Archive for the ‘The Church’ Category

The Church and the Cross

May 26, 2009

IMG_0625This article is also found in my pages section as The Ecclesiology of the Cross. It seems that as the Orthodox world begins another level of internal discussions on ecclesiology – that these thoughts are worth re-posting. I was pleased to see the article quoted recently in an Orthodox discussion on another site. Of course, sense the subject is the true nature of the Church, it is a matter of concern for all Christians – for the Church is not a matter of taste or personal preference – it is Divine and properly deserving an article of the Creed. I ask my readers’ indulgence for the length – it is actually a series of articles published as one. But I think the subject worth time and effort. I will add that recent conversation here about evangelism is proper to this topic as well. Our salvation – like the Church itself – is properly brought about by the Cross of Christ. The character of the Cross, as discussed in the following article, is also, I would think, the correct way to think about evangelism. The mystery of the Cross lies at the heart of every point of the faith.

Part I

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scripturapoor or no ecclesiology, and theentrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, 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 weaknessand 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.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia are actually going to gather at the Lord’s table together. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

 Part II

I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Part III

Following earlier posts on this subject, I take up the second of four points: 

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying [as the self-emptying of God on the Cross].

There is a tendency when we think of the Church to think in institutional terms – to speak of hierarchies, the role of Bishops, etc. Scripture uses a variety of images for the Church: the body of Christ, the messianic banquet, the pillar and ground of the truth, etc.

But of course, one simple reality of the Church abides and colors all of our experience: we are human beings in relationship with God and with other human beings who are part of the Church. That relationship, whether characterized in Eucharistic terms, or the language of the body of Christ, is still always quite relational (excuse the tautology). This inescapable fact makes it necessary for us to keep this aspect of the ecclesial life before us at all times.

What then does it mean for us to be in relationship? St. Paul, in his famous discourse on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-13), focused on its most central aspect in the very core of that discourse. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is the great chapter of love (agape). St. Paul subjugates all other concerns to that measure of reality. “If I have not love, then I am nothing” (13:2).

All too easily this passage is relegated to the category of ethics. (Recall that I noted in the last post it is all too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about the Christian life). There is not an “ethics” department and an “ecclesiology” department. The ethics of 1 Corinthians is as much ecclesiology as Paul’s speech about the “body of Christ.” One is simply what the other looks like when it is actually lived.

The love of 1 Corinthians 13, is nothing less than the agapaic love of God – the love the Father has for the Son; the love the Son has for the Father; the love the Spirit has for the Father and the Son (and all the ways we may permutate those statements). Love is nothing other than the self-emptying of one person towards the other – it is the kenotic (emptying) relationship of one for the other that is the hallmark both of the intra-Trinitarian life as well as the life of the Church (how could the life of the Church be any different from the life of God?).

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

This is as poetic and accurate a description of kenotic love as can be found in Scripture. This is synonomous with Christ’s claim that he does only that which He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The Son empties Himself towards the Father and only does His will. The Father empties Himself towards the Son, and has given “all things into His hands” (John 13:3). The Spirit “does not speak of the things concerning Himself” (John 16:13), etc. These are not discreet revelations about intimate details of the Trinity, but are revelations of the very Life of God. Kenosis (self-emptying) is descriptive of each Person of the Trinity. It is in this that we speak of “God is love.” For greater love cannot be measured than that we “lay down our life for our friends.”

Thus when we come to speak of our life in the Church, St. Paul characterizes it by this same act of kenotic love. We do not look towards our own good, but for the good of the other. We “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Our lives in the Church are not marked by centers of activity and importance (individuals) who then negotiate with other centers of activity and importance for their respective positions. Such a model is a description of secular life (at its best) and Hell (at its worst).

That our membership in the Body of Christ begins by our Baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and also includes Baptistm “into the Body of Christ” (I Corinithians 12:13) gives an explanation of the meaning of “Baptized into the Body.” To exist in the Body of Christ is to do so by existing in the death of Christ, as well as His resurrection. How this makes us “His body” is amplified when we see that “His death” is more than the event on Calvary, but the fullness of His divine self-emptying that was made manifest to us on the Cross of Calvary. We are Baptized into the self-emptying love of Christ, for this is the only way of life. If we are to be transformed “from one degree of glory to another” then it is towards the “glory” of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed. Deification (theosis) is also kenosis (self-emptying) for there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.

Next: 3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

And: 4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Part IV

We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

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 [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

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).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 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…(Philippians 2:2-7)

 The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

The Price of the Liturgy

May 12, 2009

15We celebrate the Liturgy together. But we must pay what this costs: each one must be concerned for the salvation of all. Our life is an endless martyrdom.

The Elder Sophrony


The Divine Liturgy (the Holy Eucharist) is not a ritual action of the Church which we attend, as though it were some sort of program. It is one of the greatest manifestations of the Divine Life that God has given us – dwelling in us, among us, with us, uniting us, and ascending from God to us and through us back to the Throne of Grace. Please forgive the exercise in prepositions in the last sentence – but the very nature of the Divine Liturgy demands such an exercise of language (cf. St. Basil).

The habits gained from our cultural life always threaten to invade our life as the Church – when our life as the Church should constantly be invading our life in the culture. Culturally we tend to gather for assemblies in which the deformed philosophy of secularism (dominant among most modern Christians) has offered us shape, form and understanding. The Divine Liturgy has no commonality with this philosophy.

We do not gather as a collection of individuals who share a common interest. The actions of the priest are not a program presented for our intellectual, emotional, psychological or religious improvement. We do not stand apart from the actions of the Liturgy and approve or disapprove them as if we were an audience.

We assemble for the Liturgy as the Church, the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the Fullness of Him Who Filleth all in all (Scripture synonyms for the Church). We are never an audience. We assemble as a single Body, who share in a single Life. No one can distract me from the Liturgy for the Liturgy is everything that takes place in the assembly of the Body. A child crying is a liturgical action (in the Liturgy). Equally a parent caring for a child and exercising discipline or offering solace are also liturgical actions. Our pains, our boredom, our interests, the very cry of our hearts are all among the lives that have assembled into the One Life. 

There is one prayer – the Prayer of the Holy Spirit Who prays to the Father through the Son. This one prayer is given voice by priest, deacon and people. Nothing falls outside the concern of this one prayer for we offer to God everything. The sins of our lives are not excluded (else we would be barred from the Liturgy). Rather, we are told in Scripture that “God made him [Christ] to be sin, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the great exchange of worship – that we offer to God all that we are and have – even those things that seem unworthy – that we might receive in exchange that which transcends all worth.

To gather together in the Liturgy is to enter a new life. The habits of the old life are brought in only to be transformed – not to dictate to God the nature and character of the new life. The Life of the Liturgy is “on behalf of all and for all.” We must yield to the fact that the salvation of each and all is now the proper concern of each and all. 

All of these things are simply what it means to love one another.

The Bells

May 4, 2009

RUSSIA HARVARD BELLSI can never begin describing the layers upon layers of Orthodox Tradition when I am writing or speaking with others. This is true, at the very least, because the Tradition is itself also the “life” of the Church (in Orthodox understanding). A life – particularly a life that is Divine, cannot be described. It can only be experienced. Description, at best, only offers a small glimpse.

One of the elements of Orthodox life that is lost to those outside is the rich role of music in the Church. Many who come to Orthodoxy in the West are hesitant when the find the various musical presentations of Orthodoxy to be so, well, foreign. As my years in faith add up, however, music begins to take on new meanings. I feel as though I’ve largely forgotten the hymns of my former Church – regardless of their beauty. In Orthodox practice music, the various melodies employed, etc., have their own associations, even multiple associations, which like icons and other elements of the services, bring various theological events, insights and moments into one another’s presence and thus produce a commentary. This is particularly rich during Holy Week and Pascha (though in American practice there remain many musical melodies known only by name and not by sound – the Tradition is only slowly being set in place).

It is thus hard to describe what is happening when these various layers of the Tradition – liturgical, ritual, musical, textual, iconographic, etc. – all begin to work together in the course of the Church year. The experience of the Church’s life reveals a texture that can be found in few if any other settings (I cannot think of any). I am particularly struck by the fact that what I know of this element of the Orthodox life is, in fact, at a rather minimal level. I have had conversations with those for whom these many layers are known as familiar territory. I can think especially of some conversations I have had, or been present at, with Fr. Paul Lazor, retired from the faculty of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. His conversations alone carry a wealth of Tradition.

Another layer of Orthodox life which is only beginning to be present in America, at the same time it is being restored to Russia, is the place of Bells. In a recent article in the New Yorker the following statement on the understanding of Church bells serves as an example. Bells are not a musical instrument but

“‘…an icon of the voice of God.’ A Russian bell, he said, must sound rich, deep, sonorous, and clear, for how can the voice of God be otherwise? It must be loud, because God is omnipotent. Above all, Russian bells must never be tuned to either a major or minor chord. ‘The voice of a bell is understood as just that,’ he said.  ‘Not a note, not a chord, but a voice.’”

Western bell-ringing is famous either for playing music (as is done with Carillons) or in playing mathematical schemes (as in change-ringing). Russian bell-ringing has its own rules with various patterns being required at various occasions. But beneath all of its patterns is the icon of the voice of God.

The complexity that these many things bring to Church life is, like the voice of the bell, an icon of the life of God as well as the mystery of our participation in His life. Conversations I had ten years ago about music in the Orthodox Church (“Would there ever be a place for Western hymns in Orthodoxy?”) now seem trite – devoid of understanding the life into which I was entering. I am a neophyte, only now awakening to the Life that has been given me. But knowing something, anything, of that Life is an invitation to follow the voice of God.

The source of the quote on the bells comes from a marvelous Orthodox blog by Fr. Milovan Katanic, a Serbian Orthodox priest, whose comments have graced articles here at Glory to God for All Things. I have added his website, Again and Again, to the blogroll, its absence being an oversight on my part for which I can only beg forgiveness. It is always a very good read.

Scripture and the Church

February 19, 2009

codexsinaiticusI have written several posts lately on Holy Scripture – reading comments tells me that there is a point that needs to be underlined that I have neglected to some extent – the relationship between Scripture and Church. Much of the modern world is today the product of Protestant cultures – or cultures in which the view of the Bible has been largely shaped by the Protestant project.

The most critical part of that intellectual project was the decoupling of Scripture and Church. For Martin Luther or the early Reformers (particularly the successors of Luther, Calvin and Swingli), the Bible became the only authority (sola Scriptura) and it was through the Bible that the Church was to be judged, corrected and reformed. Thus the Scriptures took on a new form – one in which they became an independent book with authority over everything else. Problems of interpretation were often met with theories of “soul competency” in which it was postulated that each individual soul was competent to interpret the Scriptures for themselves. Of course, these were all novel doctrines, unknown to the Fathers of the Church.

One of the results was to create something of a Christian parallel to the Koran. Christianity, at the hands of well-intentioned reformers became a “people of the book.” A single Christian, with a copy of the Scriptures, somehow became a sufficient example of Christianity. Of course this phenomenon was itself a contradiction of the Scriptures. Today we see the embodiment of this sea-change. Crowds of young and old, carrying Bibles under their arms, dutifully make their way into buildings, euphemistically called “Churches,” although in America they are increasingly called something more attractive than “Church.”

The separation of Bible and Church was not an accident – it was an intentional political move. The goal was to establish the Scriptures as an authority independent of the Church. Nor was this independence purely for the sake of the spiritual “freedom” of the individual. The great competitor for the authority of the Church in the 16th century was not the individual, but the State. More than the work of reformers, the Reformation was a work of the State. Ask the many murdered monks of England. The 16th century is not the great century of democracy in Western Europe, but the great century in which were born the nation states. The authority of the Church was diminished while the authority of the state was expanded. Far easier to offer the spiritual comfort of a private Bible and a private God than the inherently dangerous political entity of a spiritual community.

Of course history has moved on and these original intentions have morphed into present-day realities. Of course, the individualized Christian with his individualized Bible continues to live at the mercy of the nation state, oftentimes endowing those entities (especially in America) with an authority that does not properly belong to them.

But of course, the radical mistake of removing the Holy Scriptures from the interpretive context of the living Orthodox Church, is to kill the Scripture as Scripture. Scripture apart from the Church makes no more sense than Holy Communion apart from the Church. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Scripture is written for the Church, to the Church, and is read by the Church. Apart from the Church it can have no particular meaning – for within the Church it has a most peculiar meaning that can only be traditioned within the Church.

This is made clear in several incidents within the New Testament. To the Sadducees who rejected most of the Old Testament, Christ said: “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 20:29).

And yet more bodly, to the Pharisees He said, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39). It is a radical claim in which Christ points to Himself as the meaning of the entire Old Testament. I can think of no bolder claim from His lips to His messiahship.

But we also see evidence of the proper place for reading and understanding the Scripture. The Sadducees did not understand, nor did the Pharisees. To a great extent, even the disciples of Christ did not understand until after the resurrection. On the road to Emmaus, we hear this encounter between the Risen Lord and His yet to be enlightened disciples:

And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:25-32).

After this encounter, Christ appears to His disciples by the Sea of Galilee. He greets them from the shore:

And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:41-47).

It is clear that the entire interpretive scheme of the Old Testament – as a revelation of the suffering and resurrected God – is not at all understood by the disciples until it is given to them by Christ after the resurrection. This same “scheme” (in the sense of “schema” in the Greek – meaning “framework”) is precisely the scheme of the liturgies, hymns and prayers of the Church. They are the most abundant witness to this primitive proclamation of the Church in which the Old Testament, rightly sung in its proper context, yields up its meaning in bearing witness to Christ and His resurrection. This rich interpretive scheme is completely lost to those who have detached the Bible from the fullness of the Orthodox Church and placed it in various forms of history – either fundamentalist literalism – or historical critical schemes of blasphemy.

The Scriptures do not stand apart from the Church. They are the “Scriptures of the Church.” To refer to them as Scripture apart from the Church is simply an absurd statement that ignores the very meaning of the word “Scripture.” They are Scripture, or “Holy Writing,” precisely because the Church sees and hears in them what it was taught to see and hear in them. Removed from that context they will always be read incorrectly. It is equally absurd to claim that the Scriptures have some “objective” meaning, as though they were written for nobody – like a rock exists in the desert. They are not objective, but are “ecclesial,” that is, existing for the life and as part of the life of the Church.

If a man would know the word of God, then he should stand in the midst of the assembly of the Church and listen to the hymns and prayers of the saints. There he will hear the rich treasures of the Word of God offered as praise, as doctrine, as worship, as a verbal icon of Christ Himself. In so doing He can come to know the word of God.

Rethinking Reading

January 19, 2009


Someone commented on the last post that “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” This, of course, the the formal teaching of the seventh ecumenical council. I offer a reprint of an earlier article I wrote entitled “How to Read the Church,” which understands the Church as the interpretation of Scripture. It’s another way of saying some of the same things I’ve been suggesting about Scripture and the Old Testament. I hope readers will find it of interest.

If, as I have wrtten, the Orthodox Church itself is the proper interpretation of Scripture – then one might ask, “How am I supposed to read the Scriptures if their interpretation is the Church?” It is a good, even an obvious question, but one which points us to the very thing at hand: the nature of interpretation.

In general usage, to speak of interpreting something is to speak of explaining and commenting and seeking questions of meaning. Of course, this presupposes that the answer to the question is something that can be spoken, explained, commented, etc. Thus, interpretation is seen as essentially a literary question.

I have taken my lead from two verses of Scripture – both of which illustrate how I am re-presenting interpretation. The first is St. Paul’s statement to the Christians in Corinth:

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 Cor. 3:2-3).

And St. John’s description of Christ as the exegesis of the Father [John 1:18]:

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared (exegato) him.

(Exegesis is the technical term that theologians use when they speak of explaining a passage of Scripture.)

Thus the question can be pushed back and asked, “How are the Corinthians an epistle?” and “What does it mean that Christ exegetes the Father?”

In both cases the answer is not a literary event, but a matter of a life lived. Christ so exegetes the Father that He can say, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father,” (John 14:9). God did not make Himself known by giving us words about Himself. Those who think the Scriptures are the revelation of God are sadly mistaken. Christians are not Muslims. Christ Himself is the Word of the Father and it is through Christ that we know God, not through the Bible. The Scriptures have their place of great importance and are an essential part of the life of the Church, but that place is precisely that of which I am writing.

The revelation of God to the people of Corinth is not to be found in St. Paul’s two epistles written to the young Church in that city, but in the Church itself. They are God’s revelation to Corinth, “written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the Living God; not in tables of stone but in the fleshy tables of the heart.”

If the people of Corinth do not see and come to know Christ in and through the Church, His Body, which has been established in that place, then Corinth will not know God.

Some of this goes to the very heart of the Church’s existence. It has become a commonplace in modern Christianity to reduce the Church to a fellowship of convenience, existing only to encourage and strengthen individual Christians (this is particularly true in Evangelical Christianity but has spread as a larger cultural understanding as well). Whereas the Scriptures speak quite differently of the Church.

The Church:

Is the Pillar and Ground of Truth (1 Timothy 3:15);

Is the Fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Eph. 1:23).

Is the very Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12 and other places).

Is the Bride of Christ (Rev. 21:2 and elsewhere).

Such descriptions in no way fit an organization whose purpose is to encourage and strengthen individual Christians. The modern understanding of the Church is blasphemous in its denial of God’s own description of His Bride, His Fullness, His Body, the Pillar and Ground of Truth.

The Church is an epistle just as Christ exegetes the Father. Christ said, “For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:26). In the same manner, Christ is the life of the Church. The Church does not exist merely to speak words about Christ but to manifest the very life of Christ among mankind. The Church has no other life.

“Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory” (Col. 2:2-4).

Thus we do not “read” the Church as though we were reading a book. We “read” the Church as its life impacts and informs our own life. If we are part of the Church, then our life itself is to be increasingly the life of Christ, an epistle written on the fleshy tables of the heart. But this is not for us to do as individuals, for we cannot do this outside the Church and without the life that is lived by the whole Church. We do not Baptize ourselves.

The great challenge to the Orthodox Church in the modern world is to remain the Church, to be God’s faithful epistle to the world and not simply an exotic brand of modernized Christianity. For we are an epistle, written by the Spirit of the Living God, not an organization whose programs entertain the interested.

Let the dead bury the dead. The Church has to be about living a Life.

Please forgive me if the force of my writing in this post is in any way scandalous. I do not mean to cause someone to stumble, but rather to point the way to the truth of God’s Church and the place of Scripture within it.

Salvation in a Cloud of Witnesses

January 12, 2009

florence-baptistry1Perhaps more than any culture in history – America has championed the individual. The context for this cultural development was the nation’s historic resistance to the class structures of 17th and 18th century Europe (and later) as well as a positive response to certain intellectual concepts that were popular at the time of the nation’s independence. The European settlement of America in its early modern history was largely accomplished by individuals or individual families. Later migrations would see the settlement of larger groups – who frequently became part of the greater “melting-pot” in which people saw themselves first as defined by their individual talents and efforts and only secondarily as belonging to an ethnic or religious group.

American religion – first as import from Europe and later with varieties of home-grown denominations – gradually assumed the character of the culture. Salvation (already given an individual cast in some versions of early Protestantism) became viewed as almost exclusively individual in nature. By the late 20th century, Americans had become “consumers” of religion, many denominations and groups having grasped the basics of marketing.

In the face of such developments (which are quickly being exported across the globe), the essential message of the gospel – that salvation is corporate (or collective) in character rather than individual, simply sounds like heresy. At the heart of this discrepancy are two radically different views of what it means to be human – and thus what it means to be whole as a human being. I will offer several observations that seem to be related to these radically different views.

First, salvation understood primarily as individual, is inherently non-Trinitarian. This is not to say that those who teach salvation as individual do not profess faith in a Trinitarian God, but that their doctrine of salvation is divorced from their understanding of God. Trinitarian theology and soteriology have no particular or necessary connection. In such settings, worship will largely be cast in non-Trinitarian language (either emphasizing Jesus or the Holy Spirit, depending on the tradition). In many modern, market-driven models, the language of “God” will trump everything else. The Trinity is too complex and confusing to market easily.

Second, salvation understood primarily as individual, will tend towards the democratization of religion. If an individual can be saved without reference to a corporate body or collective (I’ll come back to these terms), then hierarchy is either useless or worse. The individual has his or her copy of the Scriptures, and, as individual, is seen as  increasingly capable of reading the Word of God without reference outside themselves. “What it says to me,” is seen as the sufficient criteria for interpretation.

But what does this say about the understanding of what it means to be a whole human being? What is a whole individual? Politically, such wholeness has been defined in terms of power and freedom. If an individual is deprived of power, then he cannot fully realize his potential as a human being. If he is deprived of freedom, he is again deprived of his potential to choose and act in such a way as to be whole. These same concerns are easily translated into individual models of salvation. Being empowered to choose and act freely become ever more important. Thus if there is a hierarchy that refuses to ordain women – it is a stumbling block to freedom and power. The same can be said about homosexual unions, etc. Salvation, if understood in a manner that limits empowerment and freedom, will come to be seen as wrong, if only because it is a message that runs against the flow of empowerment and freedom as viewed within the culture.

An excellent example of this occured once in an inquirer’s class I was teaching before I was Orthodox (I was an Anglican priest). I was teaching a class on Christian morality and offered as authoritative the traditional teachings of the Christian faith in matters of sex and marriage, etc. One of the couples in the class seemed upset by my presentation and asked, “What right does the Church have to tell me how to live my life?” I admit that I was stunned by the question, if only because of its honesty. I gave them a short answer, “Because you are raising my children.” The complete answer has more depth, but I thought they might find it helpful to consider that the world included someone other than themselves.

What does it mean to be a human being – such that being a whole human being would be any different than what we now are? In a proper Orthodox understanding, the very conception of the human being as an “individual,” in the modern sense, is itself one of the symptoms of sin. We do not rightly exist as individuals – and fall into sin whenever we act in such a manner. The classical Christian understanding of what it means to be human, created in the image of God, is that we are persons, which is not to be confused with individuals. Personal existence is never to be understood in an isolated, self-referential manner. In Trinitarian theology, we cannot say “Father” in a self-referential manner. The very name “Father” implies another and implies some sort of relationship. The same is true of “Son,” as well as “Spirit.” This is why some Christian modernist attempts to find new expressions for the Persons of the Holy Trinity are so often heretical. “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier,” was a popular usage by liberal Anglicans when I was in seminary – but is heretical because all three Persons of the Trinity can be named by any one of these functions. Christ’s revelation of the Trinity was intensely personal – not only giving us names by which we could refer to the Persons of the Trinity – but ultimately revealing the very reality that God is Personal. The language of Personhood is distinctly Christian and developed only within the context of the Church’s efforts to find proper expressions for what had been revealed in Christ.

To be whole as a human person, is quite distinct from wholeness as an individual. Person carries within it the uniqueness and unrepeatablity that we usually associate with the word individual. However, it also carries within it – at its very root – the understanding that a person properly only exists in communion with another person. It is in this sense that we may say “God is love.” Love is not some abstract essence which may be equated with the being of God. Rather, God is love because the Father loves the Son and the Spirit and the Son loves the Father and the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. Thus when Christ speaks of the new life given to His disciples He says:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another (John 15:9-17).

This passage would largely be nonsense in an individualistic understanding of the human. The love we are commanded is none other than the love of the Father for the Son. Christ is not offering a moral homily on the advantages of acting in a loving manner. We are commanded to love, indeed to “abide in my love.” These things are for the fullness of our being, “that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” We are transformed from servants into friends – friendship being defined as mutual sacrifice of life. This is the love of God manifest in the “emptying” (kenosis) of Christ on behalf of all creation described in Philippians 2.

It is this image and reality of personhood that is damaged in the fall. Eve eats the fruit in a manner that has no regard for God. Thus she inaugurates the first moment of non-eucharistic behavior. Food is eaten with regard only for oneself and not with regard to God. It is not a communion of life, but a meal of death. Ever after, fallen human beings turned ever inward, away from the love of other. The result is death and murder and every form of brutality. It is betrayal and coldness of heart, greed, envy and lust. These are not moral failings, but existential failings. We do not live as persons, but as mere individuals. As such we could never be saved.

The incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ are the invitation of God to humanity to an existence that is truly personal rather than individualistic. Thus it is that the first act to which a believer submits is Holy Baptism. There the individual ceases to exist as individual and is Baptized into true Personhood. It is the first act of communal existence given to the Christian and is the hallmark of every Christian action to follow. Met. John Zizioulas describes the new birth in Holy Baptistm as the birth of the “ecclesial hypostasis.” (I’ve never used his term in the context of a sermon-and don’t recommend it). But the “ecclesial hypostasis” means simply an existence that is “Churchly” and “Personal” (ecclesia=Church; hypostasis=Person). We are put to death in Baptism, united to Christ in His death, and made alive in His resurrection. The new existence we are given in Holy Baptism is no longer that of an individual (isolated and self-referential) but now of a Person – whose existence is confirmed and fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor. These are not moral acts of a new moral code, but life-giving acts that fulfill a new existence.

Thus, to exist as a whole Person is the goal of salvation in Christ. It is for this reason that the place of communion and participation become of primary importance. Koinonia, the NT word for this reality, (often translated poorly as “fellowship”), is the truth of our existence the very mode of our being. The mysteries of Baptism and Eucharist are thus rightly seen as a participation, as is our part in the Body of Christ. Indeed all of life becomes transformed into communion and participation in the life of God. It is the life of the age to come.

Our salvation occurs in a manner that is in no way isolated, but rather in a “Cloud of Witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). We are Baptized into a community of existence that is the Church, the Body of Christ, the Fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Ephesians 1:23). For this same reason the Church prays as community, the prayers of all generations united in one voice of praise to God. For His life is our life, our salvation and our hope.

The Death of Religion

November 5, 2008


In August of 2007 I wrote an article on Christian Atheism. At the time I was seeking to describe the strange phenomenon of modern Christianity – one in which life as we live it and life as we say we believe it are two separate things. This is not a problem of hypocrisy but of shipping Christianity to an off-shore location in which all significant spiritual activity is accomplished somewhere other than where we live.

Thus salvation is something accomplished in history (on the cross) or in the mind of God (a forensic or legal atonement) or anywhere other than here and now. Sacraments become memorials, a testimony to Divine Absence rather than Divine Presence. Initiation into the Church is accomplished by an “ordinance” which is simply viewed as a sign, a public act of obedience in which nothing happens (except perhaps in the off-shore location).

The result of this bifurcation of faith is an empty world in which we may speak of the “death of religion.” Modern Christians have a relationship to faith much the same as they have a relationship to a political point of view. Indeed, in many modern churches, the substance of the faith is itself the subject of political debate. What God would have us do as sexual creatures, for instance, is a matter of cultural perception and persuasion – not revelation. Such approaches to Christianity only guarantee that modern Christianity in America will be just that – American. Churches become the constitution at prayer (with all of the various views of the constitution represented by denominations or various wings thereof). We become a nation of red Church, blue Church, neither of which have any relation with The Church, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.

This also makes the Church into a political instrument, or politics into a churchly instrument. Thus the victory of one party or the loss by another is seen as a victory of religious significance. Both major parties this election season embraced “faith,” and generally found themselves embraced in return.

But the truth is that Christianity with an off-shore Christ is not Christianity at all. Christianity that can be affected by a shift in the political winds is no Christianity at all. The ship of the Church was launched against the tide of Roman paganism and against the wind of growing state dominance of all life. The blood of many thousands was shed before the winds changed and allowed a certain freedom to the Church – and yet the Church against the tide and against the wind was stronger when the winds and tides changed than when it began its journey. For the Church sails upon a tide and wind blowing in this world oblivious to the political weather of kingdoms destined to fail.

The ability to repent and to walk in union with the Divine Light of God is as available in the Gulag as it is to the middle-class American who enjoys almost unlimited freedom. For “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17).

The death of religion, of the true Christian religion, occurs when the God who became flesh and dwelt among us, is seen as the God who has removed Himself (having accomplished His work here) and is found only in the distance of theological thought. It is little wonder that in the sterility of Christian atheism the vacuum of a true spiritual life should be filled with the vacuity of the political life.

The Republican party is dead. The Democratic party is dead. Neither of them can give you life. They belong to a world that is passing away. What remains is what has been established by God and still sails before the winds and on the tide that obey His voice.

There is a Kingdom of God, found in communion with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. It is not removed from us but has come among us. It breaks forth in human lives and burns with spiritual fire in the sacraments of the Church. It heals the sick, raises the dead, casts out demons and gives freely what it has freely received. It knows no economy other than the fullness of God who causes the barren woman to be the joyful mother of children, who brings forth water in the desert and changes water into wine.

Religion is not dead – only the false pretense of religion begotten in the delusion of the modern world.

“Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered. Let those who hate Him flee from before His face.” And all these enemies live in me and in us all and God must arise in us and drive the enemy from within us. His Kingdom come, His will be done. Let the ship sail straight and true and know the Wind that blows where it will.

Glory to God for all things!

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!

In the Image of God

October 22, 2008

In the life of the saints, “repetition” or “copying” is the most creative act: it is the mystery of the Tradition of the Holy Spirit. The way to the acquisition of this holy Tradition was first indicated by the great Apostle Paul, “Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart

I grew up as the son of an auto mechanic – who himself was the son of a mechanic. My uncle was a mechanic as well. By age 16 my older brother could do almost anything mechanically on a car – he had worked beside my father from the age of 12. I assumed, as I watched my brother from 5 years his junior, that at age 12 I would take my place beside the men and learn what the men in my family knew – auto mechanics.

Life has its own way of doing other than we imagine. By the time I was 12 my brother was heading off to college, the local economy had crashed, and the normalcy of business changed. My opportunity to apprentice beside my father came and went (which I sorely regretted).

Indeed, I never received my apprenticeship until my mid-20’s when I was in seminary and working by the side of a priest I admired. It was not my place in life to be an auto mechanic (though I like to “fiddle around” with cars). It has been in my later years that I’ve been able to look back and see the importance of apprenticeship.

Stanley Hauerwas, at Duke University, says that we learn to be virtuous people the same way a brickmason learns his trade – by watching and working side-by-side with someone who knows how to lay bricks. Virtue is formed and shaped in us by the Holy Spirit in the Holy Tradition – that is, the practiced lives of saints who have embodied the virtues of Christ through the ages.

Of course, we can’t just go out and sign ourselves up for apprenticeship with a saint. Good people are often rare and saints even rarer. But the principle of discipleship – learning by action in the Holy Spirit in the life of Holy Tradition – remains.

In some corners of Christianity (and probably some corners of Orthodox Christianity as well) discipleship has been abused – generally when someone without the proper gifts imposes obedience on others. Such gifts (such as eldership, etc.) are quite rare, even within Orthodox monasticism. My Archbishop has always been quick to instruct parish priests to avoid the monastic practice of obedience in the parish on account of its spiritual dangers in the wrong hands. Those whom I have known who do have this gift exercise it with fear and trembling.  

Nevertheless, discipleship remains the primary means of our spiritual growth. So what do we do in the absence of saints? First, we are never in the absence of saints. They are always present with us as we are, together with them, one body in Christ. We have the witness of their lives and the wisdom of their writings. We have the living Tradition of the worshipping Church in which the words of the saints bathe us with spiritual teaching.

Tito Coliander, in his little classic work, Way of the Ascetics, has this exquisite observation on obedience in our modern times:

Perhaps you ask: Whom shall I obey? The saints answer: you shall obey your leaders (Hebrews 13:17). Who are my leaders, you ask? Where shall I find any, now that it is so utterly hard to discover a genuine leader? Then the holy Fathers reply: The Church has foreseen this too. Therefore since the time of the apostles it has given us a teacher who surpasses all others and who can reach us everywhere, wherever we are and under whatever circumstances we live. Whether we be in city or country, married or single, poor or rich, the teacher is always with us and we always have the opportunity to show him obedience. Do you wish to know his name? It is holy fasting.

God does not need our fasting. He does not even need our prayer. The Perfect cannot be thought of as suffering any lack or needing anything that we, the creatures of His making, could give Him. Nor does he crave anything from us, but, says John Chrysostom, He allows us to bring Him offerings for the sake of our own salvation.

The greatest offering we can present to the Lord is our self. We cannot do this without giving up our own will. We learn to do this through obedience, and obedience we learn through practice. The best form of practice is that provided by the Church in her prescribed fast days and seasons.

Besides fasting we have other teachers to whom we can show obedience. They meet us at every step in our daily life, if only we recognize their voices. Your wife wants you to take your raincoat with you: do as she wishes, to practice obedience. Your fellow-worker asks you to walk with her a little way: go with her to practice obedience. Wordlessly the infant asks for care and companionship: do as it wishes as far as you can, and thus practice obedience. A novice in a cloister could not find more opportunity for obedience than you in your own home. And likewise at your job and in your dealings with your neighbour.

Obedience breaks down many barriers. You achieve freedom and peace as your heart practices non-resistance. You show obedience, and thorny hedges give way before you. Then love has open space in which to move about. By obedience you crush your pride, your desire to contradict, your self-wisdom and stubbornness that imprison you within a hard shell. Inside that shell you cannot meet the God of love and freedom.

Thus, make it a habit to rejoice when an opportunity for obedience offers. It is quite unnecessary to seek one, for you may easily fall into a studied servility that leads you astray into self-righteous virtue. You may depend upon it that you are sent just as many opportunities for obedience as you need, and the very kind that are most suitable for you. But if you notice that you have let an opportunity slip by, reproach yourself; you have been like a sailor who has let a favourable wind go by unused.

For the wind it was a matter of indifference whether it was used or not. But for the sailor it was a means of reaching his destination sooner. Thus you should think of obedience, and all the means that are offered us by the Holy Trinity, in that way.

And so God provides us with guides and teaches us the practice of obedience, conforming us to His will. It is an apprenticeship of the Spirit – Who is everywhere present and filling all things.