John Behr

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)

I seem to be spending most of my free minutes working on a website that is taking longer to get up than it is supposed to! But part of that has involved discovering helpful material tucked away in various corners of the internet. Yesterday I discovered this article on Tradition by Father John Behr on an old site and thought it worth sharing:

The idea of “tradition” is deceptively simple. The word itself simply means “handing down” or “that which is handed down.” It is also something with which we are intimately familiar, for each one of us lives within a web of traditions that influences everything from the ways in which we celebrate family or national events to our general world-view, whether an “enlightened” commitment to rational inquiry or a more religious outlook. To be a Christian also means to stand within a tradition. Even those who, following the Protestant Reformation, claim that Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the only legitimate ground for faith and theology, nevertheless stand within a tradition, inheriting certain assumptions and attitudes. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, embrace their tradition, laying great emphasis on tradition itself as a fundamental dimension of the Christian faith and of their life in the Church.

But what is this tradition to which Orthodox Christianity lays claim? The Orthodox speak about “tradition” so frequently that the term tends to become rather vague. Heirs to a two thousand year old tradition, we inherit a vast treasury of riches – theological, liturgical, artistic, ascetic. But this very richness creates its own difficulty, for not everything handed down is of equal importance. As St Cyprian put it, “tradition without truth is but the antiquity of error.” We need to know what is true, not simply what is old. Modern Orthodox theologians have rightly emphasized that tradition is not simply a mindless repetition, but a living, creative faithfulness. However, we need to be clear about exactly what it is that we must be faithful to, if we are going to be able to embody this living tradition, speaking the same word of truth to an ever-changing world.

It would be wrong to say that we have both Scripture and tradition, for tradition is not an independent source of authority. Rather, tradition is the continuity of the correct faith, “Scripture understood rightly” as Fr Georges Florovsky put it, which has found numerous expressions, embodying the same truth, over the last two millennia – conciliar statements on doctrine and church order, iconography, liturgical practices and so on. But it would be equally mistaken to claim that Scripture is part of tradition. It is true that the Church was already in existence, granting new birth to Christians through Baptism and celebrating the Eucharist, before the texts of the New Testament were written and collected. Yet we must not lose sight of the fact that the earliest proclamation of the Gospel, upon which the Church is founded, already refers to the Scriptures: the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets, which we now call the “Old Testament.”

In one of the earliest statements of the Christian proclamation, the importance of this reference to the Scriptures is emphasized: “I delivered [literally “traditioned”] to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-5). So significant is this reference to the Scriptures that Paul mentions it twice within a short sentence. What Paul “traditions” as the basis of the Christian faith is the understanding and proclamation of the crucified and exalted Christ “according to the Scriptures,” referring, not to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but to the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. So important is this “tradition” that the reference to the Scriptures is preserved in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which is the common inheritance of most Christians to this day: we still confess that Christ died and rose “according to the [same] Scriptures.”

The principle that Paul “traditions” is made clear by the Gospels. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, the disciples abandoned Christ at the time of his Passion; Peter even denied knowing him. Whatever they learned from Christ or witnessed him doing was not enough to persuade them of who Christ truly is. Only in the light of Christ’s suffering and exaltation did they turn again to the Scriptures, under the guidance of the risen Christ, to understand finally who he is: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself … he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures and said to them ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead'” (Lk 24:27, 45). As Paul says, we no longer know Christ according to the flesh (2 Cor 5:16), but according to the Spirit. The Spirit, whom Christ promised to send, leads us into the fullness of truth concerning Christ (Jn 14:25-26), so that we can confess that he is indeed the Lord (1 Cor 12:3), that is, the one spoken of in the Scriptures. The importance of Christ’s passion in understanding who he is, is also emphasized in the Gospel of John where, unlike the other Gospels, Christ is not abandoned at the Cross, for standing by him are his mother and the beloved disciple. Furthermore, this is the “tradition” which marks out the four Gospels of the New Testament from all the other writings claiming to be apostolic. Each of these Gospels proclaims the crucified and risen Christ by reference to the Scriptures, while a work such as the Gospel of Thomas, even if it contains authentic historical material, does not proclaim the passion of Christ nor does it proclaim him “according to the Scriptures.”

But the Gospel of Christ which we proclaim is still the Gospel of the “coming one” (Cf. Matt 11:3), the one who is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, where the true citizenship of Christians lies and from which they await their Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting that he will change their lowly form to be like his glorious body (Phil 3:20). The “tradition” which the apostles have bequeathed to us, therefore, is not fixed in one text (we have four Gospels, after all, presenting the versions of the four evangelists). Rather the “tradition” in which we stand, as Orthodox Christians, is the contemplation of Christ “according to the Scriptures,” remaining true to the deposit handed over by the apostles, yet with our faces towards the future, towards the one who is still coming. The Word “grows,” as Acts puts it (Acts 6:7), in that as more and more people believe in it and reflect on it, the Word is embodied in an increasing variety of ways that express the fullness of that faith which has been delivered from the beginning, the same Gospel, the same Word of God – Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:8).

It is this quest that Christ challenges us with, when he asks “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15). And it is a task that cannot be avoided. Even when his friend John the Baptist was in prison, about to be executed, and sent his disciples to Christ to ask him “are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Christ did not answer him directly. Rather he told them to tell John what they saw, that the blind could see, the lame could walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear (Mat 11.2-5). In other words, Christ himself directed John back to the Scriptures where he would be able to understand these messianic signs and know that Christ is indeed the Messiah. This contemplation of Christ “according to the Scriptures,” is what we do when we gather together in and as the Church, in expectancy of his return and in the confidence of his presence, for we are his body, praising God in and for Christ, in and by the Spirit, using language, images and words, drawn from the Scripture. The hymnography as well as the iconography that adorns the Church and the beauty of the liturgical rites themselves, form a matrix, a womb, in which we are born again in his image, as Christians. The tradition of contemplating Christ “according to the Scriptures” is a task which each of us is called to undertake, in the confidence that when he appears we shall be like him (1 Jn 3:2)

I know that this has been horribly disrupted, but I want to try and finish this series of posts on the opening chapters of Father John Behr’s The Way to Nicaea (previous posts here and here). They may be dense, but the issues they raise are of crucial importance and once I’ve got these posts done I hope to write something that draws on this material to address some of the misunderstandings of Tradition that are all-too-common among contemporary Christians.

Having established the key relationship between Scripture – meaning the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets – and the Gospel, Father Behr turns his attention to the relationship between this symbolic coherence of Scripture – which is effected by the word of the Cross – and the appeal to canon and tradition. This coherence of Scripture which is expressed most explicitly in Saint Irenaeus’ The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, forms the basis for Irenaeus’ appeal to canon and tradition, which he develops in Against the Heresies. This involves a challenge to those, in particular the Valentinians, who “speak the same, but think otherwise.” While they quote Scripture, they have disregarded “the order and connection of the Scriptures” and so distorted it.

They have not accepted the coherence of the Scriptures, as speaking about Christ, but have preferred their own fabrication, created by adapting passages of Scripture to a different hypothesis, attempting to endow it with persuasive plausibility. (32)

To understand Scripture, it is crucially important that one has the correct hypothesis. While for some branches of knowledge finding the right hypothesis may be a tentative and pragmatic thing, we cannot philosophically demand demonstrations of first principles.

This means, as Clement of Alexandria points out, that the search for the first principles of demonstration ends up with undemonstrable faith. For Christian faith, according to Clement, it is the Scriptures, and in particular, the Lord who speaks in them, that is the first principle of all knowledge. It is the voice of the Lord, speaking throughout Scripture, that is the first principle, the (nonhypothetical) hypothesis of all demonstrations from Scripture, by which Christians are led to the knowledge of the truth. (33)

It is these first principles that are the basis for subsequent demonstrations and function as a canon to evaluate other claims to truth. Knowledge is impossible without such a canon, for enquiry would simply degenerate into endless regression and it is for this reason that Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement appealed to a canon to counter the constantly mutating Gnostic claims. Irenaeus writes:

…anyone who keeps unswervingly in himself the canon of truth received through baptism will recognize the names and sayings and parables from the Scriptures, but this blasphemous hypothesis of theirs he will not recognize. For if he recognizes the jewels, he will not accept the fox for the image of a king. He will restore each one of the passages to its proper order and, having fit it into the body of truth, he will lay bare the fabrication and show that it is without support. (34-35)

While Irenaeus enunciates the content of the faith that was delivered to the apostles, and sees this as received through baptism, the forms of this rule of faith is not as fixed as it would later become, for

The point of the canon is not so much to give fixed, and abstract, statements of Christian doctrine. Nor does it provide a narrative description of Christian belief, the literary hyposthesis of Scripture. Rather, the canon of truth expresses the correct hypothesis of Scripture itself, that by which one can see in Scripture the picture of a king, Christ, rather than a dog or fox. It is ultimately the presupposition of the apostolic Christ himself, the one who is “according to the Scripture” and, in reverse, the subject of Scripture throughout, being spoken of by the Spirit through the prophets, so revealing the one God and Father. … For Irenaeus, the canon of truth is the embodiment or crystallization of the coherence of Scripture, read as speaking of the Christ who is revealed in the Gospel, the apostolic preaching of Christ “according to Scripture.” (35-36)

Thus the canon is a mode of interpretation, and

The key elements of the faith delivered by the apostles are crystallized in the canon of truth. This canon expresses the basic elements of the one Gospel, maintained and preached in the Church, in an ever-changing context. The continually changing context in which the same unchanging Gospel is preached makes it necessary that different aspects or facets of the same Gospel be drawn out to address contemporary challenges. However, while the context continually changes, the content of that tradition does not – it is the same Gospel.

Father John Behr continues his discussion of the relationship between Christ, the Gospel and the Scriptures in The Way to Nicaea by addressing the role of literature for both the ancient world and the Scriptures. Classical texts provided models for emulation and provided a symbolic world in terms of which one understood oneself and the events of one’s life. The writers of Israel “used images and figures of earlier events and figures to understand, explicate and describe the events and figures at hand.” (24) Thus they established typologies between, for example, Adam and Noah, and between Abraham and the post-exilic situation of Israel. In this typological parallelism, figures such as Abraham are described as foreshadowing the destiny of their descendents, something that, in Christian understanding, reaches its fulfilment in the New Testament.

This process, reemploying images to understand and explain the present in terms of the past, which is evident throughout the Scriptures, continues in the New Testament and its presentation of Christ “according to the Scriptures.” For instance, Christ’s Passion is described in terms of being the true and primary Pascha (now etymologized as “Passion”), of which the Exodus Pascha is but a type; Christ is the true Lamb of God. Or, according to another typology, in John 3:14: “Just as Moses raised the snake in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, so that those who believe in Him may have eternal lfie.” … Paul also appeals to this concatenation of images, when he points out to those in his Corinthian community who were seduced by wisdom, that the folly of God (Christ lifted on the Cross, as the bronze snake lifted on the pole) overcomes the wisdom of the world, and, as such, Christ is the true power and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:22-5). In another vein, but using the same scriptural, literary or intertextual technique, Matthew describes Christ as a new Moses, going up a mountain to deliver the law, while Paul describes Christ as the new Adam, correcting the mistakes of the first Adam, whom Paul explicitly describes as being “a type of the One to come” (Rom 5:14). (25)

While the relationship between Scripture, the Gospel and Christ will be more explicitly discussed by the writers of the second century, the apostle Paul points to the dynamics of this relationship in his reference to the veil that covers the words of Scripture in 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6.

In this very dense passage, Paul begins to address the interconnected relationships between Moses and Christ, the Scriptures and the Gospel. According to Paul, the “same veil” that Moses placed over his own head remains to this day upon those who read “Moses” – now a text. But this veil is removed for those who have turned to the Lord and can now understand Scripture aright. That the veil was removed by Christ means that it is only in Christ that the glory of God is revealed and that we can discern the true meaning of Scripture, and that these two aspects are inseparable. The identity between Moses the man and Moses the text, whose face and meaning were hidden by the same veil, is paralleled by the identity between Christ, in whose face is revealed the glory of God, and the Gospel which proclaims this. So, behind the veil is nothing other than “the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ,” himself the image of God, though this remains “veiled” to those who reject the Gospel. What this means, as Hays points out, is that , ultimately, “Scripture becomes – in Paul’s reading – a metaphor, a vast trope that signifies and illuminates the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (26-27)

This is not to say that the Gospel of the death and resurrection of Christ is straightforwardly derivable from Scripture, but rather that it acts as a catalyst.

Because God has acted in Christ in a definitive, and unexpected, manner, making everything new, Scripture itself must be read anew. The “word of the Cross,” the preaching of Christ crucified” may be a scandal for the Jews and folly for the Gentiles, but it alone is the “power of God” making known “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:18-25). This preaching, the kerygma, provides what Hays describes as “the eschatological apokalypsis of the Cross,” a hermeneutical lens, through which Scripture can now be refracted with “a profound new symbolic coherence.” Read in the light of what God has wrought in Christ, the Scriptures provided the terms and images, the context, within which the apostles made sense of what happened, and with which they explained it and preached it, so justifying the claim that Christ died and rose “according to the Scripture.” It is important to note that it is Christ who is being explained through the medium of Scripture, not Scripture itself that is being exegeted; the object is not to understand the “original meaning” of an ancient text, as in modern historical-critical scholarship, but to understand Christ, who, by being explained “according to the Scriptures,” becomes the sole subject of Scripture throughout. (27-28)

To be continued

I said previously that I hoped to post some things from Father John Behr’s introductory chapters in The Way to Nicaea, but have been putting off doing so because they are rather dense and touch on many issues. However, I have also been aware, particularly recently when in conversation with evangelical Christians, that questions around authority, hermeneutics and the sources of revealed truth are often unaddressed but nevertheless constitute a serious stumbling block to real communication. All too often evangelical colleagues will tell me what “the Bible says” and assume that that settles things. And given that I am not very good at responding with chapter and verse proof texts, and that the context usually precludes a serious discussion of hermeneutics and their underlying presuppositions, this can be rather frustrating and I usually just end up pointing out that that is their interpretation of what the Bible says and leave it at that!

But I have also been aware – and reading Father Behr highlights this – that the popular Orthodox (and Catholic) response to such a challenge, while not entirely untrue, is both simplistic and not without its own dangers. Such a response is of course to point out that the Bible is the Church’s book, that it was the Church that decided on the canon of Scripture, and that Scripture can only be properly interpreted within the Church. But the danger with that is that it can objectify the Scriptures and can appear to view the Church as being above the Scriptures. In an extreme form one ends up with “Scripture” and “Tradition” as two separate sources of authority as the (Roman Catholic) Council of Trent taught. Such developments would appear to fit better in a scholastic mode of theologising than in a patristic one.

As Father Behr notes, the early Christian struggle for truth – and the establishment of a normative Orthodox understanding of the Gospel – was inseparable from the engagement with a particular set of texts and with the correct interpretation of these texts. The two key challenges that the early Christians encountered regarding these came from Marcion and from Valentinus.

Marcion wanted to discard the Jewish (and some of the Christian) Scriptures and to emphasise the discontinuity between the vengeful and malicious God of the Old Testament, and the gospel of Jesus. Thus he establishes an opposition between the Law and the Gospel and attempts to sever the Gospel from the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets – an attempt, incidentally, that von Harnack thought Protestantism should have followed.

If Marcion wanted to fix a (reduced) body of authoritative writings, then the Gnostic Valentinus saw no need to do this, but sought rather to creatively reuse texts and images from Scripture in a way that resonates with people’s hearts but without any relationship to an objective authority. There is thus no distinction between Scripture and commentary, or between source and interpretation. As Frances Young notes, “Gnostic doctrine is revelatory, rather than traditional, textual or rational.” (21) Or, as Ireneaus notes, such a reading produces the reader’s own fabrication rather than the handiwork of God. However, the use that they make of Scripture, can give the impression that they are really being “biblical”.

Such usages of Scripture were rejected by the Church and the Orthodox position on the correct understanding of the Scriptures became established through the work of people like Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Saint Justin Martyr and Saint Irenaeus of Lyon in the first two centuries of the Church’s life. Father Behr writes:

In their own ways, these all maintained a text-interpretive framework for revelation, the point that Christ was preached by the apostles as having been crucified and risen “according to the Scriptures.” So, what sense does it make to say that Christ is proclaimed “according to the Scriptures”? What is the relationship between Christ, the Gospel, and the Scriptures? (23)

To be continued.

It is often said that Christianity (along with Judaism and Islam, though these are not dealt with here) is a “religion of the book,” and this is usually taken in a very weak sense, that somehow, somewhere, for whatever reason, Christianity involves a book. But what is established as normative Christianity in the second century takes this in a much stronger sense: If God acts through His Word, then that Word needs to be heard, to be read, to be understood – the relationship with God is, in a broad sense, literary. As such, it requires the full engagement of all the intellective faculties to understand and accomplish, or incarnate, God’s Word. It was no accident, as Frances Young observes, that what came to be orthodox or normative Christianity was “committed to a text-based version of revealed truth.” This Christianity, one might say, is an interpretive text-based religion. She further points out, concerning the question of historicity touched on earlier, that it would be anachronistic to suppose that in antiquity God’s revelation was located in historical events behind the text, events to which, it is claimed, we can have access by reconstructing them from the text, treating the texts as mere historical documents which provide raw historical data, subject to our own analysis, rather than in the interpreted events as presented in Scripture, where the interpretation is already given through the medium of Scripture. What is recognized, by the end of the second century, as normative Christianity is committed to understanding Christ by engaging with Scripture on the basis of the canon of truth in the context of tradition (παράδοσις).

But if this is the basis for what is established as normative Christianity by the end of the second century, it is no less the very dynamic of the Gospel itself. One of the earliest formulae for proclaiming the Gospel is that Christ was crucified and raised “according to the Scriptures”:

I delivered (παρέδωκα) to you as of first importance what I also received that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. (1 Cor 15:3-4)

The Gospel which Paul delivered (“traditioned”) is from the first “according to the Scriptures.” Clearly the Scriptures to which Paul is referring here are not the four Gospels, but the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. The importance of this written reference, repeated twice, is such that the phrase is preserved in later Creeds; Christians who use the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed still confess that Christ died and rose according to the (same) Scriptures. The point of concern in this basic Christian confession is not the historicity of the events behind their reports, but that the reports are continuous with, in accordance with, Scripture; it is a textual, or more accurately an “intertextual” or interpretive confession. And this scriptural texture of the Gospel is, as we will see, the basis of both canon and tradition as articulated by what emerges as normative Christianity. If “orthodoxy” is indeed later than “heresy,” as Bauer claimed and as is commonly assumed, it is nevertheless based on nothing other than Gospel as it was delivered at the beginning.

John Behr, The Way to Nicaea (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press) 15-16.

I had just started reading Father John Behr when my life (and access to books) became rather disrupted a couple of years ago, but I have been intending to get back to him and have recently started reading The Way to Nicaea. I regret that I’m not really in a position to blog intensely on this book as it is both pretty dense and very insightful. However, I hope to post a few things if I am able to sufficiently get my head around the issues that he raises in the opening chapters.

For now I must note, rather to my embarrassment, that until reading this book, I have never really stopped to think much about the theological depth that we confess with the words “according to the Scriptures” when reciting the creed. If anything, I’ve probably pretty much thought of them as referring to the New Testament accounts of the Resurrection in much the same way that one might refer to sources to back up accounts of a particular event. But what Father Behr is arguing here, is that this is a confession of what the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets were all about. It structures our reading of them while they give depth to the confession of the Resurrection. A link is established, a narrowing down of the interpretive options available.

There are two sorts of books in my life at the moment: books to bind and books to read. This last week was dominated by books to bind as I started my new job on Monday and it didn’t leave me with much energy for anything else! It is good to have started and I think that it will work out well, but it will take some settling into – it’s not so much the work that is tiring as the process of adapting, learning how things are done here and how particular processes work.

However, in order to not entirely lose track of other sorts of books, it may be as well to mention the following.

  • On the way home from work yesterday I went via the Catholic Bookshop and bought Father Gabriel (Bunge)’s Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Traditionwhich I had seen that they had the previous week. It had long been on my to-be-read list, especially since someone I respect had seriously recommended it to me about a year ago. However, I only had access to it in French, and glancing through it saw that it was clearly worth reading really seriously which would have required sitting with my nose in a dictionary, and so decided to wait until I could find it in English. I’ll write more about it again, but, for those who don’t know who Father Gabriel is, there is more here and here.
  • Yesterday I also received an email offering me a review copy of Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon’s The One And The Many. It is the first time that I’ve been offered a review copy (on the recommendation of a friend – I have my suspicions who it was, but will not say more except that I am grateful). I have occasionally thought of approaching publishers for review copies but haven’t got that far yet. Plus, I have sort of wondered if publishers wouldn’t be inclined to blacklist me for posting too many quotes.
  • However, it doesn’t seem that this deters people from actually buying books. I mentioned a few months ago that I’d become an Amazon associate which means that if people buy books as a result of clicking on my links I get a small commission. While I did not expect this to become hugely lucrative, it has added up so that I was recently able to order two books. Father John Behr’s The Way to Nicaea should hopefully get here soon and which will provide a reading project that I had hoped to start a couple of years ago. And I recently ordered The Festal Menaion (it’s actually cheaper here) as that is something that I do need to have and it’s probably good to get it as soon as I can. 

Of course it would be fun if the two sorts of books could be combined, i.e. if I could bind some of the one’s that I read. I may do that with some of the liturgical ones if I have time. And I am tempted to restore the battered version of Newman’s Apologia that I bought recently, but suspect that I am going to have to prioritise time and energy…

The question of Nicene orthodoxy is especially important today. Through the controversies of the fourth century, the Council of Nicaea became a standard reference point and remained so thereafter. The world of Nicene Christianity embraces not only matters pertaining to dogmatic theology (the use of the term “consubstantial”), but also spirituality (liturgy, prayer, piety) and also includes both a history (marked by particular events) and a geography (with its own sacred centers) – all the things which make up a “world.” But over the last couple of centuries, the foundations of this world have been steadily eroded, and a new world has been constructed, with a new geography and, especially important, a new sense of history. Christianity today, in all its various forms, clearly finds itself torn between these two worlds: the world in which it developed into its classical form and the world in which even Christians now live.

John Behr. The Nicene Faith. Part One, True God of True God. Crestwood, N.Y.:  St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004. 8-9.

I am afraid that if the first couple of chapters are anything to go by, this book is going to require a really close reading but one that will be immensely rewarding. More detailed posting will have to wait until after our move, but the above passage is enough to explain my interest.

The question of the proper starting point, the “first principles” of theology is one to which those engaged in its discipline must continually return; however, their continual temptation is to do otherwise. Without being firmly grounded on its proper foundation, the vast body of reflection developed in theology risks collapsing into dust. It is not simply that the first principles are elementary stages, to be transcended by higher realms of more elevated reflection, but that they provide the necessary perspective within which the more abstract discussion takes place and is to be understood. The proper order, the taxis, of theology must be maintained if it is to retain its proper coherence. … Christian theology developed first and foremost as faith in the lordship and divinity of the crucified and exalted Christ, as proclaimed by the apostles according to the Scriptures. The Passion of Christ stands as the definitive moment in the revelation of God, the eschatological apocalypse which unlocks the Scriptures, and so enables Christians, retrospectively, to view the work of God from the beginning and, prospectively, by the continued contemplation of the exalted Christ who is still the coming one, to participate in this work, embodying or incarnating the presence of God in this world through their own witness or martyria. …

The way to Nicaea is not plotted retrospectively from Nicaea, as if it were itself the starting point, but with reference to the revelation of God in Christ, the subject of the Christian confession from the beginning; if Nicaea is a definitive moment in Christian identity, it is because it preserves the truth of the definitive moment. If we overlook this basic fact, then we risk both misunderstanding the landmarks that we think we already know and, more seriously, substituting other principles, taking something other than Christ and his Cross as constitutive of the identity of Christianity.

John Behr. The Nicene Faith. Part One, True God of True God. Crestwood, N.Y.:  St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004. 1-2.