Church


These are some thoughts that I’ve had going through my head for some years, and I was finally motivated to write them down a couple of months ago in the context of certain discussions I heard concerning the Great and Holy Council. I shared them on Facebook then, but am posting them here now in order to have them more readily accessible.

When I was a Cistercian novice many years ago, I learnt an important lesson about order in the Church that I have been reminded of recently and that I suspect may have broader relevance.

As some may recall, the Rule of Saint Benedict states that the rank of the monks in the monastery is dependent on their date of entrance, irrespective of their age or social standing. Therefore, “someone who came to the monastery at the second hour of the day must recognize that he is junior to someone who came at the first hour.” Likewise, when a priest enters the monastery, his rank is based on “the date of his entry into the community, and not that granted him out of respect for his priesthood.” This rank orders the daily life, so that “when the monks come for the kiss of peace and for Communion, when they lead psalms or stand in choir” they do so in order of their entry into the monastery. While the abbot may make changes to this rank based on the virtue of their lives, he cannot allow this to be based on worldly considerations.

All this talk of rank may sound alien to our supposedly egalitarian world, but there is something crucially important going on here. Saint Benedict acknowledges and insists that a healthy community needs order. But, by basing that order on something relatively arbitrary, such as the hour of entry into the community, he is also explicitly ruling out an ordering of the community based on age, social distinction, wealth, or other worldly means of exercising power.

I didn’t pay too much attention to any of this initially when I was a novice. Like anyone else who enters a community, I was last in rank for a while, with those ahead of me being both younger and less educated than I was, but I never really bothered about it. But then somebody entered after me who had previously been in another community and who had great difficulty in having to be last in rank. That, and the way she had to work through it, made me realize that there was actually something very significant going on. I realized that it is precisely the arbitrariness of the rank that is a great gift, for it asks us to lay aside all our other identities and power games and accept the truth of who we are in real humility. What matters is not our rank, but our willingness to obey and accept the place given to us – and it is precisely this willingness to obey that indicates spiritual maturity.

I have been reminded of this as I witness some of the rather distressing power play going on in the Orthodox world at present. Like the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Church also has an order that she has inherited from her formative years, in which the ancient patriarchates have a certain rank and are expected to follow a certain order. And yet we now hear voices arguing that certain patriarchates should no longer be accorded primacy because they no longer have worldly might, while others that boast great wealth and power should be accorded a greater rank.

There is no doubt a certain logic to this, but I suspect that it is the logic of my fellow-novice (who was perhaps only articulating what all of us feel in some way) and not the logic of the Gospel, or of the Rule, or of the Church’s order. For this logic is based, not on our achievements or worldly power, but on our willingness to lay aside our own agendas and accept the place that is given to us in real humility. And it is precisely the arbitrariness of that place that is the greatest gift. For it allows all to submit to an order that is already given, rather than one that expresses our own will to power that constantly seeks to reassert itself.

Advertisements

The second chapter of Father Georges Florovsky’s Bible, Church, Tradition,* entitled “Revelation and Interpretation,” having discussed the historical and personal nature of revelation, continues by noting the intimate relationship between God and human beings found in the Covenant, an intimacy that culminates in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

In the Bible we see not only God, but man too. It is the revelation of God, but what is actually revealed is God’s concern about man. God reveals himself to man, “appears” before him, “speaks” and converses with him so as to reveal to man the hidden meaning of his own existence. (21)

Moreover, Scripture also shows us the human response to God, so that the Bible is not only the voice of God, but also “the voice of man answering him” ensuring that “human response is integrated into the mystery of the Word of God.” (21) Yet,

…all this intimacy does not compromise divine sovereignty and transcendence. God is “dwelling in light unapproachable” (1 Tim. 6.16). This light, however, “lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1.9). This constitutes the mystery, or the “paradox” of the revelation. (21)

Revelation comprises a “living historical web,” which is not so much “a system of divine oracles” as “a system of divine deeds,” the climax of which occurred when God entered human history Himself. Yet revelation is also “the book of human destiny,” and human beings belong organically to its story, and “the whole human fate is condensed and exemplified in the destiny of Israel, old and new, the chosen people of God, a people for God’s own possession.” (22) While this election is specific, it is orientated to the ultimate purpose of universal salvation.

The redeeming purpose is ever universal indeed, but it is being accomplished always by means of separation, selection or setting apart. In the midst of human fall and ruin a sacred oasis is erected by God. The Church is also an oasis still, set apart, though not taken out of the world. For again this oasis is not a refuge or shelter only, but rather a citadel, a vanguard of God. (22)

Moreover, there is a centre in the Biblical story and “the distinction between the two Testaments belongs itself to the unity of the Biblical revelation.” (22) The two Testaments are organically linked together, and “primarily in the person of Christ.” Jesus Christ belongs to both Testaments; He fulfils the old and inaugurates the new because – as the archē and telos – He is the very centre of the Bible.

The Old Testament is therefore ultimately to be understood as “a book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” (23) It was the time of prophecy and expectation, but the whole story was prophetical or “typical” – and the promise has been accomplished.

The history of flesh and blood is closed. The history of the Spirit is disclosed: “Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1.17). But it was an accomplishment, not destruction of the old. Vetus Testamentum in Novo patet [The Old Testament extends into the New]. And patet means precisely: is revealed, disclosed, fulfilled. Therefore the books of the Hebrews are still sacred, even for the new Israel of Christ – not to be left out or ignored. They tell us the story of salvation, Magnalia Dei. They do still bear witness to Christ. They are to be read in the Church as a book of sacred history, not to be transformed into a collection of proof-texts or of theological instances (loci theologici), nor into a book of parables. Prophecy has been accomplished and law has been superseded by grace. But nothing has passed away. In sacred history, “the past” does not mean simply “passed” or “what had been,” but primarily that which had been accomplished and fulfilled. Fulfilment is the basic category of revelation. (23)

* This post forms part of a series in which I hope to blog my way through Father Florovsky’s Collected Works, of which this book forms the first volume. Like the other volumes, it is out of print and only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, there are PDFs floating around on the Internet, which I would encourage interested readers to track down.

In the hope that this series doesn’t simply go the way of other good intentions, I am going to try and continue to work my way through Father Georges Florovsky’s Bible, Church, Tradition.* The posts may become somewhat shorter and deal with less material at a time, we shall just have to see what happens…

The second chapter of this book is entitled “Revelation and Interpretation” and, like the other chapters, first appeared as a separate article. It begins by questioning what the Bible is, whether it has a message as a whole, and to whom it is addressed. Father Florovsky notes that the Bible as a whole was the creation of a community; it is a selection of texts that were selected for a particular purpose, namely, “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name. (John 20.30-31)” While the message comes from God, “it is the faithful community that acknowledges the Word spoken and testifies to its truth.” (18) The book is inextricably bound up with the community.

The book and the Church cannot be separated. The book and the Covenant belong together, and Covenant implies people. It was the People of the Covenant to whom the Word of God had been entrusted under the old dispensation (Rom. 3.2), and it is the Church of the Word Incarnate that keeps the message of the Kingdom. The Bible is the Word of God indeed, but the book stands by the testimony of the Church. (18)

However, the “Apostolic Preaching” found in the New Testament also has a missionary purpose – it is not simply a “community-book” in the sense that the Old Testament was, but is intended to convert the world as well as edify the faithful. Yet it remains “fenced off” to outsiders, for, as Tertullian argued, heretics had no right on foreign property.

An unbeliever has no access to the message, simply because he does not “receive” it. For him there is no “message” in the Bible. (19)

It is this message of the Bible that Father Florovsky proceeds to discuss, for the authority of the text lies not in the words but in the message. While comprised of different writings,

There is one main theme and one main message through the whole story. For there is a story. Or, even more, the Bible itself is this story, the story of God’s dealings with his chosen people. The Bible records first of all God’s acts and mighty deeds, Magnolia Dei. The process has been initiated by God. There is a beginning and an end, which is also a goal… There is one composite and single story – from Genesis to Revelation. And this story is history. (19)

While there have been stages in God’s revelation, it was always the same God revealing Himself, with the same message – and it is the identity of this message that gives unity to the various writings. The Bible is about God, but a God who reveals Himself in human life. Moreover, the Bible is not simply a record of divine intervention, but “a kind of divine intervention itself.” (20) We do not need to escape from time or history to meet God, for God meets us in history and in the midst of daily existence.

History belongs to God, and God enters human history. The Bible is intrinsically historical: it is a record of the divine acts, not so much a presentation of God’s eternal mysteries, and these mysteries themselves are available only by historical mediation. (20)

The historical framework of revelation is therefore not something to do away with – and I assume that Florovsky is reacting to Bultmann here.

There is no need to abstract revealed truth from the frame in which revelations took place. On the contrary, such abstraction would have abolished the truth as well. For the truth is not an idea, but a person, even the Incarnate Lord. (20)

* This post forms part of a series in which I hope to blog my way through Father Florovsky’s Collected Works, of which this book forms the first volume. Like the other volumes, it is out of print and only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, there are PDFs floating around on the Internet, which I would encourage interested readers to track down.

This post continues to present the opening chapter of Father Georges Florovsky’s Bible, Church, Tradition* entitled “The Lost Scriptural Mind,” which I began here. In the following post, I plan to discuss some of the issues that this chapter raises…

Having argued that one should preach “the doctrines of the creed,” Father Florovsky continues to consider why this is problematic for “modern man” and argues that this is because it is seen in metaphysical terms that “is for him nothing more than a piece of poetry, if anything at all.” (12) However, Chalcedon was never intended to be seen in these terms; rather, it is a statement of faith and “cannot be understood when taken out of the total experience of the church. In fact, it is an ‘existential statement.’” (12-13)

Chalcedon’s formula is, as it were, an intellectual contour of the mystery which is apprehended by faith. Our Redeemer is not a man, but God himself. Here lies the existential emphasis of the statement. Our Redeemer is one who “came down” and who, by “being made man,” identified himself with men in the fellowship of a truly human life and nature.

… this mystery was a revelation; the true character of God had been disclosed in the Incarnation. God was so much and so intimately connected with the mystery of man (and precisely in the destiny of every one of “the little ones”) as to intervene in person in the chaos and misery of the lost life. The divine providence therefore is not merely an omnipotent ruling of the universe from an august distance by the divine majesty, but a kenosis, a “self-humiliation” of the God of glory. There is a personal relationship between God and man. (13)

This means that the whole of human tragedy appears in a new light, for the Incarnation is the mystery of the divine identification with lost humanity, which culminates in the cross of Christ, the turning point of human history. However, this “awful mystery” can only be comprehended within the wider perspective of an integral Christology in which we believe that “the Crucified was in very truth ‘the Son of the living God.’” (13) There is

an amazing coherence in the body of the traditional doctrine. But it can be apprehended and understood only in the context of faith, by which I mean in a personal communion with the personal God. Faith alone makes formulas convincing; faith alone makes formulas live. (14)

Father Florovsky goes on to argue that, while it may seem ridiculous to preach Chalcedon “in such a time as this,” it is only the reality to which this doctrine bears witness that can bring true spiritual freedom. Moreover, the ancient Christological controversies are far from irrelevant.

It is an illusion that the Christological disputes of the past are irrelevant to the contemporary situation. In fact, they are continued and repeated in the controversies of our own age. Modern man, deliberately or subconsciously, is tempted by the Nestorian extreme. That is to say, he does not believe in the Incarnation in earnest. He does not dare to believe that Christ is a divine person. He wants to have a human redeemer, only assisted by God. …

On the other extreme we have in our days a revival of “monophysite” tendencies in theology and religion, when man is reduced to complete passivity and is allowed only to listen and to hope. The present tension between “liberalism” and “neo-orthodoxy” is in fact a re-enactment of the old Christological struggle, on a new existential level and in a new spiritual key. The conflict will never be settled or solved in the field of theology, unless a wider vision is acquired. (14-15)

Father Florovsky then proceeds to bemoan the neglect of theology in modern times. While preaching in the early church was decidedly theological, and was not “vain speculation,” the modern neglect of theology has led to both the decay of personal religion and “that sense of frustration which dominates the modern mind.” (15) Yet both clergy and laity are hungry for theology and, moreover,

… because no theology is usually preached, they adopt some “strange ideologies” and combine them with fragments of traditional beliefs. The whole appeal of the “rival gospels” of our days is that they offer some sort of pseudo theology, a system of pseudo dogmas. They are gladly accepted by those who cannot find any theology in the reduced Christianity of “modern” style. (15)

Within this context, the first task of the contemporary preacher is the “reconstruction of belief.” Florovsky refers to belief here as “the map of the true world.” (15) The modern crisis has been brought about by the rediscovery of the real world, which is “no more screened from us by the wall of our own ideas.” (15-16) Moreover, the rediscovery of the church is also key here:

It is again realized that the church is not just a company of believers, but the “Body of Christ.” This is a rediscovery of a new dimension, a rediscovery of the continuing presence of the divine Redeemer in the midst of his faithful flock. This discovery throws a new flood of light on the misery of our disintegrated existence in a world thoroughly secularized… (16)

In contrast to those who see them as outdated and out of touch with our realities, Father Florovsky argues that this is the time to return to the Fathers of the Church.

I have often a strange feeling. When I read the ancient classics of Christian theology, the fathers of the church, I find them more relevant to the troubles and problems of my own time than the production of modern theologians. The fathers were wrestling with existential problems, with those revelations of the eternal issues which were described and recorded in Holy Scripture. I would risk a suggestion that St. Athanasius and St. Augustine are much more up to date than many of our theological contemporaries. The reason is very simple: they were dealing with things and not with maps, they were concerned not so much with what man can believe as with what God has done for man. We have, “in such a time as this,” to enlarge our perspective, to acknowledge the masters of old, and to attempt for our own age an existential synthesis of Christian experience. (16)

* This post is part of a series in which I hope to blog my way through Father Florovsky’s Collected Works, of which this book forms the first volume. Like the other volumes, it is out of print and only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, there are PDFs floating around on the Internet, which I would encourage interested readers to track down.

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.

I have sometimes thought of writing on the topic of the Church, for I suspect that it is issues around ecclesiology that often form a stumbling block for many people. I have often encountered other Christians who are fascinated by Orthodoxy, want to learn from us and “use” our tradition, but who balk at the full implications of what Orthodox tradition really means. You cannot, to be quite frank about it, have Orthodoxy without the Church – and by this we mean the visible, historically mediated Church which is the Eucharistic community gathered around the bishop. Yet it is this Church that is often the stumbling block.

The Orthodox understanding of the Church is often either completely unknown to other Christians, or else it is seen as scandalously arrogant. There is a common – basically Protestant – assumption that “the Church” is an invisible entity made up of various “denominations” that makes it very difficult for Orthodox (or Roman Catholic) Christians to engage in discussions without appearing arrogant or exclusivist.

Linked to this is a widespread horror at our insistence that the reception of Holy Communion is limited to Orthodox Christians – and those who are suitably prepared for it, at that. Such practices fly in the face of contemporary demands for “inclusivity,” which has come to be seen as far more important than the theological integrity of the Church and its Liturgy.

There are issues around this that I keep wanting to explore more, but Father Stephen Freeman has expressed some of them far better than I could in his recent post The Politics of the Cup. Drawing on Hauerwas, he writes:

Many Christians fail to see the “politics” of their faith. They think one thing and do another (it is another aspect of the “two-storey universe”). Almost nothing is as eloquent an expression of the Church’s life than the “politics of the Cup.” What we do with the Eucharist and how that action displays the inner reality of our life is a deeply “political” expression (in the sense that Hauerwas uses the word).

The one common thread throughout the Protestant Reformation was its opposition to the Church of Rome. Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican Reforms were all embraced by various rising nation states, not so much for the appeal of the particularities of their teaching, but for their willingness to provide cover for the subjugation of the Church to the political demands of secular rulers.

Those demands are far less transparent in the modern period. The legitimacy of the state is today rooted in democratic theories. Those same theories are legitimized by the individualism of popular theology. Eucharistic hospitality is the sacramental expression of individualism. The Open Cup represents the individual’s relationship with Christ without regard for the Church. It is the unwitting sacrament of the anti-Church.

In the last few decades, the same individualism has taken on great immediacy within a consumerist economy. At the same time, we have seen the rise of arguments for a radically individualized reception of communion, one that no longer insists on Baptism. Only the secret intention of the recipient is required. The Eucharist becomes inert – reduced to the status of an object to be chosen or rejected according to the desire of the individual. It is a consumer’s communion with himself.

I have more thoughts on this, including on the violence implicit in inclusivist agendas – if everyone can receive communion, then it will not be long before everyone must do so – and on the underlying monism that influences such thinking, but I don’t know when I’ll get them together. But Father Stephen’s post helps to unmask what many people take for granted, and articulates the true vision of a genuine hospitality that is offered to all. Do go and read the whole post.

This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

The journey towards the heart, and to the transformation of our hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit who renews the Image of God in us, is not something that we engage upon as isolated individuals. There is a saying that we fall alone, but that we are saved together. For Orthodox Christians, our understanding of Christian life is fundamentally ecclesial. We do not distinguish between what some call “the institutional Church” and some sort of disembodied religious experience. Rather, it is in and through the visible, historically mediated Body of Christ – with all her historical limitations and particularities – that we encounter Christ and work out our salvation. And this Church is most fully encountered in the Eucharistic celebration of the Divine Liturgy, presided over by our bishop – or someone delegated by him – who is the bond of unity connecting us to the rest of the Church, both throughout the world and throughout the centuries.

It is in the Divine Liturgy that we most fully encounter both the Mystery of the Church and the nature of our salvation in Christ. For here we find the recapitulation of the entire history of salvation, enabling us to enter into it and become truly present to the saving works of Christ. But the Liturgy is about more than just history, however, for it also leads us into the future, enabling us to glimpse a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven. By offering our lives together with the Holy Gifts that are offered on the altar, and by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion, we become true participants in His Mysteries. In the words of Saint Maximus the Confessor:

Just as wine mingles in all the members of the one who drinks it and is transformed in him and he in wine, so does the one who drinks the Blood of Christ quench his thirst with the divine Spirit who commingles with his soul and the soul with Him. For through the Eucharist, those who commune with dignity reach the ability to partake of the Holy Spirit, and in this manner souls can live continually.

For Orthodox Christians, there is a correlation between the public Liturgy of the Church and the inner Liturgy of the heart. We cannot separate the “outer” and the “inward’ and the prayer, transformation and intercession that occurs on the inner altar of the heart both mirrors and is a mirror of, the Liturgy of the Church which is offered for the whole world. To quote Father Boris Bobrinskoy once more:

personal sanctification restores the human being to the liturgical function and vocation to encompass the entire world, the totality of humankind, in a pacified and loving heart. Sanctification restores the liturgical and royal mediation of the human person in a world shot through with waves of hatred and death, obscured by the powers of darkness, a world that groans and waits for the liberation of the children of God (Rom 8:21). Inner transformation of the human heart necessarily restores the sacramental function of the Church, which is to unite all human life to the mystery of the dead and risen Christ and to become transparent to the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit. *

The Compassion of the Father109.

Next Page »