My wife and I have just moved to England, and after seven years enjoying the Presbyterian world of the Free Church of Scotland, I’ve been looking forward to soaking in some Anglican worship when we get here. Being believers of an orthodox bent, we found ourselves an Anglican church for yesterday that billed itself as ‘evangelical’.
We may as well have gone to the Vineyard.
Nothing against the Vineyard, necessarily. We worshipped with them a couple of times in Glasgow.
But I’ve been looking forward to plugging into liturgy — BCP or Common Worship — to a form of worship that is not tied to my emotions or those of the leader at the front, to rich prayers rooted in Scripture and tradition, to a community gathered around word and sacrament.
There was nothing ‘Anglican’ about this group of Christians, expect, I suppose, that they are part of an Anglican episcopal structure and believe the 39 Articles.
It’s frustrating for someone like me who identifies as Anglican and evangelical to belong nowhere. I’d rather go to a church that doesn’t make any claims to Anglicanism than to the Baptists with Bishops. We had the same problem in Scotland, in fact.
It’s also frustrating because there is a movement among a lot of the non-Anglican evangelicals to rediscover liturgy, tradition, beauty, hymns, discipline. Yet here, in the homeland of Anglicanism, Anglicans have sold their birth right and live in the same cultural amnesia that American and Canadian evangelicals are just now recovering from!
As someone has said, history is not events, but events that have become ideas — and ideas are of the present. The past does not change, but we do, which is why the work of history is always present, and never done. Liturgical history, therefore, does not deal with the past, but with tradition, which is a genetic vision of the present, a present conditioned by its understanding of its roots. And the purpose of this history is not to recover the past (which is impossible), much less to imitate it (which would be fatuous), but to understand liturgy which, because it has a history, can only be understood in motion.
-Robert Taft, S.J., ‘The Structural Analysis of Liturgical Units: An Essay in Methodology’, Worship 52:318.
Sometimes people read this blog and think I’m ‘too traditional’. I’m not sure that means what they think it means, but to break that misconception, here’s a little Godspell in keeping with today’s Gospel reading:
This post can give some context for the period when I started blogging about ‘Classic Christianity’.
For several years, mostly since I realised that I liked the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) during university and was drawn to St. Francis, my personal devotional and theological life has been taking a journey, and I’m only just now becoming aware of what exactly this journey has been. It is a journey that actually began with discovering the “mere” Christianity popularised by C. S. Lewis, and then a sudden realisation that, while I believe that core of Christian truth (“orthodoxy”), I am hopelessly Anglican. I recently discovered the term “paleo-orthodox”, which I think applies to me.*
Palaeo-orthodoxy is a concept that has been championed by Thomas C Oden, whose book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy I read around Christmastide. The basic premise of palaeo-orthodoxy is that true orthodoxy is the consensual agreement of the Church catholic, and is best found in the first 1000 years of undivided Christian history. If we are to rediscover what it means to be orthodox, then mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox have to turn away from the latest fads and trends in theological and philosophical thinking and look back at what the prophets, apostles, saints, martyrs, and mystics have passed down to us. The implications of palaeo-orthodoxy are not germane to the discussion at hand, however.
This blog has reflected my turn to more traditional, catholic, palaeo- sources for my spiritual life and thought. We see this, for example, in posts about Church Fathers, quotations from the BCP (including a post that was basically cut-and-pasted from it), a discussion about Mediaeval missions and Ramon Llull, and my post about Christology. I have in mind future posts about the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Communion of Saints, Ephraim the Syrian, and who knows what else.
Nevertheless, I want to affirm something important before those other posts fly from my fingertips, before their voice may seem to crowd out everything else — perhaps so that their voice cannot crowd out everything else. While I believe that the rediscovery of what I call “classic Christianity” is important for an increased vibrancy in the Church and for the personal devotional and spiritual life of us pilgrims, I am very missional.
I believe that Christians have two primary duties, the first being: To love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength. The second is like unto it: To love our neighbours as ourselves. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
Or, to phrase it differently, I believe we are first and foremost to engage in worship. Worship God. Join in the song of Creation with the stars and the cherubim and the oceans and the Ethiopians and the Baptists and the trees of the field! Sing God’s praises! Join with those around the Heavenly Throne, crying day and night, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts! Heaven and Earth are full of Thy glory! Hosanna in the Highest!” Cry, “Alleluia!”
And then, loving and worshipping the God Who is Love and Worthy of all worship, we must overflow to tell our world about Him. This is commonly called “evangelism,” but I prefer my friend Rick’s thinking surrounding “discipleship” — not simply making converts, but bringing people to Jesus to a place where they are following Him and living in communion with Him, discovering their gifts, using their talents, and joining in Jesus’ mission of making more disciples. This is the second duty.
For we are all, each and every one of us, loved by God, more than we could possibly imagine. And we are justified by faith through the grace of God alone. None of the works we ever do will save us. All we need to be justified by God is a faith in Jesus, who is God Incarnate, God enfleshed, God pitching His tent among us, Who died that we might live, who took our sin upon Himself and reconciled us to God, satisfying the inestimable love of God the Father. Justified by our faith in Christ, we have a relationship with God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit is sent to dwell in and overflow us.
For this faith, this apostolic faith, to flourish we need worship, prayer, and the Scriptures. And community, no doubt, to encourage us when we are weak, to give a place to use our gifts, to correct us when we err, to provide a place of vibrant power where we can engage in the worship of the triune God.
When I say, therefore, “I am palaeo-orthodox,” I do not believe that incense, candles, icons, prayer books, liturgies, classic hymns, old theology, honouring the saints, the sacraments, the classic spiritual disciplines, et cetera are necessary for salvation (in the strict sense of justification). I am still evangelical in the classic sense, I think. But I do believe that those things are aids for spiritual growth, that they help keep us within the bounds of orthodoxy, wherein we are free to explore God and laugh with joy and question with our rational minds the truths of the universe.
We are spiritual beings, and our spirits must be fed and conformed to the likeness of Christ.
We are rational beings, and our minds must be fed and conformed to the likeness of Christ.
We are emotional beings, and our emotions must also be fed (I don’t how) and conformed to the likeness of Christ.
We are physical beings, and our bodies must be fed and conformed to the likeness of Christ.
What I call “classic Christianity”, then, is an attempt to find Christ in the saints throughout all the ages (this is to say, not simply the last 10, 20, 50, 100 years, but further and deeper and richer than they) and recapture disciplines and thought-patterns that will help me become more like Him, to know Him more, to worship Him more fully, to be conformed into His image, to live like Him, to think with the mind of Christ, and in all these ways join in the Song of Creation, praising God unto ages of ages.
It is not abandoning my charismatic and evangelical heritage by any means, for I still pray in tongues and believe that Scripture is God’s Word written, sufficient for salvation, but rather an attempt to unlock the treasurehouse of that heritage, the stores and riches of Christian orthodoxy throughout the ages so that as a missional, charismatic, evangelical, orthodox, traditionalist, sacramentalist, palaeo-orthodox, liturgical Anglican I can know Christ and make Him known to all the world around me, ever praising Him and singing:
We praise thee, O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting.
To thee Angels cry aloud, the Heavens and tall the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts;
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of thy glory.
-from Te Deum Laudamus, an ancient Christian hymn (Canadian BCP pp. 7-8)
* Except I’m an Anglo-Scots Canadian, so I prefer “palaeo-orthodox”.
Back to my Cypriot seminars. When we look at tradition as it moves along, various developments inevitably occur. We need to test each of these developments against the core of tradition in the Canon of the Faith as well as against Scripture. Some things will be helpful for us as individuals or churches; some will be indifferent; others are to be rejected.
I believe the tradition of honouring our forebears in the faith is reasonable; we do it today to living heroes such as Billy Graham or past ones such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. We see this going on in the mid-second century when Polycarp, a man who had known the Apostle John, was killed by the Roman authorities in Smyrna. The Christians buried his bones and commemorated his life and teachings ever after. We see the same going on with Perpetua and Felicity a bit later in Carthage around the year 200. This sort of practice continued and is evident in Kyprianos of Carthage’s letters in the 250s when the Emperor Decius systematically sought to stamp out Christianity.
However, at some stage, the commemoration of faithful believers went beyond this, and we have the poetry of Paulinos, Bishop of Nola, who was a contemporary of Augustinos’ in the late 300s. He wrote poems to St. Felix, an early Christian martyr, referring to Felix as his friend and offering up prayers to Felix. We also see at this time the emergence of relics and shrines as sites of healings. Missionaries were being sent out in the late 300s accompanied by the relics of martyrs and other holy Christians of prior days to take with them. These are traditions that may have roots in the 200s but which are becoming clearer in the 300s — although various people questioned such action well into the 600s.
Furthermore, although someone like Paulinos of Nola may be a big fan of praying to St Felix, most Christian piety well into the 500s and beyond is focussed on Jesus; it is Jesus most documented Christians pray to most often; it is Jesus who is the centre of the liturgies of these periods; it is Jesus who is even, very often, the focus of the lives of the saints. He is the centre of devotion, even at the time when the prayers to the saints were starting to develop and grow in popularity. This praying to the saints is, I believe as a good Anglican, a derailment of a tradition that developed as a way of encouraging persecuted Christians and remembering the teachings of those who have gone before. However, it should not keep us from reading the so-called ‘Lives of the Saints’ in hagiography. I have read many, many saints’ lives, and sometimes they are silly, but sometimes there is a flash of insight into true virtue or prayer or worship or the character of God that I would have missed because I do not believe in praying to saints.
At all times, the tricky parts of the multitudinous traditions should be held up against the core of the tradition and against Scripture. Are they in conformity to this? Do they draw people nearer to Christ? Do they detract from the true worship of God? Even if a text, such as a saint’s life like the late fifth-century Life of Daniel the Stylite, is not necessarily entirely historically accurate, can God show us things through the example and life of Daniel?
When we approach ancient texts in this way, we can sort through the silly or false parts and find some gems. For there are gems to be found in ancient Christianity, and they are worth finding. For me, the gems have been found in the teachings about the person of Christ and the Trinity, as discussed on Thursday, as well as in the worship and prayer practices of the ancient Church, which have helped me appreciate the holy God of the Bible even more and drawn me nearer to him and helped me in my own times of daily devotion. We must learn to sift through the oddities so as to live with the gems which greatly outweigh the oddities and hard parts, if we are willing to read with an open spirit.
I’ve blogged about tradition a few times in the past, most recently this post here. Tradition, or in Greek paradosis, is what is handed along, what is handed down. Usually, in Christian circles, we differentiate between the unwritten tradition and the Scriptures, although Cypriot Greek Orthodox priests do not; there is only tradition, of which Scripture is the primary and most important and authoritative part.
The rest of us, because of the Reformation, are aware of two forces acting upon how we do Christianity. In its widest sense, this force of tradition is enormous and unwieldy. It includes not just the ‘core’ in my more recent post about tradition as well as saints’ days (and the whole cultus of the saints), purgatory, the immaculate conception of the BVM, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, your mom, most of the liturgy/-ies, Romanesque architecture, Gothic architecture, icons, stained glass, particular translations of Scripture, and so on and so forth.
And when, in the Reformation, the western Church was abusing certain aspects of these traditions, such as manipulating purgatory to get people to purchase papal indulgences to raise money to build St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the question was posed, and answered, forcefully: Why are all of these traditions binding?
And it was determined amongst we ‘Protestants’ that no tradition that was not supported by the force of Scripture was binding. Thus, in the 39 Articles of the Anglican religion, we have:
VI. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.
Nonetheless, tradition is still a force at work within Protestantism, especially in the ‘magisterial’ Reformation (whose descendants largely reside in today’s mainline denominations: Lutherans, the Reformed incl. Presbyterians, Anglicans). Anglicans have bishops, priests, and deacons, and basically use a Reformed, English version of Sarum Use for the Lord’s Supper and the daily office. Only priests can consecrate at the Eucharist, only bishops can ordain priests and deacons. These are matters for which, despite perhaps Reformed Presbyterian outcries on the one hand and certain types of ‘Catholic’ voice on the other, Scripture does not lay down a clear, discernible rule.
So we follow tradition. These matters of church polity are not necessarily the central, core realities of the Christian faith. So how does one go about organising a Protestant church? Sort of like a mediaeval one, if you ask the Anglicans and Lutherans (though each group with its own modifications). This is the design of church governance handed down to us by tradition.
Tradition alone cannot be binding upon any Christian. For example, I believe that a robust theology of the incarnation leads at least to allowing icons, if not necessarily venerating them. But I do not consider iconoclast churches heretical; I do not think their souls are in danger of hellfire. Indeed, sometimes I worry more about iconodules and where their own emphasis lies in personal devotion.
Tradition is useful today when so many divergent readings of Scripture abound. The core of the tradition as found in the canon of the faith that I blogged about two posts ago is a lens of Scriptural interpretation that was in existence before the set limits of the canon of Scripture. As Baptist scholar DH Williams discusses in Evangelicals and Tradition, the two canons played off of one another as the church lived, worshipped, and meditated on the truth. That of the faith helped the church discern whether or not a text such as the Gospel of Peter was Scripture or not. The various documents of Scripture helped dictate the shifts in the canon of the faith that happened at Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381).
With the various twistings of doctrine and ethics justified by logically valid readings of Scripture, whether being proferred to us by liberal Christianity, Unitarians, Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists, or agnostics, those of us who hold to an ‘evangelical’ view of how Scripture is to be read, we ‘conservatives’ need the ancient, central tradition to help us justify why our readings are more true than others’.
Beyond the canon of the faith, there are also traditional readings of Genesis and certain ethical issues regarding the law and Christian morality, that we find in a broad consensus of the orthodox Fathers, mediaeval writers, and Reformers (both Protestant and Catholic). So, when people come up with reinterpretations of moral commands, we need not abandon our vision either of sola scriptura nor of the old morality; for sola scriptura works best with tradition as a hermeneutical tool (famously, alongside reason and then experience as a last resort [to make Hooker’s three-legged stool Wesley’s quadrilateral]).
This, in brief, is how I feel about tradition right now and most broadly.
Last Saturday morning, with the able help of a volunteer from the Greek Evangelical Church, I gave a seminar on ‘Evangelicals and Tradition.’ What I hope from this seminar is for evangelicals to be less … wary? afraid? of tradition but to develop the necessary skills of discernment to judge which parts of it are good, which are bad, and which are … adiaphora. Marginal. Not worth fussing over every time you meet an Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christian.
When each of them to be baptized has gone down into the water, the one baptizing shall lay hands on each of them, asking, “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” 13And the one being baptized shall answer, “I believe.” 14He shall then baptize each of them once, laying his hand upon each of their heads. 15Then he shall ask, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose on the third day living from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, the one coming to judge the living and the dead?” 16When each has answered, “I believe,” he shall baptize a second time.
17Then he shall ask, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?” 18Then each being baptized shall answer, “I believe.” And thus let him baptize the third time. 19Afterward, when they have come up out of the water, they shall be anointed by the elder with the Oil of Thanksgiving, saying, “I anoint you with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ.” 20Then, drying themselves, they shall dress and afterwards gather in the church. (From an online translation of Hippolytos.)
This led to a fruitful, I believe, discussion of how similar Hippolytos’ baptismal ceremony is the Orthodox ceremony — triple immersion and anointing with oil! I said that the Orthodox got this from the ancient days; it is a tradition that they have maintained since the earliest days of the Church. Perhaps one evangelical-Orthodox wall was weakened by that realisation.
From there, I brought forth the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Creeds of 325 and 381. The complaint could be made that the statements of 325 and 381 use non-biblical language, and that the Bible already teaches all of these things. However, as with Irenaios vs Gnostics who used Christian Scripture, so also in the battle against those who denied the divinity of Jesus. The argument was not over what was Scripture but how we understand it; so the Church came up with an interpretative lens, almost as old as the apostles themselves, drawn from Scriptural ideas and truths but using the language of Greek philosophy, to state unequivocally what the Scriptural and Traditional teachings about Jesus are.
And at the complaint that the Eastern Orthodox believe these creeds more than the Bible, I must protest. These creeds are but summaries of Gospel truth, created to meet a need that the Church had at that time. It is impossible to believe them more than the Bible. Ioannis Kassianos, a Romanian monk who lived for a time in Bethlehem then Egypt before settling in Marseilles, wrote this in the early 400s:
There is nothing wanting then in the Creed; because it was formed from the Scriptures of God by the apostles of God, it has in it all the authority it can possibly have, whether of men or of God. (De Inc. 6.4, NPNF trans.)
Another complaint I know of is that encapsulating the Gospel in such statements takes the life from it. This is a possibility—but it is a possibility even with the writings of Scripture, depending on how we use them. I prefer to view these statements of the centre of Christian tradition as fences or the boundaries of a playing field. We can say things they do not say, but if we say things that are counter to them, we find ourselves standing outside of the biblical, apostolic tradition that the Church has handed down to us as encapsulated in these creeds.
The purpose of all of this was to show how unchanging the central core of Christian tradition was throughout the ancient church, and how it is important for us today. Furthermore, when we go back to Irenaios, we see the importance of a central, unwritten Apostolic tradition that exists in tandem with the Scriptures, because the Gnostics, using the same Scriptures, claimed that their interpretation was the right one, and their unwritten tradition the true one. So what are we to do? Recourse to the Scriptures alone cannot save us when they, too, are using the Scriptures.
When most evangelicals think of tradition, we think of these ‘unwritten’ aspects of Christianity, we think of accretions adding up over time, we think of bishops, priests, and deacons, we think of saints and theologians, we think of stained glass, of Gothic architecture and Byzantine domes. In a very large, encompassing vision of tradition, these things are all part of tradition.
But what I hope to have shown here today is a core of tradition that remains very little modified over the centuries—that creed of 381 just discussed and on your handout is believed and affirmed by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Syrian Orthodox, the Church of the East from Iran to China and India, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, the Dutch Christian Reformed, and the Nicosia International Church. Here is an aspect of tradition that we affirm today which was affirmed long ago by the Christians of the later Roman Empire.
If we want to get involved with ancient Christians, we must take the long view of Christian history. And in taking this long view, the question that arises is whether any given development is faithful to Gospel belief and Gospel living—to the Tradition as discussed above and enshrined in the Bible, as we’ll see in my next talk.
The Christians before the year 500 determined that Gnosticism, Monarchianism, Arianism in its various forms, Pneumatomachianism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Manichaeism, Eutychianism, certain strains of Origen’s thought, and many others were deviations from the truth handed down from the apostles, the paradosis, tradition in its truest sense. And we today owe much to this ancient tradition.