Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 6

Posted: August 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 6

13.  Whether or not a nature endowed with intelligence and intellect is to exist eternally depends on the will of the Creator whose every creation is good; but whether such a nature is good or bad depends on its own will.

First, we are contingent beings. We have no natural immortality. Thus our existence is not part of our nature in the sense that it is something we control. When Christ broke the chains of death he did so for all humanity. However, our acts for good or ill do depend on our will. In that sense we form part of our nature.


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.


Leo the Great of Rome, Homily 21, On the Nativity

Posted: December 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Leo the Great of Rome, Homily 21, On the Nativity

It seemed appropriate to me to share one of the great Nativity homilies on this Christmas Eve. May all who read enter into the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I. All share in the joy of Christmas

Our Savior, dearly-beloved, was born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is He come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life. For the Son of God in the fullness of time which the inscrutable depth of the Divine counsel has determined, has taken on him the nature of man, thereby to reconcile it to its Author: in order that the inventor of death, the devil, might be conquered through that (nature) which he had conquered. And in this conflict undertaken for us, the fight was fought on great and wondrous principles of fairness; for the Almighty Lord enters the lists with His savage foe not in His own majesty but in our humility, opposing him with the same form and the same nature, which shares indeed our mortality, though it is free from all sin. Truly foreign to this nativity is that which we read of all others, “no one is clean from stain, not even the infant who has lived but one day upon earth” (Job 19.4). Nothing therefore of the lust of the flesh has passed into that peerless nativity, nothing of the law of sin has entered. A royal Virgin of the stem of David is chosen, to be impregnated with the sacred seed and to conceive the Divinely-human offspring in mind first and then in body. And lest in ignorance of the heavenly counsel she should tremble at so strange a result , she learns from converse with the angel that what is to be wrought in her is of the Holy Ghost. Nor does she believe it loss of honor that she is soon to be the Mother of God. For why should she be in despair over the novelty of such conception, to whom the power of the most High has promised to effect it. Her implicit faith is confirmed also by the attestation of a precursory miracle, and Elizabeth receives unexpected fertility: in order that there might be no doubt that He who had given conception to the barren, would give it even to a virgin.

II. The mystery of the Incarnation is a fitting theme for joy both to angels and to men

Therefore the Word of God, Himself God, the Son of God who “in the beginning was with God,” through whom “all things were made” and “without” whom “was nothing made” (John 1.1-3), with the purpose of delivering man from eternal death, became man: so bending Himself to take on Him our humility without decrease in His own majesty, that remaining what He was and assuming what He was not, He might unite the true form of a slave to that form in which He is equal to God the Father, and join both natures together by such a compact that the lower should not be swallowed up in its exaltation nor the higher impaired by its new associate. Without detriment therefore to the properties of either substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality: and for the paying off of the debt, belonging to our condition, inviolable nature was united with possible nature, and true God and true man were combined to form one Lord, so that, as suited the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one and rise again with the other.

Rightly therefore did the birth of our Salvation impart no corruption to the Virgin’s purity, because the bearing of the Truth was the keeping of honor. Such then beloved was the nativity which became the Power of God and the Wisdom of God even Christ, whereby He might be one with us in manhood and surpass us in Godhead. For unless He were true God, He would not bring us a remedy, unless He were true Man, He would not give us an example. Therefore the exulting angel’s song when the Lord was born is this, “Glory to God in the Highest,” and their message, “peace on earth to men of good will” (Luke 2.14). For they see that the heavenly Jerusalem is being built up out of all the nations of the world: and over that indescribable work of the Divine love how ought the humbleness of men to rejoice, when the joy of the lofty angels is so great?

III. Christians then must live worthily of Christ their Head

Let us then, dearly beloved, give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit , Who “for His great mercy, wherewith He has loved us,” has had pity on us: and “when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together in Christ” (Ephesians 2.4-5), that we might be in Him a new creation and a new production. Let us put off then the old man with his deeds: and having obtained a share in the birth of Christ let us renounce the works of the flesh. Christian, acknowledge your dignity, and becoming a partner in the Divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct. Remember the Head and the Body of which you are a member. Recollect that you were rescued from the power of darkness and brought out into God’s light and kingdom. By the mystery of Baptism you were made the temple of the Holy Ghost: do not put such a denizen to flight from you by base acts, and subject yourself once more to the devil’s thralldom: because your purchase money is the blood of Christ, because He shall judge you in truth Who ransomed you in mercy, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit reigns for ever and ever. Amen.


Reflections on Resurrection 4 – Reincarnation

Posted: November 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I confess I was quite surprised when a recent Pew study revealed that 22% of American Christians believed in reincarnation. In fact, that’s probably one of the things that has been percolating in the back of mind leading to this present series. I don’t have a negative view of a belief in reincarnation in any of its forms. As I explained in the introductory post of this series, reincarnation was a significant facet in my childhood spiritual formation. And as an adult, before I found myself drawn into Christian faith, it was also a central component of my own belief system. For me, the view of reality (and what it means to be a human being) embedded within the concept reincarnation is better than all competing views with the notable exception of resurrection. If I ever ceased believing in the Christian narrative of resurrection, I have no doubt I would return to some belief system that incorporated reincarnation.

At it’s core, reincarnation presupposes that some essence of who and what you are (let’s call that your soul) existed and lived before your body was conceived and that same essence will endure after the death of your body. In some perspectives, that constant cycle is a central part of the problem and the goal is to bring the cycle to an end, typically through the release of your sense of individual identity and reunification with the greater whole. In other perspectives, the cycle of rebirth is positive and beautiful. However, this view requires some concept of the preexistence and the immortality of the soul. Something that is truly you must have existed before you were born and be independent of your physical body, so it can persist and animate a future body.

While I hold no animus toward the narrative of reincarnation and, indeed, think highly of it, I also recognize that it is utterly incompatible with the Christian narrative of resurrection. Christianity holds that we were created — body and soul — upon our conception. We had no preexistence and thus no former lives. Christianity shows us that we are integrated beings, that we are, in fact, our bodies — even if we also transcend our bodies in some sense. And Christianity proclaims that we will all be resurrected bodily in a manner continuous with the person we now are. Obviously, if we have had many lives and many bodies, such a proclamation is nonsense.

I don’t grasp what the 22% of American Christians who say they believe in reincarnation think Christianity teaches. I don’t see how they could believe in bodily resurrection unless, perhaps, they believe they get to pick which of their many bodies will be resurrected? That particular statistic baffles me. Resurrection and reincarnation just don’t mix.


Reflections on Resurrection 3 – Preexistence of the Soul

Posted: November 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 3 – Preexistence of the Soul

The preexistence of the soul refers to the understanding that our souls, as disembodied spirits of some sort, existed before our bodies existed. When this is combined with the understanding that our souls are naturally immortal (and it is almost always so combined),  we become possessors of eternal souls. Christianity, of course, confesses God as the only eternal, but I still sense that a lot of Christians today have some belief that their soul somehow existed before they were conceived.

Christianity teaches that we are each created embodied beings and we did not exist before we were conceived. Moreover, in some sense our creation is a synergy between God and our parents. The creation of a whole human being is a beautiful image — much more beautiful to me than the image of shaping a body for an existing spirit to inhabit.

Now, like the immortality of the soul, most people don’t directly talk about the preexistence of the soul. However, I do believe this perception of what it means to be a human being underlies some of the things that are more commonly expressed even among Christians today. I wanted to clearly identify both ideas before proceeding.


Reflections on Resurrection 2 – Immortality of the Soul

Posted: November 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 2 – Immortality of the Soul

It’s hard to decide how to organize this series. I know the outline of the topics I want to cover and the points I hope to make, but the topic does not readily lend itself to decomposition into blog post sized chunks. Nor is the best order in which to publish the various topics at all obvious. I picked the immortality of the soul as my starting point because this thread seems very strong in our culture today.

Of course, it’s tricky to even talk about the soul. What is the soul? What does that word reference? In ancient Hebrew thought (some of which we see in our Old Testament), for instance, the soul simply referred to the whole person. The center of the will was in the heart. The feelings were in the bowels. Life was in the blood. And human beings were also imbued in some sense with the breath from God. Human beings were understood as thoroughly embodied beings.

That’s not how the word is typically used today. Rather the soul is most often seen as purely spiritual. Moreover, this spiritual soul is understood as the real person separate from the body. Our bodies are then seen as mere vessels to contain our souls and separate from our being and identity. I once heard someone describe a modern neo-platonic professor they knew. Instead of saying that he was going for a walk, he would say that he was taking his body for a walk. While most people are not that precise in their language, I sense a thread much like that permeating a great deal of modern Christianity. Only if you perceive the true reality of a person as somehow separate and distinct from their body could you make the statement at a funeral that the body is not the person we have loved and that they have left their body behind like a discarded shell.

Therefore, it seems to me that when people today refer to the immortality of the soul, they usually mean the immortality of that disembodied spirit. And moreover, they seem to consider the spirit somehow naturally immortal. Then Christian faith is often reduced to a proposition regarding the fate of this naturally immortal soul.

And this gets a little tricky since Christianity does in a sense teach the immortality of the soul. However, Christianity does not teach that we are naturally immortal as a disembodied spirit. Rather, through the power of God in the union of the Word and our human nature in Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus’ defeat of death, it is no longer the nature of man to die. Hades or death has been emptied. But we have no being that is somehow separate from our bodies and our life flows from God. We have no independent immortality at all. Fortunately, God does not begrudge existence to any of his creation.

It’s a nuanced and, I think, important distinction from what I sense as the common understanding of our culture and that distinction will be important as we proceed through my reflections. That’s why I chose to begin here.


Original Sin 27 – Ancestral Sin

Posted: March 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 27 – Ancestral Sin

Ancestral sin is the term the Orthodox sometimes use to describe the biblical account of Adam. But there is no single term or description in the Eastern Church like we find in the West. No single idea came to dominate the East the way that Augustine’s idea of original sin as inherited guilt came to dominate Western thought and belief. That’s one of the reasons why, toward the beginning of this series I described my encounter with Eastern theology as a discovery that what I already believed about original sin fit within the spectrum of Eastern belief.

There is no way I can trace all the strains and strands of thought on this topic over the past twenty centuries in the Eastern Church. I’m sure I don’t even know them all myself. However, they do generally share a number of common elements and I’ll spend a little bit of time examining a few of them.

Before we begin to examine the ancestral sin, though, I think I want to start with one of the basic lens through which the Eastern Church views reality. Exploring it properly would take a series of its own, but it seems to me that an understanding of the ancestral sin is deeply linked to how you understand mankind’s fundamental problem which, by extension, is also creation’s problem.

In the West, mankind’s problem is seen primarily as guilt before God. We have broken some sort of law and as a result have besmirched God’s infinite honor or owe God an infinite debt. The controlling metaphor becomes the metaphor of the court, though when you push the metaphor you reach its limits pretty quickly and it begins to fall apart. Augustinian original sin, then, becomes a way to explain how every person is born guilty before God, for it is certainly true that we all share in the common plight of mankind from the moment of our birth.

In the East, however, mankind’s primary problem has always been recognized in our mortality and resulting bondage to the passions. Humanity’s problem is that we are enslaved to death and sin. Moreover, our bondage is not merely to a passive or impersonal force. The “prince of the power of the air” and all the other powers actively use the power of death and sin to rule us. The controlling metaphor is the metaphor of disease and slavery. The Church is the hospital for the sick. And Jesus is the one who liberated mankind from the bondage of sin and death. (This is, of course, why Moses is read as a type of Christ throughout the NT.)

As a result, the same sort of all-encompassing explanation that is needed in the West in order to explain how we can all be born guilty has never been needed in the East. We are, after all, born human. We are born mortal into a creation disordered by sin. That is almost self-evident. No other special condition is required.

In that light, the story of Adam can simply be read and understood the way that St. Paul reads it in Romans 5 — typologically. Adam is the type, in a negative sense, of Christ. And he represents (as his name indicates) mankind itself. We are born in Adam. We are born subject to death. We are reborn in Christ, with whom our life is hid in God.

Most notably, Christ was not paying a debt we owed to God on the Cross. Here, I believe it’s important to reflect on the words of St. Gregory the Theologian.

The question is: to whom was offered the blood that was shed for us, and why was it offered, this precious and glorious blood of our God, our high priest, our sacrifice? We were held captive by the evil one, for we had been ‘sold into the bondage of sin’ (Romans 7:14), and our wickedness was the price we paid for our pleasure. Now, a ransom is normally paid only to the captor, and so the question is: To whom was the ransom offered, and why? To the evil one? What an outrage! If it is supposed not merely that the thief received a ransom from God, but that the ransom is God himself – a payment for his act of arbitrary power so excessive that it certainly justified releasing us! If it was paid to the Father, I ask first, why? We were not held captive by him. Secondly, what reason can be given why the blood of the Only-begotten should be pleasing to the Father? For He did not accept even Isaac when he was offered by his father, but He gave a substitute for the sacrifice, a lamb to take the place of the human victim. Is it not clear that the Father accepts the sacrifice, not because He demanded or needed it, but because this was the part of the divine plan, since man had to be sanctified by the humanity of God; so that he might rescue us by overcoming the tyrant by force, and bring us back to Himself through the mediation of the Son, who carried out this divine plan to the honor of the Father, to whom he clearly delivers up all things. We have said just so much about Christ. There are many more things which must be passed over in silence…

A ransom is paid to a captor and we were enslaved by death. On the Cross, death thought it had swallowed a man and discovered it had swallowed God. The grave was burst asunder. Hades was emptied!

It’s a different lens through which to interpret reality than the dominant Western lens. As a result, the question of Adam’s “original sin” does not have the same prominence beyond its relatively straightforward typological meaning.


Original Sin 24 – Romans 5:12

Posted: March 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 24 – Romans 5:12

Romans 5:12 is one of the verses most often cited in support of St. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin as inherited guilt. It’s also one of the texts that was mistranslated in the Latin text on which he relied. Here’s an English translation of the Latin text used by St. Augustine.

Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin death, and thus death was transmitted to all men, in whom all have sinned.

Connecting this to the Stoic philosophy of seminal reasons which we discussed earlier, St. Augustine read the last phrase of that verse to mean that all men died because all mankind sinned in Adam. However, that’s not what the verse actually says. Here’s the NKJV translation of the Greek text.

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned—

We didn’t all sin “in” Adam. Death spread to all men because all sinned. The problem, as we see in verse 14, was that death reigned over mankind. Adam, whose name means humanity, is the archetype for mankind. We inherit mortality. The nature of humanity was, in Adam, to die. The nature of humanity is now, in Christ, to live. This is such an important part of the Christian story about reality that, when it is missed, it almost begins to seem like people are telling a different story.

I recommend pausing to read St. John Chrysostom’s Homily X on Romans. However, here is the beginning and a comment specifically on verse 12.

As the best physicians always take great pains to discover the source of diseases, and go to the very fountain of the mischief, so doth the blessed Paul also. Hence after having said that we were justified, and having shown it from the Patriarch, and from the Spirit, and from the dying of Christ (for He would not have died unless He intended to justify), he next confirms from other sources also what he had at such length demonstrated. And he confirms his proposition from things opposite, that is, from death and sin. How, and in what way? He enquires whence death came in, and how it prevailed. How then did death come in and prevail? “Through the sin of one.” But what means, “for that all have sinned?” This; he having once fallen, even they that had not eaten of the tree did from him, all of them, become mortal.

Our inheritance is not the guilt of an ancestor. Our inheritance as human beings is mortality.


Original Sin 21 – Psalm 50:7 (or 51:5)

Posted: March 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 21 – Psalm 50:7 (or 51:5)

The next text St. Augustine used, and one which you will hear widely quoted as a text defending the idea of original sin as inherited guilt is Psalm 50:7 (LXX) or 51:5 (Hebrew Masoretic numbering). I’ll start by providing an English translation of each, beginning with the Septuagint rendering (OSB).

For behold, I was conceived in transgressions, And in sins my mother bore me.

And here’s the Hebrew Masoretic translation (NKJV).

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.

It is difficult to discuss this verse divorced from the context of the entire Psalm and the way it has been used for centuries by the Church. Even today in the Orthodox Church, the entire Psalm is used in the services of Orthros, the Third Hour, and Compline. It is also recited in every Divine Liturgy by the priest as he censes before the Great Entrance. This is the great penitential Psalm and has been so used by the Church for as long as we have any records. I think it is best approached as a whole text in that light and with that attitude.

However, the natural reading of the single verse above does not communicate to me any idea that David is saying that he was conceived and born with some sort of inherited guilt. Rather he is lamenting the damaged and broken state of humanity into which we are all born. Those who conceive and bear us do so within the brokenness of their own transgressions and sins — their own mortality. Who among us would deny that reality? It’s also possible that in his song of repentance, David is engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but it’s not necessary to assume that’s the case. It’s perhaps a bit clearer in the translation from the LXX, but David is obviously not referring to his own sin in that verse. He’s referring to that of those surrounding him from the moment of his conception. He is making reference to the brokenness which forms and shapes us all.

The verse just doesn’t say what St. Augustine and others who try to use it the same way want it to say. It doesn’t communicate that idea when you lift it out of its context and that is certainly not the message of Psalm 50 (or 51 in the Hebrew numbering) when taken as a whole.


For the Life of the World 29

Posted: January 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 29

The series continues in section 2 of the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

Before death, however, there is dying: the growth of death in us by physical decay and illness. … For the modern secular world, health is the only normal state of man; disease therefore is to be fought, and the modern world fights it very well indeed. … Yet health has a limit, and it is death. … As long as a man is alive everything is to be done to keep him alive, and even if his case is hopeless, it must not be revealed to him. Death must never be a part of life.

In some ways, the above  is even more true today, as even aging itself seems to terrify our culture. People do more and more to hide, remove, delay, or change the normal signs of growing older. We do, perhaps, deal with end of life issues slightly better than we did when Fr. Schmemann wrote the above. But if so, it’s not really by all that much. We are obsessed as a culture with an almost pathological passion for denying our own mortality — at least as evidenced in the aging of our bodies.

This year I’ll turn forty-five.  That’s just about as “middle-aged” as you get. And even absent the effects of illness and disease such as celiac, I know my body has changed. I do not recover energy as quickly. Things ache and creak and pop now that never did before — not badly, but just enough that I can tell the difference. And I know that’s a taste of the future. I will continue to age. And that doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind the gray in my beard. I’ve earned it. I don’t mind the crow’s feet in the corners of my eyes. I just hope they reflect smiles rather than frowns. I’m not sure how our cultural obsession with the appearance of youth missed me, but I’m glad it did.

Our doctors are better than ever, but they still all have a 100% patient mortality rate. That’s a truth we would rather deny than face.

The religious outlook considers disease rather than health to be the “normal” state of man. In this world of mortal and changing matter suffering, sickness and sorrow are the normal conditions of life. … Health and healing are always thought of as the mercy of God, from the religious point of view, and real healing is “miraculous.” And this miracle is performed by God, again not because health is good, but because it “proves” the power of God and brings men back to God.

Remember that Fr. Schmemann is using “secular” and “religious” as two opposing poles, neither of which is actually “Christian.” The above is not only a description of the sort of “religion” into which Christianity has often degenerated. It is actually a perspective that manifests in different ways in many different religions. Whether the wheel of Samsara or the cycle of death and rebirth in much of dualistic neo-paganism, death (and often suffering) are natural or “normal.”

In their ultimate implications these two approaches are incompatible, and nothing reveals better the confusion of Christians on this issue than the fact that today Christians accept both as equally valid and true.

I had not really ever consciously recognized the above, but realized its truth as soon as I read it. Think about the sort of language used not only at funerals, but at times of sickness, injury, and disease.

But is this the Christian approach — and if it not, are we simply to return to the old — the “religious” one? The answer is no, it is not; but we are not simply to “return.” We must discover the unchanging, yet always contemporary, sacramental vision of man’s life, and therefore of his suffering and disease — the vision that has been the Church’s, even if we Christians have forgotten or misunderstood it.

And that’s the real trick. There’s a reason Christianity has spoken so deeply to so many millions over the past two millenia. And there’s a reason modern, Western Christianity is diminishing. I would say a large part of the reason for the latter is that we forgotten the former.

The Church considers healing as a sacrament. But such was its misunderstanding during the long centuries of the total identification of the Church with “religion” (a misunderstanding from which all sacraments suffered, and the whole doctrine of sacraments) that the sacrament of oil became in fact the sacrament of death, one of the “last rites” opening to man a more or less safe passage into eternity.

On some level, I knew the sacrament of “last rites” was connected somehow to healing. Unction, of course, is the act of anointing most often associated with healing rituals. We see this sacrament in Scripture, for example, in James 5. And yet, I still associated it with a deathbed rite and somehow missed its true nature. In Orthodoxy, the sacrament of healing never became narrowly focused as a final unction the way it did in the West.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the Roman Catholic version of the sacrament. Apparently Vatican II restored this sacrament to its original, broader meaning. And, in 1972, it was renamed from Extreme (or final) Unction to Anointing of the Sick. Further, it began to shift from a private ceremony back to a communal one. This, like many developments in Roman Catholicism this century, actually marks a restoration of the more ancient understanding. And yet the cultural image of “last rites” is a tough one to shake. I went to a Catholic school from 1976-1979, after both Vatican II and the formal name change, and I didn’t realize until I specifically researched it that the RCC had restored the original sense of the sacrament.

Fr. Schmemann goes on to comment that the sacrament of healing is also not simply a “useful” complement to modern medicine. Thinking of it in merely those terms misses its sacramental nature.

A sacrament — as we already know — is always a passage, a transformation. Yet it is not a “passage” into “supernature,” but into the Kingdom of God, the world to come, into the very reality of this world and its life as redeemed and restored by Christ. It is the transformation not of “nature” into “supernature,” but of the old into the new. A sacrament therefore is not a “miracle” by which God breaks, so to speak, the “laws of nature,” but the manifestation of the ultimate Truth about the world and life, man and nature, the Truth which is Christ.

And healing is a sacrament because its purpose or end is not health as such, the restoration of physical health, but the entrance of man into the life of the Kingdom, into the “joy and peace” of the Holy Spirit. In Christ everything in this world, and this means health and disease, joy and suffering, has become an ascension to, and entrance into this new, its expectation and anticipation.

In this world suffering and disease are indeed “normal,” but their very “normalcy” is abnormal. They reveal the ultimate and permanent defeat of man and of life, a defeat which no partial victories of medicine, however wonderful and truly miraculous, can ultimately overcome. But in Christ suffering is not “removed”; it is transformed into victory. The defeat itself becomes victory, a way, an entrance into the Kingdom, and this is the only true healing.

The sacrament of healing manifests our life in the Kingdom. In some ways, I am reminded of Tolkien’s High Elves. We stand simultaneously in two worlds, in two realities, and we draw our deeper strength and power from the one which, though just as real and physical, is less evident to the senses of this world.

The Church does not come to restore health in this man, simply to replace medicine when medicine has exhausted its own possibilities. The Church comes to take this man into the Love, the Light and the Life of Christ. It comes not merely to “comfort” him in his sufferings, not to “help” him, but to make him  a martyr, a witness to Christ in his very sufferings.

We don’t need help or comfort as much as we need Life.