Archive for January 22nd, 2008

The Love of God and the Gospel of Christ

January 22, 2008

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I believe that the love of our enemies is utterly essential to the love of God. If we do not love our enemies, we will not know God, nor rightly love Him. Indeed, I believe that we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. If anything, this points to the utter necessity of grace – for how else will we ever love our enemies? On the other hand, I believe that embracing an interpretation of Scripture in which God’s wrath is seen as literally true, not only undercuts other statements in Scripture concerning God’s love, but also the consensus of the Fathers (certainly in the East). But more directly, belief that God’s character is such that He hates some and loves others, finally makes loving our own enemies impossible. How could we love more than God loves? If God hates some, then how can we dare to be different? St. Luke has a passage which is pivotal for me:

Luke 6:32-36 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

But, of course, if God is only merciful to some, then need I do more? It is absolutely foundational in the spiritual teaching of the Church that God is love and His mercy is towards all. Not only is His mercy towards all, but our mercy is to be the same. Thus the Church reads words such as “wrath” and “anger” metaphorically when they are applied to God – for God is not subject to human passions. It is not just foundational for understanding God – but foundational for our own salvation – our own conformity to the image of Christ. If we do not journey as far down the road towards the utter forgiveness of our enemies, we will have taken our hand from the plow, turned aside from the path God has set us.

I append a short conversation of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos which points towards how our attitude should be towards all – and how the gospel should be preached. Such stories are not an argument for those who are convinced that the Bible teaches that God is wrathful and angry with sinners. I can only take refuge in the received teaching of the Church and the received interpretation of Scripture. The proof, if there can be such, of its veracity can be found in the lives of the saints, whom God has given us in every age.

Father Silouan’s attitude towards those who differed from him was characterized by a sincere desire to see what was good in them, and not to offend them in anything they held sacred. He always remained himself; he was utterly convinced that ‘salvation lies in Christ-like humility’, and by virtue of this humility he strove with his whole soul to interpret every man at his best. He found his way to the heart of everyone – to his capacity for loving Christ.

I remember a conversation he had with a certain Archimandrite who was engaged in missionary work. This Archimandrite thought highly of the Staretz [Saint Silouan] and many a time went to see him during his visits to the Holy Mountain. the Staretz asked him what sort of sermons he preached to people. The Archimandrite, who was still young and inexperienced, gesticulated with his hands and swayed his whole body, and replied excitedly,

‘I tell them, Your faith is all wrong, perverted. There is nothing right, and if you don’t repent, there will be no salvation for you.’

The Staretz heard him out, then asked,

‘Tell me, Father Archimandrite, do they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that He is the true God?’

‘Yes, that they do believe.’

‘And do they revere the Mother of God?’

‘Yes, but they are not taught properly about her.’

‘And what about the Saints?’

‘Yes they honor them but since they have fallen away from the Church, what saints can they have?’

‘Do they celebrate the Divine Office in their churches? Do they read the Gospels?’

‘Yes, they do have churches and services but if you were to compare their services with ours – how cold and lifeless theirs are!’

‘Father Archimandrite, people feel in their souls when they are doing the proper thing, believing in Jesus Christ, revering the Mother of God and the Saints, whom they call upon in prayer, so if you condemn their faith they will not listen to you…. But if you were to confirm that they were doing well to believe in God and honor the Mother of God and the Saints; that they are right to go to church, and say their prayers at home, read the Divine word, and so on; and then gently point out their mistakes and show them what they ought to amend, then they would listen to you, and the Lord would rejoice over them. And this way by God’s mercy we shall all find salvation…. God is love, and therefore the preaching of His word must always proceed from love. Then both preacher and listener will profit. But if you do nothing but condemn, the soul of the people will not heed you, and no good will come of it.’

St. Gregory the Theologian on our Ransom by God

January 22, 2008

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One of the greatest orators of his age, St. Gregory the Theologian (also known as Gregory Nazianzus), is considered among the most central of Church fathers. His work, and that of St. Basil the Great, did much to win the day for the Nicene Creed (by God’s grace) and to secure its completion at the first Council of Constantinople, where the Creed received its final and present form. He is not as easy to read for moderns as Augustine or some of the Latin Fathers. But is well worth the read. Below is a portion from his Second Paschal Oration in which he asks the question: “To whom was the ransom (Christ’s death on the Cross) paid?”

Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and Highpriest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things? So much we have said of Christ; the greater part of what we might say shall be reverenced with silence.

His final summation puts my garrulousness to shame.

Justice and Mercy – With Thanks to the Pontificator

January 22, 2008

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Fr. Al Kimel has recently posted an article (The Injustice of Grace) on the triumph of God’s mercy that is well worth reading.  The following is an excerpt in which he quotes passages from St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Antony the Great:

The seventh century ascetical master, St. Isaac the Syrian, boldly challenged the portrayal of God as one who rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked:

Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. “He is good,” He says, “to the evil and to the impious.” How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? “Friend, I do thee no wrong I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?” How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (Homily 60)

The gospel dramatically turns upside down conventional, and even biblical, understandings of divine justice. “God is not One who requites evil,” declares St Isaac, “but who sets evil right.” Indeed, Isaac goes even so far as to assert that “mercy is opposed to justice.” Even when God punishes, he does so only for our good:

God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge—far be it!—but in seeking to make whole his image. And he does not harbour wrath until such time as correction is no longer possible, for he does not seek vengeance for himself. This is the aim of love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, but does not aim at retribution. … The man who chooses to consider God as avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!

The Holy Trinity wills only the good of the sinner, even at the cost of justice. But does not the Scripture speak of God’s anger and wrath against sin? These texts, says St Isaac, must be interpreted figuratively, not literally. God does not act out of anger or wrath. He never acts to harm his creatures. He never acts out of vengeance. As St Antony the Great wrote:

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, is it possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honour Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honour Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

To Father Al’s thoughts (which take these quotes to other important conclusions) I would add my own. This thoroughly patristic understanding of God’s justice and the metaphorical sense that must be applied to such words as wrath, etc., is utterly essential in the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It goes to the very heart of our understanding of God. Nothing, in my mind, has done more damage to the Gospel of Christ than the loss of this understanding, and the substitution in its place of various theories in which the anger of God has been propitiated by His only Son. It is surely true that Christ’s death is a work of atonement – it makes possible and restores our relationship with God – but it brings about no change in God. The love of God is made manifest in that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The death of Christ on the Cross makes no change in the love of God – but every possible change in the sinners for whom He died.

Every other proclamation of the Gospel that says otherwise seriously distorts the revelation of God in Christ and fails to properly appropriate the Tradition of the Holy Fathers as the Church has received them.