Biblical Studies Carnival XXIX

Jim West has just posted the 29th Biblical Studies Carnival. (Wow. It’s already May 2008!) He’s done a wonderfully thorough job. I see he’s mentioned a few new sites to visit, which is always a pleasure, and several things I missed over the course of the month.

Quick, go look before he changes his theme again!

Tyler Williams is the one organizing the Biblical Studies Carnival, so if you’d like to get on the list to host one, just drop him a line.

Form and Substance II

The first part of this series would be a good thing to read, including the comments. Pay careful attention to the body of the post, however. I am not advocating that all Orthodox theological discussions be formatted like the Catena Aurea (though there is nothing whatsoever wrong with the catena format), or any other work composed exclusively of series of quotations of the Fathers arranged according to some grand scheme, whether for a biblical commentary, or for a philokalia, a bouquet of excerpts arranged by subject matter. What I do suggest is that we at the very least adopt the method of writing used by the Fathers themselves, with the same emphases, while in that creative emulation hewing as closely to Tradition as possible. This would certainly often include reference to the Fathers themselves, just as they demonstrated their love of quoting earlier Fathers even when the majority of their own writing might be original. However, there is a difference between an original work soundly founded on Orthodox Patristic Tradition, and innovation, especially when the latter is practiced by naive, though well-meaning, Orthodox writers. When one is tempted to pursue the latter course, a writer should cease immediately and return to and limit himself to the quotations of the Fathers themselves until he has appropriately internalized them and is able to write in a similar manner. It is always better to be presented with a string of Patristic pearls than a bucket of innovating slops.

Fr Felix Culpa (his nom du clavier) of the Ora et Labora blog, has recently brought forward some interesting examples of innovating and incorrect theological language attempting to pass for Orthodox theological instruction in the first few pages (!) of the new Orthodox Study Bible, in a post entitled Orthodox Study Bible, My Turn III. Fr Felix begins his post, buttressed by no less than our Father among the Saints Basil the Great (or “BasilG” in OSB-speak), with the same focus that the first post of this series began with: a concern for the proper use of language in theology. I find the most shocking of the abuses of theological language that are noted by Fr Felix to be the use of “They” as a pronoun for God. God is He, never “They.” We Orthodox are not tritheists, or polytheists of any stripe. Using “They” is as improper and heterodox as using “She” or “It.” That is not Orthodox, no matter what label the book bears. While it is clear that the authors are referring to the three hypostases of the Trinity, the impropriety of the language and its implications are un-Orthodox. This almost certainly occurred through an unexamined glossing of hypostases as persons, leading to the anthropomorphizing of God as though He were a group of three human persons. This is, as a professional diplomat might say, unfortunate. We’re apparently treated in this example not only to an unreflective shoddiness in theological language itself, but also in the theological understanding of whoever penned it. So much for a shockingly poor example of Orthodox theological instruction.

The richness of Eastern Orthodox hymnography is well-known. What may not be as well-known is that this hymnography is quite often also didactic and is canonically authoritative, being a perfect expression of Orthodox theology and designed with instruction in mind. The people learn the theology of the Church from it as much as they do from hearing the readings and reading theologically instructive materials outside of the liturgy. Here are some examples:

Led up through the bodily forms of the bodiless powers unto noetic and immaterial understanding, and receiving through the thrice-holy hymn the illumination of the Godhead of Three Hypostases, let me cry out like the Cherubim: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God

–Hymn to the Trinity, First Tone, Matins

O Trinity one in essence and undivided, O Unity of three hypostases and co-eternal, unto Thee, as God, do we cry out the hymn of the Angels: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God . . . Let us glorify after the manner of the Cherubim the beginningless Father, the co-beginningless Son, and co-eternal Spirit, one Godhead: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God

–Hymn to the Trinity, Third Tone, Matins

Through the compassions of Thine Only-begotten Son, with Whom Thou art blessed, together with Thine All-holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. . . . Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.

–From the litany before the Symbol of the Faith (the Creed), Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (the above English translations were done by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Brookline).

There are many more examples throughout the various services. Notice the impact of these poetically charged theological statements. (Needless to say, they’re even better in Greek!) With such a wealth of perfectly formulated, artistically excellent, and intellectually stimulating theological hymnography, there is no excuse for the paltry and incorrect, anti-intellectual, obfuscating, and frankly (as in the “They” noted above) blatantly heretical misformulations found in the annotations of the Orthodox Study Bible’s second edition.

A fine example of how to write on the subject of the Trinity is found in Metropolitan KALLISTOS’ beautiful little book The Orthodox Way, p. 30:

Father, Son and Spirit are one in essence, not merely in the sense that all three are examples of the same group or general class, but in the sense that they form a single, unique, specific reality. There is in this respect an important difference between the sense in which the three divine persons are one, and the sense in which three human persons may be termed one. Three human persons, Peter, James, and John, belong to the same general class “man”. Yet, however closely they co-operate together, each retains his own will and his own energy, acting by virtue of his own separate power of initiative. In short, they are three men and not one man. But in the case of the three persons of the Trinity, this is not the case. There is distinction, but never separation. Father, Son and Spirit–so the saints affirm, following the testimony of Scripture–have only one will and not three, only one energy and not three. None of the three ever acts separately, apart from the other two. They are not three Gods, but one God.

Those with a good ear and memory will recognize this line of argument used by His Eminence was used also by St John of Damascus in his work An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, book 1, chapter 8 (from the Chase translation in the Fathers of the Church series, vol. 37, Catholic University of America Press):

Thus, in our mind we see that Peter and Paul are of the same nature and have one common nature, for each is a rational mortal animal and each is a body animated by a rational and understanding soul. Hence, this common nature is perceived by the reason. Now, individual persons do not exist in one another at all, but each one is separate and by itself, that is to say, is distinct and considered in itself, since it has a great many things to distinguish it from the other. For, truly, they are separated in place and they differ in time, judgment, strength, form–or shape, habit, temperament, dignity, manner of life, and all the other distinctive properties–but most of all they differ by the fact that they do not exist in each other but separately. Hence, we speak of two, or three, or several men.

The aforesaid is true of all creation, but it is quite the contrary in the case of the holy, supersubstantial, all-transcendent, and incomprehensible Trinity. For, here, that which is common and one is considered in actuality by reason of the co-eternity and identity of substance, operation, and will, and by reason of the agreement in judgment and the identity of power, virtue and goodness–I did not say similarity but identity–and by reason of the one surge of motion. For there is one essence, one goodness, one virtue, one intent, one operation, one power–one and the same, not three similar one to another, but one and the same motion of the three Persons. And the oneness of each is not less with the others that it is with itself, that is to say, the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are one in all things except the being unbegotten, the being begotten, and the procession. It is by thought that the distinction is perceived. For we know one God and Him in the properties of father, and sonship, and procession only. The difference we conceive of according to cause and effect and the perfection of the Person, that is to say, His manner of existing. For with the uncircumscribed Godhead we cannot speak of any difference in place, as we do with ourselves, because the Persons exist in one another, not so as to be confused, but so as to adhere closely together as expressed in the words of the Lord when He said: ‘I in the Father and the Father in me.’ Neither can we speak of a difference in will, or judgment, or operation, or virtue, or any other whatsoever of those things which in us give rise to a definite real distinction. For that reason, we do not call the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost three Gods, but one God, the Holy Trinity, in whom the Son and the Holy Ghost are related to one Cause without any composition or blending….

That’s how it’s done right, shown to you by the modern Διδασκαλος KALLISTOS writing in England, and by the ancient Saint John of Damascus, writing from the Monastery of Saint Sabba in the Judean desert. Both of these writings display the characteristics described in the first post regarding the qualities of Patristic writing: a.) their avoidance of phrasing their writings in a way that might be misconstrued; b.) their consistent usage of the Church’s theological vocabulary; c.) their intent focus on their audience, which are instructed for the benefit of their souls. In fact, both of these works, Metropolitan KALLISTOS’ The Orthodox Way and St John Damaskene’s An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, are used in catechesis this very day, throughout the Orthodox Church. These pellucid and consistently Orthodox writings of catechetical intent are classics, and should be used as models for further such materials.

Let us now compare the notes found in two quite different annotated Bibles. First, The Orthodox New Testament (hereafter ONT), translated and annotated with Patristic and textual commentary single-handedly by Mother Maria of Holy Apostles Convent in Buena Vista, Colorado. Second, The Orthodox Study Bible, first and second editions (hereafter OSB1 and OSB2. Since we’ve been focused on Trinitarian issues, I thought it good to look at a very imporant verse found in the Gospel According to St John the Theologian, 15.26. I will give both the text of the translation and the notes included, which we can then evaluate.

The Orthodox New Testament (the ellipses in the notes are in the ONT itself):

But whenever the Paraclete should come, Whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth Who proceedeth from the Father, that One shall bear witness concerning Me.
Saint John of Damascus: “We believe also in one Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father and rests in the Son: the object of equal adoration and glorification with the Father and Son, since He is co-essential and co-eternal. He is addressed along with Father and Son: uncreated, full, creative, all-ruling, all-effecting, all-powerful, of infinite power, Lord of all creation and not under any lord; divinizing, not divinized; filling, not filled; shared in, not sharing in; sanctifying, not sanctified; the Intercessor, receiving the supplications of all; in all things like to the Father and Son, proceeding from the Father and communicated through the Son, and participated in by all creation, through Himself creating, and investing with essence and sanctifying, and maintaining the universe…. He possesses all the qualities that the Father and Son possess, save that of not being begotten or born…. For the Father is unborn, for He is derived from nothing, but derives from Himself His being, nor does He derive a single quality from another. Rather He is Himself the beginning and cause of the existence of all things in a definite and natural manner. But the Son is derived from the Father after the manner of generation, and the Holy Spirit likewise is derived from the Father, yet not after the manner of generation, but after that of procession. And we have learned that there is a difference between generation and procession, but the nature of that difference we in no wise understand. Further, the generation of the Son from the Father and the procession of the Holy Spirit are simultaneous…. For in these hypostatic or personal properties alone do the three holy subsistences differ from each other (of being unbegotten, and of being begotten, and of procession), being indivisibly divided not by essence but by the distinguishing mark of their proper and peculiar subsistence.” [Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Bk. I, Ch. VIII, in Nicene, 2nd Ser., IX:9.]

Ah! Look, it is our holy friend St John Damaskene back to enlighten us, and in a passage not even a page away from that which I quoted above! What a pleasure.

Now, here is OSB1, text and translation (emphasis theirs):

But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.
While, with respect to God’s work in the world, the Son will give or send . . . the Spirit . . . from the Father, with respect to His divinity, the Spirit originates or proceeds from the Father alone: The Spirit receives His eternal existence only from the Father. In conformity with Christ’s words, the Nicene Creed confesses belief “in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.” By contrast, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father (3:16). The source, the fountainhead, of both is the Father.

The translation is identical in OSB2, being that of the New King James Version, so here is the note for that verse (again, emphasis theirs):

With respect to God’s working salvation in the world, the Son sends the Holy Spirit from the Father. With respect to the divine nature, the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father alone. In other words, the Holy Spirit receives His eternal existence only from the Father. In conformity with Christ’s words, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed confesses belief “in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.” While the Son is begotten of the Father alone, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone; the source, the Fountainhead, of both Persons is the Father.

The similarities between OSB1 and OSB2 are obvious. The subtle differences are telling, however. For instance, in changing “…the Spirit originates or proceeds from the Father alone…” to “…the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father alone…” the passage becomes truly mystifying to someone with no knowledge of what the notes are discussing. The omission of that simple “originates,” and the other fussy changes introduced (it is merely pedantic to say “the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed”) indicate a failure in didactic consideration for the reader. The changes likewise manage to make the note wordier yet flatter and less clear than the first, which is quite an accomplishment….

In any case, neither of the two OSB editions can hold a candle to the excerpt provided by the ONT from St John Damaskene. Again, we see in this excerpt both quality Orthodox theological instruction and an artistic sensibility at work that make it not only educational and edifying but also pleasurable to read. The combination of theology and art has always been more effective than the bare transmission of dogma. One might even question whether it is truly possible to express Orthodox dogma accurately without some level of artistic expression involved. I don’t think it really is. Just as the mysteries and revelations of the Faith work on us at another level than merely the intellectual, so also do we, in response to that, naturally adapt our manner of expression to attempt to relate that deeper and broader effect of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and our lives in the Holy Spirit: Tradition. What we see in the writings of the Church Fathers is a consistent and devoted attention to aesthetic, to the form and substance in their writing, which often waxes into a nearly transcendent eloquence in prose, and consistently does so in hymnography. Always, however, the Saints’ concern is for the reader’s instruction in Orthodoxy, which instruction is solely for the benefit of the reader’s soul. That is love. And love naturally expresses itself truthfully and with beauty.

It is imperative that Orthodox Theology, in every venue, be expressed not only accurately, but expressed well. If a writer feels unequal to the task, then he simply shouldn’t be writing. In composing somewhat ugly and somewhat heretical expressions, one does damage to the souls exposed to them. Perhaps some have that as their goal, perhaps not a few. But in our Orthodox publishing concerns in English, we need to exercize more caution. Much good material is being produced, but also much more that is certainly not very good, and some of it actually dangerous. We need to be much more discriminating long before these projects hit the shelves, before the book projects are even approved, for the sake of souls both in our sheepfold and in others. Orthodox catechetical materials should be overseen by truly holy people, those known Orthodox Saints living among us, not merely Orthodox celebrities with recognizable names but questionable or nonexistent abilities. Slapping the label “Orthodox” on crap doesn’t validate the crap, but sullies Orthodoxy. We can do better and must do better.