Archive for the ‘Catholic’ Category

Of Calendars and Christians

March 21, 2008


This year the Gregorian Calendar and the Julian (and the Revised Julian) differ on the date of Pascha (Easter) by about as much as possible. The story of the calendars, both in the East and West is a very convoluted tale, sometimes requiring a knowledge of math (hence my reluctance to go into the matter). We know that even in the early 2nd century there was a difference on when the Pascha of our Lord was to be kept (apparently St. John the Theologian was a ‘Quartodecian’ which was a calculation that did not win out). Later, missionaries from Rome encountered Celtic Christians in the British Isles and had a small dust-up over the dating of the Feast of Feasts. Many of the Orthodox were more than a little chagrined when a Patriarch of Constantinople, in the 20th century, convened a modest council, and adopted the Revised Julian Calendar, thus shattering the unity of the Orthodox Church in matters of time (with the exception of the date of Pascha and all things that are dated by Pascha).

I do not have an opinion, other than to obey the Bishops of my Church – and I hold that “opinion” as virtually as close as I hold my salvation. But if they told me tomorrow that the Holy Synod had adopted something else, I would lose no sleep. I do pray continually for unity among Orthodox on the Calendar (and secondly with the rest of Christendom). My own family (which counts three priests in its number) has two Calendars. I’d like less complexity in planning an extended family vacation.

But as I drove around Oak Ridge and Knoxville today, doing my priestly chores leading up to our second Sunday of Great Lent, the atmosphere of things around me was clearly different than the usual Friday. Some businesses were closed. People would greet me with “Happy Easter,” which either received a reply in kind, or, time-permitting, a short dissertation on the difference between Orthodox and Western calendars, followed by a “Happy Easter” as well. Would that everybody celebrated our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection as sacred, holy days.

But it is part of the strangeness of being Orthodox in America, that you are frequently out of sync with the culture (not nearly as much as my Old Calendar Son-in-law and my daughter, his wife). It underlines the differences that exist between East and West and adds the additional problem of the feasting of others surrounding your fast. But the unity of Orthodox Pascha (which includes the dating of Lent) brings a season’s worth of Orthodox unity that reminds me of how things ought to be, and, God willing, shall be.

But for the many readers I have who are Protestant, Anglican or Catholic or keep the Gregorian Calendar for Easter – may God bless you on this holy weekend! May you unite yourself with the crucified Christ and remember His descent into Hades to rescue us all! May you know the joy of His resurrection!

And (as is always appropriate to say) I greet you: Christ is risen!

Further Notes on a Common Faith – Newman

January 21, 2008


In my recent post on a Common Faith, I offered a concatenation of quotes from the Fathers, East and West, on the doctrine of salvation as union with God (divinization or theosis). It included as well, both Luther and Calvin. I commented at the time that with some little research surely we could add Newman to that number. Considering that he was one of the 19th century’s greatest scholars on St. Athanasius, I knew I was right. Today I offer fruit of my small search:

It would seem, moreover, as I have said, that [Christ’] has done so by ascending to the Father; that his ascent bodily is his descent spiritually; that his taking our nature up to God, is the descent of God into us; that he has truly, though in an unknown sense, taken us to God, or brought down God to us, according as we view it. Thus, when St. Paul says that our life is hid with Christ in God, we may suppose him to intimate that our principle of existence is no longer a mortal, earthly principle, such as Adam’s after his fall, but that we are baptized and hidden anew in God’s glory, in that Shekinah of light and purity which we lost when Adam fell – that we are new-created, transformed, spiritualized, glorified in the Divine Nature – that through the participation  of Christ, we receive, as through a channel, the true presence of God within and without us, imbuing us with sanctity and immortality. (Quoted in Keating, p. 22 – the original is from Newman’s Lectures on Justification, lecture 9.)

More evidence that there is indeed a common faith, to be found in the early Fathers of the Church. Such a common faith, shed of later speculations about how many forms of grace there are (there is but one) or other “epicycles” of scholastic theology, is a watershed of truth, both seamless with the gospels and the apostolic canon, and proclaiming a faith that is indeed, or should be, the common faith of Christendom. That this common faith of Christendom, also happens to be the living faith of the Orthodox Church is not a moment for triumphalism, but a moment for thanksgiving on the part of all. That we need not become theological miners, searching for hidden truth in caves long dormant, but that we may become theological partners in the sharing and appropriation of the common faith of the Fathers, which is none other than the Apostolic faith, is a moment of joy and an occasion for thanksgiving to the good God who has kept us all for such a time.

The Unity of the Faith

July 11, 2007


It is said proverbially in Orthodoxy that “one who prays is a theologian and a theologian is one who prays.” This intends fully to say that an unlettered peasant may be a greater theologian than someone who holds many degrees and can offer page after page of published articles. There is only one reason this is so: theology is about God as reality and not God as a concept. Subtlety was an ascription given of the serpent, not applied particularly to God. That which is difficult about God is in the human heart. We find God difficult to know or understand because our hearts are hard. “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

When I look back over the last day or so and discussions where I know I do not belong (the nuances of the Papal role in the local Church as understood by Roman Catholic Theology) I do not wish to go there again and refrain from it in this posting. There are Orthodox theologians who are called to have these conversations – I am not one of them.

I have had my years of study and can speak knowledgably about a few things – but when I write (as I have a couple of times in my postings on this blog) that I am an “ignorant man,” I speak of something that I long to be in a certain sense. There are many things I want to know and to know well, but only if they serve the greater possibility of knowing God. Many times such knowledge does not well serve such an end.

I see that love gets strained very quickly in learned conversations – even between people whom I know and love. Our learning crushes our patience and lays heavily on our hearts. We need not renounce it, but carry it about us like a miner carrying nitroglycerin. Useful stuff – but it will blow you up.

The faith of Christ is not many things – but one thing – Christ Himself – which is why it has and can have a unity. Our subtlety melts away in the face of Him whose simplicity confounds the wise.

What I wish to urge on myself and on others around me is the simplicity of Christ which comes to us as simplicity of heart. To love God, to love our enemies, to forgive all by the resurrection – these very simple things anyone can do (by grace) and having done them, they will be saved. Glory to God for all things.

I’m Glad We Cleared That Up!

July 10, 2007


Pope Benedict XVI has just released a clarification on the documents of Vatican II where he explains what is meant by calling the Orthodox “Churches” while still maintaining that they are “defective.” In a major problem that exists between Orthodox understandings of the nature of the Church and Roman Catholic understandings of the nature of the Church – he reiterated that the recognition of the papacy as universal primate of the Church is necessary for the proper constitution of every local Church.

This has not been embraced by Orthodox theology but has been seen as an aberration on the part of Rome. There is no news in this, except for the fact that the Vatican is now saying openly what the Orthodox thought they were always saying. Honest dialog where all the cards are turned face up on the table is appropriate dialog. Thus, I am pleased.

My own understanding of ecclesiology, refecting on Orthodox works and writings, is well documented on this blog: the series of articles on ecclesiology were among my earliest postings. I commend them to you for re-reading. Doubtless, proper responses will come from Orthodox authorties soon enough. I am only a parish priest and in this matter do not speak for my Archbishop, Metropolitan, nor any of the Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church.

The text of the Pope’s relevant remarks:

Fourth Question: Why does the Second Vatican Council use the term “Church” in reference to the oriental Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church?

Response: The Council wanted to adopt the traditional use of the term. “Because these Churches, although separated, have true sacraments and above all – because of the apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, by means of which they remain linked to us by very close bonds”[13], they merit the title of “particular or local Churches”[14], and are called sister Churches of the particular Catholic Churches[15].

“It is through the celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord in each of these Churches that the Church of God is built up and grows in stature”[16]. However, since communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles, these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches[17].

On the other hand, because of the division between Christians, the fullness of universality, which is proper to the Church governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him, is not fully realised in history[18].

The footnootes refer to notes in the original text [editor’s note]

I thought the following quote from my articles on ecclesiology to be appropriate for mediatation:

I would start… with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

Universal Primacy has a way of offering a [false] guarantee that transcends the cross [which can never be transcended]. No matter how badly we fail, the de jure Primacy of the Pope in every local Church, guarantees that no one can really mess it up. I think that is neat, and the product of human imagination. I believe that God has established His Church such that, just like Christ, when pierced with nails it will bleed. Only love binds the Church together, nothing more.

[notes added for fear that some were misunderstanding – again read my earlier posts on ecclesiology of the cross]

Kind Words and Wisdom

June 29, 2007


I have added to my blogroll (under the category of “Catholic”) Moretben’s Undercroft. I always find him to be a good read, and more than occasionally to be a very kind reader of Glory to God for All Things. His words of kindness are a reminder of our common human bond and of so much that we all share together in our hearts. In a very recent post, he included the following quote that struck my heart quite deeply:

Perhaps the greatest damage done by Pope Paul VI’s reform of the Mass (and by the ongoing process that has outstripped it), the greatest spiritual deficit, is this: we are now positively obliged to talk about the liturgy. Even those who want to preserve the liturgy or pray in the spirit of the liturgy, and even those who make great sacrifices to remain faithful to it – all have lost something priceless, namely, the innocence that accepts it as something God-given, something that comes down to man as gift from heaven.

Those of us who are defenders of the great and sacred liturgy, the classical Roman liturgy, have all become – whether in a small way or a big way – liturgical experts. In order to counter the arguments of the reform, which was padded with technical, archaeological, and historical scholarship, we had to delve into questions of worship and liturgy-something that is utterly foreign to the religious man. We have let ourselves be led into a kind of scholastic and juridical way of considering the liturgy. What is absolutely indispensable for genuine liturgy? When are the celebrant’s whims tolerable, and when do they become unacceptable? We have got used to accepting liturgy on the basis of the minimum requirements, whereas the criteria ought to be maximal. And finally, we have started to evaluate liturgy – a monstrous act! We sit in the pews and ask ourselves, was that Holy Mass, or wasn’t it? I go to church to see God and come away like a theatre critic. And if, now and again, we have the privilege of celebrating a Holy Mass that allows us to forget, for a while, the huge historical and religious catastrophe that has profoundly damaged the bridge between man and God, we cannot forget all the efforts that had to be made so that this Mass could take place, how many letters had to be written, how many sacrifices made this Holy Sacrifice possible, so that (among other things) we could pray for a bishop who does not want our prayers at all and would prefer not to have his name mentioned in the Canon.

What have we lost? The opportunity to lead a hidden religious life, days begun with a quiet Mass in a modest little neighbourhood church; a life in which we learn, over decades, discreetly guided by priests, to mingle our own sacrifice with Christ’s sacrifice; a Holy Mass in which we ponder our own sins and the graces given to us – and nothing else: rarely is this possible any more for a Catholic aware of liturgical tradition, once the liturgy’s unquestioned status has been destroyed.”
Martin Mosebachfrom The Heresy of Formlessness

I read his entire post aloud to my wife. Afterward we marveled at its accuracy and went back in our memories to 1976, the year before I entered seminary, when we worshipped regularly at the old Episcopal parish in our downtown. We had no news of liturgy, just dusty prayerbooks and the daily pace of the Church year. We remembered it because in the next year we were plunged into the life of seminary – which, of course, is always a place to lose innocence, not realizing (because you are innocent) that it is a precious gift. The line in Moretben’s quote: “I go to Church and come away a theatre critic,” was dead on.

I must add, that part of the joy in being Orthodox (in my present situation which I expect to be my only situation) is the return of some form of innocence. I am well aware of those who think about the Liturgy and tweak and suggest. Our seminaries are not immune. But my peace is to delightfully obey my Archbishop and to pray. Just assembling services in accordance to the rubrics in an Orthodox setting is far more than enough – who needs to tinker?

But I reference the article on The Undercroft and commend a good blog to you, adding my thanks to Moretben for his frequent kind words and links to Glory to God for All Things.

Watch Your Metaphors

April 21, 2007


Metaphors are very important when thinking about any aspect of our salvation. People can sometimes state what they believe as doctrine very precisely without thinking about what their beliefs imply about God, the world, or themselves. Metaphors can work in a very hidden way – particularly those that are referred to as “root metaphors.” A root metaphor is the over-arching imagery that generally governs how a train of thought goes. It provides the logical or image-driven framework upon which later thought will be built.

Excellent illustrations of this are found if you look at the doctrines related to the Descent of Christ into Hades. The article by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ Descent into Hades, which was recently referenced here, notes contrasts in how the understanding of Christ’s Descent into Hades developed in both East and West. The development, starting in the 4th or 5th centuries eventually resulted in very different understandings. But the underlying issue was not the Descent into Hades but the metaphors which came to dominate the thought of Christian teachers, East or West.

Bishop Hilarion cited a passage from Cyril of Alexandria’s Paschal Homily (7th Paschal Homily, 2) and noted:

The doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades occupies an essential place in the works of Cyril of Alexandria. In his ‘Paschal Homilies’, he repeatedly mentions that as a consequence of the descent of Christ into Hades, the devil was left all alone, while hell was devastated: ‘For having destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits, He left the devil there abandoned and lonely’.

This imagery is also found in St. John Chrysostom’s famous Catechetical Homily: “And not one dead is left in the grave.”

Bishop Hilarion contrasts this with the Descent into Hades’ development in Western Christianity:

The general conclusion can now be drawn from a comparative analysis of Eastern and Western understandings of the descent into Hades. In the first three centuries of the Christian Church, there was considerable similarity between the interpretation of this doctrine by theologians in East and West. However, already by the 4th—5th centuries, substantial differences can be identified. In the West, a juridical understanding of the doctrine prevailed [emphasis added]. It gave increasingly more weight to notions of predestination (Christ delivered from hell those who were predestined for salvation from the beginning) and original sin (salvation given by Christ was deliverance from the general original sin, not from the ‘personal’ sins of individuals). The range of those to whom the saving action of the descent into hell is extended becomes ever more narrow. First, it excludes sinners doomed to eternal torment, then those in purgatory and finally unbaptized infants. This kind of legalism was alien to the Orthodox East, where the descent into Hades continued to be perceived in the spirit in which it is expressed in the liturgical texts of Great Friday and Easter, i.e. as an event significant not only for all people, but also for the entire cosmos, for all created life.

An excellent example of the sort of development in the West which Bishop Hilarion describes is found in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Bishop Hilarion offers this observation:

Thomas Aquinas was the 13th-century theologian who brought to completion the Latin teaching on the descent of Christ into Hades. In his ‘Summa Theologiae’, he divides hell into four parts: 1) purgatory (purgatorium), where sinners experience penal suffering; 2) the hell of the patriarchs (infernum patrum), the abode of the Old Testament righteous before the coming of Christ; 3) the hell of unbaptized children (infernum puerorum); and 4) the hell of the damned (infernum damnatorum). In response to the question, exactly which was the hell that Christ descended to, Thomas Aquinas admits two possibilities: Christ descended either into all parts of hell or only to that in which the righteous were imprisoned, whom He was to deliver. In the first case, ‘for going down into the hell of the lost He wrought this effect, that by descending thither He put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness: but to them who were detained in Purgatory He gave hope of attaining to glory: while upon the holy Fathers detained in hell solely on account of original sin (pro solo peccato originali detinebantur in inferno), He shed the light of glory everlasting’. In the second case, the soul of Christ ‘descended only to the place where the righteous were detained’ (descendit solum ad locum inferni in quo justi detinebantur), but the action of His presence there was felt in some way in the other parts of hell as well.

What is of interest to me is looking at what is happening on the metaphorical level in these two treatments of Christ’s Descent into Hell. In St. Cyril’s preaching, as well as in other Fathers of the Eastern Church, the root metaphor of Christ’s Descent into Hell is literally that – Christ’s Descent into Hell. Gustav Aulen, the Swedish Lutheran theologian, would later dub this imagery the “Christus Victor” model of the atonement. It is placing Christ’s defeat of Satan and destruction of Hell as the dominant image that is pressed throughout its preaching and its use in doctrine. The East never broke the metaphor up (nor did it ever offer an analysis of Hell itself as in Aquinas’ four distinctions). A number of Eastern Fathers, indeed the majority, will labor somewhat to state that not everyone will be saved in a “happy” sense, but they have to labor to reach that conclusion because the overarching metaphor of Christ Descent into Hades can easily lead one to see Hell as empty – and if Hell is empty, then all are saved. (I personally love Cyril’s description of Satan being left “abandoned and lonely.”)

In the West, it is not the metaphor created by the Descent of Christ into Hades that controls the development of thought on the subject, but an alternative metaphor – that of the forensic, or legal world, as Bishop Hilarion noted. Thus Christ’s Descent into Hades is analyzed by reference to a metaphor outside the event and made to conform, ultimately, to that metaphor.

Thus it is today that we find the Roman Catholic Church re-examining the doctrine of limbo. My dear friend Fr. Al Kimel has posted an article on the current work of Catholic theologians on Pontifications. It is worth a read – but I would note to any reading it, that from an Orthodox perspective, what is going on is a reexamination of the legal metaphor and the possibility that some other approach might yield different results. It did in the Eastern Church – and will in the West if theologians there will let the event speak for itself. 

I will add as an additional observation, that the controlling or root metaphor in the West was not simply drawn from the legal world itself. Rather, an analysis of the Adamic fall and the use of some of St. Paul’s imagery with that fall, come to be the dominant metaphor. Original sin therefore plays a role in the West that it never did in the East. It is worth noting that the thinking and doctrine concerning salvation which followed or were driven by that metaphor come to see the Descent into Hell as problematic. Rome treated the problem by subjecting it to scholastic analysis. For much of the Protestant tradition, the Descent becomes so problematic that it is virtually forgotten. Anglican Prayerbooks (even in 1928) offered optional versions of the Apostles’ Creed in which you could say, “He descended into Hell,” or “He went into the place of departed spirits.” At the most, the Descent into Hell was limited to a freeing of the “righteous.” The alternative metaphor of original sin and juridical salvation gave little or no room for a salvation from Hell from within Hell itself. For a large number of modern Evangelicals, it is no exaggeration to say that there is no awareness at all that Christ ever descended into Hell (Hades, etc.). The metaphor which dominates their thoughts on salvation gives no room nor necessity for such a descent. This absence is similar to the absence of sacramental understanding in which Baptism and Eucharist play a role in salvation. They are reduced to memorials or ordinances because the controlling metaphor in modern Protestant thought has no room nor necessity for either.

The ending of Chrysostom’s Catechetical Sermon is a fitting end to these thoughts:

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.


An Update on the Pontificator and Limbo

October 24, 2006

Al Kimel, writing on Pontifications, has posted another article on Limbo, this time doing a masterful job of stating quite clearly why the doctrine is wrong, why children, unbaptized, still enjoy the bliss of heaven. His reason is simple: the love of God. The problem that has plagued the West on this subject is accurately analyzed as well: the false assumptions by St. Augustine, et. al. concerning what we know.

Al has been a long friend of mine, and though we took different directions when we parted ways with Anglicanism (he to Rome, I to Orthodoxy), I hold him in high regard, both for his integrity and his ability to think and write. I am pleased to see that integrity and clarity put to such good use on the subject of Limbo.

How long before they send him to Rome?

In Limbo No More

October 22, 2006

Al Kimel, over at Pontifications, has posted an excellent article that supports the Vatican’s possible abandonment of the doctrine of Limbo, that is, a doctrine that consigns unbaptized babies to somewhere other than the Beatific Vision of Heaven (in some Catholic accounts, limbo was a place of natural bliss, in others a place of torment.) He references an article by Fr. John Breck which is an excellent Orthodox statement on the subject. Fr. John has been my confessor since my conversion to Orthodoxy – he and his wife Lynn are deeply committed to issues surrounding the death of children. His article comes from a heart and a mind that has engaged the subject on the deepest theological level.

For the Orthodox faith, the question of unbaptized children is not fraught with difficulty. The Western doctrine of Original Sin, in which we are born with the guilt of Adam and thus born deserving of Hell, is simply not part of the Orthodox faith. Orthodox theology speaks rather of Ancestral Sin – we inherit from Adam a fallen world that includes our mortality. Children are born mortal – but not liable to guilt and punishment.

The tragedy of the doctrine of Original Sin, when it is understood in a forensic (legal) manner, is that it inevitably presents God as merciless, or powerless, or worse. It creates stumbling blocks for unbelievers who reject a God who would consign an infant to Hell (or less than heaven).

The sacrament of Baptism, in which we are united with the death and resurrection of Christ, is in no way weakened by the mercies of a God who saves beyond the bounds of the sacraments. The sacraments are not limits – mere “instruments” of grace in the toolbox of the Church. The sacraments are concrete manifestations of the Life of God in the Church. As such, they cannot be limited to those acts that have been given to us for our salvation. The Life of God is the Life of God. He saves whom He wills, how He wills.

Our salvation is no mere legal transaction. Our salvation is our union, our incorporation in the Life of God. It is not foreign to us (death is foreign to us) but is the reason for our existence in the first place. The forensic metaphor tends to make punishment and hell our natural state instead of the failure that it is. Sin, hamartia, means “missing the mark.” It is the failure to become what we are created to be. Sin is not natural to us, but contrary to our nature, a contradiction of who we are as human beings. A God who did not spare His son for the sake of our salvation would not be so unkind as to neglect our salvation because something intervened in our Baptism. Again, I mean no belittling of the greatness of our Baptism. However, in the Orthodox blessing of Water in that service we sing: “Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works, and there is no word which sufficeth to hymn Thy wonders.” Such a God knows no limits to His love, or the power of His love.

Whenever theology runs counter to the love of God – no matter how neat and tidy – how carefully reasoned – something has gone wrong. I commend Fr. Breck’s article to all of you, and hope that new directions in Roman Catholic theology will indeed come to pass.