Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Response to "Holy Communion and Menstruation"

St. Dionysius of Alexandria

Fr. Ted Bobosh has written an article on a topic that comes up from time to time -- whether or not we should observe the custom of women refraining from Communion during their menstrual cycle. Curiously, Fr. Ted appeals to Apostolic Constitutions as his primary basis for rejecting this custom, but makes no mention of the Ecumenical Canons that endorse the same custom. This is curious because Canon 2 of the Quinisext Council specifically rejects the Apostolic Constitutions because it contains many impious and heretical interpolations. And in that same canon, the Holy Fathers affirmed the canons of St. Dionysius of Alexandria (who reposed in 264 AD.) as well as those of St. Timothy of Alexandria (who reposed in 384, and was one of the Fathers of the Second Ecumenical Council), and in those canons, this custom is affirmed (see Canon 2 of St. Dionysius and Canon 7 of St. Timothy).

Contrary to the suggestion of the quote from the Apostolic Constitutions that Fr. Ted cited, no one believes that a women is separated from God during her menstrual cycle, cannot pray, or is deprived of the Holy Spirit. Nor does anyone teach that having a menstrual cycle is in any way sinful. Nor is the custom of women refraining from communion during this time an absolute prohibition. We do, however, have customs of ritual purity in the Orthodox Church. For example, when clergy are vesting for the liturgy, we ritually wash our hands -- not because they are physically dirty. Any clergyman with any sense has washed his hands before he comes into the Church. However, this action does remind us of our need for spiritual cleansing. If a priest cuts himself when serving the proskomedia, he must leave the altar, and not return until the bleeding has stopped. If a priest is driving and a young child runs out in front of his car, and is killed, that priest will never be allowed to serve the Liturgy again -- not because he killed the child intentionally, because he has blood on his hands, and so can no longer offer the unbloody sacrifice of the Eucharist.

With the New Testament, the Old Testament worship has been replaced by a new Liturgy (Hebrews 8:6), but this does not mean that there is no continuity between the Old and the New Covenants. Some things have been set aside completely, and other things have been retained to one degree or another. In the Old Testament we see that there was quite a bit of concern about blood, and we see that even in the New Testament this concern has not been set aside (see, for example Acts 15:23-29).

The customs that we retain have a symbolic and didactic significance, but they are not absolute. If a woman was in danger of death during here menstrual period, she would of course be communed without any hesitation, because then the didactic value of this custom would be superseded by the more immediate need to prepare the woman for her death.

Fr. Ted did not mention the oft quote epistle of St. Gregory the Great in which he said that this custom should not be obligatory, but it should be noted that he also says that if a woman wishes to observe this custom it is praiseworthy -- which is very much in contrast to the position usually taken by those who cite St. Gregory on this subject. It should also be noted that St. Gregory the Great reposed in 604 AD., and the Quinisext Council was held in 692 AD. -- and so we do not know what he would have written had he lived after the time of that Council.

If someone wishes to argue that the canons of Ss. Dionysius and Timothy of Alexandria were due to the historical conditions of the times in which they lived, and that modern sanitation have made this practice no longer necessary, at least they are attempting to take the canons seriously rather than merely dismissing them. But those who take the position that the practice has never had any justification have a serious problem in explaining how these canons could have been affirmed by an Ecumenical Council -- and beyond that, they have the problem in dealing with the Old Testament laws regarding menstruation. Do they not believe that the Mosaic Law was inspired by God? Regardless of whether on thinks we should observe the custom in question today or not, if "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 2:15-17), then these laws could not be just a matter of ancient superstition, ignorance, or misogyny.

It should also be noted that the Russian Church has recently reaffirmed this practice, in the document: On the Patricipation of the Faithful in the Eucharist, which was approved at the Synod meeting held on February 2nd - 3rd, 2015 in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

See also:

On "Ritual Impurity": In Response to Sister Vassa (Larin), by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

More to the Point: Should Nuns Light Their Icon Lamps?, By Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

Churching and the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Stump the Priest: Making the Sign of the Cross

Question: "Making the sign of the cross became a practice in the 4th century. The apostles, Christ and nobody in the ancient Church practiced it, so why should we?"

This question is based on a false premise. The earliest reference to the practice of making the sign of the Cross comes from Tertullian (who lived between c. 160 – c. 225 AD):

"And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down?  Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded. Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom, affords us any precedent.  To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with baptism. When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then when we are taken up (as new-born children), we taste first of all a mixture of milk and honey, and from that day we refrain from the daily bath for a whole week. We take also, in congregations before daybreak, and from the hand of none but the presidents, the sacrament of the Eucharist, which the Lord both commanded to be eaten at meal-times, and enjoined to be taken by all alike. As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honours. We count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord’s day to be unlawful. We rejoice in the same privilege also from Easter to Whitsunday. We feel pained should any wine or bread, even though our own, be cast upon the ground.  At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the Cross]" (De Corona, Chapter 3).

Tertullian was not trying to defend the traditions he mentioned in this passage. He was appealing to these unwritten traditions to defend a Christian soldier who had refused to wear a laurel wreath crown in a ceremony in which the soldiers were receiving a bonus from the Emperor, which sparked a local persecution of Christians. Tertullian's point was that this soldier was following the tradition of the Church, though many argued he should have gone along with the ceremony, and spared others the persecution that followed his refusal -- and one of their arguments was that there was nothing in Scripture that dictated this soldier's actions.

Tertullian appealed to these other traditions because they were uncontroversial, and ancient. This treatise was written in 201 AD, by a man born in 160 AD. Would such a man consider something to be an ancient tradition if it were less than a century old? I don't think so.

Even in our time, we pass along oral histories that go back at least 100 years, and Tertullian lived in a culture in which preserving oral history was a much bigger part of the culture, and change happened far more slowly. I was born in 1966, and my grandfather on my father's side was born in 1878. He died a year before I was born, but I was told a lot about him by my father. He was born in Iowa, but went to Texas as a young man, and for awhile he worked as a cowboy, before settling down and becoming a farmer. He lived to see the invention of the car, the airplane, radio, television, the atom bomb, and space flight. That is an incredible amount of change for one to see in a single lifetime. When my grandfather first heard about the invention of the radio, he thought someone was pulling his leg. "What do you mean? Sound flies through the air for miles, and then you hear it through an electric box?" This story of my grandfather's reaction to news of the invention of the radio is just about 100 old. There are a great many oral histories that I have heard that go back a hundred years or more. And anyone who listens to old people tell their stories will likewise hear a whole lot of oral history that covers the better part of a century.

If making the sign of the Cross was something that originated even 50 years before Tertullian made mention of the practice, there would have still been people alive in the Church who would have remembered its introduction, and it is unlikely that there would not still be some discussion of this change in piety as long such people were still around. So it stands to reason that the practice could not have originated very much after the end of the first century... if it did not originate well before then. After all, this would not have been a minor change in Christian piety, because as Tertullian says, the sign of the Cross is something we do "At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life."

One other argument in favor of the antiquity of making the sign of the Cross is the fact that it undoubtedly was the universal practice of the Church when Tertullian wrote this treatise. How would that have come about, if it was a relatively recent change? There is no record in the early Church of there ever having been a controversy about making the sign of the Cross.

The oldest record of the content of Christian catechisms is the catechetical lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and here is what he says about making the sign of the Cross:

"Let us, therefore, not be ashamed of the Cross of Christ; but though another hide it, do thou openly seal it upon thy forehead, that the devils may behold the royal sign and flee trembling far away.  Make then this sign at eating and drinking, at sitting, at lying down, at rising up, at speaking, at walking:  in a word, at every act (Catechetical Lectures 4:14).

St. Basil the Great made a very similar argument to Tertullian in his Treatise on the Holy Spirit (66-67), though he used it to defend the teaching that the Holy Spirit was a person. He made the argument that the ancient doxology "Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit" was evidence that the Holy Spirit was a person, as are the Father and the Son. But in response to the argument that this doxology was not found in the Bible, but only in the liturgical tradition of the Church, he responded:

"Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force.  And these no one will gainsay;—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church.  For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ?  What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer?  Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing?  For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this?  Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition?  Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught?  And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels?  Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation?  Well had they learnt the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents"

And again, he was not defending the practice of making the sign of the Cross, he was appealing to it as a tradition that even the heretics would not deny.

Interestingly, Christians making the sign of the Cross played a role in the beginning of the last great persecution of the Church prior to the time Constantine:

"Diocletian, as being of a timorous disposition, was a searcher into fortune-telling, and during his abode in the East he began to slay victims, that from their livers he might obtain a prognostication of events; and while he sacrificed, some attendants of his, who were Christians, stood by, and they put the immortal sign [of the Cross] on their foreheads. At this the demons were chased away, and the holy rites interrupted. The soothsayers trembled, unable to investigate the wonted marks on the entrails of the victims. They frequently repeated the sacrifices, as if the former had been unpropitious; but the victims, slain from time to time, afforded no tokens for divination. At length Tages, the chief of the soothsayers, either from guess or from his own observation, said, “There are profane persons here, who obstruct the rites.” Then Diocletian, in furious passion, ordered not only all who were assisting at the holy ceremonies, but also all who resided within the palace, to sacrifice, and, in case of their refusal, to be scourged. And further, by letters to the commanding officers, he enjoined that all soldiers should be forced to the like impiety, under pain of being dismissed the service. Thus far his rage proceeded; but at that season he did nothing more against the law and religion of God. After an interval of some time he went to winter in Bithynia; and presently Galerius Cæsar came thither, inflamed with furious resentment, and purposing to excite the inconsiderate old man to carry on that persecution which he had begun against the Christians" (Lactantius: "Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died," chapter 10).

While we have no record of exactly when the practice begin, the evidence suggest it either began with the apostles, or very soon after their departure from this life. But without any doubt, the entire Christian Church embraced the practice, and prior to the Protestant Reformation, we have no record that anyone naming the name of Christ ever objected to the practice.

See also:

Christianity Today: Why do liturgical Christians make the sign of the cross?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Stump the Priest: Sacraments in the Bible

Question: "Why does the Orthodox Church teach many sacraments, and that they bestow grace, when the New Testament only speaks of two sacraments as only memorials: Communion and Baptism?"

Your question is based on three false premises. Contrary to your assumptions, the New Testament does not only speak of two Sacraments, and neither does it teach that Baptism and Communion are "only memorials". Furthermore, your question assumes that if something is not explicitly taught in Scripture that we should reject it, but this doctrine of Sola Scriptura is itself not only not taught in Scripture, but is in fact directly contradicted by Scripture (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 2:15). See my article on Sola Scriptura for more on that subject.

How many Sacraments are there?

In the service for the reception of converts from heterodox confessions, one of the affirmations that a convert is asked to affirm is: "Dost thou believe and confess that there are seven Sacraments of the New Testament, to wit: Baptism, Chrismation, the Eucharist, Confession, the Priesthood, Marriage, and Anointing with Oil, instituted by the Lord Christ and his Church, to the end that, through their operation and reception, we may obtain blessings from on high?"

Do we find them in the Bible?

Yes, we do. Let's consider each of the Sacraments aside from Baptism and the Eucharist:

1. Chrismation: One place we find Chrismation mentioned in Scripture is in 2 Corinthians 1:21-22: "Now he who establisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God; Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts." And 1 John 2:20: "But ye have an anointing from the Holy One, and ye know all things." We also see in the book of Acts that the Holy Spirit was imparted by the laying on of hands of the Apostles (Acts 8:14-17; Acts 19:1-7). And not only that, but we find Chrismation affirmed as a sacrament in the earliest writings of the Church (e.g., Tertullian's Treatise on Baptism (ca. 200 A.D.), 7:1The Apostolic Tradition (ca. 215 A.D.) of St. Hippolytus 21:19-22; St. Cyril of Jerusalem's Catechetical Lecture 21 (on Chrism)).

2. Confession: When Christ appeared to the Disciples after the Resurrection, we are told: "And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Spirit: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained" (John 20:22-23). Obviously for this to have meaning, there would have to be some occasion in which the apostles, or their successors would either confer forgiveness, or choose not to confer it. And this clearly was not merely a "memorial", because Christ clearly says that Heaven will confirm their decision.

3. Ordination: It is clear from Scripture that there were offices in the Church (deacon, presbyter, bishop), and so there was some way that the Church appointed people to these offices. We see, for example, in Act 6:6, when the Apostles had selected the first deacons the seven men chosen were "set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them." St. Paul admonished St. Timothy that he "Lay hands suddenly on no man" (1 Timothy 5:22) -- in other words, he was to be careful about who he ordained, lest he "be partaker of other men's sins..." There is such an abundance of testimony from the early Church on this that it hardly needs to be cited. But we see these three ranks of clergy in the Epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch (who was a disciple of the Apostle John, and martyred in 112 A.D.): “Similarly, let everyone respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, just as they should respect the bishop, who is a model of the Father, and the presbyters as God’s council and as the band of the Apostles. Without these no group can be called a church” (Trallians 3:13). 

4. Marriage is called a "covenant" in Scripture which has God Himself as a witness (Malachi 2:14): "Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant." St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his letter to St. Polycarp said that: " It becometh men and women too, when they marry, to unite themselves with the consent of the bishop, that the marriage may be after the Lord and not after concupiscence. Let all things be done to the honour of God" (Epistle to Polycarp 5:1). And Tertullian speaks of the sacrament of marriage in his treatise "To My Wife" (ca. 200 A.D.): "Whence are we to find (words) enough fully to tell the happiness of that marriage which the Church cements, and the oblation confirms, and the benediction signs and seals; (which) angels carry back the news of (to heaven), (which) the Father holds for ratified? For even on earth children do not rightly and lawfully wed without their fathers' consent" (To My Wife 2:8:4).

5: Holy Unction: We find this sacrament clearly described in James 5:14-15: "Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him."

Are the Eucharist and Baptism merely "memorials"?

Christ taught his disciples that if they did not eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, they had no life in them (John 4:48-69), and even Martin Luther took Christ's words "this is My Body... this is My Blood" (Matthew 26:26-28) to mean that the Eucharist is literally, not merely figuratively, the Body and Blood of Christ.

St. Paul speaks of the Eucharist in two places in First Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, he says:

"The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread."

And then in 11:23-30, he says:

"For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep."

St. Paul says that the Eucharist is the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, and that if we partake of it unworthily, we eat and drink damnation unto ourselves, because we have not discerned the Lord's Body, and so we are are "guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord." That all seems awfully extreme if we are talking about a mere "memorial."

St. Ignatius of Antioch, who, once again, was a disciple of the Apostle John himself, and bishop of one of the most important centers of the early Church said of the Eucharist:

“Be zealous, then, in the observance of one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one chalice that brings union in His blood. There is one altar, as there is one bishop, with the priest and the deacons, who are my fellow workers” (Philadelphians 4:1).

“But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how they oppose the will of God…. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against the gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again” (Smyrneaens 6:2-7:1).

“Flee from divisions, as the beginning of evils. You must all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the presbyters as you would the apostles; and respect the deacons as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not permissible either to baptize or to hold a love feast without the bishop. But whatever he approves is also pleasing to God, in order that everything you may do may be trustworthy and valid” (Smyrneans 8:1-2).

“Assemble yourselves together in common, every one of you severally, man by man, in grace, in one faith and one Jesus Christ, who after the flesh was of David's race, who is Son of Man and Son of God, to the end that ye may obey the bishop and presbytery without distraction of mind; breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote that we should not die but live for ever in Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 20:2).

It doesn't sound like St. Ignatius thought the Eucharist was a mere "memorial."

As for Baptism, Christ said that those who believe and are baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16). St. Paul says that we are buried with Christ in Baptism so that we can be raised with Him (Romans 6:4), and that Baptism is the "circumcision made without hands" (Colossians 2:11). St. Peter said  that the Ark of Noah was a type of Baptism, and that Baptism is "the antitype [that which was foreshadowed by the Type], which now save us" (1 Peter 3:20-21).

Only if you ignore what Christians have always taught about these sacraments could you reach the conclusions you assume in your question.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Stump the Priest: What is going on in Exodus 4:24-26?

Question: "What is going on in Exodus 4:24-26?"

The passage as it is found in most translations is fairly obscure. This is how it reads in the New King James Version:

"And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet, and said, “Surely you are a husband of blood to me!” So He let him go. Then she said, “You are a husband of blood!”—because of the circumcision."

The wider context of this passage does not offer a lot of help. It is not entirely clear even who it is that the Lord was seeking to kill, though most commentators see this as being Moses. Though why the Lord was seeking to kill him is not entirely clear, though it clearly has something to do with his son not having been circumcised. Zipporah, who performs the circumcision, was Moses' Midianite wife. This is considered to be one of the most obscure passages in Scripture.

However, the Septuagint text is a bit easier to decipher:

"Thus it came to pass on the way at the inn, that the Angel of the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipphorah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son, and fell at his feed and said, "The flow of blood from my son's circumcision is stopped." So He departed from him, because she said, "The flow of blood from my son's circumcision is stopped" (Exodus 4:24-26, Orthodox Study Bible).

Rather than the Lord Himself seeking to kill Moses, here it is the Angel of the Lord. And rather than flinging her son's foreskin at her husband, here Zipporah falls to the feet of the Angel of the Lord, and because of her having circumcised her son, and her plea, the Angel of the Lord departs.

The Angel of the Lord speaks and acts for the Lord, and is usually spoken to as if He were the Lord. The Fathers usually see the Angel of the Lord as the pre-incarnate Christ.

St. Ephrem the Syrian explains the meaning of this text as follows:

     "At the place where they were spending the night, the Lord came upon Moses and wanted to kill him, because he had discontinued circumcision in Midian for one of his sons who had not been circumcised. From the day that [the Lord] spoke with him on Horeb, he had not been united to his wife, who was distressed; and she was under judgment because she had not put full faith in his word. [Moses] blamed her for keeping his son from being circumcised. They spent the night [preoccupied] with these thoughts. Suddenly an angel appeared for both of these reasons, while seeming to appear only because of circumcision.
     [The angel] appeared to Moses in anger so that his departure [from Midian] would not be ridiculed because he had discontinued circumcision without necessity, while the Hebrews had not interrupted it in spite of the death of their children. Now whom should he have feared, God, who prescribed circumcision, or his wife, who had stood in the way of circumcision?
     When Moses' wife saw that he was about to die because she stood in the way of circumcision, about which and on account of which he had argued with her that evening, "she took a piece of flint" and, still trembling from the vision of the angel, "circumcised her son," letting him be splattered with his [own] blood. Then she held the angel's feet and said, "I have a husband of blood. Do not cause suffering on the day of the celebration of circumcision." Because there was great joy on the day Abraham circumcised Isaac, she said, "I too have a husband of blood. If you do not [refrain from harm] on account of me, who circumcised my son with my own hands, or on account of Moses, refrain on account of the commandment of circumcision itself which has been observed" (St. Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Exodus 4:4:1-3, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, Vol. III, Joseph T. Lienhard, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2001) p. 32).

So Moses had up to this time given in to his wife's objections to circumcising their son, and God was prepared to take his life, had she not yielded, and performed the circumcision, which was the sign of the Old Covenant. The reference to Moses being a husband of blood means that she had redeemed his life by the blood of her son's circumcision.

What this should tell us is how seriously parents ought to take the baptizing of their own children. They should not put it off out of laziness, indifference, or frivolous reasons. And if God would have killed his own prophet Moses for failing to perform such a rite, how seriously ought we take the sacrament of Baptism, of which circumcision was a type and shadow?

Friday, March 06, 2015

Stump the Priest: Spiritual Wickedness in Heavenly Places

Question: "What does Ephesians 6:12 mean when it says that we struggle against evil powers in high places?"

When you are trying to understand a passage, if you don't know the original language of the text well enough to examine it in that way, a good way to get a better feel for the range of meaning of the text is to compare several good translations.

King James Version: "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."

Young's Literal Translation: "because we have not the wrestling with blood and flesh, but with the principalities, with the authorities, with the world-rulers of the darkness of this age, with the spiritual things of the evil in the heavenly places."

New King James Version: "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places."

Revised Standard Version: "For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places."

English Standard Version: "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."

Taking the best elements of the above, I would say the best way to translate this text would be:

"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the cosmic-rulers (κοσμοκρατορας, or "world-rulers") of the darkness of this age, against spiritual wickedness in heavenly places."

This is speaking about the demons, who war against us, and who are the powers behind the evil of this age, and who reside in the aerial realm.

In Ephesians 2:2, St. Paul spoke of "the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience". Commenting on this, St. John Chrysostom says:

"Here again he means, that Satan occupies the space under Heaven, and that the incorporeal powers are spirits of the air, under his operation. For that his kingdom is of this age, i.e., will cease with the present age, hear what he says at the end of the Epistle; “Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against powers, against the world rulers of this darkness;” (Eph. 6:12) where, lest when you hear of world-rulers yo`u should therefore say that the Devil is uncreated, he elsewhere (Gal. 1:4) calls a perverse time, “an evil world,” not of the creatures. For he seems to me, having had dominion beneath the sky, not to have fallen from his dominion, even after his transgression" (Homily 4 on Ephesians).

One of the most important books on the spiritual life that every Orthodox Christian should read, and re-read, is "The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life," by St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov), which was recently re-published by Holy Trinity Publications in a revised translation. St. Ignatius discusses the meaning of this passage in chapter 43 of the Arena, and then talks about how we should wage the war against that this verse speaks of in chapter 44, and 45. I would recommend the entire book, but these chapters deal with this passage in great detail.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Stump the Priest: Is Lent Biblical?

Question: "This article was sent to me as "proof" that Lent is contrary to the scriptures: How do we respond?"

The author of this article has to concede that fasting is itself legitimate, because Christ Himself fasted, said that fasting was necessary, and said that his disciples would fast. But in order to find some fault with the idea of regular corporate fasting he cites a number of passages of Scripture that have nothing at all to do with fasting.

One such passage cited is 1 Timothy 4:1-5:

"Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer."

This passage is not talking about fasting or abstaining from some good things for a period of time devoted to prayer. St. Paul himself speaks of married couples abstaining from sex by mutual consent so that they can devote themselves to prayer and fasting (1 Corinthians 7:5). St. John Chrysostom says of this passage: "This is said of the Manichæans, the Encratites,and the Marcionites, and the whole of their tribe, that they should hereafter depart from the faith. Seest thou that this departure from the faith is the cause of all the evils that follow!" (Homily 12 on 1 Timothy).

Another passage cited is Galatians 4:9-11:

"But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain."

In the context of this epistle, St. Paul is noting here that in addition to observing circumcision, the Galatians were also observing the Jewish calendar, with the Old Testament laws associated with it. He was not suggesting that Christians could not observe the Lord's Day (Sunday), or any feast days, because it is clear that the Christians -- including St. Paul himself -- did observe these days, from the New Testament itself:

"For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hasted, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost" (Acts 20:16).

"And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight" (Acts 20:7).

"Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come" (1 Corinthians 16:2)

"I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet" (Revelation 1:10).

Then the author quotes from Colossians 2:16-23, and in this instance uses a highly questionable translation that gives the appearance of condemning asceticism:

"Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh."

This is from  the English Standard Version, which is usually not the worst translation one might use, but in this case, it is way off the mark. The English word "asceticism" comes from the Greek word "askesis", and since the original text of Colossians is Greek, you would expect to find some form of that word there, if this was a fair translation, but you find nothing of the sort. The word in question is "ταπεινοφροσυνη" which means "lowliness of mind" or "humility." Blessed Theodoret tell us that what St. Paul is referring to here is to a sect that taught, out of a false humility, that God was beyond their reach, and could only be reached through the mediation of the Angels -- and he mentioned that there were still remnants of that sect up to his own time (Blessed Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, Vol. 2, trans. Robert Charles Hill, (Brookline, Ma: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2001), p. 95). There is thus nothing in this passage that condemns Christian asceticism. Christian fasting is not about saying that any food is evil, but about limiting how much we eat, how often we eat, and what we eat for periods of time that are devoted especially to prayer, which is completely consistent with the teachings of St. Paul. Canon 51 of the Holy Apostles says: "If any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon, or anyone at all on the sacerdotal list, abstains from marriage, or meat, or wine, not as a matter of mortification, but out of an abhorrence thereof, forgetting that all things are exceedingly good, and that God made man male and female, and blasphemously misrepresenting God’s work of creation, either let him mend his ways or let him be deposed from office and expelled from the Church. Let a layman be treated similarly." It is unusual for a canon to call not only for a clergyman to be deposed, or a layman to be excommunicated, but also for them to be expelled from the Church, but we see it in this canon, because the Church so strongly rejects such erroneous and divisive teachings.

The author suggests that only in the "medieval period" did the practice of fasting for 40 days take shape. However, in the canons of the First Ecumenical Council, the practice of fasting for 40 days is already mentioned in passing in Canon 5: "As for these synods, let one of them be held before Lent, in order that, with the elimination of all small-mindedness, the gift may be offered to God in all its purity; and let the second one be held sometime in autumn." The original Greek word for "Lent" in this canon is "Τεσσαρακοστή", which means "forty days", and is the equivalent of the Latin "Quadragesima". Clearly, for a reference of this sort to be made at the First Ecumenical Council, the practice of fasting for forty days was already fairly universal, and unobjectionable -- how those forty days were calculated varied, but not the basic idea.

Some scholars believe that there was a forty day fast that originally followed Theophany (or Epiphany), which is the commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord, in imitation of Christ's forty day fast in the wilderness which immediately followed that event. They suggest that eventually, this fast shifted to immediately precede the shorter fast of Holy Week (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1969), p 135ff). In fact, in the Orthodox Church we do not count Holy Week (Lazarus Saturday through Holy Saturday) as part of the forty days of Lent, but as a distinct period of fasting. Which is why the first hymn at Vespers for Lazarus Saturday says:

"Having completed the forty days that bring profit to our souls, we beseech Thee in Thy love for man: Grant us also to behold the Holy Week of Thy passion, that in it we may glorify Thy mighty acts and Thine ineffable dispensation for our sakes, singing with one mind: O Lord, glory to Thee."

In the Roman Catholic Church, Holy Week is included in the forty days of Lent, but the Sundays of Lent were excluded because on those days, they did not fast, and so this is why they begin Lent on Ash Wednesday, and the Orthodox begin Lent two days earlier, on Clean Monday. We simply do not have enough documentation to determine exactly how and when the observance of Lent took shape, but aside from minor differences, it was observed by all Christians prior to the Protestant Reformation. But in any case, the objection raised by the author really has little to do with the length of time of the fast. His real issue with the idea of corporate fasting per se. However, the practice of there being some corporate fast prior to Pascha was clearly very early, and universal.

In the Gospels, Christ did not say that his disciples might fast if they wanted to. He said that they would fast:

"Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly" (Matthew 6:16-18).

"Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast" (Matthew 9:14-15).

Only in our individualistic culture would you find people arguing that fasting should only be done according to the whim of the individual, and alone, rather than corporately. In the Old Testament, there were specific times of fasting appointed (Leviticus 16:29-34Zechariah 8:19), and there were fast that were proclaimed for a specific need or purpose (2 Chronicles 20:3Ezra 8:21). In the Didache, which is the earliest Christian writing outside of the New Testament, we find reference to the apostolic practice of fasting on Wednesday and Friday (Didache 8:1-2). Even Protestants would often fast corporately -- for example, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of prayer and fasting on March 30, 1863. However, in more recent times, the reality in most Protestant circles is that fasting is almost unheard of in actual practice, and this is because it is left up to individual whim -- and individual whim usually is not inclined to fast. So given that Christ said his disciples would fast, and given that few Protestants actually do fast, who are the ones actually not following what the Scriptures teach on the subject?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Stump the Priest: Celibacy

Question: "The Hebrew Bible nowhere thought celibacy praiseworthy (St. Paul was an exception). So why does Orthodoxy teach that monastic celibacy is the greatest ideal and superior to marriage?"

The assumption of this question seems to be that if St. Paul was the only one in Scripture that suggested that a life of celibacy was praiseworthy, that this would be insufficient to establish that this was so. That is a dangerous approach to take, and is rooted in an insufficient understanding of the inspiration of Scripture.

Aside from that, it is not true that St. Paul is the only one that advises that a life of celibacy is praiseworthy. In Matthew 19, after Christ talks about divorce, and the high standards that Christians are held to with regard to marital fidelity, the apostles responded by saying: "If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry" (Matthew 19:10). And Christ did not answer by saying, that this statement was incorrect. Instead he says: "All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (Matthew 19:11-12).

So obviously, if Christ says that those who can accept it, should accept it, it must be a good thing, and since Christ Himself lived as a celibate, that is further proof that this is a praiseworthy life.

This is of course not to say that those who are married are to be condemned. Canon 51 of the Apostles says:

"If any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon, or anyone at all on the sacerdotal list, abstains from marriage, or meat, or wine, not as a matter of mortification, but out of an abhorrence thereof, forgetting that all things are exceedingly good, and that God made man male and female, and blasphemously misrepresenting God’s work of creation, either let him mend his ways or let him be deposed from office and expelled from the Church. Let a layman be treated similarly."

So if you are celibate out of asceticism, that is good. If you are celibate because you despise marriage, you are not only to be deposed or excommunicated, but expelled from the Church... which is one of the most strongly worded canons to be found among the Ecumenical Canons.

So marriage is good. Celibacy for the right reason is a higher good (1 Corinthians 7:32-24). Neither is evil in and of itself, but despising marriage is evil, and despising celibacy is also evil.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Stump the Priest: Essence and Energies of God

Question: "To be Orthodox, must a person hold to the distinction in God between essence and energies?"

Let me first ask a slightly different question: to be Orthodox, must a person understand the distinction between God's essence and energies? The answer to that question is "no". Salvation is not a pop-quiz in theology. There are many Orthodox faithful who are not capable of understanding theology on an intellectual level (very young children, those with mental handicaps, etc.). But an Orthodox Christian certainly must not reject this distinction. This distinction was an important part of St. Gregory Palamas' defense of hesychasm, and his defense of hesychasm is celebrated as a second triumph of Orthodoxy on the second Sunday of Lent... and so the Church has clearly embraced St. Gregory's understanding of this question. Orthodox Christians are not free to have their own opinions on matters that the Church has a clear and universal teaching on. And certainly, every Orthodox Christian should try to understand as much of the teachings and Traditions of the Church as they possibly can.

For more on what the Church teaches on this question, see:

Vladimir Lossky on the Essence and Energies of God

Theosis and Orthodoxy

GOD: Essence and Energies (from the Illumined Heart Podcast) (It is a good idea to take the suggestion at the beginning of this podcast, and listen to this several times).

Monday, February 02, 2015

Response to "Orthodox Fundamentalists" by George Demacopoulos

Dr. George Demacopoulos of Fordham University recently posted an article entitled "Orthodox Fundamentalists," on the Greek Archdiocese's website. There are a number of problems with it that I think need to be pointed out.

To begin with, he doesn't really explain what he means by the term "Fundamentalist". The term, as it was originally coined, referred to those conservative Protestants that, in response to modernist tendencies, especially in mainline Protestant denominations, posited that there were five fundamental (one might even say "minimal") beliefs that Christians had to adhere to:

1. The inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture
2. The deity of Jesus Christ
3. The virgin birth of Christ
4. The substitutionary, atoning work of Christ on the cross
5. The physical resurrection and the personal bodily return of Christ to the earth

The term "Fundamentalist" was later (beginning in 1979, around the time of the Iran hostage crisis) applied to radical Moslems, and then later to just about any conservative expression of any religion. I don't think this broadening of the meaning of the term was an accidental move. It was an attempt to associate conservative Christians, like Jerry Falwell and his group "The Moral Majority" with the likes of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden, and this was done for domestic political purposes. The term has thus really ceased to have much meaning, aside from those who wish to use it as a synonym for "stupid," and that seems to be the primary level of meaning with which Dr. Demacopoulos is using the term.

Dr. Demacopoulos makes a loose connection with the original meaning of the term when he says: "Like other fundamentalist movements, Orthodox fundamentalism reduces all theological teaching to a subset of theological axioms and then measures the worthiness of others according to them." The only problem with this statement is that he provides no examples, and the statement is simply not true. If we take, for example, the Greek Old Calendarists, which would be among the most likely candidates to fall into the category that Dr. Demacopoulos is speaking of, you could say that the Calendar issue is used by them as a litmus test issue, but it is hardly the case that they would argue that one needed to only be on the Old Calendar to satisfy their definition of fidelity to Orthodoxy. In fact, the fault the Greek Old Calendarists have, is not that they have a minimalist understanding of Orthodoxy, but that they are maximalists who take some issues which should not be matters over which one should be willing to break communion over, too far. Even among the Old Calendarists themselves they have further divided over many issues. So in fact, their tendency is exactly the opposite of Protestant Fundamentalists, who really were focusing on the minimum one had to believe. And it is actually the Orthodox modernists who typically try to reduce the "essentials" of the Orthodox Faith to the lowest common denominator, and so they are far closer to being fundamentalists in the original sense of the term.

Dr. Demacopoulos then asserts: "The key intellectual error in Orthodox fundamentalism lies in the presupposition that the Church Fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters." This lazy straw man caricature is not what one would expect of professor of theology at a respected university. If that is the key intellectual error, I would like to find one example of a person who actually fits that description. I doubt that even the slug-nuttiest Old Calendarist that one might find would argue that "the Church Fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters."

We are then told that "Typically, this manifests itself in accusations that individuals, institutions, or entire branches of the Orthodox Church fail to meet the self-prescribed standard for Orthodox teaching." I would be curious to know why St. Mark of Ephesus would not be considered an "Orthodox Fundamentalist," because he broke communion with those who failed to meet what St. Mark considered to be the standard for Orthodox teaching. Probably, the answer we would get is that St. Mark was not a intellectual troglodyte, but regardless, there obviously are boundaries that can be crossed that warrant such an action, and so the issue is not whether someone is a fundamentalist because they believe there are such boundaries, but rather the merits of the specific issues at stake... which we are not provided with in this article.

He then goes on to provide examples that knock down the straw man he has set up:

"Indeed, a careful reading of Christian history and theology makes clear that some of the most influential saints of the Church disagreed with one another—at times quite bitterly. St. Peter and St. Paul were at odds over circumcision.  St. Basil and St. Gregory the Theologian clashed over the best way to recognize the divinity of Holy Spirit.  And St. John Damascene, who lived in a monastery in the Islamic Caliphate, abandoned the hymnographical tradition that preceded him in order to develop a new one that spoke to the needs of his community."

Here again, we find careless overstatements. Where do we find St. Peter and St. Paul disagreeing over circumcision? We find them in very clear agreement on that issue in Acts 15. Most likely, he has in mind Galatians chapter 2, but the disagreement was not over circumcision... it was over St. Peter's hypocrisy while around those "of the circumcision" -- there is no indication that they had a substantive disagreement on the issue. They had a disagreement over St. Peter's behavior and inconsistency, and St. Paul called him on it, to his face, and in the presence of all (Galatians 2:11,14). There is also no indication in the text, nor in Church Tradition that this was a matter of ongoing disagreement or division between these two saints. This was rather an example of even a great saint being capable of falling into temporary error.

It is also clearly excessive to claim that St. John of Damascus "abandoned the hymnographical tradition that preceded him". What was the hymnographical tradition that preceded him? The way older aspects of the services have generally ended up being sidelined was not usually by them being replaced by new hymns, but rather by being supplemented with newer hymns, and then as time went on, some of the older texts were generally omitted. If you take the introduction of the texts we use now for the canons at Matins, these hymns were originally sung with the Biblical Odes, which were the older texts that preceded the composition of those hymns. Only as time went by did the practice develop of generally omitting the odes, and retaining the troparia that were composed to be sung with them (though the older practice is still followed to some extent on the weekdays of Great Lent). So to suggest that St. John tossed out all that preceded him is simply contrary to fact.

Also, there is a wee difference when a holy man, such as St. John of Damascus, introduces some new liturgical practice, than when a committee of cigar smoking "theologians" does so. For example, the Greek practice of saying "With the fear of God and with faith and love, draw near" is clearly a change from the original form of "With the fear of God and with faith, draw near". But it was, I believe, introduced by the Kollyvades Fathers. I was told by someone who is a good source on the matter that St. John of Shanghai also followed this practice. I am inclined to bow to the wisdom of these saints, but think it is right to be skeptical of changes that are introduced by someone who may be very intelligent, but who is not in the same league as these saints.

We find even further hyperbole when Dr. Demacopoulos asserts: "It is important to understand that Orthodox fundamentalists reinforce their reductionist reading of the Church Fathers with additional falsehoods.  One of the most frequently espoused is the claim that the monastic community has always been the guardian of Orthodox teaching.  Another insists that the Fathers were anti-intellectual.  And a third demands that adherence to the teachings of the Fathers necessitates that one resist all things Western."

While it is true that monastic communities have generally been bulwarks of Orthodoxy, I don't know of anyone who would say that this has always and invariably been so. I doubt a single example could be produced of anyone who would seriously argue that the Fathers were anti-intellectuals. And the closest example of one who argues that the teachings of the Fathers necessitates that one "resist all things Western" would be Fr. John Romanides, and his admirers... but not even they would make such a sweeping statement as is made here, and I don't think Fr. John Romanides was an anti-intellectual.

And when Dr. Demacopoulos makes the assertion that "By repurposing the tradition as a political weapon, the ideologue deceives those who are not inclined to question the credibility of their religious leaders", it would be helpful if he would provide some examples and name some names so that we would have some idea of who and what he is referring to.

Furthermore, I am not so sure that "The significance of the Fathers lies in their earnest and soul-wrenching quest to seek God and to share Him with the world." If that were the case, I am not sure how they would be any different than Lao Tzu, Gautama Buddha, Socrates, or Muhammad. Their significance is in how they explained, articulated, passed on, and earnestly contended for "the Faith once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 1:3). They were not just smart men who were earnest, but holy men who received the Faith of the Apostles, and passed it on without alteration -- and in doing so, in the face of new challenges to that Faith, enriched the Church with their words, their faithful lives, and their examples. We understand the Faith better because of them, but we do not now have a new faith or a different faith.

And he closes with this call to action: "It is time for Orthodox hierarchs and lay leaders to proclaim broadly that the endearing relevance of the Church Fathers does not lie in the slavish adherence to a fossilized set of propositions used in self-promotion." But I don't see how Orthodox hierarchs or lay leaders can answer his call, even if they were inclined to do so, because Dr. Demacopoulos gives us no indication exactly who or what he is talking about.

If someone can be pointed to that is fairly described by the descriptions found in this article, I would certainly think such a person was worthy of criticism. But let's talk specifics, rather than tossing around meaningless terms that would have us believe that there is real line of philosophical agreement between the average conservative Evangelical Protestant, some unspecified group of Orthodox Christians, and Jihadist terrorists that are beheading and stoning those they disagree with.

Update: Someone referred me to the conference that Dr. Demacopoulos was apparently referring to. There was a conference (entitled "Patristic Theology and Post-Patristic Heresy") held in Piraeus, Greece, on February 15, 2012, which was at least in large part in response to the Volos conference he mentioned. Among its speakers were Protopresbyter George Metallinos, Professor Emeritus of Athens University, and Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos). Are these really the "Orthodox fundamentalists" who claim that the Fathers were anti-intellectual, and agreed on all points of theology and ethics? You can read their papers, among others, in a pdf format, by clicking here and clicking here.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Stump the Priest: One Mediator, Many Intercessors

The Virgin Mary beseeching Christ at the Wedding of Cana

Question: "Protestants often claim that Orthodox (and other Christians)  raise the Theotokos to the divine level of Jesus Christ by referring to her as "intercessor". In their opinion "there is only one mediator; the Man Christ Jesus". Furthermore they point out that by beseeching her to "turn away the wrath stirred up against us" we turn her into a Christian "type" of the pagan Mother & Child deities from the ancient world. These "mother goddesses" were often invoked to similarly turn away their "son-god's" wrath. They say this is a blasphemous aberration that entered the Church under the "paganization process" they claim happened under the Roman emperor St Constantine. How does one answer these accusations from both Scripture and Tradition?"

This claim is based on St. Paul's statement in 1 Timothy 2:5: "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." However, one need only look to the verses immediately prior to that statement to find: "I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:1-4). St. James also tells us that "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (James 5:16). So clearly the fact that Christians are called upon to make supplications, prayers, and intercessions on behalf of others is not a contradiction to Christ being the one mediator.

In what sense is Christ the one mediator? In Hebrews 9:15, St. Paul also says: "And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance." So is the unique mediator between God and Man in that He became incarnate, was crucified, died,  and rose again for our salvation. No one else can possibly provide the basis for our salvation. And yet, God desires that we have many intercessors who pray for others, and that God acts in response to these prayers.

When I was a Protestant, who was interested in Orthodoxy, but had to deal with this question myself, it so happened that one day I was talking to a neighbor who was talking about the wife of a retired professor at Southern Nazarene University (the school I attended). He said that this woman was such a woman of prayer that if you ever needed an answer to prayer, she would be the one to go to, because she “had a hotline to God.” Having known some very pious Nazarenes over the years, I didn't find his account hard to believe. But then it dawned on me, if any woman ever had a hotline to God, that would be first and foremost, the Virgin Mary, wouldn't it? And didn't Christ say that God was the God of the living and not the dead (Matthew 22:23-33), and so if I could ask this pious old Nazarene woman  from Bethany, Oklahoma to pray for me, couldn't I also ask the Virgin Mary from Nazareth of Galilee to pray for me?

As for the question of turning away God's wrath, one finds many examples in which God's wrath was turned away by the prayers of righteous men. For example, Moses himself recounts how he turned away God's wrath from the people of Israel: "Furthermore the Lord spake unto me, saying, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: let me alone, that I may destroy them, and blot out their name from under heaven: and I will make of thee a nation mightier and greater than they.... And I fell down before the Lord, as at the first, forty days and forty nights: I did neither eat bread, nor drink water, because of all your sins which ye sinned, in doing wickedly in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger. For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure, wherewith the Lord was wroth against you to destroy you. But the Lord hearkened unto me at that time also (Deuteronomy 9:13-14, 18-19). And in the Psalms we are told: "Therefore he said that he would destroy them, had not Moses his chosen stood before him in the breach, to turn away his wrath, lest he should destroy them" (Psalm 105[106]:23). So if Moses could turn away God's wrath, I see no reason why it would be blasphemous to ask the Virgin Mary to pray for us, and to turn away God's wrath from us.

See also:

Stump the Priest: Is There Anything Special About the Virgin Mary?

The Gospel of the Virgin Mary

The Icon FAQ: Answers to common questions about icons (which discusses the veneration of Saints)

Can the Virgin Mary "Save" Us? by Fr. Andrew Damick

One Mediator Between God and Men, by Tim Staples (from Catholic Answers)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Stump the Priest: "Valid Sacraments"

Question: "Someone has been insisting to me that the Russian Orthodox Church recognizes the validity of the Sacraments of the Roman Church. And in fact, have since at least 1776. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev said something to this effect as well at one point, but I'm not sure I buy it, how would you respond?"

I think they probably meant to say "since at least 1666-1667, which were the dates of the a controversial council in Moscow, which condemned the Old Rite, and deposed Patriarch Nikon. That council is a topic unto itself, but the documents of that council do speak of "valid" Roman Catholic sacraments. But one can find this expression in one of the oldest Liturgical texts published in English, which is still widely used today -- the Hapgood Service Book, translated by Isabel Hapgood, with the blessing of St. Tikhon of Moscow.

Even in the Ecumenical Canons, we find provision for receiving converts from certain groups by means other than baptism, though included among those canons is the canon of St. Cyprian of Carthage that states that there is no true baptism outside of the Church. This canon was affirmed by the Sixth Ecumenical Council in its second canon. However, that same canon also affirmed the canons of St. Basil, and his first canon, provides a bit more nuance. He agreed that the Church is under no obligation to recognize baptisms that take place outside of the Church, but states that for the sake of "economia" the Church may do so, though he also noted that in different regions, different practices prevailed when it came to how certain heretics or schismatics were received. So in terms of theological principle, we affirm that there are no sacraments, in the fullest sense, outside of the Church, but the Church does receive converts from heterodox or schismatic groups by economia -- which could mean that we chrismate them, or in some cases that we simply accept them by confession and a profession of faith. And in the Hapgood Service, there is a service provided for this very purpose.


But the question we have to ask is, what does it mean when it speaks of "valid baptism"? First off we should ask, what does true baptism do? Among other things, it unites one to the Church. But right after the above quoted heading, it says: "The power of granting absolution to such persons, and of uniting them to the Church properly devolveth on a Bishop. Nevertheless, that the converts to Orthodoxy may not be tempted to return to their heresy by reason of delay, it is wiser and more expedient that the Bishop should delegate his power, and grant his blessing therewith, to a Priest well versed in divine lore, and who is competent to instruct such a person in the articles of the Orthodox faith, and to correct his erroneous opinions." And so if a "valid baptism" outside of the Orthodox Church united one with the Church, there would not be a further need for any service to unite them to the Church, but that is precisely what this services is intended to do.

The first question the convert is asked is "Wilt thou renounce the errors and false doctrines of the Roman-Latin [or Armenian, or Lutheran, or Reformed) Confession?" and  then they are asked "Dost thou desire to enter into and abide in the communion of the Orthodox-Catholic Faith?" And after the convert is asked to renounce specifically the false teachings of their former confession, and to affirm the basic tenets of the Orthodox Faith, they are told "Enter thou into the Orthodox Church; and cast away all the errors and false doctrines wherein thou hast dwelt: and honor the Lord God, the Father Almighty, and his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, one true and living God, the holy Trinity, one in essence and indivisible." And all of this is in the service that would be used, even for those being received by confession and profession of faith. This service makes it abundantly clear that we are uniting someone to the Church who was previously not united to the Church.

So what happens when the Church accepts a baptism that was done outside of the Church, by economia? St. Augustine compared baptism to the "military mark" which was a tattoo a soldier was given when entered the Roman Army, and it showed what commander he belonged to. St. Augustine said that such a mark could be retained by deserters (schismatics), and it could illicitly be given to those who had never been in the army, and yet unless and until such men actually joined (or rejoined) the army, those marks did not have the real significance that they should have... however if they did rejoin or join the army, the mark would not need to be redone. And so what happens when someone is received by economia is they are finally united to the Church, and their baptism is then given the real meaning of what true baptism is.

And so when we speak of "valid" Roman Catholic Sacraments, we mean that they are valid in the sense of their outward form. I have not seen any official Russian Orthodox statements that said that the Roman Catholic eucharist was "valid", and this is because we can receive a convert who was been baptized by economia, and we can even receive a Roman Catholic Priest in rank, by economia... but we could never receive the Roman Catholic eucharist by economia. This does not mean that we say that Roman Catholics are all going to hell, or that their worship and devotion to God has no meaning to God. Those things are between them and God. This is not a matter for us to pass judgment. We also pass no judgment on the souls of those outside of the Church, but we can say that at least in this life, they remain outside of the Church until and unless they are received into the Orthodox Church.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Review: The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition

The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, by Fr. Eugen J. Pentiuc.

One thing that comes across in this book is Fr. Eugen's love of Scripture. In his introduction, he speaks about how when he was growing up in Communist Romania, he first had the opportunity to read a Bible at the age of 13. The Communists limited the Church's ability to print copies of the Bible, but 1968, the Church was allowed to print 100,000 copies (for a population of 20 million people). He was able to get his hands on a copy of the Bible, and read almost the entire text in one week. Then, he says, the services of the Church came alive to him, when he was able to connect all the Scriptural references for the first time. The excitement of this 13 year old boy, who was able to secretly read the Bible still comes across in the rest of the text -- and even more so, when you hear Fr. Eugen speak.

Here are some podcasts of his talks that are well worth listening to, and I think show what I am talking about:

I suspect he is probably the favorite professor of a great many of his students.

This book was very interesting and informative. However, I would not recommend it to those who are unfamiliar with contemporary Biblical Scholarship. It is written on a scholarly level, not really as a guide to the average layman. There are a number of things that he writes that I would take issue with, but I look forward to the next two books Fr. Eugen intends to write as follow up texts to this one.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Stump the Priest: How do we know what the Orthodox Church believes?

The Council of the Holy Fathers 
(various Fathers with St. Constantine the Great, holding the Nicean Creed)

Question: "How does doctrinal authority work in Orthodoxy? In a simplified form, how do I know what Orthodox believe? Less simply, what are the common sources for Orthodox when seeking to believe what the Church teaches? And how is it possible to know that certain teachings are definitely the Orthodox position, not only a possible opinion?"

There are different sources of doctrinal authority in the Orthodox Church: 1. Scripture; 2. Apostolic Tradition; 3. Ecclesiastical Tradition; and 4. the living witness of the Church.

We believe that the Scriptures are the inspired and inerrant word of God, and Scripture is the core of the Orthodox Tradition. However, while we can distinguish Scripture from the rest of the Tradition, we cannot properly understand Scripture outside of the context of that Tradition.

Apostolic Tradition has its origins in Christ Himself, and is preserved in a number of different ways. For example, many aspects of Apostolic Tradition are preserved in the Ecumenical Canons. The basic elements of our worship are based on Apostolic Tradition. It is also preserved in the collective memory of the Church, and is reflected in the writings of the Fathers of the Church.

Not every canon of the Church is based directly on Scripture or Apostolic Tradition. There are also Traditions that are Ecclesiastical Traditions. The Scriptures tell us that Christ gave the Apostles the power to bind and to loose, and Apostolic Tradition tells us that this authority was passed on from the Apostles to their successors, the Bishops. When confronted with heresies or problems that are not addressed directly by Scripture or Apostolic Tradition, the Church has made decisions that are binding. The most authoritative examples of this would be the Ecumenical Canons of the Ecumenical Councils, and those local and patristic canons that those councils approved. Like the Scriptures, the Church believes that these Ecumenical Canons as well as the doctrinal statements made by these councils have an authority like Scripture, and are infallible.

While the above referenced sources of authority have greater weight, because their authority has been firmly established and universally recognized in the Church, the Church continues to have the power to bind and to loose, and so the Church makes decisions all of the time hat have authority for Orthodox Christians. For example, we cannot find in Scripture or the Ecumenical Canons a clear answer to the question of what we should make of artificial insemination, local Orthodox Churches have made statements on this question. For example, in an All-Russian Council in 2000, the Russian Church issued a document called  "The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church," which addressed this question, as well as many other contemporary issues. Technically, this council would only have immediate authority over those in the Russian Orthodox Church, however, other local Churches received it favorably at the time it was issued. At some point in the future, this document may be universally received, and then have a greater level of authority than it does today, but already, Orthodox Christians outside of the Russian Church have looked to it for guidance on these issues.

It takes time for the body of the Church as a whole to come to firm conclusions about the authority of a council, or the writings of a saint. No council was had universal authority simply by virtue of it meeting with a certain number of bishops. It was only when the Church as a whole was able to reflect on such councils that they were either embraced, or rejected.

There are theological or practical matters that there is not a firm, universal answer for, and so within certain bounds, there is room for theological opinions (theologoumena) which may or may not be correct. This does not, however, mean that a person can believe whatever he wants. For example, one could have different opinions on how literally we should interpret the seven days of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, but it would be beyond the bound of acceptable opinion to suggest that the universe came into being by chance, and God did not create it.

So how does one go about acquainting themselves to what the Church teaches? You have to be Orthodox, you have to live the sacramental life of the Church, and you need to study -- study the Scriptures, the writings of the saints, the lives of the saints, and you would also do well to read good books by more contemporary authors that are recognized as good and useful texts. The longer you are Orthodox, and are actively engaged in trying to learn your faith, the more you will acquire an Orthodox mindset, and will become increasingly discerning.