Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 1

Posted: July 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 1

1.  First the intellect marvels when it reflects on the absolute infinity of God, that boundless sea for which it longs so much. Then it is amazed at how God has brought things into existence out of nothing. But just as ‘His magnificence is without limit’ (Ps. 145:3. LXX), so ‘there is no penetrating His purposes’ (Isa. 40:28).

I want to note something in this text that’s somewhat tangential. I’ve often encountered a modern idea that the ancient “Greek” fathers twisted the Christian tradition they received into something else through the influence of  Greek philosophy. (I’ll note that St. Ephraim, St. Isaac, and many others weren’t actually Greek at all. They are called “Greek” fathers, I believe, because they wrote in Greek.) Yet above we see St. Maximos referring to the ex nihilo act of creation by God. That stands in sharp contrast to pagan Greek philosophy. Yes, they used the terms available to them in the language of their time. We do the same today. The words we have are our available tools. But they used that language to fight against Greek philosophy and Christian heresies in those areas where they did not conform to the faith that had been handed down to them. If you actually read the fathers, you can’t help but see that truth. It permeates their writings.

Reflecting on St. Maximos’ text for today, all I can say is go read Colossians. If your mind doesn’t marvel and your heart (nous) isn’t at least momentarily stilled in wonder, I’m not sure you’ve allowed yourself to truly understand what it says.


Mary 15 – Annunciation of the Theotokos

Posted: February 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 

Annunciation of the Theotokos

 

This feast, celebrated on December 8, is called the Feast of the Immaculate Conception within the Roman Catholic Church. The feast in both traditions celebrates the conception of Mary. However, it’s not one of the twelve Great Feast in Orthodoxy, but it is a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, which places a greater emphasis on the feast.

The Catholic feast name actually marks a point in dogma (at least since 1854) on which the Catholic church differs pretty significantly from the Orthodox. Here is the Catholic definition of the dogma from Ineffabilus Deus issued by Pope Pious IX.

We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.

The Orthodox have no issue with the idea that the Theotokos lived a blameless life and that she lived a life filled with the Holy Spirit. The problem, however, lies in their difference with Catholicism over the definition and meaning of the ancestral sin. Notably, they do not believe that the ancestral sin is passed along genetically as a burden of guilt as the doctrine of original sin requires. As such, in the Orthodox perspective all infants are born blameless and untainted by any guilt. However, we are all born mortal, subject to death and all the evil and brokenness in the world.

Once you understand that view, it’s easy to see that it is necessary that Mary and later Jesus be born fully as one of us.  As an often-quoted saying about the Incarnation of our Lord states, “That which is not assumed is not healed.” Jesus inherited the fullness of our nature from his mother. He became sarx or flesh. It’s not the general term for body, which was soma.  From what I understand, it could be translated meat. He became mortal and subject to everything we suffer. Because he was also God before the Ages, the Incarnate Word, he was able to remain faithful where we fail and thus heal humanity and grant us the possibility of union with God.

I’m not Orthodox, but it’s my understanding that the Orthodox perceive the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as something Catholics have added to the faith and, as such, it’s a problem for them. Despite the doctrinal difference, the feast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos is still an important Orthodox feast even though it’s not one of the Great Feasts.

One thing I’ve noticed about many Protestants is that they almost seem to view Mary as little more than a “vessel” for the Incarnation. It’s as though they believe Mary simply served a biological function and any other vessel would have sufficed. In other words, if Mary hadn’t worked out, God would have just picked another vessel to bear the Word. (In reality, I believe that was actually a part of one of the ancient heresies that’s found new life today.) There’s no indication anywhere that’s true. Mary’s ‘yes‘ to God heals Eve’s ‘no.’ Nowhere is there any hint that God had a Plan B. Moreover, Mary did not merely give birth to Jesus. She raised him. She taught him. She loved him as his mother and shaped his human formation. That’s simply amazing if you allow yourself to think about it. We see in Jesus’ first recorded proclamation in the synagogue echoes of the Magnificat.

No, if Jesus is important to us, then Mary has to be. I don’t see any alternative.

 


Mary 3 – Virgin Birth

Posted: January 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 3 – Virgin Birth

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”

And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”

Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)

Take a moment to read the text above again. It often seems to me that many Christians have become so familiar with it, they miss its impact. There are a number of points to note. First, the angel, a messenger of God and presumably speaking with God’s voice, calls Mary highly favored and blessed among women. Later, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth calls Mary (and the fruit of her womb) blessed. Mary, also under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, even prophesies that all generations (except many modern Protestants, apparently) will call her blessed.

Why?

Without having sex with a man, the angel tells Mary she will conceive a child through the power of the Highest and that child will be called the Son of God. This is central to Christian belief. Jesus was not just a special human being used by God. We believe him to be the Dabar Yahweh, the Word of God, made flesh. His eternal, divine nature is joined to a fully human, mortal nature through the agency and with the active cooperation of Mary.

Make no mistake, there is no evidence in Scripture or any other source that Mary was merely a vessel and that any such vessel would have sufficed. There is no evidence or indication that a ‘plan B‘ existed. Mary’s consent and cooperation with God were essential. There is a strong thread of ancient theology which calls Mary the new Eve. As her son, Jesus, is typologically compared to the first Adam, so Mary’s ‘yes’ to God is seen as healing Eve’s ‘no’ to God. ‘Eve’, of course, means life or life-giver as ‘Adam’ means man or mankind. Through her ‘yes’ to God, Mary consents to give life to he who as the new Adam joins the nature of God to the nature of man, defeats death on our behalf, and gives true and lasting life to humanity.

And her ‘yes’ required a courage that should be clearer after my previous post on honor-shame cultures. Mary certainly recognized that she would be perceived as having engaged in adulterous sex and she knew the shame and dishonor that she and her family would experience. She knew she could be killed, but trusted in God nonetheless.

And Joseph was also courageous and faithful. The text tells us that he was righteous, but I think most miss the true import of that phrase. Being named ‘tsadiq’ or righteous in his honor-shame culture was a big deal. He was counted among the ‘tsadiqim’ and much honor accrued from that. Having a betrothed become pregnant was shaming enough, when he was instructed to marry her anyway, that meant giving up his standing as ‘tsadiq’ and assuming a name of shame instead. But Joseph was faithful to God first. He counted God’s honor as more important than his own. It’s important to understand that about Joseph.

I recognize there are many today who choose not to belief in the virgin birth, but who do still call themselves Christian. All I can say is that those who have done so have redefined Christianity to an extent that their version of Christianity is discontinuous from any historical or traditional strand of Christian belief. There are many ways people do that today, and it’s one of the reasons modern ‘Christianity’ is so confusing. There are thousands upon thousands of sects which, if you dig even a little below the surface, hold outright contradictory beliefs, but which all still call themselves Christian in some sense. If you do not believe in the virgin birth, but you do believe that Jesus was in some sense the divine Son of God (and if you don’t at least believe that, then it’s hard to see how your belief can still be labeled ‘Christian’), then of necessity you must believe that Jesus was a normal human male child who at some point after conception was in some sense divinized. That’s actually one of the ancient heresies reborn in slightly different clothes.

However, this is a dogma on which most Christians agree. It’s even incorporated in the Nicene Creed, with which I think I’ll close this post. Hopefully I’ve provided some food for thought.

I believe in one God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages; Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.

And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; of His kingdom there shall be no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the prophets.

In one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church;

I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins;

I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.

Amen.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 25

Posted: March 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 25

57. With regard to Christ, we do not speak of a distinction of persons, because the Trinity remained a Trinity after the incarnation of the Logos. A fourth person was not added to the Holy Trinity as a result of the incarnation. We speak of a distinction of natures to avoid asserting that the flesh is coessential in its nature with the Logos.

This text and the next several following become very technical and precise and the effort to translate them into English while preserving their meaning leaves them a little stilted. But I want to include them because they are some of the clearest statements not only on the Trinity, but on the way the Incarnation fits into our understanding. If you have studied the history of the Church, you will hear echoes of lessons learned from past heresies in these texts by St. Maximos.

Christ is not two persons. He was one person, the Son, before the Incarnation and he remains one person. The Trinity is still a Trinity. However, as embodied human beings, we are not of the same essence or nature as God. So the flesh Christ assumed was our nature and that nature retains its distinct human essence. It is not overwhelmed by the divine essence nor does it mingle with it. Monophysitism had held that Christ had one nature. While it was expressed in different ways, the primary expression was that the divine nature had absorbed the human nature, so that only the divine nature remained. This concept is hard to grasp and it’s made harder because we don’t really have the words in English that precisely correlate with the Greek words actually used. Nestorius, in an earlier heresy, had emphasized the disunion between the human and the divine nature to the extent that he described two persons, a human Jesus and a divine Christ.

The actual Christian understanding of Christ has always been found between those two poles and in these texts we see that understanding articulated.


The Jesus Prayer 5 – Energies of God

Posted: February 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 5 – Energies of God

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

It’s not possible to delve very far into Orthodoxy without encountering the concepts of essence and energies. The development of that language goes all the way back to at least the fourth century, though in truth we see elements of it in the texts of the Holy Scriptures themselves. This language for describing God is an attempt to describe the indescribable in a way that helps us understand how we can be one with God (and each other) as the Father and the Son are one. Thus the concepts are ultimately rooted in the Incarnation. Many of the major disputes over the course of the first millenium of Christianity were specifically focused on the Incarnation itself. The great heresies either made Christ less than God or other than fully human.

His [Christ’s] entry into human life began the healing and restoration of that life. What’s more, if God could take on human form, our bodies are capable of bearing God’s presence in return. An ordinary human body can literally become a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). That can sound alarming — wouldn’t God’s presence destroy my feeble frame? — but Eastern Christians frequently draw an analogy to the burning bush. Just as Moses saw that the bush burned with God’s fire but was not consumed, so God’s presence can fill us while preserving — even completing — our embodied personhood.

As always, we have to remember that God is always everywhere present and filling all things. All creation is filled with the fire of the glory of God. It’s that light which sustains it. And just as Christ became man and remained God, we can be infused with the Spirit in our bodies without being destroyed.

Oddly enough, the word energy occurs frequently in St. Paul’s letters; he says, for example, “God is energon [energizing] in you, both to will and to energein [energize] for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Energy is a word we imported into English directly from the Greek. But there was not equivalent for this word in Latin, so in his masterful translation of the Bible, St. Jerome (AD 347-420) used operare, that is, “operate” or “work.” When the Bible began to be published in English, its translators stood at the end of a thousand years of devout reading, preaching, and studying the Bible in Latin translation. Our English Bibles refer to God “working,” not “energizing,” but isn’t there a difference? If we hear that God’s energy is within us, then union with him becomes more imaginable.

It’s a good example of the way language can deeply influence understanding and practice. Latin also lacked a word for the Greek concept often rendered in English as “repent.” So it was rendered as “do penance.” Over time, that had a profound effect on the belief and practice in the West.  It’s the same thing here. The idea of God “working” or “operating” made it seem more external and eventually led to the idea that these operations were not God himself, but creations of God we could experience. I’m not an expert, but I think this was part of the root behind the idea of created grace and similar Western concepts.

Instead, the energies of God are uncreated and just as much God as our hands and mouth and eyes are part of our being. When we experience the grace of God, we experience God himself — directly and unmediated by any created thing. It is true we can never know the essence of God. God transcends us. But in truth, we can’t truly and directly know the essence — the core being — of any other person either, even though they are finite, created beings. Instead we know them through their actions, words, expressed emotions — through their bodies. But we would never say that we do not know or experience other human beings as a result. In a similar way (God, of course transcends any direct statement), we truly know God through his energies. We can directly encounter him.

The Jesus Prayer is a way to help us toward that true encounter.


Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

Posted: January 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

At this point in the series, I want to apply the things already discussed to some aspects of modern biblical interpretation. I have at times encountered people and studies that delved deeply into the etymology, tense, or alternate usages of a specific individual word or phrase found in the text. In and of itself, there’s nothing particularly wrong with doing that. I have a love of language and its nuances myself. It’s not the sort of thing that many people necessarily find enjoyable, but I do and I understand others who do.

Nevertheless, it’s important to realize that when you break the text down to a specific word, there are potential problems. First, we don’t actually know for certain if the word we believe was used was precisely the one actually used. It could be a simple scribal error or it could be that as punctuation developed, a later scribe made a more subtle interpretive error like picking the wrong gender for a word. However, the original text itself was likely developed in synergy between an apostle who was not a native Greek speaker and a scribe who was more proficient at Greek. It’s the text as a whole that is most important, not the individual words chosen. Finally, we are all far removed from that culture. Language is always a dynamic interaction with the culture in which it was embedded. Words and phrases are not always used to mean what they would normally mean in another context.

None of that should detract from the joy some find in studying words and language, but it should raise a cautionary flag. When such study simply illuminates or expands the historic teaching and interpretation of the Church, it’s beneficial. It’s like St. John Chrysostom drawing a spiritual point from two variant renderings of a text. There isn’t really even a problem with such study providing a novel interpretation as long as that novel interpretation remains consistent with the historic framework of Christian faith and practice.

However, I have seen such word study used — both historically and in the present — to promote an interpretation that contradicts the historic framework of Christian belief and interpretation. At that point, you have to make a choice. Will I believe this new thing I have discovered — either directly or through a teacher? There is and has always been an attraction toward special knowledge for most human beings. You can trace the thread of that temptation through many Christian heresies and schisms over the centuries. We like the feeling that we have special knowledge or insight that others lack. I tend to be suspicious any time I can track a specific belief or practice to an individual or group who broke from the larger Christian strand over that belief or practice with their own unique interpretation supporting it.

Christianity cannot be constructed (or reconstructed) from the Holy Scriptures alone. I’m not sure any faiths can simply be constructed from scratch using nothing but their sacred texts, but I’ve never delved deeply into some of the other religions like Islam, so I’ll reserve judgment. But Christianity cannot be so constructed. Christianity flows from an oral culture and is centered around the experience and proclamation of the singular event of the Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus of Nazareth and the coming of the Holy Spirit. (Some Fathers describe the Word and the Spirit as the two hands of God.)

Some of that oral tradition is captured in the texts of of the New Testament, but much of it is not. Moreover, what Christians call the Old Testament is almost useless apart from that tradition. In the teachings of Jesus, the first sermon of Peter, and continuing all the way through to the second century Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching by St. Irenaeus of Lyons we see the Old Testament radically reinterpreted in the light of the fullness of the revelation of Christ. St. Justin wrote to the Rabbi Trypho that the Jews read the Scriptures without understanding because they do not acknowledge Christ. The tradition of that reinterpretation must be transmitted because it cannot be reconstructed from the text alone.

Either the Apostolic tradition of interpretation has been continuously maintained or it is lost and the Church failed. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing against the gnostic heretics, made the following point about their use of the Scriptures, which is worth always keeping in mind.

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.

How, then did the Church maintain the proper and beautiful image of the king? He wrote about that as well.

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

In other words, the Church in its unity of faith has received the apostolic preaching and carefully preserves it. All the churches in every country and in every language do not believe or hand down anything different. Whatever else we might say about it, one thing is clear to me. Protestantism has failed to do that. Completely, utterly, and it seems to me beyond all argument or dispute. And much of that disintegration has hinged on interpretation. People have taken a tile or a group of tiles from the mosaic and they have arranged them in a different way. The more charismatic or otherwise convincing ones have been able to get others to accept their new arrangement of the tiles as the true mosaic.

Trace the threads of the interpretations you believe whether you received them from others or have found them for yourself. If you cannot trace those interpretations and the beliefs and practices they support back to an apostolic origin, I would suggest you consider why you believe that particular interpretation. It doesn’t matter how well you can logically support your interpretation. The texts of the Holy Scriptures are a mosaic and can be fit together to teach a great many things quite reasonably. (If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t have had so many heretical and schismatic groups from the early first century on nor would Protestantism have splintered into more than thirty thousand separate denominations and non-denominations.) Can the thread of that interpretation be supported historically or not? If not, you have a mosaic, but not necessarily the true mosaic of Christ.


Thirsting for God 6 – History

Posted: December 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 6 – History

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

It seems to me that in his journey, it took Matthew Gallatin a lot longer than it took me to turn to history. That’s really something that continues to surprise me in all facets of life — how little most people seem to look to history. I’ve had a love of history of all sorts — especially ancient history — for virtually my whole life. When I explored a religion or practice within a religion, it had always been normal for me to dive into its history. So my encounter with modern Christianity was always two-pronged. On the one hand, as I learned what modern groups taught and practiced, anachronisms — things that could not have fit in the context of the ancient world — tended to leap out at me. At the same time, I was reading and discovering what the actual ancient beliefs and practices were.

As Matthew Gallatin began to study the ancient Church, rulership (in the form of Bishops) was obvious. But the rulership of one man (the Pope of Rome) can’t readily be found. That was a problem for him when he considered Catholicism. (The actual basis for it flows from the fact that the West was largely frontier and was all part of one ancient See — that of Rome. As politics and other circumstances began to divide the See of Rome from the rest of the ancient patriarchates and as increasing chaos developed in the West, the Pope became a rock of stability in that patriarchate. Even though Rome was not the oldest patriarchate or even the oldest associated with Peter and Paul, it had always been accorded a special honor because of the importance of the city in geopolitical terms. From the hindsight offered by a historical perspective, it’s fairly easy to see the interplay develop over centuries.)

However, his main problem with all Western churches, Catholicism included, was the same one I always had. Love had drawn me inexorably into Christianity. And I felt powerfully drawn to the Jesus I read in the New Testament. But I was always repelled by the various Western doctrines of the atonement. As a rule, they all hold that Jesus was offering some sort of payment to the Father on the Cross — that for one reason or another, God had to be paid off. God had a problem with the very forgiveness he demanded from his followers. But at the same time that I was hearing these modern ideas, I was reading St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius — who offer a very different picture of what Christ was doing. I read St. Gregory the Theologian who flatly rejected the idea that Jesus was offering payment to either the Devil or to the Father. I believed in their God, not the one I was hearing from both the Protestant and Roman Catholic sides of the debate. For me, it would be years before I discovered that Orthodoxy actually still believed what the ancient Church had believed, so I largely set that to one side. I refused to accept the picture of a God who had to paid or satisfied, but I didn’t really know what to do with that rejection.

Beyond that, by studying history Matthew quickly discovered several things about the ancient Church.

  1. From Pentecost on, the worship of the Church was liturgical, not spontaneous of free-form.
  2. Early Church worship centered on the Eucharist or Communion. … In fact, one of the earliest heresies in the Church was the teaching that the bread and wine were not the real Body and Blood of the Lord.
  3. The early Church honored departed saints as members of the Church who are alive and worshiping in heaven.
  4. Infant baptism was the standard practice in the Church and was recognized as a doctrine received from the Apostles.

There is much more you can discover, of course. But the above are clearly true. We can even trace much of the first part of the liturgy leading up to the Eucharist to the liturgical synagogue worship from which they were adapted.

In the New Testament, Paul exhorts “the believers in Thessalonica to stand fast and hold to the traditions that they had been taught — those that came through epistles, and the many that came directly from the mouths of the Apostles.” In Ephesians, he says the Apostles (not Scripture) form the “foundation” of the Church. Paul writes to Timothy that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. Either the proper worship, practice, and truth about Jesus of Nazareth has been preserved in the historical Church, or it’s lost and like a mosaic shattered into a pile of tiles, I see no way to somehow reconstruct it.

To know what is the truth, therefore, does not first require theological interpretation of the Book. Rather, it simply takes looking at the actual beliefs, practices, and experiences of the Church of which Christ is the Head, which the Apostles served, lived out on the pages of history.


Reflections on Resurrection 5 – The Physical World Is Good

Posted: November 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 5 – The Physical World Is Good

Resurrection affirms a simple truth. The physical material world around us is fundamentally a good creation of God — and that includes our bodies.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the way many American Christians perceive reality today. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of Christians perceive this body as a prison from which we need to escape. And at least some Christians see this world as something evil that God is going to one day destroy. Neither of these are accurate perceptions and are even reminiscent of some of the most ancient Christian heresies — which held (to oversimplify) that spirit was good and matter was evil.

Our bodies are not prisons we escape. Christianity does not promise a future as spirit like Plato’s happy philosophers. Rather, resurrection is the story of a renewed embodied humanity caring for a renewed physical creation. If we deny the goodness of the material creation, we deny the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. From the Christian perspective, our bodies will be ours forever and the physical, tangible actions we take in and through our bodies have eternal significance. Our actions matter.

Hinduism offers a very different and contrasting narrative. (I have to make my standard disclaimer. It’s not possible to truly reduce the Indian or Vedic religions or paths to a single convenient label. Nor is it possible to summarize without caricaturing that richly diverse and complex tapestry. So anything I write here will be vastly oversimplified. Still I think some of the underlying contrasts offer insights worth considering in this discussion.) It carries the sense that we are ruled by the illusion of a material world distinct from the spiritual reality. That illusion is personified as Maya. Now, Maya is not false or evil, just as Brahman would not be considered good or true. The illusion itself has its own reality, but we should learn to see through it truly. Spirit is the knower of the field and matter is the field. The former is superior and the latter inferior. In a sense, the material reality is illusion and through our inability to see truly, we are trapped on the wheel of suffering.

Once again, that’s so oversimplified it’s almost a caricature, but I think the contrast is helpful. What is real? In many systems, there is a division between spiritual and material. It could be the division of Platonic (or neoplatonic) systems in which the material imprisons the spiritual. Or the material could be more illusory and the underlying reality is purely spiritual. Or, in the case of materialists, all is material and the spiritual is denied.

The Christian perspective holds a different dividing lens to reality. The true division is between the created and the Uncreated — and only God is in the latter category. The created includes both the material and the spiritual. Moreover, it’s a good creation. Yes, it is marred and broken by the freedom God grants creation — the freedom to love and the freedom to despise. (It’s silly to assert that all was right with creation before some archetype of mankind sinned. We are told that even before man existed some of the spiritual beings in creation had turned against God.) It’s a freedom of response that appears woven into the fabric of creation itself. Christianity proclaims the fundamental reality and goodness of both the spiritual and the material. And resurrection is the crowning glory of its rescue and renewal.

If you are Christian, pay attention to the way your tradition speaks about creation and about our own bodies. What is the underlying thread? Is it affirmation or despite? Have we lost sight of what the Incarnation and Resurrection mean?


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 5

Posted: September 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 5

9.  The wrath of God is the painful sensation we experience when we are being trained by Him. Through this painful  experience of unsought sufferings God often abases and humbles an intellect conceited about its knowledge and virtue; for such sufferings make it conscious of itself and its own weakness. When the intellect perceives its own weakness it rejects the vain pretensions of the heart.

The most important point I want to stress is that whatever we call the wrath of God is always an expression of his love. Our God is love and a love so sublime and unutterably wonderful that the divine Son — the Logos — the one through whom everything that is was made and in whom all is sustained, became fully and truly one of us. This is the God who is not willing that any should perish. This is the God who is life.

It’s true that the first two councils that we now recognize as ecumenical were primarily defending against attack on the full divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But that has been more the exception than the rule. From the late first century and second century docetists and gnostics to the heresies that were the subject of the other five ecumenical councils, it’s usually been the humanity of Jesus that has been attacked. I sense the same sort of spirit today in a lot of evangelicalism. It often seems that the Incarnation is reduced to little more than a form upon which the Father can vent his wrath. Everything centers on the Cross. The Incarnation is an almost pro forma precursor and the Resurrection is reduced to an afterthought.

The Cross is, of course, the instrument of our salvation, but it only has meaning in the full context of the wonder of the Incarnation and in the light of the Resurrection. But if Jesus was not fully human in every way, if he did not become fully and truly one of us in order to heal us, and if he did not defeat death — destroy Hades as it is poetically stated — in the Resurrection, then our nature is not healed or capable of being healed and we are not saved. That which is not assumed is not healed.

So every time we consider wrath, we have to consider it in that context. We have tendency to confuse giving someone what they desire (or getting what we desire) with love. But the two are not the same at all. As Dallas Willard puts it, if we love someone it means we actively will their good. And what they desire — what we desire — is often not that which is for our good. Often our will is in the grip of those things we suffer — our passions. A heroin addict is ruled by their addiction. They might desire heroin with all their being. But would any of us consider it loving to give them what they desire?

Of course, even if we truly and actively will the good of one we love, we often have a very hard time discerning what would truly be for their good. Even if our efforts are not thwarted or twisted by our own passions, we often make mistakes. We will good, but we end up causing at least some harm. “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.” I know I have often done ill where I meant nothing but good.

God does not suffer from either of those limitations. He unfailingly wills our good. And he always knows what is for our good. His is love and all his acts are love — even if they feel like wrath. Thus, as I discussed in my series on Hell, the wrath and fire experienced by some is not actually anything different than the warmth and comfort others experience. Rather, that particular wrath is the experience of the fire of the unveiled love of God by those who do not want it.

Similarly, as St. Maximos points out in this text, the wrath we sometimes experience now is also God’s love. We experience it as wrath because we are not getting what we want. But if we are not getting what we desire, we need to recognize that’s probably because what we desire is actually our destruction. Sometimes (actually pretty often, I think) God is like a loving parent who allows us to experience the pain of our own choices so that we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Sometimes he does not mitigate the cross of undeserved suffering — but whatever it is, he has been there too and experienced it as well. Sometimes he does act to protect or heal. In neither case is it random or arbitrary.

The Christian recognizes that God is always acting from love and from his unwillingness that any of us should perish. We often cannot see the reasons. That’s especially true in the middle of suffering. Sometimes, perhaps years later, we can see the hand of God in hindsight. Sometimes we can’t. But if Jesus of Nazareth is who we believe him to be — the fully divine Son who becomes fully human in every way — then this is the God we worship.


Original Sin 16 – Healing the Nature of Man

Posted: March 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 16 – Healing the Nature of Man

As I began to knit Scripture together with its ancient Christian interpretations, the image that likely sealed my turn toward Christianity was the image of recapitulation first found in the work St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies. His imagery of recapitulation follows St. Paul’s typology of Adam and Christ.

[Christ became man], in order that, as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one; and as through a man death received the palm [of victory] against us, so again by a man we may receive the palm against death.

Or perhaps my turn was sealed when I read Athanasius who in On the Incarnation of the Word wrote, “For He was made man that we might be made God.” Or perhaps it was Paul who in Romans 8, Ephesians, and Colossians described a vision of a work of God in Christ redeeming creation, summing up all that is in Christ, and doing it in and through and by love, that captured my heart as no other story about reality had ever done.

But at every point in my journey, I have been drawn to a God of love who became one of us, who was tempted in every way we are tempted, who endured all that we endure, in order to join his nature to ours and through that union restore us to life, bring us into communion with God, and redeem all that exists. That’s a God worthy of all worship and of all love. I would not say that about any other god.

And here is where the doctrine of original sin as inherited guilt creates a serious problem. For if Jesus was never condemned by God, then he could not have been born guilty. However, if his nature at conception did not carry the burden of inherited guilt and the nature of man is so burdened, then Jesus did not actually become fully human. He became instead something like a superhuman. He was not one of us. He walked above us instead instead of with us. Moreover, if he was not fully man, then his work cannot have truly healed man’s nature. St. Gregory of Nazianzus captures it beautifully in the simple statement, “What has not been assumed has not been healed.”

If Jesus was born with a different nature than the rest of mankind, then whatever else he accomplished, he could not recapitulate our lives on our behalf. He could, perhaps, purchase us. But having purchased us, he could not also heal us. He could not join our nature to God’s. There is a deep theological problem with the fundamental idea that we inherit guilt at birth as part of our human nature. It makes us other than Christ in our very nature. If Christ is not fully human, Christianity has nothing to offer — at least to me.