Early ascetics talking about the Bible

I have been looking briefly into the teachings of some early ascetic writers about sacred Scripture. Here are some juicy quotes for you:

Toil at reading the Scriptures more than at anything else: for in prayer the mind frequently wanders, but in reading even a wandering mind is recollected. -John the Solitary early 400s, Letter to Hesychius, ch. 44 (trans. Sebastian Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, p. 92)

Let us open up our hearts so as to understand the Scriptures which are filled with spiritual life and wisdom. In them there speaks the Spirit of God who gives life and knowledge. …

For all the wisdom of Life is hidden in the Scriptures. In them we are able to gain knowledge of God and of his creative activity, of his wonderful governance and providence; likewise of his goodness and, at the same time, of his righteousness, and, in sum, of his great and mighty power. …

Again, it is from the Scriptures that we learn how to travel on the road of virtuous conduct, for in them all the fine deeds of the just life are delineated. Just as one cannot see anything without light … similarly, without the light of the Scriptures we are unable to see God, who is Light, or his Justice, which is filled with light. -Martyrius (Sahdona) in the 600s, The Book of Perfection, chh. 48, 49, 50 (trans. Brock, Syriac Fathers, pp. 221-223)

Out of fear become conversant with the divine scriptures on a daily basis, for by association with these you will drive away converse with thoughts. He who by meditation treasures the divine scriptures in his heart easily expels thoughts from it. In listening to the divine scriptures in the night-time reading at vigils, let us not render our hearing moribund by means of sleep, nor hand over our soul to the captivity of thoughts; rather, with the goad of the scriptures let us prod the heart, so that with the goading of diligence we may pierce through the opposing negligence. -Evagrius of Pontus, To Eulogius 20 (trans. Robert Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, p. 46).

Some Cassiodorus for ‘Bible Sunday’

St Augustine Gospels, fol. 125r
St Augustine Gospels (6th c), fol. 125r

Advent 2 in the BCP is Bible Sunday, on which I’ve blogged in other Advents, here and here. Here’s some Cassiodorus (6th c) to keep it real:

Note, excellent friends, how marvellously and how harmoniously the arrangement of words moves in Divine Scripture. There is an ever-increasing desire, a fullness without end, a glorious hunger of the blessed where excess is not reproved but constant desire is, instead, praised — and rightly so, since Scripture both teaches beneficial knowledge and offers eternal life to those who believe and act on their belief. They describe the past without fiction, and reveal more of the present than is seen, and tell of the future as if it had already taken place. Truth rules everywhere in them; everywhere divine excellence shines forth; everywhere benefits to the human race are revealed. While the present situation exists on earth, heavenly truth, in so far as we are able to grasp it, is revealed by parables and mysteries, as God himself bears witness in the seventy-seventh Psalm: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter mysteries from the beginning’ [Psalm 77:2]. For they pass on to us, in order that we may discharge all duties, a prayerful knowledge of the holy Trinity (which, over the great passage of time, humanity, blind, sad, and enslaved to idols, has not known). They tell us that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, creator and director of all created things does ‘all that he wills in heaven and on earth’ [Psalm 134:6]. If you seek its faithfulness, listen to the brief statement: ‘A stronghold for the oppressed in times of distress’ [Psalm 9:10]; if you seek power, hear: ‘Who can withstand your power?’ [Psalm 75:8; Wisdom 11:22]; if justice, read: ‘He will judge the world with justice’ [Psalms 9:99 and 95:13]. For Scripture declares most obviously that God is everywhere; in the words of the writer of the Psalms: ‘Where can I go from your spirit? from your presence where can I flee? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there’ [Psalm 138:7-8], and likewise the other aspects of God’s majesty are embedded in the holy writings. -Cassiodorus, Inst. I.XVI.1, trans. J W Halporn, p. 146

The Bible in the Ancient Church: Humility and Christ

Greek Majuscule Bible, ‘Codex Vaticanus’ (aka ‘B’); probably from Egypt during Athanasius’ lifetime (4th c)

My final talk on Ancient Christianity in Cyprus was ‘The Bible in the Ancient Church.’ Most of what I had to say I have said here before. I discussed allegory and typology, bringing up Melito of Sardis and Ephraim the Syrian. I also discussed the literal meaning of Scripture, and read out a passage from John Chrysostom’s commentary on Romans.

But what was new territory for me, really, was to discuss humility before Scripture and Christocentric interpretation.

What do the ancients say about humility?

The general attitude is embodied in a few sayings as follows:

Antony of Egypt once said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”’[1]

Abba Poemen said, “As the breath which comes out of his nostrils, so does a man need humility and the fear of God.”

Isaac the Syrian, although a bit later than we are looking this week, once said, ‘No one has understanding if he is not humble, and he who lacks humility lacks understanding.’

Another story out of Egypt tells of a group of believers discussing a passage of Scripture. Everyone gave his own interpretation, speaking his opinion and mind as it came to him. The eldest believer there remained silent, however. One of the others said to him, ‘What about you? What do you think?’ He replied that he did not know, for he was not wise enough to discern the meanings of the Holy Scriptures.

I do not know that we should be so humble as that, but I do think the idea of approaching the Bible with humility is important. When we look at our many fractured denominations, not just between Protestant, Catholic, and various Eastern churches, but within evangelical Protestantism, each claiming that it has the one, true interpretation of Scripture, we should realise that perhaps some humility is in order.

Christocentric interpretation is probably even more important than humility in the face of Scripture. In his book On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Athanasios of Alexandria, Egypt, writes:

And so following the guidance of the sacred word we may now say fearlessly and unhesitatingly that the Son of man came down from heaven, and that the Lord of Glory was crucified: because in virtue of the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God became Son of man, and the Lord of Glory was crucified in (the nature of) the Son of man. What more is there need of? It would take too long to go into details: for time would fail me, were I to try to examine and explain everything which could be brought to bear on this subject. For one who wished to do this would have to study and read the whole Bible. For what is there which does not bear on this, when all Scripture was written with reference to this? (ch. 8)

As far as Athanasios is concerned, the whole point of Scripture is to point towards Christ, either as shadow, type, prophecy in the Old Testament or as fulfilment, proclamation, expectation in the New. This is the general paradigm for reading Scripture.

So we read Irenaios of Lyons, a man born in Izmir, writing in the late 100s about Christ as the second Adam and then going so far as to make parallels between Eve and Mary; he argues that just as sin entered through the disobedience of one woman, so did redemption begin through the obedience of another. When we read this, we don’t have to agree with him. But I, for one, applaud his desire to apply the Old Testament to the Gospel.

If the Bible does not have supernatural significance, if the events of the Old Testament, the bloody, violent purging of the Promised Land and the bloody, violent worship in the Tabernacle, hold only historical value about the beliefs of the people of Israel, I have no business with the Old Testament; I would rather read Homer or Vergil. But if they are part of something bigger, part of the grand narrative of God’s cosmic outworking of redemption and salvation for all of humankind, from Adam to Christ’s Second Coming, and if I can see Christ’s fulfilment of all things in the Old Testament—that’s a Scripture worth knowing.

Furthermore, it’s an approach to the Old Testament that is approved by the New: Christ is the Passover Lamb, Matthew references Christ fulfilling OT prophecies, Christ refers to himself fulfilling statements in the Psalms, Paul refers to an allegorical or typological meaning of Hagar and Sarah, Hebrews sees the Tabernacle and Temple worship as shadows and figures of what has come in Christ, 1 Peter sees Noah’s Ark as a prefigurement of baptism.

These are the ones that sprang to mind immediately while writing my first draft. There are no doubt more. With this attitude and this nexus of thinking in hand, I think we can come up with better exegesis and better preaching and deeper ethics than we often do. And maybe we’ll even smooth over some disputes.


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. B. Ward. Kalamazoo: 1975, Antony 7. See also Abraham of Nathpar, On Prayer 3, in Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer. Kalamazoo: 1987, 193; Martyrius (Sahdona), The Book of Perfection, ‘On the Office,’ 10, in Brock 1987, 206.

Living and Active

Yesterday, a gentleman from Gideons International gave a presentation at our church. In his presentation he told stories of people who had received Gideon Bibles and, through those Bibles, come to knowledge of God and salvation.

There was the story of the Mexican criminal who received a Gideon Bible through the prison programme the Gideons run. He was converted to Christ and not only reformed his ways but even overcame his addiction to smoking overnight.

I can’t remember the details of most of the stories to do them justice, but I’ve heard others. Someone who had been in long discussions with some of her friends from Inter-Varsity about the probable existence of God went for a walk and encountered a Bible someone had left in a phone booth. She took it, read it, believed it, and believed in God.

Or the high school English teacher who was an atheist and decided he would read the Bible and mark down all the inconsistencies and systematically prove it false. The Bible got a hold of him instead, and he converted. This story I heard from the man himself. He said that it was half-way through his second reading of the Scriptures that he was overcome by the power of God and of his message. He became a Christian.

The Bible is powerfully central to Christianity. It transforms us from the inside out. If we allow it, the Bible challenges our methodologies, worldviews, presuppositions.

Of course, one could easily point to stories like the man who converted by a voice from the air. Or of people who, like the character in Chesterton’s ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’, misread and misuse the Bible for wicked ends. Or of the fact that God is far bigger and better than Scripture.

Yet he has given us this gift, and it has the power to change lives.

We should never forget this, especially in times when Bible reading feels dry and arid because we’ve read it all before. In these words is life, and we need to suck the juices of that life out of them like when you eat a fresh mango and it runs down your chin.

A friend of mine once remarked about an Orthodox friend who was rediscovering his faith that she was a bit concerned because he was busy reading the lives of the saints and the history of the Church but not reading his Bible. And how many of the pious evangelicals can get caught for the same sin — so busy reading the latest Rick Warren or Max Lucado book, rereading CS Lewis and John Wesley? How many of us who read the Fathers can sometimes forget the Fathers’ primary text and source of inspiration and revelation?

May we never abandon the reading, careful study, and meditation upon the Bible. It is living and active. It will change us.

Lent in 1662: The Commination

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, an edition of said book that was to endure for centuries with little or no modification, and from which all of today’s Anglican Prayer Books, from Edinburgh to Toronto, from New York to Singapore, from Nairobi to Wellington are descended.

This book is descended from the work of Thomas Cranmer in the sixteenth century, itself a reformed, Anglicised version of the mediaeval Latin Use of Sarum (from which I have my translations of the marriage ceremony and a version of Vespers available on this site).

1662 includes, for Ash Wednesday, ‘A Commination‘ (literally, ‘threatening of vengeance’), descended from 1549’s service for the First Day of Lent. This service breathes fire; those with a knee-jerk reaction to things Reformed will take one look at its preface and declare, ‘This is why I’m not Reformed!’

Here is the fiery text of 1662:

BRETHREN, in the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin were put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend.
Instead whereof, until the said discipline may be restored again, (which is much to be wished,) it is thought good, that at this time (in the presence of you all) should be read the general sentences of God’s cursing against impenitent sinners, gathered out of the seven and twentieth Chapter of Deuteronomy, and other places of Scripture; and that ye should answer to every Sentence, Amen: To the intent that, being admonished of the great indignation of God against sinners, ye may the rather be moved to earnest and true repentance; and may walk more warily in these dangerous days; fleeing from such vices, for which ye affirm with your own mouths the curse of God to be due.

The service proceeds to list various sinners the Bible calls ‘accursed’ — not just idolaters or cursers of parents, but those who move their neighbour’s landmark as well. Most of us would agree with someone who listed these sins that they are bad — those who purposefully divert the blind, adulterers, fornicators, murderers of the innocent for profit, those who trust humans rather than God and the rest.

But we are careful today to use the word ‘cursed’ of those who commit these sins. Deuteronomy isn’t, declaring a whole swathe of sinners cursed (Gk. epikataratos, Lat. maledictus)* before entering the Promised Land. And in Deuteronomy, as in 1549 and 1662, the people are to answer, ‘Amen,’ to each declaration of cursedness.

I do not think that this service is either excessively ‘Reformed’ in the most dour vision of the Reformed or ‘mediaeval’ in the most fire-and-brimstone vision of mediaeval piety.

The purpose, as with much mediaeval and Reformed proclamations of sin, is to call sinners to repentance. No doubt the Mosaic version had much the same bent. Sin is a reality and it has real consequences. Part of Lent, at least in western views since the Middle Ages, is to repent us of our sins.

If the list of sins seems a bit much to us, perhaps that is good. Perhaps we need a reminder of our own ‘wretchedness’ (to use another BCP word). Once we stand face to face with our own depravity, then can we all the more rejoice in God’s grace.

This is the end goal of healthy mediaeval and Reformed piety. Not for us to spend our lives in sack cloth and ashes, rubbing excrement on our faces like King Priam upon the death of Hector. No, rather, it is for us to acknowledge our own brokenness and to turn to the redeemer for the grace he gives and to be transformed into his likeness.

Finally, a note for those who think this sort of call against sinners is ‘Old Testament’ or ‘too mediaeval’ or ‘Reformed’, take note of the lists of sinners who will not partake in the Kingdom of God according to St. Paul, take a look at Tertullian’s work On Modesty, observe Leo the Great’s calls to sinners, read the Eastern Greek Mark the Monk’s fear for his own salvation despite his asceticism. It is a healthy balance to our joy, not something to abandon because of certain excesses in particular times, places, and traditions.

*If I can’t do Hebrew, I can at least pull out the Classical languages!

What good is Patristics?

The Temptations of St. Antony by Hieronymous Bosch

I first got into the world of the “Church Fathers” in the third year of my undergrad (2004). My entrypoint was not, as for many, Augustine’s Confessions or the dogmatic writings of the Cappadocians. No, indeed. My point of entry was the world of the Desert Fathers as reflected in their sayings (Sr. Benedicta Ward’s translation for Penguin Classics) and in St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony (Carolinne M. White’s translation for Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Lives).

Since then, I have tasted the dogmatic theology of Sts. Augustine and Athanasius, Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazianzen, and the sermons of St. John Chrysostom. Among these, St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, St. Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations have been shining stars. And my dear friend Pope St. Leo the Great. Of course.

These shining stars have helped me think more clearly about who Jesus is, what He has done for us, and how the All-holy Trinity is to be properly discussed. In turn, this thought has, for me at least, raised my worship to new heights as I worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. That alone is worth the effort of reading Patristic theology.

For me, though, it is the return time and again to the devotional literature of the monasteries that has been most potent. There, in John Cassian’s Conferences and Palladius’ Lausiac History, or in Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine and Evagrius Ponticus’ Chapters on Prayer — in these and more, I have found the exhortations to holiness that motivate me.

For example, Cassian’s first Conference is all about purity of heart. Purity of heart is the goal of the ascetic (Christian?) life. The end of purity of heart — its purpose — is the vision of God, of Christ. If we are not pursuing purity of heart, we are not pursuing the truest goal of human existence.

This call is one I need to hear constantly, not because I don’t think rest, relaxation, and entertainment are worth my time but because I think I waste a lot of time anyway.

This wasting of time is acute when you read saints’ lives. These men, be they John of Ephesus’ Monophysites or Cyril of Scythopolis, are very concerned about rendering a sacrifice of their lives to God that is acceptable. They are concerned about whether they have prayed often enough. They are concerned about whether they are giving enough to the poor or just wasting their time in idle pursuits.

Thankfully, their exhortations to holiness are accompanied by practical considerations about reading, studying, and meditating on the Bible, about praying, about resisting temptations, about what holiness actually looks like. These exhortations are what kept the monks from despair.

I may not fear for my salvation as they did (being a good Protestant), but I think living a holy life is important. May their exhortations have an experience on me for all my days as I seek to love the Crucified God Who saved me.

From what are we saved? Scriptural, Liturgical, and Patristic Answers

In my post against the Prosperity Gospel (and in favour of St. Clement of Alexandria), I made it clear that neither Scripture nor the Great Tradition affirms the idea that Jesus Christ saves people from poverty, illness, small houses, small cars, bad jobs, mean people, etc, and that all we need for such “victory living” is faith.

However, Christianity does affirm that Jesus saves. The salvation offered by Jesus is not just the sort of thing dc Talk sings about involving “a man with a tat on his big, fat belly,” or an invention of revivalistic evangelicalism in the Welseyan era.

According to Scripture, Jesus saves; here are a few quotations (all NIV):

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. (Mt 1:21)

You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Mt 10:22)

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mk 8:35)

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Lk 19:10)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (Jn 3:16-17)

I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. (Jn 10:9)

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” (Acts 16:31)

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

But from what are we saved? Many people have given answers to this, and I believe that many of them catch different aspects of the same reality of Christ’s saving work in the life of those who put their trust in him.

Traditionally, the sacrament of baptism has been the moment of entry into Christ’s church; let us not forget St. Peter in Acts telling people to “repent and be baptised” as the way of salvation. We shall be highly Anglican at this point, and turn to liturgy to consider salvation.

We start with the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer (1662). Anglicans practise infant baptism, where the parents and godparents make the baptismal vows in the child’s place:

Question. What did your Godfathers and Godmothers then for you?
Answer.They did promise and vow three things in my name. First, that I should renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh. Secondly, that I should believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith. And thirdly, that I should keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of my life.

Question. Dost thou not think that thou art bound to believe, and to do, as they have promised for thee?
Answer. Yes verily: and by God’s help so I will. And I heartily thank our heavenly Father, that he hath called me to this state of salvation, through Jesus Christ our Saviour. And I pray unto God to give me his grace, that I may continue in the same unto my life’s end.

Later in the Catechism we read that baptism is “a death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.”

From these two moments in the Catechism, we learn that salvation, as symbolised/enacted/recapitulated in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, is a renunciation of the devil and all his works, the empty things of the world, and of sin — indeed, it is “a death unto sin.”

Having died to sin and made this renunciation, the baptised Christian is in the “state of salvation” already.

This point is an important one, for many would tell us that salvation is merely a “Get out of Hell Free” card, a ticket to Heaven when we die. According to the Anglican tradition, such is not the case. Rather, salvation is a state in which we dwell here on earth. We are saved in this earthly existence from the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The world, in this instance, is not the entire universe or the globe of the earth but, rather, those aspects of the world around us that are evil or tend towards evil. Such is the traditional Christian understanding of “the world” in moments as this (see the ever-popular Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way on this).

The flesh is not your body. It that inner part of you that tends towards evil. As quoted before, Sergei Bulgakov (quoted by Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way) says, “Kill the flesh, in order to acquire a body.”

The devil is not a red guy with goat legs and a pitch-fork. He is also, however, not simply the psychological world of the subconscious that swirls around tempting us in various ways — that would be the flesh. As Robertson Davies says in Happy Alchemy, “People don’t believe in the devil nowadays; that is one of the devil’s favourite jokes.”

The devil is a personal force of evil with minions, just as angels are personal forces of good. The power of the devil is primarily in his ability to tempt us towards evil. His temptations are those that don’t seem to come exclusively from within ourselves nor really from the world around us. They are diabolical; but our flesh is always the deciding factor when we sin. As agents with freewill, we choose sin all by ourselves. The devil just helps us along.

According to Pope St. Leo the Great, the devil has had another role in human history. After the Fall, according to Leo, the devil received the souls of the dead humans and took them to Hades. This was his … em … job. We read:

the Son of God took on Him the nature of mankind in order to reconcile it to its Maker, that the devil, the inventor of death, might be conquered through that very nature which had been conquered by him. (Sermon 21.1; trans. W Bright, my emphasis)

For if Godhead by itself were to stand forth in behalf of sinners, the devil would be overcome rather by power than with reason. And again, if the mortal nature by itself were to undertake the cause of the fallen, it would not be released from its condition, because it would be free from its stock. Therefore it was necessary that both the Divine and human substances should meet in our Lord Jesus Christ, that our mortal nature might, through the Word made flesh, receive aid alike from the birth and passion of a new Man. (Sermon 56.1; trans. W Bright, my emphasis)

Leo is a master rhetorician who uses evocative language and series of balances and antitheses to make his points about who Jesus is and what Jesus does for us. In these two passages, Leo speaks of Jesus’ action towards the devil (something not lacking in other of his sermons or the Tome). The devil has been beaten by Jesus; he has been beaten through Our Lord’s incarnation and passion. Jesus’ death on the Cross destroyed the power of the devil.

Jesus, perfect God and perfect man, died as a criminal. Having lived a sinless life, his soul was not the property of the devil. As God, death was not part of his nature. Thus, the Crucified God “trampled down death with death.”* He defeated the devil and served as a ransom for our souls — none of us, as a result, need have his’er soul taken by the devil.

This brings us to what else Jesus saves us from — death. This part of salvation is the bit that most people tend to think of when they hear, “Jesus saves.” We have been trained to think thus, “Ask Jesus into your heart, say sorry for the bad things you have done, and you will not go to Hell when you die.” Sometimes, the Hell bit is skirted and we are told, “And you will live forever with Him in heaven.”

This salvation from death is present from the days of the Apostles, of course — “Death, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor 15:55) — and is not to be played down, as the BCP ensures it is not, as in Publick Baptism of Infants:

Almighty and everlasting God … We beseech thee, for thine infinite mercies, that thou wilt mercifully look upon this Child; wash him and sanctify him with the Holy Ghost; that he, being delivered from thy wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church; and being stedfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in charity, may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally he may come to the land of everlasting life, there to reign with thee world without end; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Nonetheless, our salvation, even here where an important part of the prayer is that the child may have “everlasting life” — ie. not die — a great concern is present for this life being lived with Christ.

To take all these swirling bits of things, Scriptural, liturgical, patristic, we see that Jesus does not save us from poverty or illness. Not as a general rule, anyway. He saves us from death — this is both the current notion of Heaven vs. Hell and the older, traditional notion of “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come” (see my trans of the Apostle’s Creed).

He saves us from the world, the flesh, the devil.

By his grace (favour), he gives us the strength we need to resist temptations and fight evil (we fight evil by waging peace).  When Jesus saves us, we have the ability to do good things. We are released from the stranglehold sin has over us. As time goes on, sin should become more and more infrequent as we rely on his grace and his power. (This is why my wrangling with Pelagians counts, by the way.) Part of salvation is trusting in Him for this strength rather than ourselves.

These 1776 words leave us with another question, and that one is important: How are we saved? Someday I’ll tell you. 😉

If I’m not making sense, tell me and I’ll be more coherent.

*Paschal Troparion of the Eastern Orthodox Church.