I really don’t intend to get into a discussion of Mariology, but after publishing the previous post I saw a reaction on Facebook that typifies the sort of views that are common in some circles. They see the early Church’s understanding of the Mother of God as rooted in a sort of pagan longing for a mother goddess. By making Jesus God, so the logic goes, the Church had made Him remote and inaccessible and so natural pagan longings re-emerged and made His Mother into a goddess.

Now I wouldn’t really bother engaging this, except that such views are actually quite widespread in certain circles, including in some academic circles that should know better. But this reaction did remind me of a letter I wrote a couple of years ago in response to a newspaper article that made similar claims. It was never published, but I thought it would be worth hauling it out and quoting it here:

… To suggest that Mary was declared Theotokos because of a sort of proto-feminist pressure for a mother goddess makes absolutely no sense to anyone familiar with the patristic texts and with the sort of theological debates that were raging in the century preceding the Council of Ephesus.

That Christian theology did not arise in a vacuum is clear and there is some evidence that at a popular level some people may have misunderstood the teaching to be simply replacing one goddess with another. But to suggest that popular longing for a displaced mother goddess gave rise to the Council’s decision can only be done by ignoring three things. Firstly, one would have to ignore the intense debate on Christological issues that had preceded it. Secondly, one would have to ignore the conciliar texts themselves. And, thirdly, one would have to ignore the liturgical hymnography that resulted from them and that is permeated by a profound awareness of the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ in one person who is both God and human.

Moreover, while the Christian Church was influenced by the social and religious context in which she developed, this did not happen in the straightforward manner that some people like to suggest. The Church also rejected and/or transformed elements of both Jewish and pagan religion, and indeed of Greek philosophy. Thus, while other religions had mother goddesses and female priests, Christianity rejected these, not because it was a patriarchal religion as feminists like to claim, thereby ignoring the evidence of female leadership in the early Church, but because the fertility symbolism associated with these undermined the very message that she was proclaiming, which is that in Christ the limitations of biological life have been overcome. In the Incarnation of Christ we find the meeting of the divine and the human, which enables the healing and the transformation of our humanity. And, by enabling that meeting, the Theotokos plays a far more important role than she would have played as any mother goddess.

To be honest, the more I encounter such voices but also the views of some Christians, the more I realize that the Incarnation has really made very little impression on some people’s understanding of Christianity. Granted, we cannot grasp the Incarnation, but it is precisely this overwhelming “ungraspability” that is witnessed to in the Church’s faith and worship – and which undergirds everything that she says about the Holy Theotokos.

There has been much discussion, in the latter part of the last century, of our ‘denial of death’. But it would seem to me that the problem is deeper and more difficult. If it is true that Christ shows us what it is to be God in the way that he dies as a human being, then, quite simply, if we no longer ‘see’ death, we no longer see the face of God.

John Behr, “The Christian Art of Dying” in Sobornost, 35:1-2, 2013. 137.

The last issue of Sobornost contains a compelling essay by Father John Behr on the importance of taking back the Christian art of dying. Our culture’s denial of death is something that has been widely commented on, and something that I have become more aware of in recent years. This is not only related to becoming Orthodox (or, perhaps more broadly, engaging more seriously with the Christian tradition), but it does have something to do with it. There is nothing like going to a family funeral when you really need to grieve and pray for the departed, and realising that something crucial is desperately missing. And, linked to this, I have also become aware of the contrast between how aging is viewed in the Christian tradition and how it is viewed by our contemporary western society – as well as the related and potentially huge question of cultural (and religious) shifts in how the body is viewed. So it was against this backdrop that I thought this essay well worth noting and sharing with others.

However, this article takes these generally acknowledged issues a step further, for in it Father Behr argues that the fact that contemporary western culture no longer lives with death and dying as an ever-present reality undermines our ability to see something that is at the heart of our Christian faith, for it is in death that Christ shows us what it is to be God. Indeed, “the way that he dies as a human being sums up the theological heart of the creeds and definitions of the early Councils.” (137)

Facing death is an unavoidable human reality, but it is an even more crucial task for Christians. And it is in fact, Father Behr argues, the coming of Christ that has made our facing of death so crucial. Prior to the coming of Christ, death was simply a natural reality, but with Christ’s victory over death, death itself has been revealed as “the last enemy.” (1 Cor. 15:26) For, in the light of Christ, we see that people die not simply from biological necessity, but as a result of having turned away from the Source of life. And this is not simply a once-off occurrence that happened with Adam, but is a constant temptation for us – the temptation to live our lives on our own terms and turned in on ourselves.

It is precisely in death that Christ has shown Himself to be God and in His conquering of death, He has, in the words of Saint Maximus the Confessor, “changed the use of death.”

Through his Passion, destroying death by death, Christ has enable us to use our death, the fact of our mortality, actively. Rather than being passive and frustrated victims of the givenness of our mortality, complaining that it is not fair, or doing all we can to secure ourselves, we now have a path open to us, through a voluntary death in baptism, to enter into the body and life of Christ. Whereas we were thrown into the mortal existence, without any choice on our part, we can now, freely, use our mortality, to be born into life, by dying with Christ in baptism, taking up our cross, and no longer living for ourselves, but for Christ and our neighbours. In doing this, our new existence is grounded in the free, self-sacrificial love that Christ has shown to be the life and very being of God himself, for as we have seen Christ has shown us what it means to be God in the way he dies as a human being. (141)

Christian life is about learning to die so that we may be born to new life – and it is our physical death that will reveal the extent to which we have done this, for it will reveal where our hearts truly lie.

One way or another, each and every one of us will die, we will become clay. The only real question is whether, through this life, we have learnt to become soft and pliable clay in the hands of God, breaking down our hearts of stone so that we may receive a heart of flesh, merciful and loving. Or whether, instead, we will have hardened ourselves, so that we are nothing but brittle and dried out clay that is good for nothing. (143)

Father Behr uses two examples of martyrdom – of Saint Ignatius of Antioch and Saint Blandina – to illustrate this understanding of death as revealing the deepest reality of being born into the new life of Christ. Such accounts have nourished the Church throughout the ages; they have changed our perception of “the use of death.” However, as the essay concludes:

If it is true, as I suggested earlier, that Christ shows us what it is to be God in the way that he dies as a human being, then, if we don’t see death (as I claimed that modern society doesn’t), then we will not see the face of God either. If we don’t know that life comes through death, then our horizons will become totally imminent, our life will be for ourselves, for our body, for our pleasure (even if we think we are being ‘religious’, growing in our ‘spiritual life’). And so, I would argue, we need to regain the martyric reality of what it means to bear Christian witness. Our task today is not just to proclaim our faith in an increasingly secular world; it is, rather, to take back death, by allowing death to be ‘seen’, by honouring those dying with the full liturgy of death, and by ourselves bearing witness to a life that comes through death, a life that can no longer be touched by death, a life that comes by taking up the cross. (147)

When Cyril [of Alexandria] writes in his commentary on the Gospel of John, he sees another dimension to the Resurrection. The Resurrection was evidence that Christ was a unique kind of man. Christ, he writes, “presented himself to God the Father as the first fruits of humanity…. He opened up for us the way that the human race had not known before.” Before Christ came into the world “human nature was incapable of destroying death,” but Christ was superior to the tribulations of the world and “more powerful” than death. Hence he became the first man who was able to conquer death and corruption. By showing himself stronger than death, Christ extends to us the power of his Resurrection “because the one that overcame death was one of us.” Then Cyril adds the sentence, “If he conquered as God, to us it is nothing; but if he conquered as man we conquered in Him. For he is to us the second Adam come from heaven according to the Scriptures.” This is an extraordinary statement and to my knowledge unprecedented. Cyril asserts that Christ triumphed over death because of the kind of human being he was. His human nature makes Christ unique.

Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Seeking the Face of God, 120-21.

The first Adam, progenitor of the human race, was unable to fulfil the vocation laid before him: to achieve deification and bring to God the visible world by means of spiritual and moral perfection. Having broken the commandment and fallen away from the sweetness of Paradise, he had closed the way to deification. Yet everything that the first man left undone was accomplished in his stead by God Incarnate, the Word-become-flesh, the Lord Jesus Christ. He trod that path to us which we were meant to tread towards him. And if this would have been the way of humanity’s ascent, for God it was the way of humble condescension, of self-emptying (kenosis).

St Paul calls Christ the ‘second Adam’. Contrasting him with the first, he says: ‘The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven’ (I Cor. 15:47). This parallelism was developed by St John Chrysostom, who referred to Adam as the prototype of Christ:

Adam is the image of Christ … as the man for those who came from him, even though they did not eat of the tree, became the cause of death, then Christ for those who were born of him, although they have done no good, became the bearer of righteousness, which he gave to all of us through the Cross.

Gregory the Theologian makes a detailed comparison between Christ’s sufferings and Adam’s fall:

For each of our debts we are given to in a special way … The tree of the Cross has been given for the tree we tasted of; for our hand stretched out greedily, we have been given arms courageously extended; for our hands following their own inclination, we have been given hands nailed to the Cross; for the hand that has driven out Adam, we have been given arms uniting the ends of the earth into one. For our fall we have been given his raising up on a Cross; for our tasting of the forbidden fruit, we have been given his tasting of bile; for our death, his death; for our return to the earth, his burial.

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church, 79-80.

The one and the many are mutually constitutive: there is no Son and Spirit without the Father, but equally there is no Father without the Son and the Spirit. This pattern of relations recurs throughout the Church, which participates in God’s life. The one and the many is indeed “the mystery of Christology and Pneumatology, the mystery of Church and at the same time of the Eucharist.” Christ Himself, in whom the Church participates in God’s life, is constituted by the Spirit as a “corporate personality”: there is no Church without Christ, but also paradoxically there is no Christ without the Church: “Christology without ecclesiology is inconceivable” – “What is at stake is the very identity of Christ.” The Church, says Zizioulas, “is part of the definition of Christ;” and he acknowledges how problematic this notion is: “This de-individualization of Christ is in my view the stumbling block of all ecclesiological discussion in the ecumenical movement.”

Rev. Msgr. Paul McPartlan, “Introduction” to John D. Zizioulas, The One And The Many (Sebastian Press, 2010) xv-xvi.

It should be pretty obvious by now that I’ve been neglecting this blog, and, while it is tempting to apologize and promise to try and amend my ways, that may not be terribly realistic, at least not for the next couple of months. I do hope to finish the posts on Earthen Vessels and I do hope to continue the blog in the future, although I’m not sure how that will develop, but for the time being posting may well be somewhat sporadic.

However, I have been meaning to say something about this book by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon which arrived a few weeks ago courtesy of Sebastian Press of the Western American Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church. It is a collection of essays edited by Father Gregory Edwards and is subtitled “Studies on God, Man, the Church, and the World Today.” I have only dipped into it and, as I know from previous experience, to really benefit from Metropolitan John’s works one has to do considerably more than just dipping into them, to say nothing of the fact that I still have to get my head around some of the critical issues that people have with his work. Given that at present the word “books” unfortunately conjures up more the thought of binding than that of reading, it will probably take a while before I really get into this. On the other hand, the advantage of a collection of essays is that they can be read separately and so I hope to say more on at least some of them before too long.

The collection of essays is organised around three themes. The first is entitled “Studies in Triadology” and deals with questions of Trinitarian theology and anthropology. The second is entitled “Studies in Ecclesiology” and addresses  questions relate to the Eucharist, Pneumatology, Liturgy, eschatology and authority. The third is entitled “Studies on the Ecumenical Movement” and addresses the Orthodox understanding of participation in the Ecumenical Movement and specific related issues such as theological education and proselytism.

More again, hopefully!

I try to remind my audience that the entire quest for the historical Jesus is a massive deflection of Christian awareness from its proper focus: learning the living Jesus—the resurrected and exalted Lord present to believers through the power of the Holy Spirit—in the common life and common practices of the church. To concentrate on “the historical Jesus,” as though the ministry of Jesus as reconstructed by scholarship were of ultimate importance for the life of discipleship, is to forget the most important truth about Jesus—namely, that he lives now as Lord in the full presence and power of God and presses upon us at every moment not as a memory of the past but as a presence that defines our present. If Jesus is simply a dead man of the past, then knowing him through historical reconstruction is necessary and inevitable. But if he lives in the present as powerful and commanding Lord, then he must be learned through the obedience of faith.

Jesus is best learned not as a result of an individual’s scholarly quest that is published in a book, but as a continuing process of personal transformation within a community of disciples. Jesus is learned through the faithful reading of the Scriptures, true, but he is learned as well through the sacraments (above all the Eucharist), the lives of saints (dead and living) and the strangers with whom the exalted Lord especially associates himself. Next to such a difficult and complex form of learning Jesus as he truly is—the life-giving Spirit who enlivens above all the assembly called the body of Christ—the investigations of historians, even at their best, seem but a drab and impoverished distraction.

Luke Timothy Johnson

h/t Commonweal blog

Luke Timothy Johnson has been on my mental to-be-read list for years now, and I still haven’t got to him. Sigh. And in case anyone is tempted to mention N.T. Wright, he’s also on there somewhere.

Christ without His body is not Christ but an individual of the worst type.

John D. Zizioulas. Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church. London, DLT, 1985 (2004). 182.

More substantial posts on Being as Communion will follow in a couple of days, but this seemed worth sharing!

“The Word became flesh”: in this is the ultimate joy of the Christian faith. In this is the fullness of Revelation. The Same Incarnate Lord is both perfect God and perfect man. The full significance and the ultimate purpose of human existence is revealed and realized in and through the Incarnation. He came down from Heaven to redeem the earth, to unite man with God for ever. “And became man.” The new age has been initiated. We count now the “anni Domini.” As St. Irenaeus wrote: “the Son of God became the Son of Man, that man also might become the son God.” Not only is the original fullness of human nature restored or re-established in the Incarnation. Not only does human nature return to its once lost communion with God. The Incarnation is also the new Revelation, the new and further step. The first Adam was a living soul. But the last Adam is the Lord from Heaven (1 Cor. 15:47). And in the Incarnation of the Word human nature was not merely anointed with a superabundant over-flowing of Grace, but was assumed into an intimate and hypostatical unity with the Divinity itself. In that lifting up of human nature into an everlasting communion with the Divine Life, the Fathers of the early Church unanimously saw the essence of salvation, the basis of the whole redeeming work of Christ. “That is saved which is united with God,” says St. Gregory of Nazianzus. And what was not united could not be saved at all. This was his chief reason for insisting, against Appolinarius, on the fullness of human nature assumed by the Only Begotten in the Incarnation. This was the fundamental motive in the whole of early theology, in St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and St. Maximus the Confessor. The whole history of Christological dogma was determined by this fundamental conception: the Incarnation of the Word as Redemption. In the Incarnation human history is completed. God’s eternal will is accomplished, “the mystery from eternity hidden and to angels unknown.” The days of expectation are over. The Promised and the Expected has come. And from henceforth, to use the phrase of St. Paul, the life of man “is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3)

Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption, Volume Three in the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, (Nordland, 1976). 95-96.

The incarnation of the Logos is the blessed end on account of which everything was created. This is the divine purpose, which was thought of before the beginning of creation and which we call an intended fulfilment, and yet the fulfilment itself exists because of nothing that was created. Since God had this end in full view, he produced the natures of things. This is truly the fulfilment of providence and of planning. Through this there is a recapitulation to God of those created by him. This is the mystery circumscribing all ages, the awesome plan of God, superinfinite and infinitely preexisting the ages. The Messenger, who is in essence himself the Word of God, became man on account of this fulfilment. And it may be said that it was he himself who restored the manifest innermost depths of the goodness handed down by the Father; and he revealed the fulfilment in himself, by which creation has won the beginning of true existence. For on account of Christ, that is to say, the mystery concerning Christ, all time and that which is in time have found the beginning and the end of their existence in Christ. For before time there was secretly purposed a union of the ages, of the determined and the Indeterminate, of the measurable and the Immeasurable, of the finite and Infinity, of the creation and the Creator, of motion and rest – a union that was made manifest in Christ during these last times.

Maximus the Confessor, Questions to Thalassium 60, quoted in Joel C. Elowsky (ed), John 1-10, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IVa (InterVarsity Press, 2006) 34.

In the third section of this third chapter of Being as Communion, Metropolitan Zizioulas proceeds to discuss four implications of the synthesis between Christology and Pneumatology for ecclesiology.

The first of these, the importance of the local Church in ecclesiology, has been emphasised in the “eucharistic ecclesiology” associated with N. Afanasiev, but has not yet been justified in terms of Pneumatology, a task which Zizioulas proceeds to attempt.

The Church as the Body of Christ is instituted through the Christological event and owes her being to the one Christ. This could mean that there is first one Church and then many Churches, as Rahner has argued, seeing the “essence” of the Church in the universal Church. However, if we view Pneumatology as constitutive of both Christology and ecclesiology, then we cannot speak in these terms, for

The Pentecostal event is an ecclesiologically constitutive event. The one Christ event takes the form of events (plural), which are as primary ontologically as the one Christ itself. The local Churches are as primary in ecclesiology as the universal Church. No priority of the universal over the local Church is conceivable in such an ecclesiology. (133)

However, there is also a danger of prioritising the local Church over the universal, a danger resulting from the lack of a proper synthesis between Christology and Pneumatology. This mistake – made by Afanasiev and some Orthodox theologians – is a mistake

because the nature of the eucharist points not in the direction of the priority of the local Church but in that of the simultaneity of both local and universal. There is only one eucharist, which is always offered in the name of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” The dilemma “local or universal” is transcended in the eucharist, and so is any dichotomy between Christology and Pneumatology. (133)

This leads to the question of what ecclesial structures help to maintain this balance between the local and the universal, and hence to the second implication, namely, the significance of conciliarity.

While Orthodoxy does not have a  pope, it is a mistake to see it as having councils instead of a pope. Instead, conciliarity is rooted in the idea of communion, which is an ontological category in ecclesiology and Zizioulas sees this as rooted in the Trinitarian theology of the Cappadocian Fathers.

One of the striking peculiarities of St. Basil’s teaching on God, compared with that of St Athanasius and certainly with that of the Western Fathers, is that he seems to be rather unhappy with the notion of substance as an ontological category and tends to replace it – significantly enough for our subject here – with that of koinwni/a. Instead of speaking of the unity of God in terms of His one nature, he prefers to speak of it in terms of the communion of persons: communion is for Basil an ontological category. The nature of God is communion. This does not mean that the persons have an ontological priority over the one substance of God, but that the one substance of God coincides with the communion of the three persons. (134)

In the same way, while there is one Church, “the expression of this one Church is the communion of the many local Churches. Communion and oneness coincide in ecclesiology.” (135) It therefore follows that the institution that expresses the oneness of the Church must also express communion and that “the institution of universal unity cannot be self-sufficient or self-explicable or prior to the even of communion; it is dependent on it.” (135) In the same way, however, communion cannot be prior to the oneness of the Church and “the institution which expresses this communion must be accompanied by an indication that there is a ministry safeguarding the oneness which the communion aims at expressing.” (135)

Instead of viewing the synod as a democratic alternative to “monarchical” Rome, as is sometimes thought, the significance of the synod for in Orthodox tradition can be found in canon 34 of the Apostolic Constitutions. This insists on the principle of one head in each province. The local bishops-Churches cannot do anything without the “one” but, at the same time, the “one” cannot do anything without the “many”. Thus “There is no ministry or institution of unity which is not expressed in the form of communion. There is no ‘one’ which is not at the same time ‘many'”. (135-136)

Orthodox ecclesiology requires an institution that expresses the oneness of the Church. However,

the multiplicity is not to be subjected to the oneness; it is constitutive of the oneness. The two, oneness and multiplicity, must coincide in an institution which possesses a twofold ministry: the ministry of  prw=tov(the first one) and the ministry of the “many” (the heads of the local Churches). (136)

Next Page »