The disparate nature of tradition

Council of Chalcedon

I am at present reading Justinian’s Letter to the Monks of Alexandria Against the Monophysites. As I read, many questions arise: Did Justinian himself write this? When did he have time? Did he ever sleep? If he didn’t, who did? How was this text received? How would Leo the Great have felt about this text? What about Cyril of Alexandria?

Leo the Great (d. 461) would probably have been fine with this work. I am not sure Cyril (d. 444) would have been, however. This is an interesting reality of our theological tradition. Many people, even within the church, have an idea that theological orthodoxy is monolithic. It is not. Leo the Great did what he could with what of Cyril he had in Latin — not all of Cyril, and Latin is not Greek. So Leo’s Christology is not the same as Cyril’s.

For example, I do not think Leo’s Tome and Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ are actually perfectly compatible.

Yet Leo’s Tome was acclaimed and accepted at the Council of Chalcedon (that he helped engineer) in 451 on the grounds that it said what Cyril says. Which, if we consider the Cyril of the letter of reconciliation with John of Antioch Laetentur Caeli, I suppose it is. Both of these fifth-century bishops are accepted as authoritative by the imperial church and are regarded as Fathers of the Church by modern Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, and non-heretical Protestant churches.

But their entire corpora are not entirely compatible, despite what Justinian tries in his reading of Cyril as a supporter of two-nature Christology.

Moving forward a couple of centuries, what about Maximus the Confessor (d. 662)? Again, I am not sure that the Cyril of On the Unity of Christ and some of Maximus’s arguments about the operation of Christ’s two wills in the Garden of Gethsemane are perfectly compatible.

Moving beyond christology, Augustine (d. 430), who is actually considered a saint by the eastern churches, teaches a dual procession of the Holy Spirit, that even Maximus agreed to in a way, although its offspring, the filioque in the creed, is a major point of division between the eastern and western churches. Yet here they stand, part of orthodox (note the lower-case O) tradition.

Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) taught the Apocatastasis, the idea that all will be saved (patristic universalism). He is considered a Father in both East and West, although many reject this teaching. The ecumenically popular Isaac the Syrian (seventh century) also taught this.

Western accounts of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity tend to start with the doctrine of God and His unity; in the East, they tend to start with the persons and the threeness. This is a generalisation, but it does tend towards a different feel and different emphases in our presentations of dogma. Yet these presentations, whether by Augustine or Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390), are all orthodox though they differ.

Or consider the fact that our tradition includes alleged ‘Semi-Pelagians’ as saints (Faustus of Riez) alongside Augustinians like Prosper of Aquitaine.

Theological orthodoxy is not monolithic. Many other very specific cases could be found, but these will do. It is worth keeping these realities in mind as we ponder the great richness of the tradition that has brought us to where we stand today.

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How evangelical Anglican churches drive people like me away

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!

And so where to go?

I don’t know.

Robert Taft on liturgy and tradition

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.

. . . not abandoning roots, finding them

Re-post from 2008.

This post can give some context for the period when I started blogging about ‘Classic Christianity’.

Father of the Church
Church Father; 8th-c fresco now in Museo Nazionale Romano, Cripta Balbi. My photo

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”.

Evangelicals and Tradition: The Saints

Polycarp

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.

The heebie-jeebies about tradition

I’ve blogged about tradition a few times in the past, most recently this post hereTradition, 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.