My latest offering on YouTube complements yesterday’s blog post. Yesterday, I argued for the relevance of second-century Christianity for today. In my YouTube video, I argue for the importance of the second century as its own historical moment, highlighting six areas worth considering, the first three of which are intimately connected:
Yesterday, my son — two years and ten months old — looked at my copy of The Cloud of Unknowing and asked, “What’s that purple thing, Daddy?”
“That’s a cloud,” I said,
“Why, Daddy?” he asked. (I think that if he persevered and I had the stamina, we could someday reach, “Because God created the universe.”)
“Do you remember the story about Moses, how he went up the mountain to meet with God, and God gave him the Ten Commandments? Well, when Moses met with God in the mountain, God came to him in a cloud…”
At this point, he slipped down out of my lap and exited the conversation.
My own slow progress in The Cloud of Unknowing is mostly talking about how we need to clear our minds of all thoughts but God Himself — even good ones — in order to beat at the cloud of unknowing and encounter God. However, the use of this image is as old as Exodus — and, in theological literature, at least as old as St Gregory of Nazianzus and his best friend’s little brother, St Gregory of Nyssa. Alas, my copy of St Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses is locked away with most of my books. His approach is much the same as that of the elder St Gregory.
What is this that has happened to me, O friends, and initiates, and fellow-lovers of the truth? I was running to lay hold on God, and thus I went up into the Mount, and drew aside the curtain of the Cloud, and entered away from matter and material things, and as far as I could I withdrew within myself. And then when I looked up, I scarce saw the back parts of God; (Exodus 33:23) although I was sheltered by the Rock, the Word that was made flesh for us. And when I looked a little closer, I saw, not the First and unmingled Nature, known to Itself — to the Trinity, I mean; not That which abides within the first veil, and is hidden by the Cherubim; but only that Nature, which at last even reaches to us. And that is, as far as I can learn, the Majesty, or as holy David calls it, the Glory which is manifested among the creatures, which It has produced and governs. For these are the Back Parts of God, which He leaves behind Him, as tokens of Himself like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun himself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception. In this way then shall you discourse of God; even were thou a Moses and a god to Pharaoh; (Exodus 4:2) even were thou caught up like Paul to the Third Heaven, (2 Corinthians 12:2) and had heard unspeakable words; even were thou raised above them both, and exalted to Angelic or Archangelic place and dignity. For though a thing be all heavenly, or above heaven, and far higher in nature and nearer to God than we, yet it is farther distant from God, and from the complete comprehension of His Nature, than it is lifted above our complex and lowly and earthward sinking composition.
St Gregory of Nazianzus goes on to discuss the incomprehensibility of God which is the spiritual meaning of Moses ascending into the Cloud on Mount Sinai and encountering God there. Interestingly, this essentially “mystical” foundation of St Gregory’s theological enterprise is what allows him to lay out his more philosophical and systematic discussions of theology — it sets out the boundaries of the playing field. There is only so much we can know. And our formulations about God are not God Himself, who is unknowable as to His nature itself.
The saintly bishop from Nazianzus also maintains, in the chapter before this one, that only people who have attained a certain level of perfection are able to enter the Cloud and engage in contemplation and meet with God. He does not cite it, giving instead a spiritual understanding of the various persons and animals and their relationship to Mount Sinai in Exodus, but the Scriptural foundation for such thinking would be Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The Cloud of Unknowing would concur.
Some may think that this sort of approach is elitist. It certainly can be. It may also, however, be humble. Who is truly pure in heart? What makes us think that, apart from an inner transformation effected by God in His unmerited favour towards us, we are able to theologise clearly? The Gregories’ contemporaries in the Desert say that the monk must become all eye, and their elder brother from Syria, St Ephrem, speaks of the luminous eye and the need to have our sight purified.
I think that theology, mission, and asceticism all go hand in hand. Perhaps the failures of contemporary western Christianity stem from how so many of us compartmentalise them or focus on only one — evangelism without theology, book smarts without holiness, pure living without telling others about Jesus. The ideal, if not the lived reality, of the ancient church was a holistic embodiment of all three.
I have found, drifting around the Internet, that sometimes an opposition can appear between something called ‘theology’ and something called ‘mysticism’ or ‘contemplation’. This opposition is a false dichotomy, for, as Andrew Louth notes in The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, theology and mysticism and inescapably bound together. I think we need both approaches to the Holy if we are to be healthy.
That is, this is a modern take on Evagrius in the Chapters on Prayer — If you truly pray, you are a theologian. If you are a theologian, you truly pray.
His concept of theologos is not ours, but the idea has merit even today.
Let us take theology as the attempt of the rational mind to articulate in some logical manner the truths about God and the world in relation to God that have been apprehended through revelation, reason, and experience. Seems a safe definition.
Let us take mysticism as the attempt of the human soul to sit in silence and quiet and thereby encounter God. Or, even better, to encounter Him even when not in silence and quiet but, rather, live an existence shot through with an awareness of Him. This usually involves time set aside for silence and quiet.
These need each other. (They also need community.)
The first without the second can easily become dry intellectualism, or being rigidly doctrinaire, or mere pedantry. The danger of doing theology is that you will mistake your doctrine of God for God Himselves.
The second without the first can easily become emotive experientialism, or, as Thomas Merton calls it, illuminism, questing after special experiences or imagining that whatever you feel or imagine or find evocative is a true window into the divine. The danger of doing mysticism is that you will mistake your experiences about God for God Themself.
These two worlds are, in fact, not dichotomies, as I like to point out. A recent reminder of this (besides St Anselm) was Sarah Coakley’s lecture at the Vancouver School of Theology this Autumn, where St Gregory of Nyssa was one of the great mystical theologians driven by the Holy Spirit. He is also, as it turns out, what, in technical terms, one might call a dogmatic or systematic theologian. His encounter with the Holy Spirit in prayer and Scripture helps inform his reasoning, but his catechetical works are still theology as I defined it above.
When we find ourselves in the mood to pooh-pooh those ‘airy-fairy’ charismatics and contemplatives (as I sometimes do) or to reject theology as ‘dry and rigid’, let us find humility and seek the Giver of both types of gift.
The following, while in earnest, should still be taken with a grain of salt since I didspend the last 7 years worshipping with the Free Church of Scotland.
Much of my difficulty with modern church worship and thought comes from my vocation as an ecclesiastical historian. Ancient Christianity got me into this mess, basically. I find it difficult to believe evangelical doctrine and reject liturgical worship and episcopal structure at the same time.
Many evangelical denominations have a desire to return to ‘apostolic’ or ‘New Testament’ Christianity. Not only is this impossible, it is undesirable. Evangelical Christians believe doctrines that were developed and hammered out, sometimes organically, sometimes through councils and polemic, by bishops who led Christian communities in regular liturgical celebration of Holy Communion. To do the impossible, to turn the clock back 1900+ years, is undesirable for anyone who believes in the Holy Trinity, the dual natures of Christ, the New Testament canon, predestination, Arminian free-will, or justification by faith. All of these require the patristic engagement with worship, Scripture, and philosophy to emerge — and the latter (if delineated in a Protestant way) needs medieval scholasticism to at least react against and St Augustine to be inspired by.
There are three main doctrinal areas where my study of the ancient church makes me take pause and consider the structure, liturgy, and devotional practice of the first five or six centuries: the canon of Scripture, the Trinity, and the dual nature of Christ. The two chief sacraments instituted by Christ — Holy Baptism and the Eucharist — are a further catalyst for my belief in the importance of ancient practices. Finally, I have a more nebulous relationship with ancient devotion.
This blog post will briefly look at the three doctrines, a second at the sacraments, and a third at the wider world of ancient devotional practices.
The Canon of Scripture
The canon of Scripture, on which I’ve blogged before, was not dropped, Qu’ran-like, from heaven. It grew organically over several centuries. Some orthodox Christians included books we today exclude; some excluded texts we today include. The Holy Spirit at work in the church brought her to a slow, general consensus on the 27 books of the New Testament. A good look at this is A High View of Scripture? by Craig D. Allert.
The central thesis for Allert is that there was a coinherence of authority in ancient Christianity, and the Rule of Faith (variously articulated, similar to the Creed) worked alongside the worshipping community to help them sort which texts belonged. Scripture upholds the Rule of Faith, and alleged ‘apostolic’ texts that clashed with it were rejected.
One aspect of this question that always emerges is that, when we read Justin and the others, it is clear that the early Christians were reading the proto-New Testament at worship. And if you study ancient worship, it becomes clear that their worship was a weekly liturgical celebration of Holy Communion, often headed by the local episkopos (the monarchical episcopate emerging in some places by the year 100, in others not until the 200s).
When people start writing their canons of Scripture, they are being written by the leaders of the ancient church — bishops who lead the community in both a teaching and liturgical office centred around Holy Communion.
I find it hard to reject the form of worship and church order that the Holy Spirit used in the church to inspire our ancestors in the faith to see what the canon of Scripture is.
The Holy Trinity
When I read Aloys Grillmeier’s Christ in Christian Tradition, Vol. 1: Up to the Council of Chalcedon, I realised how fortunate I am in some ways to live on this side of the ecumenical councils. Very few early Christians have left us records of Jesus as a mere man or prophet; but as to how he was ‘divine’, that was harder to understand. Was he actually an angel? Or a lesser divine being? How is he related to the Father and the Holy Spirit?
It was Origen’s teaching in the catechetical school of Alexandria that started the drive to sort out how these three persons work together, and it was the debates of the fourth century that led our fathers and mothers in the faith to affirm that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are three consubstantial persons who are one God, articulated by Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Ambrose, Augustine., et al Again, the bishops.
Part of what drove this fourth-century articulation of the church’s trinitarian faith was the fact that in her central act of (liturgical) worship, Jesus Christ was worshipped as God. St Athanasius used this to accuse the ‘Arians’ of idolatry (we’ll set aside the accuracy or fairness of that for now). I believe in the Trinity; I believe that it can be proven through a right interpretation of Scripture. But I also know that, humanly speaking, there is a certain amount of contingency in Christian orthodoxy.
If I affirm the Trinity, articulated by bishops who realised in their act of sacramental, liturgical worship that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are fully God, why should I reject the form of worship that in part drove them to that realisation?
The dual nature and complete unity of Christ
The fifth century is my area of expertise; my PhD was on the letters of Pope St Leo the Great, whose articulation of two-nature Christology was affirmed and accepted by the imperial church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
The bishops assembled at Chalcedon, and then at its reinterpretation at Constantinople in 553, were trying to find a way to keep Leo happy and affirm the teachings of St Cyril of Alexandria at the same time. Cyril’s Christology was driven, in fact, by his sacramental theology. Cyril, like most other ancient Christians, believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If Christ’s divinity and humanity are sundered, then how can the Eucharist even work? How can his flesh be real food and his blood real drink (Bible verse) if he is not a fully united person both God and man?
Leo, on the other hand, had a very evangelical concern. How can the church find a way of maintaining the truth of Jesus as fully God and fully man without destroying either? Jesus needs to be just like us in order to take our sin upon himself. But no mere man could do that; he needs to possess the fullness of God in himself. In traditional Latin theology (see Sts Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine), as synthesised by Leo, this was articulated by teaching that Jesus has two naturae, two natures, but is a single persona, person.
Both Cyril’s approach and Leo’s approach have many outworkings in our lives, in fact. How can I affirm their teaching, affirm the ecumenical councils’ doctrine, and at the same time cast aside the liturgical actions that nourished their faith and spurred on their thinking?
These are just three patristic doctrines that mean we cannot set the clock back to New Testament times. Other people will have slightly different lists. Perhaps a discussion not only of canon but of Scriptural authority would be salutary. Or predestination/free will. Or miracles. Or creatio ex nihilo. Setting the clock back is impossible and undesirable. The central beliefs of Christian orthodoxy originally hinged, historically speaking, upon bishops gathered in council on one hand and their leadership with the Christian community gathered liturgically around the Eucharist on the other.
I believe that sound, historic liturgy protects us from faddism such as Joel Osteen or the more divergent instances of charismania. Ideally, the historic episcopate has/should as well. It also guards evangelical doctrine from heresy and ‘liberalism’, as maybe I’ll discuss later.
I believe, finally, that I have not come to a love of the liturgy and orthodox faith of the ancient and medieval church willy-nilly. This has been conscious, at times agonising, work. It has been prayerful and rational. Is this not how God works in his people?
I sent an e-mail to my friend who’d given the talk spoken of in this post, outlining the same things I outlined here on the blog. His response included:
Thanks for this. … I am no Eastern Orthodox but Presbyterians need a good dose of EO and the EO could use a little Presbyterianism. I like to think of my theology as a Presby ressourcement. That sort of mystical theology is totally absent from the Free Church.
I, myself, am not a Presbyterian, but the call to mystical theology for low Protestants is important.
The image of people who are interested in evangelism and church-planting, who want to see their culture reached for Christ is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the mystics. Which is a shame.
A couple of my friends run a Greek theology reading group. A third friend joined them a few times (I went once for St Basil, ‘On the Holy Spirit’), but (I am given to understand) his general attitude towards the discussion was, ‘But what does all this have to do with the man on the street in Glasgow?’ (Why Glasgow?)
In my mind, ‘the man on the street in Glasgow’ — in this instance — is in need of social assistance. (This is not intended as a general statement on Glaswegians.) Why should we worry about St Gregory of Nazianzus and Trinitarian theology when there are starving people out there? In Glasgow?
The image of people who are interested in social action/activism, who want to see the poor clothed and the hungry fed is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the systematic theologians. Which is a shame.
Somewhere in his book The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton references St John of the Cross as teaching that one should spend more time in contemplation (used here in its mystical sense) than action — that actions ungirded in the contemplative life are prone to be willy-nilly and of less use. How do we know we are doing them for God’s glory? What is His will? That sort of thing.
That’s one approach to contemplation in a world of action (social/evangelistic).
The other is this: Good theologia and good theoria (contemplation), good thoughts about God and good thoughts in God, dogmatics and mysticism — these, in fact, lead to just behaviour and holy living and Gospel-telling.
Think on St Francis, who was a mystic if ever there was one. But his fervour for prayer, dispassion, contemplation was as tied to a fervour for preaching and for helping the poor.
Solid theology and ‘mystical’ practices give heart and soul to our activities in the world.
Perhaps it is our lack of deep thinking and deep praying that weaken our witness of love to a world eroded by hatred and false loves at every turning.
By looking upon God, whether through the intellectual truths of theology or through the noetic experience of mysticism, we can be suffused with His power, His light, and His love for a broken world.
I recently remarked to a couple of Master’s students groaning about reading Homer that if they’re interested in Late Antiquity, Homer’s not totally irrelevant, given that Gregory of Nazianzus wrote poetry in Homeric verse. A (very pleasant and overall thoughtful) young convert to Eastern Orthodoxy remarked that he really liked Gregory’s theological poetry. I said that I liked his poems, too. Then this fellow said that you don’t find theological poetry in western theology, and that a reading group of which he is a member had been reading the Second Theological Oration and he loved some of the poetry in it.
I asked if the ‘poetry’ was written in verse.
No, it was just very beautiful.
I said that that’s actually rhetoric, and that that’s the Fathers for you. They have rhetorical training, and such beauty comes through in their theology, that people like Gregory, Augustine and Ambrose didn’t study rhetoric for it to have no effect on their style of writing.
Our conversation moved on, because I’m bad at confronting people face to face when they say stuff like that.
In the above exchange, there was one category error and (at least) one misrepresentation of western theology. Now, I’m not going to say that Gregory of Nazianzus at his high-flying, rhetorical, ‘poetic’ best isn’t magnificent and stunning. He is. And his theology is good, too. And other eastern Church Fathers, like Gregory of Nyssa or Basil of Caesarea or Athanasius or, in Syriac, Ephraim the Syrian (literal poetry, in his case), have all displayed to me the stylistic beauty of their writings over the years.
But to say that anything beautiful is poetry is not to know what poetry is. And to say that western theology has no poetry is not to know the western heritage.
Sometimes I think a lot of people leave the western churches for Eastern Orthodoxy because we’ve been holding back our own riches of a variety that Eastern Orthodoxy spreads out lavishly. I do not imagine that my acquaintance has read beautiful, ‘poetic’, rhetorical western theology and failed to recognise what it is. I imagine that he has not read it.
So, first: Western theology has poetry. Literally. This should go without saying on this blog, given the series of holy week poems I posted this year, including ones by Theodulph of Orléans (9th c), Ambrose of Milan (4th c), Venantius Fortunatus (6th-7th c), Thomas Aquinas (13th c), and a couple of anonymous ones. I have also discussed Ambrose of Milan’s hymnography. It is worth observing that two of the greatest theological minds of the western tradition, Sts Ambrose of Milan and Thomas Aquinas, were both, literally speaking, poets. So were Peter Abelard and Bonaventure, one a controversial theologian, the other a mystical theologian. Others who are famous as poets also wrote theologically, such as Prudentius and Sedulius. Also, Dante has more than a little theology in his poetry, and of the moderns, we need look no further than the Holy Sonnets of Donne, or the theological work of Spenser, or the world of Francis Thompson or Gerard Manley Hopkins to find westerners (Anglican & Roman Catholic) writing theological poetry.
And, second: Western theology can be poetic. In prose. So, figuratively? Today, when a lot of people say ‘western theology’, they actually mean either something that looks like mediaeval scholasticism (which is both a way of thinking as well as a style/genre of approach) or something that looks like the Enlightenment. That all western theology is about precision and order and sets itself out in Aristotelian syllogisms and spends its time being obsessed with the rational and forgets the mystical and so on and so forth.
This is largely a caricature, and it is entirely inappropriate for western, Latin theology before some time in the Middle Ages, and not always inappropriate thereafter. Not only do western theologians produce a good supply of poetic, beautiful, rhetorical work, eastern theologians use their fair share of logic and reason (so John of Damascus, most of Basil of Caesarea’s On the Holy Spirit, much of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations, Cyril of Alexandria, and so forth). The style of theology we are caricatured as doing exclusively is not our exclusive domain. And the style we are imagined as not engaging in is part of our territory, too.
Lift up your eyes to the light itself, and fix them upon it if you can. For so you will see how the birth of the Word of God differs from the procession of the Gift of God, on account of which the only-begotten Son did not say that the Holy Spirit is begotten of the Father, otherwise He would be His brother, but that He proceeds from Him. Whence, since the Spirit of both is a kind of consubstantial communion of Father and Son, He is not called, far be it from us to say so, the Son of both. But you can not fix your sight there, so as to discern this lucidly and clearly; I know you can not. I say the truth, I say to myself, I know what I cannot do; yet that light itself shows to you these three things in yourself, wherein you may recognize an image of the highest Trinity itself, which you can not yet contemplate with steady eye. Itself shows to you that there is in you a true word, when it is born of your knowledge, i.e. when we say what we know: although we neither utter nor think of any articulate word that is significant in any tongue of any nation, but our thought is formed by that which we know; and there is in the mind’s eye of the thinker an image resembling that thought which the memory contained, will or love as a third combining these two as parent and offspring. (De Trin. 15.50)
Not necessarily theology at its most poetic/rhetorical/beautiful. But not lacking in what a Romantic eschewing verse might call ‘poetry’. If you’ve spent your time with Latin Christianity through the medium of text books or of dry dogmatics, refresh your understanding of it. Grab One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas by P G Walsh and Christopher Husch, or St Bernard of Clairvaux, or Lady Julian of Norwich, or any of a multitude of western theologians and poets, and reacquaint yourself with the tradition we all seem to have forgotten and then scorned.
In this case, it is not familiarity that has bred contempt.
‘Hayesworldview’ over at his blog Apologia and the Occident recently posted about ‘The Great Realignment‘. The inspiration was Metropolitan Jonah (OCA) and his address to the Anglican Communion in North America. The post brings up the ever-widening, yawning gulf that exists in today’s Christianity, and that gulf is not Catholic-Protestant or evangelical/charismatic-mainline. It is a chasm that cuts through across these divides, between what once was called ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’.
Of course, even if you read Hayes’ table of the different ecclesial bodies, it is inevitable that there are strong, traditional, biblically-faithful congregations in the more ‘progressive’ denominations such as ELCA (and ELCIC) and TEC (and ACC) and the United Church of Canada, even, despite the fact that more and more of the upper hierarchy and governing bodies are relativising or denying biblical, gospel, creedal realities — and not just the usual moral/ethical issues that are brought up in these contexts, but, as I have blogged before, compromises on the divinity of Christ, the Virginal conception, the Resurrection of Christ, miracles, demons, angels, sometimes even the ‘theistic’ conception of God himself.
What has become difficult for me these days is that people don’t always fit clearly into these camps. Perhaps someone compromises on one or more ethical issues but affirms all of the doctrines of the Nicene Creed. Perhaps someone denies Penal Substitutionary Atonement (probably because they haven’t read this fine article from First Things), but seems otherwise orthodox. Perhaps someone questions biblical authority in various ways but still believes most biblical theology. Perhaps someone denies the divinity of Christ but still affirms his messiahship and resurrection. There are probably endless combinations.
Maybe it’s just cognitive dissonance.
Maybe such folks are still symptomatic of the wider concern that ‘progressive’ Christianity presents: I, myself, the lone reader with my enlightened twenty-first century perspective and historical-philological-logical tools am the final arbiter of truth. And thus a pick-and-choose orthodoxy arises?
But this sort of pick-and-choose orthodoxy is common to all of us, to some extent. My friend pastors an independent, evangelical church in Nicosia, Cyprus. He has congregants who self-identify as both Orthodoxor Roman Catholic and Protestant. One of the elders goes to Mass on Saturday nights, and then the Protestant church on Sunday mornings.
I, myself, am something of an eclectic orthodox Christian. Some days, I fully affirm a Thomist view of the Trinity. But I also find Palamas’ concept of the essence and energies of God compelling — a Byzantine concept far divorced from Thomism. I agree with Luther on the Eucharist — not consubstantiation but an affirmation that it is the Body and Blood of our Lord. Full stop. I waffle on Predestination and Just War, but other than those last three I usually agree with the remaining 36 Articles of Religion. I am known to kiss icons and light candles, but would never require it of anyone. I like a little incense, but not every Sunday. I’ll call Mary Theotokos but not ask her to intercede for me.
And so forth.
In fact, sometimes, when I think about this divide, I wonder if the only real difference is whether someone sat down and read C S Lewis et al. while developing his’er personal theology or J S Spong, et al. That is to say: My answers may differ, but is my methodology ultimately that different from my ‘progressive’ friends?
This why we should all, progressive and conservative alike, flee to the Fathers. We need something to root us beyond our own, personal whims and tastes. I want to believe orthodoxy because it is true, not because it suits me. May that be the case evermore and evermore.
An important question arose in Cyprus during session on ‘The Bible in the Ancient Church.’ I had just quoted John Chrysostom on Romans 4:5 — to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness:
For reflect how great a thing it is to be persuaded and have full confidence that God is able on a sudden not to free a man who has lived in impiety from punishment only, but even to make him just, and to count him worthy of those immortal honors. Do not then suppose that this one [the one who works] is lowered in that it is not reckoned unto the former of grace. For this is the very thing that makes the believer glorious; the fact of his enjoying so great grace, of his displaying so great faith. And note too that the recompense is greater. For to the former [the one who works] a reward is given, to the latter [the one with faith] righteousness. Now righteousness is much greater than a reward. For righteousness is a recompense which most fully comprehends several rewards. (ANF trans.)
I said that I was not quoting Chrysostom out of a naive belief that the Fathers believed in justification by faith alone the same way we do; no one articulated that part of the faith in that way until Martin Luther. This raised a reasonable concern from one of the people present — if God’s truth doesn’t change, how can orthodoxy? (Sort of. It was more nuanced than that.)
The great concern is: if we are not saved by works, yet we trace so much of our heritage to Fathers, and the Fathers seem, at times, to teach that we are saved by works, what does that mean about the faith of the Fathers? Since justification by faith seems to be taught in the Scriptures, why would no one have articulated it until the Reformation?
These are vitally important questions for those of us who wish to have an orthodoxy in line with the majority, consensual teaching that flows from the patristic (and medieval/Byzantine and Reformation) meditation upon, reflection over, and wrestling with Scripture and life in this broken world. It is a vitally important question for those of us whose theology is daily informed by historical theology. I believe it is a vitally important question for all Christians, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant.
C. Michael Patton has this useful thought on the development of theology, especially in reference to the development of penal substitutionary atonement with St Anselm in the turn of the 11th/12th centuries, as well as to the question of justification by faith alone. The TRUTH about who God is, explains Patton, does not change. From our finite perspective, at that level, orthodoxy is ‘static’ (read book 11 of Augustine’s Confessions if you want to bend your mind thinking about the concept of time and how it relates to God).
Our understanding of God, however, has developed over time, through the direct revelation of the events and writings of Scripture, with their culmination in Christ, there was a gradual unveiling of the character of God and our relation towards him as fallen creatures. And, through Spirit-led meditation upon and grappling with Scripture, the interpretation of the TRUTH has led to a greater precision of what we know.
Yet still we see as in a glass darkly.
So what do we do about things that seem to have developed over history, and those who lived before their development? Patton says:
1. I could say that before these doctrines were understood and articulated according to my current Protestant understanding, no one was truly saved or, at the very least, orthodox. (Radical Restorationism)
2. I could say that these doctrines did exist before, just in unarticulated form. (Oden?)
3. I could say that these doctrines did exist in the earliest church, but the church became corrupted and lost them. (Reformers)
4. I could say that their immature state was sufficient for the time, but is now insufficient. (Conservative Progressives)
5. I could say that these developments, while true, don’t really matter with regards to defining orthodoxy. (Emerging)
The only option Patton is willing to completely ignore is number 1. I am uneasy with number 5, myself. I probably tend towards a blend of 2 and 4 most of the time — what we believe does matter, but there is a difference between ignorance and denial (as my friend Tim. If you had asked St Mark if Jesus was God, he likely will not have said, ‘Yes.’ But for me, with 2000 more years of thoughtful reflection on the Christ-event — if I reject the divinity of Jesus, I am no longer orthodox.
This is helpful as we all wrestle with the fact that our understanding of the things of God has changed over time.
Yet, with that in mind, we must always be humble. Can any of us, even with the doctrine of the Trinity and penal substitutionary atonement really say that we know God any better than Moses or Isaiah or John the Baptist or Paul?
Last Thursday, I gave a seminar on ‘Trinity and Mission’ at the Greek Evangelical Church. It began with a run-through of the history of Christology — this is something I blog about often, so I’m not going to repeat everything here; just follow the links around my blog. I started with Irenaeus’ Rule of Faith and recapitulation, moved on to Athanasius, then the Kappadokians, before sliding into Cyril and Chalcedon. I closed with the Trinitarian exegesis of Matthew 28, as found in the blog post Trinity and Mission.
Not really discussed here before, however, is the following that flows from the Cappadocians — this is consciously following Zizioulas’ reading of them in Being As Communion, which I have heard has some problems; I’ll have to read all of what they say as well as the criticisms some day. Until then, here we go.
The result of this Trinitarian theology, whether expressed by Greek theologians such as the Kappadokians or Latin theologians such as Ambrosios and Augustinos, or even the Syriac theologians Aphrahat and Ephraim, has important implications. As expressed classically by the Kappadokians, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct prosopa or hypostaseis who are all homoousios — they share an ousia. And, following the logic of causation in classical philosophy, God is the principle at work behind all things and the Creator of all things, the unmoved mover — as in the magnificent image of Gregorios’, that Jesus is ‘the founder of the universe who steers its course’.
Therefore, this give-and-take of ousia in fullness of koinonia between the Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit lies at the heart of the created order. The universe is run by a koinonia. And here I mention our first ethical implication of classical Trinitarian doctrine — we are all made in the image of God (Gen 1:26). God is a Trinity of Persons in complete harmony, homonoia.
When we look at our fractured churches in Protestantism, churches that splinter every time you turn around, when we look at our families who sometimes never talk at all or are never willing to discuss things of substance, when we look at our broken relationships all around us, when we observe a fracturing world at our doorstep — Turks in the North, Israel vs. Palestine, internal unrest in Syria — we realise that we are not living as God, the Trinity who exists as self-giving love in perfect communion, intends us to.
If we are to live in accordance with the theology of ancient Christianity, we should be peacemakers, in our homes, our workplaces, our churches — even our nations if the possibility presents itself. All humans are made in God’s image, and all of us were meant to live in loving communion with one another. I imagine that this union of selfless love is what instilled God to inspire our Lord to pray for unity, St Paul to exhort the Corinthians to unity, and for the early Christian writers of the late first and early second centuries, such as Clement of Rome and Ignatios of Antioch, to strive for unity so forcefully in their letters.
Time and again, Ignatios, who was martyred by the Romans around 117, calls his readers to homonoia, to harmony, to a cessation of dissensions and loving accord. Koinonia is a divine attribute; let us live in it. As the Psalm says, ‘How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.’ (Ps 133:1)
As far as mission goes, the koinonia of the Trinity should encourage us to work together; Christians of different sorts who work together provide a united face for the Gospel to an unbelieving world. I have seen this in Lefkosia in the Nicosia Community Church using your building, in the Nicosia International Church using the Anglican church — and I understand that Rick at NIC works together with the pastor at NCC in preparing their sermons.
When I worked for IFES here, we ran the Place at the Anglican church hall jointly with the Anglicans, NIC, and New Life International Church, reaching out to the Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims who come to study in this beautiful city. This sort of gospel partnership should be the lifeblood of mission in post-Christian Europe.
The other day, I came across Towards a Feminist Christology by Julie Hopkins on the new books table in the Divinity library here. In an of itself, I don’t suppose feminist theology is any worse than any other particular vision of theology. The problems arise when people, rather critiquing theology or doing theology from a feminist perspective, seek to create a theology that is inherently feminist and that solves feminist problems.
Theology is thinking about God, and therefore transcends all barriers. The job of the theologian is to find the Truth and communicate it. But academic theology can often go astray seeking instead to apply philosophy to Christian issues or sociology to the Almighty or calling Christian philosophy theology or confusing anthropology with theology. Academia may, in fact, be the least hospitable environment for true theology to thrive because of the drive to create new things and publish them on a regular basis.
And so Hopkins challenges, in a mere six pages (I think), the Chalcedonian Definition (my translation here) of Christ’s dual nature, reducing it to, ‘fully god, fully man.’ Her first critique is that this is a decidedly sexist vision of the Incarnate Christ. I suppose it would be, if that were what the Fathers at Chalcedon actually said.
In fact, what the Chalcedonian Definition says in the criticised phrase is, theon aléthós kai anthrópon aléthós — truly God and truly a human being. We can always ask ourselves if ancient authors, when they wrote anthrópos or homo meant ‘human being regardless of gender’ or if they were often thinking of ‘male men’, but the word anthrópos refers to a human being of either gender. And throughout the Chalcedonian Definition itself, all the terms used to refer to Christ’s human nature are derived from anthrópos, not anér, the word for ‘man.’
Leo’s Tomus ad Flavianum is similar, using homo, basically the Latin equivalent of anthrópos.
Thus, the Chalcedonian Definition is not sexist.
I should probably stop there, but Hopkins did not (alas). Citing some other feminist theologians as well as Patristics scholar Frances Young, she maintains that the Fathers compromised the Gospel with Platonic dualism, thus leading to the tortured Christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries. Whether the Fathers did compromise, to what extent, and why are all debatable issues.
What I can say is this, even without the question of dualism arising or the concern about impassibility, the question of how on earth a man could be God would have been a thorny question, and it would have arisen through the centuries of meditative exposition of the Scriptures anyway — so something like the Chalcedonian Definition would have been formed (although some people are leaning towards the position that, without Leo’s orchestration of Chalcedon, the formulation would have been more conservative Cyrillian [Mono-/Miaphysite] than Leo’s Augustinian vision).
Nonetheless, even dispensing with ideas that proclaim the weakness of the Church’s credal statements from Nicaea to Chalcedon — tainted by pagan philosophy as the appear to be — Hopkins brings up a decidedly modern (postmodern? contemporary? I dunno) concern. How can we discuss the Incarnation of the divine in the feminine?
My response: In short, we cannot.
The Incarnation of the Divine Person as Jesus Christ is an unrepeatable historical event with cosmic significance. The actual Incarnation is the taking-on of human flesh by the Almighty. All human flesh is gendered. All human flesh is particular. In order for Christ to save all of us, he had to be one of us. The general significance of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reigning in glory, comes from the particularity.
Jesus is not embodied humanity in some general way, although some Unitarian website I saw about a year ago thought that’s what Chalcedon teaches. He is a particular human — a man. And he lived and wrought wonders and taught great things, things recorded for us in the Gospels. He died a criminal’s death and rose the Victorious Saviour. He ascended into Heaven.
By living a ‘normal’ human life, Jesus recapitulated the Garden. He reversed the curse through obedience to the Father.
If somehow one were to argue that Incarnation is necessary from General or Natural Revelation (or whatever you call it), one could say that the Divine Being could become Incarnate in a woman. However, those things that make true, Christian theology Christian are the revelation and the tradition that inform us that when the Divine Person became flesh, it was as the Man, Jesus of Nazareth.
Yet God became man that man might become God, right? (Theosis, as some call it.)
Well, then. Think on this, if you wish to see the Divine in the human plane of the feminine.
After 40 days living His resurrected life amongst the Apostles, the God-Man Jesus returned to Heaven. As a result, his particularity can become general. Whereas before he was only with certain followers at certain places and certain times, now Jesus, God Himself, can be with any followers at any places and any times. With all of us at once. He has promised to be with us in a special way through communion, but I think we can find Him elsewhere.
And when we find Christ, God, Trinity, we can find union with the Divine in a way that is so intimate that the Scriptures — our first point of reference in doing true theology — can only describe it as being like a marriage. We have all become Christ’s bride.
The Divine Persons are not feminine. They transcend gender as a Trinity. However, their transcendence of gender makes them equally available to all. Therefore, we need not worry over the Incarnation of God in the feminine. God came as a man, but can return to any of us at any time, whether male or female.