Who Am I?

For the Life of the World 26

Posted: January 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The series now continues with the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

In this chapter, Fr. Schmemann weaves a look at the way our culture approaches life, death, and health in and around his exploration of the Orthodox funeral rite and healing sacrament. Death thrust its way into my life and consciousness at an early age, but as I’ve moved into and through middle age, it seems that funeral attendance has become an ever-increasing part of my life. Since my family and friends are spiritually diverse, that means I’ve been exposed to funerals and attitudes toward death across a broad spectrum of traditions, Christian and otherwise. Curiously, they have not actually been very different from each other when you scratch beneath the surface appearance.

In subsequent posts, I plan to walk slowly through this chapter. I found myself highlighting almost everything Fr. Schmemann wrote in it, so it’s going to take some work to trim down what I actually use. In this first post on the chapter, though, I’m going to capture and explore some of my encounters and reactions to the American attitude toward death. After all, one of the things that continues to draw me into Christianity is its outrage at death. It’s an outrage I’ve shared at least from that day when, as an eight year old, I watched my stepfather’s lifeless body wheeled out to an ambulance. Jesus weeps outside Lazarus’ tomb. And twice, John notes that he is deeply moved, he is outraged, he is angry. In Jesus, we see God’s response to the death of the eikon. We were meant to live. And in his life, death, and resurrection Jesus truly trampled down death by death. It is no longer the nature of man to die.

But you would never know that from attending virtually any Christian funeral or memorial service in the US today. Consistently, those grieving are told they are grieving for their own loss, that their beloved is happy now and “free” from suffering. However comforting they are meant to be, such sentiments are a denial of John 11, and almost a slap in the face of those grieving. Yes, it is true that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Our hope and trust is in Jesus. We do believe that he has defeated death. Nevertheless, we grieve, and not simply for our own selfish pain of separation from our beloved. Jesus grieves at the death of his friend. God is outraged at the death of his icon. Death is an abomination. Death is the ultimate enemy. We are not selfish when we grieve and it dishonors those grieving when they are not given proper room to own their grief.

What about the picture of our beloved “freed” from suffering and “at home” with the Lord? What about the message that they are “happy” now and we should try to be “happy” for them? Yes, to sleep in the body is to be with Christ, which is far better. (Though I will note that that is one of the very few things Scripture actually says about the period between the time our bodies sleep and the general resurrection of the dead.) I won’t argue with that at all. But to say that I would be perfectly happy and content even as I know that those who love me are suffering painfully from my death denies my own humanity and love! Would I not continue to pray for those I love? Might I not even be able to love them better? Might I not pray for some sign or other form of comfort for them? Would I no longer seek to help them? We need to listen to the messages we actually send with our words.

It’s also common to tell those mourning that the body is not their beloved, that their beloved has “left” it behind, that it’s just a shell. It’s probably this sentiment that has led to the modern acceptance of cremation among Christians. But such an idea is not even vaguely consistent with Christian faith. It’s nothing more than a form of ancient pagan dualism revived and given a veneer of Christian language. First, the idea that you are somehow not your body, that the material body is merely a container for the “real” you (usually coupled with at least a disdain for the “physical” as opposed to the “spiritual”) can be found in a host of non-Christian sources. But the one that probably most influences modern Western thought is likely Plato. Even if you’ve never read a thing he wrote or studied him in any way, some of Plato’s perspective on reality and the nature of things seems to permeate modern Western culture.

No. The Christian perspective is very different. While we are more than merely our physical bodies, our identity and personhood cannot be separated from those bodies. We are embodied icons of God created for a reality that is both physical and spiritual, intertwined and intermingled. Those we love have only known us in and through our bodies and we have only known them the same way. The promise of Christianity is not one of disembodied spiritual existence like Plato’s happy philosophers. No, Christianity rests on the hope of resurrection of which Jesus is the first fruit. We are our bodies and however God sustains us in this interim period while our bodies sleep, we will be resurrected. Like Jesus, our bodies will be more than they are now, but will be continuous in some manner with our present bodies.

Finally, if the beloved has been a Christian, then that body has been the temple of the Holy Spirit. When you look upon the body of a Christian, see it with the same lens as the ground upon which Moses stood before the burning bush, compare it to the presence of God with the ark of the covenant, see in it the shekinah glory of the Lord filling Solomon’s temple, see the clouds of glory filling Isaiah’s vision. If what we believe is true, then that body is as holy as any of the above and should be treated with the same honor and reverence. Even if the person was not a Christian, that body was still created as an icon (image) of the one true God, shaped and formed to reflect the love of God into creation. That reality does not suddenly change in death. Remember the story of Elisha’s bones, how contact with them raised the dead to life.

It seems to me that if we hope to ever exert any sort of Christian influence within our culture, we have to regain a Christian perspective on life and death ourselves. And right now, we seem to have largely lost that perspective.


On the Incarnation of the Word 57 – An Honourable Life Is Needed

Posted: December 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 57 – An Honourable Life Is Needed

Read the closing section of Athanasius’ treatise for his final doxology. I’m going to reflect on his opening in this section, though.

But for the searching of the Scriptures and true knowledge of them, an honourable life is needed, and a pure soul, and that virtue which is according to Christ; so that the intellect guiding its path by it, may be able to attain what it desires, and to comprehend it, in so far as it is accessible to human nature to learn concerning the Word of God. For without a pure mind and a modelling of the life after the saints, a man could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints.

Note that, unlike much common modern usage, “Scriptures” and “Word of God” above do not refer to the same thing. Hopefully by now, on the 57th post on this treatise, the distinction in usage is clear. We often put too much emphasis on what you think about God or our ideas about him. It’s not that these things don’t matter. They do. Rather, the point is that we are only able to understand and practice what the Scriptures and the saints teach to the extent that we live lives like they lived. We know God by doing life with him.


For the Life of the World 5

Posted: October 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 5

Today I’ll blog through sections 7-8 of the second chapter of For the Life of the World. But first, the link to Deacon Michale Hyatt’s  podcast if you haven’t already listened to it.

Bread and wine: to understand their initial and eternal meaning in the Eucharist we must forget for a time the endless controversies which little by little transformed them into “elements” of an almost abstract theological speculation.

O f course, in my SBC tradition, they aren’t actually bread and wine, but instead crackers and grape juice. And they have been reduced to an almost empty “symbol” with no intrinsic significance or meaning. Still, even in places that have not so reduced the Eucharist, the bread and the wine have become more abstract. I appreciate the emphasis. Let’s forget all that as we move into this section.

As we proceed further in the eucharistic liturgy, the time has come now to offer to God the totality of all our lives, of ourselves, of the world in which we live. This is the first meaning of our bringing to the altar the elements of our food. For we already know that food is life, that it is the very principle of life and that the whole world has been created as food for man. We also know that to offer this food, this world, this life to God is the initial “eucharistic” function of man, his very fulfillment as man. We know that we were created as celebrants of the sacrament of live, of its transformation into life in God, communion with God. We know that real life is “eucharist,” a movement of love and adoration toward God, the movement in which alone the meaning and the value of all that exists can be revealed and fulfilled. We know that we have lost this eucharistic life, and finally we know that in Christ, the new Adam, the perfect man, this eucharistic life was restored to man. For He Himself was the perfect Eucharist; He offered Himself in total obedience, love and thanksgiving to God. God was His very life. And He gave this perfect and eucharistic life to us. In Him God became our life.

This marks the point in the Divine Liturgy often called the great entrance, in which the gifts are brought out and processed through the people. It’s my understanding that in the ancient Church, the gifts were actually gathered from the people during the procession. We have moved into the Liturgy of the Faithful. Deacon Michael also notes an important point, I think. The gifts we bring are bread and wine, not wheat and grapes. That is, we do not simply return to God the raw food he has given us. Rather, through our efforts, we transform it into something more than it was and then offer it back. As I heard him say that, I was reminded of the parable of the talents and how the good and faithful servants multiplied what the master had entrusted to their care. Even here, at the core of our worship, we see some of that same dynamic at work.

Yes, to be sure, it is a sacrifice: but sacrifice is the most natural act of man, the very essence of his life. Man is a sacrificial being, because he finds his life in love, and love is sacrificial: it puts the value, the very meaning of life in the other and gives life to the other, and in this giving, in this sacrifice, finds the meaning and joy of life.

A love that costs you nothing, that requires no sacrifice, can hardly be called love at all. Amen.

He (Christ) has performed once and for all this Eucharist and nothing has been left unoffered. In him was Life — and this Life of all of us, He gave to God. The church is all those who have been accepted into the eucharistic life of Christ. … It is His Eucharist, and He is the Eucharist. As the prayer of offering says — “it is He who offers and it is He who is offered.” The liturgy has led us into the all-embracing Eucharist of Christ, and has revealed to us that the only Eucharist, the only offering of the world is Christ. We come again and again with our lives to offer; we bring and “sacrifice” — that is, give to God — what He has given us; and each time we come to the End of all sacrifices, of all offerings, of all eucharist, because each time it is revealed to us that Christ has offered all that exists, and that He and all that exists has been offered in His offering of Himself. We are included in the Eucharist of Christ and Christ is our Eucharist.

That is powerful. Read it several times and meditate on it. Remember one meaning of “Eucharist” — a giving of thanks — as you do. The procession is bearing the bread and wine to the altar. At this point in the liturgy, the faithful remember.

“May the Lord God remember in his Kingdom …” Remembrance is an act of love. God remembers us and His remembrance, His love is the foundation of the world. In Christ, we remember. We become again beings open to love, and we remember. The Church in its separation from “this world,” on its journey to heaven, remembers the world, remembers all men, remembers the whole of creation, takes it in love to God. The Eucharist is the sacrament of cosmic remembrance: it is indeed a restoration of love as the very life of the world.

The Orthodox certainly remember, but they do not mean by that an empty, symbolic memorial to an event long past. No, this remembrance of love, this participation in Christ, restores life to the cosmos. I think I prefer their way of remembering.

The bread and wine are now on the altar, covered, hidden as our “life is hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). There lies, hidden in God, the totality of life, which Christ has brought back to God. And the celebrant says: “Let us love one another that in one accord we may confess …” There follows the kiss of peace, one of the fundamental acts of Christian liturgy.

It occurs to me that those who have never experienced any sort of Christian liturgy at all may not even be aware of the existence of the kiss of peace or its meaning. While often minimized today, it has always been a key part of Christian worship until recent times. The kiss is, of course, referenced in Scripture, but it strikes me as I read this section that I’ve never really heard any “non-liturgical” Protestant relate it to Christian worship in any way. That’s odd, actually, but I suppose it makes sense when you have excluded it from your worship.

The Church, if it is to be the Church, must be the revelation of that divine Love which God “poured out into our hearts.” Without this love nothing is “valid” in the Church because nothing is possible. The content of Christ’s Eucharist is Love, and only through love can we enter into it and be made its partakers. Of this love we are not capable. This love we have lost. This love Christ has given us and this gift is the Church. The Church constitutes itself through love and on love, and in this world it is to “witness” to Love, to re-present it, to make Love present. Love alone creates and transforms: it is, therefore, the very “principle” of the sacrament.

The discussion of the love of Christ that constitutes the Church reminds me of a Molly Sabourin podcast. It was the first time I had ever heard of Forgiveness Vespers, as practiced in the Orthodox Church at the onset of Lent each year. If the kiss of peace is the regular affirmation of love, Forgiveness Vespers provides the annual opportunity to clear away any lingering impediments to love as those in the Church ask for and offer forgiveness of everyone else, even those they do not know very well. I can think of little that I have heard within any path of spirituality in my highly varied journey that has ever struck me as so simply … beautiful. The first time I heard that podcast, it brought tears to my eyes. If we do not have love, we have nothing.


For the Life of the World 4

Posted: October 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 4

In this week’s podcast, Deacon Michael Hyatt covers sections 5-8 of the second chapter of For the Life of the World. This chapter walks through the whole of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, so there is a lot in it. First, the link to the next podcast in this series.

The next step in the liturgy is the entrance, sometimes called the little entrance, in which the celebrant comes to the altar.  This involves a procession with the Gospels. Father Schmemann notes that though the act has been given many symbolical explanations, it is not itself a symbol.

It is the very movement of the Church as passage from the old into the new, from “this world” into the “world to come” and, as such, it is the essential movement of the liturgical “journey.” In “this world” there is no altar and the temple has been destroyed. For the only altar is Christ Himself, His humanity which He has assumed and deified and made the temple of God, the altar of His presence. And Christ ascended into heaven. The altar thus is the sign that in Christ we have been given access to heaven, that the Church is the “passage” to heaven, the entrance into the heavenly sanctuary, and that only by “entering,” by ascending to heaven does the Church fulfill herself, become what she is. And so the entrance at the Eucharist, this approach of the celebrant — and in him, of the whole Church — to the altar is not a symbol. It is the crucial and decisive act in which the true dimensions of the sacrament are revealed and established. It is not “grace” that comes down; it is the Church that enters into “grace,” and grace means the new being, the Kingdom, the world to come.

There is something to the way N.T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, describes the Eucharist as a point where past, present, and future come together transcendentally in Christ. As we participate together, we are not remembering the past, living in the present, or looking toward the future Kingdom. It is, as the above passage says, a place and a time when we enter into the world to come.

I’ve been familiar, in Western liturgy, with the division between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. As we will see, there is not the same sharp distinction between Word and Eucharist in the East. The entire Divine Liturgy is the Eucharistic liturgy and it is instead divided into the Liturgy of the Catechumens and the Liturgy of the Faithful. It’s an interesting division because it means that the parts we have retained in the so-called “non-liturgical” churches (the reading of Scripture and the homily or sermon — though we often omit the formal reading of Scripture these days) were the parts that were, in significant measure, directed toward the education and teaching of those who were interested, but not yet Christian. In the ancient Church the catechumens left after the Liturgy of the Catechumens was complete. Though those who are not among the Orthodox faithful no longer physically leave, the Divine Liturgy remains marked by that distinction. I think there is much to ponder here. Has the majority of the Protestant tradition virtually abandoned that part of the liturgy intended to sustain the faithful?

As the celebrant enters, the Church sings the Trisagion, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal one, have mercy on us!” It’s the song of the angels before the throne of God.

“Holy” is the real name of God, of the God “not of scholars and philosophers,” but of the living God of faith. The knowledge about God results in definitions and distinctions. The knowledge of God leads to this on, incomprehensible, yet obvious and inescapable word: holy. And in this one word we express both that God is the Absolutely Other, the One about whom we know nothing, and that He is the end of all our hunger, all our desires, the inaccessible One who mobilizes our wills, the mysterious treasure that attracts us, and there is really nothing to know but Him. “Holy” is the word, the song, the “reaction” of the Church as it enters into heaven, as it stands before the heavenly glory of God.

Father Stephen Freeman has an excellent post on The Knowledge of God which fits in excellently at this point and says better what it means to know God than anything I could write. I recommend you take a moment to read it. Holy. It’s a word that has little actual meaning as anything but a name for God.

Next the celebrant turns and faces the people for the first time in this journey. The Church has ascended.

And the priest whose liturgy, whose unique function and obedience in the Church is to re-present, to make present the priesthood of Christ Himself, says to the people: “Peace be with you.” In Christ man returns to God and in Christ God comes to man. As the new Adam, as the perfect man He leads us to God; as God incarnate He reveals the Father to us and reconciles us with God. He is our peace — the reconciliation with God, divine forgiveness, communion. And the peace that the priest announces and bestows upon us is the peace Christ established between God and His world and into which we, the Church, have entered.

It is not a gesture or a symbol. The celebrant proclaims peace and the gathered Church receives the peace of Christ — “which passes all understanding.” Father Schmemman next makes the point I alluded to above.

Western Christians are so accustomed to distinguish the Word from the sacrament that it may be difficult for them to understand that in the Orthodox perspective the liturgy of the Word is as sacramental as the sacrament is “evangelical.” The sacrament is a manifestation of the Word. And unless the false dichotomy between Word and sacrament is overcome, the true meaning of both Word and sacrament, and especially the true meaning of Christian “sacramentalism” cannot be grasped in all their wonderful implications. The proclamation of the Word is a sacramental act par excellence because it is a transforming act. It transforms the human words of the Gospel into the Word of God and manifestation of the Kingdom. And it transforms the man who hears the Word into a receptacle of the Word and a temple of the Spirit.

I wonder if those who have been conditioned to hear and read “Word of God” essentially as referring to the Holy Scriptures in every usage will catch the nuance above. Think about what the phrase “Word of God” means in Scripture itself and then re-read the above. You might find yourself reading it in a different light.

This is why the reading and the preaching of the Gospel in the Orthodox Church is a liturgical act, an integral and essential part of the sacrament. It is heard as the Word of God, and it is received in the Spirit — that is, in the Church, which is the life of the Word and its “growth” in the world.

As I did last week, I’ll continue with the next two sections that were covered in Deacon Michael’s podcast tomorrow.


On the Incarnation of the Word 34 – Prophecies of His Passion and Death

Posted: October 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 34 – Prophecies of His Passion and Death

Athanasius continues today with the prophecies from Scripture of Christ’s passion and death.

Nor is even His death passed over in silence: on the contrary, it is referred to in the divine Scriptures, even exceeding clearly. For to the end that none should err for want of instruction in the actual events, they feared not to mention even the cause of His death,—that He suffers it not for His own sake, but for the immortality and salvation of all, and the counsels of the Jews against Him and the indignities offered Him at their hands.

Once again, even if you’re familiar with the prophecies and the way Christians see them fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, take a few minutes to read and reflect on that entire section of the treatise.


Sola Scriptura 4 – Canon and History

Posted: August 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

The thread of deconstruction I have in mind today is a tangled one indeed. I’m not sure how well I can express it one post, but I’ll do my best. Put simply, many of the ways “the Bible” is discussed among those today who hold to some variation of sola scriptura simply don’t reflect the reality of its development and often strangely try to set it at odds with the Christian tradition which produced it. Now this is by no means everywhere true. (Actually, I would tend to say that very few statements I could make are everywhere true, but that’s another discussion.) But when any interpretation of Scripture that is divorced from traditional interpretations is promoted as somehow authoritative in some sense because of some quality innate to the text itself you see the influence of this thread of thought. Scripture is very important in the life of Christ in the church. Scripture, especially in the Gospels, preserves for all generations the core of the tradition of our faith within the context of the church.

But that last phrase is critically important. Scripture as we know it in a canonical form is a product of the Church. It can be nothing else. We see that most clearly when we look at what Christians call the Old Testament. Each of the various primary traditions of the Church, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant have a different Old Testament canon. (I would say the first three are most similar to each other since they are all essentially variations of the Septuagint which we know took various forms in the pre-first century Diaspora. The latter tradition adopted the Masoretic Jewish canon which was developed as a canon beginning in the second century. That summary oversimplifies things, but is the best I can do in a few sentences. As a matter of history, we know the NT authors and the early church used the Septuagint in one form or another since that was the Greek text in use in most synagogues and the text the gentile converts could understand.) The OT canon itself was rarely a matter of particular concern through most of the history of the church since everyone simply used the form of the Septuagint they had received (or its Latin translation). In the second century, as the Jewish rabbis were developing what became the Masoretic Hebrew canon, you do see some Christian writers complaining that they were changing some of the texts to reduce or eliminate the Christian interpretation of them by which Christians were still converting Jews.

The New Testament canon was another matter altogether. The writings from the first century were preserved, but it’s mostly in the second century that the awareness within the church that these writings were also Holy Scripture began to develop. The first references I recall are references to the Gospels being “read” in church.  I think it’s easy for modern Protestants to misunderstand those references, though. They don’t mean people gathered around, opened some scrolls, and talked about the texts. They would have been doing that anyway as time allowed or the need presented itself. To understand that phrase, you have to think of the synagogue worship that formed the framework for what we now might call the Liturgy of the Word. That phrase means that the Gospels were chanted or sung in the same place in worship where the OT Scriptures were chanted or sung. Other works also became ones that were read in church and over time we see various lists or canons of such writings.

Once the Church was legalized under Constantine, bishops from across the empire were better able to discuss their lists. They were all pretty similar and the process of developing the canon, in large part, involved eliminating those texts that were only read in specific places. That process reduced the number that required more detailed discussion to a relative handful. But the NT canon itself is a product of the church, not the other way around.

We’ll delve more into that tomorrow.


Sola Scriptura 3 – Authority

Posted: August 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Authority is a difficult and complex concept and I recognize I can’t begin to plumb its depths in today’s short post. But this feeds an important stream in the deconstruction of the philosophical idea of sola scriptura. So I can’t simply ignore it in the context of this series.

My own cultural shaping has been labeled “postmodern” in some contexts. To the extent that is used to describe a shaping that is sensitive to and suspicious of the assertion or application of power and describes a lens which is incredulous toward metanarratives, I accept the label. None of us are ever free from the exercise of power and influence by others. Or at least rarely does one become free. I have read descriptions and stories of monastics and martyrs who reach the point of submission to Christ that they appear truly free from all other powers — even their own passions. That is not true for most of us.

Although many people assert that they rely on Scripture alone for their authority, that is not typically the case. If you listen to them speak, in most cases they have readily discernible sources for their interpretation of Scripture. It is those people who actually exercise authority over people, not Scripture itself. Comparatively few people actually read Scripture and wholly interpret it for themselves. Rather they place their trust in the interpretation of other individuals or communities within a common context.

I do read somewhat widely and always have. And some interpretations hold more weight or feel more accurate to me. But I’m far too postmodern to actually place my confidence in the interpretation of any single human being or even a group of people situated in the same time and cultural context. And I’m far too postmodern to trust my own interpretation as authoritative. That requires a particular sort of arrogance I might like to have, but cannot develop. I’m all too aware how well and thoroughly and even unintentionally I can deceive myself.

Where then do I place my confidence? When it comes to an understanding of Scripture, I have more confidence in an interpretation when I see it held and taught in every age by a broad number of people. Both are important. If we believe our faith is rooted in a God who became one of us so that we might commune or become one with him, if we believe that that God is love (not as attribute or in part or in action or in feeling but in essence), then having become one with us he would work to help sustain our proper understanding of him. And he would do so in the only way possible, in and through his people across time and space and culture.

So I don’t trust my own interpretation of Scripture where I can find no confirmation for what I think I see. I hold it loosely. I don’t trust the interpretation of any individual. I don’t trust the interpretation of a group when the interpretation and the group are largely confined to a particular period of time or culture. One of those sources seems to be where everyone who holds to some idea of sola scriptura places their trust. And I can’t do that.

I think fewer and fewer people can.


Sola Scriptura 2 – So Many Sola Scripturas

Posted: August 18th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Sola Scriptura 2 – So Many Sola Scripturas

One of the things that quickly dawned on me as I explored this idea is that there isn’t really one concept called Sola Scriptura. Rather, there are a variety of different perspectives, often flowing from different times and places, that all operate under that general umbrella.

Luther, for example, had little patience with the idea that every single person could somehow rightly interpret scripture for himself. He primarily used the idea to assert his interpretation of the Holy Scriptures over against the Roman Catholic magisterium’s interpretation. That was really true of all the primary reformers who used the power of their respective states to enforce their interpretation and defend against Rome. They largely viewed themselves, to the extent I can tell, as rescuing the tradition of interpretation from the “corruption” of the Roman Catholic magisterium. Again, as far as I can tell, they perceived their interpretation to be informed and continuing the tradition of the Church.

The radical reformation and then revivalist movements added different takes to the concept. It became common to assert that all truth or belief and practice was found in the Bible. This took two sorts of forms. On the one hand, some held that anything done or practiced that was not found explicitly in the text was, as long as it did not contradict the text, something allowable that a person or community might choose to do if they desired. Others held the harder perspective that if it wasn’t found in the Bible, that meant it was prohibited.

Many pietists came to believe that using nothing but a Bible, without any context, cultural setting, or reference to any traditional interpretation, any individual believer would be led into the truth by the Holy Spirit. This sort of view became particularly prevalent as individualism began to be deeply intertwined with the threads of modernity.

Others interpret Sola Scriptura to mean Prima Scriptura. That is they look to Scripture for what they interpret it to say about a topic first, recognizing that many forces and sources influence our understanding, belief, and practice. To some extent, this is a chastened view of Sola Scriptura. In practice, though, each individual still makes the decision what to consider or not consider along with the Bible.

I’m sure in my summary I’ve mischaracterized some of the perspectives on what sola scriptura means and how it is practiced. Some of them are difficult for me to wrap my head around. They feel like very odd ways to view reality.  But the core idea is that sola scriptura itself has no single meaning. Rather, there are a variety of perspectives, some very different from others, that fit under this particular concept.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 22 – St. Cyprian on the Inebriating Cup that Returns Us to Spiritual Wisdom

Posted: August 6th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Baptists, Eucharist, and History 22 – St. Cyprian on the Inebriating Cup that Returns Us to Spiritual Wisdom

We continue today with St. Cyprian’s letter on properly preparing the Cup of our Lord.

Since, then, neither the apostle himself nor an angel from heaven can preach or teach any otherwise than Christ has once taught and His apostles have announced, I wonder very much whence has originated this practice, that, contrary to evangelical and apostolical discipline, water is offered in some places in the Lord’s cup, which water by itself cannot express the blood of Christ. The Holy Spirit also is not silent in the Psalms on the sacrament of this thing, when He makes mention of the Lord’s cup, and says, “Thy inebriating cup, how excellent it is!” Now the cup which inebriates is assuredly mingled with wine, for water cannot inebriate anybody. And the cup of the Lord in such wise inebriates, as Noe also was intoxicated drinking wine, in Genesis. But because the intoxication of the Lord’s cup and blood is not such as is the intoxication of the world’s wine, since the Holy Spirit said in the Psalm, “Thy inebriating cup,” He added, “how excellent it is,” because doubtless the Lord’s cup so inebriates them that drink, that it makes them sober; that it restores their minds to spiritual wisdom; that each one recovers from that flavour of the world to the understanding of God; and in the same way, that by that common wine the mind is dissolved, and the soul relaxed, and all sadness is laid aside, so, when the blood of the Lord and the cup of salvation have been drunk, the memory of the old man is laid aside, and there arises an oblivion of the former worldly conversation, and the sorrowful and sad breast which before was oppressed by tormenting sins is eased by the joy of the divine mercy; because that only is able to rejoice him who drinks in the Church which, when it is drunk, retains the Lord’s truth.

So it’s the testimony of not just Jesus and the Apostles, but the Holy Spirit that water alone should not be offered in the cup. The list of things the Lord’s cup accomplishes in its “inebriation” is quite impressive. It makes us sober. It restores our mind to spiritual wisdom. We recover the understanding of God. We receive respite from the oppression of sin in the joy of divine mercy. Why would we desire to settle for something less?

But how perverse and how contrary it is, that although the Lord at the marriage made wine of water, we should make water of wine, when even the sacrament of that thing ought to admonish and instruct us rather to offer wine in the sacrifices of the Lord. For because among the Jews there was a want of spiritual grace, wine also was wanting. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts was the house of Israel; but Christ, when teaching and showing that the people of the Gentiles should succeed them, and that by the merit of faith we should subsequently attain to the place which the Jews had lost, of water made wine; that is, He showed that at the marriage of Christ and the Church, as the Jews failed, the people of the nations should rather flow together and assemble: for the divine Scripture in the Apocalypse declares that the waters signify the people, saying, “The waters which thou sawest, upon which the whore sitteth, are peoples and multitudes, and nations of the Gentiles, and tongues,” which we evidently see to be contained also in the sacrament of the cup.

I love the way St. Cyprian marvels that whereas Jesus made wine from water, we are making water from wine. How absurd! But we live in similar absurdity today.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 19 – Intro to St. Cyprian on Preparing the Cup of Our Lord

Posted: August 3rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

In this letter St. Cyprian of Carthage addresses an issue on the proper preparation of the Eucharistic cup. I believe it would be extremely beneficial for anyone interested in this topic to read the entire letter. Some were preparing a cup with only water rather than water mixed with wine. However, in his fairly gentle reproof, St. Cyprian lays out the fullest preserved, written theological explanation of the Cup that we have from the early church. (It appears that the Eucharist itself was not often the central topic of controversy in the early centuries.)

As with most Eastern writings (including the whole of the Holy Scriptures, I might point out) it can seem to leap from point to point in ways that jar our Western scholastic inclinations and formation. It makes use of the Holy Scriptures in ways very much like the way Jesus and the Apostles used Scripture, which fits the claim throughout that it was received from them. However, it is not the way we typically read the Holy Scriptures in the West, so that too can be jarring.

St. Cyprian stresses repeatedly the importance of holding to the teaching and practice of Jesus and the Apostles. We’ve seen that same thing expressed in much that we have so far explored, of course, but nowhere as clearly and as often as in this letter. Protestants often seem to imagine an early church running wild with innovations of the faith, adding things, and changing things willy nilly over a relatively short span of time. In truth, I think we Protestants are taking the reality of our approach to the faith and superimposing it on the early church. We innovate and change wildly, as our ever-increasing schism and fragmentation illustrate. Something is considered “old” if it was done two generations ago.

There is not really any evidence that the early church acted in that manner at all. Rather, they seem to cling to what has been traditioned to them in even some of the smallest details. They stand repeatedly against those who do introduce innovations and denounce those innovations in belief and practice. We know through study that oral cultures are remarkably effective at conserving oral tradition over long periods of time, especially in matters of belief and religious practice. Why would we believe that early Christians would be any less effective, especially if we believe they were empowered by the Holy Spirit, which is to say that they were empowered by God?

I see no reason to disbelieve St. Cyprian when he states repeatedly that what he writes is what was traditioned by Jesus and the Apostles one hundred and fifty to two hundred years earlier. That’s just not a very long time when we’re talking about the oral tradition of a core religious perspective on the nature of reality — one for which people were willing to die. That’s right up there near the top of the things you want to be sure you have right. And it was self-correcting. St. Cyprian points that out in the beginning of his letter.

Although I know, dearest brother, that very many of the bishops who are set over the churches of the Lord by divine condescension, throughout the whole world, maintain the plan of evangelical truth, and of the tradition of the Lord, and do not by human and novel institution depart from that which Christ our Master both prescribed and did; yet since some, either by ignorance or simplicity in sanctifying the cup of the Lord, and in ministering to the people, do not do that which Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, the founder and teacher of this sacrifice, did and taught, I have thought it as well a religious as a necessary thing to write to you this letter, that, if any one is still kept in this error, he may behold the light of truth, and return to the root and origin of the tradition of the Lord.

The tradition does not pass through any single line of individuals. It is maintained by the many bishops set over the churches, lest any one of them go astray. This broad practice of traditioning makes it even less likely that the oral tradition was significantly altered in two centuries or less. This is how the faith taught by the Apostles was transmitted. Remember, there still was no New Testament canon. Churches had the septuagint and by this point in time it’s reasonable to assume every Church had the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Beyond that, it’s still hit and miss what letters a particular church did or did not have.

But they all had over them a Bishop who had received the oral tradition of the Apostles and who taught it to his presbyters, deacons, and people. And the Bishops did not act in isolation, as we saw in the letter to Rome from the whole African synod. To the extent possible, the met together and corrected each other. As necessary, they acted more strongly. We see St. Cyprian expressing the strength with which he held to the tradition he was given.

Nor must you think, dearest brother, that I am writing my own thoughts or man’s; or that I am boldly assuming this to myself of my own voluntary will, since I always hold my mediocrity with lowly and modest moderation. But when anything is prescribed by the inspiration and command of God, it is necessary that a faithful servant should obey the Lord, acquitted by all of assuming anything arrogantly to himself, seeing that he is constrained to fear offending the Lord unless he does what he is commanded.

The only way that we can assume that the faith radically changed in this environment over a short period of time is to assert that the process of oral transmission of tradition radically failed.

But if it did fail, how can we even trust that the New Testament canon we have is the correct one? After all, the NT is also a product of that oral tradition, not the other way around. I think many of my fellow Protestants seem to have a somewhat confused perspective on the Bible. That’s one of the reasons I like Ben Witherington III so much, though I don’t always agree with his conclusions. I have nevertheless learned a lot from him.

As we’ve seen so far in this very focused look at the Eucharist, the Church did consistently preserve and conserve what it had been traditioned on this one topic. Why would we not believe it retained the whole of the faith under duress without innovation or radical change? I’ll go all Western here and bring out Occam’s famous razor. We know that in oral cultures the process of oral tradition conserves rather than innovates, especially in matters of faith and religious practice. Even in the things that were reduced to writing and to which we have access (a tremendous amount has been lost, though we do sometimes have an archeological find and recover something previously thought lost) we see consistency. We do not see radical innovation and change. So which is more likely? The only reason I can discern to conclude that the early church innovated and changed the faith is because you don’t like the answer if you say they did not.

Well. Clearly my reflections on this letter will involve at least two posts. See you tomorrow!