Revivifying the tradition

One of the main thrusts of Gabriel Bunge’s book about patristic prayer, Earthen Vessels, is to drive Christians today back to the tradition and its fountainheads for our guidance on prayer. He believes that our faith fails in the West so often because our praxis of the faith — by which he means things spiritual, not naked activism — does not align with our doctrines. (NB: He wrote this while still a Roman Catholic member of the Order of St Benedict.)

What we need, then, are reliable guides to the ancient paths of prayer so that we can walk the Way that is Jesus in a manner compatible with the theology of the ancient faith we profess.

I noted in my post ‘Where do we find our mystics in Protestantism?‘ that most of us, especially from within evangelical communities, end up going it alone. Indeed, we lack that living tradition of the contemplative life found in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. In that post, however, I did mention James Houston of Regent College here in Vancouver.

Perhaps this tradition is starting to return to us.

This morning at church, the Houston effect was felt as a Regent student gave a wonderful sermon all about how to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17). My own slightly tangential thoughts about Evagrius, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, The Way of a Pilgrim, and St Athanasius suddenly coalesced when the sermon began discussing a course the preacher had taken at Regent all about prayer, and how one of the pathways of prayer they learned was John Cassian’s invocation of repeating Psalm 70:1 over and over:

O God, make speed to save me / O Lord, make haste to help me. (BCP translation)

I’ve written on Cassian here a lot over the years, although I cannot seem to find a post devoted to this verse specifically. It matters little, I suppose.

Anyway, we were given some of Cassian’s own wisdom as well as the preacher’s own experience of putting into practice this ‘arrow prayer’.

I am encouraged beyond a reminder for my own self (a practitioner of the Jesus Prayer) but also for this wider world of Christian ‘spirituality’: Regent is teaching this sort of thing to its students. Regent is well-respected in the evangelical and academic worlds, both (as much as any evangelical seminary can manage both). And Regent students are sharing this wisdom in congregations.

This is tradition coming back to life!

John Cassian was himself, as has been demonstrated variously, a disciple of the great spiritual master, Evagrius Ponticus, who was a disciple of Gregory of Nazianzus before coming to Egypt, and then of the two Macarii (of Alexandria and the Great) when in the Egyptian desert. The full story of the mediaeval reception of Cassian is not germane today, though.

For Protestants, much of that reception gets cut off in the 1500s.

Nonetheless, we have editions and translations of Cassian’s works.

And so people like Steve Bell come to Regent College, equipped by the good work of (I do hope) Boniface Ramsey’s translation and share the riches of ancient ascetic wisdom to evangelical Christians. And suddenly, a roomful of people is plugged back in.

What we need, though, are the living people beyond well-known Manitoban virtuoso guitarists who prevent Cassian from being relegated to the Reserve shelf at Regent and who themselves take up Cassian’s wisdom and become, to cite the title of a book by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer.

The flowering of spiritual disciplines and the rebirth of these traditions may be taking longer than Richard Foster may have thought when he wrote Celebration of Discipline over two decades ago. But more and more people, whether the folks who preach at my church or Ken Shigematsu over at Tenth, or people beyond Vancouver, are reentering these ancient traditions and revivifying them.

That’s good. (Even if it’s not as full-on as Bunge would like.)

To close, here’s Steve Bell doing Psalm 70:1:

Living tradition

A Gathering of the Holy Fathers

I am reading Gabriel Bunge’s book Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, and he is discussing what tradition is and how it works in the first chapter. Tradition is much-contested ground ever since the days of the Reformation when everyone, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic (for want of better words), was trying to sift through the mass of the deposit as it stood in the midst of Renaissance decadence, late mediaeval scholasticism, corruption amongst clerics and princes alike, and true devotion.

Which parts were true devotion? And which true devotion was rightly placed? Which parts of this deposit are either apostolic by antiquity or at least Spirit-driven consequences of apostolic tradition, which are man-made things to be abandoned, and which are adiaphora?

These debates are often framed in terms of pitting Scripture and tradition against each other. In Browne’s very capable Victorian book about the 39 Articles, he makes a good case against there being an oral tradition of things not in Scripture that must, nevertheless, be believed. In good Anglican form, he is careful to state that the tradition of exegesis and liturgy, especially of the Fathers, is important for devotion and the right interpretation of Scripture, but nothing independent of Scripture is to enjoined upon Christian souls as essential for salvation.

In these terms, tradition seems fairly dead, doesn’t it?

But, as the Eastern Orthodox apologists like to point out, we are all part of traditions, even Baptists at Bible study.

Bunge’s idea of tradition is something different:

The meaning and purpose of preserving the “tradition” is, then, for the Fathers, just as it was for the first “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”, not an unthinking adherence to what has been handed down, but the preservation of a living fellowship. (p. 24, emphasis original)

Two years ago, the book I read on the bus to visit my wife and son at hospital after he was born was Archimandrite Zacharias’ book Remember Thy First Love: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony. I was given this book by Father Raphael, from whom I have received much spiritual insight. The main source for Archimandrite Zacharias’ teaching is actually sacred Scripture, but the second-most popular citation in the notes is Elder Sophrony, followed by St Silouan the Athonite. Elder Sophrony was Archimandrite Zacharias’ spiritual father, and St Silouan was Sophrony’s.

As I read the book, I felt like I was encountering a living tradition, not simply a bunch of facts handed down, but an entire way of life, from Athos to Essex. In fact (now that I write it), Archimandrite Zacharias is Father Raphael’s spiritual father (after the falling asleep of Father John [memory eternal!]), and if I were Orthodox, I would hope Father Raphael would be humble enough to accept the challenge of being my spiritual father.

Tradition is the encounter and fellowship with those who have gone before, seeking to live and apply their encounter with Jesus to our circumstances now.

One of the richest loci for the tradition is, of course, the liturgy. As Father Andrew Louth points out in Discerning the Mystery, when St Basil the Great discusses the unwritten tradition of the church in On the Holy Spirit, the things he talks about are all liturgical.

Given that I am now reading Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, this point takes on a new kind of resonance. The Prayer Book was a way in which Christians of Cranmer’s world were able to accept that fellowship with what has gone before, but also sift through it, seeking what had gone awry (a task Rome was also doing; let’s not fight that fight today). I have written on the catholicity of the Prayer Book before, but it is worth repeating. When we pray with the Book of Common Prayer in spirit and in truth, we truly join in fellowship with the Christians of the centuries who have also used so many of those forms, from (at the latest) the Apostolic Tradition (modern attribution: Hippolytus of Rome, mid-200s), whether in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Old Church Slavonic, Elizabethan English.

We also, with greater specificity, join with the Anglicans around the world and through the centuries (until the liturgical movement of the later 20th century), whether in Australia or Kenya or Canada or Canterbury. We enter into that fellowship of faith, a Reformational liturgy rooted in the catholic tradition (note the lower-case c).

Arguably (and here perhaps I  become controversial), inasmuch as the Prayer Book’s theology is an attempt to restore to prominence certain apostolic and Augustinian themes obscured in England at the time of the Reformation, we could also argue that in using it we find ourselves in the august company of St Paul and St Augustine.

At prayer, we seek God. And God comes to us. We find ourselves in communion, in fellowship with Him, and through Him, with the Christians through the centuries who have also sought Him. And if we choose to submit ourselves to them in our own seeking of God, to fellowship with them — then that is living tradition.

An Old Kind of Christian

I have recently begun paternity leave, and I’ve decided that, besides not formally doing work for ten weeks, I’ll also take a moment away from reading ancient, mediaeval, and Orthodox books for a little bit, to sort of, um, freshen the brain. Read books ‘normal’ people read. So I’ve put my ‘fun’ reading of Statius’ Thebaid on hold and have started Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and my Christian-y reading of St Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations has been switched for Brian D. McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian.

I realise I’m 18 years late to this party (and was 18 when the book came out), so any meditations I have on a book that thought it was cutting-edge in 2001 may be a little inappropriate. I will not be able to recapture what it must have been like to have been 36 reading this book back then.

Also, I have read two of McLaren’s books already, one in 2004 (More Ready Than You Realize) the other in 2006 (A Generous Orthodoxy), and I have to admit that I liked them, but neither was revolutionary or game-changing. Finally, for my own 2001-02 context, I did read, in 2002, Walsh and Middleton’s Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, my introduction to postmodernism.

Anyway, having laid out a bit of my own modern context (I use that word on purpose), I also assume any regular reader knows that I am a Classicist and ecclesiastical historian who specialises in Patristics with research interests that stretch into the High Middle Ages and an eclectic, East-leaning Anglican devotional life, having been raised in a charismatic Anglican parish.

Before beginning this book, my thoughts were largely as follows. My sister-in-law once observed that Brian McLaren was not that revolutionary in these early books; he was mostly just explaining postmodernism to middle-aged people. In the end, however, the emerging church as a movement has proven itself largely spent. McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity set him not merely outside the bounds of evangelicalism but of any orthodoxy, however generous (for some solid critique, I direct you to Bill Kinnon, since I know and trust Bill). He demonstrated himself simply another liberal; he was running so fast to find something new that he ended up in the 1990s in 2010.

The only other two names ever associated with the emerging church that I can think of are Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll, and I’m sure I’ll get in trouble for daring to mention Driscoll’s name with such illustrious company — for Driscoll has proven himself simply another Reformed megachurch pastor who happens to be edgy. Bell decided to catch up with the Episcopal Church in affirming universal salvation and gay marriage. Oh, yes, Peter Rollins; he seems not really to be a liberal simply because he is so very different. But he’s by no means anywhere within the boundaries of historic orthodoxy — he may be the only one to have succeeded in becoming a new kind of Christian.

When I first asked a couple of years ago the question, ‘What happened to the emerging/emergent church?’, I found a video on YouTube of one less-famous member chatting with a slightly more famous guy. The less famous emergent guy had emerged into Roman Catholicism, and the other had turned out a Pelagian who rejected the Nicene Creed not on any logical grounds but on the highly individualist notion that the men who wrote it had to place telling him what to believe. It was a strange conversation to watch.

So it seems that in trying to embrace postmodernism, many associated with emergent have ended up modern(ist) in one way or another — the individualistic Pelagian who also rejects Nicaea; the guy who bailed out and became Catholic; the Reformed pastor; the guys who are really not so different from the liberal mainline, itself a product of modernity.

This, of course, is no surprise. Contrary to all the exciting things being said in the first 46 pages of A New Kind of Christian (this is as far as I have got), postmodernism was simply a self-critique of modernism, which is what modernism has been doing for most of its existence. The idea that postmodernism may actually simply be an outgrowth of the modern mindset, that it may actually be modernism dressed up in fancy, new jargon, first came to my attention in a 2009 or 2010 issue of Adbusters. Since then, I’ve seen or heard of a growing critique of postmodernism.

So McLaren, et al., for all that I know their books helped a lot of Christians work through important issues and critique the modern church, failed at becoming a new kind of Christian.

I realise this post is already long-ish, but my other thought, a thought that also inspired the title, and one which I hope to explore further, is that perhaps an old kind of Christian is what we need, but neither a modern(ist) one nor, indeed, an irrecoverable pre-modern one. Brian Walsh and others have dug into those of us who think that we should hunt down pre-modern Christianity to find moorage in the sea of postmodernity. (Brian Walsh has also succeeded in slowly drifting in liberalism in his embrace of the postmodern; where are the orthodox postmoderns?) Rather, I think of a spirit-infused prophet of old who has drunk deeply of the Fathers and can body forth for us in our current context, be in post- or not, the ancient, medieval, Byzantine and even (gasp!) modern wisdom the Spirit has poured into the Church.

One may argue that that kind of Christian sounds like a postmodern Christian as imagined 18 years ago. The difference is that, unlike a Peter Rollins who provides a long-running critique of the whole Christian project, or McLaren who doesn’t really seem to understand the medieval world (or didn’t, back in 2001 when he wrote this book, based on how he uses Lewis’ The Discarded Image), this is someone from within the tradition who embraces it, is infused with it, and loves it to bursting, because the tradition is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth, because the tradition is the Holy Spirit at work in the world of men, because the tradition is the life story of the Body of Christ.

Postmodernism, that is, late stage modernity in its current manifestation, has a liking for story and song. Is tradition not simply the story of the church? Is it not the song sung by the Spirit in His people over these long years? Let us go deep into the Christian tradition, East and West, and prayerfully seek the wisdom of the mystics and liturgists and saints and poets and theologians who have brought us here, and use them as guides to bring us to Christ.

It is Christ who will lead us onward.

Family Traditions

Today we dedicated our youngest son at church (our current church is not Anglican, and they don’t baptise infants). For the event, he was decked out in style. 1890s style:

This is the same gown that his brother was baptised in. And three of his cousins. And me and my siblings. And some cousins. And my dad and his generation. And my granny. And my granny’s granny. I forget if it goes back farther. It is a real-live family heirloom.

It is tradition.

This is probably the most-used such item.

My dad has my great-great-grandfather’s cope, and my great-grandfather’s hymn book, though. He also had some of my great-grandfather’s stoles, but they were getting worn out. My sister and I played our grandpa’s clarinet. My wife and I have been putting our sons in as many vintage outfits as possible, for example.

When I was confirmed, my Granddad gave me, as to his other grandchildren, a Book of Common Prayer, inscribed by him in calligraphy.

This prayer book and the gown represent important family traditions — not merely items, but objects connected to my family’s history of faith, our tradition of faith.

My sons have been baptised and dedicated in the same gown as myself and ten or eleven other relatives. This means that my wife and I have stood in public before our church and dedicated ourselves to God, vowing to raise our sons in the church, to teach them the ways of Christ, and to help bring them into the community of faith, to help them encounter the Triune God.

This means praying with them, taking them to church, reading the Bible with them. I am not sure what else, besides living our own lives of faithfulness. How do you help a small person encounter the immanent, transcendent God?

In doing this, we are part of a great family tradition, as my parents passed the faith on to me and my siblings, and their parents to them, and the generation before — back to before the Victorians stitched that baptismal gown.

The best of family traditions.

Some quotes from Vincent of Lerins

Just because.

On the polyvalence of Scripture:

But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason — because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation. (ch. 5)

Don’t preach heresy!

To preach any doctrine therefore to Catholic Christians other than what they have received never was lawful, never is lawful, never will be lawful: and to anathematize those who preach anything other than what has once been received, always was a duty, always is a duty, always will be a duty. (ch. 25)

Heresy is poison:

They have, in fact swallowed a quantity of poison — not enough to kill, yet more than can be got rid of; it neither causes death, nor suffers to live. O wretched condition! With what surging tempestuous cares are they tossed about! One while, the error being set in motion, they are hurried wherever the wind drives them; another, returning upon themselves like refluent waves, they are dashed back: one while, with rash presumption, they give their approval to what seems uncertain; another, with irrational fear, they are frightened out of their wits at what is certain, in doubt whither to go, whither to return, what to seek, what to shun, what to keep, what to throw away. (ch. 49)

They do, in fact, what nurses do when they would prepare some bitter draught for children; they smear the edge of the cup all round with honey, that the unsuspecting child, having first tasted the sweet, may have no fear of the bitter. So too do these act, who disguise poisonous herbs and noxious juices under the names of medicines, so that no one almost, when he reads the label, suspects the poison. (ch. 65)

The goal of church councils:

Finally, what other object have Councils ever aimed at in their decrees, than to provide that what was before believed in simplicity should in future be believed intelligently, that what was before preached coldly should in future be preached earnestly, that what was before practised negligently should thenceforward be practised with double solicitude? (ch. 59)

Looking for orthodoxy with Vincent of Lérins

So on the weekend, I read Vincent of Lérins’ Commonitorium. This fifth-century (ca. 432-440) text is famous for stating that catholic truth is that which has been believed always, everywhere, by all. This is probably all most people ever hear about the text, quoted with swelling chest by a certain breed of traditionalist, queried with raised eyebrow by those who are pretty sure this is a pretty useless approach to finding truth in real life.

I, personally, was more interested when he got talking about Christology. (No big surprise there!) But, since Vincent is more famous for his quest for catholic truth, I’ll write a pair of posts about the Lerinian monk, starting with the quest for orthodoxy.

First, the early fifth-century context. I’ve written about it a bit more fully here, but what you need to know is that monasticism is kicking off in a big way in southern Gaul (southern France) where Vincent lived, a few decades after the death of St Martin up north in Tours (Tours, on the Loire, is on the cusp of northern Gaul — they still have wine, though!). The island of Lérins (near Cannes and the beach) was a major centre for the ascetic life, and several Gallic bishops started off their ecclesiastical careers as Lerinian monks. Down the coast from Lérins is Marseilles, and around this time John Cassian’s famous works on the ascetic life were being published.

The predestinarian debate is going on in Gaul, starting to enter the phase where people we today call ‘semi-Pelagian’ are being challenged for not being Augustinian enough, including Cassian, Vincent, and the future abbot of Lérins and bishop of Riez, Faustus. Fun fact: All three are saints, so maybe we should cool our heresy-hunting predestinarian horses. Anyway, this debate leaves little trace in Vincent.

Vincent is more concerned about Christology. Off in Ephesus, the Bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, had been condemned as a heretic in a council led by Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, about which Vincent has knowledge. The condemnation of Nestorius at Ephesus in 431 is not, of course, the end of the story, not even for the 430s. Various letters are going back and forth, East and West, about the easterners who reject Cyril’s council, until a reunion between Alexandria and Antioch happens in 433, although there’s still some simmering on both sides afterwards.

Anyway: Orthodoxy. How do we know it? Obviously, it’s a hot topic in Vincent’s day, all this talk about predestination and whether Jesus was two persons or not.

The two most important things for Vincent are fidelity to Scripture and fidelity to tradition (ch. 4). He argues for the importance of tradition on the grounds that most heretics use the Bible in their defense (ch. 5). Even in small disputes, this is worth noting, as when I explained to a Presbyterian friend that episcopal hierarchy isn’t actually contrary to Scripture. (By ‘small’, I mean Presbyterians aren’t heretics.) The appeal to Scripture alone doesn’t necessarily help you against the Arian or the Origenist, does it? Thus: Tradition!

Vincent goes on to demonstrate times when you lean on antiquity when confronted by error and times when you put your weight on the testimony of the majority. He demonstrates novelty with the examples of the Donatists and Arians. The modern historian will point out that Donatists and Arians would claim that they taught nothing novel, but I do think that pure Arianism, in fact, by stating its case baldly, is a departure from antiquity, from the liturgical expression of the Church, from the (at leas) binitarian nature of biblical worship.

Donatism is actually a better example of the minority. If all the churches of the Mediterranean except for a small number in Africa go one way, are we to believe that the Africans are right? Of course, what about that time everybody was (semi-)Arian after the council of Rimini? Well, that’s why antiquity also helps. Hold them in tension, you should be able to figure it out.

Vincent also talks about why and how heresies arise. Why? Heretics are God’s way of testing the church. They are also a reminder not to be proud. Even Origen and Tertullian fell, after all. How? By not holding fast to antiquity, universality, and consensuality. By trusting in their own cleverness. Through pride. This is how heretics arise.

It’s a worthy warning for we who think ourselves clever when he pulls out Origen and Tertullian. Now, we may want to nuance both of these condemnations. (Like, was Tertullian actually a Montanist?) But still. We shouldn’t be over wise (Ecclesiastes 7:16).

The question is: What does all of this have to do with us?

First, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The consent of the 318 fathers at Nicaea, for example, when coupled with First Constantinople, First Ephesus, and Chalcedon, should have some weight in the question of, ‘Is Jesus fully God?’ We don’t have to recreate the doctrine of the Trinity from scratch — Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, and the Cappadocians have already been there and done that.

But Vincent’s approach does leave room for exploration. He has this idea of putting together your own little anthology of patristic greatest hits to help you on your way. (I suspect that this is what his Excerpta are.) He wants his readers to be delving into the works of the Fathers, not simply accepting the dogmatic formulae of the councils.

Bare dogma is not theology. It is a picture frame — sometimes a very ornate frame. Theology is the picture. (My image, not his.)

Second, this approach helps us test new-seeming ideas. I’m too tired to articulate anything here. Sorry.

The general idea is: Test the spirits. Use Scripture and tradition as tools when you come up against something you aren’t sure about. Does it fit in the picture frame of the statements from the councils? Can you find it in older writings? Is it counter to older writings? Do a lot of people in your communion believe this?

Finally, I don’t think it will work beyond the individual believer, because I’m an Anglican from Canada. I’ve already seen schisms in my lifetime because some rejected universality, others antiquity, and no consensus was available.

Anglo-Patristics

I’m sure someone has beat me to it, but I recently coined the term ‘Anglo-Patristic’ while thinking about what I would do if I ended up a theologian (instead of a philologist). Basically, as I imagined my work on dogmatic theology (not systematic, I don’t do academic systematics [whew!]), it was, in some ways, inspired by the Neo-Patristic works discussed by Andrew Louth’s Modern Orthodox Thinkers, or the Ressourcement and evangelical ressourcement stuff I’ve read — but the BCP, John Donne, and Lancelot Andrews kept invading.

So –Anglo-Patristic.

That is, it would be theology drawing deep from the resources of the Great Tradition, producing a synthesis of the Fathers on the important matters of the faith, yet bringing in resources of the Anglican tradition.

Why would anyone want this, you may ask?

Well, no matter how I go about things, I turn up Anglican. Perhaps a bit East-leaning. But Anglican, nonetheless. And when I consider the  triple schism of North American Anglicans and the impending one in England, I see the value of patristic wisdom not only for a rebirth of orthodoxy (as discussed by Thomas C. Oden) but also for a deepening of the faith within the evangelical and charismatic wings.

And, thus, maybe a way for liberals, catholics, evangelicals, and charismatics to find a richness in the Christian tradition without tearing each other apart and without jumping ship to the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Baptists, or Pentecostals, as many are tempted to do. As many have done.

I guess because it appeals to me, I figure it would appeal to other people. To those who pray with Anglican liturgies, read Anglican lectionaries, revel in George Herbert or John Donne, who are also cognizant of being part of a rich theological tradition running from Ignatius and Clement through Athanasius and Augustine on to Anselm and Aquinas up through Hooker and Andrews to O’Donovan and Williams. For those whose spirituality includes John Mason Neale hymns and maybe also Steve Bell. For those of us who read Malcolm Guite and realise that Anglican spirituality can drink from the well of the Fathers as well as of the metaphysical poets.

An Anglo-Patristic synthesis is eminently Anglican. Nay, English, even — from Aldhelm, from Bede’s patristic commentaries, through Lanfranc and Anselm, Alexander de Hales, Robert Grosseteste, Alexander Neckham, let alone the actual Anglicans who have been immersed in the Fathers, whether Cranmer or Andrews or Jewel or Hooker or Parker, not to mention the turncoat John Wesley, on to young Anglican theologians and scholars I am glad to call my friends who study Augustine, Eustathius of Antioch, Athanasius.

If philology doesn’t work out, I know what I’ll do.