St Basil the Great, ‘On the Holy Spirit’ (for Pentecost!)

On the Holy SpiritOn the Holy Spirit by Basil the Great

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have read this treatise twice, once in the older, Anglo-Catholic Victorian translation, and once (most recently) in this translation. This book is the classic exposition of why we can call the Holy Spirit ‘God’. St Basil begins with a liturgical complaint, which he deals with using all of his grammatical skills, then moves along to demonstrate through the Scriptures using logic as well as the life of the Church, why it is that we can call the Holy Spirit ‘God’ alongside God the Father and God the Son.

In today’s milieu, unless you’re a Oneness Pentecostal or a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness or a Christadelphian, the divinity of the Holy Spirit is practically a non-issue. And, in the decades since the Charismatic Renewal came upon mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, the logic parsing and proof-hunting St Basil provides here will seem pointless to many living believers. I would imagine that most people today think of the Trinity in economic terms, so they would approach a book entitled, ‘On the Holy Spirit’ expecting a long discourse on the role of the Spirit in Christians’ lives and church history. That figures only a little in this book.

Read it anyway

The divinity of God the Holy Spirit is an integral part of orthodox Christian faith. St Basil of Caesarea wrote this text at a time when many people were doubting this Person of the Trinity’s equality and consubstantiality with the other two Persons. We need to be reminded, day by day, Who Is the God we worship, and why we express that belief in certain ways. As far as that is concerned, there are few guides better than St Basil when we ponder, ‘Well, we’ve settled the whole, “God is Jesus” thing fairly well. Why do we think the Spirit is God as well?’

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Pentecost!! (with Barsanuphius & John)

What I actually wanted to share with you today does not fall under the heading ‘Why I am not Orthodox.’ It is, rather, a little letter from Barsanuphius. Barsanuphius was a monk who lived near Gaza in the early 500s. He was both a solitary recluse and an abbot. He communicated with his community via letters, and is called ‘the Great Old Man.’ He had an assistant, John, ‘the Other Old Man,’ who basically ran the monastery for him.

Once, a brother got fed up with John and said that Barsanuphius did not exist, that he was imaginary, and that John was using this authority figure to manipulate them all. Barsanuphius heard this, broke through the mud brick wall behind which his cell was located, and, without a word, washed the brothers’ feet. Then he went back to his cell and bricked himself in again.

This is the sort of oddity you get used to when you study early monasticism. Unlike many of the world’s solitaries, however, Barsanuphius had an active ministry beyond his monastery’s walls. He wrote letters, as did John. There are over 800 of them that survive. These letters are to bishops, priests, and deacons, as well as to farmers and monks and aristocrats. Anyone could write, and many did.

So here’s my translation of Ep. 120. If you want more passages suitable for Pentecost, chiefly Patristic (but not exclusively), I recommend you review the past several days at Enlarging the Heart. Happy Pentecost!:

Question from the same to the Great Old Man: Master, as you know, since I am sickly in soul and body, I beg you to call upon God to supply power and strength to me for endurance so that I may gratefully bear the attacks.

Answer of Barsanuphius:

Brother Andrew, I wish that your charity would learn that all gifts are given through the coming of the Holy Spirit, and ‘of diverse kinds and in diverse ways’ (Heb. 1:1). For God gave the Spirit to the Apostles at one time to cast out demons, at another to accomplish healings, at another to foresee, at another to raise the dead, and in the end to release sins and liberate souls from darkness and lead them into the light. Thus, behold, I beg God that after the freedom of your soul He may give you the Holy Spirit for endurance and thanksgiving, and so that ‘the enemy might be dishonoured since he has no defence against us’ (Tit. 2:8) Assist, you as well, fighting to obtain it, and ‘God who is rich in mercy’ (Eph. 2:4) will give it to you. Pray for me, brother.

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.

Vespers

Christ Pantokrator, Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trinity, the Shack, and Mark Driscoll

First, I would like to point out: The Shack is not a brilliant piece of theology.  It’s not really theological at all.  It is a novel, a story, an idea, an image.  Its Trinitarian theology is weak and clearly the product of someone who sat at a few typical Protestant sermons but never actually spent time reading up on the Trinity.

Because once you’ve read up on the Trinity, you are never so bold as to attempt something like The Shack.

However, The Shack does not commit all of the sins that Mark Driscoll claims it does.  Perhaps this is because Mark Driscoll can’t read.  I should qualify that:  Perhaps this is because Mark Driscoll can’t read literary endeavours (not that The Shack is a shining example of that, either).  Unsurprising amongst the New Calvinists is this idea that we can read a work of fiction as though it were theology.  Everyone already did this with The Da Vinci Code.  I’d hoped we’d become a bit more nuanced in our reading than that.

Nevertheless, Driscoll first says that The Shack commits idolatry, that in representing the unseen, invisible Members of the Trinity, Young has made a graven image.  Wm. Paul Young has not, in fact, made a graven image, and not only because you don’t engrave novels.  Young is not saying in The Shack that God the Father is a black woman named Papa, nor that the Holy Spirit is a small Asian woman named Sarayu.

These characters are merely representations of the characters* of the First and Third Persons of the Trinity.  They are meant to help show Mack and the reader what the inner heart of these Persons is.  No one has seen God; neither did Mack in the book.  The possibility of God showing Himself as a vision is, however, real.  Isaiah had a vision, Ezekiel had a vision, John the Divine had a vision.  These visions were not actually sightings of the invisible God but representations of Himself that he chose to give to His children so that they could understand better a certain aspect of His character.

Then Driscoll argues that The Shack is guilty of modalism (or Sabellianism).  This heresy is the same thing as what Oneness Pentecostals believe — God is One, and the Son and the Holy Spirit are different modes by which He has chosen to operate in the world.  The heresy denies any difference of person amongst the members of the Trinity.  Driscoll’s argument for that is when Papa says that she has already been human through Jesus.

This is further evidence that Driscoll is not a subtle reader but out for the kill.  Yes, when God the Son was incarnate, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit were not.  However, since we believe in one God, not three, the remarkable thing is that they have an intimate sharing of each other’s experiences.  God the Father, being in a state of perfect, unbreakable communion with God the Son, knows exactly what God the Son went through during His days on earth.  Therefore, God the Father, in a very true sense, was, in fact, human through Jesus.  He was never incarnate.  He did not die or rise from the dead.  Yet He has shared intimately those things that Jesus went through while on earth.

St. Athanasius teaches that while God the Son was incarnate, His divine nature never ceased ordering the cosmos and keeping the stars in place (De Incarnatione).  If He could engage in that work of the Godhead whilst confined to a human body, no doubt the Father knows exactly what it is to be human as a result of the Son’s incarnation.

Driscoll proceeds to argue that The Shack promotes Goddess worship.  This is because God the Father is portrayed as a black woman.  Of course, Papa admits that He is not always female, as we see at the end of the book, when He portrays Himself as a man to Mack.  God the Father reveals Himself to us in a myriad of ways, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, but always in the way that we need at that time.  There are times He gives us the tenderness of a mother, times He gives us the sternness of a father.  He is the perfect Father, and so, for the purposes of this fiction, Mack saw Him more as a mother, an image that is used to demonstrate the warm, nurturing heart of the Father.

The final argument made by Driscoll is about hierarchy.  I broadly agree with him.  In The Shack, the Trinity has no hierarchy of any sort, no Person of the Trinity being above the others.  They are simply in an endless, loving communion with one another.  Driscoll points out that, while all the Persons of the Trinity are equal, they still have deference, for Jesus says that He only does what the Father tells Him to do, and that He does the will of the Father, and that the Father sent Him into the world.

The Shack is a novel, not a work of theology.  We cannot take its images of the Trinity as being theological, because then we would be on the start of a road to the modern heresy of vagueness.  I believe that both its supporters and its opponents have completely missed the boat, however.  Regardless of its merit as a novel, it is art.  We should treat it as art, not as theology, which both sides of the argument miss.

But where do we go for Trinitarian theology in a world that has lost its focus on the true nature of God?  People are turning to The Shack as theology (both for a lovefest as well as for the attack) because not a lot of people draw nigh to this question.  “Theology” today is usually actually, “A Christian/biblical approach to issue x, y, or z.”

Start over on the right on the main page with The Creed of Saint Athanasius.  I have a friend whom it once saved from Arianism.

“Beyond Personality” in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  I read it on Trinity Sunday a couple of years ago and benefitted greatly.  There is a reason Mere Christianity is a classic.

Intimacy and Ecstasy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit by Edith M. Humphrey.  This book is principally a book about Christian spirituality, but it takes its starting point as the Holy Trinity and deals with various aspects of Trinitarian theology, asking along the way, “How now then shall we live?”  Humphrey is a real, live theologian, unlike certain other writers out there.  Plus, she’s an orthodox Anglican.

Understanding the Trinity by Alister McGrath.

The best guides are likely the ancients, however.  Here are two:

Boethius On the Trinity and St. Augustine On the Trinity.  Boethius is shorter; both are online.

*I would have said personae, but that word has been co-opted for theological purposes at this time.

Do we need creeds?

On Tuesday evening, we were of the opinion that creeds are good and we like them.  And most of us felt that they are necessary to us today.  One fellow, however, expressed the opinion that creeds were useful in their historical situation but we don’t necessarily need them today.  His argument was not, as some have put forth, that our understanding of Scripture has changed, but, instead, that since the creeds are just a distillation of what is found in the Bible, then we really just need (need as in “require as a necessity”) the Bible.

Theoretically, this is true.  In fact, when I look back on the Great Tradition, upon Patristic authors, Celtic authors, Mediaeval authors, Reformers, Counter-Reformers, and so on down to today, one thing that impresses itself upon me is that while these people are a fantastic resource and the Holy Spirit can certainly use them to transform lives, they aren’t necessary, either.

They can’t be.  Tradition cannot be absolutely necessary for a healthy spiritual life.  At a certain level, neither can even Scripture.

I say this because there are those who have access neither to tradition nor to the Bible.  Yet God can still encounter them, transform them, and give them vibrant spiritual lives.

And if you have a Bible and sit down and read it prayerfully as part of an attempt at holy living, as part of a life attuned to the Spirit, then the Holy Spirit will speak to your mind and spirit, and you will believe the truth and interpret Scripture properly.

However, this is hypothetical.  My brother has pointed out that in mainline denominations we have almost no clue about the person and work of the Holy Spirit.  No one has been taught about discernment of spirits.  The Anglican result is some people saying that the Holy Spirit is leading us into a new era wherein we can affirm, approve, and bless same-sex sexual practices while other people are proclaiming that the Holy Spirit has already spoken authoritatively in Scripture on the subject and is not wont to changing his mind on matters of morality.

Our own lack of holiness and inattentiveness to the Spirit as we interpret Scripture is also evident in many evangelical Protestant circles.  People imagine that sola scriptura means we only read the Bible and that the Bible is self-revealing and self-evident.  However, our flawed minds produce people go schismatic over predestination/freewill, over all sorts of aspects of dispensationalism, over milleniality, over all sorts of issues.  People argue until they are blue in the face over tattoos, Christmas trees, Young Earth Creationism, and so forth, all calling down the fiery truth of the Holy Scriptures in favour of their arguments.

I believe that all you need for salvation is the Bible.

You don’t technically need the creed because the creed is the distillation of the Bible’s teaching.

But I’m glad to have the creed.  It helps pull us back to the essentials as we read Scripture.  It helps us see how the various tensions of biblical Christology hold together.

Let’s not abandon it until Resurrection Day when we’ll see Jesus and say, “OOHHhhhh….”