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

The Cult of the Cross: The Bible & The Cross

In my previous post on the subject, we saw that a “cult” of the Cross was a natural development within Christian piety, and that such a cult properly focusses upon our Saviour who died for us upon the Cross.  The Cross itself is incidental; it is a symbol or icon of the salvific event of Christ’s atoning death.

Keeping that in mind, although cults of crosses exist that demonstrate abuses and venerations verging on the idolatrous, what the Bible has to tell us about the Cult of the Cross is not the same thing as what it tells us about idolatry; in some circumstances, we are (possibly) to follow the teaching of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians re food sacrificed to idols — if veneration of a cross causes someone to think they are sinning, don’t venerate and don’t persuade to venerate.*

Yet if all we can see when we look at crucifices, such as the Bernini Crucifix in the Art Gallery of Ontario, is the excess of the Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, or some of the oddities abroad in modern Roman Catholicism, then we’re missing the point of what men like Bernini were doing, and we possibly ignore the Biblical witness.

So here is the Biblical witness:

Matthew gives an entire chapter of 66 verses to the Passion of our Lord; depending how you count, the half-chapter before it as well.  Mark and Luke are similar.  By my previous reckonings, John gives one and a half to two chapters to the Passion of the Lord’s Anointed.  The Crucifixion — eternally linked with the Resurrection that followed — is the centrepiece of the Gospel, the most important Event in the History of the Cosmos.  The Apostles, the Evangelists, give it much attention.

Quickly the Cross comes to symbolise (at least linguistically if not more) that Event (my translations):

1 Cor. 1:17-18: For Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the Gospel, not in wisdom of words (logos), so that the cross of Christ is not made void.  For the teaching (logos) of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Gal. 6:14: May it not be unto me that I should boast unless in the cross of Jesus Christ our Lord, by whom the world is crucified to me and I to the world.

Eph. 2:16: he [Christ] might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross

Phil. 3:18: For many walk about concerning whom I spoke to you often, and I now speak even weeping, the enemeis of the cross of Christ.

Col. 2:14: . . . and he has taken it [the indictment] out of the way, having fastened it to the cross.

According to Strong’s, the epistles have eleven references to the word cross.  The idea is simple: The word cross has become shorthand for Christ’s atoning death; it is, thus, a symbol of what Jesus has done for us, an image of that Event which has wrought for us our salvation.

If you find yourself boasting in the Cross today, know that you are not an idolater but, rather, in very good company.

*Could we educate as well, though?  To replace “meat sacrificed to idols” to “booze”, isn’t it better to gently bring our legalistic brother to a point where he can accept that drinking is not a sin than to leave him in his weakness and avoid “the drink” in his presence?  Also, a priest in a village in Cyprus is known to tell his parishioners to get rid of their icons if they are starting to worship them.

Tomorrow Night: Fasting with John Wesley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are we to interpret the Bible?

I have previously posted about Biblical interpretation in “Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms” parts one & two and in “Layers of Meaning.” Today’s post is spurred on by yesterday’s.

Sam Harris argues in Letter to a Christian Nation that the Bible does not offer a clear statement of morality (p. 33).  He uses the expected argument by taking civil laws from the Pentateuch and saying that the injunctions to stone various people and sell as slaves to be evidence that the Bible does not direct people to live lives of compassion and love.  He further argues that Jesus himself bolsters the Law by saying that not one jot or tittle of the Law will be erased.  He also argues that eschatological statements about God’s coming judgement will also make people violent (pp. 13 & 14).

Harris acknowledges that Jesus does say some good stuff, although Confucius beat him to the Golden Rule.  I don’t imagine that the rest of the Sermon on the Mount would sit well with people like Harris.  It’s true that all humans, Christian and otherwise, could probably follow the bulk of the Ten Commandments with no need of their being written down; even certain primates do so.  But what Jesus calls us to is more radical than the Golden Rule, is bigger than the Ten Commandments — “Love your enemies,” “Bless those who persecute you,” “Turn the other cheek,” “If an enemy soldier forces you to march 1 mile, go a second,” “If someone steals your cloak, give him your tunic,” etc.*

How can we reconcile this apparently garbled account of morality?  Indeed, the Good Book gives us leeway to kill heretics or to forgive them if we read the way Harris does.

We must read it systematically.  If you approach the Bible expecting it to be garbled and unclear, you will be rewarded with a garbled and unclear text.  If you approach it expecting it to be capable of being clarified, you will find that you can produce a systematic morality and theology from the Bible.

Nevertheless, you could potentially create a heretical morality and theology.  You could end up a polygamous Mormon.  You could end up an Arian.  Depending on your translation, you could end up Jehovah’s Witness.  You could end up Nestorian, or Monophysite, or the average Anglican.

Where do we turn?  We must abandon any idea that sola scriptura means the Bible interprets itself.  It does not.  And if sola scriptura means the Bible interprets itself, then sola scriptura is wrong.  Thomas C. Oden, in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, remarks that the texts of the New Testament were written as a way of preserving the oral tradition that had been handed down from the days of the Apostles.  The spoken word is alive, but — as anyone who has played the Telephone Game knows — it is fragile and open to manipulation, both accidental and malicious.

When we look at the community that accepted the New Testament documents as being authoritative, we see that various factors are at play when these early Church Fathers interpreted Scripture.  The first factor was the “Rule of Faith” or regula fidei, Irenaeus’ (d. c. AD 202) account of which looks a lot like the Apostles’ Creed (see Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 44 and Webber, Ancient-Future Faith).  According to Irenaeus, the Rule has been handed down from the Apostles through their successor bishops.  Tertullian (AD 160 – 220) said that the Bible was to be interpreted by the Rule of Faith.  This is the first piece of the Patristic puzzle of biblical interpretation.

The second factor at play is the lens of Christ.  As Christians, we are worshippers of Jesus Christ.  He is the cornerstone of our faith.  It is his teachings that we are following.  Therefore, everything should be read in relation to Jesus.  I cannot think of a patristic source for this at the moment (my apologies), but the idea is, first, that Jesus trumps all.

The Sermon on the Mount sets the standard for our conduct.  Thus, no longer is eye for eye and tooth for tooth.  Lustful looks count as adultery.  Hatred is murder.  The behaviour of Jesus, as encapsulated in the Woman Caught in Adultery, is to be our exemplar.  Thus, no more stoning of homosexuals, heretics, and witches (burning isn’t allowed, either).  Tertullian says that in disarming St. Peter, Christ disarmed every soldier.  Worth a thought.  I admit to not knowing how it is that not one jot or tittle will be removed from the Law while at the same time Jesus gives us standards of living that run counter to enacting the civil punishments of the law.

However, I think that if we take a third principle, that the Old Testament (aka “Hebrew Bible”) is to be interpreted by the New, then things move forward.  The lens of Christ tells us that Jesus has taken away our sins on the cross, and Hebrews tells us that we no longer need the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Temple because of the Cross.  Thus, out go Jewish ceremonial laws.  We are also freed from them by Acts 10, when St. Peter has the vision of the sheet full of unclean animals which he is told to eat.  St. Paul in his many letters also shows us that we are free from living under the civil & ceremonial Law when he says that we are saved and live by faith, and that the law won’t save us.

However, since Jesus takes the moral standards of the law very highly, then we are stuck following the morals of the Old Testament law.  This will show us that, while we can’t stone people for being homosexuals, heretics, and witches, we know that we shouldn’t engage in the practices associated with them.

Thus, when we read Scripture, the Rule of Faith (the Creeds), Christ, and the New Testament should be used as our keys to intepreting the difficult passages.  The clearer should also be used to illuminate the obscure.  This was the way of the Fathers, and it should be the way we follow as well.

*This is the source for nonviolence as practised by Martin Luther King, Jr.  King got it from Gandhi who, contra Harris (p. 12), did not get it from the Jains but from Tolstoy.  Tolstoy got it from Jesus and the simple faith of Russian Orthodox peasants.

Things That Go Over Heads: Grace & Freewill

One of my friends commented that my last post went over his head.  So, let’s try to sort out the content of said post.

We begin with the discussions of Grace & Freewill.  In our minds, as we look at theology in the West during Cassian’s day, two large figures arise surrounding this question: Pelagius, the heretic in favour of our ability to be saved by our own free will, and St. Augustine of Hippo, champion of salvation by the predestined grace of God.

Pelagius and his followers (some of whom went farther than he), as I understand it, taught that we only inherit Adam’s sin by bad examples.  We are born sinless and we can, through moral striving and ascetic effort, live a sinless, spotless, perfect life.  Our will is incapable of doing wrong; only our reason can do so.  We will wrong things only because we reason incorrectly.  Furthermore, of our own free will, not only can we live a perfect life, we can turn to God in faith.  God does not help the believer in this regard; to do so would be to obliterate his free will.  Since our wills are entirely good, we don’t even need God’s help!  God’s grace does not help the Christian turn in faith and be saved.

That is a heresy.  It is called Pelagianism; it is the heresy of pulling yourself up into heaven by your bootstraps.

St. Augustine, on the other hand, preached that God has predestined His elect for salvation.  We cannot will the good, since our wills are tarnished by the stain of Adam’s sin — for in Adam, as St. Paul says, all die.  Yes, we are saved through faith, but this faith is still bolstered by grace.  God’s grace enables us to have the faith whereby we are justified.  God is sovereign to save, and we are not.  No amount of effort and moral striving will save us from our sins; we are saved only by God’s grace, the grace that, in fact, enables us to live moral lives.

This is orthodoxy.  It is called predestination and is common to John Calvin and Martin Luther.

John Cassian, however, acknowledges that the Bible seems to say that we can, of our own free will, turn to God.  He also acknowledges that, due to our utter sinfulness, we require grace to be saved.  Throughout his works, as I mentioned, he runs counter to Pelagianism by stating the necessity of Grace in the ascetic life and that the monk must needs turn to God and his grace to be able to live as he should.  He gets into trouble, nonetheless, for stating that there is the possibility that someone could have the seed of faith and of turning to God of his own free will.  He qualifies this by saying that the grace of God takes this little seed and helps it germinate in the life of faith.  Cassian warns against Pelagianism on the one hand and extreme forms of predestinarianism (such as predestination unto death) on the other.

Cassian is accused by his opponent Prosper of Aquitaine — one of the men who helped forge Mediaeval “Augustinianism” — of directing many attacks against St. Augustine despite publicly approving of the African bishop.  Prosper is wrong.

Today, John Cassian is accused of being a “Semipelagian.”  Semipelagianism is half Pelagianism.  I don’t think it exists.

Sts. Peter & Paul

Today is the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Peter was a fisherman, Paul a Pharisee.

Both, having encountered Jesus, filled with the Spirit, were apostles.

Tradition tells us that both died in Rome at Nero’s hands in the 60’s.  Peter, not a Roman citizen was crucified on Vatican Hill.  Upside down.  Paul, a Roman citizen, was beheaded.

What are we to do with the example of these two men?

Let us preach the Gospel.  This was the driving force in their lives as we see them in Scripture, bot in Acts and their letters.  Tell people about Christ.  Help them become brothers and sisters, fellow-citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.  This is what marked the apostles and set them apart.  If we are not engaged in the apostolic activity, are we still following the Apostolic tradition?

Let us also pray.  These were men of prayer.  Mystics, in fact.  St. Peter had the vision that convinced him to preach to Gentiles while praying on the rooftop at noon.  As well, he and St. John went to the Temple at the ninth hour to pray.  St. Paul had a vision of the heavens.  Contemplation of God, drawing into His embrace and seeking His face is also part of the Apostolic tradition.

Follow these saints, seeking the face of God and helping others join the quest.  Prayer and contemplation fuel the evangelistic enterprise, for prayer and contemplation keep us connected with the living God.