History


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.

 I’m sort of thinking aloud here and may not be expressing myself well.

This is more than a day late for the feast of Saint Nicholas, and the things I had been considering saying on the punching of heretics will have to wait. But as I drove around Cape Town yesterday, seeing flags flying at half mast and feeling shaken by the news of Nelson Mandela’s death, I couldn’t help being moved by the appropriateness of him dying on the eve of the feast of the great saint of Myra. (Sister Catherine Wybourne has some thoughts on this connection here and Deacon Stephen Hayes has written on what it means to speak of Madiba as an icon here).

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this seems appropriate – they were, after all, two very different figures and comparisons are probably dangerous. There is also a danger in viewing Madiba in ecclesial terms which are inappropriate for him – to speak of a secular saint is a contradiction in terms.  Plus there is the real danger of trivializing his legacy as those who once did everything in their power to work against him now seek to co-opt the once-banned image.

But as I drove around thinking about this, I kept being reminded of Father Thomas Hopko’s words about Saint Nicholas. In The Winter Pascha, he writes that Saint Nicholas is not known for anything extraordinary, but that what stands out about him was that he was a genuinely good man. Father Hopko continues: (more…)


This is probably a rather an unusual post for me, but I recently made a fascinating discovery.  Among a crate of books at work, I found a 1791 copy of Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ published by John Wesley. I had no idea that Wesley had published such a thing, but a google search brought up some interesting  information, including this fascinating article on the influence of some of the early Eastern Fathers on him. This may all be common knowledge to some, but it was fascinating news to me. I have known that the Methodist tradition is closer to Orthodoxy than Calvinism is, and this gives some idea why. Anyway, this morning I pulled the book out again and spent my lunchtime reading and transcribing what Wesley has to say about spiritual reading which forms the preface to this book. It strikes me as eminently sound and sensible advice that could easily have been written by an early Cistercian or an Orthodox monastic…

I. As it is impossible for any one to know the usefulness of this treatise, till he has read it in such a manner as it deserves; instead of heaping up commendations of it, which those who have read it do not want, and those who have not will not believe; I have transcribed a few plain directions how to read this (or indeed any other religious book) with improvement.

II. Assign some stated time every day for this pious employment. If any indispensable business unexpectedly robs you of your hour of retirement, take the next hour for it. When such large portions of each day are so willingly bestowed on bodily refreshments, can you scruple allotting some little time daily for the improvement of your immortal soul?

III. Prepare yourself for reading by purity of intention, whereby you singly aim at your soul’s benefit: and then, in a short ejaculation, beg God’s grace to enlighten your understanding, and dispose your heart for receiving what you read; and that you may also know what he requires of you, seriously resolve to execute his will when known.

IV. Be sure to read not cursorily and hastily; but leisurely, seriously, and with great attention; with proper intervals and pauses that you may allow time for the enlightenings of Divine Grace. Stop every now and then to recollect what you have read, and consider how to reduce it to practice. Further, let your reading be continued and regular, not rambling and desultory. It shows a vitiated palate, to taste of many dishes without fixing upon, or being satisfied with any; not but that it will be of great service to read over and over those passages, which more nearly concern yourself, and more closely affect your own practice or inclinations: especially if you add a particular examination upon each.

V. Labour for a temper correspondent to what you read: otherwise it will prove empty and unprofitable, while it only enlightens your understanding, without influencing your will, or inflaming your affections. Therefore intersperse here and there pious aspirations to God, and petitions for his grace. Select also any remarkable sayings or advices, treasuring them up in your memory to ruminate and consider on; which you may either in time or need draw forth as arrows from a quiver against temptations, against this or that vice which you are more particulary addicted to; or make use of as incitements to humility, patience, the love of God, or any other virtue.

VI. Conclude all with a short ejaculation to God; that he would preserve and prosper this good seed sown in your heart, that it may bring forth its fruit in due season. And think not this will take up too much of your time, for you can never bestow it to so good advantage.

John Wesley, “Preface,” iii-iv. (I updated the spelling).

Some scholars of African culture have regrettably acquired a persistent habit of assuming that Christianity began in Africa only a couple of centuries ago, strictly imported from “the West” or “the North.” They appear to view Africa as only two or three centuries deep, not two or three millennia. This false start is repeated frequently in some well-intended African theological literature. Even the best African theologians have been tempted to fall into the stereotype that Christianity came from Europe. This is a narrow, modern view of history, ignoring Christianity’s first millennium, when African thought shaped and conditioned virtually every diocese in Christianity worldwide.

Thomas C. Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity, 25.

I first came across this book a week or so ago, and got hugely excited, for the issues that it addresses are ones that I have been aware of, and concerned about, for a long time. I remember teaching in South African theological institutions twelve to fifteen years ago and being frustrated at the extent to which students were inclined to write off Christianity as a “western religion,” something that tended to be reinforced by the attitudes of some academics. I will never forget the words of a colleague who asked “But what theology is there other than western theology?” in response to my suggestion that we should be making our students aware of theological traditions other than western ones! The more I discovered of the early Christian tradition, and the more contact I had with other Christian traditions – an exposure to the contemporary Coptic Church in Egypt made a big impression on me around this time – the more absurd the glib identification of Christianity with modern forms of western post-enlightenment religion became. And I was puzzled that others did not see this, and indeed seemed to dismiss it when it was pointed out to them.

So I was very excited to discover this book. I knew Thomas Oden’s name as the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture series and was following up a reference to a more recent book of his on the tradition of Saint Mark – I am after all in the Patriarchate of Alexandria now! – when I stumbled across this book and discovered that it is in the university library. And so I took it out and dived into it. And having done so – and I have not yet finished it – my response has become somewhat mixed.

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is as much a manifesto as it is a book. It is not, by and large, an account of Oden’s scholarship as the setting forth of a vision for a major programme of research which seeks to enable African scholars to discover the African roots of Christianity. To this end Oden hopes to establish an international consortium of African scholars and to assist in equipping them with the tools for uncovering and making known the African Christian heritage. (And to this end there is a website here).

In this book Oden paints with broad strokes, outlining the ways in which Africa contributed to the development of what he terms the Christian mind. But the book is as much historiographical as it is historical, for he addresses key interpretive questions, in particular what we mean by “Africa.” This is important, for a common reaction to the suggestion that African Christians should be more concerned about the early Christian experience in Africa, is that “North Africa” does not count as Africa and was rather part of a supposedly homogenous Mediterranean world – a perception whose roots Oden traces to modern western thought, in particular that of Adolf von Harnack. The challenge that he opens up in this book is discover the far more diverse traditions of both the Nile and the Maghreb and the extent to which these extended much further south than has previously been acknowledged.

All this is very exciting and I hope that this project bears much fruit. However, as I have delved into the book, I do have some reservations about aspects of it.

Firstly, I get the sense that Oden sometimes overstates his case. While I have the impression that he is a serious scholar, his particular agenda does seem to sometimes interfere in a way that is almost chauvinistic. I noticed this particularly in his treatment of early monasticism, which is one area where I do have a little background, and where he repeats – and makes much of – the popular idea that Africa gave monasticism to the rest of the Church, whereas recent scholarship is pointing to its far more diffuse origins.

Secondly, Oden speaks a great deal about orthodox Christianity without really defining it. He is himself a Methodist and it seems that he is operating within a sort of “Great Tradition” approach that seeks to embrace historical Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, the Copts and the Orthodox Church, although the last one receives minimal attention (although, it has to be admitted, I’m not sure that that is entirely his fault!). Not unrelated to this is a downplaying of the differences between Latin North Africa and Alexandria, and his apparent embrace of someone like Tertullian who after all ended his life as a Montanist. I’m not saying that all this is wrong, but I would like to see it fleshed out a bit more…

Thirdly, I am just a little uncomfortable with some of his more polemical comments about modern Enlightenment Christianity, moral relativism and the ecumenical movement. I certainly share some of his concerns about the impact of modernity on theology and I know that I am capable of less than entirely temperate comments about some forms of progressive Christianity. However, I am also uncomfortable with the polemics that have developed around this and am quite frankly sickened by the vitriol that one sometimes finds, especially it seems among some conservative Christians in the USA. I just really don’t like to see North American culture wars being exported to Africa, although this forms part of broader issues that are beyond the scope of this blog post.

All in all, this book is the setting of an agenda more than anything else. But it is, I believe, a crucially important agenda and I hope that it gets taken forward in a serious and responsible way.

I’ve been re-reading Sergei Hackel’s biography of Mother (now Saint) Maria Skobtsova, Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, 1891-1945. I may write again on some of her perspectives on monasticism (which evoke somewhat conflicting responses in me). But for now I note something that has also struck me in other books I have read in the last year or two, notably in Gillian Crow’s biography of Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh, This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony, namely the really desperate situation of the Russian émigrés in France in the period between the first and second world wars. It is easy to wax lyrical about the theological fruitfulness of the theological renewal associated with the emigration – and it certainly was fruitful – and yet, certainly for me as a westerner reading books in translation, it is all-too-easy to forget both that it was Russian and that occurred against the backdrop of appalling social dislocation and need.

This connects with something I was sometimes conscious of in the Netherlands, namely, the strange combination of proximity and distance between the past and the present. I lived for years in a building that had been occupied by the Hitler’s troops during the Second World War, and in a community that had lost two of its sisters to the Nazi camps. On many days I walked past a memorial to them. And yet that past somehow seemed very remote and I was sometimes struck between the contrast between it, and the affluence and apparent security of the present. Not only did the past seem remote, but I had to consciously remind myself that there are also people today in similarly desperate situations. We can somehow domesticate both the past and those aspects of the present that would otherwise be threatening to us, keeping it at a distance, whether by interpretive strategies, border controls and the way society is organised, or simply by self-centredness.

Being back in South Africa it is in some ways more difficult to escape this as one cannot go very far without being aware of desperate social need. But we too – or let me speak only for myself, and say I too – can too-easily forget the horrors of the past and find ways of trying to escape the challenge of the present. And in that context it may be reassuring, if challenging, to realise that the theological fruitfulness of the Russian emigration also occurred against a similarly challenging background.

The more I read about this mosque controversy, and the more hatred of Islam I see, the more horrified I become. It turns out that even Geert Wilders is involved, which should tell one quite a lot about the sort of people who are opposing the Cordoba Initiative. Anyway, I was trying to ignore this as it only arouses my own passions, when I dipped into a collection of essays by David Goa:  A Regard for Creation: Collected Essays (Synaxis Press, 2008). One in particular caught my attention, entitled “Zealous for Truth” and I then discovered that it is also available online. I find Goa’s article particularly helpful for the way in which he shows the relationship between zealotry and relativism, something that comes into particular focus in some current western discussions of Islam.

Recently I have listened to various people talk about Islam. Some are noted scholars. Others are journalists and others simply thoughtful men and women in the grip of fear. I have come to know some of these people. These women and men identify themselves, usually with vigor, with either the right or the left in both religious and political circles. They identify a discreet set of cultural diseases with our present age and I share at least a portion of their concern. Where I part company with both the right and the left – conservatives and liberals – and with their growing fraternities is when they prescribe antidotes to our cultural diseases based on their relativism or zealousness for the truth.

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