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.
The world of Patristics on the internet is always interesting, and today I learned of an exciting development that I fully endorse. Over at Read the Fathers, some people are organising an online community to go through a seven-year cycle of readings of the Fathers that will take you through most of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF) series.
You are not committed to use the sawdusty versions of ANF and NPNF (but they are available free through the Christian Classics Ethereal Library), for the organisers have kindly let us know book.chapter.verse for each day’s readings, so you can find a better translation with more up-to-date notes based on a more recent critical edition for each of the Fathers. E.g. for Augustine, grab the Oxford World’s Classics translation of the Confessions. For Tertullian, a lot of it is as yet not updated, but the Apology and De Spectaculis are available in a Loeb volume. And, if my life follows the swiftest trajectory possible, by the time we reach Leo, you can read my translation of the letters! 😉
The commitment is seven pages per day. A lot, but not really. My fun reading is often 10 to 100 pages per day. And this will be far more profitable if more time consuming than briefer devotionals such as the (recommended) Ancient Christian Devotional from IVP. Here you’ll read entire works of the Fathers and get into the messy stuff — but through bite-sized, daily readings. This is why it will take seven years.
If you fall behind, pick up with that day’s readings (or at least a reasonable starting point). The organisers recommend you don’t play catch up, otherwise you will probably lose heart and abandon it all together. My former priest says the same thing about reading the Bible.
I cannot recommend this idea enough. The challenges and wonders and mind-stretching ideas that come from reading the Fathers are exactly what the pocket scroll is about. I started this blog not only to have a place to work through some ideas but as a place to encourage others to meet with the texts that have formed the Christian faith and made it what it is today to help bring them to a place of deeper faith in God, greater awe before Him, fuller strength in the face of trouble, truer holiness in a licentious society.