The “Triumph of Orthodoxy”

Late 14th century icon illustrating the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" under the Byzantine Empress Theodora and her son Michael III over iconoclasm in 843. (National Icon Collection 18, British Museum)
Late 14th century icon illustrating the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” under the Byzantine Empress Theodora and her son Michael III over iconoclasm in 843. (National Icon Collection 18, British Museum)

Eastern and Western Easter are very far apart this year — we just observed Palm Sunday by the Western calendar, while our brothers and sisters in the Eastern churches* just celebrated the First Sunday of Great Lent, the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. When I did my series of presentations on Ancient Christianity for the Greek Evangelical Chuch in Nicosia, Cyprus, one of the gentlemen present was very concerned with the Triumph of Orthodoxy and the Orthodox use of icons. The Triumph of Orthodoxy, you see, is a feast celebrating the reaffirmation in 843 of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second of Nicaea, that took place in 787, and approved the use of icons in Christian worship. My focus today is on 787 as the triumph, even if we had to wait until 843 for its full acceptance in the East.

His concern was that the Orthodox are so obsessed with icons that they see the settling of the icon question as central to their identity, and call it the ‘triumph’ of Orthodoxy. The Greek Evangelical Church of Cyprus, like its relative (but structurally distinct) in Greece, is a Presbyterian denomination. The Reformed are always cautious of images. And for Protestants in Orthodox countries, the ubiquity of icons becomes a stumbling block between the different Christian communities. This fellow felt that Orthodox iconodulism (veneration of icons) obscures the Gospel. I don’t recall everything he expressed to me, so I cannot say how close he feels it comes to idolatry.

John Calvin certainly felt that images were by nature impious.

Now, I am not Eastern Orthodox, so I may accidentally misrepresent something here. My apologies.

Nevertheless, the question arises: Why celebrate Second Nicaea, in 787, and its affirmation in 843, every year as the Triumph of Orthodoxy?

The answer is not simply that Orthodox Christians loves them some icons. I mean, they do — this Saturday, Father Raphael was explaining some of the icons in the chapel in Edinburgh to my wife and me. But when Father Raphael discusses the theology of icons and iconology, it becomes apparent that the images are to be venerated as signs and signifiers of greater wonders, theological truths, mysteries of faith, historical encounters with God.

But that is not why the Seventh Ecumenical Council is the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

The great controversies of the Seven Ecumenical Councils are all Christological:

  1. At Nicaea in 325, the question was debated as to whether ‘there was when Christ was not’ and if Christ is to be called homoousios (no to the former, yes to the latter). The resulting Creed was much debated until
  2. the First Council of Constantinople in 381 that reaffirmed the teaching of Nicaea and added some further clauses on the Holy Spirit. Having settled the question of Christ’s divinity to their satisfaction, the bishops of the imperial church began to debate about what it means for Him to be both human and divine.
  3. At Ephesus in 431, the apparent teaching of Nestorius was rejected that divided Christ to such a degree that He was two persons; the epithet Theotokos, God-bearer, was approved for the BVM because it affirms that the Person born of her was, indeed, fully God from the moment of conception.
  4. The Fourth Ecumenical Council, at Chalcedon in 451, affirmed that the single Person of Christ has two natures, one human and one divine, drafting a definition of faith to that effect.
  5. The Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Second of Constantinople, in 553, tried to reconcile Chalcedon to the conservative Cyrillians (Mono-/Miaphysites) by giving it a more Cyrillian interpretation and anathematising certain persons and teachings.
  6. The Sixth Ecumenical Council, the Third of Constantinople, of 681, rejected the teachings of Monothelitism and upheld the teachings of St Maximus the Confessor that maintain that if Christ has two natures, he must have two wills.
  7. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second of Nicaea, in 787, upheld the production and use of icons in Christian worship.
Seventh ecumenical council, Icon, 17th century, Novodevichy Convent, Moscow
Seventh ecumenical council, Icon, 17th century, Novodevichy Convent, Moscow

Put this way, it is obvious how the first six are Christological, but less so regarding the Seventh, unless you look at what the Council Fathers affirm. After affirming their rootedness in tradition, the Council Fathers declare that representational art:

is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another’s message.

They say a bit later:

The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration {latria} in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects. Further, people are drawn to honour these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom. Indeed, the honour paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model, and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.

The logic of icons of Our Lord is simple. God the Word became Incarnate as a real, flesh and blood human being, possessing a true human nature and existing as a real, single person. This He did for our salvation. The Apostles saw him and touched him. If they had wanted to, they could have painted him. If there had been cameras, they could have photographed him. Jesus was real, not fake. There is no space for docetism in orthodox Christianity. Therefore, the teaching of Deuteronomy 4, that the Israelites could not make images of God because they had not seen him, no longer holds for God the Word Incarnate, although it still counts for God the Father and the Trinity as a whole, as I have discussed.

The Reformed are free to dispute and argue with this, so long as they stand within the bounds of logic and Scripture. However, what they cannot dispute is that images of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, are approved by the ancient churches on the grounds of the Incarnation, on the grounds of the Gospel truth that God became man in order to save us.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council is the final council of the united church. None of the General Councils of the western church from the Middle Ages to Vatican II can truly be ecumenical without Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. This council affirms the teaching of the ‘last’ of the Eastern Fathers, that iconodule St John of Damascus, the most famous supporter of icons, who was my introduction to the Iconoclast Controversy through the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

East and West both affirm the full divinity and humanity of Christ the Word Incarnate. Centuries of debate went into our orthodox understanding of Christ to produce teachings that are the most biblically faithful and philosophical coherent ones out there. Their culmination was in the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The foundations for subsequent Christian theology were thus laid, and in just under three centuries, East and West would part ways. This was also a great moment of unity for us.

How could this not be the triumph of orthodoxy?

*I make this plural not because I am confused about whether or not Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Antiochian, etc, Churches are all the same thing but because Eastern Orthodox and Eastern/Greek/Byzantine Rite Catholic (“Uniate” in some circles) follow the same calendar; Oriental Orthodox Churches, I believe, have the same Easter, but I am not certain of their other feasts, since they do not recognise all Seven Ecumenical Councils.

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The Orthodox victims of powerful Christians in the messy, post-Constantine church

(Whew! Long title.) This is part of a series of posts on the messy reality of Church History After Constantine. The others are: The Messy Reality of Post-Constantinian Church History, Church After Constantine 2a: The Late Antique Targets, and Church After Constantine 2b: The Mediaeval Targets, with An Excursus on the Synod of Whitby, AD 664.

John Chrysostom before exile

What makes the truth about life after Constantine messy is that amongst those targeted and hounded and tortured and excommunicated by the official organs of church and government are some orthodox Christians, people whose theology most of those who subscribe to the Great Apostasy/Trail of Blood theory as well as those of us (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Magisterial Reformation) who still see our spiritual roots in the Patristic and even Mediaeval era agree with.

Some of them are even saints.

The reason why these people make it messy is that they don’t fit the triumphalist reading that says everything was peachy keen with imperial favour, but they also don’t really fit the idea that the wicked Catholic Church was persecuting true believers, since the latter body often canonised these folks as saints.

Like St Athanasius, great champion of Nicaea, as mentioned in the first of this series (and saint of the week here).

St John Chrysostom (347-407), one of the most beloved Greek Fathers amongst evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics, died in exile, hounded day and night by imperial soldiers after a kangaroo court (the Synod of the Oak) found him guilty of heresy. His preaching and exegesis of scripture are solid and worth a read. His theology is impeccable. Yet he found himself exiled for heresy and only had his sanctity formally acknowledged by a very vigorous post-exilic and post-mortem PR campaign.

St Maximus the Confessor (580-662) always comes to mind in this regard as well. In the seventh century, as part of imperial attempts to reconcile Mono/Miaphysite groups (i.e. Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic) to the Orthodox Catholic Church, a heterodox idea developed called monothelitism, saying that, regardless of the two natures, Jesus had one will that governed the whole thing. Maximus pointed out that this negates the fullness and perfection of Jesus’ humanity. The emperor told him to shut up. He did not, so his tongue was cut out, and he was sent into exile. Not a poster-boy for either side, really. Messy.

St John of Damascus (676-749; saint of the week here) was not persecuted by the Church, although he was formally excommunicated at one of the iconoclastic church councils. The only reason he was not personally persecuted was, well, because he lived in Damascus, already a part of the Caliphate. However, had he lived within the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, he would have been the object of government persecution for his iconodule beliefs.

… and this post just crashed and burned.

Right before your eyes.

This is the part where audience participation comes in! Who else is there??

Who else who is revered now as orthodox was targeted either by the government or church in his’er lifetime? Obviously we are not not not trying to rehabilitate heretics. I thought of adding St Thomas Becket, but his case is very different from the other three above. St Jeanne d’Arc is also an interesting case, but also different (fun post I should write: St Joan Is Why I’m not Roman Catholic).

I think you get the point, though. The kindly eye of the government can turn sour quite quickly when the secular authorities decide that your brand of orthodoxy or outspokenness are not what they are looking for.

Second and Third Generation Desert Fathers

The Great Laura of St. Savvas

Usually, when people talk about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, they mean those ascetics from the period of St. Antony, St. Pachomius, Evagrius Ponticus, St. Simeon the Stylite, and St? Shenoute. But what about the following generations of desert monasticism?

In my mind, the second and third generations of Desert Fathers are those who lived in the sixth and seventh centuries. The sixth century Desert Fathers lived in the era after the Council of Chalcedon, in the days when the Church was drawing ever closer to fragmentation over Christological issues. They also live in the age of the Second Origenist Controversy, which resulted in a list of anathemas against certain “Origenist” teachings (available here) associated with the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 553.

The result of the Second Origenist Controversy, which was, as seems likely now, a battle between a more “intellectualist”, contemplative (hesychastic?) strain of monasticism and a more “practical” strain focussed on ascetic labours and “simplicity”, was the destruction of a large amount of valuable material by Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, and Didymus the Blind — although some survives in Latin or Syriac translations, other material circulated under false names, and still other stuff survived out of sheer obstinacy and the fact that a lot of monks really dug Evagrian spirituality — even if they rejected the theological system of the Kephalaia Gnostica.

Another result was the banishment of large numbers of “Origenist” monks from Palestinian monasteries. The Evagrian-Origenist legacy would continue, but with less clear force and never unambiguously — the tension between praktike and theoria would never be resolved in Desert monasticism.

The sixth-century Desert Fathers also saw some good things. This is the Age of Justinian, which included the foundation of St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai. This is also the age following the gathering and disseminating of collections of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, mostly from those first generation monks of the fourth and fifth centuries. The Sayings, or Apophthegmata, were so popular that not only do they exist in various Greek collections and in Latin translation, there are translations of the collections into Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Arabic, and probably even Ethiopian.

Sixth-century monasticism flourished in Palestine, both in Gaza and the Judean Desert. Desert Fathers include Dorotheos of Gaza, whose spiritual works are considered by Eric P. Wheeler who translated them for Cistercian as Discourses and Sayings to be an easier introduction to the Desert tradition than the Sayings and the hagiography. Also of interest are Dorotheos’ teachers, Barsanuphius and John, a selection of whose letters has been translated by SVS Press for their Popular Patristics Series.

St. Savvas also lived in the sixth century, although he began his work in the fifth. Savvas was the great expander of Palestinian monasticism, primarily in the form of “lauras” communities of monks who lived in separate cells together but only gathered on the weekend. He was a defender of Chalcedon against the anti-Chalcedonians and made embassies to Emperors Anastasius and Justinian on the behalf of Palestinian monks.

Parallel to St. Savvas is St. Theodosius, his comrade, who did much the same things as he only for coenobitic monasticism — monasteries as we imagine them, with a full, common life.

Important for our knowledge of Palestinian monasticism is sixth-century writer Cyril of Scythopolis, who wrote seven Lives of Palestinian monastic leaders, covering Euthymius, Savvas, Kyriakos, John the Hesychast, Theodosius, Theognius, and Avraamius. He is also our most important source for the Second Origenist Controversy.

The seventh century saw the continuation of the Desert tradition. In the Sinai, at St. Catherine’s, John Climacus (saint of the week here) was the abbot and produced his famous Ladder. He himself shared in the inheritance from the Fathers of Gaza as well as from the Evagrian spiritual system. St. Catherine’s was one of the most important foundations of the later generations of Desert monasticism, and it is in her libraries that many Syriac manuscripts have been found, and from here come several of the authors within the Philokalia.

The seventh century is also the century of St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, who lived in St. Savvas’ Great Laura in Palestine and is one of the spiritual masters to make his way into the Philokalia.

However, by the seventh century, the monasticism of the Desert had lost some of her impetus, no doubt due to the ongoing disputes between the Chalcedonian imperial church and the anti-Chalcedonians, who by this stage had formed a separate church in Syria through the efforts of Jacob Baradaeus and were well on the road to schism in Egypt. As well, this is the century of the exhausting wars between the Empire and Persia which affected the Syrian and Palestinian heartland of Desert monasticism. Finally, the seventh century is the century of the Arab invasions, through which the Desert was lost to the Christian Empire.

The legacy of the Desert Fathers and the outgrowth of monasticism in the sixth century is still impressive, however. Their spiritual heritage is found in St. John Climacus’ contemporary, the ascetic spiritual theologian St. Maximus the Confessor, and Syrian asceticism found new life in the last Church Father, St. John of Damascus. But the centre of gravity for Christian monasticism had shifted from Syria and Palestine to Athos and Constantinople for the Chalcedonian Greeks, but also East to Armenia and South back to Egypt and into Ethiopia.

For further reading on the later Desert Fathers:

Primary Sources

Barsanuphius and John. Letters from the Desert. Trans. John Chryssavgis. SVS Press. The Fathers of the Church series has also issued the entire corpus of lettes in two volumes (corrected from earlier today when I said it was ACW).

Cyril of Scythopolis. Lives of the Monks of Palestine. Trans. EM Price, introduction and notes by J Binns. Cistercian Publications.

Dorotheos of Gaza. Discourses and Sayings. Trans. Eric P. Wheeler. Cistercian.

John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibhead and Norman Russell. Classics of Western Spirituality: Paulist Press.

The Philokalia, vol. 2. Trans. GEH Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. This volume contains St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Thalassios the Libyan, St. John of Damascus, A Discourse on Abba Philimon, and St. Theognostos.

Secondary Sources

Hirschfeld, Yizhar. The Judean Desert Monasteries in the Byzantine Period. This book covers the archaeological remains of the multitude of monasteries in the Judean Desert at this time as well as the daily life of the monks.

Hombergen, Daniel. The Second Origenist Controversy. This is a highly technical book — in fact, a PhD dissertation — and not for the faint of heart. However, it deals with a lot of the issues in Desert monasticism leading up the Second Origenist Controversy and seeks to uncover what, exactly, the controversy was really about.

Maas, Michael, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. This book includes a section on the religious and philosophical situation in Justinian’s reign.

I would like to include Derwas J. Chitty’s The Desert a City, but I can’t, because I don’t recommend books I haven’t read, no matter how highly recommended by others!

John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances (Pt 2)

Where does Part 1 land me?

I am a self-professing Anglican who currently worships at a Reformed church. I have found, for a long time, that I tend fall in line with the 39 Articles of Religion. However, ever since I worshipped at a Tridentine Mass, things have been moving in … different directions; and the Orthodox have not really moved those directions back towards low-church Protestantism.

I remember the day I started to make a mental break with the 39 Articles for the first time. It was at St. Thomas’ Church in Toronto (aka Smokey Tom’s), and we were worshipping in Latin according to the Use of Sarum. You can read some of my thoughts from that event here and here. Various un-Reformation things occurred besides not worshipping in a language such as the people understandeth (vs. Article 24). They also bowed to the Sacrament (vs. Article 28). There were prayers to saints (vs. Article 22). But, dangnabbit, it was beautiful!

And so I reconsidered how tightly we should hold to the Articles of Religion, even though I tend to see adherence to the Tradition as the safest way to avoid falling into the Pit of Heresy. I am still of a mind that Article 24 is of great importance for regular Sunday worship. But some of these others … I am becoming ‘iffy’ or noncommittal or ‘agnostic’ as to whether they are as important for faith as once I thought.

Furthermore, regarding avoiding the Pit of Heresy, for a long time many Anglicans, from the Welseys onward if not earlier, have not held to Article 16, ‘Of Predestination and Election.’ As well, many others go against Article 37 that embraces Just War Theory. And I’m not sure how long certain Anglo-Catholics have been bowing before monstrances and invoking saints, but certainly longer than I’ve been alive. So there seems to be a grand tradition of ignoring inconvenient Articles of Religion. Nonetheless … nonetheless …

Back to John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances, then.

First, I have been having my Eucharistic thought-life shaped by the Fathers for  a while now, and this year many of my patterns for thinking have been if not challenged by the Fathers, nuanced and immersed in the Fathers due to my own immersion in them, from Justin to Leo, Ignatius to Chrysostom, Severus to Maximus to John of Damascus.

Second, I have actually been reading the ipsissima verba of Reformers, and Luther with greater pleasure than the Reformed side (inevitable, I guess).

And once a week(ish), I step through a little black door with a bronze Russian cross on it, light a candle, then kiss an icon of Christ Pantokrator, and icon of the BVM, and an icon of St. Andrew. I cross myself numerous times and bow whenever the incense comes by.

These things stand in the trajectory of my life post-Latin Mass.

I am now able to comfortably kiss objects, having soaked in the teachings of St. John of Damascus. There is no Article of Religion against this. However, he has made it easier for me to bow to the Eucharistic elements. We have seen this in the last post; given that I have moved to a Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist, this is even easier for me.

Thus, Articles of Religion I am non-committal on as of now:

  • Article 17: Of Predestination and Election: This is a long-standing issue of mine; I dance back and forth re predestination/free will. And St. Augustine only confused the matter.
  • Article 22: Of Purgatory, thus: ‘Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques … is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.’
  • Article 25: Of the Sacraments, thus: ‘The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about …‘ While I believe that chiefly, they are best used in … use … I am not so hard-core re not gazing upon or carrying them about.
  • Article 28: Of the Lord’s Supper is a trickier one, because the entire first paragraph is precisely what Luther has demonstrated to me, and I’ve never believed transubstantiation no matter what Innocent III says. But I do not wish to go so far as to say, ‘The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner.’ This makes me think of one man, and his name starts with Z. It also reiterates the bit I’m unsure of from Article 25 against reserve sacrament, carrying it about, lifting it up, worshipping it.
  • Article 27: Of the Civil Magistrates, thus: ‘It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.’ I’m not sure if I’m entirely comfortable with this, but I’m willing to let it stand at present.

The upshot is, at one level, that it’s not 1563 or 1662 anymore. Issues of praxis that were very important to the English reformers are less important today. But this is a foundational document. How can we say that we are within the Anglican tradition if we start pulling out Articles of Religion willy-nilly because people like me have grown iffy in our compliance with them?

I ask because this makes me some sort of monster, a creature with no nature proper to itself but which may fit in with nature as a whole (cf. John Philoponus, In Phys.). There are people who are uncomfortable with the Nicene Creed because they claim it’s just a lot of Hellenistic philosophy (vs. Article 8). There are people who think science has proven miracles — including the Resurrection — false (vs. Article 4). Some think the Holy Trinity not actually scriptural (vs. Article 1). Some are actual Pelagians (vs. Article 9). Many believe in a real free-will (vs. Articles 10 & 17). I know of some who believe in Purgatory, icons, relics, invocations of saints (vs. Article 22). Some engage in Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament (vs. Article 28).

There is no body of thought or persons that says which Articles of Religion are ‘essential’. Anyone who has tried keeps getting censured by the voices of the official bodies of the Anglican Communion or their local Provinces. What makes an Anglican? Whatever you please?

But whatever it is, am I it anymore?

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

On June 10, 2009, I published a post about our first weekly saint, St. Columba.  Since then, the list has grown considerably.  Most of them get the big ST, but not all.  The principle has been the examination of the lives and teachings of those who have gone before us.  Not all Christians of interest get the big ST.

We have looked at ancient, mediaeval, and post-mediaeval (‘modern’) Christians.  We have looked at Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and one Ethiopian Orthodox.  Apostolic men stand alongside poets who shake hands with mystics and martyrs.  All of these people have lived lives for Christ, and I hope that all of them can help bring us nearer to Christ by their example and teaching.

My selection has sometimes been from the Church Calendar.  Sometimes it has started there, as with Edmund James Peck (see in the list) and then extended by association; following Peck I wrote about other missionaries to the Arctic.  Sometimes they are chosen because I am reading about them or studying their work.

Often, if you have been following these weekly saints, you will have noticed that I give a brief biography of the saint, but not always.  Sometimes I offer a meditation on some aspect of the saint’s life and teaching.  Sometimes I ponder how best we might be able to honour or learn from a particular saint.  I hope these have been a blessing and will continue to bless!  Enjoy!

There are no women.  This is too bad.  I should fix this.  I meant to St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland, when her feast rolled on by, but posted about no saint that week.  She and others shall make their way into the saints for 2011.  Here are the Weekly Saints thus far:

St. Joseph the Carpenter

Pope St. Leo the Great (here & here)

St. John of the Cross

St. Ambrose of Milan

St. Andrew the Apostle

St. Albert Lacombe

St. John the Baptist

St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Matthias the Apostle

St. Boniface

St. Augustine of Canterbury

St. Anthony of Padua

Emperor Constantine the Great

St. Athanasius

Dante Alighieri

St. George the Dragonslayer

George MacDonald

Thomas Cranmer

St. Cuthbert

St. Gregory of Nyssa

John Wesley (here & here)

St. Polycarp of Smyrna

St. Valentine

St. Antony the Great

St. Jean de Brebeuf

St. Francis of Assisi

Hans Egede

St. Juvenaly of Alaska

Edmund James Peck

St. John of Damascus

Abba Giyorgis Saglawi

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Maximilian Kolbe

CS Lewis

St. Alban the Martyr

Sts. Peter and Paul

St. Basil the Great

St. Columba

Why “Theotokos (Mother of God)” Is Important

Pictured to the left is a giant icon of St. Mary “the Virgin” placed at the entrance to the Old City in Nicosia, Cyprus.  Framing this image of the Mother of Our Lord are the words, “Iperayia Theotoke, soson imas“, which I like to translate as, “Supersaint Mother of God, save us.”  This sort of behaviour on the part of the Church of Cyprus is the sort of thing that led one young Chinese man with whom I led Bible studies to say that the major religions of the world were Buddhism, people who believe the Bible, Islamists (his word, not mine), and people who worship Mary.  It is also the sort of thing that makes me more, not less, comfortable with my Protestantism.

What bothers me with that icon is not that it exists at all — I see no reason why one ought not to put up a giant icon of St. Mary if one so wishes.  I would rather it be one of the glorious icons of the crucifixion or resurrection, but, hey, that’s why I’m a Prot.  Nor am I bothered by the word Theotokos, literally “God-bearer”, usually translated as “Mother of God.”  I think that word is very important in our understanding of Who Jesus Is.  I am bothered by the words “soson imas” — save us.  Now, the devout, informed Orthodox will tell that it doesn’t mean the same thing as when they say “Kyrie Khriste, soson imas“, but the words are still the same.

Most Protestants, however, would have been stopped short at the word Theotokos, if not by Iperayia.  It is impious, they will fervently tell you, to call Mary the “Mother of God.”  Did the creator of the starry height have a mother?  Was the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be begotten of a woman?  Dare we to say that God, whom we all know to be the uncaused cause thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas, was begotten of a human being within time?  Would it not be better to say that Mary was “Christotokos”?

Thank you for showing up, Nestorius.  Of course, in real life, if you were named Nestorius and were saying those same things in the late 420’s in Constantinople, your sermon would have been shouted down somewhere around the word “impious”, and an angry mob would cry out for your deposition (in a mere twenty years, such angry mobs are calling out for blood, so Nestorius got it easy).

Question:  Is Jesus Christ fully God?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Seeing as how He is fully God, is He therefore creator of the starry height, the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be, the uncaused cause?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Does Jesus Christ have a mother?

Answer:  Yes.

And you will say, “I know all this.  But Christ Our Lord was born of Mary only of His human nature, not of His divine nature.  As God, He was/is/is being/will be eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds.”

Indeed, God the Son only partook of the Blessed Virgin for His human nature.  To say that she in any way imparted divinity unto Him is blasphemy.  However, was the child born to her God?  Yes, yes He was.  And this is the scandal of the Incarnation.

You see, by limiting the role of Mary as Jesus’ mother to Christotokos, we limit His Incarnation.  We confuse the question.  There are and have been many heretics running about, some of whom imagine that divinity only came upon Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan or in the Transfiguration.  There were and are others who believe that He grew into being God’s son and that he was just a dude upon whom the Logos of God descended.  Others seem to think that He was/is St. Michael the Archangel.  Others think He was just another one of God’s spirit babies up in heaven and that He lived a pure, spotless life but is not identical in substance with God.

Yet St. John of Damascus teaches us that Jesus is of the same essence as God the Father as well as of God the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus was born, God was a man.

The fullness of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus.  He was, by nature, God.  He is, by nature, God.  The child whom St. Mary carried in her womb was God.  He took from her His humanity and became consubstantial with us thereby.  He already had His divinity, already was consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Since God the Creator of the Universe was born as a child, she who bore Him in her womb is rightly called Theotokos, God-bearer, the Mother of God.  It is a safeguard for the full divinity of Christ, a safeguard for the Incarnation.  It is not a point of Mariology but a point of Christology.

St. John of Damascus’ Trinitarian Thought

Here are some highlights from St. John of Damascus’ On the Orthodox Faith, 1.8 (read it here for yourself!).  Each paragraph is a separate quotation.

In treating, then, of the generation of the Son, it is an act of impiety to say that time comes into play and that the existence of the Son is of later origin than the Father. For we hold that it is from Him, that is, from the Father’s nature, that the Son is generated. And unless we grant that the Son co-existed from the beginning with the Father, by Whom He was begotten, we introduce change into the Father’s subsistence, because, not being the Father, He subsequently became the Father. For the creation, even though it originated later, is nevertheless not derived from the essence of God, but is brought into existence out of nothing by His will and power, and change does not touch God’s nature. For generation means that the begetter produces out of his essence offspring similar in essence. But creation and making mean that the creator and maker produces from that which is external, and not out of his own essence, a creation of an absolutely dissimilar nature.

But if we say that the Father is the origin of the Son and greater than the Son, we do not suggest any precedence in time or superiority in nature of the Father over the Son (for through His agency He made the ages), or superiority in any other respect save causation. And we mean by this, that the Son is begotten of the Father and not the Father of the Son, and that the Father naturally is the cause of the Son: just as we say in the same way not that fire proceedeth from light, but rather light from fire.

it is quite impossible to find in creation an image that will illustrate in itself exactly in all details the nature of the Holy Trinity. For how could that which is create and compound, subject to flux and change, circumscribed, formed and corruptible, clearly shew forth the super-essential divine essence, unaffected as it is in any of these ways? Now it is evident that all creation is liable to most of these affections, and all from its very nature is subject to corruption.

But the Son is derived from the Father after the manner of generation, and the Holy Spirit likewise is derived from the Father, yet not after the manner of generation, but after that of procession. And we have learned that there is a difference between generation and procession, but the nature of that difference we in no wise understand. Further, the generation of the Son from the Father and the procession of the Holy Spirit are simultaneous.

The subsistences then we say are perfect, that we may not conceive of the divine nature as compound. For compoundness is the beginning of separation. And again we speak of the three subsistences as being in each other, that we may not introduce a crowd and multitude of Gods. Owing to the three subsistences, there is no compoundness or confusion: while, owing to their having the same essence and dwelling in one another, and being the same in will, and energy, and power, and authority, and movement, so to speak, we recognise the indivisibility and the unity of God. For verily there is one God, and His word and Spirit.

For there is one essence, one goodness, one power, one will, one energy, one authority, one and the same, I repeat, not three resembling each other. But the three subsistences have one and the same movement.

the subsistences dwell in one another, in no wise confused but cleaving together, according to the word of the Lord, I am in the father, and the father in Me: nor can one admit difference in will or judgment or energy or power or anything else whatsoever which may produce actual and absolute separation in our case. Wherefore we do not speak of three Gods, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but rather of one God, the holy Trinity, the Son and Spirit being referred to one cause, and not compounded or coalesced according to the synæresis of Sabellius.