Posts Tagged ‘Tradition’

Something from Nothing and the Apostolic Hypothesis

September 10, 2010

On September 8 the Orthodox Church celebrated the Nativity of the Mother of God. This is one of a number of feasts involving the life of the Virgin Mary, particularly during this time of the year. Many of the feasts mark events that are unfamiliar to many Christians, in that they are based on Tradition and have no direct account within the Scriptures. This would be especially troubling for some, if these extra-canonical stories changed essential doctrine or added to the faith more than was proclaimed in the Creeds.

However, I would submit, neither is the case. These extra-canonical Traditions not only conform to the Apostolic Hypothesis mentioned by St. Irenaeus of Lyons, they provide commentary and reinforcement to that very deepest heart of Christian teaching.

The situation for St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century needs to be appreciated. Though some Protestant groups constant point back to the point in time when the writings of the New Testament were finished (at the death of the last Apostle), such an artificial date is a modern configuration and was not entirely obvious to the early Church and those who succeeded the Apostles. St. Irenaeus would himself note that he knew Polycarp (the martyred bishop of Smyrna) and that Polycarp knew the Apostle John. Morever, Irenaeus cited the living tradition found in those Churches founded by the Apostles.

His great struggle was against the strongest heresy of the first two centuries of the Church – Gnosticism. This heresy was not one thing, but many things, expounded by many teachers and deeply attractive to a Roman world that was unfamiliar with the Old Testament and the traditions of Judaism. In the presentations of Gnosticism, Jesus was used as a convenient cypher to promote whatever idea a teacher sought to put forward. Some were extreme ascetics, others were extreme hedonists and all used the “phenomenon” of Jesus to justify their philosophies.

There was not a “variety” of teachings about the Christ in the early years – but a variety of opportunists who sought to exploit the growing popularity of Christ as a means to their own ends. The utter lack of unity among so-called gnostic teachers is itself testimony to the opportunistic character of their work. The unity found in the early Apostolic communities, as noted by St. Irenaeus, points to the authentic Tradition and life of the primitive Church. Gnostics did not produce martyrs – that was the work of faithful Christians who held to the Orthodox Catholic faith.

St. Irenaeus, in an attempt to describe this faith, used the term “Apostolic Hypothesis” to represent what was a mattered of settled, received teaching. Those who had been appointed as successors of the Apostles were also given the Apostolic faith (how could they not?). This faith was summarized by what St. Irenaeus called the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” He did not mean by “hypothesis” what we would mean today. It was not a “guess” on the part of the Apostles. Instead, he used the word hypothesis is its more pure Greek meaning, to refer to an underlying structure or matrix upon which the rest of the structure rests.

Such an Apostolic Hypothesis is found in documents such as the Apostles Creed, which was the early Baptismal Creed of the Church of Rome. Such Baptismal creeds were common throughout the ancient Churches, though not completely identical. However, as hypotheses, they were in utter agreement.

That primitive hypothesis can be summarized:

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
The holy Catholick Church;
The Communion of Saints;
The Forgiveness of sins;
The Resurrection of the body,
And the Life everlasting.

Of course, this is the text of the Apostles’ Creed. But we find echoes of this text within Scripture itself:

Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: (1 Corinthians 15:1-5).

St. Paul describes this, not as his own opinion or authorship, but “I delivered to you what I also received.” The words used are specifically the words of tradition (paradosis). St. Paul reminds the Corinthians of a tradition they have received (and doubtless received by all the Churches of the Apostles) a summary of the Apostolic faith.

When this hypothesis is compared to any of the gnostic writings, the differences become clear. The gnostic writings are not clear on the nature of the incarnation or of the death of Christ on the Cross. Neither are they clear about the nature of humanity (nor even of God).

What is consistent throughout the Apostolic Hypothesis, as witnessed in the Scriptures, the Creeds, and the writings of the early Fathers of the Church (most of whom were Bishops in Apostolic Succession) is the nature of the incarnation and of human sin and of the role of Christ’s death and resurrection in the salvation of the human race and of all creation.

It is this same fundamental understanding that runs throughout the extra-canonical devotions and stories of the Virgin Mary. It does not add to that fundamental understanding or change it. It serves to underline, yet again, the very nature of our salvation in Christ.

The most simple example I can point to is the one most recent in the Church’s calendar: the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. It is a feast that is held very close to the heart of the community in which I serve – for it is named for St. Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary. The story handed down is that the parents of the Virgin Mary were aged and childless. Thus Anna and her husband Joachim, were (in their own Jewish context) considered somehow “unblessed.” Anna’s barrenness was seen as a rebuke.

This is a common theme within the Old Testament. Sarah’s barrenness is the bane of her existence. The promise of God is not simply that He will give Abraham a land, but, more importantly, that Abraham will be “the father of many nations.” As an elderly man with an elderly wife, such a promise seems beyond belief. But Sarah bore Abraham a son and God’s promise was fulfilled.

Such barrenness occurs in the story of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. It occurs as well in the story of Manoah and his wife in the book of Judges (the parents of Samson).

The theme cannot be fully understood apart from the Apostolic Hypothesis. God brings forth fruitfulness from barrenness – it is a theme of His work of salvation. In modern Protestant parlance we would say, “We are saved by grace and not works.” The barren woman cannot be fruitful of herself – it is entirely the grace of God which causes fruitfulness to occur. This is very obvious in the case of the elderly Abraham and Sarah. It is echoed in the extra-canonical story of Joachim and Anne. Our salvation is a work of grace, not of human effort.

The image of fruitfulness being brought forth from barrenness is merely interesting if considered apart from the Apostolic Hypothesis. However, when placed in that proper context, it becomes a hallmark of the Gospel are type of salvation itself. The image of fruitfulness from barrenness goes as deep as Genesis 1:1 and its ancient commentaries. The God who created the world brought it forth from “nothingness.” No image of barrenness can be found that is greater than “nothing.” For many Christians, this teaching of the faith is simply a datum of cosmology: God created the universe from nothing. But to make this a matter of mere cosmology is to miss the point. The God who created the universe out of nothing delights Himself in bringing forth something from nothing. As St. Paul says, “He has chosen…the things that are not” (1 Cor. 1:28).

It is a consistent pattern throughout the Old Testament from the creation to the birth of Isaac, to the very creation of the nation of Israel. The work of God’s election is not a choice among things that are, but a bringing forth of things that never could be (apart from grace).

This same pattern is seen in the story of the Nativity of the Virgin, and of Christ’s virgin birth. Mary is born to elderly parents who are barren. God makes a promise to the elderly Joachim and Anne and they bear a child, Mary. For her, in her youth and purity we have one of the ultimate instances of barrenness: what can be more barren than the womb of a virgin. How can a virgin be fruitful? That Christ is born of a virgin (often bound up in tortuous theories about sin and sinlessness) is perfectly consistently with the actions of a God who creates out of nothing.

Our salvation comes forth from the utterly barren womb of Hades. In His death (what is more empty and barren than death?) Christ descends into death and “takes captivity captive.” As is sung throughout the Orthodox world, “Christ has trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” This great theme of Christ’s Pascha (Easter) is the very theme of our salvation. We are saved by the One who trampled down death by death. The death of our sin is trampled down by the life of His righteousness.

The great miracle of God’s work in creation is of a piece: He creates where there would otherwise be nothing. Our life in Christ is a “new creation.”

The stories of the Virgin Mary, including those the Church observes which are “extra-canonical” are not outside the Apostolic Hypothesis. Our own lives and experience of Christ are not outside that same hypothesis. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Christ says. In my sin I am empty, barren and unfruitful, incapable of true life. Only in the action of the good God, who creates from nothing, who makes the barren womb to be fruitful, who enters Himself into the barrenness of the womb of the Virgin and the emptiness of sinful man, who becomes what we are and enters into the emptiness of death and hell – only such a good God can save and make those things which are not to be as if they were.

God is glorified in His saints! The God of Israel!

Knowing God

August 5, 2010

The knowledge of God, generally spoken of in a very experiential manner, is an absolute foundation in Orthodox theology. Nothing replaces it – no dogmatic formula – no Creed – not even Scripture – though Orthodoxy would see none of these things as separate from the knowledge of God. But the questions I have received are very apt. In a culture that is awash in “experience” what do we Orthodox mean when we speak of such things and what do we mean by such knowledge of God?

There are two Scriptural passages in particular that come to mind when I think of this subject. The first from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8); the second, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as He is pure (1 John 3:2-3).

Obviously I equate “seeing” and “knowing,” as does the Tradition. In both of these verses the knowledge of God (“seeing God”) is tied to purity of heart. We do not see or know God because our hearts are darkened by sin and ignorance. Thus any knowledge of God that we have in this life begins as gift and remains as gift. However, it is a gift that is more fully received as our hearts are purified.

The importance of speaking of knowledge of God in this manner is to prevent two equally devastating errors. One would be to have a knowledge which is based only on the data of revelation, and only known as we know other data (like the multiplication table). As an Orthodox Christian I accept the teaching of the Church precisely because I am not pure of heart and I am not competent in and of myself to judge these things. I trust the saints and hierarchs of the ages, under the Holy Spirit, to have spoken truly of what they know and of what they have received.

The Orthodox “experience” if I can use such a phrase, is the confirmation in the heart of the truth we have received as we grow in grace and in purity of heart. But the truth of the faith must be confirmed in such a living manner or it simply becomes an historical item and the Church would be a collection of antiquarians and not the living temple of God. For my knowledge of God is also my life in God. Life, light, truth, knowledge – all of these have something of a synomymous character.

In accepting Christ as He has given Himself to us in His Church, we are also accepting knowledge of Him as it has been given to the Church. Private revelations (experiences) tend to be received with great skepticism either because of the spiritual dangers involved (delusion, etc.) or because of our own spiritual incompetency (sin).

None of this is an effort to disparage knowledge of God in a way that is “experiential,” that is, more than merely rational, but it is an effort that recognizes that such experience of God is itself part of our healing from darkness, death and sin. And just as that healing is a slow and steady progress (sometimes even a regression), so too our knowledge of God is slow (hopefully steady) as we grow in grace and purity of heart.

There is a passage in one of my favorite spiritual novels, A Pilgrimage to Dzhvari, (written by the mother of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev). In it, a mother and her son make pilgrimage to a monastery in Georgia (the one south of Russia). The woman is bright, intelligent and a fairly recent convert to the faith (having been previously a non-believer). In a conversation with the Abbot, she asks some questions about a passage in Maximus the Confessor. The Abbot reacts with alarm, “You’ve been reading the Fathers?” She replies in the affirmative. He is concerned that she may have done herself damage. “You should never read more hours in a day than you pray,” was his admonition.

His concern is that she not come to a place of imbalance – where the knowledge that fills her mind outstrips the knowledge that fills her heart. Such knowledge, acquired without ascesis (prayer, fasting, repentance, etc.) is the knowledge of which St. Paul warns when he says, “Knowledge puffs up” (makes us proud). It is by no means a celebration of ignorance, but rather a deeper diagnosis of precisely the kind of ignorance that poisons our souls.

I have known brilliant men and women, with degrees from very prestigious institutions, indeed with degrees in various forms of religious disciplines, whose knowledge of God was less than my average catechumen, but whose very “knowledge” reduced the possibility of discovering their ignorance and coming to a knowledge of the truth. Again, knowledge that is not accompanied by ascesis is dangerous – no matter whether the knowledge is of an academic character or of a mystical character. We cannot know God and at the same time not be like Him to some degree. Such conformity to His image is itself a result of such knowledge. It is for this reason that the Scriptures tell us that “by their fruit you shall know them.” If someone claims knowledge of God, but his life is not in conformity with the commandments of Christ, then we know that what we are hearing is largely delusional in character.

What should we do?

First, we should pray, fast, repent of our sins, seek to forgive our enemies and do good to all around us. These are clear commandments of Scripture. With such efforts, as God gives us grace and changes our heart, we begin to know. The writings of the Fathers are generally the writings of saints. We will not understand them without ourselves seeking to become saints. All of this, of course, is slow and difficult – but we are talking about reality and our salvation not simply the acquisition of information.

It is, of course, proper, even necessary to study the faith, but this is something we should do with a primary concern for the salvation of our own souls and not the correction of others. The Scriptures tell us: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).

Neither should we avoid religious “experience,” though this has gotten something of a bad name on account of numerous abuses within the Christian world of today. But like knowledge acquired by study, knowledge of God gained by experience should be accompanied with ascesis as well. Much of modern Pentecostal and Charismatic teaching has offered false information on religious experience to an audience of Americans who wants everything. Too often we want the interior life of Mother Teresa and all of the shoes of Imelda Marcos. It just doesn’t work like that.

The story is told in the Lives of the Desert Fathers that one of the Fathers was in prayer when the devil sought to trick him. A demon appeared in the cell of the monk (who was in prayer) and said, “I am the angel Gabriel sent from God.” Without looking up the monk replied, “You must be in the wrong cell. I am not worthy for an angel to visit me.” The demon disappeared, defeated by the humility of the monk.

This is a description of the proper state of our heart. We desire to know God, but we want to know Him deeply enough, that we refuse to settle for anything less. Much of modern religious experience, as witnessed by its fruit, has little to do with the true God.

Study. Pray. Fast. Give alms. Forgive your enemies. Repent of your sins. Cry out to God for mercy. He is a “good God and loves mankind.” He will not leave us in the dark nor ignore the cry of our hearts. “This is eternal life,” Christ says, “To know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” Thus we pursue knowledge – true knowledge in the way and in the manner given to us as though our life depended on it. It does.

The Mystery of the Mother of God

August 3, 2010

The 15th of August is the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God (her death). Orthodox Christians fast for two weeks prior to this great feast and celebrate it with great solemnity. A question was recently placed by a reader about the “perpetual virginity” of Mary. I am offering this small post to address that question and to look at the place of the Most Holy Theotokos in Orthodox faith and life.

I am always hesitant to write about the mystery of the Mother of God. There are few things within the Orthodox Church that are held more dearly while at the same time being misunderstood and occasionally vilified by those outside the Church.  Originally these doctrines and devotions were not part of the most common kerygma (public preaching of the Church). Mark and John have no narratives of the birth of Christ (even though John contains some of  the most deeply significant material with regard to the Mother of God). St. Paul seems to have but a single reference to Mary (Galatians 4:4).

The early Church made a clear distinction between its kerygma (public preaching) and those things which were held as mysteries. The mysteries were largely unspoken – though accepted as true and embodied in the life, prayer and liturgy of the Church. The reason for the mysteries as mysteries were varied. In some cases, certain teachings were held quietly lest they cause too much of a scandal in the preaching of the gospel. In other cases, some teachings were unspoken because they were very hard to speak – they were beyond words. Among these latter teachings would be the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. While absolutely foundational to the Christian faith, this teaching was implied frequently throughout the writings of the New Testament, but never declared in a forthright and definitive manner until the 4th century. Orthodoxy holds that the doctrine was not the product of development nor of evolution, but was known from the beginning, even if the language in which it was expressed was as yet unknown. The Church could not have recognized Arianism as a heresy had it not already known the truth as found in Orthodoxy, nor could it have recognized the truth as spoken in the Nicene Creed and by saints such as Athanasius had the truth not already and always been known.

Having said this, I offer some cautious observations on the Orthodox dogmas and devotional understandings concerning the Mother of God. A question was posted earlier today on the Orthodox doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary and the problems raised by Matthew 1:25 “[and Joseph] did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn child.”

The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity (that she remained a virgin throughout her life), interestingly, was almost universal in its acceptance within the early Church, and was defended even by John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, and Martin Luther. The key word [heos] in Matthew 1:25 is generally translated as “until” in English – which many modern readers take to mean that “after she brought forth her firstborn child she had relations with Joseph.” However, the same Greek word is used in Matthew 22:44 “Sit Thou at my right hand until I make thine enemies Thy footstool.” There it clearly does not mean that Christ will cease to be at His father’s right hand after His enemies are defeated. The word has the clear sense that Mary had no relations with Joseph before the child was born (the issue in the passage is His virginal conception) and is consistent with the Church’s belief that she had no relations with Joseph at any time thereafter.

That Mary remained a virgin for her entire life, as noted above, was a generally accepted teaching of the Church, found in the writings of the fathers, and consistently proclaimed in the liturgical and iconographic life of the Church.

The liturgical life of the Church makes frequent use of Old Testament images as prefiguring Christ’s virginal conception and birth. The bush which is on fire and yet not burned is a frequent image of Mary. The passing through the Red Sea on dry foot is another such image; Aaron’s rod that budded; the fleece of Gideon, etc. Indeed, the space needed to list all of the Old Testament images used as such prefigurements exceed the space I generally use for a posting.

The sense of all these images is of God being born into the world without a human father. The barrenness of Mary’s virginity is the human counterpart of the fruitfulness of God. God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. The manner of her  birthgiving is synonymous with the manner of our own salvation. It is the work of God from Whom life alone can come. Our role is like her role, “Be it unto me according to Thy word.”

That Mary remained a virgin both before, during and after the birth of Christ is the common understanding of the Orthodox fathers and of the liturgical and iconographic life of the Church. The Theotokos is always presented with three stars on her veil in her icons. They represent her virginity “before, during, and after the birth of Christ.”

There is also a “common sense” argument for Mary’s perpetual virginity (or so it has always seemed to me). Joseph understood what was to take place within Mary according to the witness of Scripture. It strains every Biblical understanding of piety to believe that Joseph having such knowledge would then take Mary into the common practices of marriage. The Orthodox tradition is that the “brothers and sisters” of Christ mentioned in Scripture are children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.

But the Biblical witness is extremely important within Orthodoxy. However, it is a witness that is not readily apparent to the eye of literalism. As noted by the fathers in their use of Biblical imagery: Mary is the “Gate which no man shall open.”

And the LORD said unto me: ‘This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, neither shall any man enter in by it, for the LORD, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it; therefore it shall be shut” (Ezekiel 44:2).

Such verses are not used as “proof-texts,” just as many of the verses traditionally cited by Christians for Christ’s messiahship are not proof-texts. The reality of who Christ is and His death and resurrection are known to the disciples before they understood the Scriptures (Luke 24:45). In the same manner, the Church knows of these matters within Holy Tradition and finds that Tradition upheld and revealed within the Scriptures.

Those who argue for various positions of “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone) abandon the pattern of the New Testament itself. The mystical life of the Church is confirmed repeatedly – but in a manner which is known within the heart and not in the manner of hard science. God is not a passive object such that He can be studied like a lump of dirt. The truth of the faith is living and active and makes itself known (rather than being the object of our discovery).

The mystery of the Mother of God can be known and becomes the source of rich understanding in the life of grace. But it is not a subject for argument (certainly not for me). Were someone to erase the entirety of tradition and begin with the bare text of Scripture, it is quite likely that the result of their thought would be something other than the thought of early Christians and the Orthodox faith as it has been taught and received.  The multitude of interpretations that would result from such an experiment are readily apparent in the modern chaos of Sola Scriptura Christianity. Indeed, the role and function of Tradition are often rapidly replaced by various streams of modern culture.

The mystery of the Mother of God is at the very heart of Scripture – but only the heart would know that. And the mystery goes much deeper than the questions of virginal conception, birth and the like. Far too few Christians take the time to ponder the mystery of grace and our salvation.

Our salvation is not an afterthought: “The Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth” (Rev. 13:8).

St. Maximus the Confessor writes of the Incarnation of Christ: “It is the cause of all things and caused by none of them” (Epistle to Thalassius, PG 90, 620-621). There is no incarnation of Christ apart from the womb of the virgin. It is from her that He took flesh. Thus, though Mary is a creature born into history, she is nevertheless present in the eternal counsels of God.

The Lord said to my Lord…I have begotten Thee from the womb before the morning (Psalm 110:1,3).

The statement, according to the Fathers, refers both to Christ’s eternal begetting from the Father, but also contains reference to His incarnation (“from the womb before the morning”). All of this refers to that which is prior to creation.

Just as Adam is understood as the “first man,” so Christ is understood as the “Second Adam” – the one who is the true “image of the invisible God.” In the same manner, the Fathers refer to Mary as the “Second Eve,” for the life which is made ours in the Incarnation of Christ is a life that is also “bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh.”

In the Incarnation, the Uncreated is united to the created. Heaven is united to earth. And all of such statements begin with Christ took flesh of the Virgin.

There is a cosmic dimension to our salvation. Those who confine their thoughts only to the historical moment of Christ’s sacrifice, do neither justice to Scripture nor to reality. Regardless of the fact that literalists may quibble over misinterpretations of Scripture, the reality of our salvation and its greatness, cannot be considered without reference to the Mother of God.

Orthodoxy does not, and will not accept modern language such as co-redemptorix, put forward by some zealous Roman Catholics: Christ alone is our redemption. But neither can we tell the story of redemption without reference to her. She is indeed, our most holy, most pure, most glorious and ever-blessed, Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary.  This is a great mystery. May God make it known to all His children!

Tradition and the Heart

June 25, 2010

He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.

St. Ignatius of Antioch (To the Ephesians, XV, 2)

The faculty of hearing the silence of Jesus, attributed by St. Ignatius to those who in truth possess His word, echoes the reiterated appeal of Christ to His hearers: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” The words of Revelation have then a margin of silence which cannot be picked up by the ears of those who are outside. St. Basil moves in the same direction when he says, in his passage on the traditions: “There is also a form of silence namely the obscurity used by the Scripture, in order to make it difficult to gain understanding of the teachings, for the profit of readers.” This silence of the Scriptures could not be detached from them: it is transmitted by the Church with the words of the revelation, as the very condition of their reception. If it could be opposed to the words (always on the horizontal plane, where they express the revealed Truth), this silence which accompanies the words implies no kind of insufficiency or lack of fullness of the revelation, nor the necessity to add to it anything whatever. It signifies that the revealed mystery, to be truly received as fullness, demand a conversion towards the vertical plane, in order that one may be able to “comprehend with all the saints” not only what is the “breadth and length” of the revelation, but also its “depth” and its “height” (Eph. 3:18).

Vladimir Lossky, Tradition and Traditions


There is a modern anxiety about the meaning of Biblical texts. For historical-critical scholars, there is a never-ending debate over the meaning of texts. The past century has seen a succession of waves (not unlike the constancy of the ocean) when one “new” insight overwhelmed the last. To a certain degree, historical-critical studies have become largely superfluous for any study of the Scripture simply because they represent more the concerns of the present moment and almost never the concerns of the texts themselves.

Others still cling to various forms of Sola Scriptura, certain that the Scriptures can be read with no reference to Tradition – they are self-explanatory (or various such claims).

The Orthodox reading of Scripture is done in the context of Tradition – though this is largely misunderstood by those outside the Orthodox faith itself. The Tradition in which Scripture is read (or doctrine is received and accepted) is as much a state of heart as it is anything else. Some will speak of an “Orthodox phronema,” meaning an Orthodox mind, though I think this would be better translated as an Orthodox heart. That heart is related to the silence described by St. Ignatius in the late first century and expounded on in the quote from the modern Russian-exile theologian, Vladimir Lossky.

“The word of Jesus” also has its “silence,” according to St. Ignatius. That silence is the space into which it is spoken. Without this space, the “truth” of the word of Jesus will not and cannot be heard.

From Anthony McGulkin’s The Orthodox Church: An Introduction:

All elements of the Holy Tradition are coherently bonded together in Orthodoxy, and they function to provide the church’s sense of its inner identity as Christ’s people. The fragmentation of the different parts of tradition has always been regarded by the Orthodox as a sign of heterodox ‘loss’ of the sense of the true spirit of Christianity. None of the individual bulwarks of the tradition can be set up in isolation. For example, no single sentence or argument of an individual Father of the Church carries with it an infallible authority, just becuse it came from a Father of the Church. Even more so, no individual bishop is afforded such infallible authority at any time in the church. Just as Homer could nod, so could some of the saints. Even the best works of the greatest among them contain matters, and isolated propositions, which the Orthodox gloss over at times out of reverence for their ‘overall’ contribution to the majestic exposition of the faith.

It is the consensus of voice that matters: reading the Fathers within the Scripture; the Scripture within the horizon of the church; the liturgy within the context of prayer: all together forming a ‘seamless robe.’ The seamless harmony of the whole tradition shores up all the different parts, self-correcting and self-regulating in its wholeness.

The kind of heart that is able to receive such a Tradition, is not primarily governed by the ego or the skepticism of modernity. It is a heart that is birthed in faith in the knowledge of the true and living God. All of the material that make up Scripture and the artifacts of Tradition are completely useless in the hands of a heart that is not prepared to receive them. Many times such hearts take hold of these things and wield them as weapons or as the fodder for arguments.

All of these things, given to us in a “seamless” manner, are of no use to the heart that refuses to receive them. There are Orthodox who do not have this heart and their arguments and actions betray them. There are non-Orthodox, who, though not being instructed in such a heart, have it, nonetheless, and approach the “seamless” witness of Christ with a regard and respect that works to their salvation.

The silence speaks in great eloquence to the heart that can hear it. It is the silence into which the first words were spoke: “Let there be light.” The result is the same creative life that was birthed at that moment. “Behold, if any man is in Christ, there is a new creation.”

Reading Tradition

June 22, 2010

For those who are unused to the place of Tradition in the understanding and interpretation of the Christian faith, it is easy to assume that Tradition is simply an additional set of texts to be read alongside and in addition to Scripture. There are certainly texts which belong to Tradition (indeed the Church would consider the texts of Scripture itself to be part of Tradition). The teachings of the Apostles were “handed down” to us – which is the simple meaning of the word paradosis, Greek for “tradition.”

I recall Stanley Hauerwas at Duke using the example of brick-laying to illustrate the nature of tradition. It is a skill that can be taught up to a certain point – but finally can only be mastered by working with a master brick mason. It is a skill that is “handed down.” In point of fact, most human learning has something of this element.

You go to high school and college – perhaps even graduate school. However, once you find yourself in the world of work, having to apply things that have been learned, tradition becomes essential. Theory and practice are separate experiences. My father received training as an aircraft mechanic during the Second World War. He became an auto mechanic after the war. The training was somewhat transferrable. His father was also a mechanic – but one who had no training. He learned by experience and the tradition that is the practice of being a mechanic. Both were very intelligent men and quite skilled in their field. But they knew things that were never taught in school.

We learn to cook in the same manner – a recipe never being sufficient of itself. Such examples could be almost endlessly multiplied. It is essential to human life and always has been.

The Christian life is no different – for it is not a set of ideas to be memorized – but a life to be lived. For this reason, Christ had disciples. For this reason the Church had a catechumenate that often lasted for three years. We learn the Christian life by doing it. We learn to pray by praying and praying along with those who know how to pray. We read Scripture with those who have read it before us and from them we learn how it is that a Christian reads Scripture. Those who have not been trained in such a manner are like children building a house with bricks. They may have the proper ingredients – but the result is likely to be a house that falls down.

Modernity has an assumption that those who live in the present always know more than those who have gone before us. Thus we always expect our children to be able to program a digital clock when an adult cannot.

I have taught four children how to drive. It is a tradition. Over the years I hope to have taught them how to live the Christian life. It is a tradition. To learn from a tradition requires a humility and a recognition that not everything worth knowing can be expressed in words. It requires that we accept that a disciple is not greater than his master. The child is not greater than the adult.

As the bumper sticker says: “If you can read this – thank a teacher.”

Babylon and the Trees of Pentecost

May 21, 2010

From the Feast of Pentecost

The arrogance of building the tower in the days of old
led to the confusion of tongues.
Now the glory of the knowledge of God brings them wisdom.
There God condemned the impious for their transgression.
Here Christ has enlightened the fishermen by the Spirit.
There disharmony was brought about for punishment.//
Now harmony is renewed for the salvation of our souls.


The first time I saw trees in an Orthodox Church was at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in Pennsylvania, just after Pentecost Sunday. I was completely caught off guard. Though I had been in a number of different Churches over the years, I had never been in a parish of Russian background for the feast of Pentecost. Thus I had missed the Slavic practice of bringing trees into Church for the feast of Pentecost. It was wonderful – like going into Church only to find a forest.

My Western background left me completely unprepared for this Eastern take on the feast of the gift of the Spirit to the Church. In Western Churches, Pentecost particularly focuses on the “fire” of the Holy Spirit lighting on the disciples in the upper room and the “empowerment” of the Church for mission. Traditionally in the West, the color of the feast is red (for the fire).

In the East, the color of the feast is green – which is also the color worn for the feast days of monastic saints. In the West, green is the “ordinary” color worn in the “in between” Sundays and weekdays of the Calendar. For the Orthodox, gold serves this function.

But I found myself in the midst of trees on a major feast that was “green.” I was simply baffled.

In Russian practice the feast is normally referred to as the feast of the Trinity (Troitsa) rather than Pentecost, or “Pentecost” is listed as an afterthought (Pentecost). It is obvious that something quite different is at work in the understanding of the feast day.

Both East and West keep the feast as the day upon which the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles. Orthodoxy does not ignore the various tongues with which the Apostles began to speak as they announced the gospel to those assembled in Jerusalem. However, as noted in the verse quoted at the beginning of this article – those tongues are seen as a spiritual counterpart to the confusion of the tower of Babel, when men in their hubris sought to build a tower into heaven. The tongues which came upon them only proclaimed darkness and confusion and brought to an end the last great ecumenical effort of humanity.

The Church is God’s vision of united mankind – a union achieved through the gift of God and not by human effort. It is a union which maintains a diversity of sorts (the languages do not become one “super” language – so much for the “unity” of Latin) but a diversity whose unity is found in true union with the one, living and true God. The gospel proclaimed by the apostles on the day of Pentecost, though preached in many languages, was one and the same gospel.

One may still wonder why the feast becomes a feast of the Trinity. Like the feast of Theophany (the Baptism of Christ), Pentecost is a feast in which the revelation of the Holy Trinity is made manifest. The Spirit is the gift of the Father – given through the Son. There were many centuries that passed before a parish was named for the Trinity.

Among the first within the Orthodox world was the Lavra (Monastery) of the Holy Trinity outside of Moscow, founded by St. Sergius in the 14th century. His vision of the common life was seen as an earthly icon of the Divine Life of the Holy Trinity in which each of the Divine Persons shared a common life. The monastery was itself a place of spiritual rebirth for the Russian land as it began to come out from under the oppression of the Tatar yoke. The spiritual life of Holy Trinity monastery was a spiritual awakening for the land when Russians remembered that they were brothers of one another and shared a common life. This common life became the strength that allowed them to assert their freedom.

Of course, all of the above is both interesting and true but has yet to explain the trees. The Jewish feast of Pentecost (fifty days after the Passover) marks the beginning of the harvest feast. The first-fruits of the harvest are brought to the temple to be blessed of God. For Christians the harvest that is sought is the harvest of a renewed humanity and the renewal of creation. Thus the trees are a representation of the created order, assembled together with the people of God, awaiting and receiving the gift of the Spirit through whom everything is made new.

It is a very rich feast – one that is filled with meaning (as is appropriate). But all of the meaning takes as its source the gift to creation of the “Lord and Giver of Life,” the Holy Spirit. Just as we are told in Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

With a word, God speaks, and where the Spirit hovered, life comes forth.

So it is in the life of the Church and in creation today. Where God speaks, renewed life comes forth. All of creation groans and travails, awaiting the final great Word that will signal the renewal of all things.  For now, we see that promise foreshadowed by trees in Church and green on the priests and by the joy of our hearts.

The Centrality of the Cross

March 9, 2010

Fr. John Behr, in his book, The Mystery of Christ, takes a very close look at the earliest centuries of the Christian faith, and at the very heart of Orthodoxy itself which is to be found there. In particular he speaks with great clarity about the “rule of faith,” certainly known to all of the Apostles and to the Apostolic Church. If placed in words it sounds much like the Apostles’ Creed (which is, indeed, one of its earliest verbal expressions). We hear echoes of that same rule in various places in the New Testament, which bears witness that the writers of the New Testament, such as St. Paul, knew full well the “rule of faith” before ever they wrote a word. (It is also interesting that Creeds in some form are older than the New Testament).

The early Christian community, despite being surrounded by false teachers, Judaizers, gnostics, and what-have-you, were nonetheless not a confused bunch. It was not the “California-believe-what-you-want” paradise that the neo-gnostics such as Elaine Pagels and some others would have us imagine. Orthodox Catholic Christianity was steady on from the beginning and silenced everyone around them, not through the machinations of the state (they were not even legal yet), nor of some plot of sinister paternalism that some modern historians like to conjure.

This small minority clung to an understanding of Christ because they both knew the “rule of faith” – that is they could recite the Tradition that had been given them – but also because the Tradition that had been given to them was itself living and true. The truly Great Tradition of the Church was and is the Crucified God. It sings through every page of the New Testament. Unknown in the gnostic writings with their Ogdoads and Aeons, the gospel of Christ was and is the good news that God became man, and became the very least of us, entering even into the depths of death and hell to rescue us from the hell we had created for ourselves.

The Gospel of the Crucified God is that strength is found in weakness, triumph in forgiveness; evil is overcome by good; losing ourselves is finding ourselves; wealth is poverty and poverty is wealth; and the list could be multiplied many times over. Most importantly these are not abstract principles, but descriptions of Who God Is and How God Is in His revelation of Himself to us.

The “dogmatic consciousness” of which the Elder Sophrony occasionally writes, is finally having the truth of the Crucified God written into the very core of your heart and soul. It is knowing the God who emptied Himself and yielding yourself to be conformed to His image.

The wonder of the writings of an Elder Sophrony, and of others like him through the years of the Church, is that both they themselves and many whom they knew, embodied this knowledge of God and became bearers of the light in their own generation. The saints are the great treasury of Orthodoxy, living proof of the rightness of our doctrine. Indeed, they are what the doctrine looks like.

St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 3:3) …”you 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.” This gives a new meaning to the “New Testament Church.” Now we can see that it means the Church which is the “New Testament,” and this same New Testament continues to be read in the Churches who have preserved that same faith.

It is simply not enough to study the Scriptures. We must become the Scriptures so that all might read Christ in our heart and know the Truth of the gospel. Talk about the gospel will not save the world. Only the gospel enfleshed in human lives can be said to constitute preaching. This is what Christians are ordained (Baptized) to do.

In a couple of weeks we will gather again around the Cross of the Christ and remember its centrality. Orthodox Christians should never make the mistake that this event is only momentary or an accidental rescue of fallen man. It is the revelation of God that must become the revelation of our own true self.

A Sermon on Repentance (after St. John Chrysostom)

February 13, 2010

This sermon was written by Fr. John Parker, Rector of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mount Pleasant, SC. It is modeled on the well known and beloved Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom.  It offers an interesting echo of the end of the Fast here at its beginning. A recording of Fr. Thomas Hopko reading the sermon can be heard and downloaded on Ancient Faith Radio.


If anyone be devout and love God,
Let him commence this radiant fast with joy!
If anyone be a wise servant,
Let him, rejoicing, enter into the school of repentance.

We who have wallowed long in sin,
Let us now begin our return.
If anyone has strayed from the first hour,
Let him today repent with zeal.
If anyone has sinned from the third hour,
Let him with gratitude embrace the fast.
If anyone has fled God from the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings about his prompt return;
Because he shall in nowise be turned away therefore.
If anyone has indulged the flesh since the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing God alone and trusting in His mercy.
And if anyone has turned away only at the eleventh hour,
Let him also not hesitate to turn back with haste.

For the Lord, who is longsuffering and full of compassion and mercy, will accept the last even as the first.
He restores him who repents at the first hour,
As He does him who turns back at the eleventh.
And He shows mercy upon the last,
And cares for the first;
And to the one He gives,
And upon the other He bestows gifts.
And He both accepts the confession,
And welcomes the intention,
And honors the contrite heart and rejoices in the return.

Wherefore, enter all of you into the holiness of your Lord;
Offer your repentance,
Both the last, and likewise the first.
You rich and poor together, repent, for today we stand outside the closed gates of paradise.
You sober and you heedless, prostrate yourselves before your King!
Return to the Lord today, both you who have sinned with knowledge and those who have done so in ignorance.

Your pantries are full; empty them to the hungry.
The belly enslaves us, let no one be dominated thereby.
Enter all of you into the Great Fast;
Stripped of heavenly wealth by sin, all draw near to God’s rich loving-kindness!
Let no one despair in his sinfulness,
For the Bridegroom comes at midnight.
Weep all of you for your iniquities,
And draw near to the life-giving Cross of our Lord.
Let no one put confidence in the flesh,
For the Devil has deceived us all thereby, and therewith enslaves us to sin.

By turning from God, we are made captives.
We have called good evil and evil good, and put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Woe to those who put darkness for light, and light for darkness!

We are embittered, for we are banned from Eden.
We are embittered, but it is we who have mocked God.
We are embittered, for now we shall surely die.
We are embittered, for we have succumbed to the serpent.
We are embittered, for we are fettered in chains.
We partook of a fruit, and met the deceiver.
We were entrusted with paradise, but we chose Hell.
Our eyes were opened to see the nakedness of sin.

Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver us!
O Lord, make haste to help us!

This is the acceptable time, let us repent!
This is the day of salvation, let us crucify the passions!
The end is at hand and destruction hangs over us!
The end draws nigh, let us come again to our senses!
The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, what first-fruit shall we offer?
Let us delay not, lest we remain dead in the grave, sold under sin!
For God desires not the death of the sinner, but that he should turn from his wickedness and live!
So, let us choose life, and live, for the mercy of God endures forever!
To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.  Amen.

The Existence of God and the “God Who Does Not Exist”

January 21, 2010

There is a current “pop-sensation” in the writings of a number of “atheists” whose pronouncements are always sure to garner media attention. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others are current “go-to” sources for the media’s search for usable quotes from atheists. In many ways, the current popularity of such figures is fueled by “pop” Christianity. One mirrors the other. In matters of serious Christian thought – neither is of particular concern – neither has anything to say that should be of note.

Writing in the seventh-eighth centuries, St. John of Damascus offered the following:

But neither do we know, nor can we tell, what the essence of God is, or how it is in all, or how the Only-begotten Son and God, having emptied Himself, became Man of virgin blood, made by another law contrary to nature, or how He walked with dry feet upon the waters. It is not within our capacity, therefore, to say anything about God or even to think of Him, beyond the things which have been divinely revealed to us, whether by word or by manifestation, by the divine oracles at once of the Old Testament and of the New. (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 1.2)

Indeed, it was noted consistently by the fathers of the Church that the existence of God was utterly beyond what we would mean by existence when we referred to anything in creation. Thus, if we say that we exist, we do not mean that God exists in the same manner. God’s existence is not like our existence – but utterly beyond – incomprehensibly beyond – anything we mean by existence. This important distinction is lost, of course, in modern conversations about the existence of God. In place of the reverential and careful statements of the fathers is the coarse pronouncements of modern atheists and their pop-culture counterparts.

Of course, St. John of Damascus and all of the fathers affirmed the existence of God. But they carefully hedged the word “existence” about with qualifiers, that it might be clear that the existence of God is not to be compared to the existence of anything in the created universe. We know God, only because He has made Himself known.

And though this knowledge, following the teaching of St. Paul (Romans 1:19-20), is recognized has having been “written” into the very heart of all created things, it is not the same thing as saying that the existence of God is “obvious” or that it should be compared to anything within the created order itself.

Instead, it is recognized by the fathers, that the perversity of our own hearts makes the existence of God less than obvious. The “pure in heart shall see God.”

Christians, therefore, do well to pay attention to this classical teaching of the faith. Arguments about the existence of God, often draw us into a level of speaking that forces us to say things that the faith does not say. It also tempts our hearts to think in a manner that is less true than what we have been given.

The existence of God is a profound matter, and never something that should be treated perfunctorily. That “I believe God exists” and that “I know Him” are among the deepest things that a Christian can say, and are a confession of the grace of God. We have been given something that is consonant with purity of heart, and should thus confess it with extreme humility.

More importantly, we should approach these profound mysteries with careful devotion and awe.

That there are those in our modern world who spurn God’s existence as absurd is tragic. But it should not be a cause for us to treat them as though they were idiots. More foolish are those who too easily assert God’s existence without the proper awe and humility that such a statement properly requires.

We are living in a time of history in which saints are required. We have long passed the time in which rational arguments will carry the day. Nothing less than lives which manifest the existence of God will do. The world has heard centuries of arguments – has been subjected to crass persecutions and atrocities in the name of God (even if these were largely not the result of Orthodox actions). We have survived a century of extremes (Bolshevism, Nazism, etc.). That the world is hungry is beyond doubt. But the world is not hungry for a new and winning argument. The world hungers for God (whether it knows this or not).

The proper Christian answer to the hunger of the world is to be found only in the manifestation of God. Thus the challenge of a modern atheist should not be met with an anxious rejoinder from our panoply of arguments – but with the urgency of prayer that we might ourselves become an answer through the reality of the presence of God in our lives.

In the course of my 56 years, I have occasionally encountered such living answers. To a large extent, I believe that I live and continue as a Christian as a result of the prayers of such persons.

As witnesses of the God who exists – we should strive in our small ways – to become persons whose lives are themselves an argument for the existence of God – a God whose existence is indeed beyond all existence.

It is a tall order. Nothing less than life in the image of the resurrection of Christ will do. Nothing less than that has been promised us in Christ.

To See the Heavenly Country

December 15, 2009

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

On the Orthodox Calendar, the two Sundays before the feast of the Nativity are set aside for the commemoration of the “forefathers.” The first of these Sundays remembers the righteous ones of the Old Testament, the second, the ancestors of Christ according to the flesh. The Eastern Church differs from the West in its treatment of the saints of the Old Testament. They are given feast days, Churches are dedicated to them. In every way they are given honor equal to that of the New Testament saints.

It seems to me that there is something of a “historical temptation” for those of us in the modern world. For the modern mind is largely responsible for the creation of history. Not that stories of the past have not always been told. But the temptation of history is the temptation to value the past only as historical artifact. Things of the past are seen as having value only for what they have caused in the present – or worse – as having value only if you are interested in that sort of thing.

America was one of the first truly modern nations. The story of its founding is the story of the triumph of ideas. America is a decision and not an inheritance or an ethnicity. History is a very tenuous thing in America. The knowledge of the young about the past is often non-existent. As a modern nation, America looks to the present and believes that it can create the future (or one of our controlling myths certainly believes this). An increasing number of modern nations are coming to see the world in this same modern way. Europe is daily re-inventing itself with little view to its past. The temptation of history is becoming ubiquitous.

I describe history as a temptation, for history does not properly have a place within the Christian faith. That may seem a strange statement coming from an Orthodox priest. No Church is more firmly grounded in Tradition than the Orthodox. But to be grounded in Tradition is not the same thing as being grounded in history (as Moderns think of history). Tradition is not the tyranny of the past over the present: Tradition is the adherence to the same eternal reality throughout all time.

That eternal reality for Christians (and for all creation) is the end of things – Christ the coming Lord. Our faith proclaims that He who was born of the Virgin is also the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End (Rev. 1:8). It is this same Christ unto whom all things are being gathered together into one (Ephesians 1:10). It is this End of history that is the meaning of all history – the meaning of all things.

It is also this Christ (the End of all things) that is the focus and center of the faithful through the ages. The Letter to the Hebrews, quoted at the beginning of this post, makes clear that it is this vision of Christ that grants the single purpose of all the righteous (including the Old Testament righteous cited by St. Paul).

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

The homeland they seek is none other than Christ Himself. And it is this same seeking that unites the people of God through all time in one single Tradition. The seeking of Christ is the Tradition of the Church (or so it can be said).

The temptation of history is to reverse Tradition as though it were a seeking of the past. But what unites us with the historical past is the same faith, the same purpose, the same vision, the same Lord. If the saints who have come before us directed their gaze to Christ, then it is to Christ that our own gaze should be fixed.

The preaching of the Kingdom of God is not a proclamation of the past, but the proclamation of Him “who was, and is, and is to come.” The same Christ who died and rose again is the same Christ who is coming. It is the same Christ who is given to us in the mysteries of the Church.

It is a theological irony that modernity, whose self-definition was an opposition to Tradition, is itself the creator of a history devoid of a future. Modernity denies Christ as the End of all things, and in so doing relegates itself to a place in history, but not to a place at the End.

For the faithful, we should desire a better, a heavenly country. And so God will not be ashamed to be called our God. He has already prepared such a city for us.