gratia in the second sense involves action. If an Emperor shows favour to me, he is likely to use his power to help me. For example, we could say that when St. Savvas entreated the Emperor Justinian for help in his monasteries against dissenters and raiders, Justinian showed his favour, his gratia, to St. Savvas by helping reorder the monasteries and build a fortress against the raiders. This is favour, is it not?

So, when we say that we are saved by God’s grace, that means that God has done something to help us. We are saved by God’s favour, which inevitably involves action. When we say that God’s grace helps us to do good, that means that he, through his favour towards us, chooses to help us do a good action. Grace is not power, no, but it implies the use thereof.

Grace is not, however, as the lengthy comment contends, mercy. There is no hint of mercy within the lexical range. Latin words for mercy are clementia and misericordia. These all have to do with having pity upon someone. Indeed, mercy and favour are related; they are not synonymous.

All of this is to say that, for a Latin-speaker, God’s grace would most certainly have helped us do good as a real possibility.

And Greek only bolsters our case, as we note the third meaning of charis in the LSJ:

in concrete sense, a favour done or returned, boon, charin pherein tini confer a favour on one, do a thing to oblige him

When Paul speaks of being saved by God’s grace, he does not mean that God saves us by his mercy. He means that God saves us for no merit of our own. He looks upon us with favour, “not weighing our merits but pardoning our offences” (BCP). Or, to bring out my evangelical youth, “When you get what you don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing” (the Newsboys).

Given that grace has both the sense, in Late Latin as well as in Greek, to be both favour and action done out of favour, then verses such as Noah having found grace in God’s eyes are clearly not about God giving him power to do a good action. This is a different question altogether, for it is another use of the same word within its lexical range. Words have nuance, and we always need context. To imagine that grace always means mercy is illiterate, in my opinion.

Re Col. 4:6: “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man,” I would argue that LSJ’s first definition of charis — outward grace or favour, beauty — works best. Let your speech be always beautiful and favourable to others.

The problem with Pelagianism is the assertion that God will not help us do good. Pelagians teach that our will is untarnished and capable of doing good all the time and doing enough good to save us. God’s grace, whether favour or mercy, does not help us in this endeavour. Woe to me, if I am the only responsible for my salvation! I know the weight of my sins. How can I be free of them save by the favour of God that pardons my offences?

Most of the second comment our friend rey made is about my alleged Calvinism. It does, however, include this:

The Celtic church was Pelagian.

This may be true. I, personally, only have the evidence from the Venerable Bede concerning Germanus’ visit to Britain in the 5th century that was meant to stamp out Pelagianism. I do know, however, that the big seventh- and eighth-century issues as we see in the Life of St. Cuthbert seem largely to be about the date of Easter and monastic foundations, not Pelagianism.

We must remember that the Late Antique/Early Mediaeval/Byzantine world was still very connected, even with a few barbarian kingdoms around. The Celtic monastic foundations (ie. Iona) included in their libraries Latin editions of the Mediterranean Fathers such as Basil & Co (Basil’s is the only name I can remember). Furthermore, according to an article I read a couple of years ago, they had much in common with St. Maximus the Confessor (Eastern theologian of the 600’s).

If the Mediterranean Church chose to do away with Pelagianism, despite any politicking that inevitably went on, it did so for good reason. These reasons were ultimately not those given by Celtic Daily Prayer in the original post. They were the issues of grace and freewill. The Celtic Church was connected to the Mediterranean Church, and if she leaned more towards John Cassian than towards Augustine, she was in good company (see the ENTIRE EASTERN CHURCH).

The Eastern Church, however, also turns away from Pelagianism even as it anathematises Augustinian doctrines of predestination as heresy. From what I’ve seen, in some poems from Iona, the life of St. Columba, the Voyage of Brenden, Patrick’s autobiography, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and so forth, the insular Celtic Church was not at odds with the Mediterranean Church and out-and-out Pelagian but, rather, had many things in common with the Eastern Church, which also explains the clashes in the seventh-century, since Latin West and Greek East were starting their own clashes at about the same time.

Note also that if the Mediterranean Church was not monolithic by any means, neither were the Celts on these Isles. Thus, even if many were Pelagians, it is likely that many weren’t, just as many in the Mediterranean world were not Augustinian.

Finally, rey took exception to my statement:

Whether you believe in the talking snake or not, the whole point of Gen 3 is to explain the very real condition of humanity as being basically cursed and sinful, fallen, lost.

Apparently, this is “illiteracy mixed with lies,” because Gen 3 “shows how apes became human.” If we are to read Gen 3 literally, this reading cannot work. And if we are to read Gen 3 allegorically, we are in sparse company when we read it that way. I do not even know where to begin figuring out the hermeneutics that led to rey’s position.

So, I shall state the following instead. Rey says that the Fall is “a Manichean myth handed down by word of mouth among the illiterates since Augustine’s time.”

According to St. Irenaeus (I am likely to blend in Athanasius — apologies), the second-century apologist (a full two centuries before Augustine), humanity was created in innocency. This is what we see in the chapters before Genesis 3. Our forebears naturally did what was right, but were like children. They did not know really know right from wrong. They could not fully perceive. However, God had a plan that He would strengthen them and enable them to grow into understanding. Then they would be like Him, knowing right from wrong.

But the humans, in their greediness, ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil before their time. This led to them gaining knowledge they were not prepared for, and as a result led to death which is the separation of our soul from our body, an unnatural event.

As a result, we have lived out our lives in a world of pain and toil, growing into the maturity that God gives us through his grace but without the ease of the Garden. God will recapitulate all things at the end of time, as effected through the Incarnation and Second Coming, restoring things to a better state than before we fell. Because we fell, God’s Incarnation as a man also involves his suffering and dying, so that he may taste of all we have tasted and may be a sacrifice for our sins and the conqueror of death.

This narrative, this world of recapitulation, makes more sense to me than a world where God told us not to eat the tree through reverse psychology so that we would gain “moral capacity, the ability to know right and wrong and to CARE.” That eating from the tree then and there was God’s plan. And if eating from the tree was God’s plan all along, why did he proceed to curse the man, woman, and snake? Furthermore, if Gen 3 teaches neither Fall nor Curse, why is there a curse in it? Interpreting the curse may be difficult, but denying it is avoiding what is there before us on the page.

This view of Gen 3 leaves us in a world that is as it was meant to be. A world with a God who wants cancer and war and hatred and violence. Why? Because there is no fall. We are living our lives exactly according to God’s plan. With the fall, we have a frame of reference, that this beautiful, tragic world is great but could be greater, and was meant to be so. With the fall, we have redemption. Without the fall, the Cross is meaningless, redemption impossible.

With the fall, we also see why it is that we do not do what we want to do.

Playing Nice

I would like to call out rey for not playing nice. Endlessly referring to one’s opponents in a debate as “illiterate” is not nice or fair. Calling their ideas “lies” is not fair.

Assuming that your opponent is one thing and then writing from that frame of reference based upon a single thing he wrote one evening in less than half an hour — that’s just bad argument. Especially when said opponent has an entire website right in front of you that could show you several things, such as not being a Calvinist, such as having read a certain amount of Patristic literature, such as knowing Latin and Greek. Just for starters.

Also, saying, “Well duh,” does not count as playing nice.

And talking down to people throughout the entire comment is not playing nice.

Why play nice? Because playing nice helps people listen to you. Not playing nice makes them decide to take you to town and have many knee-jerk reactions to everything you say. People get angry all the time at Augustine for not playing nice. I would argue that, while clearly being as heretical a Pelagian as ever there was, you have played the game as an Augustinian this round, rey. Too bad.

If you wish to argue with me about Predestination & Freewill, my thoughts on John Cassian’s doctrine are here and here.