Saturday, March 26, 2016

Defending the Synodikon

          Recently, on the first Sunday of Great Lent, we read the Synodikon in church.  Well, actually just a tiny snippet of it, the bit about the legitimacy of icons and that this faith had established the world, and offering a heartfelt “Memory Eternal” for those who had died defending it.  We did not read the entire Synodikon, because it is quite long and lists a lot of heresies unrelated to the icons we were holding in procession at the time, and it contained a lot very unfamiliar names of people who were being anathematized.  Reading the names would have felt to my flock rather like reading pages out of the phone book, and since both those being commended with “Memory Eternal!” as well as those being reproached with “Anathema!” were utter strangers to them, I just read the bit about the icons.  Those wanting to peruse the entire text may find it here.
          Though I did not read the entire Synodikon liturgically that day, I am still glad that it exists and that we acknowledge its worth by at least reading some of it.  The point of the Synodikon is to draw very thick lines in the doctrinal sand and say that if anybody in the Church crosses those lines and strays into heresy, they must either recant or get out, and it is precisely this approach to truth that is necessary and saving.  It is also tremendously unpopular.  I remember recently reading a modern scholar who was quoting a line from one of the Fathers who was denouncing heretics.  The scholar put the word heretics in quotation marks—i.e. “heretics”—to stress that the term was the Father’s, and not hers.  She didn’t quite add the term “(sic)” after it to indicate how foolish she thought the term was, but she might as well have.  It was abundantly clear that she thought the term and the concept it represented to be archaic, harmful, and more than a little narrow-minded.  It certainly flew in the face of current canons of political correctness.
            Those canons are based on a form of pluralism that says I’m theologically okay and you’re theologically okay, regardless of what you assert.  It says that there is not just a legitimate diversity of opinion (which of course there is), but also that the legitimate diversity is so broad that pretty much anything goes, at least in the towers of Academia in which our author was writing.  The idea of saying to anyone, either in those towers or out on the street, “Your opinion is heretical” strikes the average man as not only absurd, but in supremely bad taste.  They want to know if you’re in favour of reviving the Inquisition and burning witches.  You can’t use the h-word in civilized company any more than you could use other abusive labels.
            Undergirding this attitude is the notion that heresy is just a simple mistake, akin to someone adding up a long column of figures and getting the sum wrong, or missing a question from the game “Jeopardy”.  Those enforcing the new canons of political correctness view the work of theologians with their precise definitions (such as we find in abundance in the Synodikon) as the work of people with altogether too much time on their hands who have produced formulas that have nothing to do with actual life.   Dogma, and the Church’s insistence upon correct dogma, they say, are irrelevant to Christian living.  It is not so.
            Here I remember the observations of Dorothy Sayers, famous as the creator of the detective Lord Peter Wimsey.  In her address Creed or Chaos?, she presents the case of John and Jane Doe who are considering junking Christ’s ethical teaching as impossible and impractical.  “Because,” says John, “if he was God all the time, he must have known that his suffering and death and so on wouldn’t last, and he could have stopped them by a miracle if he had liked, so his pretending to be an ordinary man was nothing but playacting.”  Adds Jane Doe:  “It was easy enough for him to be good, but it’s not at all the same thing me for me.  How about all that temptation stuff?  Playacting again.  It doesn’t help me to live what you call a Christian life.”  Sayers points out that John and Jane have swallowed the heresy of Apollinarianism, which states that Christ had no soul like ours, but that the divine Logos took the place of a human soul in Him.  As it turns out, heresy has practical effects on living the Christian life.  That is why the theologians went to such lengths to refute it and declare it out of court for Christians.  It was not just a mania for unnecessary exactitude, but pastoral care for souls like John and Jane Doe.
            So it is that we Orthodox need to retain the category of “heresy”, whether or not we read large chunks of the Synodikon.  The spirit which produced it is rare these pluralistic days where every man does what is right in his own eyes.  All the more reason to cling to that spirit when we find it.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Grasping at Straws in the Tower of Academia

In the ongoing debate about universalism or the assertion that eventually everyone will be saved, proponents of universalism have often referred with an almost kind of hushed reverence to a volume written by Dr. Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena. Ms. Ramelli’s work runs to 912 pages, and I was anxious to read it for myself. Given that the hardcover is available through Amazon for $346 US, I decided to order it through my nearby university library, using their inter-library loan. When it finally arrived and I opened its pages, I was surprised. As it turns out, it is not so much a survey of church history as it is a look at Origen and his supporters. “Origen’s First Followers” runs from page 223 to page 277, which is followed by “Origen’s Apologists and Followers”, which runs from page 279 to page 658. The final chapter takes one “From Augustine to Eriugena”. Perhaps a better title for the book would have been “Origen and His Friends”. It is less a survey than an apologia, a tour de force, a vigorous attempt to rehabilitate someone who for all his gifts had been condemned by name at an Ecumenical Council. The title scarcely matters, I suppose, and I should be the last person in the world to object to a misleading book title. My surprise did not concern the title, but the contents. Allow me to quote several examples.
          In her discussion on the lake of fire in Revelation 20:10, she notes that the lake is said to burn with “fire and sulphur” (or in more traditional language, “fire and brimstone”). She correctly notes that the reference to “fire and sulphur” brings us back to the fire sent from God upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:24. She writes, “Sulphur is joined to fire both in the Sodom episode and in Revelation’s lake of fire. Like fire, and even more clearly than fire itself, this element points to purification. Given its purifying and healing properties, sulphur is used in medicine still nowadays, for instance as antiseptic, a fungicide and in mucolytics. This is a clue suggesting that the lake of fire will purify those who are cast into it, at least as for human sinners”.
          Let us here note several things. The Book of Revelation does not distinguish between the devil and “human sinners”, dooming the former in the lake of fire while purifying the latter. Mention of human sinners here in 20:15 and previously in 14:9-11 threatened doom for those who “worship the beast and his image and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand” (14:9). It does not even hint that the lake of fire will purify them and then allow their release. Rather, “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest day and night” (14:11). Also, sulphur was clearly combined with fire not because it is handy for use as an antiseptic or a fungicide, but because it burns. The ancients thought it represented the essence of combustion, because it so easily burst into flame. Neither in the Genesis text regarding Sodom nor in the Revelation text is the thought of purification even hinted at. God did not mean to purify the Sodomites, but to destroy them. As 2 Peter 2:6 observed, [God] condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly thereafter”. Note: exemplary destruction, not purification. Ms. Ramelli here is grasping at straws.
          Another example: in her lengthy discussion of Irenaeus, she does her best to present him as a man at least sympathetic to apokatastasis. She begins her discussion of him by quoting him as saying, “Christ will come at the end of the times in order to annul everything evil, and to reconcile again all beings, that there may be an end of all impurities”, which she pronounces as “one of the main tenets of the doctrine of apokatastasis”. She acknowledges that Irenaeus affirms that “Christ will send the wicked ‘into the fire of the world to come [αιωνιον]”, but then calls attention to the fact that Irenaeus did say the fire was αιδιος or unending, but only αιωνιον, age-long. Never mind that it is doubtful that Irenaeus would have seen much difference here between the two words. Here it is clear that he described the fire as αιωνιον not because he preferred it and chose it over the word αιδιος, but because the Greek text of the Gospel he was citing had the word αιωνιον. In the Gospel Irenaeus was quoting Christ spoke of “eternal/ αιωνιον fire”, and Irenaeus simply reproduced the wording. It is methodologically flawed to import into Irenaeus’ verbal distinctions he may not even have recognized.
          But one may ask, “Then who did Irenaeus think was cast into the fire?” Ramelli opines, “Not human sinners, but only demons”. In her words: “Irenaeus speaks of the condemnation of those who do not believe and do not do God’s will, but he does not say that it is eternal; he seems to conceive only demons as enemies”. One must again return to the text and look again at what Irenaeus actually said. In his Against Heresies, Book 4,27,4, he writes, “As formerly the unrighteous, the idolaters, and fornicators perished, so also it is now; for both the Lord declares that such persons are sent into eternal fire, and the apostle says, ‘Do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God?’” There is no use evading Irenaeus’ plain meaning just because it is deemed uncongenial. Irenaeus believed and taught that the “enemies” cast into the fire included idolaters and fornicators—i.e. not demons, but men, “human sinners”.
          At the end of her discussion of Irenaeus, Ramelli admits “Irenaeus does not formulate a doctrine of universal salvation, nor a theory of universal apokatastasis”. That is a little bit like saying, “Martin Luther did not formulate a doctrine of papal supremacy.” The fact is that Irenaeus taught the opposite of what that theory holds, and he taught it emphatically. Here again for Ramelli ideology dictates how ancient texts are read.
Again, in her handling of St. Clement of Alexandria, she cites his words where after inveighing at great length about the lethal danger of heresy, he says, “Would that these heretics would learn and be set right by these notes and turn to the sovereign God! But if, like the deaf serpents, they do not listen to the song called “new” may they be chastised by God and undergo paternal admonitions previous to the Judgment, until they become ashamed and repent and not rush through headlong unbelief and precipitate themselves into judgment” (from his Miscellanies, Book 7, chapter 16). It is apparent that Clement is thinking of chastisements occurring in this life, “previous to the Judgment”, before it is too late and they die in unbelief and so “precipitate themselves into judgment”. Yet in referring to this passage, Ramelli says, “Clement hopes that “the heretics” [note the quotation marks!] will be converted by God, even after death”. Clement says no such thing, but clearly refers to a punishment leading to conversion before death, “previous to the Judgment”. Ramelli however insists on reading apokatasis into Clement’s text even when it is not there.
          Another example: Ramelli offers St. Anthony the Great as an example of another ancient father holding to the doctrine of apokatastasis. Her evidence? “Origen’s thought had a large diffusion in the Egyptian desert”, and Anthony, in his extant letters, used philosophical language, and “theorised a ‘resurrection of the heart from the earth’ which is a spiritual resurrection and entails an allegorical exegesis of the resurrection that Origen applied”—and this, despite the fact that Anthony speaks explicitly of the eternal punishment of the wicked, and never even remotely suggests that they will be finally saved. In his Letter 2, for example, he writes: “Let this word be manifest in you, beloved; whosoever has not prepared his own amendment, nor toiled with all his strength, let such a one know that for him the coming of the Saviour will be unto judgment”. Or again, in Letter 3: “As for those who have prepared themselves to be set free through the coming of Jesus, over them I rejoice. But those who do business in the name of Jesus and do the will of their heart and their flesh—over such I lament...Know therefore that for such men the coming of Jesus becomes a great judgment.” These do not sound like the words of a man who believes in the ultimate restoration of everyone. Here again, in the absence of any real evidence Ramelli simply reads her favourite doctrine into a place that it is simply not there.
          One final example: Bardaisan of Edessa (d. 222) is cited as an early example of one holding the doctrine of apokatastasis, heading a list of worthies which include St. Anthony, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Jerome, Cassian, and many others. It seems that she wants us to respect the thought of Bardaisan and regard him as, if not exactly a church father, as certainly frequenting the same club.
This is rather surprising, and is perhaps the reason why she begins her discussion of this controversial figure with the heading “Bardaisan of Edessan, Not a ‘Gnostic’”. She is driven to make this case because there were and are many who believe that he was a gnostic. In ancient times the Christian historian Sozomen regarded him as a heretic (Ecclesiastical History, 3.16). It is of course difficult now to sort out the precise details of someone that long dead. But from his extant writings, we can even now find
 things that look rather “off”. He thought for example that the sun, moon, and planets were living beings, under whose partial control God had placed the world. In this Book of the Laws of Countries Bardaisan wrote, God “gave the Guiding Signs their fixed order and gave all things the power due to each”. As one scholar comments, “By ‘Guiding Signs’ Barsaisan means the planets and the stars. Bardaisan’s own view of the relation of divine power to the that of the heavenly bodies and to human free will involves a nuanced delimitation of their respective domains...Bardaisan’s affirmation of the most striking element in his Christian system of thought” (Tim Hegedus, in his Necessity and Free Will in the Thought of Bardaisan of Edessa”).
          A striking element indeed, and sufficiently striking, I submit, to jeopardize his inclusion in the list of ancient patristic worthies to which Ramelli would have him head the list. It looks as if acceptance or rejection of the doctrine of the apokatastasis functions for her as the canon within the canon for selecting who is a really worthwhile teacher. Perhaps that is why the doubtful Bardaisan is styled a “very learned Syrian Christian philosopher and theologian” while the earliest Apostolic Fathers are described merely as “The So-Called Apostolic Fathers”, since she admits that “In the group of writings stemming from the second century CE and collectively labelled ‘Apostolic Fathers’, the doctrine of apokatastasis as eschatological universal restoration appears to be missing.” I suggest that her praises of the “so-called apostolic fathers” would have been more fulsome had her favourite doctrine not appeared to have been missing.
          Ultimately, it is not about the value or otherwise of single volume, even such a large door-stopper of a volume as The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis. It is rather about the value of Tradition for the huge rank of the file of the Church who will never earn a doctorate or attain to Ms. Ramelli’s considerable level of learning. The value of Tradition, as understood by the Orthodox, is that one does not have to be a scholar to know the truth. One does not require academic learning, wonderful as that is, but only humility. We believe that the truth has been given by Christ to His disciples and preserved in the Church, and that we access that truth by attending to the consensus of the Fathers. If anyone has the humility to bow one’s head to that Tradition, one can know the truth, even if one is an illiterate street sweeper incapable of reading or writing hefty tomes. Or, in the Lord’s own words, “I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to babes. Yes, Father, for thus it was well-pleasing in Your sight” (Luke 10:21). 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Mr. Fudge and the New Reformation

In the course of my researches into the eternity of hell as presented in the Scriptures and the Fathers, I have come across a wonderful book on the subject by Mr. Edward William Fudge, entitled The Fire That Consumes:  The Biblical Case for Conditional Immortality.  As is apparent from the title, Mr. Fudge advances the view that the unquenchable fire of hell (see Mark 9:48) will not last forever, but is only “unquenchable” in the sense that no one can quench the fire until it concludes its work of burning up the bodies and souls of the damned so that they then cease to exist.  After that, presumably, the fire goes out because there no longer remains anything for it to consume or perhaps it continues to burn without consuming anything.  That strikes me (and others) as a somewhat odd interpretation of the Biblical phrase “unquenchable fire”, but it is fundamental to his case.
            Mr. Fudge has laboured long and hard on this project.  The work was first published in 1982 in Britain, and again in a revised version in 1994, when it ran to 226 pages.  He continued to work on it, so that the 2011 third edition (now re-titled The Fire That Consumes:  A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment) has been “Fully Updated, Revised, and Expanded” to the point that it now runs to 417 pages.  It is perhaps unkind to call the project an obsession; let us call it his life’s work and a labour of love.  In this it reminds one of Ilaria Ramelli’s monumental The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, which runs to 912 pages, as well as to the Eclectic Orthodoxy site, which seems now to function as a kind of expanding depot for promoting the same doctrine. 
Indeed, Mr. Fudge, Ms. Ramelli and Fr. Aidan seem to me to share the same essential project:  all are dissatisfied with the Church’s traditional understanding of hell and labour to deconstruct it and replace it with something more congenial.  Ms. Ramelli and Fr. Aidan have chosen the door out of the traditional cosmos labelled, “Universalism”, asserting that no one will suffer eternally because everyone will eventually be saved.  Mr. Fudge has chosen another door, the one labelled, “Conditionalism”, asserting that no one will suffer eternally because the lost will be eventually annihilated.  But both sides are in rebellion against the age-old tradition of the Church.  They have simply different doors to escape it.  It should be said that Mr. Fudge is consistently both polite and fair—he labels the view to which he objects “traditionalist”, referring to his own as “conditionalist”.  In this he surpasses others, some of whom refer to the objectionable view not as “traditionalist”, but “infernalist”, and those who hold it as members of a “hell-fire club”.  This is not only ungracious and rude, but gives the impression that those holding the traditional view are somehow delighted that the lost will suffer eternally, and so are a little infernal themselves.
            What is of particular interest here is Mr. Fudge’s commendable self-awareness.  He writes as a Protestant, and so chapter one of his latest revision bears the title, “Rethinking Hell:  Apostasy or New Reformation”.  He is too good and honest a scholar to pretend that Christendom (including the Reformed part of it to which he belongs) has always held to his Conditionalist view of hell.  He therefore advances the proposed change in chapter two, which he entitles “Back to the Bible:  The Protestant Principle”.   He admits that “we read and interpret Scriptures as partners in the larger Christian community…taking into account the ways in which it has been read in the past”.  But then, it larger font, comes the heading “Ecclesiastical Tradition Not Infallible”, followed by the declaration that proper appreciation for the past “does not free us simply to rest on insights of those who went before, nor does it require us to accept as final whatever the church has taught in the past”.   Rather, in the words of another heading in large font, “The Reformation Continues”.  In other words, just as Reformation of the sixteenth century validly challenged the centuries-long status quo of Christendom, so now we continue this legacy and validly challenge other aspects of the status quo.  Luther challenged the age-old idea that the Mass was sacrificial and saving; now we challenge the age-old idea that the sufferings of hell are unending.  The idea that we have such freedom to challenge anything we like in the past is not new.  Usually it is called “liberalism”.  Some are better at it than others.  Bishop Spong, for example, is famously adept.
            In Mr. Fudge’s reconstruction of church history, both the Bible and the earliest Fathers embraced the Conditionalist view of hell.  Some Fathers of course did not, but produced a new view, one which said that sinners were not consumed in hell to the point of non-existence, but continued to endure and to suffer.  This view, he declares (again in larger font) “Hardens into Orthodoxy”.
            Here, I submit, is the main difference between Mr. Fudge and the Orthodox Church—namely, his rejection of Tradition, a rejection that assumes that God does not ultimately guide His Church in matters of fundamentals so that it is quite possible for the Church to err regarding its proclamation of the truth.  One can hardly blame Mr. Fudge too much for this—after all, he is a convinced and devout Protestant, and Protestantism rests precisely on the assumption that the historic Church did err so that it needed help in correcting its age-long errors.  But discerning the basis of our disagreement with Mr. Fudge gives us the key to understand other issues as well.  Evangelical Protestantism is now departing wholesale from faith in the traditional teaching regarding hell (Mr. Fudge cites such “big names” as F.F. Bruce, John Wenham, Philip E. Hughes, Clark Pinnock, and John Stott).  A number of Orthodox are now also departing from the traditional teaching in the other direction.  The response to both of those departing groups is the same, and consists of a firm faith in the age-old consensus of the Fathers and the mind of the Church.