Monthly Archives: April 2008

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.

Posted in Carnivals | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Eastern Orthodoxy | 15 Comments

When word and world had failed

when word and world had failed me
then did I stand in awe
staring through starting tears
joy welling in a soul
knowing only these words:
Christ is risen from the dead
through death trampling down death
and to those in the tombs
granting life

Posted in Eastern Orthodoxy | Leave a comment

Form and Substance

There is an interesting contretemps currently simmering on a back burner among certain circles of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the United States, one involving Anglophone Orthodox from other nations, as well. This discussion, lively at times, has focused variously on the newly released Orthodox Study Bible (a, b, c, d), on Ancient Faith Radio (a), and on various aspects related to the above and other organizations and efforts of various Orthodox Americans (a, b, c, d, e). As the discussion has progressed over the course of the Lenten Fast this year, it’s become quite clear that the issues involved are deeper than a superficial glimpse at the individual posts might reveal. I have myself, as have others, described the issue as one of aesthetic, while still others have described it more clearly as one of form and substance. As these are effectively synonymous in this context, the latter is preferable for its clarity.

Let me first allay any fears that this post will delve into the vast body of philosophical discussions on form and substance, or even Christian theology touching on the subject, which it very much does. We can discuss this in quite simple language because the issue is, in the end, quite simple.

Now, down to the brass tacks.

We’ve been discussing the presentation of Orthodoxy primarily through verbal means, whether written (in the case of, for example, the Orthodox Study Bible) or audible (as in the case of Ancient Faith Radio, for example). One thing that is particularly important to keep in mind about issues of form and substance is this: there is no separation between the two. That is, form is a substance in some particular arrangement, even in verbal expression. If we think of, say, a marble statue, the form (say, Bernini’s David) is quite different from its substance (the marble it is made from). On the other hand, in the case of an essay in a book or the recording of a lecture, the form of the expression and the substance of the expression are essentially the same: both are in words. One might further specify that it’s the arrangement of the words that comprises the form, and that the particular words used comprise the substance, the two of which combined making the difference between, say, a shopping list and a novel. In any case, we’re dealing with words throughout. In the case of Orthodox Theology, the language used to describe God and things relating to God as understood in the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is no different. The verbal expression of Orthodox Theology has always consisted of both particular form (ways of saying things) and particular substance (words used in saying things).

Now, there is a very long tradition within Orthodox Christianity of a particular vocabulary that is used in theological discussions. You’ve heard the expression “not one iota’s difference”? Some find the origins of this odd phrase in the Arian controversy of the early fourth century, where the fight boiled down to two words to describe the relationship of God the Father and God the Son: homoousios (same substance) and homoiousios (similar substance): one iota’s difference. One letter, and the theology that its presence or absence implied, meant the difference between exile and livelihood for countless people over the better part of the fourth century. Orthodoxy holds to homoousios, the same substance, according to the canons of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea. As Arianism was anathematized as a heresy, to use homoiousios would be to draw down on oneself the anathemas of that Council and the subsequent Ecumenical Councils which ratified its decisions. All this is to say that a particular theological vocabulary is of paramount importance in Orthodox Theology not only historically, but also and especially in our own daily lives and the Faith that we hold as a result of those Orthodox arguments and decisions over vocabulary down through the ages. We can’t indiscriminately use words from outside our Orthodox theological tradition when describing Orthodox theology, and expect that the expression realized is still Orthodox. It is not only entirely possible that such indiscriminate language will relate something other than Orthodox theology, it is a certainty. Even a cautious use of language external to Tradition in that respect is unnecessary, and is hazardous without qualification and explicit definition. Very simply, the safest approach is to utilize Orthodox language in expressing Orthodox Theology. Thus much for Orthodox substance in theological expression.

Relatedly, we can’t simply put those words in any various patterns that we want and expect to have a proper expression of Orthodox theology. The heretical Gnostics, for instance, were quite adept at taking words from Scripture, giving them new meanings unattested by Apostolic Orthodox Christianity, and rearranging them into various extraordinary ways to support their dualistic and exclusionistic fantasies. Likewise, we have an excellent example, again one hammered out over the course of the fourth century, of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Creed that every Orthodox Christian throughout the world knows and loves. Its wording was precisely formulated throughout the course of countless discussions amongst power-hitter theologians, themselves often belonging to the educated elite of their day, in order to avoid the statements within it being misconstrued by anyone in support of their various heresies. The Creed itself is very clear, and was designed to be so. It’s only later (and modern) pseudo-sophisticates that read a “nuanced complexity” into it, a suggestion wholly alien to Orthodoxy, but quite at home in gnosticism and today’s cult of the passions. Look also to the writing Saints, whom we call the Church Fathers (under which general title we also include female writing saints as well, the Church Mothers). Orthodoxy finds not a mere historical value in them as signposts of dogmatic development, but great value in them as travelogues of fellow-travellers along the Way, the records of Saintly instructors valiantly fighting for the salvation of souls. Their words are alive to us in a way that isn’t the case with even most modern and unquestionably Orthodox writings. Part of this is the theosis that these Saints exhibit in their writings: they had so deeply and consistently breathed in the Holy Spirit in the course of their lives of prayer and struggle (askesis or podvig) that we cannot help but to recognize Him gusting through their writings in a way different from the slight and failing breezes we may experience from the writings coming from our own lazy and slothful fingers. Even so, there are and have been some modern Church Fathers by whom we are blown away (St Theophan the Recluse, St John of Kronstadt, St Nikolai Velimirovich, St Silouan, and others). What is common to these writing Saints are several things: 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, these points are precisely what one would expect of a Saint, are they not? Their Saintliness pervades their writings, from vocabulary, to expression, to intent. We can and do, in fact, say that the Holy Spirit inspired the form of their writings, through His activity in their lives. The lives of the Saints are examples for us, and that includes not only their manner of living, but their manner of writing, as well. It is a form of expression which is deeply rooted in Orthodoxy, full of the love of God and neighbor. Thus much for Orthodox form in theological expression.

Tradition is the life lived in the Church, the Body of Christ, in the Holy Spirit. In that sense, Tradition, which cannot be abstracted into a set of rules and recipes, includes within it the Saintly examples of those who formerly on this earth and currently in Paradise live out their lives in prayer and struggle for us. They are not dead, only distant, and then only as distant as we situate ourselves from them. We are certainly correct to say that the example of expression as preserved in the writings of the Saints stands supreme as the exemplar for our own paltry efforts, as for all living within Tradition, the life of the Church. We cannot simply go off in a different direction of expression altogether, utilizing phrasing (form) and vocabulary (substance) that not only can often be misconstrued, but some of which can only indicate something incorrect in relation to Orthodox theology proper. That is not only abandoning Tradition in the example of the Saints, but a dereliction of the duty of an Orthodox instructor within Tradition working for the salvation of souls.

I’ll continue in another post after Pascha, looking at some concrete examples.

Posted in Eastern Orthodoxy | 17 Comments

Mercy without measure

The woman who had fallen into many sins, perceiving Thy divinity, O Lord, fulfilled the part of a myrrh-bearer; and with lamentations she brought sweet-smelling oil of myrrh to Thee before Thy burial. ‘Woe is me’, she said, ‘for night surrounds me, dark and moonless, and stings my lustful passion with the love of sin. Accept the fountain of my tears, O Thou who drawest down from the clouds the waters of the sea. Incline to the groanings of my heart, O Thou who in Thine ineffable self-emptying hast bowed down the heavens. I shall kiss Thy most pure feet and wipe them with the hairs of my head, those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise, and hid herself for fear. Who can search out the multitude of my sins and the abyss of Thy judgments, O Saviour of my soul? Despise me not, Thine handmaiden, for Thou hast mercy without measure.’

Hymn of Kassiani, the Nun

Posted in Eastern Orthodoxy | Leave a comment

Waiting for the Bridegroom

Half fool half wise, waiting for the Bridegroom
Half wisely silent, withstanding the gloom
Looking toward what truly matters
Half wasting oil, lighting silly chatter
Who am I and what robe do I wear?
Half feasting in here, half howling out there
Half filthy sackcloth, half shining linen
Half loving, half scorning what’s given
Seeming far to hear, but sometimes clear
The Bridegroom’s party is drawing near
The time is short, half-wise well-robed one
The time is short, to get your work done
By grace to grow saintly, holy, and all-loving
Because, behold, the Bridegroom, here He is coming!

Posted in Eastern Orthodoxy | Leave a comment

On Palm Sunday

We sprang with joy — the Prophet here!
The Son of David had appeared!
At last the tables would be turned,
And our enemies’ houses burned!
Waving palms and throwing cloaks down,
Hosanna do we cry aloud.
But what is this, this humble king?
What’s this Kingdom he is teaching?
The tables turned are in the House
Of our Great God, itself to burn?
In so few days, with such a turn,
Crucify him, we cry out now.
A few days more and then we know
A King and Kingdom here below
Were not the Way, of this our Savior,
But to reveal the Divine favor.
Our King has come to us, riding an ass.
Our King has come to us, God, First and Last.

Posted in Eastern Orthodoxy | Leave a comment