Sunday, February 26, 2012

A word of clarification

           The previous post, reviewing the teaching of The Red Book on liturgical services, was the third in a continuing series.  The first post reviewing The Red Book was posted on February 9, and was followed by two others, not in the series.  It is possible that someone coming upon my previous post about The Red Book and not seeing the February 9 introduction might be confused about who the authors actually were.  As I indicated in the first post, the book under review is not actually called “The Red Book”, and its authors are not actually named “Valentinus and Marcion”.  Rather, I am writing here in the tradition of C.S. Lewis who reviewed a book about which he had nothing good to say, and so disguised the identity of the book by giving it the fictional name “The Green Book”, and its authors the names “Gaius and Titius” (whom he referred to throughout his own review of their work).  In this tradition, I have renamed the volume “The Red Book”, calling its authors “Valentinus and Marcion”.  I chose these names for the authors because I believe their doctrine to be every bit as destructive as that of their second century namesakes.  The names are meant not to identify, but to denounce, for my quarrel is less with them as persons (I’m sure they’re lovely) than it is with their teaching.  I am sorry if this has caused confusion.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Red Book on liturgical services

             This post is the third in a series.  Previous posts in the series can be found here and here.
             In this post I examine the chapter of The Red Book which speaks of liturgical services—i.e. gatherings of Christians at which a set form of service is used, whether formally liturgical (using a printed service where the words are provided in advance), or informally liturgical (with the material, to quote the authors, “unwritten, but just as mechanical and predictable as if it were set in print”)   To their credit, Valentinus and Marcion recognize both types of service as essentially liturgical, since even traditions not having a set liturgy still prescribe in advance the basic order of service.
            For Valentinus and Marcion, this existence of liturgy is bad—Sunday mornings are thereby “set in concrete”, are “ironclad”, with the order of worship therefore “perfunctory”.   All such set worship is unbiblical:  “You can scour your Bible from beginning to end, and you will never find anything that remotely resembles our [Protestant] order of worship...In fact, the Protestant order of worship has about as much biblical support as does the Roman Catholic Mass.”  For Valentinus and Marcion and their intended readers, of course, the “Roman Catholic Mass” is the epitome of corruption.  Their verdict is plain:  “Both [Protestant and Roman Catholic services] have few points of contact with the New Testament.”
            We have seen that for the authors of The Red Book, anything differing from the praxis of the first century church is necessarily a corruption.  Since the Eucharist (to use a later term) was part of a meal in the first century churches to which St. Paul was writing, this means that it must continue to be so for us today.  Our authors characterize the worship of those early days as “marked by every member-functioning, spontaneity, freedom, vibrancy and open participation...a fluid gathering, not a static ritual.”
            Unwarranted dichotomies aside (can’t rituals be vibrant?), this is a not unfair assessment of the sacramental meals held, for example, in the Corinthian church to which Paul wrote.  But as we have said in our previous post, soon after this, under the authority of the apostles, the ritual elements of the meal were separated from the social ones, and the Eucharist separated from the agape/ love feast.  By the end of the first century, the Eucharistic partaking of consecrated bread and wine was held before dawn on Sunday, with the love feast/ social meal held later on that day (possibly at another location or locations). 
This is crucial to understand, because spontaneity, open participation and fluidity still characterized that social meal, the agape—but not the Eucharist.  People having a meal together of course interact.  There may be set prayers (whether a short “table grace” or more formal and lengthy prayers), but in between the prayers there is lots of time for talking and socializing, for sharing and spontaneity.  This is where “fluidity” is possible, for social interactions are not scripted.  From the late first century onwards, when the Eucharist was separated from the agape meal, fluid and unscripted social interaction took place during those meals and were confined to them. It follows then too that at the Eucharist held in the morning, there was no such informal social interaction or fluidity, but rather set ritual.
            For Valentinus and Marcion, such lack of social freedom invalidates the whole event.  They ask rhetorically, “Let’s suppose that the authors of this book attend your own church service.  And let’s suppose that the Lord Jesus Christ puts something on our hearts to share with the rest of His body.  Would we have the freedom to do it?  If not, then we would question whether your church service is under Christ’s headship.”  As one reviewer of The Red Book perceptively asked, “So, in short, [the author’s] measure for whether Jesus is in charge is whether he’s allowed to interrupt proceedings any time he thinks Jesus is talking to him? Doesn’t this beg the question of whether [he] is imagining such communications?”  Nicely put. 
            In fact (as the above reviewer also pointed out), the Christians of those early centuries assembled at the Eucharist not to express their own individual ideas, share their own individual stories, or sing their own individual song selections.  They came together as a body, to perform a set of corporate actions—that of listening to the Scriptures as a body, interceding as a body, exchanging the Peace among themselves, and offering up the Eucharistic Sacrifice as a body, led by the prayers of the one presiding.  To quote our perceptive reviewer again, “The early church was collectivist; expression was NOT ‘natural’ or ‘spontaneous’”.  In contrast to the early church, The Red Book “goes constantly wrong is in that [it] unwittingly panders to selfish individualism”.
            For Valentinus and Marcion, the history of liturgy is the history of a catastrophic downward spiral.  They trace many elements of the Protestant liturgical tradition to their origins, such as the “altar call”, the centrality of the sermon, the use of “the sinner’s prayer”.  This is salutary, since it reveals these elements to be of recent vintage, and not a part of the Church’s historic inheritance.  But it does not look at that historic liturgical inheritance in any real way.  In a footnote we read, “The story of the origin of the Mass is far beyond the scope of this book.  Suffice it to say that the Mass was essentially a blending together of a resurgence of Gentile interest in synagogue worship and pagan influence that dates back to the fourth century.”  It is difficult to know how to respond to such unhistorical twaddle.  To find such a combination of heated polemic and historical ignorance one usually has to peruse the pages of an Awake! magazine such as is thoughtfully provided by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  “Suffice it to say” that the Mass (or Divine Liturgy) was essentially the fruit of Christ’s commands during His Last Supper, and the influence of the apostles.
            One can see this when one looks at writings before the fourth century, such as those of Justin Martyr, who wrote in the second century.  In his Apology, he describes the Sunday morning service of the church with a kind of studied naivety, so that his hostile pagan readers can see that there is nothing to the slanders which they had heard, slanders about Christians eating the body and blood of babies.  In this work, he describes the service is this way:  on a Sunday morning, the Christians of the city “gather together in one place and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits.  Then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.  Then we all rise together and pray. [A little before this, Justin also added the detail that after these prayers, “we salute one another with a kiss”.]   When our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings according to his ability, and the people assent, saying, ‘Amen’, and there is a distribution to each...” (Apology, chapters 65-67).
            The main elements of the Sunday morning Eucharist that Justin knew in about 150 A.D. are thus as follows:
-Scripture reading
-homily from the one presiding
-intercessory prayer
-the exchange of the Peace
-Eucharistic Prayer of Thanksgiving
-reception of Holy Communion
            These elements are basically the same ones as later found in the Roman Mass in the west and the Byzantine Divine Liturgy in the east.  Certain other elements would be added later to fancy it up a bit—in the Byzantine service, three hymns would be added to the beginning, and a Creed inserted before the Eucharistic Prayer of Thanksgiving—but the essential elements, the backbone of the service, remain the same.   And let’s be clear:  if Justin was offering this description of the service in about the year 150, then it must have predated him by about a generation at least, for Justin gives no evidence that the service he describes was a controversial newcomer on the liturgical field.  A date of a generation before Justin puts the service he described almost in apostolic times, given that the apostle John died in the last decade of the first century.  In short, after the apostles separated the Eucharist from the agape, the Eucharist remained pretty much the same until Justin’s day—and our own.  There is no room or time for “a resurgence of Gentile interest in synagogue worship and pagan influence” to intrude themselves (whatever might be meant by those terms).  The Mass or Divine Liturgy is the apostolic way of worshipping on Sunday morning.   “Every member-functioning, spontaneity, freedom, vibrancy and open participation” might still be found in Sunday evening agape meals (though I suggest there was far less of that even there, since the early church did not value these things as do Valentinus and Marcion), but on Sunday morning, there was what The Red Book would call “static ritual”. 
            We Orthodox, whose Liturgy has not changed substantively for about a thousand years, are delighted with such static ritual—mostly because we do not experience it as static but as dynamic.  That is, it has a power, a dynamism, it is capable of transforming us and moving us and bringing us into the presence of Christ.  It is nonsense to define submission to His headship as the freedom to interrupt a service.  True submission to His headship is found in fidelity to the praxis established by His apostles.  Our Liturgy is not “set in concrete” as The Red Book alleges.  It is built upon a rock.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Burying the Gospel Talent in the Ethnic Ground

              I have lately come across an encyclical, written by a Greek Orthodox bishop to be read by his clergy in the parishes of his diocese.  He is concerned that Greek Orthodox Education be fostered within those parishes, and he exhorts the faithful to pursue the Greek Orthodox Education of their children with all vigour.  The bishop’s intention is honourable and consistent with his high episcopal calling.  For this bishop (and all Orthodox bishops) I have the utmost respect.  Nothing in the following thoughts should be construed as intending any disrespect whatever.  I kiss his canonical hand, offering all honour:  eis polla, eti despota.
            Nonetheless, I would like to suggest that something is amiss in much of North American Orthodoxy, and that this encyclical inadvertently witnesses to what this is. 
            The encyclical begins by stating that “Greece and Hellenism worldwide need a proper tidying and to be put in order”.  This tidying and order can be accomplished, the letter goes on to say, by vigorously pursuing Greek Orthodox Education.  “The aim of Greek Orthodox Education is key and essential for the perpetuation and progress of our people, but to also enter and inherit the Heavenly Kingdom of God.  Greek Orthodox Education helps put our house in order and it enriches the child’s soul.  Some parents expect their children to be Greek and Orthodox, without taking care to teach their children the Greek language, the Orthodox faith, and the Hellenic Christian ideals.”  For this reason, parents must take all care to teach the children to be Greek and Orthodox and to accept “the Hellenic Christian ideals” (what these ideals consist of is not stated, nor how they might differ from, say, Slavic Christian ideals.)  Parents “must speak the Greek language in the home and actively live the Orthodox faith”.  Appeal is made to the final judgment of Christ, so that these duties are “truly a matter of life and death for the perpetuation of our people and for the inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven”.
            The bishop is, I believe, reacting to the tendency he observes among his flock to abandon the ethnic Greek heritage, and along with it, the Orthodox Faith.  His remedy is to pursue the Greek Orthodox Education of the children more zealously, teaching them “the Greek language, the Orthodox faith and the Hellenic Christian ideals”.  Notice that for him, these all constitute a single package.  Here, I suggest, is the problem.  I mention this encyclical (with some hesitation) because I believe the problem lies not with this Greek bishop alone (whom I am sure is doing the best he can), nor with other Greek bishops, (who are doing the best they can).  The problem is not confined to the Greek Orthodox in North America.  I believe that the words “Russian”, “Ukrainian”, “Serbian”, “Romanian”, “Bulgarian” or other ethnic tags could be substituted for the word “Greek”.  The problem is not with Hellenism (for which I have the utmost admiration); it is with ethnicism per se, the unreflective tendency to include Orthodoxy as but one component in a larger ethnic package. 
The Greek Orthodox Church being the largest in North America, we see the tendency most easily among our Greek brethren, reflected in such films as My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  This film (one of my favourites) is an affectionate and not disrespectful look at what it means to grow up Greek in America.  Orthodoxy is presupposed, and scarcely noticed, like the colour of wallpaper in the background.  In the film, a nice but completely secular young man falls in love with and decides to marry a nice religious Greek Orthodox girl.  Since she is “religious”, and he is not, he decides to convert to her religion for the sake of family unity and peace.  He allows himself therefore to be baptized in the Orthodox Church (after presumably no catechesis whatever), while remaining an unbeliever.  Immediately after the baptism, he greets her jubilantly saying, “Now I’m Greek!”  It is a happy Kodak moment.  My point is that there is nothing in the film to suggest that this is outrageous.  He wants to be acceptable to her Greek family, and becoming outwardly Orthodox is the way to do this.  Orthodoxy is thus on par with Greek language, Greek customs, and Greek cuisine.  The Resurrection of Christ is no more significant to him than souvlaki.  It is this subordination of Faith to culture that is problematic.
To be fair to the Greek bishop (or to any Orthodox bishop), he would never say that the Resurrection is no more important than souvlaki or any other aspect of culture.  As a true bishop, doubtless he would boldly proclaim the centrality of the Resurrection and do his best to preach the Gospel.  But by wrapping the Gospel in ethnic clothing, and by refusing to the face the option that the Gospel might be preached and pursued apart from that ethnic clothing, a disservice is inadvertently done to the Gospel.  Face it:  multitudes of Greek young people (or Russian, or Ukrainian, or Serbian or Romanian, or whatever) will fall away from their ancestral ethnic heritage.  It is not wonderful, but it is inevitable.  I know of one excellent Romanian priest who speaks in his ancestral tongue to his boys over the dinner table:  they reply in English.  And they do this not to be rebellious but because, like it or not, they are becoming Anglicised by their experiences in school and in society around them.  The odds of them finding nice Romanian girls to marry and producing nice Romanian children are not assured.  Living in greater Vancouver, odds are they will fall in love with non-Romanian girls.  It happened to the heroine in My Big Fat Greek Wedding; it will probably happen to them also. 
It becomes crucial therefore that the Gospel be distinguished and separable (not separated necessarily, but separable) from the total ethnic package in which it was first found.  Losing one’s language and ancestral culture, while a cultural loss, is not catastrophic.  “The inheritance of the Kingdom of God” does not depend upon retaining any language or culture; it does depend upon retaining the Orthodox Faith.  By refusing to acknowledge that Orthodoxy is separable from culture or by presenting them as an inseparable and essential unity with that culture, one only insures that when culture is lost through passing generations, the Orthodox Faith will be lost also.  Orthodoxy in North America does indeed need to be tidied and put in order.  But this can only be accomplished by stressing the primacy of the Gospel.  “Our people” should not be defined as the omogenia of Greece, but as the entire Christian People of God, whatever their ethnicity and language.  We forget this at our peril, and the peril of our children. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Repost from Archive: Thoughts on "an Orthodox Defense of Gay Marriage"

          There is, of course, an immense supply of nonsense and twaddle freely available online, and responding to all of it would be a task dwarfing the cleaning out of the legendary Augean Stables.  Usually when I read such things and am tempted to respond, a little voice from “Firefly” plays in my head, saying, “Just keep walkin’, preacher man”, and I leave well enough alone.  But when I read a post purporting to be both learned and Orthodox (the author is a Ph.D, and describes the piece as “An Eastern Orthodox Defense of Gay Marriage”, I found that I could not just keep walkin’.  Despite the disclaimer, “the views expressed in this post belong solely to the author and are not representative of the Orthodox Church”, the unwary reader might think that the views are at least consistent with historic Orthodoxy.  The author, after all, does have a Ph.D. in theology.
            I refer to the July 13 post of Mr. David J. Dunn, PhD, in the Huffington Post, entitled, “Civil Unions by Another Name:  An Eastern Orthodox Defense of Gay Marriage”.  The author’s main point, it seems, is that all marriages outside the Church are in effect “civil unions by another name”, and not marriage as the Church understands it.  Mr. Dunn speaks of secular marriages such as are performed “by a judge in a courthouse” and then asserts, “strictly speaking, our theology does not recognize the legitimacy of such marriages.  They are not sanctified by the Spirit in the church.”  He does not suggest, however, that “people married in secular ceremonies are not ‘really’ married.”  He allows that “for practical purpose we tacitly recognize these civil marriages even if they don’t quite meet our theological standards.”  Mr. Dunn, drawing on the distinction between Christian marriages and non-Christian ones, asserts that “all marriages performed outside the church are civil marriages”.  I assume by “civil marriages”, he means the “civil unions” referred to in his title, as opposed to true marriages, for obviously marriages performed outside the Church are civil marriages—that is what the word “civil” means.  His point seems to be that they are not true marriages.  Rather, “all marriages granted by the state for tax and inheritance purposes are just civil unions by another name”.
           Mr. Dunn seems to recognize only two categories for two people living together in a publicly-recognized lasting commitment:   the sacramental marriages performed in the Church by the Holy Spirit, and mere civil unions performed outside the Church by the State. 
            Mr. Dunn is of course entitled to his opinions and to posting them anywhere he wishes.  But it is nonsense to bill them as “Eastern Orthodox”.  They are utterly alien to the understanding of the Orthodox Church.
          My first clue about the eccentric nature of his “Orthodoxy” came when he referred to the Holy Spirit as “she” in his fourth paragraph.  “She”?  Was this a typo?  Had Mr. Dunn been getting his theology from The Shack?   My second clue was when he used the adjective “Constantinian” as a theological swear word.
        This, I think, reveals the ideological DNA of Mr. Dunn’s make up.  When he says that, “When Constantine legalized Christianity in the early fourth century, some began to see an almost godlike authority in the state.  An increasing number of Christians found it difficult to tell the difference between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belong to God”, I know I am reading Anabaptist literature.  Menno Simons would’ve been proud, and could’ve written this.  Never mind that it is historical nonsense, and is the type of stereotypical pseudo-history spouted by the likes of Dan Brown.  My point is that it is also a thoroughly Protestant approach.
         An Orthodox and historically nuanced approach sees value in the Byzantinesymphonia of Church and State, and in Constantine’s contribution in particular.  (That is why we refer to him liturgically as “St. Constantine the Great, God-crowned and equal-to-the-apostles”.  We are not referring to his personal sanctity, but to his vision of the world.)  Unlike classical Protestantism, Orthodoxy sees the world as shot through with divine grace.  All persons, Christian or secular, partake of the divine image, all receive life from God (He is, after all, the only source), and all human acts of kindness, Christian or secular, reflect and gladden God’s heart.  The Reformed tradition asserted the contrary, and said that everything outside of the Church was tainted and sinful.  “Works done before the grace of Christ and the inspiration of his Spirit,” saith the Protestant Thirty-Nine Articles, “are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ...We doubt not but they have the nature of sin.”   This is the dour voice of classical Reformation Protestantism.  It is not the song of the Fathers or of the Orthodox.  Obviously there is a line between the Church and the World, between this fallen age and the Kingdom.  But even in this age we find God’s grace enlivening, brightening and leading all that He has created.  That is why, for instance, we bless the rivers and lakes of the world at Theophany.
       This historic Orthodox appreciation of God’s grace in the world and even in the institutions of the world (such as the State), did not begin with Constantine, Mr. Dunn’s suggestions to the contrary notwithstanding.  St. Paul himself referred to the State as “instituted by God” and “appointed” by Him (Rom. 13:1f).  The secular civil servant he called “God’s servant” (Greek leitourgos, a term elsewhere used to describe priests and apostles).  The pre-Nicene Church, for all its struggles with a persecuting State, did not fall into the error of a Manichean pessimism about the world God created.  It still confessed with the seraphim that “the whole earth is full of His glory” (Is. 6:3).  The State possessed a kind of divine authority from God for the restraining of evil and the prevention of social chaos.  The institutions of this age (many of which were regulated by the State, such as marriage) partook of the reflected glory that God generously imparts to all that He has made.
         Thus, a Christian in today’s secular and pluralistic society will recognize not two but three possibilities for public union of persons:  Christian marriage, celebrated in the Church by a priest; marriage in the world, as was celebrated and lived by all cultures and ages even before the coming of Christ; and civil unions properly speaking, which do not conform to the timeless and universal understanding of marriage, but for which the State wishes to make provision in terms of “tax and inheritance purposes”.
        The question is:  what is the essence of marriage, and why should the State care about it?
        Marriage is the union of two persons who have publicly agreed to live together and care for one another for the purposes of creating family.  (The fact that some married couples cannot have children is irrelevant to this definition; the historical purpose of marriage remains, even if some couples cannot fulfill it.)   The children resulting from such unions are the responsibility of the parents, and can only grow in physical, psychological and emotional health if both father and mother together raise them in a healthy way, so that the children in turn learn what it means to be a man or woman, a daddy or a mommy.  Usually in history, children in a family were the fruit of this co-habiting commitment between husband and wife (i.e. through sex), though of course adoption was also practiced. 
       This historical link between relationship and procreation is one of the things humanizing us. Creating children through pre-arranged one-time sexual unions or through government test-tube factories (such as we find in SF stories) is recognized as less than human—that is why they became the stuff of SF stories to begin with.  Whether we find it convenient in today’s culture or not, the rhyme “First comes love (or at least meeting), then comes marriage, then comes Mommy with a baby carriage” is the song and history of the world.  It is what the world, at all times and in all cultures, has meant by marriage.  The world has never thought of fixing or changing it, because the world has seen that it is not busted or in need of change.
          Today we have more or less completely sundered the link between sex and procreation, which is why we can talk at all about such an oxymoron as homosexual marriage.  But marriage, Christians and other monotheists think, was not created by society, and cannot be changed at whim by society.  It was created by God for His creation as the means of fulfilling it, enriching it, and sustaining it, and as the only authentic matrix for producing and raising children.  Because it was created by God to work in a certain way, we cannot change its fundamental character or purpose, or amend it, as if it were a clause in the US Constitution.  The State can, of course, come up with other models for lasting and hopefully mutually nurturative co-habitation, such as homosexual civil unions.  But we should not call these models marriage or equate them with marriage as timelessly practiced, for marriage has to do with the potential creation of families through sex, and this possibility is excluded in homosexual unions.
         Thus, marriage is the historical institution that produces children, and it is because these children are the building-blocks and hope for any society that the State recognizes a responsibility to and an interest in the institution producing them.  In this sense, the State indeed has legitimate business in the bedrooms of the nation (the assertion of the Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that it does not is historical nonsense, though it did make for a good political sound-bite in 1970s Canada).  Marriage, as we have seen, is not just a Christian or Orthodox institution.  It is a human one, and one that can enrich the lives of all citizens of the State whether they are Christian or not.  Thus the State has a rightful duty to regulate it and protect it, since the health and preservation of the institution forms the foundation and future of the society.  If the State concludes that polygamy is harmful to the healthy raising of children, it has the right to step in.  (Are you listening in the town of Bountiful, B.C.?)  If the State discerns that pride of place should go to unions that produce children, it should act in accordance with this discernment.
        “Calling upon the state to protect our sacrament” (to quote Mr. Dunn again), is not “an act of extreme unfaithfulness”.  It is asking the State to do the duty given to it by God for the preservation of the health of the family and the traditional understanding of gender which alone can create healthy family.  It is nonsense to assert that “denying civil marriage to homosexuals does nothing to protect its sanctity”.  That sanctity (or health, to use a more accurate word) is under attack from all quarters.  Declaring homosexual marriages to be true marriages, equal to classically-defined marriage has the immediate result of blessing homosexuality itself, and furthering the disastrous division of sexuality from procreation.
        The full dimensions of the disaster will not be immediately apparent, so that people like Mr. Dunn can assert that allowing gay marriage does nothing to hurt the marriages of non-gays.  It is true that if the State allows gay marriage in July 2011, all those people already married will not feel themselves impacted by suppertime.  They will not feel their marriages impacted at all.  The establishment of homosexual marriage is not a problem because of its impact on these people, or on those who will be married soon thereafter.  It is a problem because it fundamentally changes the nature of our understanding of sexuality and of the complementarity of the sexes in marriage required to create and raise children who have a healthy understanding of gender roles.  These changes will not be apparent in society in a year or even in a few years, and during this time liberals can truthfully and cheerfully report that those in traditional marriages still find their lives untouched.  But over the course of generations, the impact will be felt, and far-reaching results never foreseen or intended will surely come.  I cannot elaborate further on what these unforeseen results will be, or they would not to unforeseen.  But sexuality and gender is so basic to our nature (regardless of what gay propaganda says) that such a change will certainly be broad and far-reaching.
        In this the situation somewhat resembles the liberalization of divorce laws in Canada in the 1960s.  There may have been good reasons for the liberalization which made divorce easier than before.  The foreseen and intended result was the support of suffering spouses and meeting the need to shorten and end that suffering.  The unforeseen result was the present culture of divorce and the explosion of the number divorces after but a few years of marriage, with heart-break for the divorced spouses themselves and latent long-term instability for the children who see their worlds torn apart.  Yet another result has been the rise of single-parent families with its almost inevitable financial pressure and the much-lamented “child poverty”.   These results were not foreseen nor intended, but they can be traced back to the change in divorce laws nonetheless.
        In the same way, creating a category of homosexual marriage inevitably will alter the perception of sexuality in the succeeding generations in ways we cannot foresee.  It is true that the Church can remain aloof from society, and hunker down in its bunker while society around them experiences the problems traced back to its having shifted its basic foundations.  We can say, “We still maintain our traditional marriage practices, even though society around us doesn’t, so we don’t care what society does.”  We would score high in purity of doctrine, but quite low in being our brother’s keeper.  The Church does have a stake in what secular society does (contra the Anabaptists and Mr. Dunn).  That is why we Christians urge society to do things which will help all those in society, whether they are Christians or not.  We urge the State to help feed the poor.  We urge to State to educate its young about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.  And we do this urging, not just because we are concerned that Christians be fed and saved from drug and alcohol abuse, but because we want everyone else to be fed and saved too.  In the matter of fundamental truths in society, we are our brother’s keeper.
        It is true that changing the laws to allow same-sex marriage will not immediately result in a flood of such marriages, since the homosexual part of North American population seems to run at between 1 and 4%.  That is not the point.  The point is that we changing our cultural understanding of what gender means, and the logic of this change will work itself out in many unforeseen ways in the coming generations regardless of marriage stats in 2011 or the decades after. Our children’s children, looking back at us in a hundred years’ time, will not rise up to call us blessed.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Red Book on Church Buildings

           In a previous post, I mentioned a volume I referred to as The Red Book, a volume denouncing the practices of the historic church (both Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant) in favour of its own prescription for a house church re-imagining of what its authors thought the first century church looked like.  These authors I referred to as Valentinus and Marcion, changing their names, as C.S. Lewis changed the names of the authors of a volume he called The Green Book.  In this post I would like to examine their teaching about church buildings.
            For proponents of the house church, the use of a building specially set apart for the worship and glorification of God is problematic, if not anathema.  Accordingly, a chapter of The Red Book consists of a demonization of the whole concept of church temple.  “The story of the church building,” they write, “is the sad saga of Christianity borrowing from heathen culture and radically transforming the face of our faith.”  It makes the obvious point the “the Church” (Greek ekklesia) refers to the people of God, wherever they may meet, not whatever building they may use for their meeting, and that “the Christianity that conquered the Roman Empire was essentially a home-centered movement.”  That is, from the earliest days, the Christians largely met in the homes of other Christians.  Obviously, in the first century, the Christians did not have the resources to build structures dedicated to the worship of Christ, nor, since their Eucharistic worship then was incorporated into a common meal and the numbers participating in this were small, did such structures seem necessary.  But the numbers soon grew.
            Meeting in homes for the Eucharist became unnecessary in the second century because by then the Eucharist proper (i.e. the blessing of bread and cup) had become separated from a full meal.  The separation was probably effected in the first century by the apostles themselves.  St. Ignatius of Antioch, martyred in about 107 A.D., refers in his letters to both “the Eucharist” and “the agape” (i.e. the love feast) as two distinguishable and separate events.  Since terminology usually lags at least somewhat behind phenomenon, the phenomenon of the separation of Eucharist from meal clearly took place earlier—that is, in the first century.  That it took place with apostolic authority may be implied from the total lack of any evidence of controversy about the separation, for if the apostles had not sanctioned such a separation, separating it would have evinced strenuous protest.  Since we have no evidence of any such protest anywhere, we may confidently assume that the separation of Eucharist from love-feast took place under the authority of the apostles.  The Eucharist could then take place in any locale, and homes with dining room facilities were no longer necessary for Eucharistic worship.
            This is not to say that Christian worship instantly abandoned the domestic locale.  Building church temples especially dedicated for worship was not high on the list of ante-Nicene priorities, especially when the Christians were happy to fly under the Roman radar.  A secular Roman report tells us that the Christians of the early second century met before dawn on Sunday morning “to sing a hymn to Christ as to a god”, and then met later that day for an evening meal—evidence of an early morning Eucharist and an agape later on.  Possibly the same house was used for both; possibly not.  More people could fit in a room for the former than for the latter.
            But soon the Christians did begin to build structures set apart for the Eucharist and the sacraments of the Church.  The Red Book even mentions one of them—the so-called Dura-Europus in modern Syria, a former house in which its owners knocked down a wall or two to transform a domestic dwelling into a place set apart for Eucharistic assembly and baptism.  Valentinus and Marcion state that “remodelled houses like Dura-Europus cannot rightfully be called ‘church buildings’”, but it is difficult to see why not, since such remodelled houses clearly no longer functioned as homes as they did before.  A store-front church is a church, not a store, and the Dura-Europos structure was a church building, not a house.
            Valentinus and Marcion are emphatic that Constantine was “the father of the church building”, so that “for the first three centuries, the Christians did not have any special buildings”.  (We have seen that for Valentinus and Marcion, Dura-Europus did not count.) 
            To put it bluntly, this is a lie.  The Dura-Europus structure was, unsurprisingly, not unique.  Wherever money and political situation allowed, the Christians soon built structures of their own, dedicated to the worship of Christ.  We know this because the pagan emperor Galerius referred to them in the so-called “Edict of Toleration” in 311, issued also in the names of Constantine and Licinius.  Church buildings which had been seized by pagans were ordered to be returned to the Christians:  “Concerning the Christians,” the Imperial decree ran, “we before gave orders with respect to the places set apart for their worship.  It is now our pleasure that all who have bought such places should restore them to the Christians, without any demand for payment”.  Clearly, the Christians had erected “places set apart for their worship”, which had been seized by pagans in times of persecution and which now the government was demanding be returned.  It is simply untrue therefore that the Christians “did not have any special buildings”; they had enough of them even before Constantine called off the dogs of war to figure in this edict of toleration.  In fact, the church historian Eusebius writes that even in the third century, there were “famous gatherings in the houses of prayer, on whose account the Christians, not being satisfied with the ancient buildings, erected from the foundation large churches in all the cities”.  The Church Father Lactantius writes that the persecuting Emperor Diocletian was disturbed that there was a Christian basilica near the Imperial palace at Nicomedia.  Dura-Europus was therefore but one of many such church buildings erected in the third century, well before the peace of Constantine.
            What led these early Christians to create buildings set apart for worship?  Like any such question beginning with the word “why”, we can only guess at the answer.  Certainly numbers had something to do with it.  As the renovators of the Dura-Europos house discovered, you can fit more people into a building specially designed for worship than you can into your living room, and after the first century, the numbers of Christians kept on increasing.  Also, a building set apart for Christian worship would have been “owned” by the Christians corporately, not by a single individual:  even though one individual held the deed of ownership of the building (to use modern terms), all the Christians worshipping there would have regarded it as “theirs”, and held a stake in it.  Thus no one person could dominate and personalize the gathering, putting their idiosyncratic “stamp” on it.  The strong sense of corporate identity which the Christians had led them to create buildings which were corporately “owned”.
            This is the unacknowledged problem with all house churches.  When a person makes a building his home, it looks like his—since it is his home, its decoration, lay-out, and interiors all express his personality and tastes.  The owner of the building is thus uniquely positioned to dominate the gathering, even if he (or she) is not a domineering sort of person.  When the church meets at Bob’s house, Bob’s views, opinions, and convictions have a tremendously important role to play in whatever that church decides.  This is all the more so in the absence of an ordained and authoritative clergy who themselves submit to an already-established Tradition.  The modern house church that meets at Bob’s place inevitably becomes Bob’s church, and such idiosyncratic personalization of “church” is the essence of heresy.  Even if Bob is not strictly speaking heretical, the fullness and catholicity of the Faith will be lacking, because for all his good intentions and piety, Bob, or any other individual, cannot express the fullness of the Faith.  Only the universal apostolic Tradition can do that.  The modern house church movement thus has a personalizing tendency already built in.  This unfortunate tendency is minimized when the church meets in a public building that all share equally.   
            I think, though, that the main reason the Christians of the second and third centuries began to create church buildings was not simply to avoid personalization of the Faith (possessing an ordained and authoritative clergy who themselves submitted to an already established Tradition, there was little danger of that).  Buildings were not just structures to house people and keep the rain off their heads.  Erecting a building was a statement—a challenge, if you like.  When the Jews erected synagogue buildings, this building was an assertion of the legitimacy and truth of Judaism.  A pagan temple was a statement of the power and glory of the pagan deity worshipped there.  Statements can be made in stone as well as words.  And if the Christians of the second and third centuries (and later) were going to commend their Faith to the world, these statements in stone needed to be made.  To refuse to make the statement—to refuse to build church buildings and to continue to worship only in homes—would’ve been to tell the world that the Christian Faith did not possess the legitimacy of Judaism or of paganism.  It was a matter of credibility before the world—that is, of evangelism.  
That is why Constantine (who as far as Valentinus and Marcion are concerned could do nothing right) was indeed right in building large churches.  It is true that something was lost as far as intimacy was concerned when the church building now could hold not just seventy persons but seven hundred.  For what its worth, Constantine’s building projects were not that numerous compared to the number of actual church buildings, and lots of smaller church buildings remained.  He was concerned to build spacious and beautiful structures in Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and other important places; he was less concerned to splurge limited funds in tiny towns in out of the way spots.  There were still plenty of small churches, which afforded a corresponding intimacy.  But the world’s attention was on the larger places, and making architectural statements there was a necessary part of commending the Christian Faith to a still largely pagan world.  This is all the more important when one reflects that a church temple erected especially for worship will continue to be used for that purpose for generations, which would not be the case if one met for worship in a private home.  Meeting for worship at Bob’s house will cease when Bob moves away or dies; meeting for worship in a specially-built church temple will continue long after we and Bob have gone—a further manifestation of the abiding truth of the Faith.
For us today, the existence of buildings set apart for the worship of Christ serves yet another purpose—that of carving out a place, in a militantly secular world, where everything speaks of the glory of Jesus, and where prayer is encouraged by our surroundings.  One can, of course, pray anywhere, and one does not need icons or outward beauty in order to commune with God.  Christians have prayed (and are praying) in terrible gulag conditions.  But if you’re like me, you appreciate all the help you can get.  Since we are animal as well as spiritual, our outward surroundings do effect us, often profoundly, and an environment in which everything points us to God is helpful as we strive to lay aside all earthly cares and commune with the King of all.  The church building itself therefore becomes part of our self-offering, something beautiful which we offer to God, an architectural hymn, a way of singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.  Constantine was not the first one to sing this song.  But he sang it very well, and we can still appreciate its fading echoes as we strive to sing the same song.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Red Book

           In 1943, C.S. Lewis wrote a pamphlet, later published under the title The Abolition of Man.  In it he referred to a book the contents of which he found utterly repelling.  Regarding the authors of the book, he affirmed, “I shall have nothing good to say of them”.  Being a man of decency and kindness, Lewis examined the book’s content at length, but said of the writers, “I propose to conceal their names. I shall refer to these gentlemen as Gaius and Titius and to their book as The Green Book.”  He promised his readers, however, that the book did exist, and that he had it on his shelves.
            Like Lewis, I also have come into contact with a book the contents of which I find utterly repelling.  It is full of lies, mistakes, half-truths, and distortions.  It breathes a spirit of pride and arrogance, as it examines the faith and practice of Protestants, Roman Catholics and Orthodox (that is, pretty much everyone) and finds them all mistaken, misled and damaging to authentic spiritual life.  It involves throughout a hermeneutic of historical suspicion, for it takes for granted that the Church Fathers were half-pagan men who distorted and paganized the Christian Faith.  (That the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism were wrong is taken for granted, as it is in most partisan Evangelical Protestant writing.)  Much of the blame for pretty much everything in the Church is laid at the feet of the Emperor Constantine, whom the two authors regard as essentially pagan (his mother Helen does not come off much better, but is described as “most noted for her obsession with relics”).  Everything characteristic of Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and classical and revivalist Protestantism is denounced and jettisoned.  I found the hubris involved in the project completely breath-taking. 
            Also like Lewis, “I propose to conceal their names”, and shall refer to these gentlemen as Valentinus and Marcion, and to their book as The Red Book.  (In this I am admittedly motivated not so much by the kindness that motivated Lewis as I am by a reluctance to publicize the volume in any way.)   But I also promise you that this book exists, and that I have it on my shelves.  (I am filing it in the “Cult” section of my library.  It is nestling comfortably against Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.)
            One thing nice I can say about Valentinus and Marcion.  They appear to be quite sincere.  They are doing their best to question anything that to their mind distorts the true Christian Faith, and are prepared to jettison most of their own Protestant heritage as quickly as they have already, like most Protestants, jettisoned the Roman Catholic heritage.  They are striving to question long-standing presuppositions, however entrenched these might be in Protestant praxis.   But the one presupposition that they do not seem to question is the one fundamental to all fundamentalists—namely that the New Testament gives us a blue-print for how to “do” church, and that we should follow it slavishly today.  
That is, Valentinus and Marcion have rejected the notion (probably without knowing it) that the New Testament is rooted and situated within the flow of history.  Any development that took place after the last New Testament document was penned is simply rejected out of hand as dilution and distortion, as a paganization of the pristine Faith.  Thus they pretend that they are still in the first century and try to reproduce its practices.   Even here they are not self-consistent, for if they really wanted to reproduce the ecclesiastical life of the first century and “do church” like they did then, they would not refer to the New Testament as an authoritative body of literature, for the concept of a “New Testament” (i.e. the canon) was a much later development.  They would not even read from the four Gospels, for the churches to whom Paul wrote did not read any of these Gospels, since they had not yet been written.  The stories of Jesus circulated then as part of an oral tradition (Acts 20:35 preserves a fragment of this oral tradition, one which did not make it into any of the four Gospels).  Rejecting the principle of valid and divinely-led development is therefore not “on” for the Christian, for use of the New Testament canon presupposes it.  We can have confidence in the Church and the developments that it eventually accepted.  Christ promised that He would guide His Church into all truth (Jn. 16:13), and there is no suggestion that the promise had an expiry date.  When Christ said that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Mt. 16:18), He didn’t add, “at least not until the beginning of the second century”.  
In future posts, I would like to examine The Red Book more thoroughly, even as Lewis examined The Green Book—and not simply because the book needs an answer.  It doesn’t really.  If one committed oneself to answering every idiotic critique of the Faith, one would never have time to sleep.  But I would like to examine it because it by examining its mistakes, fallacies, lies, and half-truths, we may come to understand the truth of our Orthodox Faith more fully.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Loving the Apocalypse

           Ever since I first became a Christian in 1970, I have had a special love for the Book of Revelation.  I would spend hours and hours reading every commentary I could find in the various colleges of the Toronto School of Theology, reaching into dusty corners of their libraries to pore over volumes that had never before been checked out by another living soul.  I was obsessed, and on fire to learn as much as I could.  (I have since had to unlearn much of that learning, but that is another matter.)  The Apocalypse and I go way back.
Some of this overwhelming interest came to me from my involvement with the Jesus People.  In the Jesus Movement (the womb from whence I came), there was a great enthusiasm for all things prophetic, especially the Book of Revelation.  There was, however, little understanding of the apocalyptic genre, and books like The Late, Great Planet Earth taught us to view the Book of Revelation as a series of predictions of future events (which is emphatically not the way to read that genre).  Moreover, the popular approach poured the Apocalypse, the Book of Daniel, and St. Paul’s teaching on “the man of sin” into the same hermeneutical blender, assuming that all these referred to the same events, and from it prepared a potent prophetic cocktail.  Most of the Jesus People I hung out with assumed that those apocalyptic events were soon to be fulfilled (the author of Late, Great Planet Earth more or less set 1988 as the terminus date), and we were all living in state of high excitement.  Those were the days.  We were, of course, crazy.
            Next, as I kept reading, I discovered that all Christians since the days of the apostles did not, in fact, share this view, which we characterized as “pre-mill, pre-trib”.  (Don’t worry about the terms; it’s a long story.)  A Pentecostal pastor, a dedicated man of faith by the name of H.A. Maxwell Whyte, introduced me to the view of the classical Reformers, which identified the Antichrist with the Pope.  In this view, the Book of Revelation contains a series of future events, stretching from the time of the apostles to the Second Coming, with the predicted Reformation holding pride of place, as the Church battled the papal Beast.  This view shared with the “pre-mill, pre-trib” view the understanding that the Apocalypse contained a series of predictions for which one could find individual, specific historical fulfilments.  (One of the bowl judgments of Rev. 16 was supposed to be the French Revolution; I forget which one.)  To us moderns, this view sounds, if possible, even whackier than the previous one, but it can at least claim historical pedigree, since Luther, Calvin, Knox, and the translators of the Authorized King James Version held to it.  (Read the original Dedicatory Epistle in the KJV which flatters King James as God’s instrument whose writings “hath given such a blow unto that man of sin [i.e. the Pope], as will not be healed”.)  Never mind that this view cannot stand up to real historical scrutiny, and that it equates “the Church” with “the western Church”.  In its time, it was all the rage among Protestants, and it won me over too.  Thank you, Pastor Whyte.
            As I kept on reading both history and Scripture, however, I could not shake the feeling that the events of the Book of Revelation bore eerie resemblance to the Church’s early struggle with the Roman Empire, and that the Beast was the Emperor of pagan Rome. My classical Protestant view of the Apocalypse kept getting refined and retooled and revised until eventually it died the death of a thousand exegetical cuts, and I had to abandon the view of classical Protestantism entirely.  I came to see that the whole Apocalypse was addressed to the situation of the seven churches of Asia (no surprise), and that it was about the struggle of those churches with the power of the State, the city that sat on seven hills and reigned over the kings of the earth (see Rev. 17:18).  This first century shoe has proven to fit a great many other feet, and those who find in it a reflection of their own modern struggle with totalitarian power are not wrong.
            As I said, my love for the Book of Revelation goes back a long way, and when I first started writing the commentaries that would at length become the Orthodox Bible Study Companion series published by Conciliar Press, I started with the Book of Revelation.  Writing it was a labour of love.  I am delighted to share my labours now with you.  Those labours can be accessed here.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What is the Language of the Church?

            Every religion seems to have its own characteristic language.  For Islam, the classic language would be Arabic.  For western Christianity (as history books tell us), it would be Latin.  What would be the classic language of Orthodoxy?   
One is tempted to answer:  Greek.  The New Testament was written in Greek (the international language of its day); the discussions and definitions of the Church’s Ecumenical Councils were conducted and hammered out in Greek (since those Councils were all held in the eastern part of the Roman Empire); and many of the Fathers wrote in Greek.  Would the defining language of Orthodoxy be Greek?
            Close, as they say, but “no cigar”.  In the defining moment of the Church’s life, on the Day of Pentecost, the apostles did not all speak Greek.  They spoke a variety of languages, languages that were understood by “devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5).  The Pentecostal miracle of speaking in tongues revealed that all the languages of the earth would henceforth be equally suitable for the proclamation of the Gospel.  The New Testament may have been written in Greek, but it was capable of translation into any other language, in a way that the Muslims say that their Qur’an is not.  (To this day, Muslims insist that their Qur’an, as the ippsissima verba of Allah, cannot properly be translated from the Arabic, and “translations” of their book do not bear the title, “The Qur’an”, but rather “The Meaning of the Qur’an”.)  Christians, in contrast, have always insisted that the Greek of the New Testament can, and should, be translated into all the tongues of men. 
            Is there then no language that Christians can claim as characteristically their own?  I believe there is.  It is the language of Canaan, and by this, I do not mean Hebrew.  What do I mean by “the language of Canaan”?   Read all about it here, in my article posted on “The Sounding” blog.