The Jesus Prayer 4 – Spirituality

Posted: February 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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

Khouria Frederica then tries to summarize some of the differences between the modern forms of Eastern and Western Christianity. (To the Orthodox eye, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism often seem to be two sides of the same coin. They are cut from the same cloth.) The cultural and linguistic differences between what we often call the Latin West and the Greek East began developing from an early time. Language shapes culture and culture forms the lens through which we understand reality. St. Augustine made some of his errors, for instance in his doctrine of original sin, because he didn’t read Greek and relied on a Latin translation that in a few key places was simply wrong. Moreover, since he wrote in Latin, his work received little notice or attention among the Greek fathers of the time, so it was never really critiqued or corrected (though St. John Cassian did make some effort in that regard). I use that as an example to illustrate that this is an ancient and deep divergence.

I don’t mean to imply the divergence was in any way necessary or inevitable. It wasn’t. We can see that clearly in all the many languages and cultures (not least the Slavic) in which a more unified Christian mind has been preserved. There were many factors, often political, behind the gradual divergence over centuries between the East and the West. Nevertheless, it’s an important present-day reality with which we have to somehow cope.

Khouria Frederica points out that within Orthodox contexts, the word “spirituality” is not much used.

The reason is the everything is “spirituality.” Christian Orthodoxy is itself a spiritual path, rather than an institution or set of propositions. … From the outside Orthodoxy must look exuberantly chaotic, but from the inside it is a closely coordinated collection of wisdom (some elders term it a “science”) about how to pursue theosis. … Nor does Eastern Orthodoxy have the range of devotional practices seen in the West. There is not an array of monastic orders, each with its own emphasis or mission. There is really only one “program” of spiritual healing, and within it the Jesus Prayer holds a unique role.

The basis for whether or not a practice is included and passed along to subsequent generations is effectiveness. It has to actually work. This unified form of spirituality across Orthodoxy (even other ancient churches not presently in communion with each other because of ancient disputes) is all aimed at the goal of theosis. Body and soul, the goal of salvation is union with Christ — oneness or communion with God.


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.


Original Sin 26 – So how did this idea come to dominate in the West?

Posted: March 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 26 – So how did this idea come to dominate in the West?

The question of how the idea of original sin as inherited guilt (along with other distinct differences) rose to dominance in the Western Christian world is actually a pretty interesting historical question. In order to begin to understand it, one has to step back into the ancient world within which Christianity formed and took root. For good reason, we tend to associate Christianity with the rise of Western civilization. The two are often so deeply intertwined in our minds, that we tend to unconsciously assume that Christianity is a Western religion.

But it’s not. And the world of those first centuries was a very different one. In that world, what we call the West was the frontier of the Roman Empire. Within the context of Christianity, only one Apostolic See was established — the one in Rome. In the East, by way of contrast, there were four Apostolic sees or patriarchates: Jerusalem (the oldest), Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. (According to tradition it’s said that the Apostle Andrew founded the church that eventually became the See of Constantinople, but the actual elevation of Constantinople to the level of the other Sees probably stems from the same reason that Rome itself was originally included. They were both capitol cities of the Empire. And as the status of Rome declined, that of Constantinople rose. If the realities of political and geographic realities had not played a part in the status and importance of some of the Apostolic Sees, then one would expect to see Ephesus, for example, among them.)

By the time of St. Augustine, the division of language between the Latin West and the Greek East had become more pronounced than it had ever been before. The days of a sole emperor were largely gone and the Empire itself was more strongly divided into a Western Empire under Rome and an Eastern Empire under Constantinople than it had generally been before. The East had Persia as its biggest rival; the threat that Islam became did not yet exist. While Christianity and trade still tied East and West together, those bonds were growing weaker.

In that context, we have to add the fact that St. Augustine stood head and shoulders intellectually above anyone in the Latin West while the East retained many equal voices. Moreover St. Augustine did not write in Greek nor did he like to read Greek. Thus he did not interact with the Eastern Fathers theologically and it doesn’t seem that any of those in the East ever read St. Augustine’s theological works. It doesn’t appear that they were even translated into Greek until many centuries later. St. John Cassian (who I believe is the only Western saint with writings included, for example, in the Philokalia) did try to mediate some of the places where St. Augustine went too far, but his efforts were less appreciated in the West.

As a result, St. Augustine became the dominant interpretive voice in the West in a way that no single person ever became in the East. His interpretations eventually became the normative base for all Western theology. Protestantism rejected some of the late medieval practices and theology of the Roman Catholic Church, but they remained rooted in an Augustinian perspective of reality. If anything, they went further along the path of that perspective than St. Augustine himself ever did. Thus we get ideas like ‘total depravity’ that certainly go beyond anything St. Augustine taught.

At any rate, those seem to be the primary factors in the tapestry of divergence to my eyes. Anyone think I’m missing or overlooking anything?


Original Sin 24 – Romans 5:12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original Sin 23 – Ephesians 2:3

Posted: March 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 23 – Ephesians 2:3

This verse (or actually just a portion of it) is typically used to support the notion of original sin as inherited guilt. However, for the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to quote all of Ephesians 2 verses 1-10. (And I would even urge people to go reread all of Ephesians again if it’s been a while since you’ve done so.)

1 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.
4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.

The part of the above that was used by St. Augustine to support the idea that we inherit guilt is the phrase “by nature children of wrath.” This was a part of his larger idea that instead of God interacting with the will and actions of each individual human eikon, after Adam all humanity became one big lump of sin. Tied to this interpretation is that we were born sharing a nature subject to God’s wrath.

However, there’s a problem with that interpretation, which is why I quoted the entire excerpt above. As Paul often does, he is contrasting two things — the kingdoms of death and of  life. All humanity was dead, subject as a result to the “prince of the power of the air“, bound by our passions, and the wrath of which we are all by nature children is the wrath flowing from the ruler of that kingdom — not God’s wrath. By contrast, God — who loves us — has made us alive in Christ, freeing us from the wrathful rule of the prince of the power of the air, and created us anew for good works rather than in bondage to our passions.

I love Ephesians. I fall in love with its vision all over again every time I read it. But it doesn’t say anything about human beings inheriting guilt. Trying to lift that one phrase in an effort to make that point does violence to the text.


Original Sin 22 – John 3:5

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 22 – John 3:5

First, here’s the text of John 3:5 for us to consider.

Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

John 3:5 refers to Christian baptism. For almost the entire history of the Church, that has been its universal interpretation across traditions. Recently, of course, some sects of Protestantism (and much of what is typically labeled today as “evangelicalism”) have interpreted the verse to refer to physical birth (water) and some sort of inner, spiritual rebirth (Spirit). But if we’re discussing St. Augustine or almost anything recorded throughout the history of Christianity, then we must read the ‘water’ as the waters of baptism and ‘Spirit’ as the Holy Spirit. The waters of Baptism, accompanied by the seal of the Holy Spirit mark our entrance into the kingdom of God as manifested on earth in the Church.

As an aside, this even impacts the architecture of our churches today. Those of you who are “evangelical” are probably accustomed to seeing the baptistry at the front of the sanctuary, so that all those seated within the church are facing it. Traditionally, however, baptisms were performed at the back of the nave or in the narthex before the entrance of the nave. This was done because baptism marked the entrance of person into the Church. One was baptized and then one entered. Churches built in a traditional manner still reflect that design.

St. Augustine used John 3:5 to say essentially that if one had to be baptized to enter the kingdom, then there had to be something in the nature of the unbaptized — even infants who had committed no willful sin — that kept them out of the Kingdom. He, of course, defined that something as the inherited guilt of original sin. Both his exegesis of the verse and his assertion that unbaptized infants are condemned run contrary to the predominant interpretation of the ancient Church.

To illustrate that, I would point to St. Gregory of Nyssa in On Infants’ Early Deaths. It’s only one example, but a good one. He first takes the time to pose the question well, pointing out the flaws in quick or easy answers. He then constructs an analogy of life around the choices available to two men with a degenerative disease of their eyes. One follows the advice and way of the doctors and purgation, however painful that might be, and is eventually healed and able to enjoy the fullness of light. The other chooses to follow what seems to be a broad path of ease and comfort, declining the necessary treatments and spending his time in comfort in the baths and eventually ends up blind, unable to perceive the light at all. From that, he says the following of infants.

Whereas the innocent babe has no such plague before its soul’s eyes obscuring its measure of light, and so it continues to exist in that natural life; it does not need the soundness which comes from purgation, because it never admitted the plague into its soul at all. Further, the present life appears to me to offer a sort of analogy to the future life we hope for, and to be intimately connected with it, thus; the tenderest infancy is suckled and reared with milk from the breast; then another sort of food appropriate to the subject of this fostering, and intimately adapted to his needs, succeeds, until at last he arrives at full growth. And so I think, in quantities continually adapted to it, in a sort of regular progress, the soul partakes of that truly natural life; according to its capacity and its power it receives a measure of the delights of the Blessed state; indeed we learn as much from Paul, who had a different sort of food for him who was already grown in virtue and for the imperfect “babe.” For to the last he says, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it.” But to those who have grown to the full measure of intellectual maturity he says, “But strong meat belongeth to those that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised…” Now it is not right to say that the man and the infant are in a similar state however free both may be from any contact of disease (for how can those who do not partake of exactly the same things be in an equal state of enjoyment?); on the contrary, though the absence of any affliction from disease may be predicated of both alike as long as both are out of the reach of its influence, yet, when we come to the matter of delights, there is no likeness in the enjoyment, though the percipients are in the same condition. For the man there is a natural delight in discussions, and in the management of affairs, and in the honourable discharge of the duties of an office, and in being distinguished for acts of help to the needy; in living, it may be, with a wife whom he loves, and ruling his household; and in all those amusements to be found in this life in the way of pastime, in musical pieces and theatrical spectacles, in the chase, in bathing, in gymnastics, in the mirth of banquets, and anything else of that sort. For the infant, on the contrary, there is a natural delight in its milk, and in its nurse’s arms, and in gentle rocking that induces and then sweetens its slumber. Any happiness beyond this the tenderness of its years naturally prevents it from feeling. In the same manner those who in their life here have nourished the forces of their souls by a course of virtue, and have, to use the Apostle’s words, had the “senses” of their minds “exercised,” will, if they are translated to that life beyond, which is out of the body, proportionately to the condition and the powers they have attained participate in that divine delight; they will have more or they will have less of its riches according to the capacity acquired. But the soul that has never felt the taste of virtue, while it may indeed remain perfectly free from the sufferings which flow from wickedness having never caught the disease of evil at all, does nevertheless in the first instance partake only so far in that life beyond (which consists, according to our previous definition, in the knowing and being in God) as this nursling can receive; until the time comes that it has thriven on the contemplation of the truly Existent as on a congenial diet, and, becoming capable of receiving more, takes at will more from that abundant supply of the truly Existent which is offered.

Yes, I know that’s quite a bit to digest, but it captures more of the essence of the common patristic view than St. Augustine did. St. Gregory also admits his ignorance.

Whether, then, the early deaths of infants are to be attributed to the aforesaid causes, or whether there is some further cause of them beyond these, it befits us to acknowledge that these things happen for the best.

Ultimately we don’t know all the answers, but we trust that God is good and that he loves us. This is what Jesus showed us in his life and it is what he taught us about God. Death is not good, but we trust that God is working to transform all things, even the evil things, into good. (Romans 8:28) And that certain applies when we face the deaths of innocent infants, baptized or not. They are safe in the hand of God and I reject any teaching and any teacher who says differently.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original Sin 20 – Job 14:4-5

Posted: March 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 20 – Job 14:4-5

I left for last an examination of the texts from Scriptures used by St. Augustine to support his idea of original sin as the inherited guilt of all mankind. It has always seemed to me that St. Augustine developed his framework from the other sources and for the reasons I’ve examined in this series and then found texts he could use to connect those ideas to the Holy Scriptures. St. Augustine uses just five texts to support his idea of original sin, so we’ll look at each of them in turn. I will note that St. Augustine wrote and read in Latin and appears to have either been uncomfortable with Greek or outright disliked it. A couple of the verses on which he relies are actually mistranslated in the Latin text on which he relied.

The first text we’ll examine is Job 14:4-5. This also seems to be the first mistranslated text. It appears that the Latin version St. Augustine used was translated to read (in part) as follows.

Who is clean from sin? Not even a child whose life on earth is of one day.

I will note that the LXX (which is the traditional Christian Old Testament) and the Hebrew Masoretic text differ somewhat on this text. However, neither reads like the above. I’ll start with the LXX (quoting in full from the OSB).

For who shall be pure from uncleanness? No one. Even if his life is but one day upon the earth, his months are numbered by You. You appointed a time for him, and he cannot exceed it.

Within the context of Job’s prayer to God, he is saying that we are bound by mortality and with just a day amid the struggles of this life, even the most righteous would sin. St. John Chrysostom had the following to say on the passage.

You see Job taking refuge again in his nature, because it is impossible, he says, to be pure. [He implores God] not only because of our weakness or our ephemeral nature or the disheartening that fills our life, but because it is also impossible to be pure. … Job expresses again the ephemeral, miserable, and unhappy character of life. … Then Job demonstrates that human beings are the unhappiest of all, more than trees, rivers and the sea.

The Hebrew Masoretic text is translated as follows in the NKJV.

Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one! Since his days are determined, The number of his months is with You; You have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass.

The gist of verse five, looking at both texts, is clearly the idea that our days are numbered. We are limited. St. Gregory the Great writes the following.

God sets bounds to our spiritual attainments. We learn humility by the things we are unable to master, that we may not be exalted by those things we have the power to do.

With this text, it seems obvious to me that it does not say anything like what St. Augustine thought it said. His exegesis of this text was led astray by a flawed translation. That leaves four more texts to examine.


Original Sin 19 – St. Augustine & Pelagius

Posted: March 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

It’s impossible to discuss the origin of the idea of original sin as the inherited or shared guilt of Adam without noting the context within which St. Augustine developed it. And the idea developed within the context of the long-running dispute between St. Augustine and Pelagius. I find that this particular dispute is often caricatured and positions are attributed to each man that do not appear to be entirely accurate.

So let’s start with Pelagius. While his teaching was ultimately condemned and he is considered a heretic (one who holds and teaches a different faith) in both the Eastern and Western Church, it doesn’t seem to have been as blatantly distinct from Orthodox faith as it is sometimes portrayed today. While Christianity had always taught and practiced the process of salvation as a lifelong synergy between God and man rooted in the amazing act of God in the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, it seems that Pelagius taught that in light of Jesus’ accomplishment, man had the potential to “work out his salvation in fear and trembling” without anything else from God. Most wouldn’t or couldn’t, of course, and thus required the grace or energies of God. But it was at least possible.

Pelagius, however, seems to have been quite adept at putting that idea in terms that seemed orthodox. The reaction to him in many places was ambivalent and sometimes even accepting. And that seems to have infuriated St. Augustine, who ultimately did convince his fellow bishops to condemn Pelagius. St. Augustine, known for his piety, had a deep sense of his own sinfulness and his inability to make any headway without the grace of God (which is to say God himself). As easily happens in such situations, St. Augustine was striving to make his case and in this instance, seems to me (and many others) to have overreached in making a rhetorical point.

That does not then mean that Pelagius was right. Today a lot of people seem to cast the discussion as some sort of an either/or dichotomy. Either you accept everything that St. Augustine ever wrote over the course of the dispute or you accept that Pelagius was correct. And that’s a false dichotomy. It’s easy to believe that Pelagius taught something other than the faith handed down by the Apostles and still believe that St. Augustine overstated his own case and was even wrong on some points. I certainly believe that’s true when it comes to his formulation of original sin and so does all of Eastern Christianity.

Nothing human ever happens in a vacuum. There are always many dynamics and forces at work. And if you want to understand an end result, you have to have some insight into the process and circumstances that produced it. Hopefully this post helps adds some of that context to the discussion.