Reflections on John 12

This is my reflection on John 12:20-33, written for my church community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey:

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

In the narrative of the Gospel of John, today’s reading takes place during the final Passover feast during which Jesus will be betrayed, beaten, crucified. Everything has been moving to this point, from the preaching of John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) In a few days, the Lord of glory will be slain. Yet this is not how Jesus frames it in this instance. When these pagan Greek-speakers appear, he does not say, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be humiliated.” No, in foretelling his death, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23) St Cyril of Alexandria in Egypt, a fifth-century preacher, writes:

He now desires to pass onward to the very crowning point of His hope, namely to the destruction of death: and this could not otherwise be brought to pass, unless the Life underwent death for the sake of all human beings, that so in Him we all may live. For on this account also He speaks of Himself as glorified in His Death, and in suffering terrible things at the hands of the sinners who dishonour Him. Even though by the angels in heaven He had been glorified from everlasting, yet nevertheless His Cross was the beginning of His being glorified upon earth.

Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book 8

Jesus goes on to make this reference to his death more explicit in the next verse, saying that a grain of wheat must die and fall to the ground in order to bear fruit. We are the fruit of Christ’s death. His precious death and glorious resurrection have reaped a harvest of souls for 2000 years, raising us up with him to the heavenly realm. Yet here, bound up with the promise, our Lord also gives us a hard saying—hard to live, if not to understand: “Whoever loves his or her life loses it, and whoever hates his or her life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) Thankfully, the wisdom of the ancients comes to us here as well. St John Chrysostom, an ancient preacher from Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey) says:

Sweet is the present life, and full of much pleasure, yet not to all, but to those who are riveted to it. Since, if any one looks to heaven and sees the beauteous things there, that person will soon despise this life, and make no account of it. Just as the beauty of an object is admired while none more beautiful is seen, but when a better appears, the former is despised. If then we would choose to look to that beauty, and observe the splendour of the kingdom there, we should soon free ourselves from our present chains; for a kind of chain it is, this sympathy with present things. 

Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily LXVII

But this still seems too hard, too harsh, too difficult. Another ancient preacher who was alive at the time of Chrysostom and Cyril was St Augustine of Hippo. St Augustine makes a distinction between using the things of this world, even enjoying them, as gateways to God and loving them for their own sake. His teaching means that with a rightly ordered heart one sees the sun rise over the Sleeping Giant, enjoys the sight, and then praises God for His handiwork. The whole of human existence thus becomes a gateway to God—my life in this world that I am called to hate for the sake of Jesus becomes transfigured into the heavenly life with Christ. Transformed in this way, I would more readily lose this worldly life for a life filled with the grandeur of the glory of God.

Our Lord Christ repeats this idea of death to self in a new manner straightaway, but couples it to great promises: “If anyone serves me, he or she must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him or her.” (John 12:26) We must follow Christ, we are told. And where does Christ go from here in the Gospel of John? To the upper room, to the garden, to betrayal, to arrest, to being slandered, to being beaten, to being stripped naked, to being humiliated, to being nailed to a cross and lifted up from the earth.

To death.

But from death to glory.

For us, Jesus says that the Father will honour the one who serves and follows him. He promises that his ignominious death is the place of his glory. And he promises to raise us up too, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) An important point in all of this is grace. It is Jesus himself who is the grain of wheat that bears much fruit. It is Jesus himself who draws us to himself. It is God the Father who honours those who follow and serve Jesus.

The path of discipleship is a narrow path of self-denial. The path of discipleship is the pathway of death, death to self and to the world. Yet it is also the path to glory, and it is made easy by Jesus who draws us to himself. It is made easy by the Father who honours us. Let us not forget the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:30, that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

The life of the ancient monk Antony, one of the first to take up the monastic life, was a living parable of dying to this world to follow Christ, being drawn by him. He abandoned all of his worldly possessions because in church one day he heard the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19:21 where the Lord says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” St Antony did so. At one stage in his retreat from worldly life, he lived in a tomb in the Egyptian countryside where he did nothing but pray and do battle with demons. When he left this tomb, a physical symbol of his death to the world, it was as a participant in the divine life of Jesus. As St Athanasius of Alexandria, his biographer writes:

Through him the Lord healed many of those present who suffered from bodily ailments; others he purged of demons, and to Antony he gave grace in speech. Thus he consoled many who mourned, and others hostile to each other he reconciled in friendship, urging everyone to prefer nothing in the world above the love of Christ.

Life of Antony 14

Among the sayings left by Antony, two are particularly important for us today:

“Renounce this life, so that you may be alive to God.”

“I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.” (John 4:18)

Let us die to ourselves in order to be alive to God and love him to the fullest, being caught up into Christ’s life by the abundant grace of the Father.

Sweet Mother of God

Theotokos, Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

A week ago it was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). Two days later, I gave a lecture about Sts Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, so St Mary the Virgin, Theotokos, Genetrix Dei was inevitably on my mind, St Cyril having been instrumental in enshrining Theotokos as a title for the Mother of Our Lord.

One of the people I follow on Facebook is Roman Catholic musician John Michael Talbot. He unsurprisingly posted some images from his residence at Little Portion Hermitage commemorating the feast. Because he has a fan base from both Roman Catholics and Protestants, he had to post a request for people to stop anti-Catholic trolling his post. One person went so far as to say that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception “grieves the Father’s heart” in response to John Michael’s request for people to stop slamming the Church of Rome on a page maintained by Roman Catholics (frankly, a polite request easily abided by).

Now, I am not Roman Catholic, so I do not believe in the Immaculate Conception of the BVM. Don’t worry. My current approach to differences between myself and the Church of Rome has moved from, “And this is why I’m not a Papist!” to, “Hm. Why do Roman Catholics believe this?” I am far from, “I’m agnostic on points where the 39 Articles disagree with Rome.”

So — the Immaculata. Why?

When Marian dogmas are being done right, they all have one goal: To glorify Jesus the Christ, the God Word, God the Son incarnate. It seems to many of us that they detract from His dignity, and maybe sometimes in practice they can, but that is not the formal, official intention of the Roman Church (an important point to keep in mind).

The easiest place to begin, if you ask me, is Theotokos, Genetrix Dei, Mother of God. The Greek is literally “God-bearer”. This is a title that was in common use by the year 428, and the Bishop of Constantinople, an unsympathetic fellow called Nestorius, decided that Christians shouldn’t use this title anymore, urging them instead to say Christotokos, Mother of Christ, instead.

St Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria (in terms of politicking, likewise unsympathetic, but a better theologian — and abler politician) took umbrage with this and argued that the fullness of the union between divine and human that is Jesus the Christ means that we cannot separate Christ from God like that. Thus, the child born in Bethlehem and carried in the virgin’s womb was completely and utterly God. The son of Mary was also God the Son.

The title Christotokos diminishes the reality and fullness of the Incarnation.

To get back to the Immaculate Conception of the BVM, then. How does this teaching exalt Christ? Well, first it would help to know what it actually is, right? The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the BVM is the teaching that at the point of conception, Christ cleansed her of original sin. It is not not not not NOT a virginal conception. She was conceived in the usual manner by Joachim and Anna.

I may be wrong, but I believe that part of the issue is the question of Original Sin. If Jesus Christ was like us in everything except without sin, and if original sin is transmitted from parent to child, then would Christ not also have original sin? Except usually the argument is that original sin is transmitted through the father’s seed — hence the virginal conception of Jesus.

I actually don’t know where to go from here. I don’t think it grieves the Father’s heart, but I have never grasped the logic of why it was thought necessary to have this dogma. I see Eadmer’s perspective: Potuit, decuit, fecit — it could have been, it was fitting, it happened. But here I find myself inclining towards St Bernard (as so often — and himself one with his own devotion to the BVM) that this tends towards making Christ’s redemption on the Cross unnecessary.

That said, any exaltation of Mary is done by showing the greatness of the grace of God, highlighting the greatness of Jesus her Son. So maybe that is enough?

This coming Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary will have the Annunciation to the BVM as the Gospel reading. Think upon the BVM, what it means to call her Theotokos, God-bearer, and then bow down and worship her Son. It’s what she’d want you to do.

Sometimes theological controversy is … theological

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about their ability to judge insincerity?

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

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

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

A Coptic Page of Early Church Fathers (in English and Arabic)

Drifting about the internet today (like a leaf on the wind), I stumbled upon a page called ‘Early Church Fathers Collection‘. The Internet is making available to many people for free the writings of the Fathers in a variety of places. This particular place looks to me to have been put together by someone who is Coptic Orthodox. It includes (amongst others) pages called:

These pages are clear evidence to me that this was compiled by someone of the Coptic Orthodox persuasion. They and the others look interesting, especially the second one. Thankfully, it has the original Greek with Patrologia Graeca references as well as the Arabic translations.

Just in case you are interested in these, the first I list is in English; the third, as it says, is in Arabic; the fourth is in English; the fifth (Sayings of the Desert Fathers) is English; the sixth, also English; the seventh is English; and the eighth is in English.

I am pleased to see more Christians from various traditions getting into the Fathers and making them accessible!
This is a pleasant development. Sometimes I wonder if, besides immersing ourselves in Scripture, rediscovering the Fathers is not the way forward for the fractured Church of Christ.

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.

A Good Week for Egyptian Saints

This week in the Eastern calendar sees the feasts of four Egyptian saints of the ancient church: St. Antony the Abbot yesterday, Sts. Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria today, and St. Macarius the Great tomorrow.

St. Antony (d. 356) was the “founder” of Christian monasticism and was saint of the week here. Here’s a little something from his sayings:

Someone asked Abba Antony, ‘What must one do in order to please God?’ The old man replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.’

‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”‘

‘Our life and death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’ (trans. Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

St. Athanasius (d. 373), St. Antony’s biographer, was the Patriarch of Alexandria in the height of the fourth-century Arian controversy and was saint of the week here.  Here’s a little something from his work On the Incarnation:

‘The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image.  In order to effect this re-creation, however, He had first to do away with death and corruption.  Therefore He assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image.  The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need.’

‘Not even His birth from a virgin, therefore, changed Him in any way, nor was He defiled by being in the body.  Rather, he sanctified the body by being in it.  For His being in everything does not mean that He shares the nature of everything, only that He gives all things their being and sustains them in it.  Just as the sun is not defiled by the contact of its rays with earthly objects, but rather enlightens and purifies them, so He Who made the sun is not defiled by being made known in a body, but rather the body is cleansed and quickened by His indwelling.’ (SVS Press trans.)

St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) was the Patriarch of Alexandria during the fifth-century Nestorian controversy and is the theological successor of Athanasius.  Here’s a little something from him as well:

‘Because the Son is God from God, in some mysterious way he passes this honor on to us.’

‘It is held, therefore, that there is in Emmanuel two entities, divinity and humanity. Yet our Lord Jesus Christ is nonetheless one, the one true Son, both God and man; not a deified man on the same footing as those who share the divine nature by grace, but true God who for our sake appeared in human form. We are assured of this by Saint Paul’s declaration: “When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law and to enable us to be adopted as sons.”‘

St. Macarius the Great (d. 390) was, like St. Antony, one of the Desert Fathers.  Here’s a little something from his sayings:

‘Abba Macarius of Alexandria went one day with some brethren to cut reeds.  The first day the brethren said to him, “Come and eat with us, Father.”  So he went to eat with them.  The next day they invited him again to eat.  But he would not consent saying, “My children, you need to eat because you are carnal, but I do not want food now.”‘  (trans. Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

‘Macarius  the Great said to the brothers in Scetis after a service in church, “Flee, my brothers.”  One of the brothers said to him, “Abba, where can we flee when we are already in the desert?” He put his finger upon his lips and said: “I tell you, you must flee this.” Then he went into his cell, shut the door, and remained alone.’

‘Macarius said also, “If you are stirred to anger when you want to reprove someone, you are gratifying your own passions.  Do not lose yourself in order to save another.”‘ (trans. Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks)

On the “Creed” of “St. Athanasius” (pt. 1)

I’ve been fiddling with the pages on the sidebar recently; one change I’ve made is posting my own translation of the so-called “Creed of St. Athanasius”, the “Quicumque Vult.”  Whilst certainly a statement of faith, this document is not, strictly speaking, a creed, for a creed is a formulaic statement that a person makes, beginning in Latin, “Credo,” — I believe.  This document begins, “Quicumque vult,” — whosoever wishes.

Second, it is not by St. Athanasius.  No matter how much you may like the Quicumque Vult, it is a Latin document and strikes me as clearly post-Chalcedon (ie. after 451).  St. Athanasius (of whom I’ve written here) was a Greek father, the patriarch of Alexandria.  He died close to 80 years before Chalcedon.  He spent the majority of his career in the defense and explication of the Nicene Creed (325, my translation here).  He was one of the great Christologians, and certainly St. Cyril of Alexandria, whose Christological views were espoused by the Church both at Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451, was a close follower of St. Athanasius.

But the Athanasian Creed isn’t Athanasian.

Certainly its Trinitarian formulae are, for the most part, Athanasian: “we are to worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance,” and, “The Father is made from nothing, neither created nor begotten.  The Son is from the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten,” but this is followed by, “The Holy Spirit is from the Father and the Son: not made, neither created nor begotten but proceeding.”

Most eastern Fathers do not believe in the dual procession of the Holy Spirit, a doctrine first (I believe) explicated by St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430).  The closest we get is the Cappadocian statement that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son (Anthony Meredith wonders what exactly the great difference between the two formulations is).  Thus, although in everything else the Trinitarian formulations of the Quicumque Vult are universal, this clause makes it expressly western.

Second, its Christological formulations make me shy away from asserting that this is a production of St. Athanasius.  Certainly St. Athanasius would believe what is said here, for it does not explicitly use the tricky two-nature terminology of much Western Christology.  Nonetheless, I believe it is expounding a Western understanding of Christ’s Person.

Furthermore, the strong emphasis on the real manhood of Christ in the Quicumque Vult makes me think that this document is after Athanasius and at least from the time of Apollinarius (d. 390) who asserted the godhead of Christ so much that Jesus was not fully human, lacking a rational soul, a point on which the Athanasian Creed is quite explicit.

I would, however, place this text in the fifth century at the earliest.  The fifth century, especially in the heat following the episcopacy of Nestorius (428), was the age wherein the battle over Christ’s person and nature(s) really raged.  We’ll skip those heated decades and suffice it to say that the Church made an attempt at cooling everyone’s jets and at getting unanimity in the Council of Chalcedon in 451; the Athanasian Creed is very much Chalcedonian, stressing the fullness of Christ’s humanity and divinity while maintaining the unity of the person.

The (post)modern reader will not be excited by these ins and outs of dating the piece and of Trinitarian and Christological history.  Most today look at this document and, even if they don’t disregard the entire body of the text as Hellenistic philosophy that is irrelevant today, they see the introduction and the conclusion and see yet another example of religion gone bad.

But do they really?  (More on this tomorrow.)

Saint of the Week: Leo the Great

In the year AD 440, the Archdeacon of Rome was away in Gaul on a diplomatic mission.  While he was there, the Bishop of Rome, St. Sixtus III, passed away.  Despite the fact that he wasn’t there, the powers that be in Rome elected the absent Archdeacon as Bishop.  They waited patiently for his return.  He thanked them for this patience in his accession speech.  This archdeacon was Leo I, the Great.

I have chosen Pope St. Leo the Great (c. 400-461; see my review of Leo the Great as well) because he is a big part of my life right now, and hopefully this state of affairs will continue for the next three and a half years.  I have also chosen him because tomorrow is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, the day we remember the coming of God as a man approximately 2000 years ago, and St. Leo was a theologian of the Incarnation.

We have scant knowledge about Leo before his election to the papacy.  We know that he was Archdeacon in the 430’s when he commissioned my friend John Cassian (this post gives a list of my major posts about Cassian) to write On the Incarnation of the Lord Against Nestorius (my thochts on that here).  He may also have been involved in the Roman See’s actions concerning the Pelagian Controversy.  The fact that he commissioned Cassian’s anti-Nestorian work lets us know that in the decade before his rise to the throne of Peter, St. Leo was involved in the Christological controversies sparked in the East by Nestorius in 428.

Thus, he was already a student of theology by the time he became pope.  As Bishop of Rome, he changed the previously un-preachy* nature of the Roman episcopacy (taking his cue from our friend St. Ambrose) and began a cycle of preaching that followed the church year, with at least fifteen occasions throughout the year, including the Advent fast, the Nativity, Lent, the Pasch, ultimately Pentecost, the Feast of St. Laurence, the anniversary of his elevation to the Roman See, and other liturgical moments (see the CCEL for translations of a number of these).

These sermons are explications of the feasts/fasts and the theological underpinnings of the remembrance at hand.  In his Advent and Christmas sermons, St. Leo explicates in wondrous beauty the necessity and nature of the Incarnation — a birth “wondrously singular and singularly wondrous” — for our salvation from sin, death, and the devil.  The peroration, or conclusion, of each sermon exhorts the people of Rome to virtuous action; he wants to help them see that being a Christian is the same as being a good Roman.  He also takes aim at heretics in his sermons, at times Manichees, who had a presence in Rome, at times Eutyches, at times Nestorius.

If you read these sermons, and I encourage you to, you see that St. Leo was a theologian with a pastor’s heart.  No, actually, he was a pastor with a theologian’s insight.  He demonstrated for the edification of his congregation the theology and action necessary for a healthy Christian life.  He also emphasized strongly, contra the now-deceased Bishop of Hippo Regius, the will of God to save all mankind.  The question of how it therefore comes about that God happens not to save all mankind is not fully treated in Leo’s corpus.

In the letters, we see Leo as a pastor’s pastor, as a pontifical statesman, and as a controversial theologian.  He answered letters, for example, from bishops who had congregants from North Africa who weren’t sure if they had been baptised Catholic or schismatic.  His answer was that it was being baptised into the threefold Name of the Most Holy Trinity that counted, not the baptiser.  He answered questions about Priscillianism for a bishop in Spain.

He also tried to impose his will, to a degree, on the bishops of Illyricum.  Most strikingly, he tried to impose his will on the Bishops of Gaul.  He largely succeeded, diminishing to a degree the see of Arles under Hilary, demonstrating the power of the Bishop of Rome in disputes.  He saw the Pope as the universal court of appeal for the Church, a man who could intervene in the affairs of other dioceses beyond his own metropolitan zone in order to maintain and restore order.

In the year 444, St. Cyril of Alexandria passed away.  St. Cyril had been the theologian of the Incarnation par excellence throughout Leo’s career.  He had spearheaded the offensive against Nestorius and had largely engineered the outcome of the First Council of Ephesus.  With St. Cyril dead, the mantle of Christologian passed to St. Leo.  But was he up to the task?

St. Leo’s time came in 449 when he received a letter from an Archimandrite (a senior abbot) named Eutyches, whom a local synod in Constantinople had deemed a heretic.  Eutyches was appealing to Leo.  Soon Leo also received a letter from Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, explaining to Leo the circumstances of Eutyches’ trial.  Leo responded to Flavian on June 13 with his famous Tome, letter 28.

This document is the piece of writing for which St. Leo is most famous for.  In this letter, Leo has in his sights both Nestorius as Leo understood him and Eutyches.  The former, as far as Leo was concerned, denied Christ’s divinity; the latter, Christ’s humanity.  The Tome is a text of balance and duality.  Leo sets forth for his reader the balance and duality within Christ of the human and divine natures.  He strikes a balance that seeks to avoid the perceived pitfalls of Eutychianism and Nestorianism.  God the Word took on flesh, he became fully human without the stain of sin, the lowliness not diminishing the glory.  This was necessary for our salvation.  Christ was and is a living paradox.

That same year, 449, saw the calling of a second general council in Ephesus.  This council was engineered by Dioscorus, episcopal successor to St. Cyril in Alexandria, to rehabilitate Eutyches and hold aloft a one-nature Christology, an incipient Monophysite understanding of Christ’s nature.  Leo, as was the wont of Rome’s bishop, sent delegates.  They were to read aloud the Tome, Leo being convinced that all the Church needed was to read his account of the Incarnation and then all this controversy would end.  These delegates were steamrolled by Dioscorus and not allowed to speak.  Bishop Flavian received blows that may have led to his death shortly thereafter.  He was replaced by a supporter of Dioscorus.

Leo called Second Ephesus a Latrocinium, a den of pirates.  He wrote letters to Emperor Theodosius II trying to convince him to change his mind and overturn the decisions of the council.  He wrote letters to Pulcheria Augusta, the Emperor’s sister, enlisting her help to convince her brother.  Theodosius would not be convinced.

And then, in 450, he fell off his horse and died.  His sister married a nonentity named Marcian and became Empress.

In 451, the Council of Chalcedon occurred.  This time, Leo’s Tome, along with three letters of St. Cyril, was read out and approved by the Council — albeit, not unanimously, with protests coming from some of the Illyrian, Palestinian, and Egyptian delegates.

It seems, as Bernard Green has argued,** that Leo didn’t really know what Nestorianism was until after Chalcedon.  Seeing what the objections to the Tome were, he quickly adjusted certain passages and clarified his thinking.  Thus, his letter 124 to the monks of Palestine is more representative of the mature thought of St. Leo and would be a better testimony to his thought for the generations to come.

Leo spent the years from 451 to 465 maintaining his preaching practice in Rome, keeping order in his Metropolitan, clarifying what the Tome was supposed to say, and keeping Attila the Hun from sacking Rome (this last may not be true, but it colourful nonetheless).

He was one of the good popes.  He was also one of the first strong steps down the road to the papacy’s claims to universal jurisdiction.  We cannot have Innocent III (1160-1216) without Leo I.  He produced, ultimately, a clear, lucid theology that dealt with the problems of Eutyches and Nestorius while synthesising the teaching of the great western theologians Augustine, Ambrose, and Hilary of Poitiers with a dash of Cyril of Alexandria.  He truly deserves the appellation “the Great”, being one of only two such popes along with Gregory I.

*I was going to make up the word un-kerygmatic, but then I figured that if I’m going to neologise, why not at least make a word people will understand?

**See The Soteriology of Leo the Great, pp. 227-247.

Hold on for dear life

Things intersecting:

1. Scot McKnight writes:

The gospel is first and foremost about Jesus. Or, to put it theologically, it’s about Christology. Behind or underneath both kingdom and justification is the gospel, and the gospel is the saving story of Jesus that completes Israel’s story. “To gospel” is to tell a story about Jesus as the Messiah, as the Lord, as the Son of God, as the Savior.

2. My brother has been blogging about Renewal.  He has evaluated several approaches taken by churches when they see their need for Renewal and is making a call (plea?) for Christocentric Renewal — that we will be renewed and grow spiritually only when we come nearer to Jesus and hold Jesus out for others.

3. Pope St. Leo Great’s Tome.  I’m thick into a paper about St. Leo’s use of classical rhetoric in the Tome.  I have thus been reading a lot about Christology.  And rhetoric.

So the intersecting things are all about this two-natured God-man:

Fresco from exterior of St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus

To be a Christian is to be focussed on Jesus and how he revolutionised the world.  Through this attention turned to him and with faithful reading of Scripture and prayer, we are drawn nearer to him and the most holy and glorious Trinity.  Our thought patterns change.  We raise up holy hands in prayer and worship.  We seek to live lives according that highest Good he set out for us in his life and in the pages of Scripture.

This inevitable fact of Christocentrism helps explain why the Christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries could at times be acrimonious.  It also reminds us that the questions they raise are important for our lives.

When we turn to the classics of Christianity — to great theological works such as the Tome of Leo or St. Cyril of Alexandria’s letters to Nestorius or to the great devotional and mystical works such as St. Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ or Lady Julian of Norwich’s Showings or to the great tradition of Christian prayer such as the hymns of Charles Wesley or the 1662 BCP — we are drawn towards Christ.

Hold onto him for dear life.

May this blog and the people and books it points to draw you ever closer to the living reality that is the risen, ascended Christ.

Vespers

Christ Pantokrator, Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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