Archive for October 27th, 2008

From Khomiakov’s The Church Is One

October 27, 2008

Alexei Khomiakov (1804-1860) was a Russian lay theologian. One of his most important essays was The Church Is One. In a private conversation with Met. Kallistos Ware, I asked questions about the story of his conversion to Orthodoxy. There were few Orthodox writings available in English at the time (Met. Kallistos’ The Orthodox Church [1962] was probably the first major work in English on the Orthodox Church). He said to me that Khomiakov’s The Church Is One was a very influential work in his conversion. The following is a small excerpt:

THE CHURCH, even upon earth, lives, not an earthly human life, but a life of grace which is divine. Wherefore not only each of her members, but she herself as a whole, solemnly calls herself “Holy.” Her visible manifestation is contained in the Sacraments, but her inward life in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, in faith, hope, and love. Oppressed and persecuted by enemies without, at times agitated and lacerated within by the evil passions of her children, she has been and ever will be preserved without wavering or change wherever the Sacraments and spiritual holiness are preserved. Never is she either disfigured or in need of reformation. She lives not under a law of bondage, but under a law of liberty. She neither acknowledges any authority over her, except her own, nor any tribunal, but the tribunal of faith (for reason does not comprehend her), and she expresses her love, her faith, and her hope in her prayers and rites, suggested to her by the Spirit of truth and by the grace of Christ. Wherefore her rites themselves, even if they are not unchangeable (for they are composed by the spirit of liberty and may be changed according to the judgment of the Church) can never, in any case, contain any, even the smallest, admixture of error or false doctrine. And the rites (of the Church) while they are unchanged are of obligation to the members of the Church; for in their observance is the joy of holy unity.

External unity is the unity manifested in the communion of Sacraments; while internal unity is unity of spirit. Many (as for instance some of the martyrs) have been saved without having been made partakers of so much as one of the Sacraments of the Church (not even of Baptism) but no one is saved without partaking of the inward holiness of the Church, of her faith, hope, and love: for it is not works which save, but faith. And faith, that is to say, true and living faith, is not twofold, but single. Wherefore both those who say that faith alone does not save, but that works also are necessary, and those who say that faith saves without works, are void of understanding; for if there are no works, then faith is shown to be dead; and, if it be dead, it is also untrue; for in true faith there is Christ the truth and the life; but, if it be not true, then it is false, that is to say, mere external knowledge. But can that which is false save a man? But if it be true, then it is also a living faith, that is to say, one which does works; but if it does works, what works are still required?

The divinely inspired Apostle saith: “Show me the faith of which thou boastest thyself by thy works, even as I show my faith by my works.” Does he acknowledge two faiths? No, but exposes a senseless boast. “Thou believest in God, but the devils also believe.” Does he acknowledge that there is faith in devils? No, but he detects the falsehood which boasts itself of a quality which even devils possess. “As the body,” saith he, “without the soul is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” Does he compare faith to the body and works to the Spirit? No, for such a simile would be untrue; but the meaning of his words is clear. Just as a body without a soul is no longer a man, and cannot properly be called a man, but a corpse, so faith also that does no works cannot be called true faith, but false; that is to say, an external knowledge, fruitless, and attainable even by devils. That which is written simply ought also to be read simply. Wherefore those who rely upon the Apostle James for a proof that there is a dead faith and a living faith, and as it were two faiths, do not comprehend the words of the Apostle; for the Apostle bears witness not for them, but against them. Likewise when the Great Apostle of the Gentiles says, ‘What is the use of faith without love, even of such a faith as would remove mountains?” (1 Cor. 13:2) he does not maintain the possibility of such faith without love: but assuming its possibility he shows that it would be useless. Holy Scripture ought not to be read in the spirit of worldly wisdom, which wrangles over words, but in the spirit of the wisdom of God, and of spiritual simplicity. The Apostle, in defining faith, says, “it is the evidence of things unseen, and the confidence of things hoped for” (not merely of things awaited, or things to come), but if we hope, we also desire, and if we desire, we also love; for it is impossible to desire that which a man loves not. Or have the devils also hope? Wherefore there is but one faith, and when we ask, “Can true faith save without works?” we ask a senseless question; or rather no question at all: for true faith is a living faith which does works; it is faith in Christ, and Christ in faith.

Those who have mistaken a dead faith, that is to say, a false faith, or mere external knowledge, for true faith, have gone so far in their delusion that, without knowing it themselves, they have made of it an eighth Sacrament. The Church has faith, but it is a living faith; for she has also sanctity. But if one man or one bishop is necessarily to have the faith, what are we to say? Has he sanctity? No, for it may be he is notorious for crime and immorality. But the faith is to abide in him even though he be a sinner. So the faith within him is an eighth Sacrament; inasmuch as every Sacrament is the action of the Church in an individual, even though he be unworthy. But through this Sacrament what sort of faith abides in him? A living faith? No, for he is a sinner. But a dead faith, that is to say, external knowledge, is attainable, even by devils. And is this to be an eighth Sacrament? Thus does departure from the truth bring about its own punishment.

We must understand that neither faith nor hope nor love saves of itself (for will faith in reason, or hope in the world, or love for the flesh save us?). No, it is the object of faith which saves. If a man believes in Christ, he is saved in his faith by Christ; if he believes in the Church, he is saved by the Church; if he believes in Christ’s Sacraments, he is saved by them; for Christ our God is in the Church and the Sacraments. The Church of the Old Testament was saved by faith in a Redeemer to come. Abraham was saved by the same Christ as we. He possessed Christ in hope, while we possess Him in joy. Wherefore he who desires Baptism is baptized in will; while he who has received Baptism possesses it in joy. An identical faith in Baptism saves both of them. But a man may say, “if faith in Baptism saves, what is the use of being actually baptized?” If he does not receive Baptism what did he wish for? It is evident that the faith which desires Baptism must be perfected by the reception of Baptism itself, which is its joy. Therefore also the house of Cornelius received the Holy Ghost before he received Baptism, while the eunuch was filled with the same Spirit immediately after Baptism (Acts 10, 44-47, 8. 38, cf. 2. 38). For God can glorify the Sacrament of Baptism just as well before, as after, its administration. Thus the difference between the opus operans and opus operatum disappears. We know that there are many persons who have not christened their children, and many who have not admitted them to Communion in the Holy Mysteries, and many who have not confirmed them: but the Holy Church understands things otherwise, christening infants and confirming them and admitting them to Communion. She has not ordained these things in order to condemn unbaptized children, whose angels do always behold the face of God (Matt. 18:10); but she has ordained this, according to the spirit of love which lives within her, in order that the first thought of a child arriving at years of discretion should be, not only a desire, but also a joy for sacraments which have been already received. And can one know the joy of a child who to all appearances has not yet arrived at discretion? Did not the prophet, even before His birth, exult for joy concerning Christ (St. Luke 1. 41)? Those who have deprived children of Baptism and Confirmation and Communion are they who, having inherited the blind wisdom of blind heathendom, have not comprehended the majesty of God’s Sacraments, but have required reasons and uses for everything and, having subjected the doctrine of the Church to scholastic explications, will not even pray unless they see in the prayer some direct goal or advantage. But our law is not a law of bondage or of hireling service, laboring for wages, but a law of the adoption of sons, and of love which is free.

We know that when any one of us falls he falls alone; but no one is saved alone. He who is saved is saved in the Church, as a member of her, and in unity with all her other members. If any one believes, he is in the communion of faith; if he loves, he is in the communion of love; if he prays, he is in the communion of prayer. Wherefore no one can rest his hope on his own prayers, and every one who prays asks the whole Church for intercession, not as if he had doubts of the intercession of Christ, the one Advocate, but in the assurance that the whole Church ever prays for all her members. All the angels pray for us, the apostles, martyrs, and patriarchs, and above them all, the Mother of our Lord, and this holy unity is the true life of the Church. But if the Church, visible and invisible, prays without ceasing, why do we ask her for her prayers? Do we not entreat mercy of God and Christ, although His mercy goes before our prayer? The very reason that we ask the Church for her prayers is that we know that she gives the assistance of her intercession even to him that does not ask for it, and to him that asks she gives it in far greater measure than he asks: for in her is the fullness of the Spirit of God. Thus we glorify all whom God has glorified and is glorifying; for how should we say that Christ is living within us, if we do not make ourselves like unto Christ? Wherefore we glorify the Saints the Angels, and the Prophets, and more than all the most pure Mother of the Lord Jesus, not acknowledging her either to have been conceived without sin, or to have been perfect (for Christ alone is without sin and perfect), but remembering that the pre-eminence, passing all understanding, which she has above all God’s creatures was borne witness to by the Angel and by Elizabeth and, above all, by the Saviour Himself when He appointed John, His great Apostle and seer of mysteries, to fulfill the duties of a son and to serve her.

Just as each of us requires prayers from all, so each person owes his prayers on behalf of all, the living and the dead, and even those who are as yet unborn, for in praying, as we do with all the Church, that the world may come to the knowledge of God, we pray not only for the present generation, but for those whom God will hereafter call into life. We pray for the living that the grace of God may be upon them, and for the dead that they may become worthy of the vision of God’s face. We know nothing of an intermediate state of souls, which have neither been received into the kingdom of God, nor condemned to torture, for of such a state we have received no teaching either from the Apostles or from Christ; we do not acknowledge Purgatory, that is, the purification of souls by sufferings from which they may be redeemed by their own works or those of others: for the Church knows nothing of salvation by outward means, nor any sufferings whatever they may be, except those of Christ; nor of bargaining with God, as in the case of a man buying himself off by good works.

All such heathenism as this remains with the inheritors of the wisdom of the heathen, with those who pride themselves in place, or name, or in territorial dominion, and who have instituted an eighth Sacrament of dead faith. But we pray in the spirit of love, knowing that no one will be saved otherwise than by the prayer of all the Church, in which Christ lives, knowing and trusting that so long as the end of time has not come, all the members of the Church, both living and departed, are being perfected incessantly by mutual prayer. The Saints whom God has glorified are much higher than we, but higher than all is the Holy Church, which comprises within herself all the Saints, and prays for all, as may be seen in the divinely inspired Liturgy. In her prayer our prayer is also heard; however unworthy we may be to be called sons of the Church. If, while worshipping and glorifying the Saints, we pray that God may glorify them, we do not lay ourselves open to the charge of pride; for to us who have received permission to call God “Our Father” leave has also been granted to pray, “Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.” And if we are permitted to pray of God that He will glorify His Name, and accomplish His Will, who will forbid us to pray Him to glorify His Saints, and to give repose to His elect? For those indeed who are not of the elect we do not pray, just as Christ prayed not for the whole world, but for those whom the Lord had given unto Him (St. John 17). Let no one say: “What prayer shall I apportion for the living or the departed, when my prayers are insufficient even for myself?” For if he is not able to pray, of what use would it be to pray even for himself? But in truth the spirit of love prays in him. Likewise let him not say: “What is the good of my prayer for another, when he prays for himself, and Christ Himself intercedes for him?” When a man prays, it is the spirit of love which prays within him. Let him not say: “It is even now impossible to change the judgment of God,” for his prayer itself is included in the ways of God, and God foresaw it. If he be a member of the Church his prayer is necessary for all her members. If the hand should say that it did not require blood from the rest of the body, and that it would not give its own blood to it, the hand would wither. So a man is also necessary to the Church, as long as he is in her; and, if he withdraws himself from communion with her, he perishes himself and will cease to be any longer a member of the Church. The Church prays for all, and we pray together for all; but our prayer must be true, and a true expression of love, and not a mere form of words. Not being able to love all men, we pray for those whom we love, and our prayer is not hypocritical; but we pray God that we may be able to love all and pray for all without hypocrisy. Mutual prayer is the blood of the Church, and the glorification of God her breath. We pray in a spirit of love, not of interest, in the spirit of filial freedom, not of the law of the hireling demanding his pay. Every man who asks: “What use is there in prayer?” acknowledges himself to be in bondage. True prayer is true love.

Love and unity are above everything, but love expresses itself in many ways: by works, by prayer, and by spiritual songs. The Church bestows her blessing upon all these expressions of love. If a man cannot express his love for God by word, but expresses it by a visible representation, that is to say an image (icon), will the Church condemn him? No, but she will condemn the man who condemns him, for he is condemning another’s love. We know that without the use of an image men may also be saved and have been saved, and if a man’s love does not require an image he will be saved without one; but if the love of his brother requires an image, he, in condemning this brother’s love, condemneth himself; if a man being a Christian dare not listen without a feeling of reverence to a prayer or spiritual song composed by his brother, how dare he look without reverence upon the image which his love, and not his art, has produced? The Lord Himself, who knows the secrets of the heart, has designed more than once to glorify a prayer or psalm; will a man forbid Him to glorify an image or the graves of the Saints? One may say: “The Old Testament has forbidden the representation of God;” but does he, who thus thinks he understands better than Holy Church the words which she herself wrote (that is, the Scriptures), not see that it was not a representation of God which the Old Testament forbade (for it allowed the Cherubim, and the brazen serpent, and the writing of the Name of God), but that it forbade a man to make unto himself a god in the similitude of any object in earth or in heaven, visible or even imaginary?

If a man paints an image to remind him of the invisible and inconceivable God, he is not making to himself an idol. If he imagines God to himself and thinks that He is like to his imagination, he maketh to himself an idol — that is the meaning of the prohibition in the Old Testament. But an image [eikon] (that is to say, the Name of God painted in colors), or a representation of His Saints, made by love, is not forbidden by the spirit of truth. Let none say, “Christians are going over to idolatry;” for the spirit of Christ which preserves the Church is wiser than a man’s calculating wisdom. Wherefore a man may indeed be saved without images, but he must not reject images.

The Church accepts every rite which expresses spiritual aspiration towards God, just as she accepts prayer and images [eikons], but she recognizes as higher than all rites the holy Liturgy, in which is expressed all the fullness of the doctrine and spirit of the Church; and this, not only by conventional signs or symbols of some kind, but by the word of life and truth inspired from above. He alone knows the Church who knows the Liturgy. Above all is the unity of holiness and love.

The Meaning of Meaning

October 27, 2008

Yesterday I posted on the “meaning of Scripture.” I want to go a further step today and write on the “meaning of meaning.” For it is all too possible to understand “meaning” as less than it should be. In a culture in which the dominant form of Scriptural interpretation is based on some form or structure of “reason,” meaning quickly becomes nothing more than “intellectual understanding.” This itself is a distortion of the inherited Truth as found in Holy Orthodoxy.

In a post a few months back, I wrote about the Church as the “Orthodox hermeneutic,” meaning that the very existence and life of the Church is itself the interpretation of Scripture. The interpretation of Scripture cannot only be ideas or words about words, but must become flesh, just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In that earlier post I wrote:

Is or can there be such a thing as an Orthodox hermeneutic (method of interpretation) of Scripture?  I asserted in a recent post that there was such a thing and that the Orthodox would do well to work towards its recovery rather than using the hermeneutics of others who do not hold the Orthodox faith. I will make a small suggestion for how this may be understood.

St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, asserts:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Thus it is that the Church itself is the proper hermeneutic of Scripture – having been written by Christ, ministered by the apostles, not with ink, “but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” Thus, to a certain extent, to say that the Scriptures are the Church’s book is a tautology. Either the Church is that epistle, written in the fleshy tables of the heart, or it is not the Church at all. It is partly for this reason that Orthodoxy sees the interpretation of Scripture as something that does not take place apart from the Church nor without the Church, but in the midst of the Church, which is herself the very interpretation, constantly echoing the Word of God in her services, sacraments, and all of her very life.

It is, of course, the case that there are things to be found within the Church that are not “of” the Church, but are things to be purged, to be removed, to be met with repentance. Indeed the life of the Orthodox Church is only rightly lived as a life of constant repentance. “A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 50 (51):17.

But these are the sins of the old man, buried with Christ in Baptism, whose actions are to be put to death in this life (Romans 8:13).

If the Scriptures are themselves not interpreted in this manner, then every other interpretation is only words about God, and not the word of God. In many cases, Christians have left off living the word of God and have become experts at its discussion. Such exercises may be less than useless: they may prove to be harmful, for we will be judged by every idle word we speak. To take up Scripture and yet not embody it is to be a “hearer of the word and not a doer” as St. John warned in his small epistle.

I have cited the statement of the 7th ecumenical council that “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” It must also be the case that the Church is an icon of Christ, or more than that, the very body of Christ. If the Church is not itself the proper interpretation of Scripture then no interpretation is to be found. If there is a modern “famine” in the hearing of the word of God it would be in the failure of Orthodox Christians to live as fully Orthodox and to keep the commandments of God.

There have been times that unbelievers could look at Christians and say, “See how they love one another.” Could there be a more eloquent interpretation of Scripture?

For this reason there can only be the one interpretation (though a passage may have many layers of meaning) just as there can only be the one Church. For the Scriptures are one even though they may consist of many books – for the meaning of every word, every book, is Christ. And the life of the Church can only be the Life of Christ for there is no other life to be found.

I give thanks to God that in my life I have had occasion to “read” this book in the fleshy tables of the heart. I have also seen many occasions in which those of the Church failed to fulfill the vocation we have been given. But even in the midst of our falling short, I have seen the bright light of Christ, the True Life, and tasted of the heavenly banquet. I have heard the voice of angels singing in choir the one song of the ages:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!