Justice and the kingdom of now and not-yet

There is little that I, a middle-class white guy from Canada, can add of much value to the conversation on racism now happening, a conversation that will hopefully bear fruit in all of our lives and societies, from those of us unconsciously complicit in systems that oppressed, to active oppressors, to those unjustly oppressed. In Canada, we are coming to realise that we have our own share of anti-black racism, but also, since we have proportionately fewer black people for white people to oppress, more than enough oppression of and racism against indigenous people. In Australia, I understand the Aborigines are out marching as well.

So, as we all become painfully aware, I will only offer what little I can by way of what tiny part of stuff is my expertise: a sliver of ancient Christianity …

A few days ago, Death to the World posted this amazing icon of St Moses the Black, one of the fourth-century Desert Fathers of Egypt:

Before getting to Abba Moses, it is worth pausing on Death to the World’s caption and tags that accompanied the icon:

The last true rebellion is death to self. There will be no political savior. #counterrevolution #lasttruerebellion #sainthoodisyourprotection #deathtotheworld

This is precisely what I would expect from Death to the World, and it’s always worth pausing to remember that. Death to the World, if you didn’t know, is an Eastern Orthodox group whose originally membership was drawn from the counterculture on the US west coast, especially those into heavy metal. It stills has a counterculture vibe. It actually started out as a zine back in the day! They are very big into the work of Father Seraphim Rose, who himself came out of the ’60s counterculture of hippies, New Age, and Marxism.

Death to the World will always point us in this direction. We are to abandon it all. There is no political saviour. We must give all to gain everything (okay, that’s St Clare of Assisi). We need to remember this, always. We will never build Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land (contra William Blake). The last true rebellion is the overthrowing of self, the death to a corrupt and dying world, and a wholehearted embrace of truth. Be holy. Sainthood is your protection.

Abba Moses would agree. Abba Moses was a former robber who was converted late in life and became great and holy monk amongst the Desert Fathers in Scetis. I am not sure where exactly he was from, whether modern Ethiopia or Sudan or southern Egypt. But he was definitely one of the few black saints of the patristic era before the conversion of Ethiopia.

Here are four instructions from Abba Moses. The full ‘seven’ gets very long. From Sister Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 141:

  1. The monk must die to his neighbour and never judge him at all, in any way whatever.
  2. The monk must die to everything before leaving the body, in order not to harm anyone.
  3. If the monk does not think in his heart hat he is a sinner, God will not hear him.
  4. If a man’s deeds are not in harmony with his prayers, he labours in vain.

The first, last, and greatest rebellion lies here, within us, within the putrid wickedness of our own hearts.

The statement, “No political saviour,” should remind us that humans are evil and will perpetrate evil. If we fight for justice and a more just society, we must be ready for failure at some level.

The tension is that the same Desert that nourished St Moses the Black — who actually received some abuse from fellow monks for his skin colour — also calls us to care for the poor as part of our death to the world:

A brother asked an aged monk: ‘There are two brothers: one of them leads a life of solitude six days a week and does much penance, while the other is dedicated to the service of the sick. Which of the two is behaving in the way that is more acceptable to God?’

The old man answered him: ‘The brother who is always making a retreat would never attain the heights that the one who serves the sick has reached, not even if you hoisted him with a hook in his nose.’ -Anonymous Collection of Sayings of the Desert Fathers no. 224, quoted in Thomas Spidlik, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, 175

St John Chrysostom, who had been a monk in the Syrian desert before becoming a priest and later bishop of Constantinople, spoke often and at length about the abuse of the poor by the rich, and called upon his wealthy, aristocratic audience to care for the poor. His audience included the emperor, remember. St Basil of Caesarea, who lived an ascetic lifestyle and had visited the famous monasteries of Egypt, also exhorted people to care for the poor, but he went a step further and built a place where the poor and sick could be cared for.

Their political system was very different from ours, but those fathers of the church who had the ear of emperors tended to call upon them to care for the poor.

Our cultural world is also very different from theirs. Ancient Romans are a fine example of how bigotry and xenophobia can exist without modern concepts of race. Not that an ancient person wouldn’t be aware that Abba Moses was black and Patrick of Ireland was a pinkish white colour. They just had a variety of other markers of ethnicity that they took into account when being cruel and oppressive, frankly.

Our questions of racism and race are, therefore, not their questions. Nevertheless, justice cries out. We do live in this particular world, this iteration of human bigotry and oppression, this cultural moment. Injustice is being wrought against fellow human beings made in the image of God. St John Chrysostom and St Basil and the Desert Fathers would all call for just treatment of black people. They would consider kneeling on a man’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds until he asphyxiates and dies, with people looking on calling for mercy, to be wickedness. To be murder.

Therefore, seeking social justice in our society, in ways that we hope are effective here and now, is an act in line with the spirit of the writings of these great Fathers of the Church.

The Kingdom of the Heavens, when a great multitude from every tribe, tongue, and nation will gather around the throne of the Lamb, has not yet come in its fullness and power. It will not come until Christ returns to exact justice upon evildoers. Until then, all our efforts at building a just society will be partial. Nevertheless, we are called to do these things, to preach repentance to racists and our own selves for our complicity, and to seek justice for the victims of the racist oppression that to this day plagues our societies.

I suspect that the only sustainable way to do this is to die to ourselves every day so that we can more fully love our neighbour.

This is the tension of the Christian life. Now and not-yet.

John Cassian in the Philokalia – Discernment

StJohnCassian_vice4The final selection from Cassian in The Philokalia is selections, primarily from Conference 2, about discretion/discernment. Here we meet various Desert figures and desert stories, including one of my favourite stories, which I’ll recount in a moment. (For a newcomer to these discussions, I’ve talked about Cassian in The Philokalia thrice recently: once on the eight thoughts, once on purity of heart, then on scopos and telos with a bit of textual background.)

The virtue of discretion/discernment is said to be the most important. Without it, monks go too far, after all — consider those, like John Chrysostom and Francis of Assisi, who end up with chronic health conditions because of extreme asceticism in their youths. I heard somewhere that Francis, for one, regretted having gone too far. On the other hand, some abuse the flexibility inherent in all communal life. Thus, ‘hospitality’ becomes an excuse for overindulgence.

The extreme examples given by Cassian are about monks who almost die of thirst or starvation because of their lack of discernment. One monk converts to Judaism at the instigation of a demon disguised as an angel. In John of Ephesus’ sixth-century Lives of Eastern Monks, some monks venerate a local woman whom the demons have disguised as the Blessed Virgin Mary. Most of us are not likely to go as far as these.

Nonetheless, in questions of fasting, vigils, Scripture reading, prayer routine, discernment is needed. We have the wisdom of our elders in the faith — that great Cloud of Witnesses. But each of us is different. Thus, by prayerful discernment, we can consider with the guidance of Scripture, the Fathers, and the witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts what is the right path to holiness for our individual selves.

If only most of us ever spent the time and energy involved!

(Fun fact: The BCP recommends putting together your own rule of life, after the Supplementary Instruction that follows the Catechism.)

To close, here’s the story I esteem from this selection so much. I’ve not got The Philokalia with me, so this is actually a translation from the Latin original at New Advent:

I will tell you a fact which may supply us with some wholesome teaching, without giving the name of the actor, lest we might be guilty of something of the same kind as the man who published abroad the sins of the brother which had been disclosed to him. When this one, who was not the laziest of young men, had gone to an old man, whom we know very well, for the sake of the profit and health of his soul, and had candidly confessed that he was troubled by carnal appetites and the spirit of fornication, fancying that he would receive from the old man’s words consolation for his efforts, and a cure for the wounds inflicted on him, the old man attacked him with the bitterest reproaches, and called him a miserable and disgraceful creature, and unworthy of the name of monk, while he could be affected by a sin and lust of this character, and instead of helping him so injured him by his reproaches that he dismissed him from his cell in a state of hopeless despair and deadly despondency. And when he, oppressed with such a sorrow, was plunged in deep thought, no longer how to cure his passion, but how to gratify his lust, the Abbot Apollos, the most skilful of the Elders, met him, and seeing by his looks and gloominess his trouble and the violence of the assault which he was secretly revolving in his heart, asked him the reason of this upset; and when he could not possibly answer the old man’s gentle inquiry, the latter perceived more and more clearly that it was not without reason that he wanted to hide in silence the cause of a gloom so deep that he could not conceal it by his looks, and so began to ask him still more earnestly the reasons for his hidden grief. And by this he was forced to confess that he was on his way to a village to take a wife, and leave the monastery and return to the world, since, as the old man had told him, he could not be a monk, if he was unable to control the desires of the flesh and to cure his passion. And then the old man smoothed him down with kindly consolation, and told him that he himself was daily tried by the same pricks of desire and lust, and that therefore he ought not to give way to despair, nor be surprised at the violence of the attack of which he would get the better not so much by zealous efforts, as by the mercy and grace of the Lord; and he begged him to put off his intention just for one day, and having implored him to return to his cell, went as fast as he could to the monastery of the above mentioned old man— and when he had drawn near to him he stretched forth his hands and prayed with tears, and said O Lord, who alone art the righteous judge and unseen Physician of secret strength and human weakness, turn the assault from the young man upon the old one, that he may learn to condescend to the weakness of sufferers, and to sympathize even in old age with the frailties of youth. And when he had ended his prayer with tears, he sees a filthy Ethiopian standing over against his cell and aiming fiery darts at him, with which he was straightway wounded, and came out of his cell and ran about here and there like a lunatic or a drunken man, and going in and out could no longer restrain himself in it, but began to hurry off in the same direction in which the young man had gone. And when Abbot Apollos saw him like a madman driven wild by the furies, he knew that the fiery dart of the devil which he had seen, had been fixed in his heart, and had by its intolerable heat wrought in him this mental aberration and confusion of the understanding; and so he came up to him and asked Whither are you hurrying, or what has made you forget the gravity of years and disturbed you in this childish way, and made you hurry about so rapidly?

And when he owing to his guilty conscience and confused by this disgraceful excitement fancied that the lust of his heart was discovered, and, as the secrets of his heart were known to the old man, did not venture to return any answer to his inquiries, Return, said he, to your cell, and at last recognize the fact that till now you have been ignored or despised by the devil, and not counted in the number of those with whom he is daily roused to fight and struggle against their efforts and earnestness—you who could not— I will not say ward off, but not even postpone for one day, a single dart of his aimed at you after so many years spent in this profession of yours. And with this the Lord has suffered you to be wounded that you may at least learn in your old age to sympathize with infirmities to which you are a stranger, and may know from your own case and experience how to condescend to the frailties of the young, though when you received a young man troubled by an attack from the devil, you did not encourage him with any consolation, but gave him up in dejection and destructive despair into the hands of the enemy, to be, as far as you were concerned, miserably destroyed by him. But the enemy would certainly never have attacked him with so fierce an onslaught, with which he has up till now scorned to attack you, unless in his jealousy at the progress he was to make, he had endeavoured to get the better of that virtue which he saw lay in his disposition, and to destroy it with his fiery darts, as he knew without the shadow of a doubt that he was the stronger, since he deemed it worth his while to attack him with such vehemence. And so learn from your own experience to sympathize with those in trouble, and never to terrify with destructive despair those who are in danger, nor harden them with severe speeches, but rather restore them with gentle and kindly consolations, and as the wise Solomon says, Spare not to deliver those who are led forth to death, and to redeem those who are to be slain, Proverbs 24:11 and after the example of our Saviour, break not the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax, Matthew 12:20 and ask of the Lord that grace, by means of which you yourself may faithfully learn both in deed and power to sing: the Lord has given me a learned tongue that I should know how to uphold by word him that is weary: Isaiah 50:4 for no one could bear the devices of the enemy, or extinguish or repress those carnal fires which burn with a sort of natural flame, unless God’s grace assisted our weakness, or protected and supported it. And therefore, as the reason for this salutary incident is over, by which the Lord meant to set that young man free from dangerous desires and to teach you something of the violence of their attack, and of the feeling of compassion, let us together implore Him in prayer, that He may be pleased to remove that scourge, which the Lord thought good to lay upon you for your good (for He makes sorry and cures: he strikes and his hands heal. He humbles and exalts, he kills and makes alive: he brings down to the grave and brings up) , and may extinguish with the abundant dew of His Spirit the fiery darts of the devil, which at my desire He allowed to wound you. And although the Lord removed this temptation at a single prayer of the old man with the same speed with which He had suffered it to come upon him, yet He showed by a clear proof that a man’s faults when laid bare were not merely not to be scolded, but that the grief of one in trouble ought not to be lightly despised. And therefore never let the clumsiness or shallowness of one old man or of a few deter you and keep you back from that life-giving way, of which we spoke earlier, or from the tradition of the Elders, if our crafty enemy makes a wrongful use of their grey hairs in order to deceive younger men: but without any cloak of shame everything should be disclosed to the Elders, and remedies for wounds be faithfully received from them together with examples of life and conversation: from which we shall find like help and the same sort of result, if we try to do nothing at all on our own responsibility and judgment.

John Chrysostom on justification

A brief quotation from the ninth chapter of St John Chrysostom’s commentary on Romans:

For we were not reconciled merely in order to receive forgiveness of sins; we were meant to receive countless additional benefits as well.

Let us not forget that and thank the Lord for the many benefits of life in Him.

Chrysostom: The monk’s habit is the garment for the Wedding Feast

14th-c Russian icon of this parable

The other night I read the Parable of the Wedding Feast, Matthew 22:1-14, just before bed. Then I decided to think about it. I sort of understood most of it, but the end is not as straightforward as we all like to think the Bible is:

And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment; And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen. (Mt 22:11-14 KJV)

I wasn’t so much concerned with ‘outer darkness’ and ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ as with ‘many are called, but few are chosen’.

Chrysostom from Ayia Sophia

Since I am myself, I turned naturally to St John Chrysostom (d. 407), that great Doctor of the Church. I didn’t reallly find the answer to what v. 14 means exactly, although the short version is, ‘Sure, we Gentiles are all called. But just because you trusted in God at some point and got baptised doesn’t mean you have no responsibilities to live a holy life now.’

The orator bishop says:

Then in order that not even these should put confidence in their faith alone, He discourses unto them also concerning the judgment to be passed upon wicked actions; to them that have not yet believed, of coming unto Him by faith, and to them that have believed, of care with respect to their life. For the garment is life and practice.

And yet the calling was of grace; wherefore then doth He take a strict account? Because although to be called and to be cleansed was of grace, yet, when called and clothed in clean garments, to continue keeping them so, this is of the diligence of them that are called.

The being called was not of merit, but of grace. It was fit therefore to make a return for the grace, and not to show forth such great wickedness after the honor.

You can read this section of Homily 69 on Matthew here, beginning at the fourth paragraph on p. 932. As you proceed, it will be much as you expect — he berates the congregation for being too worldly-minded, for not living by Christ’s commandments, for caring more about who became governor of which province, for …

not being monks.

Unexpected, but not surprising.

Chrysostom pulls out some of his golden* prose for the ensuing description of life in the desert-made-city.** St John Chrysostom was a former monk, so he had first-hand knowledge of what life was like for the average fourth-century monk. And Syria, where he had been a monk before joining the ranks of the ‘secular’ clergy, was a hotbed for weird and wooly monasticism — some of the more extreme examples of Late Antique ascetic piety arose there.{See footnote ***}

I quote the beginning of his ensuing oration on monks:

3. Wilt thou that I show thee them that are clad thus, them that have on a marriage garment?

Call to mind those holy persons, of whom I discoursed to you of late, them that wear garments of hair, them that dwell in the deserts. These above all are the wearers of the garments of that wedding; this is evident from hence, that how many soever purple robes thou wert to give them, they would not choose to receive them; but much as a king, if any one were to take the beggar’s rags, and exhort him to put them on, would abhor the clothing, so would those persons also his purple robe. And from no other cause have they this feeling, but because of knowing the beauty of their own raiment. Therefore even that purple robe they spurn like the spider’s web. For these things hath their sackcloth taught them; for indeed they are far more exalted and more glorious than the very king who reigns.

And if thou wert able to open the doors of the mind, and to look upon their soul, and all their ornaments within, surely thou wouldest fall down upon the earth, not bearing the glory of their beauty, and the splendor of those garments, and the lightning brightness of their conscience.

For we could tell also of men of old, great and to be admired; but since visible examples lead on more those of grosser souls, therefore do I send you even to the tabernacles of those holy persons. For they have nothing sorrowful, but as if in heaven they had pitched their tents, even so are they encamped far off the wearisome things of this present life, in campaign against the devils; and as in choirs, so do they war against him. Therefore I say, they have fixed their tents, and have fled from cities, and markets, and houses. For he that warreth cannot sit in a house, but he must make his habitation of a temporary kind, as on the point of removing straightway, and so dwell. Such are all those persons, contrary to us. For we indeed live not as in a camp, but as in a city at peace.

‘Thebaid’ by Fra Angelico, Uffizzi, Florence. Ascetic Egypt = Chrysostom’s paradise

This moved me (go on, read it to the end!). I am, admittedly, frequently moved by tales of monks and the lives of holy men and women in their quest for God — whether mystics, monastics, or missionaries.

But what are we up to? Are we clothing ourselves in the garments necessary for the banquet? Are we ready to feast with the King?

I am not here talking about justification or grace or any such thing.

I am talking about daily life.

Do we live as the pagans around us?

Come, let us get on our knees and pray. For there is no better place to start getting dressed.

*Pun on Chrysostomos (lit. ‘Goldenmouth’) intended.

**Hm … stealing from Derwas J Chitty or Athanasius/Antony?

*** Because everyone likes to read about this sort of thing: Simeon the Stylite on his pillar (d. 459; English trans of Syriac Life of Simeon the Stylite), this one guy who wore an iron belt under his clothes that was wearing away his flesh (see Theodoret’s History of the Monks of Syria), people who lived off wild herbs and had no shelter (boskoi in the Greek), several guys who never lay down to sleep, I think Simeon lived in a well before the pillar. It’s been a while since I looked at this material, sorry there’s not more.

The Third Day of Christmas: A Sermon of Gregory of Nazianzus

For the Third Day of this Twelve-day Feast, I bring to you a sermon attributed to St Gregory of Nazianzus (aka ‘the Theologian’, c. 330-390). The more common Nativity sermon you will find in Orthodox books and floating around the internet is that of St John Chrysostom (347-407). I think this one is also well worth reading, and will mix things up a bit. Merry Christmas!

Christ is born, glorify Him. Christ from heaven, go out to meet Him. Christ on earth, be exalted. Sing to the Lord all the whole earth; and that I may join both in one word, let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, for Him who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope.

Again, the darkness is past; again Light is made; again Egypt is punished with darkness; again Israel is enlightened by a pillar. The people who sat in the darkness of ignorance, let them see the great Light full of knowledge. Old things have passed away, behold all things have become new. The letter gives way, the Spirit comes to the front. The shadows flee away, the truth comes in on them. Melchizedek is concluded. He who was without Mother becomes without Father (without mother of His former state, without father of His second). The laws of nature are upset; the world above must be filled. Christ commands it, let us not set ourselves against Him. O clap your hands together all you people, because unto us a Child is born, and a Son given unto us, whose government is upon His shoulder (for with the cross it is raised up), and His name is called The Angel of the Great Counsel of the Father. Let John cry, prepare the way of the Lord; I too will cry the power of this Day. He who is not carnal is Incarnate; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever. Let the Jews be offended, let the Greeks deride; let heretics talk until their tongues ache. Then shall they believe, when they see Him ascending into heaven; and if not then, yet when they see Him coming out of heaven and sitting as Judge.

This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating today, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth, or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God – that putting off of the old man, we might put on the new; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him. For I must undergo the beautiful conversion, and as the painful succeeded the more blissful, so must the more blissful come out of the painful. For where sin abounded grace did much more abound; and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the passion of Christ justify us? Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him who is ours, or rather as our master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation. (Taken from www.ancient-future.net)

Evangelicals read the Fathers for ‘fresh’ readings of Scripture

The word fresh is in quotation marks above because the freshness of the Fathers is relative to the reader. They themselves are not fresh, for they have mostly been around for 1500 years of more. But to many of us, their ideas can be a breath of fresh air.

When I queried Why Should Evangelicals Read the Fathers?, the third response, from a friend doing a PhD in New Testament who was once a pastor, was ‘To learn how not to do exegesis.’ (The other two were ”Cause they’re awesome‘ and ‘Because they are relevant‘.)

When we first meet patristic exegesis, it can often seem quite unfamiliar to us. And some of it is probably bogus. So why should we even try Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers? (To name a book that addresses this very issue.)

To answer this, I think I’ll use a different approach, one that will hopefully highlight those other reasons to read the Fathers — their awesomeness and relevance. I’ll talk about myself (something bloggers like to do).

My very, very first encounter with patristic exegesis was, thankfully, not the beautiful, lyrical, typological poems of St. Ephraim the Syrian. If it had been, I would have been left very puzzled and very nonplussed. No, it was with level-headed, ‘down-to-earth’, ‘Antiochene’ St. John Chrysostom.

I knew of the efforts of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and I wished to make use of such things those few moments when people foolishly gave their pulpits to me. I also knew of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library and its digital version of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) & Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF). Not overfond of reading lengthy text online, especially if Victorian, I got my hands on St. John Chrysostom from NPNF and used him in preparing for homilies.

What I found was not merely attention to detail or the exegesis of the passage in terms of what it meant in its original, historical context. Chrysostom looked at the passage and exegeted it to bring its full weight to bear upon his congregation. He drew forth from the words of Holy Writ spiritual and ethical lessons for his congregation. He called them to lead holy lives.

When Chrysostom talks of St. Paul’s conversion, he also calls his congregation to read their Bibles for themselves. Commenting upon Philippians, he berates fathers who are angry about their sons taking up the religious life — if they are Christians, how is this a bad choice? Better than the pitfalls at the imperial court with its many opportunities for sin and worldliness! Then he says that one could be a light in the darkness at the imperial court, and it’s not a place Christians should avoid.

The Scriptures for Chrysostom and many, if not all, of the Fathers are alive. They speak here and now. They call us to holiness. They call us to contemplation (theoria) of God.* They drive us to worship. They are not objects of study — rather, they turn us into the objects of study. Patristic exegesis was not scary but exciting and invigorating with Chrysostom.

If you are cautious about patristic exegesis, start with St. John Chrysostom.

If you are curious about things less familiar, less like a Sunday-morning evangelical sermon, curious about things that will take you into the land of mystical union with the Divine and the world of the luminous eye (to cite the title of a book by Sebastian Brock), check out my second major helping of Patristic exegesis: St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses.

The Life of Moses starts out with Chrysostom’s familiar territory — ad litteram — the literal, historical meaning of the text. St. Gregory (Saint of the Week here) tells us the life of Moses as found in the Pentateuch. There are lessons to be found here about life, ethics, and God. Even that (in)famous allegorist Origen believes in the power and importance of the literal meaning of Scripture.

But Gregory takes us beyond the literal into the mystical world of allegory. Moses’ life is an allegory for our own spiritual world. As the Israelites were saved by crossing the Red Sea, we are saved in the waters of baptism. As Moses ascended the mountain of God into the cloud of unknowing (to borrow the title of a piece of Middle English mysticism), so too is the Christian called to ascend the mountain of God and find God in His incomprehensibility through mystical contemplation.

That’s probably more than enough to make most people uneasy about Patristic exegesis. What has Moses ascending Mt. Sinai to do with me, alone, in a dark room engaged in the ‘useless’ pursuit of omphaloskepsis (‘navel-gazing’, used as a perjorative in the Byzantine Hesychastic Controversy)?

We, as Protestants, shy away from this sort of allegorical, mystical reading, fearing that it will turn the Scriptures into a wax nose that can be twisted in any direction.

When I read The Life of Moses, I found it invigorating, in fact. Who knows if St. Gregory’s mystical allegory is true or ‘right’? What I know is that it contained truth and rightness. I mean to say that it found in all of Scripture a spiritual sense and sought to encourage Christians through the use of Scripture for understanding their special call as followers of Jesus. St. Gregory sees the events of the history of the people of Israel as more than simply the account of God’s dealing with the human race — he sees in them a vision of God’s dealings with each, individual human. God can save you and me, and draw us to Him, if we have the eyes to see and a deep faith rooted in Him and His word.

You may not like allegory. You may think it dangerous. You may confuse it with typology (if that’s the case, read my post about the usefulness of typology in Scripture-reading, as well as on the fourfold sense of Scripture). Nonetheless, I hope that encountering uncomfortable writings such as St. Gregory of Nyssa will jar you into trying to see that there is spiritual benefit in all of Scripture, that the Scriptures are not a self-help book, that the Scriptures are not there as a perfect roadmap to life, but, most importantly, that the Scriptures exist primarily as the revelation of God and as a means for us to be drawn into him.

This leaves us even with a place for the mind-bending typologies of St. Ephraim the Syrian (see this hymn on the Incarnation of his), well worth a read. And then, perhaps we can shed any vestiges that we have the perfect, historically accurate, airtight, ‘useful’ interpretation of Scripture and allow our souls to breathe.

Further Explorations

If you are curious about looking into Patristic exegesis and hermeneutics more, here are two places to start:

Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. IVP. This book was my introduction to Patristic ways of reading the Bible. Worth a read.

Oden, Thomas, General Editor. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. IVP. Hall’s book is meant to be an accompaniment to this 26-volume commentary on the whole of Scripture, including the Deuterocanonical Books, giving brief selections from the Patristic witness ranging from Origen and Athanasius to Cassian and Augustine. A fantastic resource.

*For a good article about Chrysostom and the Antiochene understanding and use of theoria in interpreting Scripture, see Bradley Nassif, “Antiochene theoria [actually in Greek] in John Chrysostom’s Exegesis,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, ed. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall. IVP.

Some Kind of Zombie

Allow me to demonstrate my uncoolness not only by referencing a Christian rock song, but by referencing one that’s from 1997. First, if you don’t know the Audio Adrenaline (who have appeared on this blog before) song ‘Some Kind of Zombie,’ you should rectify that now:

Alternatively, you can listen to the song and its accompanying album on Spotify.

Outside of actually being a pretty good song (one sighs that Audio Adrenaline isn’t producing any more music, given how terrible so much Christian pop/rock is), I’m thinking of it particularly because of these lines:

Here they come.
They’re all upon me.
But I’m dead to sin like
some kind of zombie.
I hear you speak and I obey.
I walked away from the grave.
I will never be afraid.
I gave my life away.
I’m obliged and obey.
I’m enslaved to what you say.

This song gives us a fairly radical vision of what it means to be a follower of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We are slaves of God who are obliged to obey Him and are dead to sin. It’s not actually a very popular image these days. We prefer being the friends of God, the buddies of God, the children of God, the brothers and sisters of Christ — sometimes even the Bride of Christ.

But his slaves? No thanks.

However, this image of being a slave of Christ is not an invention of Audio Adrenaline’s:

Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. (Ro 6:15-18)

St. John Chrysostom (Goldenmouth) says of Romans 6:18:

There are two gifts of God which he here points out. The “freeing from sin,” and also the “making them servants to righteousness,” which is better than any freedom. For God hath done the same as if a person were to take an orphan, who had been carried away by savages into their own country, and were not only to free him from captivity, but were to set a kind father over him, and bring him to very great dignity. And this has been done in our case. For it was not our old evils alone that He freed us from, since He even led us to the life of angels, and paved the way for us to the best conversation, handing us over to the safe keeping of righteousness, and killing our former evils, and deadening the old man, and leading us to an immortal life. (Homilies on Romans XI)

The point is that we are made more than sin-free — we are made holy by the action of Christ. Righteousness isn’t simply not doing wrong; it has the positive content of living life as it was meant to be lived, life as God teaches us through Scripture and the lives of the saints. The salvation he offers to us gives us the power to live this righteous life.

Being the slave of God, of Christ, of righteousness is, thus, a good thing. We are dead to sin, which brings death to us, and alive to Christ, who brings life to us. This is part of the ontological change St. Maximus talks about (as discussed here). Let’s try, then, to live holy lives.

The next step …

In “This Week in Patristics” for May 30 – June 4, Phil Snider ponders, “It does make me wonder what the next step is, now that we have so many competant introductions.” This is a good question. I, myself, have read a few good introductions of various types, such as Thomas C. Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy which is a call for mainline Protestants to rediscover the Church Fathers, Christopher A. Hall’s three volumes from IVP, Robert E. Webber’s Ancient-Future Faith, and Boniface Ramsey’s Beginning to Read the Fathers.

One answer, of course (and I’m pretty sure Phil thought of this), is to read more and more of the Fathers. The Age of the Fathers contains an enormous volume of content, much of which is worth reading more than once, spanning the Mediterranean world and beyond, covering a multitude of genres both prose and poetic, and providing wisdom for many different aspects of our lives.

If the bigness of the Patristic world overwhelms you, I recommend working through something like Ramsey’s “Patristic Reading Program” as at the back of Beginning to Read the Fathers. I also recommend, if you’ve read a lot about the Fathers but not much from the Fathers, that you get Henry Chadwick’s translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions, the SVS translation of St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, and the Penguin Classics edition, by Maxwell Staniforth and Andrew Louth, of the Apostolic Fathers called Early Christian Writings. These will give you a variety of different writings from East and West in different genres. You can move on from there based on what you found of interest.

If you are already reading the Fathers but are looking for guides, a good idea is to get a book of essays on Patristic themes. One of my first introductions to the secondary material on the Church Fathers was Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-orthodoxy in the 21st Century, ed. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall, a collection of essays about patristic themes and the question of orthodoxy in today’s Church. A similar volume, also from IVP, was Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, a collection of conference papers on Patristic questions and their application to today’s situations.

Another, similar, idea is to find authors of series of books on Patristic questions, such as Robert E. Webber’s series that began with Ancient-Future Faith but also includes Ancient-Future Evangelism and Ancient-Future Worship. These books tend to point you towards others, both primary material and secondary sources, that may interest you.

I have a friend who is a missionary in Cyprus, and because St. John Chrysostom is such a big deal in the Greek Orthodox world, he got his hands on J.N.D. Kelly’s book Goldenmouth. If you are a Jerome enthusiast, Kelly also has Jerome.

Along similar lines to a modern biography/study of an ancient Christian figure is the Routledge series The Early Church Fathers. Who has caught your eye, but the bibliography seems too big? St. Leo? No problem! Or Severus of Antioch? Or Evagrius Ponticus? Or Ambrose of Milan? Or Cyril of Alexandria? Or Athanasius? No problem!

Alternatively, browse through a handbook to see what material there is. I realise that non-specialists with not a lot of time on their hands will be less excited by Daniel Hombergen’s The Second Origenist Controversy than I am, but handbooks also point you less weighty, more readable material along the way; there is Quasten’s multi-volume Patrology as well as Hubertus Drobner’s single-volume The Fathers of the Church. If a book looks like it will kill you from boredom, don’t be ashamed to put it down! The whole point of Patristics is edification and drawing nearer to Christ. We only have so many hours in our lives, so wasting time with boring or excessively long books that will profit us little is not to be recommended.

Finally, why not take your daily Bible readings and the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and read along that way? And if a passage is particularly striking, see if you can find it in context and find more Church Fathers and connexions that way. You will learn more about Scripture at the same time! To save time, for those who use the Revised Common Lectionary, the companion volumes Ancient Christian Devotional (Year A doesn’t specify the year, Year C is out, and I hope to see Year B by Advent) are aligned with the Lectionary. Also interesting may be Hendrickson’s Day by Day with the Early Church Fathers.

This is all for now, but even if you choose a single one of these, you will have taken an important step beyond reading introduction to the Fathers after introduction!

Origen and the Development of Orthodoxy

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

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

Origen’s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Interconnected Nature of the Patristic World

My musings upon the impact of the Desert Fathers are a reminder that the Mediterranean world of Late Antiquity is a very connected place, and thus patristic writers and thinkers do not operate in vacuums.  There is, indeed, a fundamental interconnectedness of all things (to quote Dirk Gently as well as recall Robert E Webber, Ancient-Future Faith).

The ascetic world produces some of the interconnectedness, as seen in yesterday’s post.  St. Athanasius and the Desert Fathers knew one another.  He was not only the biographer of St. Antony, but a great theologian who lived with the abbas and ammas whilst in exile.  Evagrius Ponticus came to the Desert from the court in Constantinople.  He brought with him the teachings of Origen, and although he had to learn humility, there is no doubt that Origen and other non-monastic teachers had an impact upon the thoughts and lives of the abbas and ammas.

St. Basil the Great spent time with the monks of Egypt, after which he decided that coenobitic (or cenobitic) monasticism was the way forward, for how can you love your neighbour or be the servant of all if you live alone?  Thus he wrote his Asketikon which influences Eastern Orthodox monasticism today.  He was also a brilliant theologian, whose work On the Holy Spirit I have blogged about here.  The relationship between Egyptian monasticism and St. Basil’s ascetic writings is worth exploring.

St. Basil wrote/edited a/the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharistic liturgy in Caesarea, Cappadocia.  This work resounds with words, images, and ideas found in the later and more commonly used Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in Constantinople.  Both of them demonstrate that they are of the same lineage as the 1st-century Didache and second-century Apostolic Constitutions of St. Hippolytus in Rome.  They are also clearly related to the liturgy of St. Gregory of the Great in the sixth century.

The liturgical world of worship was very much rooted in the same tradition, as we see in Taft’s work The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West where we see the daily office’s similarities in the Spanish, Celtic, and Roman traditions of the West, as well as of the Byzantine, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Assyrian, Indian traditions of the East.  There is a common ancestry amongst all the historic churches of the world, and we see it in the fundamental interconnectedness of their worship.

It is present as well in the world of theology, although cultural and linguistic differences begin fraying the fabric of the Church Catholic by the fifth century at latest.  St. Augustine’s teaching on the Trinity does not differ from the Cappadocians‘.  The doctrine of impassibility — troubling to moderns — was held by so many so strongly that St. Cyril of Alexandria had to defend himself from accusations surrounding the alleged heresy of “theopaschism,” the idea that God can suffer.

The core of the faith, the rule of faith, is subscribed to by Justin, Tertullian, Irenaeus, and all the Fathers after Nicaea.  There is one faith, one hope, one baptism, one God and Father of all.

I’m running out of specifics from my mind itself; I’ll write more on this later when I have my notes on hand.  Keep a lookout!  The tag will be interconnectedness.