Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 27

Posted: March 29th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 27

59. There is after the union a distinction in Christ between the nature of His flesh and that of His divinity, for divinity and flesh are never identical in their essence. Hence the union of the two elements, divine and human, which have come together has generated not a single nature, but a single person. With regard to this person, there is no distinction in Christ of any kind whatsoever, for as a person the Logos is identical with His own flesh. Had there been such a distinction in Christ, He could not be one person in every way. Where the person of Christ is concerned, His oneness does not admit of any kind of distinction whatsoever, and in every way it is, and is affirmed to be, a unity for all eternity.

The Logos is now identical with his flesh in one person within whom there is no distinction or division while retaining the nature of all that it means to be uncreated God and created man in perfect unity. In that truth lies our salvation. Christ became man so that man might become God. Our salvation is union with Christ in the life of God.


Saturday Evening Blog Post

Posted: July 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Misc | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Saturday Evening Blog Post

For the June edition of the Saturday Evening Blog Post, hosted by Elizabeth Esther, I chose my post, What is the source of our oneness?. I also considered some of the other posts from June, including the early posts in my series on Heaven & Earth (& Hell), but finally settled on this post.

As always, I encourage all readers here to check out the Saturday Evening Blog Posts. There are always interesting posts to read. And if you blog, consider adding a post yourself.


What is the source of our oneness?

Posted: June 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist, Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Once again, I would appreciate any thoughts, comments, or reactions my words spur in anyone who happens to read this. Incorporating and responding to the thoughts of others is one of the ways I process thoughts, and the thoughts in this post are certainly less than complete. I’ll start with the paragraph from 1 Corinthians 10 that lies at the center of my thoughts.

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

The above is from the NKJV, which is generally the English translation I prefer. Before I continue with the threads of my thoughts on the above, though, I think I need to discuss the Greek word, koinonia, especially as Christians have traditionally used it (including the tradition of its usage in the Holy Scriptures). The NKJV usually translates koinonia as communion, the best English word for the sort of intimate fellowship or rapport that the text seems to be trying to convey.

Other English translations most often translate koinonia using other words like fellowship (without qualifying it with intimate or another similar adjective), participation, or sharing. I can only speculate on the reason. In some cases, it could be as simple as a belief on the part of the translator that our level of literacy as a people has declined so much that those reading won’t have any understanding of the text unless a simpler word is used. If that’s the case, I would say it is better for a text not to be understood at all than to have its depth and richness stripped from it.

While it might be possible to translate Shakespeare into “simpler” language, you could not do it and preserve the integrity of his writing. Nuance, richness, depth, and poetry — the very things that make Shakespeare’s works great — would all be lost. If I would not treat a great literary work in that manner, why would I do that to a text that, as a Christian, I consider holy and sacred?

It’s also possible that the modern, Western emphasis on individualism has increasingly led translators to shy away from the scriptural language of oneness and union — both with God and with our fellow human beings. If we use weaker language, we get to control the boundaries of that union. We can wade in the shallows and call it swimming.

I also note that much of the modern, English speaking Christian world consists of sects most heavily influenced by Zwingli. They have almost completely conceded to the modern secular perspective. With them the matter of this world is ordinary and while it might represent something sacred or spiritual the idea that the physical might actually participate in the divine is almost verboten. It’s possible that translators approaching the text from that perspective might, consciously or otherwise, wish to weaken the scriptural language of communion. (And to be honest, Calvin was also more on the side of Zwingli than he was on the Cranmer and Luther side of the Protestant Reformation divide. He refused to take things quite as far as Zwingli did, but he’s certainly closer to Zwingli than anyone else.)

It could be any of those reasons, a combination of them, or something else that has not occurred to me at all. I don’t know. But I do know that most of the translations use words that lack the particular oomph of the English word communion. I’ll provide an illustration of that point by providing the NIV translation of the same passage I quoted above.

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

It’s not that the translation is wrong, per se. It’s just weaker than the NKJV. It does not convey the same sense of intimate union.

How then are we to understand this intimate union, this communion, this koinonia? I think one image is that of John 15. We are all branches of one vine — the vine of Jesus. It’s a union that allows no independent or separate life — either from Jesus or from each other. We are all part of a single plant in that image. Does a branch participate in the life of the vine? I suppose it does, but is that really the language we would use to describe that relationship? I don’t think so.

Of course, the ultimate image, I think, comes from John 17 when Jesus prays that we be one with each other as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father. And he prays we have that degree of communion so that we might then be one with God. In other words, the image of koinonia given to us is the koinonia of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That image is beyond my ability to grasp, but the edges of it tantalize and fascinate me. It’s been pulling me ever deeper into Christian faith for more than fifteen years now. And I have a feeling it goes well beyond the sort of thing we use the word fellowship to describe. I have fellowship to some degree with my guildmates in World of Warcraft. Fellowship describes the relationship in fraternal orders and bowling leagues. It’s the language of voluntary association.

The scriptural image of koinonia runs much deeper and is enormously more intimate. It’s the language of one plant, one body, and the oneness of marriage. It transcends our images of unity, yet is very different from other transcendent paths of oneness. In some forms of Hinduism, for example, the ultimate goal is to lose our personal identity in union with Brahman. In Buddhism, the goal of Nirvana also involves relinquishing personal identity. But the Christian God exists as complete union without any loss of personal identity. God is revealed in three persons — Father, Son, and Spirit. Everything that can be said about the Father other than the ways he is uniquely Father can be said about the Son and the Spirit as well. And yet in that complete unity, they never lose their own unique personhood. Similarly, as we seek communion with each other and with God, it’s a union that preserves our own unique identity. Christianity is an intimately personal faith, but it is not at all an individual faith. I think many today have confused the two.

When I think of this passage from 1 Corinthians 10 in light of John 6, I find I simply don’t understand why so many Christians today accept the framework of Zwingli’s secular division of reality. Yes the bread and wine is and remains bread and wine. But when it is the cup of blessing and the bread we break, it is also the body and blood of our Lord. How else can we understand the language of communion without distancing God from our world and from ourselves?

And it is ultimately the communion of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that is the only source of our own oneness with each other. There is a seriousness surrounding it. As Paul also mentions in 1 Corinthians, some are sick or have even died because they were participating at the table in an unworthy manner.

Thus, those who seek to find ecumenical common ground by reducing the faith to its lowest common denominator and glossing over the differences in the ways we use what are sometimes even the same words will ultimately fail. Any oneness we have lies in the bread and wine, in the body and blood. But when we approach the table, we need to be approaching the same God. I find that’s what most modern Christians don’t want to admit — that they actually describe different Gods. Some are more similar than others, but they are all different. And some are so radically different from each other that there’s no way to reconcile them.

Maybe it takes a true pluralist to look at modern Christian pluralism and call it what it is. To the extent I have any role or function, maybe that’s my role. I don’t understand why other Christians don’t seem to see that truth when it’s so blindingly obvious to me. I honestly don’t get it.

If nothing else, maybe someone reading this post can explain that to me.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 7 – Ignatius to the Philadelphians

Posted: July 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Next, let’s look at the letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Philadelphians. This is a very short letter and I recommend reading the entire letter. For the purpose of this post, though, we’re going to focus on chapter 4.

Be diligent, therefore, to use one eucharist, for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup, for union with his blood; one altar, even as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons, who are my fellow-servants, to the end that whatever ye do, ye may do it according unto God.

One eucharist or thanksgiving because there is one flesh of Jesus. One cup in union with his blood. And the one eucharist and one altar are associated with the one bishop of a particular place.

Here in a single sentence forming a single section of his letter, we find the ideas of oneness with each other associated with the eucharist united to the body and blood of Jesus tied to the single bishop of a particular physical place. We find here the tangible physicality of our faith. It is not something invisible or ethereal. It is not something abstract. Rather, each aspect is tied to our physical reality and ultimately to the physical reality of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This sentence describes an experiential reality that is very different from what Zwingli described. Moreover, it’s extremely early and is consistent with what we find in the Holy Scriptures that we call the New Testament and the other writings of the first century such as the Didache. As we move forward, we’ll see that continuity maintained. Certainly there are refinements to the liturgical practice of the church. And it is influenced by and adapted to the cultures it meets as Christianity spreads. Nevertheless the differences are minor and the understanding of the church and of the eucharist remains largely uniform and consistent. There is no significant point of discontinuity where the belief or practice of the church changed in the ancient world. There are battles already with gnostics, judaizers, and schismatics. Nevertheless, the thread of the church is easy to find and follow through them. It continues. The other groups fade away and vanish.

The reason I wanted to start here at the beginning and move forward is in part because of the arguments of the restorationists. They generally claim that either after the Apostles died or after the first century or after Constantine (or pick your date or event) the whole church basically apostasized. The restorationists then claim they are restoring “true” Christianity. The problem is that there is no such point of historical discontinuity in the ancient church. We’ll see that as we continue. The more we learn about the ancient world and our ancient faith, the more that fact is confirmed. So basically, for the claims of the restorationists to be true, we have to say that the Apostles failed to either understand the teaching of Jesus or to communicate those teachings to those churches they established and those people whom they personally taught. However, if the faith could not even be communicated to those directly in contact with Jesus or with the apostles, how on earth are we supposed to rediscover it two thousand years later? If it was lost that early, it’s gone. We have no idea what the correct interpretation of our texts might be. And we have no hope as far as I can see of recovering it. It strikes me that the perspective of the restorationists is ultimately one of hopelessness.

I’ve noticed that Protestants don’t generally like Ignatius. You’ll find all sorts of attempts to dismiss him if you look for them. And I understand why. Ignatius is writing perhaps 60 to 75 years after the Church in Antioch, a Church that was home to Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, was established. There were likely people still around who had known one or more of them at least in their childhood. Does what Ignatius describes sound anything like the Protestant reality today? We have more of his letters still to read. Judge for yourself.

I want to close today’s reflections on this letter with another sentence from it. It’s one that sticks in my mind. Think on it.

For where there is division and anger, God dwelleth not.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 5 – Clement, Corinth, and Order

Posted: July 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I’m going to open this post with chapter 40 from Clement’s letter to the Corinthians.

Since, therefore, these things have been made manifest before unto us, and since we have looked into the depths of the divine knowledge, we ought to do everything in order, whatsoever the Lord hath commanded us to do at the appointed seasons, and to perform the offerings and liturgies. These he hath not commanded to be done at random or in disorder, but at fixed times and seasons. But when and by whom he wisheth them to be fulfilled he himself hath decided by his supreme will; that all things, being done piously, according to his good pleasure, might be acceptable to his will. They, therefore, who at the appointed seasons make their offerings are acceptable and blessed; for while following the laws of the Master they do not completely sin. For to the High Priest were assigned special services, and to the priests a special place hath been appointed; and on the Levites special duties are imposed. But he that is a layman is bound by the ordinances of laymen.

In this context, we see reinforced what Paul had written in his first letter to Corinth and the teaching from the Didache (redundant since Didache means Teaching, but I couldn’t think of a better way to phrase it). The offerings (in this context eucharist) and the liturgies (the work of worship of the people) are to be done in order and at fixed times and seasons, not at random or in disorder. Further, this order had been commanded by the Lord. In addition to their schisms and divisiveness, one of Paul’s chief concerns with the Corinthian church a generation or so earlier had been their disorder in worship. It seems that many of the bad tendencies of this church had persisted.

I’m not a Greek scholar though I’ve picked up a passing familiarity with some of the rudiments of the language over the years. From past experience, the English word “laymen” above probably translated laos or laoikos. I find that the modern understanding of laymen or laity doesn’t precisely jibe with the ancient understanding. It took me a while to begin to see it, myself. In the ancient understanding, the laiokos were not the unordained. Drawing heavily on Hebrews, they understood that the people of God were reconstituted in Christ as a royal priesthood with one high priest, Jesus the Christ. That was a shift because before Christ only the sons of Aaron out of the people of God formed the priestly class. The laoikos then were those ordained into the first order of the priesthood in Baptism. As such, the people were all responsible for their part in the liturgy, in the offerings (a priest could not perform the liturgy of the Eucharist or communion alone or without the people), and in their priestly ministrations in the world.

The best illustration of the distinctions of orders actually comes a few centuries later. St. Ambrose of Milan, though his sister and mother were Christian, had not yet been baptized when the Arian bishop of Milan died. (It is important to note that it was not uncommon to delay baptism at that time because of the question of whether or not intentional sins committed after baptism could be forgiven.) Ambrose was a gifted orator and lawyer and was attempting to maintain order in a uprising of the orthodox (non-Arian) Christians of Milan. As he was doing so, the people acclaimed his as their bishop. He was immediately baptized and then ordained to the diaconate and then priesthood on successive days before being elevated to the episcopate the next week.

So there is one priesthood consisting of all the people of God and four orders within that priesthood with one eternal High Priest in Jesus Christ. We are all priests and priestesses of at least the first order if we are baptized in Christ. When we lose sight of that reality, things get muddled pretty quickly.

I’m going to close my reflection on this letter with the following section from chapter 46.

Why are there strivings, and anger, and division, and war among you? Have we not one God and one Christ? Is not the Spirit of grace, which was poured out upon us, one? Is not our calling one in Christ? Why do we tear apart and rend asunder the members of Christ, and make sedition against our body, and come to such a degree of madness that we forget we are members one of another? Remember the words of our Lord Jesus, for he said, Woe unto that man; it were good for him if he had never been born, rather than that he should cause one of my elect to offend. It were better for him that a millstone were tied about him, and that he were cast into the sea, rather than that he should cause one of my little ones to offend. This your schism has perverted many; hath cast many into despondency; many into doubt; all of us into grief, and, as yet, your sedition remaineth.

It’s important to absorb the tenor of this statement and others like it. This call to oneness tends to permeate discussions of the Eucharist in the ancient writings. Clement, of course, is echoing Paul. He’s not really saying anything new. This is an application of the tradition of the apostles which we believe according to the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament they received directly from Christ.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History – Series Intro

Posted: July 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

This past weekend a discussion with the Internet Monk, which began for me at least on twitter, emerged in two different posts. In the first, the iMonk posted a link to a sermon by David Chanski on the Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper and his own thoughts on the sermon. The second post responded to someone who asked what the problems are with the Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper. If you’re interested, you will find some comments by me on both posts. The first problem he listed was a problem he called “the historical problem”. He posed the issue this way:

How do Baptists relate their view of the Lord’s Supper to the ancient church’s far more eucharistic, real presence language? Do we believe the ancient church was wrong until the Baptist reformation? Yes? No? What?

It’s hardly a new issue to me. As a Christian (a clarification I have to make since I have been a lot of other things over the course of my life), I’ve only really been a Baptist sort of Christian. Oh, I’ve experienced many different flavors of Christianity from childhood on and know a pretty decent amount about many of them. But to the extent I’ve been anything in the midst of modern Christian pluralism, I’ve been a Baptist. I’m also the sort of person who enjoys history and who doesn’t just love reading, but for whom reading and breathing come close to being synonymous. And that combination means I encountered this issue sooner rather than later. I was able to set it aside for years to see if a resolution would emerge. I’m often able to do that when faced with tension in a belief. That worked for a decade or so. But it’s been increasingly ineffective over the last four or five years. Since there isn’t much in Christian life, practice, and belief that is and has always been more central than the Eucharist, that’s a problem.

I will point out that this is not uniquely a Baptist problem today. Many “nondenominational” churches (or denominations of one as they tend to be counted) have a perspective that is at least similar to the Baptist view. The Baptist, or more properly Zwinglian (Zwingli originated the memorial, symbolic theology of the Eucharist in the 16th century), view is also similar to the view held by many in the charismatic wing of the modern church. Presbyterian and other Reformed churches have a somewhat similar, though not identical, problem. As I consider the Protestant branch of the church, Lutherans and Anglicans have much less of a historical problem with the Eucharist than many. I honestly don’t remember what Methodists teach, but since they are offshoots of the Anglican Church, they may also have fewer historical issues. I can hardly claim to be familiar with the tens of thousands of distinct sects into which Protestantism has devolved, but I would wager that the majority of the larger Protestant tradition shares at least part of this particular problem with the Baptists.

In this series, I have no plans to resolve the historical problem. I don’t have any answers and I don’t expect a revelation. Instead, I plan to explore the nature of the problem itself. What is the history of belief about the Eucharist? What are the ramifications of that history? I’ll be exploring questions like that.

If it does not matter to you what your predecessors in the faith believed and practiced, if you are unconcerned about those whom Hebrews calls a great cloud of witnesses, then you don’t share this historical problem. If innovation in the faith, even in its most central aspects, is something that doesn’t bother you, then you will probably not find much of interest in this series. This is for those like me for whom such things do matter, and perhaps matter a very great deal.

In this series, I will be discussing excerpts from Christian writings throughout the first millenium. I’m not really fond of trying to “mine” those writings for a topical discussion. I’ve seen a lot of that done pretty badly over the years. Those writings don’t really lend themselves to that sort of approach. With much ancient writing, you have to try to understand the perspective, setting, culture, and situation from which someone was writing and then try to absorb the whole of what they are saying which will then illuminate the parts.  It’s very different from most Western scholastic works where you try to understand each piece in order to grasp the whole. The pieces often build on each other, but usually in a structured and orderly manner. I will always provide a link to the whole work from which I quote. And if you have any question about the way I am reading something, please go read the whole thing. Even better, read as much by that particular author as you can find.

I will caution readers up front that it is impossible to discuss the Eucharist from the writings of the first millenium without also running headlong into the issue of unity and oneness. That’s probably not what a Protestant wants to hear. But the two trains of thought tend to be deeply intertwined in most places. There are many writings over the centuries addressing schismatics (which is not the same thing as heretic) and there were schisms to address. Nevertheless, I don’t think any writer in the first millenium could have ever imagined schism on the scale that we’ve managed. So be warned.

I will generally assume that everyone reading this series has read, in their entirety, preferably multiple times, perhaps even using the techniques of lectio divina certain key portions of the Holy Scriptures. Of course, that includes the accounts of the last supper in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The other two passages are John 6 and 1 Corinthians 11. There are other scriptures, and I will provide specific references when needed. But the Scriptures above will permeate the discussion and sit in the background at all times.

Since my focus will be specifically on the historical problem with the Baptist perspective, the 1689 London Confession is as good a reference for that perspective as any. I immediately noted when I read it that it never references John 6. I’m not sure how you can develop a theological confession of the Lord’s Supper without ever referencing the Eucharistic chapter of the theological Gospel. But there you go. Perhaps that’s part of the problem.

In the series I recently completed on the Didache, you might want to read post 31, post 25, post 26, and post 27. I don’t plan to revisit the Didache in this series since I just reflected on the entire Teaching.

I had actually planned to write a series of reflections on the latest encyclical, CARITAS IN VERITATE, by Pope Benedict XVI next. But this cropped up and it somehow seemed like the series I should write at this time. I may still slip in some thoughts on the encyclical in additional posts.


Beyond Justification 4 – Understanding the dance of the Trinity

Posted: May 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 4 – Understanding the dance of the Trinity

I was struggling to frame my thoughts for the next post in this series when I realized I needed to pause for a moment and explore the Christian concept of the Trinity, that is of a triune God. I will say up front that anything and everything we can express about the essence and nature of God will always be in some sense inadequate. We are finite and God is not. This is, in fact, so true that as soon as we say something about God, we almost have to say that insofar as we’ve encountered or experienced or understood that thing, God is not like that to which are comparing him.

For instance, we can positively say, as the Holy Scriptures affirm, that God is love. But when we say that, we need to also say that the love I have or which I have experienced from others falls so short of the love that is God that in terms of the love I have known God is not love at all. God transcends my understanding of love. Nevertheless, even though it is limited and finite, my understanding and experience of love do help me begin to understand God.

If we do not maintain that tension in our thoughts, especially when discussing the Trinity, it becomes far to easy to attempt to rationalize the Trinity, to make the essence of God make sense to us. This has been true throughout Christian history. When people have fallen into this trap, they have tended to overemphasize either the oneness or the threeness of God. In so doing they have on the one hand reduced God to a single person who adopts different roles or masks. And on the other hand, they have subtly shifted to three persons who can somehow act separately, stand apart from one another, or even act in opposition to each other. Tritheism tends to be subtle rather than overt.

So it is with fear and trepidation that I venture into this arena of words, praying that I will not misspeak or be misunderstood. This discussion is risky, but it is essential. For if we do not have some understanding of the nature of the Trinity, it is not possible to understand what salvation means in the Christian sense of the word.

Before I delve into the heart of what I want to discuss, I did want to mention one principle I very recently picked up from Orthodox theology that I have found surprisingly helpful. My first reaction was “so what?”, but as I’ve reflected on it, I’ve found that it sounds simple, but runs very deep indeed. Here it is:

Everything that can be said about God is either unique to a single member of the Trinity or is common to all of the persons of the Trinity.

Here’s how it works. Most things are common to all. All are uncreated. All are love. All together fulfilled certain roles. All are creator (we see that in both Genesis and more explicitly in the NT). All are our redeemer. Redemption of creation was a wholly triune act. However, only one person is Father, one is Son, and one is Spirit. Only the Son is incarnate. Only the Son is begotten. Only the Spirit proceeds. Most importantly, no two persons of the Trinity ever share an attribute or quality or role or action that the third does not. Unique to one or common to all. Think about it. As it sinks in, I think the value of this dogma in keeping our way of thinking about God on track becomes clear.

The best metaphor for the Trinity I’ve yet encountered is that of the dance, a dance which lies at the center of reality. The greek word for this dance is perichoresis. The word is used to capture a reality of three persons who are so mutually indwelling, interpenetrating, and united that they can be said to share a single nature, a single essence, to be one with each other even as each retains their own unique personhood. This perichoretic nature is described as a dance, each person constantly twirling with, around, and through the other two. It’s a dance where, as soon as one person finds themselves in the center of the dance, they immediately yield that place to the other two. It’s a perfectly spinning, eternal, communal dance of self-sufficient love. It is perfect relationship in eternal motion.

This is the God made known to us through Jesus of Nazareth. This is the God inviting us to join the dance.