Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 11

Posted: January 31st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 11

21.  God knows Himself and He knows the things He has created. The angelic powers, too, know God and know the things He has created. But they do not know God and the things He has created in the same way that God knows Himself and the things He has created.

22.  God knows Himself through knowing His blessed essence. And the things created by Him He knows through knowing His wisdom, by means of which and in which He made all things. But the angelic powers know God by participation, though God Himself transcends such participation; and the things He has created they know by apprehending that which may be spiritually contemplated in them.

These texts begin a series that touch on something critical — how do we know God? A key point in the two texts above is the difference between the way God knows himself and his creation and the way created beings know God and other created things. God knows himself in his essence and he knows all creation in its essence and being because he made all things and all things subsist in him.

But created beings cannot know God in his essence. St. Maximos is using angelic beings in this text, but the same is true of us. We know God through participation with him. The ancient theologians make the distinction between the unknowable essence of God and his energies or actions. (That’s why every way we have of speaking about God ultimately describes something God is doing if you stop to think about it for a minute.)

And that’s really how we know each other as well. I can’t know another, even my wife or child or other close relative, in their essence as God can and does. Instead, I know them through interacting with them and participating in life with them.

It’s a topic that sounds esoteric and hard to grasp, but it’s really not. It’s something we all intuitively recognize. It’s just hard to put into words.


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.


15 Authors

Posted: October 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

I don’t often participate in the blogging lists in which you are tagged and tag others in turn. I guess it’s just not my thing. However, Fr. Christian Mathis (how cool a moniker for priest is Fr. Christian?) tagged me for this one and I have to confess the topic intrigues me.

15 Authors (meme)

Fifteen authors (poets included) who’ve influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag at least fifteen friends, including me, because I’m interested in seeing what authors my friends choose.

Those who know me know I’m something of a reader and have a small personal library. Moreover, I’ve read constantly virtually my whole life. I mean that literally. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. More than fifteen authors sprang to mind in the first minute that I considered the meme and more have continued to come to flood my mind, so I’m going to be a little more selective in the ones I pick. I’m also going to pick authors who have really influenced me — whatever that influence might have been — rather than the best list. I couldn’t possibly put the authors in any sort of order, so I’m not even going to try. So here my top fifteen in no particular order.

1. Edith Hamilton. I read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology the first time when I was in the fourth grade. I choose to list her because she was my gateway into a love for ancient history, the exploration of ancient beliefs, and a world of ancient literature. After I read her Mythology, I quickly moved on to read Bullfinch’s Mythology, the Illiad and the Odyssey by Homer, and many other works. I suppose it would make a loftier soundbite to say that Homer influenced me, but the truth is that if I hadn’t read Edith Hamilton, I’m not sure I would have read Homer at all. I certainly wouldn’t have read his works until I was much older.

2. J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien has influenced and still influences me deeply. I no longer have any idea how many times I have read his novels of Middle Earth and I still read them regularly. I’m not sure I knew he was a Christian or consciously saw the ways his faith influenced his writing until I was in my thirties, but they nevertheless helped shape me as a human being.

3. C.S Lewis. I can’t mention Tolkien without also mentioning C.S Lewis. I was pretty young when I received a boxed set of his Narnia novels and read them for the first time. As with most of the authors who have influenced me, I’ve read his books many times over. I’ve also shared Narnia with my children — even reading The Magician’s Nephew over the course of some weeks to my daughter’s second grade class at one time. I loved his Space Trilogy when I read it. And I’m certain the rest of his books shaped some of my perception and understanding of God.

4. Robert Heinlein. I was introduced to the twists and turns of Heinlein’s writing by A Stranger in a Strange Land (I believe I stumbled across it in my father’s library) when I was eleven or twelve. I was fascinated by his insights and perspectives — a fascination that would never wane. I thoroughly enjoyed the “children’s books” from his early career (Space Cadet and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel anyone?). I loved the ones more in the middle such as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and I reveled in the rollicking fun of his later novels. Friday and The Number of the Beast are a blast. His writings could rarely be called conventional, but then I’ve only lately been a more conventional sort of person.

5. William Shakespeare. The Bard has a special place on my list and in my heart. I remember one of the first acting sorts of things I did publicly. I was in 4th grade and living (for a few months) in West Virginia and decided to do something in some sort of talent show. I had been reading Shakespeare (I had a volume of his complete works) and elected to do the scene from King Lear in which Cordelia and Kent are banished. Yes, I did all the parts. I loved it and that experience led me to take acting classes through the Alley Theater when we later lived in Houston. I’ve read most of his works, seen his plays, and performed in them more than once over the years. Most recently I had the pleasure of taking my youngest daughter to Shakespeare in the Park here in Austin to see A Midsummer’s Night Dream for the first time and watch her laugh as she fell under the Bard’s comedic spell.

6. Anne Rice. I was in 6th or 7th grade when An Interview with a Vampire came out in paperback. A friend of mine had it and lent it to me. I read it straight through, much of the time upside down in a recliner. I’ve read it and others of her books many times since. The history with which her stories have been interwoven has always appealed to me and her characters live and breathe. Her books are a part of me.

7. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. His book, Science of Being and Art of Living: Transcendental Meditation, was the first in that vein I remember deeply reading and regularly practicing when I was twelve years old or so. Like Edith Hamilton, I would hardly classify him as the deepest or the best in this category. But if I had not read him, would I have read Lao Tzu, the Bhagavad Vita, or the story of the life of Prince Siddhartha? It’s hard to say, but he was certainly a significant part of my early spiritual formation.

8. Isaac Asimov. From psychohistory to the three laws of robotics to the caves of steel in which a crowded and insular earth population huddled, Asimov’s writings fascinated me. Even when robots were the central focus, he was always writing about what it meant to be human.

9. St. Athanasius. In his work, On the Incarnation of the Word, St. Athanasius describes a God in whom I not only could believe, but one in which I wanted to believed. More than any other single factor, I think it was his writing that snapped my resistance against and antipathy toward this thing called Christianity. People and events certainly contributed, but it was when I read his description of God that I truly let go of my anger and despite and decided this was actually a God whom I could worship. I’ll also let St. Athanasius stand in my list for all the ancient Fathers who have meant so much to my spiritual formation as a Christian. I think especially of St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Isaac the Syrian, and St. Maximos the Confessor, but a host of others have contributed as well. Without their works I’m not sure I could have bridged the gap from what I was to something more like a Christian. Even if I could have made that leap without them, I’m not sure I could have remained Christian all these years.

10. Mary Stewart. Another book I read at a pretty young age was a collected set of tales of King Arthur and his Knights. The book was somewhere around a thousand pages I think, but I no longer have it and have no idea which collection it was. But the Arthurian mythos has been a significant piece of who I am ever since. I also loved Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon and was torn about which of these two to list at this point. But I finally had to go with Mary Stewart. I was around twenty years old when I was fascinated anew by her rendering of Arthur and Merlin.

11. N.T. Wright. I didn’t encounter Bishop Tom’s writings until five or six years ago. Nevertheless, he has been a huge influence on my understanding of Jesus and Christianity. I’ve read many of his books and listened to just about every lecture or sermon he’s done that can be found online. If you are unfamiliar with his body of work, I would recommend any of it.

12. Edgar Allen Poe. I know The Raven by heart and used to love watching Vincent Price read the poem each year. Lenore still pulls at my heart. The Pit and the Pendulum and The Telltale Heart are masterworks of horror while also peeling back the masks we all wear.

13. Scot McKnight. The Jesus Creed has been a part of my own (poor and sometimes barely present) rule of prayer for some years now. Oddly, it was also through his writing that I first came to see that the Orthodox were something other than an Eastern sort of Catholic. Somehow I had never made the mental leap from the ancient Fathers to the modern Orthodox Church.

14. Stephen R. Donaldson. I believe I was either twelve or thirteen when I first read Lord Foul’s Bane. I’ve followed the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever faithfully ever since. Stephen Donaldson introduced me to the idea of the deeply flawed anti-hero who, though he often does great damage to those around him, can also achieve great good. I think I’ve always been more of a Thomas Covenant or a Lestat than I’ve been an Aragorn, a Frodo, or a Gandalf.

15. Anne McCAffrey. I had a hard time deciding who to choose for the fifteenth slot in this list. From Killashandra Ree to Lessa her characters have spoken to me in their flaws and in their courage.

There are many other authors and books that have shaped who I am today. But these are fifteen who all hold a special place for one reason or another. I’m also lousy at following rules, so I’m not going to tag fifteen other people. The only person I’m going to tag is Tom Cottar. I want to see fifteen authors who have influenced him and why. (And I can harass him about it until I wear him down if needed.)


Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Posted: October 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Atonement | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

I’ve worked through my thoughts on this blog across a variety of topics from original sin to justification to hell in separate multiple post series on this blog. I have not written such a series on the fairly common Protestant teaching of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA from this point on) because I don’t have anything to work through on the topic and I don’t really have much to say about it. However, this teaching seems to surface in many of the discussions I follow and I’ve become increasingly convinced that I should try to write something on the topic for those who from time to time browse my blog. I don’t really expect there to be more than this one post on this subject unless others raise questions that seem to me to warrant another post.

I will say up front that I’m pretty familiar with this teaching. I’ve read many of the primary sources. I’m familiar with the common prooftexts. I’ve listened to it expounded and taught countless times in countless ways over the years. I understand many of the different ways it is nuanced — both in theory and in practice. But I do think the essence of this teaching is pretty simply stated. In fact, the following statement I recently saw in Sunday School distills it pretty accurately, if not to any great depth.

Jesus died on the Cross to pay God the Father the debt of our sin.

I beg to differ.

St. Gregory the Theologian provides the best summary I’ve found of my reaction to that idea.

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…

I don’t have much to add to what St. Gregory says. As far as I’m concerned, PSA teaches a different God and a different faith than the one I believe. It’s as different to my eyes as the faith taught and the God described by the docetists and the arians.

The problems with PSA are legion. It teaches that God has a problem with forgiveness. Even as he commands us to forgive, he is unable to forgive himself. Rather the infinite debt must be paid in full by someone and since we are finite beings, the debt can only be paid by the divine Son. But PSA fundamentally denies God mercy and forgiveness. Instead, God becomes the unrelenting debt holder. In the mechanics of paying that debt PSA violates everything Christianity says about the nature of the Trinity. It has members of the Trinity acting almost in opposition to each other rather than in concert as one. The Son is paying the debt the Father can’t forgive. The Father is exhausting his divine wrath on the Son. The Spirit almost vanishes from the picture. And even with the debt paid, we are not actually healed and we do not truly commune with God. Instead, we move into a sort of legal fiction. When God looks at us, he doesn’t actually see us. He sees his Son. The list of problems goes on ad nauseum.

Now, that is not to say that the Spirit has not been at work in the groups of Christians who hold some variation of this belief. I would not deny the work of the Spirit anywhere in humanity. And the Spirit certainly has more tools with which to work among those who proclaim that Jesus — the image of the invisible God — is Lord, however distorted their vision of him might be, than among adherents of entirely different world religions.

However, it is also true that there are many people who correctly understand the sort of God postulated by PSA and have rejected that God in revulsion. I empathize with them. If I thought the God described by the PSA theory was really the Christian God, I would absolutely reject Christianity myself. No, our God is the good God who loves mankind. He is the God who has never had a problem forgiving us. He has not required satisfaction. He has not had to have his wrath assuaged by pouring it onto the Son. All three persons of the Trinity were always acting in concert to save us, even in the worst moments on the Cross. Yes, the Cross is indeed the instrument of our salvation, but we never needed to be saved from God. Instead we were rescued by the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in and through the Cross by the power of the Resurrection. We were ransomed from sin and death, the powers which enslaved us — not from our good God and not ultimately from the Evil One (though he certainly used the power of sin and death against us).

And, as Forrest Gump says, “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”

I’ve posted it before, but I’ll post again this podcast by Fr. Thomas Hopko on the Cross. It says much of what I would say better than I could say it.

Understanding the Cross

I would also recommend the much shorter reflection (5 minutes) by Fr. Stephen Freeman.

The Tree Heals the Tree


The Jesus Creed 2 – Praying the Jesus Creed

Posted: August 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The ones for this chapter are: Luke 11:1-4; Matthew 6:9-13.

Sometimes prayer is like
     dry lima beans
          in a dry mouth
              on a dry day.

That’s how McKnight opens this chapter. I really like the imagery.

Why? Prayer is hard, it gnaws into our schedule, and it can be as much a source of frustration as satisfaction. Brother Lawrence, who has probably encouraged more people in prayer than anyone in the history of the Church, found routines in prayer dry and dull. He was bluntly honest about his own perplexity with prayer. Such honesty about prayer by a champion of prayer encourages us all in our own struggle to pray.

Of course, nobody who knows me would be surprised that the reference to Brother Lawrence struck a chord with me. Still the statement is true. McKnight continues:

At the bottom, prayer is simple. It is loving communication with God. All we need for prayer is an open heart.

All? How easy for any of us is a truly open heart?

The good news for us is that it was struggle with prayer that gave rise to the Lord’s Prayer. The disciples were struggling with their own prayer lives. After observing Jesus pray, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” To help them with prayer, he gave them a prayer…

McKnight then provides the ancient Jewish prayer Jesus amended through the lens of his modified Shema. This is that prayer (which we know was present and widely used at the time of Jesus) call the Kaddish (Sanctification).

Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world He created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future. And say Amen.

This prayer bears striking similarities to the Lord’s Prayer and McKnight proposes that Jesus makes it his own. And this connection, while not as obvious or clearcut as the amendment of the Shema, makes a lot of sense within its context. Jesus amends the central creed and then he amends a sacred prayer, reshaping them both in dramatic ways. McKnight examines the parallels between the two in several tables. When you lay them out side by side, the correlations are pretty obvious.

There are three basic changes: First, the Lord’s Prayer begins with ‘Father’ (Abba). [I also want to note that in an appendix, McKnight the linguist, bible scholar, and theologian notes that ‘Daddy’ is an inappropriate interpretation of ‘Abba.’ It’s a form adults used and so ‘Father’ (or I would also suggest ‘Dad’) is appropriate. I’ve typically used ‘Dad’ myself, but have heard others promote the ‘Daddy’ version. Minor note, really, but I wanted to mention it.] Second, Jesus adds three lines. Third, the additional lines shift from ‘your’ to ‘us.’ As a result of these changes, the Lord’s Prayer has two parts (you petitions and we/us petitions). The ‘You’ petitions are ‘Love God’ petitions and the ‘We/Us’ petitions are ‘Love Others’ petitions. (Notice that none of them are me/I requests.)

Next, I will note that Judaism is deeply symbolic, creedal, and essentially what we call ‘liturgical.’ Further, it is the only system of worship that, in its original form, was directly established by God. At least, it’s the only one recorded. And God established a highly liturgical form of worship. In our ‘low worship’ style, it’s important that we remember and acknowledge that reality because McKnight’s next point is one I’ve noticed many Baptists (and others) struggle with. McKnight even confesses his own struggle. This is an important note for his next section, titled “The Lord’s Prayer as a Gift for Liturgy.”

When the disciples asked Jesus for a prayer, he said, ‘When you pray, say.” Literally, ‘say’ means ‘repeat.’ I already knew that, but I’ve watched people go to great lengths to make it mean something else. Further, contextually it makes no sense for Jesus to do anything else. The disciples ask for a prayer. Given their liturgical setting, they would expect a prayer they could repeat. Like the Kaddish. Like others. Surely that’s what Jesus would have given them?

Of course, liturgical prayers *can* become mindless rote. But frankly, non-liturgical prayers easily become just as mindless, shallow, and empty. The problem lies not with the prayer or the form, but with us. If prayer, any prayer, is actually loving communication with God, it’s real prayer whatever form it takes. If it’s not, it’s nothing but empty words.

The advantage of liturgical or structured prayers is twofold (in my mind). By their content, even if we start in a place of mindless repitition, they always have the ability to capture our attention and shape our thoughts toward God. And if we start with God in mind, they contain many ‘hooks’ that can lead us into conversational prayers. Neither liturgical churches nor Jesus suggest that *all* prayer should be structured. But structured prayers give us a routine and a place to begin when we don’t otherwise ‘feel’ like praying, when the ‘dry lima beans in a dry mouth on a dry day’ experience descends upon us.

The Lord’s Prayer focuses us on the priorities (loving God and loving others) and does not allow us to easily descend into what McKnight calls ‘self-saturated prayers.’ He quotes Lauren Winner (a convert from liturgical Judaism to liturgical Christianity), “Liturgy is not, in the end, open to our emotional whims.” Maybe it’s the ‘postmodern’ (or whatever) within me, but that statement resonates deeply.

McKnight then relates the personal impression the Lord made on his heart about this prayer as he studied and reflected on it. Now he concludes each of his Jesus classes with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (and begins it with a recitation of the Jesus Creed).

McKnight explores four things which we can learn when we permit the Lord’s Prayer to mentor our Prayer to mentor our prayer life.

We learn to approach God as Abba….This is the signature term of Jesus and it marks the center of his teaching about God.

We learn what God really wants… God’s love plan is for his glorious Name to be honored and his will to become concrete reality on earth. Earth is Abba’s frontier; heaven is already his. In pondering God’s Name, kingdom, and will, we are prompted (daily) to yearn for what God yearns for. Love always prompts yearning.

We learn to think of others… As Jesus didn’t leave the Shema to be a God-only thing, so he didn’t leave the Kaddish to be a God-only thing. And he doesn’t want it to be an I-only thing either.

We learn what everyone needs. Hanging our prayers on the framework of the Lord’s Prayer will lead us to yearn that all will have provision, be granted forgiveness, and be spared temptation. … We need to think our way back into Jesus’ world by recalling that we have just petitioned the Abba about his Name, Kingdom, and will. Our concern is with God’s breaking into history to make this world right for all of us. And that means praying for others so that they will have adequate provisions, spiritual purity, and moral stability. I don’t know about you, but I tend to begin my prayers for others with what I know about them and what they need. Jesus offers another path: We can begin with what he wants for them. By using the Lord’s Prayer, we join his loving prayer for them.

Do you get those things from the Lord’s Prayer? I’m starting to. Prayer is a big issue. As I’ve related in other posts, in my search for how to pray and especially what it meant to pray without ceasing, and my dissatisfaction with the things most evangelicals seem to write and say, I turned to Brother Lawrence. And through, at least in part I believe, his intercession, the Jesus Prayer came to me. I’ve never confused set prayers with “vain repetition” probably because I have a sense of history and first-hand experience with other religions. In the ancient context, people would use many words and take other actions in an effort to get their god’s attention. We see that recorded in our Scripture as well. One excellent example is the encounter between Elijah and the priests of Baal. I’ve also meditated with mantras whose purpose is to clear your mind of thought and activity. That’s neither the goal nor the result of praying Christian set prayers.

McKnight concludes with the note that the Lord’s Prayer is a “gift for action.” It’s “a commitment of the pray-er to the values of the Lord’s Prayer.” He then includes a quote from Frank Laubach. (I don’t know who that is, but I really like the little excerpt here.)

It [the Lord’s Prayer] is the prayer most used and least understood. People think they are asking God for something. They are not — they are offering God something.

… the Lord’s Prayer is not a prayer to God to do something we want done. It is more nearly God’s prayer to us, to help Him do what he wants done… He wanted that entire prayer answered before we prayed it…. The Lord’s Prayer is not intercession. It is enlistment.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 1

Posted: May 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 1

1.  He who truly loves God prays entirely without distraction, and he who prays entirely without distraction loves God truly. But he whose intellect is fixed on any worldly thing does not pray without distraction, and consequently he does not love God.

I’m reminded by this text of another saying: A theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian. I think prayer is more important and deeper in meaning than many Christian traditions allow. I don’t think it’s merely a way to praise God or ask for intercession, however important it is to praise God and to intercede in prayer. Neither of those adequately account for the repeated emphasis the New Testament places on constant, unceasing prayer.

St. Maximos ties love of God to undistracted prayer. And I think it’s safe to assume he meant constant, undistracted prayer. I find his words describe me accurately. My love of God is always wavering. I have to keep returning to love of God just as I have to keep returning to prayer. Sometimes it’s all I can to do to pray for mercy.

In his centuries of love, St. Maximos peels back the lies we tell ourselves as though they were layers of an onion. It’s uncomfortable at times, but we can only love God in Spirit and Truth.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 26

Posted: May 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 26

100. When the intellect is established in God, it at first ardently longs to discover the principles of His essence. But God’s inmost nature does not admit of such investigation, which is indeed beyond the capacity of everything created. The qualities that appertain to His nature, however, are accessible to the intellect’s longing: I mean the qualities of eternity, infinity, indeterminateness, goodness, wisdom, and the power of creating, preserving and judging creatures. Yet of these, only infinity may be grasped fully; and the very fact of knowing nothing is knowledge surpassing the intellect, as the theologians Gregory of Nazianzos and Dionysios have said.

We’ve reached the concluding text of St. Maximos’ first century on love and it’s a complicated one indeed. I’m familiar with the longing to understand God’s essence and am beginning to recognize the futility of that effort. And that, I think is as it should be. A God that my mind could compass would not, after all, be much of a God.

The qualities that leap out to me from St. Maximos’ list are goodness and wisdom. Those, I think, are the qualities I perceived in God that finally drew me into something like Christian faith. That wasn’t an easy step for me. There are versions of God proclaimed in parts of Christianity that may be many things, but who could not be called good. However, when you truly perceive our God, even darkly through a clouded glass, his goodness still shines through. He is a good and wise God, the sort of God we desperately need. And he loves mankind. Sadly, far too many do not recognize that beautiful truth.

As we cannot truly say something about God’s essence without almost unsaying it at the same time, we also cannot know God through our intellect. And yet, even though we know nothing, we can have a knowledge of God — a mystical or relational form of knowing — that is infinite. Or at least, those are the thoughts that St. Maximos’ text awakens in me. I’m not sure that it’s what he meant at all, but even if mine is a different thought, I think it’s a true one.


Original Sin 28 – Original Sin According to St. Paul

Posted: March 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I have read the article, Original Sin According to St. Paul, by John S. Romanides, several times and I believe I’ve absorbed its main points. This is a modern Orthodox theological paper written in light of interaction with Western thought. As such, it has some points that fit well with this series. I encourage anyone interested to go read the full article. Romanides begins with an exploration of fallen creation and makes an important point.

Whether or not belief in the present, real and active power of Satan appeals to the Biblical theologian, he cannot ignore the importance that St. Paul attributes to the power of the devil. To do so is to completely misunderstand the problem of original sin and its transmission and so misinterpret the mind of the New Testament writers and the faith of the whole ancient Church. In regard to the power of Satan to introduce sin into the life of every man, St. Augustine in combating Pelagianism obviously misread St. Paul. by relegating the power of Satan, death, and corruption to the background and pushing to the foreground of controversy the problem of personal guilt in the transmission of original sin, St. Augustine introduced a false moralistic philosophical approach which is foreign to the thinking of St. Paul and which was not accepted by the patristic tradition of the East.

As I mentioned yesterday, the power of corruption and death is active and personal, not passive. Moreover, deliberately or not, the sort of thinking the West employs about original sin leads to a certain sort of metaphysical dualism.

It is obvious from St. Paul’s expressions concerning fallen creation, Satan, and death, that there is no room in his thinking for any type of metaphysical dualism, of departmentalization which would make of this world and intermediary domain which for man is merely a stepping stone leading either into the presence of God or into the kingdom of Satan. The idea of a three story universe, whereby God and His company of saints and angels occupy the top floor, the devil the basement, and man in the flesh the middle, has no room in Pauline theology. For Paul, all three orders of existence interpenetrate. There is no such thing as a middle world of neutrality where man can live according to natural law and then be judged for a life of happiness in the presence of God or for a life of torment in the pits of outer darkness. On the contrary, all of creation is the domain of God, Who Himself cannot be tainted with evil. But in His domain there are other wills which He has created, which can choose either the kingdom of God or the kingdom of death and destruction.

Does not the above accurately describe the way many Christians and non-Christians alike in our country today view the Christian story of reality, as a sort of three story universe? Fr. Stephen Freeman has an excellent article on that very subject, Christianity in a One-Storey Universe. I highly recommend it.

Then, in the second section, Romanides attacks the resulting view of God’s justice, that essentially makes God responsible for death.

On the other hand, it is a grave mistake to make the justice of God responsible for death and corruption. Nowhere does Paul attribute the beginnings of death and corruption to God. On the contrary, nature was subjected to vanity and corruption by the devil, who through the sin and death of the first man managed to lodge himself parasitically within creation, of which he was already a part but at first not yet its tyrant. For Paul, the transgression of the first man opened the way for the entrance of death into the world, but this enemy is certainly not the finished product of God. Neither can the death of Adam, or even of each man, be considered the outcome of any decision of God to punish. St. Paul never suggests such an idea.

Rather, as the nature of the Trinity itself suggests, the problem is deeply relational.

The relationships which exist among God, man and the devil are not according to rules and regulations, but according to personalistic freedom. The fact that there are laws forbidding one from killing his neighbor does not imply the impossibility of killing not only one, but hundreds of thousands of neighbors. If man can disregard rules and regulations of good conduct, certainly the devil cannot be expected to follow such rules if he can help it. St. Paul’s version of the devil is certainly not that of one who is simply obeying general rules of nature and carrying out the will of God by punishing souls in hell. Quite on the contrary, he is fighting God dynamically by means of all possible deception, trying by all his cunning and power to destroy the works of God.

In the last section of the paper, Romanides dives deeply into Greek and Hebrew meanings, understandings, and interpretations. I believe I’ve read it enough times to absorb the points, but I don’t know either language and don’t trust myself to summarize them. It’s an important section, but if you are interested, you need to go read it yourself. His first concluding observation, though, is one I’ve made in this series.

St. Paul does not say anywhere that the whole human race has been accounted guilty of the sin of Adam and is therefore punished by God with death. Death is an evil force which made its way into the world through sin, lodged itself in the world, and, in the person of Satan, is reigning both in man and creation. For this reason, although man can know the good through the law written in his heart and may wish to do what is good, he cannot because of the sin which is dwelling in his flesh. Therefore, it is not he who does the evil, but sin that dwelleth in him. Because of this sin, he cannot find the means to do good. He must be saved from “the body of this death.” Only then can he do good. What can Paul mean by such statements? A proper answer is to be found only when St. Paul’s doctrine of human destiny is taken into account.

If man was created for a life of complete selfless love, whereby his actions would always be directed outward, toward God and neighbor, and never toward himself–whereby he would be the perfect image and likeness of God–then it is obvious that the power of death and corruption has now made it impossible to live such a life of perfection. The power of death in the universe has brought with it the will for self-preservation, fear, and anxiety, which in turn are the root causes of self-assertion, egoism, hatred, envy and the like. Because man is afraid of becoming meaningless, he is constantly endeavoring to prove, to himself and others, that he is worth something. He thirsts after compliments and is afraid of insults. He seeks his own and is jealous of the successes of others. He likes those who like him, and hates those who hate him. He either seeks security and happiness in wealth, glory and bodily pleasures, or imagines that this destiny is to be happy in the possession of the presence of God by an introverted and individualistic and inclined to mistake his desires for self-satisfaction and happiness for his normal destiny. On the other hand, he can become zealous over vague ideological principles of love for humanity and yet hate his closest neighbors. These are the works of the flesh of which St. Paul speaks. Underlying every movement of what the world has come to regard as normal man, is the quest for security and happiness. But such desires are not normal. They are the consequences of perversion by death and corruption, though which the devil pervades all of creation, dividing and destroying. This power is so great that even if man wishes to live according to his original destiny it is impossible because of the sin which is dwelling in the flesh — “Who will deliver me from the body of this death?”

It does not seem to me that there is any way to reconcile the Eastern and Western perspectives on this question. They say very different things about the nature of man, the nature of God, the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection,  the purpose of the Church, and the underlying nature of reality. Not only that, they frequently say opposing things. I think you just have to decide which you believe.


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.


For the Life of the World 37

Posted: February 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 37

This post focuses on sections 1-3 of Sacrament and Symbol, the second appendix of For the Life of the World.

Fr. Schmemann notes at the start of this essay that much of Orthodox theology in recent centuries has been deeply swayed and influenced by the Western perspective that focused on the form and practice of sacraments and tried to fully define them in ways that Christianity had not traditionally done. Not only were the answers wrong, but often the questions were the wrong questions, or they were asked in the wrong way.

What is a “sacrament”? In answering this question the post-patristic Western and “westernizing” theology places itself within a mental context deeply, if not radically, different from that of the early Church. I say mental and not intellectual because the difference belongs here to a level much deeper than that of intellectual presuppositions or theological terminology.

That’s the first question. What is it about which we are speaking? Everyone seems to assume they know, but there are actually a lot of presuppositions and statements about the nature of reality behind every such answer.

In the early Church, in the writings of the Fathers, sacraments, inasmuch as they are given any systematic interpretation, are always explained in the context of their actual liturgical celebration, the explanation being, in fact, an exegesis of the liturgy itself in all its ritual complexity and concreteness.

You see this as far back as the Didache, where baptism cannot be explained apart from its actual liturgical practice, and it continues everywhere that baptism, the eucharist, and other sacraments are discussed. They are concrete things. It’s only much later that sacraments came to be discussed and analyzed independent of their actual practice. Fr. Schmemann notes that you could read about the sacraments in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, for example, and walk away with no knowledge or understanding of the liturgical act itself, how to “do” the sacrament.

In order to begin to explore the shift in perception and understanding, Fr. Schmemann begins by focusing on a Western “debate” with which most are familiar — the debate of the real presence.

Within the context of that debate the term “real” clearly implies the possibility of another type of presence which therefore is not real. The term for that other presence in the Western intellectual and theological idiom is, we know, symbolical. [It is clear in Western thought that] the “incompatibility between symbol and reality,” between “figura et veritas” is consistently affirmed and accepted.

Even before I began to read ancient Christian writers, I knew that was wrong. I knew that as a rule people int he ancient world did not make “symbol” the opposite of “real.” Rather, symbols always shared in the power of that which they expressed. And the truer the symbol, the greater the power. Once I began to read ancient Christians, I found a similar sort of perception of reality in their writings.

The Fathers and the whole early tradition, however — and we reach here the crux of the matter — not only do not know this distinction and opposition, but to them symbolism is the essential dimension of the sacrament, the proper key to its understanding. … “Symbolical” here is not only not opposed to “real,” but embodies it as its very expression and mode of manifestation. Historians of theology, in their ardent desire to maintain the myth of theological continuity and orderly “evolution,” here again find their explanation in the “imprecision” of patristic terminology. They do not seem to realize that the Fathers’ use of “symbolon” (and related terms) is not “vague” or “imprecise” but simply different from that of the later theologians, and that the subsequent transformation of these terms constitutes indeed the source of one of the greatest theological tragedies.

The use of many terms changed within Christianity, but most Christians don’t want to admit it, or if they do, they want to believe that they have somehow “recovered” an older meaning or understanding that was “lost.” Few people are content to simply let different be different and read and explore with that lens in place.