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.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 25 – Conclusion

Posted: August 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This seems like a good place to bring this series to a close. I believe I’ve demonstrated what the Internet Monk called “the historical problem” with the Baptist understanding of the Eucharist. I’ve meandered through the writings of the early church, the church under persecution, from the first century to the third century. Consistently, from the writings of the Holy Scripture in the New Testament, to those taught by the apostles, those taught in turn by them, and onward from generation to generation, all those we would consider in any sense “orthodox” confess that the bread and wine are the body and blood of our Lord. It was a matter of great mystery and power. The Eucharist equipped the people of God so that they might stand under persecution. Even those like the early gnostics, who rejected the goodness of the material world and the Incarnation itself, understood the confession of the Church and so refused to partake of the Eucharist.

There is simply no place from the foundation of the Church and the writing of the Holy Scriptures, to the end of persecution in the fourth century where the teaching and practice of the Eucharist changed from one thing into something else. There is no point in time where the early Church believed anything different, taught anything different, or practiced anything different. Instead, there is a deep unity and consistency.

After this period, of course, Christianity became a legal religion and we have many more preserved writings, all of which maintain the same tradition. The oldest Christian liturgy still in use today is the liturgy of St. James the Just. We know it was certainly in use by the fourth century and may date much earlier in the Apostolic See of Jerusalem. This is the liturgy that St. Basil somewhat shortened and which St. John Chrysostom further abbreviated. This liturgy is thus the source for the Divine Liturgy most commonly used in Orthodox Churches. Spend time with the whole text (and remember that it is sung), but this tiny excerpt leaves no doubt about what those participating believed about the Eucharist.

Your same all-holy Spirit, Lord, send down on us and on these gifts here set forth, that having come by his holy, good and glorious presence, he may sanctify this bread and make it the holy body of Christ, and this Cup the precious blood of Christ, that they may become for all those who partake of them for forgiveness of sins and everlasting life. For sanctification of souls and bodies. For a fruitful harvest of good works. For the strengthening of your holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, which you founded on the rock of the faith, so that the gates of Hell might not prevail against it, delivering it from every heresy and from the scandals caused by those who work iniquity, and from the enemies who arise and attack it, until the consummation of the age.

A great mystery? To be sure. Nevertheless, this was the confession of all Christians from the first century through to the sixteenth. Yes, in the thirteenth century St. Thomas Aquinas used the language of Aristotle in an attempt to rationally explain the mystery. And because most people don’t really approach the world through the lens of Aristotle, the theory of “transubstantiation” has certainly been poorly understood and ill-used at times. St. Thomas was himself simply trying to make rational sense of the mystery of the Eucharist using terms and symbols with which he was familiar. Transubstantiation actually says that the substance or the true reality becomes the body and blood even while the accidents, that is the parts we can see, touch, smell, and taste, remain sensibly bread and wine. St. Thomas would probably have been better served to leave it a mystery beyond explanation.

As we observed earlier in this series, of the sixteenth century reformers Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, only Luther maintained a perspective of the Eucharist at all consistent with the entire preceding history of the Church. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, Luther probably would have been better served leaving the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood a great mystery. But he was a product of both medieval Roman Catholicism and the early modern era and felt constrained to attempt to rationalize it in his theory of consubstantiation. Nevertheless, he locates the body and blood of Christ with the bread and wine of the Eucharist in a real way.

Calvin and Zwingli? They both essentially invented new ideas about the Eucharist. Their ideas are sixteenth century innovations that didn’t exist before they conceived them. Unfortunately, they ended up having more influence over Protestantism than Luther did. Luther’s teaching remained largely limited to Lutherans. Calvin’s had broader influence. While some version of Zwingli’s teaching on the Eucharist has become the norm for most of Protestant belief and practice. It can be fairly said that those who follow Zwingli or Calvin in their teaching of the Eucharist are practicing a faith that is less than five hundred years old rather than one that is more than two millenia old.

Is that a historical problem?

I would call it one.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 1 – The Reformers

Posted: July 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I decided that in order to explore this topic, I needed to spend a little bit of time to establish and define the history and shape of the modern Baptist view of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. That will provide a reference point for comparison as we then step back into the first millenium. In order to sketch the modern background, in this post I will briefly outline the perspective of the three main early Reformers on the Eucharist. I will not be looking here at Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation. That was really a different path with different goals and a different result from the Protestant Reformation. Anglicans are not exactly Protestant. Nor are they Catholic. By intent, they stand between the two traditions.

When it came to the Eucharist, Martin Luther‘s primary issue had to do with the abuses and odd practices and beliefs that had arisen in late medieval Roman Catholic Church from the specific theory called transubstantiation. The theory of transubstantiation itself had only been developed several hundred years earlier by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. He used Aristotle‘s terminology in his effort to explain the mechanics of the change. In those terms, the substance or essence, the true reality of the bread and wine were changed into the body and blood of our Lord even as the accidents or those parts available to our five senses remained bread and wine.

In hindsight, Luther might have been better served had he simply returned to the prevailing perspective in both the East and the West prior to Thomas Aquinas. However, he was a product of Western scholasticism himself and leaving things unexplained and in tension probably was not something he could have done. So Luther developed his own theory of how the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. Luther called his theory consubstantiation. I’m not going to delve into that theory here, since I’m primarily exploring the Baptist connection to history.

In stark contrast to Luther, Huldrych Zwingli held that the bread and wine signify the body and blood of Jesus and are a memorial to his sacrifice on the Cross rather than any sort of participation in it. Zwingli and Luther met a number of times, but were never able to come to any sort of agreement or find common ground. According to his own later statements, Zwingli did not believe the elements were mere bread and wine. Nevertheless, his view came very close to that perspective. Clearly, much of modern Protestantism draws their perception and understanding of the Eucharist from Zwingli.

John Calvin, the third of the early Reformers, tried to take a middle way between Luther and Zwingli. On the one hand he held that since Jesus is bodily at the right hand of God, there can be no material connection between between bread and body. However, the bread and wine do more than signify. In some sense, they are the body and blood, at least spiritually. So Calvin made it a spiritual meal and a spiritual feeding. His middle way had little effect on the other two. Calvin’s rejection of an actual material connection between the bread and wine and the body and blood of Jesus made his view unacceptable to Luther. And Zwingli would not accept that we even spiritually eat the body and drink the blood of Jesus. He insisted that the bread and wine have no connection to the body and blood, not even a spiritual one.

Those three men represent the three streams that shaped pretty much all of Protestant belief about and understanding of the Eucharist.


Beyond Justification 5 – What does deification mean?

Posted: May 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 5 – What does deification mean?

First, I think there is one sentence from the article, Beyond Justification, that highlights the proper place within our understanding for this discussion.

Theosis is not just the “goal” of salvation; it is salvation in its essence and fulfillment.

In other words, if we are not united with God, if we do not come to live and share and move – to dance – in the communal life of the triune God that I tried to outline in my earlier post, then in what sense have we been saved at all?

This is where the largely juridical categories most often used in the Christian West tend to break down. While the details will vary, most in the Christian West tie salvation to some legal declaration by God that one is not guilty. This declaration tends to be labeled justification and thus salvation is largely equated with being justified. Once salvation itself is linked to whether or not you have attained a certain legal or forensic status, the preeminent question becomes how one attains that status. Thus, the Western categories of thought about God’s work with humanity through Christ tend to be as follows (with salvation predominantly tied to the first category):

Justification ==> Sanctification ==> Glorification

However, with only a few exceptions among primarily the early Latin Christian writers, this sort of perspective on salvation and these categories in particular did not come into being until the rise of Western scholasticism, marked most notably by Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas. The Protestant Reformation (and later Radical Reformation) disputed the mechanics for achieving these categories but largely accepted the categories themselves. This is a central reason why the Orthodox will often comment that in their eyes Roman Catholicism and Protestantism seem more like two sides to the same coin. Justification, understood as a legal status, is associated with salvation itself. Sanctification is seen as a process of moral improvement over time, as the development of personal righteousness in reality, a progressive development in our condition. Glorification is then seen as the final state freed from the influence and presence of personal sin. The specific category names may vary, but that is generally the perspective today of the Christian West.

This perspective is not even vaguely similar to that of the Christian East. Justification is not much discussed at all and when it is, it is typically discussed in an existential rather than a juridical sense.

God’s initiative and action in the creation of humanity according to his image, and in the incarnation, Cross, and resurrection are of universal significance to humanity and cosmic significance to creation as a whole. Orthodoxy understands justification in Christ as restoring to all humanity the potential for immortality and communion with God lost in the Fall. This is because all human beings share the human nature of Jesus Christ, which was restored in the resurrection. … Salvation does not consist in an extrinsic “justification” – although this “legal” dimension is fully legitimate whenever one approaches salvation within the Old Testament category of the fulfillment of the law (as Paul does in Romans and Galatians) – but in a renewed communion with God, making human life fully human again.

Salvation is not the declaration of a legal change in our status. Rather, drawing deeply on John 14-17, the letters of John, Hebrews, and much of Paul that is underemphasized in the West (especially Ephesians and Colossians), salvation is seen as union with God. God desires us to join and participate in the perichoretic dance of the Trinity in total union with God and with each other. This is the telos of humanity. The Fathers of the church explicate this beautifully. St. Irenaeus of Lyon writes (Against Heresies):

So, then, since the Lord redeemed us by his own blood, and gave his soul for our souls, and his flesh for our bodies, and poured out the Spirit of the Father to bring about the union and communion of God and man—bringing God down to men by [the working of] the Spirit, and again raising man to God by his incarnation—and by his coming firmly and truly giving us incorruption, by our communion with God, all the teachings of the heretics are destroyed.

For when the mixed cup and the bread that has been prepared receive the Word of God, and become the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, and by these our flesh grows and is confirmed, how can they say that flesh cannot receive the free gift of God, which is eternal life, since it is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and made a member of him? As the blessed Paul says in the Epistle to the Ephesians, that we are members of his body, of his flesh and his bones. He does not say this about a [merely] spiritual and invisible man, for the spirit has neither bones nor flesh, but about [God’s] dispensation for the real man, [a dispensation] consisting of flesh and nerves and bones, which is nourished by his cup, which is his blood, and grows by the bread which is his body.

And, of course, we have the words of St. Athanasius (On the Incarnation):

Much more, then, the Word of the All-good Father was not unmindful of the human race that He had called to be; but rather, by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred, and corrected their neglect by His own teaching. Thus by His own power He restored the whole nature of man. The Savior’s own inspired disciples assure us of this. We read in one place: “For the love of Christ constraineth us, because we thus judge that, if One died on behalf of all, then all died, and He died for all that we should no longer live unto ourselves, but unto Him who died and rose again from the dead, even our Lord Jesus Christ.” And again another says: “But we behold Him Who hath been made a little lower than the angels, even Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He should taste of death on behalf of every man.”

He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. He Himself was unhurt by this, for He is impassable and incorruptible; but by His own impassability He kept and healed the suffering men on whose account He thus endured. In short, such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves. One cannot see all the waves with one’s eyes, for when one tries to do so those that are following on baffle one’s senses. Even so, when one wants to take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, one cannot do so, even by reckoning them up, for the things that transcend one’s thought are always more than those one thinks that one has grasped.

The Word, the eternal Son, assumed humanity that we might become God. Or, in the more commonly heard English translation of the statement. God became man that we might become God. This is salvation in the Eastern Christian mind. Yes, we are freed from the penalty of our sins. We are forgiven. But that is merely the starting point. That frees us to receive grace, that is to receive the life and energies of God, so that we can grow in communion with God and with each other. We are not saved until we fully participate in the life of the Trinity and in the life of every other true human being.

Salvation is thus utterly synergistic, but not in the merit-based sense that the term typically has in the West. Rather, since salvation is at its core relational in nature, it is synergistic by nature. A relationship, by definition, is two way. A monergistic relationship is an oxymoron. Our participation is empowered by God through the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus, through the gift of the presence of God within us in the seal of the Holy Spirit, and through the intertwined physical and spiritual mystical communion with God and with each other in many forms, but exemplified and rooted in the Eucharist. When you understand this, you understand why the Orthodox say things like, “The only thing you can do alone is go to hell.

But what a glorious vision of salvation this is! At it’s best in the Western sense, salvation still leaves us outside God, at most observing God. We are closer, of course. We can observe something of the dance of the Trinity. But we do not participate within it. We do not become one with God and with each other in the sense that Jesus taught. Sadly, as N.T. Wright has noted, the West has become so dualistic that often what is presented as the ultimate condition of salvation looks a whole lot more like Plato’s happy philosophers than anything recognizably Christian. We’ve reduced it to something small and ultimately boring. And that is truly sad, for the Christian story of what it means to be human and of our ultimate salvation is the best one you will ever find. I’ve explored many such stories and they pale in comparison.

In truth, as in my post on the Trinity in this series, my words here barely scratch the surface of this topic. It is just that deep and that rich. I’m at best an infant in my understanding. But hopefully I’ve exposed some of the beauty. I think there are a few more things I want to say in this series. We’ll see how many more posts that will entail.