Saint of the Week: St. Gregory of Nyssa

Today in the West is the feast of St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 331-395), the younger brother of St. Basil the Great (Saint of the Week here) and the youngest of the Cappadocian Fathers (brief blurb here), the others being his brother Basil and Basil’s university buddy Gregory of Nazianzus.  One could also include the holy women of Sts. Gregory and Basil’s family, the Sts. Macrina, their grandmother and sister, the former who helped raise them, the latter who helped raise them up to holiness.

St. Gregory was not originally destined for an ecclesiastical career.  He originally pursued law, but the bidding of his mother Emily, was drawn to the holy life.  According to abbamoses.com (see January 10), she had him come to a service in honour of the 40 Martyrs.  Tired from his journey and not especially zealous, he fell asleep.  Whilst asleep, the 40 Martyrs came to him in a dream, rebuking him for his sloth.  Overcome by penitence, he decided that he would thenceforth lead a holy, righteous, and sober life.

In 372 he became bishop of Nyssa in Asia Minor, but was exiled by the Semi-Arian Emperor Valens in 374.  In 378, the Nicene Emperor Gratian recalled St. Gregory to his bishopric.  He was present in 381 at the Council of Constantinople, which produced the form of the “Nicene” Creed in use to this day.  In 395 he fell asleep, having left behind a large body of writings.

One of the blessings that comes from reading the Cappadocian Fathers, especially this youngest of the three, is their bridging of the gap into an age where Nicene Orthodoxy was the accepted norm for theological discourse.  This gives their writings a different tone from those of St. Athanasius, who spends great energy and passion in polemic against Arianism, or in later ages when new controversies arise, producing the polemic of St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Augustine of Hippo.  This must be qualified, of course, because there are always various smaller controversies, or certain local ones, that give flavour to theological writings.

Be that as it may, St. Gregory of Nyssa is able to produce works of theology that are not always on the defense but are often simply the proclamation of Orthodoxy.  It is a position of security rare in the world of theology and one not to be missed.

The only work of his which I have read in full is his Life of Moses.  I recommend it highly.  It is a guide to the virtuous life, using a “spiritual” rather than literal approach to Scripture, basing the steps of the virtuous life upon that of Moses. Although it takes a bit of getting used to, many good ideas and truths are found in this book.  It is a great introduction to how the Fathers read Scripture as well as providing much food for thought and consideration of how we live our lives.

How to honour St. Gregory of Nyssa?  Do not simply read his works, but praise, worship, honour, and glorify the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit whom he adored.  Live a virtuous life.  The Fathers seek no higher honour than this.  Although, if you really like a guy, an icon wouldn’t hurt ;).

Tomorrow Night: Fasting with John Wesley

For the next four Tuesdays of Lent, the Classic Christian small group will be looking at four spiritual disciplines: Fasting, Simplicity, Worship, and Service.  Tomorrow night, we begin with Fasting.

Fasting is a venerable practice engaged in by many of the luminaries of Scripture, from Moses to Elijah to St. Paul to our Lord Jesus Christ himself.  The Didache relates that the early Christians fasted twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays.

The Desert Fathers ate one meal a day around three o’clock in the afternoon.  They taught that fasting was essential to the life of prayer — and undivided prayer was their purpose in retreating to the desert.  One cannot pray on a full stomach — and John Cassian recommends never eating so much that you be satisfied.  Fasting and prayer coupled together are the best defense against the demons and the evil thoughts that infiltrate our minds and tempt us to sin.

Fasting continues to be emphasised throughout the monastic tradition, from St. Augustine and St. Benedict through to the Franciscans and the Dominicans.  In course of time, requirements for fasting on particular days and at particular seasons mellowed to abstinence, thus, not eating (red) meat on Fridays or going vegan for Lent.

In most Protestant circles, the emphasis salvation on absolutely nothing but faith in Jesus led to the falling away of fasting over time, even though Martin Luther, the loud proponent of justification by faith, fasted.  In the 1700’s, John Wesley found himself inspired by the ancient Christian witness and practice.  He fasted twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays and required that those wishing to become Methodist preachers themselves fast twice a week.

Fasting has an eminent pedigree.  We who live in a culture obsessed with food, obsessed with consumption, in the thrall of instant gratification, should seriously consider fasting.  We must not allow ourselves to become slaves to anything* — our bellies, our taste buds, food, grocery stores, advertisers, food production companies, restaurants, fast food joints.  Ruling our bodies is a step towards freedom, and fasting is a step towards ruling the body.

If you find yourself stoked about fasting & John Wesley, read his sermon on fasting, the text for tomorrow.

*This would, in fact, include being enslaved to a rule of fasting.

Good Books Point to Others

The second great thing about Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (see original post) was the fact that it made me want to read more of the Fathers.  I think this is what most good books about Patristics should do.  Just as a book about the Bible should point us back to the Bible, a book about Homer to Homer, or a book about Tolkien to The Lord of the Rings, so books about the Church Fathers should make us ache, thirst, long, cry out for more.  This book does that.

Chiefly, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers makes me want to read in full a number of the cited texts.  Chief amongst these texts are St. Athanasius’ Orationes contra Arianos, St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations (on Sts. Athanasius and Gregory blowing my mind, read this), St. Augustine’s On the Trinity, St. Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ (I was destined to read this, anyway, given my interest in the Council of Chalcedon), St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.  Not enough of us read enough of the Fathers, so anything that explains their teaching and whets the appetite for more is worth reading, in my opinion.

If you find yourself wishing to go forth, here are some thoughts:

Online Resources

-The Fathers of the Church at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, including the Ante-Nicene Fathers and both sets of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.  A very valuable resource.

Monachos.net — Orthodoxy through Patristic and monastic study.  This website has many interesting resources from the Eastern perspective.

The Fathers of the Church at New Advent.  Another collection of writings.

-There is a Patristics Bog Carnival roaming around out there, usually at hyperekperissou; this past month it was at The Church of Jesus Christ.

Primary Sources

-It’s probably a good idea, if you’ve read this book, to wrestle through some of the works that feature prominently herein and which you found yourself drawn to.  Thus, for me, I think I should especially read St. Gregory’s Theological Orations, St. Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ, and St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.

-St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God.  This book is short and readable.  It presents some very compelling arguments for the incarnate Word (Jesus) being God, as well as giving the reasons why God chose to become a man.

-St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit.  This is a wonderful book about the work and person of the Holy Spirit.  St. Basil demonstrates that the Spirit is, indeed, God, using both Scripture and tradition, and then he discusses the Holy Spirit’s role in the Christian life.

-Pope St. Leo the Great, Tome to Flavian.  This short work sets forth the doctrine of two-natures Christology, which is the accepted orthodoxy of all Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.

-The Apostolic Fathers.  These works are individually short.  I have read First Clement, St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians, and the First Epistle of Barnabas.  They give us insight into the mind of the first generation of Christian thinkers after the Apostles, something to be valued greatly.

-Other Patristic writings worth starting off with that are not “theological” in the modern, Western sense, but in the sense that holiness can only be embodied and practised:

-St. Athanasius, The Life of St. Antony.

-St. Augustine, The Confessions.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Secondary Sources

-Drobner, Hubertus.  The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Hendrickson, 2007.  This book is a “patrology.”  As an entire book, it is not an introduction to reading the Fathers.  However, it does provide concise introductions to most fathers and periods of early theological thought.

-Oden, Thomas C.  The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. HarperOne, 2002.  In this book, Oden presents his vision of postmodern Christianity that is rooted in the premodern world of the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought, something he calls “paleo-orthodoxy.”  He believes that a rootedness in the Fathers will root us within the tradition and the Scriptures and reinvigorate the life of the Church.

-Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Baker Academic, 1999.  This is the first volume of Webber’s “Ancient-Future” series.* Webber makes a similar basic argument as Oden about revitalising the Church for the future through the wisdom of the ancients, but his audience is evangelical whereas Oden’s is mainline.  He begins the task of constructing a Christian worldview and life structured through the wisdom of the Fathers in response to the questions and new perspectives of the postmodern era.

*The others are Ancient-Future Evangelism, Ancient-Future Worship, and Ancient-Future Time.  Lots of people recommend Ancient-Future Worship; I’ve never read it, myself.

“Learning Theology with the Church Fathers” by Christopher A. Hall

Learning Theology with the Church Fathers is Christopher A. Hall’s sequel to Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (the third in the trilogy is Worshiping with the Church Fathers).  In this book, Hall examines various theological questions, taking the question of the divinity of Christ as his jumping-off point.  The examination of the question at hand is always narrowed to certain Church Fathers, never the entire corpus of Patristic thought on each issue, an approach that keeps the book to a reasonable, readable length.  For example, in the chapter “Christ the Son, Begotten and Not Made”, he draws principally from St. Athanasius.  In “The Mystery and Wonder of the Trinity”, our guides for the journey are St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Augustine of Hippo.

Other issues Hall sheds Patristic upon are the two natures of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the question of sin & grace, providence, the love of God, Scripture, ecclesiology, and the Resurrection (the final one).  He realised whilst writing that the topics covered weren’t enough, that something more needs to be said.  The third volume will help us draw nearer to the mind and life of the Fathers, for these men were not mere academics but practising, preaching, and worshipping pastors—thus, the question of Patristic worship is important.

The best things about this book are:  i. It blew my mind.  ii. It made me want to read more of the Church Fathers.  Each of these will receive a post of its own later.  Some other, more general comments on the book are the order for today, however.

My favourite chapters of this book were those that dealt with what I think of as theology proper—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Thus, “Christ the Son, Begotten and Not Made”, “The Mystery and Wonder of the Trinity”, “Christ Divine and Human”, and “On the Holy Spirit” especially, although “God’s Wise and Loving Providence” helped draw me closer to an understanding of impassibility, a doctrine I am not yet comfortable with.  This may be that I do not fully understand what it means for God to be impassible; it may be that I am clouded and biased by my 21st-century ways; it may be that the Fathers are wrong.  The last option makes me very uncomfortable, because I tend to agree with things they all agree about.

One of the aspects of Patristic thought that this book helps to draws out is its focus on real, live theology.  These days, a lot of people talk about something called “theology”, but it’s really a Christian or biblical approach to certain issues—such as eco-theology and ethics, but even at times ecclesiology, sacramental theology, liturgical theology.  Very rarely do we say, “Gee, who on earth is God?”  The Fathers did.  Who is Jesus?  How does the nature of who Jesus is affect the way we live, think, are saved?  Who is the Father?  Who is the Holy Spirit?  How on earth are there three Gods and one God all at the same time?  The Fathers addressed these foundational issues, and then from this truly theological framework—one always rooted in the foundations of Scripture and tradition—dealt with other issues, such as justification and ethics.

Hall attempts to give Nestorius and Pelagius a fair hearing in this book, but at no point does he act as though the teachings attached to their names are legitimate orthodoxy.  This is a dangerous but admirable trait.  When we look at these figures of church history, we have to realise that every saint was also a sinner, and every sinner a potential saint.  And sometimes people said things that they didn’t necessarily mean, or hadn’t thought through properly, or expressed badly, or their followers took their arguments to their logical, heretical conclusions.[1]

Sometimes you want more than a mere exegesis of the Fathers as they exegete Scripture and tradition, bringing them to bear on the theological questions at hand.  Sometimes I want to know more than just what this one Father taught, more than just this one thought on a question.  Sometimes I want to see objections to these thoughts, or counter-arguments to objections in my mind, or a thorough “modern” rationale for these ideas.  At times, these elements are lacking, but not always.  When they are present, Hall sometimes takes too long going about it, and this may be why he avoids it sometimes.  It may also be that his mind did not conceive of the same counter-arguments to the statements of the Fathers as mine did.  However, this is not meant to be a complete display of all of Patristic thought on these questions, nor even on all questions, since some never even arise.

The authors presented by Christopher A. Hall in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers are all major thinkers of the Patristic age, and their thoughts tend to be representative of the ideological climate surrounding the theological questions he addresses.  This book, as a result, is a good book to inspire people to explore the field of Patristics and Patristic theology further.


[1] This happens today with certain types of Calvinist.

John Cassian vs. Nestorius

I recently finished reading John Cassian’s work On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Against Nestorius (De Inc.).  This work was written in reaction to certain documents of Nestorius’ circulating in the West.  Cassian wrote it at the request of Archdeacon Leo of Rome (later Pope Leo).  George Bevan sees evidence of Cassian working here with four sermons of Nestorius’ and the Contestatio of Eusebius — “Slender evidence” (116).*

The result of Cassian’s slender evidence is a document that won’t do you much good if you want to learn about Nestorius and the arguments against his teaching.  As well, Cassian is not always as precise with his language as fifth-century theologians ought to be, and some of his sentences and phrases could have been misconstrued.  However, overall, the orthodoxy of the document is that Christ is one person who has two natures, and Cassian argues against certain terminology that could be used to deny this reality.

Cassian takes the reader through a discussion of one heretic’s recantation, and then a refutation of the Nestorian documents at his disposal using Scripture, then using the baptismal creed of Antioch, and then, in Book 7, the Fathers — Sts. Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Rufinus of Aquileia, Augustine of Hippo, Gregory of Nazianzus, Athanasius, and John Chrysostom.

This document illustrates, especially in 6.5, the inherent conservatism and traditionalism of ancient Christianity.  We also see why any truly orthodox Christian can comfortably call Mary Theotokos, or “God-bearer” (usually rendered “Mother of God”).

I, personally, like this book for some of Cassian’s statements that seem (to me, at least) pretty clear statements of orthodoxy:

Therefore the Lord Jesus Christ is God. But if He be, as He certainly is, God: then she who bore God is Theotocos, i.e., the mother of God. Unless perhaps you want to take refuge in so utterly absurd and blasphemous a contradiction as to deny that she from whom God was born is the mother of God, while you cannot deny that He who was born is God. (2.5)

God could not possibly be known of men, unless He Himself gave us the knowledge of Himself. (4.2)

And so following the guidance of the sacred word we may now say fearlessly and unhesitatingly that the Son of man came down from heaven, and that the Lord of Glory was crucified: because in virtue of the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God became Son of man, and the Lord of Glory was crucified in (the nature of) the Son of man. What more is there need of? It would take too long to go into details: for time would fail me, were I to try to examine and explain everything which could be brought to bear on this subject. For one who wished to do this would have to study and read the whole Bible. For what is there which does not bear on this, when all Scripture was written with reference to this? (4.7)

He then alone it is who spake to the patriarchs, dwelt in the prophets, was conceived by the Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, appeared in the world, lived among men, fastened to the wood of the cross the handwriting of our offences, triumphed in Himself, slew by His death the powers that were at enmity and hostile to us; and gave to all men belief in the resurrection, and by the glory of His body put an end to the corruption of man’s flesh. You see then that all these belong to the Lord Jesus Christ alone: and therefore no other shall be accounted of in comparison with Him, for He alone is God begotten of God in this glory and unique blessedness. (4.9)

For all who believe in God are sons of God by adoption: but the only begotten alone is Son by nature: who was begotten of His Father, not of any material substance, for all things, and the substance of all things exist through the only begotten Son of God—and not out of nothing, because He is from the Father: not like a birth, for there is nothing in God that is void or mutable, but in an ineffable and incomprehensible manner God the Father, wherein He Himself was regenerate, begat his only begotten Son; and so from the Most High, Ingenerate, and Eternal Father proceeds the Most High, Only Begotten, and Eternal Son. (5.4)

There is nothing wanting then in the Creed; because as it was formed from the Scriptures of god by the apostles of God, it has in it all the authority it can possibly have, whether of men or of God. (6.4)

This is our faith; this is our salvation: to believe that our God and Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same before all things and after all things.  (6.19)

You can read it for yourself at the CCEL.

*The Case of Nestorius: Ecclesiastical Politics in the East 428-451 CE.

Tomorrow: John Cassian and Sacred Scripture

It is Epiphany.  On January 6, we remembered the coming of the Magi to the Christ Child and worshipping him.  This event signifies the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.  And Epiphany comes from the Greek for manifestation.  As we travel from Epiphany to Lent, we shall be looking at God’s revelation to us.

Thus, tomorrow night we are going to look at how we read the Bible, for the Bible is the inspired word of God, or, as some say, God’s word written.  The Bible is a special book in the life of the Church and of the individual Christian.  Cassian will be our guide.

(St.) John Cassian was a fifth-century monastic writer who lived in Egypt with the earliest monastic communities before moving to Gaul (France) where he established, according to tradition, two monasteries.  At the request of a local bishop, he recorded the wisdom of the Egyptian Fathers for a Gallic context, first their means of life in his Institutes, and then their teaching in his Conferences.  This week, it is the Conferences we shall turn to, specifically to the eighth, chh. 3 & 4 (find Chapter 3 here, follow link to 4).  We shall look, not at the authority of Scripture (the sort of thing we Protestants argue in favour of all the time), but, rather, taking that as an underlying assumption, we shall observe how to interpret Scripture.

It will be a good time!  We might even pull in some St. Augustine.

Posts here about Cassian (the first three are also about the Bible; (St.) John Cassian 1-4 are my intro to him):

Layers of Meaning

Killing Enemies and Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms, Part Two

Killing Enemies and Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms, Part One

Cassian & You – (St.) John Cassian, Part 4

John Cassian & the Desert Fathers

John Cassian’s Legacy – (St.) John Cassian, Part 3

John Cassian on Grace & Freewill

Rehabilitating John Cassian – (St.) John Cassian, Part 2

The Life of John Cassian – (St.) John Cassian, Part 1

A Quotation from Cassian on the Eucharist

The Desert Fathers

The Trinity, the Shack, and Mark Driscoll

First, I would like to point out: The Shack is not a brilliant piece of theology.  It’s not really theological at all.  It is a novel, a story, an idea, an image.  Its Trinitarian theology is weak and clearly the product of someone who sat at a few typical Protestant sermons but never actually spent time reading up on the Trinity.

Because once you’ve read up on the Trinity, you are never so bold as to attempt something like The Shack.

However, The Shack does not commit all of the sins that Mark Driscoll claims it does.  Perhaps this is because Mark Driscoll can’t read.  I should qualify that:  Perhaps this is because Mark Driscoll can’t read literary endeavours (not that The Shack is a shining example of that, either).  Unsurprising amongst the New Calvinists is this idea that we can read a work of fiction as though it were theology.  Everyone already did this with The Da Vinci Code.  I’d hoped we’d become a bit more nuanced in our reading than that.

Nevertheless, Driscoll first says that The Shack commits idolatry, that in representing the unseen, invisible Members of the Trinity, Young has made a graven image.  Wm. Paul Young has not, in fact, made a graven image, and not only because you don’t engrave novels.  Young is not saying in The Shack that God the Father is a black woman named Papa, nor that the Holy Spirit is a small Asian woman named Sarayu.

These characters are merely representations of the characters* of the First and Third Persons of the Trinity.  They are meant to help show Mack and the reader what the inner heart of these Persons is.  No one has seen God; neither did Mack in the book.  The possibility of God showing Himself as a vision is, however, real.  Isaiah had a vision, Ezekiel had a vision, John the Divine had a vision.  These visions were not actually sightings of the invisible God but representations of Himself that he chose to give to His children so that they could understand better a certain aspect of His character.

Then Driscoll argues that The Shack is guilty of modalism (or Sabellianism).  This heresy is the same thing as what Oneness Pentecostals believe — God is One, and the Son and the Holy Spirit are different modes by which He has chosen to operate in the world.  The heresy denies any difference of person amongst the members of the Trinity.  Driscoll’s argument for that is when Papa says that she has already been human through Jesus.

This is further evidence that Driscoll is not a subtle reader but out for the kill.  Yes, when God the Son was incarnate, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit were not.  However, since we believe in one God, not three, the remarkable thing is that they have an intimate sharing of each other’s experiences.  God the Father, being in a state of perfect, unbreakable communion with God the Son, knows exactly what God the Son went through during His days on earth.  Therefore, God the Father, in a very true sense, was, in fact, human through Jesus.  He was never incarnate.  He did not die or rise from the dead.  Yet He has shared intimately those things that Jesus went through while on earth.

St. Athanasius teaches that while God the Son was incarnate, His divine nature never ceased ordering the cosmos and keeping the stars in place (De Incarnatione).  If He could engage in that work of the Godhead whilst confined to a human body, no doubt the Father knows exactly what it is to be human as a result of the Son’s incarnation.

Driscoll proceeds to argue that The Shack promotes Goddess worship.  This is because God the Father is portrayed as a black woman.  Of course, Papa admits that He is not always female, as we see at the end of the book, when He portrays Himself as a man to Mack.  God the Father reveals Himself to us in a myriad of ways, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, but always in the way that we need at that time.  There are times He gives us the tenderness of a mother, times He gives us the sternness of a father.  He is the perfect Father, and so, for the purposes of this fiction, Mack saw Him more as a mother, an image that is used to demonstrate the warm, nurturing heart of the Father.

The final argument made by Driscoll is about hierarchy.  I broadly agree with him.  In The Shack, the Trinity has no hierarchy of any sort, no Person of the Trinity being above the others.  They are simply in an endless, loving communion with one another.  Driscoll points out that, while all the Persons of the Trinity are equal, they still have deference, for Jesus says that He only does what the Father tells Him to do, and that He does the will of the Father, and that the Father sent Him into the world.

The Shack is a novel, not a work of theology.  We cannot take its images of the Trinity as being theological, because then we would be on the start of a road to the modern heresy of vagueness.  I believe that both its supporters and its opponents have completely missed the boat, however.  Regardless of its merit as a novel, it is art.  We should treat it as art, not as theology, which both sides of the argument miss.

But where do we go for Trinitarian theology in a world that has lost its focus on the true nature of God?  People are turning to The Shack as theology (both for a lovefest as well as for the attack) because not a lot of people draw nigh to this question.  “Theology” today is usually actually, “A Christian/biblical approach to issue x, y, or z.”

Start over on the right on the main page with The Creed of Saint Athanasius.  I have a friend whom it once saved from Arianism.

“Beyond Personality” in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  I read it on Trinity Sunday a couple of years ago and benefitted greatly.  There is a reason Mere Christianity is a classic.

Intimacy and Ecstasy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit by Edith M. Humphrey.  This book is principally a book about Christian spirituality, but it takes its starting point as the Holy Trinity and deals with various aspects of Trinitarian theology, asking along the way, “How now then shall we live?”  Humphrey is a real, live theologian, unlike certain other writers out there.  Plus, she’s an orthodox Anglican.

Understanding the Trinity by Alister McGrath.

The best guides are likely the ancients, however.  Here are two:

Boethius On the Trinity and St. Augustine On the Trinity.  Boethius is shorter; both are online.

*I would have said personae, but that word has been co-opted for theological purposes at this time.

Demonology and You

Nobody believes in the Devil nowadays.  That is one of the Devil’s favourite jokes.
-Robertson Davies, “Scottish Folklore and Opera,” in Happy Alchemy*

The special essay for my MA was “John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus on Demonology”.  The writing of this bit of comparative demonology brought me into contact with not only Cassian and Evagrius but also with the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the anonymous Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, Palladius’ Lausiac History, St. Augustine’s City of God, the Shepherd of Hermas, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, Origen’s De Principatibus and a variety of other Patristic writings.  In these writings, although there were points of variance**, I saw the fundamental interconnectedness of Patristic writers.

They all believed in demons, for one thing.

In the Patristic world, demons are out there.  They are fundamentally hostile and inhabit the air.  Their main action in the life of the Christian is to tempt/test us.  They want to distract Christians from prayer and lead them into sin.  One of the fundamentals of Christian demonology is the fact that demons cannot force people to sin.  Some people don’t realise this, and thus they brush off demonology as having nothing to do with them; clearly their sins are their own.

Yes, your sins are your own.  This does not negate the reality of demons seeking to entice you to omit the good and commit the wicked.  Indeed, if demons are real (which a worldview based on Scripture and tradition proclaims loud & clear), we should be on the guard against them; our sins are own responsibility, so we should be on our guard to avoid being enticed to lead life separate from God’s ways.

Therefore, we should be equipped to fight them.  We should know our weapons.  We should know our enemies.  We should also know what else we’re up against — for not all evil originates with demons.  According to John Cassian’s telling of the eight deadly vices in his Institutes, the will to sin is our own and the vices originate in our own sinful state; the traditional word for this, taken from St. Paul, is the flesh.  The other origin of evil is the world.  The world is full of enough wickedness stemming from other people’s evil and the wickedness of organisations and systems that the demons need not always tempt us.

However, knowledge of the battle is not readily available for the (post)modern Christian.  We are trapped between Frank Peretti and secular humanism.  What we need is a demonology for (post)moderns, something with both eyes open that takes Scripture seriously, does not deny science, but also peers into the wisdom of the Great Tradition, drawing out the teachings on Spiritual Warfare from the ancients, mediaevals, Reformers, and more, looking at liturgies, exorcisms, and training in the spiritual life.

I think a comparative analysis of John Cassian and Walter Wink (for example) would be interesting not only from a scholarly point of view but from the point of view of the average Christian seeking to live in a world surrounded by principalities and powers.  We need work that is not only scholarly but actually useful.  My approach to this question would be inherently Patristic, but there are other ways to deal with this issue with a Christian, biblical, honest approach.

And so I am glad to see that the Internet Monk has posed the following question to his Liturgical Gangstas:

How does the theme and practice of spiritual warfare relate to ministry in your tradition? Where are the boundaries of your own “comfort zones” in the practice of spiritual warfare?

In the post on his blog, we get thoughts on this very important question from the Eastern Orthodox, United Methodist, Southern Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian perspectives.  Unsurprisingly, I liked the Eastern Orthodox and United Methodist best.  You should read the post.

The position that many of us have on the question of demonology is summed up well in that post by Matthew Johnson, United Methodist pastor:

I think attributing every kind of mistake or misfortune to Satan and his minions is ridiculous. However, I would be biblically remiss not to recognize that there are powers, there are principalities, there is a reality beyond my senses that is gruesome and violent in which there are beings who would love nothing more than to see the church and the members of the body of Christ fail.

Hopefully to come shall be more on demons, John Cassian, and you.

*Many thanks to Emily Martin for providing the quotation to me many moons past.

**Most notably the Origenist teachings about the Fall and Christology as embraced by Evagrius in opposition to Cassian & Augustine.

The Ascetic Revival Begins Today

funnelbuttMy apologies for not warning you.  Put down that burger!  Lower the Slurpee!  Don’t even think about eating candy!  Flex your knees and get ready to pray!  Turn of the TV!  Rearrange your Internet schedule!

The ascetic revival has begun!  To read about the environmental benefits of asceticism, click here.

I’ve decided to take seriously the books I’ve read about simple living, prayer, and self-denial.*  I’ve read a lot of them.  But reading doesn’t mean learning.  A person could read the entire corpus of ascetic and spiritual literature and conceivably come away unchanged.  Or a person could simply hear the Gospels read once a week and be transformed from the inside out; or, like Abraham, someone could hear the voice of God without having any spiritual instruction or access to Scripture.  Palladius writes:

Words and syllables do not constitute teaching — sometimes those who possess these are disreputable in the extreme — but teaching consists of virtuous acts of conduct, of freedom fro injuriousness, of dauntlessness, and of an even temper.  To all these add an intrepidity which produces words like flames of fire. (The Lausiac History: Letter to Lausus 2, trans. Robert T. Meyer, ACW 34)

Therefore, a simpler life dawns.

I shall pray morning, noon, and evening.  Morning shall follow the daily office and sometimes noon and evening as well.  The flexibility will allow me to spend time using different forms of prayer.

I shall fast once a week.  You won’t know which day, and this isn’t the bragging Christ warns of.  It is, rather, an exhortation that we should all fast at least once a week.  They say it accrues much spiritual benefit.

My eating shall be moderate.  This includes no pop or Slurpees save in time of celebration.  I guess that’s the old rule surrounding wine, but I’m already too cheap to drink wine.  This also includes avoiding overeating and snacks between meals — this latter is practised by monks who follow Augustine’s Rule, such as Dominicans.

I shall spend time in Scripture-reading every day.  This has been a lifelong discipline that every once in a while I fall out of for days, weeks, or months at a time.  By God’s grace, I shall maintain this discipline.

I shall exercise my body.  The Benedictines believe in hard, physical labour.  I am an urban apartment-dwelling middle-class Canadian.  I have no garden, no chickens, no building to maintain or to build.  Therefore, I shall discipline my body through exercise, chiefly through my bicycle and through walking almost everywhere.  I’ll ride my bike three to five times a week.

What else?  Buy no unneeded stuff — books, CDs, DVDs.  Don’t rent when it can be borrowed for free.  Don’t waste time watching it or reading it when there’s a better option.  Spend more time with people in pleasant occupation and company, less time simply entertaining oneself.  Continue weekly attendance at church; possibly add an extra to ensure I receive Eucharist.  Hunt down time for solitude.  Talk with Jennifer about how we might be able to spend time in service to others.

Do you have any ideas how you and I can help start the ascetic revival of the 21st century?  If you think it’s already begun, show us where and how!

*The Lessons of St. Francis by John Michael Talbot; Celebration of DisciplinePrayer, and Devotional Classics by Richard J. Foster; The Inner Experience by Thomas Merton; Flirting with Monasticism by Karen E. Sloan; Finding God: The Way of St. Benedict by Esther de Waal; Ecstasy and Intimacy by Edith Humphrey, and other moderns.  The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius; The Life of St. Benedict by St. Gregory the Great; The Institutes and The Conferences by John Cassian; The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; The Life of Moses by St. Gregory of Nyssa; The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila (well, most of it); The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross; The Letters of Saint Antony the Great; the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto; The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer by Evagrius Ponticus; The Rule of St. Augustine and other classics.