Archive for the ‘Fathers’ Category

Reading Scripture in an Orthodox Manner

August 15, 2008

Recently my site has been visited with questions about Scripture, in particular (to start with) the Orthodox use of the title “Father” when Christ said, “Call no man on earth your father.” Actually I thought the response posted by William amply demonstrated how this verse should be understood. But there is a larger question – that of the use of Scripture and how it may be interpreted. The questioner claimed only be guided by God and the “clear sense” of Scripture. There was no recognition of any tradition (though he clearly interpreted things in a particular protestant tradition). There was also a denigration of all organized Churches as having somehow diminished the gospel, which could only be corrected by “true believers.” I have chosen not to use this site as a place to debate the various questions. There are too many and not enough common ground for a genuine conversation. Debate has ultimately not been the purpose of this blog.

I reprint here an earlier article on the Orthodox reading of Scripture and hope it is useful reading. For me, it explains why no individual alone can interpret the Scripture and why the Orthodox ultimately do not need to defend what has been received by the Church. There are some brave souls out there who truly have a ministry of apologetics (defense of the faith). I may do a little of it, but it is not my primary ministry. I pray for all who read or post here. May God save us all!


The following quote is from the Christian history website maintained by Christianity Today (an evangelical source).  It describes the crucial teaching role of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, an early Bishop of the Church and later a martyr, and perhaps the most articulate spokesman of Orthodox theology in the 2nd century. The article discusses Irenaeus’ refutation of the Gnostic heretics, particularly their misuse of Scripture. It sheds light on how the Church rightly divides the Word of Truth.

As he wrote these words, Irenaeus had in mind Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:15 about false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing but are inwardly ravenous wolves. The Gnostics sounded, and frequently acted, just like orthodox Christians. They read the Bible, used the Bible, and cited the Bible. But the way they understood the Bible, the way they put its pieces together, differed dramatically from the perspectives of Irenaeus, Pothinus, Polycarp, and John.

Irenaeus believed there was an unbroken line of tradition from the apostles, to those they mentored, and eventually down to himself and other Christian leaders. The Gnostics interpreted the Scriptures according to their own tradition. “In doing so, however,” Irenaeus warned, “they disregard the order and connection of the Scriptures and … dismember and destroy the truth.” So while their biblical theology may at first appear to be the precious jewel of orthodoxy, it was actually an imitation in glass. Put together properly, Irenaeus said, the parts of Scripture were like a mosaic in which the gems or tiles form the portrait of a king. But the Gnostics rearranged the tiles into the form of a dog or fox.

As a pastor, then, Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies in order to describe the heresies that were threatening his congregation and to present the apostolic interpretation of the Scriptures. He revealed the cloaked deception for what it was and displayed the apostolic tradition as a saving reminder to the faithful.

What is clear in Irenaeus’ teaching is that there was what he called the “Apostolic Hypothesis,” a framework of basic doctrine by which Scripture (first the Old Testament, later the New) should be interpreted. This consensus fidelium, or rule of faith, guided the Church century after century into its life, continually enlivened by the Holy Spirit. Though expressed in different ways at different times, the central goal was always the same: that the Church would teach the same Christ as it had received, and proclaim the same salvation it had always known.

Now Irenaeus’ description of the process of interpretation is deeply insightful. He recognizes that Scripture can easily be broken into pieces (we do it all the time when we pull verses here and there). By itself this is not a problem. It’s how you put them back together that matters. Do you reassemble the portrait of a king? or do you make it look like a fox or a dog?

The answer goes to the heart of the matter. What is the matrix by which you seek to interpret Scripture and by what authority do you use it? Anyone who says he just reads the Scripture and that there is no matrix by which he interprets is deceiving himself and his listeners and not admitting that he has already accepted a matrix and on its basis he selects Scripture to fit his point. There really is no other way to read.

Orthodoxy has never denied this. Instead, like Irenaeus, it points to that which it has received. Irenaeus called it the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” It has also been called the “rule of faith,” and various other names. But if you have not accepted this “matrix” you cannot interpret Scripture in the form of the Apostles or their successors or the Church that Christ founded.

Others accept as their matrix a statement of faith written 1500 years later, constructed on a matrix invented by medieval scholastics who sought to reform the Church. They had no command from God, no conversation with the Apostles, nothing but their own ideas and rationality from which to construct new matrixes. From Germany Luther gave us his “salvation by grace through faith,” and read the Scriptures accordingly. Calvin gave us his matrix of the sovereignty of God. Neither could speak with authority or true assurance and neither would have succeeded in their reform had the state not conveniently enforced it with the sword (read the history). The Reformation never succeeded without the state’s cooperation and frequently suceeded by drastically destroying property and torturing its opposition. Not that this was not followed by a war from Catholic authorities. All of these things happened apart from Holy Orthodoxy. But the myth of a popular uprising cleansing the Church of false doctrine, fostered for years by Protestant historians is simply a fabrication.

More to the point of this post – the matrix of Protestant interpretation, though frequently seeking for something like the Apostolic Hyposthesis, in many places failed to adhere to that primitive standard.

The doctrine of predestination to damnation, discussed in the previous article on the Pontificator Writes Again, is an excellent example of a modern (i.e. Reformation) doctrine that had never been accepted by the Orthodox Church as a proper reading of Scripture. Verses assembled to support this teaching are like the verses of Gnostics, gathered from a shattered mosaic. Instead of a king, they assemble the picture of a wolf.

God has not created any man and preordained him to perdition. To say that He has is heretical. This is not the faith of the Church. It is contrary to the Apostolic Hypothesis and how we have received the understanding of salvation. If a man is lost he has resisted the will of God, “For God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance…” (2 Peter 3:9). At the end of almost every Orthodox service, the words of dismissal affirm, “For He is a good God and loves mankind.”

This is fundamental to the Christian faith. Any other presentation of God, whether under the cloak of sovereignty or the like, is a distortion and falsification of the Christian religion. There is no God who wills the damnation of human beings. To proclaim otherwise is to proclaim another gospel.

The difficulty in proclaiming this, of course, is the number of well-meaning Christians of various sorts who will want to quote Scriptures affirming otherwise. Arius quoted Scripture as did the Gnostics. Either you stand with the Apostles or you do not. If you use the Scriptures in a manner that the Church has not used them, then you stand against the Apostles.

Christian doctrine is not a battle over the Scriptures. Sola Scriptura has not worked and never did. Such an approach simply leads to endless argument and confusion. Either we embrace the faith of the Apostles, once and for all delivered to the saints, or else we exile ourselves to confusion or, worse yet, to the false guidance of those who never sat in the seat of the Apostles.

The Most Holy Mother of God

August 13, 2008

On August 15, the Orthodox Church (new calendar) commemorates the Dormition (falling asleep) of the Most Holy Mother of God. The feast is considered to be one of the 12 Great Feasts of the year and thus an integral part of the proclamation of gospel of Jesus Christ.

Many who are not familiar with Orthodoxy, or its manner of understanding saints, easily see feast days and the veneration of saints as distractions from the gospel. The thought is: “If it’s not about Jesus, then somehow the gospel is not being preached.”

I am willing to grant the point – but to quickly add that the veneration of the Mother of God is inherently about Jesus and that without paying proper attention to Mary, Christ is being short-changed and not fully understood.

In the history of the Church the first dogmatic proclamation concerning Mary was the use of the title, Theotokos, meaning “the one who gave birth to God.” Nestorius, for whom the heresy of Nestorianism is named, objected to the use of the term saying that she should be called Christotokos instead. This would mean that she was the mother of Christ, but not properly called Mother of God. The Church condemned Nestorius’ teaching and affirmed the use of this title for Mary, for Christ is not properly divided into a schizophrenic being (God and Man but not united), but is instead but one Person, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Eventually the Church would declare that He was one Person with two natures (Divine and Human) but never sought to contemplate Him in a manner that divided His person.

Thus the title given to Mary was and is about Jesus and was solemnly defined in order to protect the proper understanding of His incarnation.

The Scriptures themselves bear ample witness to her unique position. “All generations will call me blessed,” are words spoken by Mary in her dialog with her cousin, Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist). To refuse this honor to Mary is to violate the clear word of Scripture.

At the Wedding at Cana, where St. John records Christ worked his first miracle, we have a story of an encounter between Christ and His mother. For what reason we do not know, the problem of the wine shortage is brought to Mary. She takes the problem to Christ who responds: “What is this to me and you, woman? My hour has not yet come.” Idiomatically the statement means, “What concern is that of ours?” Addressing her as “woman” is not derogatory as some claim (why would Jesus fail to honor his mother in violation of the law?). Her response to His statement is interesting. She turns to the servants and tells them to “do whatever He tells you.” At her intercession Christ works His first miracle. Argue with it if you will, but on the plain face of the story that is what happens. Why does St. John record the story? It is certainly a story that points towards the great wedding feast at the end of the age, but Mary plays a central role.

This same role is played throughout Scripture in the lives of the righteous. They intercede before God for others and God hears them. Abraham interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah; Moses interceded many times for Israel and God heard him; the stories of these righteous men and women can be multiplied many times over(Read Hebrews 11).

This same communion of saints has continued through the ages adding to its list those who have followed Christ and in union with Him offered intercession for the world. Those who have known the communion of the saints and their fervent prayer before God on our behalf have known something of the fullness of the Church. For it is they (and us) whom St. Paul has in mind when he says that the Old Testament saints awaited a promise which is now ours, that, together with them, we are made complete (Hebrews 11:40). That promise, of course, is Christ, born of the Holy Spirit and the Most Holy Virgin Mary who is blessed through the ages.

Eternal life is to know God, and Jesus Christ Whom He has sent (John 17:3). But the Christ we are called to know is to be known in His fullness. That fullness includes His incarnation and the communion of saints He established when He united Himself to our flesh in the Virgin.

In The Last Days

July 22, 2008

Abba Ischyrion was asked, “What have we done in our life?”

He replied, “We have done the half of what our Fathers did.”

When asked, “What will the ones who come after us do?”

He replied, “They will do the half of what we are doing now.”

And to the question, “What will the Christians of the last times do?”

He replied, “They will not be able to do any spiritual exploits, but those who keep the faith will be glorified in heaven more than our Fathers who raised the dead.”

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Risky Business

July 1, 2008

Amoun found Abba Poemen and told him, “When I visit a neighbor or he visits me, he hesitate to talk with each other. We are afraid that we might bring up a worldly topic.

The old man replied, “Yes, young people need to guard their mouths.”

Amoun asked, “But how do old men handle this problem?”

Abba Poemen said, “Those who have advanced in virtue no longer have any worldliness in them. Nothing will taint their speech.”

Amoun continued his questioning. “When I must speak with my neighbor, should I speak of the Scriptures or of the Fathers?”

The old man answered, “It is best to keep silence. If you can’t, talk about the sayings of the Fathers. Speaking about the Scriptures is risky.”

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

In our modern world the above conversation of two monks in the desert sounds rather quaint. We have very little concern about our subjects for conversations. As autonomous individuals, we talk about whatever we want to talk about and never give a second thought as to whether the topic was suitable or whether our words were helpful or harmful.

I was particularly struck by Abba Poemen’s statement that “speaking about the Scriptures is risky.” It brought a smile. Of course, all this has radically changed in our culture. The Bible is no longer a rare book (or copied laboriously by hand). Everyone has numerous copies (usually) and more opinions than copies.

I was making a presentation several years ago at a fundamentalist Christian school in Tennessee. Somewhere in the course of my comments I spoke about the 6th chapter of St. John’s gospel and Christ’s discourse on the Eucharist within it (though it occurs as a commentary on the feeding of the 5,000 – it is most decidedly a teaching on the Eucharist). It is in this chapter that Christ says, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you,” and many similar things.

A young man (a freshman) in the audience approached me after the lecture and was absolutely beside himself. He began to argue and to explain how the passage could not be about the Eucharist and how Christ was speaking figuratively about something else. I pointed out to him that even Protestant scholars agree that the chapter concerns the Eucharist – but to no avail.

Discussing Scripture is risky business. Part of what is missing in our Christian culture is a proper reverence for the Word of God. Even those who claim to hold it as utterly infallible in every jot and tittle, do not hesitate to use it in an cavalier manner.

I can recall several years ago a conversation that occurred within a group of Orthodox priests. The subject was the ever-Virginity of the Mother of God. Someone mentioned some of the traditional physical details associated with this doctrine. The conversation quickly ceased. One of the priests said, “I cannot discuss such things about the Mother of God.” There was no disagreement among the priests, only a sense that somethings are better left unsaid and that respect dictates that silence is best in some matters.

It was very instructive for me. The Holy always involves “boundaries” (I have written about this before). In an Orthodox Church such boundaries are particularly emphasized in the “boundary” of the altar area, and even within the altar area, the boundary of the altar itself. Only some may enter the altar area, and then only with a blessing. And generally, only bishops, priests and deacons may touch the holy altar or the things that are on it. It is an action, or refraining from action, that helps interiorize the reality of the Holy and how we should handle such things.

The Scriptures are certainly Holy, and should be rightly handled, that is rightly interpreted. But there is rarely a Godly fear in approaching such a task. Were such respect present, we would argue less and listen more, and many times remain silent.

It is utterly essential in the Christian life that believers begin to pay attention to their inner life and the state of their souls and dwell less in the fantasy of ideas and argument. The Christian faith is a way of salvation that involves the transformation of our inmost being – it is not a set of ideas with which we are trying to conquer the world.

None of this is to suggest restricted access to the Scriptures. Neither do I mean to suggest restricting access to the Holy (indeed in an Orthodox service, the Body and Blood of Christ are brought forth from the altar and given to the faithful to eat). What I mean to suggest is that we think about what it means that something is Holy and treat it accordingly. For with such treatment our hearts will begin to recognize things in the “truth of their being” and realize as well that we are not autonomous individuals in charge of the universe, but are, at most, servants of the Most High God, to Whom be glory.

True Knowledge of God

June 19, 2008

The Elder Sophrony made a strong distinction between the knowledge we gain by rational speculation and the knowledge of God that comes as a gift of grace. He used the term “dogmatic consciousness” to express the knowledge of God as found in the lives of the saints and great ascetics. It is not a contradiction of the dogma of the Church, but an existential encounter with God that ineffably confirms the teaching of the Church. As a side note, it is interesting that he thinks there is a time extending better than fifteen years between the knowledge gained in such an encounter and its verbal expression. It takes time to properly assimilate such knowledge and yet more time to find words.

The dogmatic consciousness I have here in mind is the fruit of spiritual experience, independent of the logical brain’s activity. The writings in which the Saints reported their experience were not cast in the form of scholastic dissertations. They were revelations of the soul. Discourse on God and on life in God comes about simply, without cogitation, born spontaneously in the soul.

Dogmatic consciousness where asceticism is concerned is not a rational analysis of an inward experience – it is not ‘psychoanalysis’. Ascetics avoid this rational speculation because it only weakens the intensity of their contemplation of the Light but, indeed, interrupts it, with the result that the soul sinks into darkness, left as she is with a merely abstract rational knowledge devoid of all vitality.

What is the use of reasoning about the nature of grace if one does not experience its action in oneself? What is the use of declaiming about the light of Tabor if one does not dwell in it existentially? Is there any sense in splitting theological hairs over the nature of the Trinity if a man has not within himself the holy strength of the Father, the gentle love of the Son, the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost?

Dogmatic knowledge, understood as spiritual knowledge, is a gift of God, like all forms of real life in God, granted by God, and only possible through His coming. This knowledge has by no means always been expressed in speech or in writing. The soul does not aspire to expound her experience in rational concepts when God’s grace descends on her. She needs no logical interpretations then, because she knows with a knowledge that cannot be demonstrated but which equally requires no proof that she lives through the true God….

…God is made known by faith and living communion, whereas human speech with all its relativity and fluidity opens the way to endless misunderstandings and objections. (From St. Silouan the Athonite).

 This short passage itself expresses the faith of the Orthodox Church as expressed in its life and councils. Though the study of dogma or doctrine is certainly part of every priest’s education and in some form part of every catechumen’s training, it is never enough by itself. It is the deeper and truer expression of the ancient formula, lex orandi lex credendi (“the law of praying is the law of believing”). For many in our modern context, this ancient formula has been interpreted to mean that the texts of the Church’s liturgical worship should be the basis for the Church’s dogmatic expressions. In many ways this is true. The liturgical language of the Church gives a very full expression to the Church’s faith. But in another sense, implied by Father Sophrony, we may say that the actual participation in the liturgical life of the Church, our existential encounter with God in the worshipping context, is the proper meaning of the ancient formula. For without the knowledge that is known “by faith and living communion” words fall flat and fail to say the little that can be said.

The dogmatic expressions of the Church, though providing a grammar for worship, are not the proper object of worship itself. They provide a grammar but direct us to the worship of the True and Living God, knowledge of Whom is eternal life.

As one contemporary American Orthodox theologian has said recently, “After all, it’s really all about God.” Indeed.

What is the use of reasoning about the nature of grace if one does not experience its action in oneself? What is the use of declaiming about the light of Tabor if one does not dwell in it existentially? Is there any sense in splitting theological hairs over the nature of the Trinity if a man has not within himself the holy strength of the Father, the gentle love of the Son, the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost?

The Depths of the Personal

May 22, 2008

I have written on modern distortions of “personal relationship” in which “private” relationship is one of its corrupted meanings. I have also noted that, properly understood, “personal” always carries a meaning of “corporate” as well. To be in personal relationship with Christ necessarily means that I am in relationship with His Body, the Church. There is a mutual sharing of life – my life becomes Christ’s – His life becomes mine – and so forth. All of this means that what happens to one happens to all.

There are yet greater depths to the fullness of what is meant by a personal relationship, far more than I can begin to say here, or to say with much experience. But I will frame this depth by saying that when we speak of person in the language of the Church – then we have begun to speak in language which the Church first used and continues to use with regard to the three Persons of the Holy Trinity and the Personhood of Christ (in its teaching on the 2 natures). That is to say that when we speak of personhood, we are not speaking about something that we in fact immediately understand just because we are modern people.

This is one of the great fallacies contained in the popular preaching of “personal relationship with Christ.” There is enough truth in what is said in that preaching that I do not wish to say that it should not be preached. I use such language myself (generally with much explanation). Our modern world believes that it understands a great deal about personhood when, in fact, most of what it knows are only in the distortions of the individual as a private entity and the rights that might be associated with that.

The gift of personhood that we receive from God is intimately involved both with our being able to properly appropriate the fullness of our own human nature, as well as the means by which we are able to appropriate the divine (here it is the energies rather than the nature that we appropriate). This is to say, that personhood is the mode of existence which is given us in our relationship with Christ, through which the whole life of grace, our communion with God and one another, and our likening to God Himself, is made possible.

In this I am abbreviating almost to the point of absurdity – but only to point to the greatness contained in the Church’s teaching on God’s gift of “personal relationship.” This is so much more than modern preaching either says and is certainly something which is utterly unknown to Evangelical thought. However, it is deeply and carefully taught, and lived, in the fullness of Orthodox life (particularly as evidenced in those lives to which we would point as examples of a rightly-lived Christian life).

That people everywhere should learn to call upon the name of Jesus for salvation is a joy to me. That they should come to know more and more what it means to call upon the name of Jesus for salvation is a ministry which God has set before us and with the fullness of Tradition that is given to us we should be utterly derelict in our responsibility should we not teach and preach this fullness.

May God teach us to live by grace through faith.

Grace and “the Inverted Pyramid”

May 19, 2008

Fr. Sophrony [Sakharov], in his book on St. Silouan, presents this theory of the “inverted pyramid.” He says that the empirical cosmic being is like a pyramid: at the top sit the powerful of the earth, who exercise dominion over the nations (cf. Matt. 20:25), and at the bottom stand the masses. But the spirit of man, by nature [unfallen nature as given by God], demands equality, justice and freedom of spirit, and therefore is not satisfied with this “pyramid of being.” So, what did the Lord do? He took this pyramid and inverted it, and put Himself at the bottom, becoming its Head. He took upon Himself the weight of sin, the weight of the infirmity of the whole world, and so from that moment on, who can enter into judgment with Him? His justice is above the human mind. So, He revealed His Way to us, and in so doing showed us that no one can be justified but by this way, and so all those who are His must go downwards to be united with Him, the Head of the inverted pyramid, because it is there that the “fragrance” of the Holy Spirit is found; there is the power of divine life. Christ alone holds the pyramid, but His fellows, His Apostles and His saints, come and share this weight with Him. However, even if there were no one else, He could hold the pyramid by Himself, because He is infinitely strong; but He likes to share everything with His fellows. Mindful of this, then, it is essential for man to find the way of going down, the way of humility, which is the Way of the Lord, and to become a fellow of Christ, who is the Author of this path.

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart


The teaching of St. Silouan, itself a continuation of the unbroken Tradition of the Church, was continued in the life and writings of the Elder Sophrony. Today it continues in the life and teachings of the elders and community of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England, of whom Archimandrite Zacharias is an example. His recent visits to the United States to conduct retreats have now become books which continue to expand and confirm the teaching of St. Silouan and the Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Christian faith.

One of the strongest elements drawn out in both the life and teachings of St. Silouan is just this word of humility as illustrated in my opening quote. To be a follower of Christ is to accept a “downward path,” to follow Christ into the depths of His humility. This is not a new word, but echoes that of the Apostle (which itself seems to have been a hymn which the Apostle was quoting):

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phillipians 2:5-11).

This clear teaching of the Apostle, which only echoes the utterly consistent teaching and example of Christ, has a history of being obscured within Christianity – with Christians forgetting this essential teaching and following after a human Lordship and model of salvation.

In a wide variety of places and situations, Christians have thought to establish some image of the Kingdom of God (or even the Kingdom itself) here on earth through means other than the path of humility set forth by Christ and the faithful Tradition of the Church. The result has been varied – but has often been merely a tyranny in the name of God, which is no better than a tyranny in the name of something else.

I am reminded of a statement by Stanley Hauerwas, Protestant theologian and professor at Duke University:

The Christian community’s openness to new life and our conviction of the sovereignty of God over that life are but two sides of the same conviction. Christians believe that we have the time in this existence to care for new life, especially as such life is dependent and vulnerable, because it is not our task to rule this world or to “make our mark on history.” We can thus take the time to live in history as God’s people who have nothing more important to do than to have and care for children. For it is the Christian claim that knowledge and love of God is fostered by service to the neighbor, especially the most helpless, as in fact that is where we find the kind of Kingdom our God would have us serve.

in A Community of Character

In countless lectures and seminars in which I participated while a student at Duke’s Graduate School of Theology, I heard Hauerwas echo this quote with the assertion that “so soon as Christians agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence.” This violent outcome is a complete perversion of the “downward Way” described by Archimandrite Zacharias and the Orthodox Tradition. Our goals are thus never measured by the “outcomes of history” but by the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

This same contradiction, in narrative form, can be found in Dostoevsky’s classic chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in The Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor lashes out at Christ for His failure, as measured in the outcomes of history, and justifies Christians’ use of tools such as the Inquisition as an improvement over the weakness of God. The argument of that famous chapter, as well as the previous chapter, “Rebellion,” mark the high-point of Dostoevsky’s summary of the argument against God and the Orthodox Christian faith. The answer to that diatribe is not a counter argument, but the person of the Elder Zossima, who lives in the Tradition of the Holy Elders of the Faith such as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Elder Sophrony, and a host of others. Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.


Scripture, Icons, and the World We Know

April 6, 2008

I ask for grace in writing this, lest I go beyond my ability. It seems to me well worth saying as discussions of the relationship between Scripture, dogma and science have surfaced. I offer this as food for thought as well as a ground of discussion.

First, I will note an American Protestant tradition (somewhat thin these days but still present in plenty of places within our culture). What I have in mind was once known as a “Common Sense” reading of Scripture. If was built philosophically on Scottish Common Sense philosophy, which held that we knew things directly and that any person of common sense was, if without prejudice, able to come to agreement with other persons of common sense. It was popular in parts of America and at one time (19th century or so) held absolute sway at Princeton and a number of other institutions, and was associated with such names as B.B. Warfield, et al. With the gradual demise of the formal fundamentalist movement after the 1920’s, this method became more of an interesting bit of historical knowledge, though many parts of it remained within the common treatment of Scripture among conservative Protestants. Among its assumptions was the “perspecuity” of Scripture – that is – it was perfectly understandable and interpretable by a person of common sense who approached it with good will and a desire to know the truth.

Much of this philosophy and theology of Biblical interpretation were a necessary part of Protestantism. If the Scriptures did not have such a quality of “perspecuity,” then some authority would be in charge of interpretation – all of which looked like an inevitable return to “Romanism.”

For a history of Fundamentalism in America and its philosophical underpinnings as well as its various schools of Biblical interpretation, I highly recommend George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture: the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925. Marsden currently teaches at Notre Dame, though he was at Duke at the time I studied there. His scholarship on American religion is among the finest available.

All of this is stated as a prelude to the Orthodox approach to Scripture. First, it is only fair to say that modern Orthodoxy has more than once had tremendous influence from both Protestant and Catholic scholarship, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Much twentieth-century work has been to firmly build Orthodox scholarship on the foundation of the fathers and the Tradition as received within Orthodoxy. I think the study of Scripture is one of those areas where much work remains to be done (as do many other areas). That’s to say (to my dear readers) – just because you read a book by somebody who is Orthodox and you like a lot, does not mean you are necessarily reading definitive Orthodoxy. It’s never that easy.

I will offer a quote which I have used before:

“Man,” says St. Maximus, “has the absolute need for these two things, if he wants to keep the right way to God without error: the spiritual understanding of Scripture and the spiritual contemplation of God in nature.”

The spiritual understanding of Scripture is a permanent tradition of Eastern spiritual writing. In this context, St. Maximus also has the sternest words for those who can’t go beyond the literal meaning of Scripture. Ignorance, in other words, Hades, dominates those who understand Scripture in a fleshly (literal) way:

He who doesn’t enter into the divine beauty and glory found in the letter of the Law falls under the power of the passions and becomes the slave of the world, which is subject to corruption… he has no integrity but what is subject to corruption.

The exact understanding of the words of the Spirit, however, are revealed only to those worthy of the Spirit; in other words, only those who by prolonged cultivation of the virtues have cleansed their mind of the soot of the passions receive the knowledge of things divine; it makes an impression and penetrates them at first contact. This is from Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality.

A “so-called” Common-sense interpretation of Scripture, or even the “literal” reading, if you will, though sometimes correct, is in many instances not the reading of the Church or of the Fathers and simply leads us into incorrect conclusions.

I think this is particularly the case when treating the early chapters of Genesis and seeking to bring them into current scientific dialog. It is insufficient to say that the “world is now different than God created it,” thereby attempting to rescue a literal reading of Genesis. In terms of the creation of the world, St. Maximus tells us that the “Incarnation is the cause of all things.” This pretty much undermines a literal, chronological treatment of Scripture as in the common-sense tradition.

Genesis certainly tells us much about the condition of humanity – of our turning away from God – but a spiritual reading of that book is certainly required. particularly in the first few chapters, replete as they are with messianic reference, etc. To make of those chapters a “common-sense” description of the creation of the universe and the precise metaphysics of our fall from grace, is probably to miss most of what those chapters have to say to us.

The Fathers (and I think particularly of St. Maximus the Confessor here) in the East really began to tackle the questions of human sin, free will, etc., primarily as they thought about Christ and what was revealed to us in Him about the truth of being human (Jesus was not only fully God, but also fully man, and thus could alone serve as the example of what it means to be “fully human”). And this work was not done until the 5th century. Interestingly, they started there rather than from some sort of systematic theology of the early chapters of Genesis.

In modern times, Fundamentalists, working within the Common Sense tradition, saw Darwin’s work as the complete undermining of the authority of Scripture. The entire modern battle between science and the Bible has largely been a Protestant concern. The terms of that battle have been created largely on that playing field. When Orthodox step onto the field they are like David wearing Saul’s armor. Something just doesn’t fit.

We have interesting verses in Scripture regarding creation. For one, we are told by St. Paul,

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:18-21).

Thus St. Paul makes it quite clear that God made the creation subject to the same futility and bondage to corruption which we know as human beings and that the creation will take part in the same redemption that is ours in Christ Jesus.

When God looks at what He made in Genesis and says, “It is good,” is the statement a comment on things as they are, as they were, or as they shall be? (or some combination thereof). We know, theologically, that nothing is “good” except God alone. How could He describe the universe as “good” except as it comes to be in the finality or completion of its creation when it is fully united with Him (Ephesians 1:10)?

It was certainly common among the Eastern fathers to see Adam and Eve as “adolescents” rather than fully completed, already having achieved perfect image and likeness. St. Irenaeus holds this teaching and it is fairly common among the Eastern fathers. They do not tend to focus on Genesis and “original sin” to the extent that became common in the West.

Why do I include icons in the title of this piece? I do so because of the marvelous theological hint given us in the Seventh Ecumenical Council: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” This is a clear recognition both of how icons work, but also of how Scripture works. Icons are windows – they make it possible to see beyond them to something else. They do not necessarily (in fact rarely) depict anything in a strictly historical manner and yet what they depict is true. I see in Genesis a rich icon of the creation. Knowing how to read that icon, how to see what is shown us by God, requires far more than common sense. It requires a purer heart than I know I have – it requires a relationship with both God and with creation that I do not yet have. But I do know that it is pointing me beyond myself and further than my “common sense” would ever take me.

As for science – it has its own rules and ways of reading the universe. Sometimes science and the faith cross paths. Inasmuch as we both want to know the truth, we share a common journey. Inasmuch as science seeks to control the universe, we part ways. But the assumption that there is all one big truth to which Bible and science both belong – this is part and parcel of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, not exactly a part of Orthodox Tradition. There is much to be discussed by Orthodox in our modern world. Some of that discussion requires a deeper appropriation of the Tradition. Some of that discussion requires that we speak about things that science is making known. But everything requires that we find the Truth at it is revealed in Christ – wherever and however that is so. Glory to God.

St. Isaac on Humility

March 17, 2008

southwest-trip-172.jpgHumilty is the raiment of the Godhead. The Word who became human clothed himself in it, and he spoke to us in our body. Everyone who has been clothed with humility has truly been made like unto Him who came down from his own exaltedness and hid the splendor of his majesty and concealed his glory with humility, lest creation be utterly consumed by the contemplation of him….Wherefore every man has put on Christ when he is clothed with the raiment wherein the Creator was seen through the body that he put on. For the likeness in which he was seen by his own creation and in which he kept company with it, he willed to put on in his inner man, and to be seen therein by his fellow-servants.

…I should marvel greatly if there were any truly humble man who would venture to supplicate God when he draws nigh to prayer, or to ask to be accounted worthy of prayer, or to make entreaty for any other thing, or who would know what to pray. For the humble man keeps a reign of silence over all his deliberations, and simply awaits mercy and whatever decree should come forth concerning him from the countenance of God’s worshipful majesty….When he bows his head to the earth, and contemplation within his heart is raised to the sublime gate leading to the Holy of Holies wherein is He whose dwelling place is darkness which dims the eyes of the Seraphim and whose brilliance awes the legions of their choirs and sheds silence upon all their orders….Then he dares only to speak and pray thus, ‘May it be unto me according to thy will, O Lord.’

Taken from The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev

Through the Prayers of Our Holy Fathers…

February 21, 2008


It is a phrase that is heard frequently in Orthodox services: “Through the prayers of our holy fathers, have mercy on us and save us!” The meaning of that phrase is enlarged and enlightened in the writings of the Elder Sophrony. The following excerpt is from his book, St. Silouan the Athonite.

Prayer for the whole world, for all Adam, in many instances distracts the monk from putting himself at the service of individuals. One may question whether this withdrawing from individual service means refusal of the concrete for the sake of the abstract? Not at all, for the whole Adam is not an abstraction but the most concrete fullness of the human being.

The ontological unity of humanity is such that every separate individual overcoming evil in himself inflicts such a defeat on cosmic evil that its consequences have a beneficial effect on the destinies of the whole world. On the other hand, the nature of cosmic evil is such that, vanquished in certain human hypostases [persons] it suffers a defeat the significance and extent of which are quite disproportionate to the number of individuals concerned.

A single saint is an extraordinarily precious phenomenon for all mankind. By the mere fact of their existence – unknown, maybe, to the world but known to God – the saints draw down on the world, on all humanity, a great benediction from God. The Staretz [St. Silouan] writes:

‘Because of these people, I believe the Lord preserves the world, for they are precious in His sight, and God always listens to His humble servants and we are all of us all right because of their prayers.’

‘Prayer keeps the world alive and when prayer fails, the world will perish…”Nowadays,” perhaps you will say, “there are no more monks like that to pray for the whole world.” But I tell you that when there are no more men of prayer on earth, the world will come to an end and great disasters will befall. They have already started.’

The saints live by the love of Christ. This love is Divine strength, which created, and now upholds, the world, and this is why their prayer is so pregnant with meaning. St. Barsanuphius, for instance, records that in his time the prayers of three men preserved mankind from catastrophe. Thanks to these saints – whom the world does not know of – the course of historical, even of cosmic events, is changed. So then, every saint is a phenomenon of cosmic character, whose significance passes beyond the bounds of earthly history into the sphere of eternity. The saints are the salt of the earth, its raison d’etre.  They are the fruit that preserve the earth. But when the earth ceases to produce saints, the strength that safeguards it from catastrophe will fail.