Monday, February 22, 2016

The Consensus of the Fathers

          How can you be sure what the Bible teaches?  I get this question a lot from inquirers and catechumens.  Most of them come from Protestantism, where their experience has taught them that the Bible is not self-interpreting and that appeals therefore to sola scriptura are in vain.  Indeed this was not a recent lesson; from the early days of the Reformation it became apparent that Scripture needed a lens through which it could be read—hence the famous fight between Luther and Zwingli and between the Anabaptists and everyone else.  The Pope then said, of course, that he was the lens, a conviction echoed later in the Roman Catholic assertion that an official Magisterium is needed if chaos was to be avoided.  (Roman Catholic polemicists still make that point.)  Classic Protestantism, while rejecting the Pope and the traditions he embodied, were quick to produce their own lenses through which to read the Bible—lenses such as the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, and the Dordrecht Confession.  While not precisely a “confession” like those others, even the Church of England produced its Thirty-nine Articles to set the boundaries for what was and was not an acceptable way of reading the Scriptures regarding certain topics.
            How then can we Orthodox be sure what the Bible teaches?  What is our lens?  We have no “confession” or document authoritatively pronouncing on controversial issues.  The so-called “Confession of Dositheos”, ratified in 1672 by the Synod of Jerusalem, does not possess the same weight for the Orthodox as the Augsburg Confession possessed for classical Lutherans.  And the Seven Ecumenical Councils did not claim to offer a complete compendium of teaching on such things as sacraments, Scripture’s authority, predestination, saints, the fate of the soul after death, or other details of Orthodox doctrine and praxis.  Rather the Councils dealt exclusively with the controversial matters that concerned them, especially questions of Christology.  For help answering such questions as, “How are we to interpret certain Old Testament passages and what is the proper use of typology?  What happens to us immediately after we die?  Does God predestine individuals to eternal damnation?”, we cannot turn to the Seven Councils.  Something more is needed.
            That “something more” is the consensus of the Fathers.  Here however we have to be careful and see the Fathers as they really were.  In an age of chaos and uncertainty like ours when everything around us seems to be coming unglued, the temptation to fundamentalism can be particularly strong.  Of course everyone has their own definition of fundamentalism, and the term is often used as a kind of theological swear-word (often paired with the ad hominem dismissal of someone as a “convert”).  By “fundamentalism” I mean an approach to Scripture or history which ignores nuance, complexity, and historical context to create an authority which can pronounce on all questions and provide certainty in all matters, even in matters when no legitimate certainty is possible. 
One can treat the Fathers like this too.  In this non-historical reading of the Fathers, one seeks and finds total unanimity in everything because, it is asserted, the Fathers were completely indwelt and inspired by God.  Here the Fathers are almost superhuman Spirit-bearers, and their authority resides in their individual and collective sanctity and closeness to God.  It is thought inconceivable that one could dwell so close to God and yet make theological mistakes.  So, since all the Fathers walked with God in this way, the teaching of each Father must be completely correct in all details and must therefore agree with all the other Fathers in all details.  In this reading, general consensus is replaced by complete uniformity, and differences concerning (for example) different ways of using typology in reading the Old Testament or different views regarding the eternity of hell are ignored and (worse yet) misconstrued to force them into the same mould. 
This approach to the Fathers minimizes history as well, and is disturbed when finding that the Fathers had vices and weaknesses as well as virtues.  I remember, for example, one such hagiographical approach to the famous conflict between St. John Chrysostom and St. Epiphanius, who clearly had little time for each other.  One story, anecdotal but accurately expressing the mutual rancour, reported that when Epiphanius left Constantinople for his native Cyprus, he sent John a message saying, “I hope you will no longer be a bishop when you die”, and John responded, “And I hope you will not set foot in your city again.”  Ouch.  How could two holy bishops and Spirit-bearing saints become so exasperated that they traded such barbs?  Therefore one hagiographical account presents them not as trading barbs but prophecies:  “Chrysostom wrote Epiphanius a letter: ‘My brother Epiphanius, I hear that you have advised the Emperor that I should be banished:  know that you will never again see your episcopal throne.’  To this Epiphanius wrote in return: ‘John, my suffering brother, withstand insults, but know that you will not reach the place to which you are exiled.’ And these two prophecies of the two saints soon came about.”  Such holiness!  Such untroubled harmony!  Here history with all its gray shading, complexity, and variety gives way to fundamentalist ideology.  A better approach would be to recognize that both saints had their gifts which enriched the Church, as well as their weaknesses, and that they were canonized because of the gifts.  They were both holy, but holiness does not mean sinlessness.  Even saints could slip and make mistakes.  In fact they can be exemplars for us precisely because they struggled with the same vices and temptations that afflict us as well.  Finding a consensus among the Fathers does not involve sandpapering away all their differences.
So then what does it involve?  In a word, the recognition that the Fathers share a tremendous amount of doctrine and practice, and this was the result of them having received it from the apostles before them.  The amount of agreement shared, though general, is wide, and the diversity of patristic temperament and geography makes this large area of agreement all the more impressive. 
This is what Irenaeus says too.  “The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it.  She also believes these points just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth” (Against Heresies, 1,10,2).   Though there were many diverse teachers in the Church throughout the world, one could still discern among them a single identifiable teaching.
We find this recognition of an identifiable faith in St. Vincent of Lerins also:  “But someone perhaps will ask, ‘Since the canon of scripture is complete and sufficient of itself for everything, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation?’  For this reason—because owing to the depth of Holy Scriptures, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another, so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters…Therefore, it is very necessary that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of ecclesiastical and catholic interpretation.  In the Catholic Church, all possible care must be taken that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all…We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses” (A Commonitory, 2.5-6).
These citations show that there was an identifiable faith, something solid and consistent, to be found in all the churches throughout the world.  This is expressed in the consensus of the Fathers.  It consists most importantly in the “rule of faith”, embodied in our Creed, but it is not confined to that.  St. Basil wrote that is also included such things as making the sign of the Cross, facing east for prayer, the content of the Eucharistic anaphora, and baptism using a triple immersion (On the Holy Spirit, chapter 27).  To these we might add:  the basic meaning and form of baptism and of the Eucharist, the tradition of ordaining only men to the presbyterate and episcopate, the sinfulness of abortion, the sinfulness of homosexual acts, the legitimacy of baptizing infants, the proper use of the Old Testament Scriptures, the proper understanding of the place of the nation of Israel, the place of fasting and asceticism in the Christian life, the authority of the Scriptures, the existence of angels, demons, and the unseen world, and many others. 
We see this same reference to the Fathers as authoritative in some of the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils.  Thus the second council of Constantinople in 553:  “We further declare that we hold fast to the decrees of the four Councils, and in every way follow the holy Fathers, Athanasius, Hilary, Basil, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Theophilus, John [Chrysostom] of Constantinople, Cyril, Augustine, Proclus, Leo…”  Thus too the second council of Nicea in 787 regarding the use of icons:  “Thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church, which is from one end of the earth to the other…Thus we follow Paul who spoke in Christ, and the whole divine apostolic company, and the holy Fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received”.  St. Cyril too, writing to Nestorius, refers to the Fathers:  “I take little reckoning of the words of [my detractors], for the disciple is not above his Master, nor would I stretch the measure of my narrow brain above the Fathers”.  In these citations too we see that the Fathers were viewed in antiquity as an identifiable and authoritative source of orthodoxy, and that one could appeal to their teaching. 
There are many things not included in the consensus, such as for example whether or not women may receive the Eucharist during their monthly periods, the importance of celibacy, and the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews.  But as it stands, the amount of consensus among the Fathers is formidable—and sufficient to constitute a lens through which the Church may read Scripture.
Moreover this consensus came to include new questions that arose as well—things such as the legitimacy of Christian involvement in the State and in military service, the divinity of Christ, and the legitimacy of icons.  The Church believes that ultimately it is guided by the Holy Spirit so that when it reaches a settled consensus and the majority of its members eventually agree about a considered controversial opinion, this represents the guidance of God.  One here stresses the word “eventually”, for it took time before a consensus finally emerged, and a majority of the faithful reached agreement.  The process was all lengthier and messier than the Emperor usually wanted, which is what makes Byzantine Church history both so interesting and occasionally depressing.  But ultimately we believe that the Church as a whole was guided to the truth, as Christ promised (John 16:13).  If this were not so, how then could one be sure that the Church was right about anything and that (for example) the Arians were not correct after all? 
A belief in the reliability of the Church’s received doctrine as the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15) is the foundation for a belief in the consensus of the Fathers, for we access the former through the latter.  God may indeed guide all the Christians so that it is the consensus fidelium that really counts.  But most of the faithful live and die without leaving written records; their consensus therefore lives in the consensus of those who did leave written records—namely the Fathers.  Through the broad agreement which the Fathers share we can discern the faith of the Church.  To do otherwise is to cast any ultimate certainty to the wind.  Arius no doubt would want to argue now that such a solid and lasting consensus counts for nothing, and that one should give greater credence to a minority report (like his).  The Church has decided against such an approach. 
In the absence of a patristic lens for reading the Scripture we Orthodox are left at the mercy of the loudest voices—either the voice of the latest popular author writing the latest best-seller, or perhaps the voice of the scholar whose theories happen to be currently ascendant in the academic world.  But all such popularity fades, as best-sellers are relegated to the dusty shelves of second-hand bookshops, and as one academic theory succeeds another.  Contemporary popularity is thus a very poor lens through which the read the Scriptures.  So, if we Orthodox reject the consensus of the Fathers, when someone asks us the question, “How can you be sure what the Bible teaches?”, we are reduced to answering, “Actually, when it comes right down to it, we haven’t a clue.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A Fixed Date for Pascha?

        Recently there has been some talk in church circles of changing the present calendar so that Pascha (or “Easter” as it is known in the West) falls on the same day every year. The present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, made headlines lately by saying that he would join the talks already under way between Pope Francis and leaders of the Coptic Church to fix a date for Easter so that the same date would apply to all Christians and so that all Christian churches could celebrate Christ’s Resurrection at the same time. Under the current system, the date of Easter is determined by the formula of Easter falling on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. This means that the date of Easter can vary as much as 35 days from one year to the next. Orthodox churches use the same formula, but because they use the Julian equinox, the date of “Orthodox Easter” can diverge from that of the West, sometimes falling later. Among the secular advantages touted by such a change were the fact that it would be a boon to schools, which could know well in advance when their Easter holidays were coming, and to the leisure industry, which could book trips for holidays at the same time every year.
          What should Orthodox Christians think of such things? Here we must distinguish two separate issues in this proposal: firstly, the ecumenical concept of a common Paschal date for all Christians, and secondly, the concept of setting a fixed date for the celebration, one dependent upon the solar calendar, not the lunar one. I would like to deal with both issues, and suggest that on both fronts we Orthodox should resist this proposed change, not because we always resist change on principle, but because the idea fails for three separate (and unequal) reasons: the theological, the political, and the spiritual.
          First, let us examine the theological reasons for taking a pass on fixing a common date for Pascha.
          The formula for finding the date for Pascha was set by the first ecumenical council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Though the acta and the minutes of the Council have not survived (it is not mentioned in its canons), it seems clear from other surviving sources that this council did indeed establish such a formula. (For the historical details, one may consult The Church of the Ancient Councils, by Archbishop Peter L’Huillier, SVS Press, 1996.) That formula dictated that Pascha should be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Implicit in this formula was the concern that Pascha always be celebrated on a Sunday (along with the majority of Christian churches of that time) and not on the fourteenth of Nisan (as certain churches in Asia did, regardless of whether or not Pascha fell on a weekday); and also that the Church not be dependent upon the Jews for the date, (which dependence would usually place it before the spring equinox).
          Accepting a fixed date for Pascha would mean overthrowing the Christian consensus and acceptance of Nicea which has prevailed since the fourth century. Theoretically such a sea-change could be made, but only by another ecumenical council which was accepted by a similar consensus as the one that prevailed after Nicea. The non-Orthodox world symbolized by the archbishop of Canterbury clearly has little problem with unilaterally junking Nicea (when was the last time that its canons were quoted as binding in the Church of England?), but it is otherwise among the Orthodox. For us the seven ecumenical councils remain authoritative. The junking of the Nicene decision regarding Pascha therefore would have more than merely calendar significance. It also would speak volumes about our willingness to cut ourselves free from any past authority we might now regard as inconvenient. It is does not require much imagination to see where such “liberty” could lead. Our theology does not allow us to junk the ecumenical councils in such cavalier fashion.
          Even apart from our loyalty to the ecumenical council which produced the formula, such a decision would also sever Pascha from its Old Testament roots. The very name “pascha” tethers us theologically to those roots, for “pascha” is simply a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word “pesach”, meaning “passover”. Thus John 13:1: “Now before the feast of the passover [Greek pascha], Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart from this world”. This term pesach in turn was derived from the Hebrew verb meaning “to pass (over)”. Thus Exodus 12:11f: “It [this supper] is the Lord’s passover [Hebrew pesach]...when I see the blood [on your houses] I will pass over you [Hebrew pasachti alekem] and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you when I smite the land of Egypt”. (Despite some popular etymology, the Greek word pascha / πασχα has nothing to do with the verb “to suffer” [Greek pascho/ πασχω]. Indeed, when the Passover lamb was slain, care was taken to inflict upon it as little suffering as possible. What mattered was its death and blood, not its experience of suffering.)
          This connection with the Jewish feast is important, for it roots our Christian celebration in its original Hebrew and Biblical soil. The Jewish feast is determined by the lunar cycle and the appearance of the full moon. Fixing a date for the Christian feast determined solely by the solar calendar and independent of the lunar cycle would weaken this historical linkage. Maintaining this Jewish connection allows us to see more easily the common connecting themes of history, blood sacrifice, death, deliverance, and a call to freedom in the promised land. It serves to underscore the underlying Jewish nature of our Christian faith, and the unity of the new covenant with the old. Casting aside history and theology for the sake of knowing in advance when to plan the school holidays would be a poor trade. Thus both our theological loyalty to the ecumenical councils as well as our theological connection with the Old Testament serve to dissuade us from junking the present formula.
          There are also political considerations, part of our ecclesiastical Realpolitik. The last time we Orthodox made substantial changes in the calendar, a tremendous schism resulted which remains unhealed to this day. Does anyone imagine that changing something as momentous as the date of Pascha would not result in a similar schism? This possibility is made all the more certain since the change is being promoted as another important step in the ecumenical drawing together of all the Christian churches. Ecumenism is arguably even more controversial among the Orthodox than questions of calendar. The fact that we do not presently agree even upon a definition of ecumenism, makes the probability of future schism even more certain. I am not a person who regards the word “ecumenical” with visceral repulsion. There is, I submit, both a good ecumenism and a bad ecumenism. But as I survey the present international ecclesiastical landscape, I cannot see many reasons for drawing near to the non-Orthodox churches as they are in their present state. The communion represented by the archbishop of Canterbury, for example, exults in women priests and bishops, and is currently pushing (in the west anyway) for gay marriage. Do we Orthodox really want to stress our solidarity or identity with them right now? The western churches seem to be departing ever further from historical orthodoxy, even when it is written with a small “o”. Stressing how much we have in common with them is therefore not only politically dangerous, but also dogmatically disingenuous.
          Finally, there are spiritual reasons for rejecting the change, reasons having to do with our internal askesis. One of the secular reasons mentioned by the State for considering a fixed date for Easter is that of convenience—those planning vacations in the spring will always know in advance when to schedule their spring break. But I would suggest that part of the value (even if a small part) depends upon us not knowing in advance, but in having to orient our lives around the ever-changing church calendar. It has well been said that the Church’s mandate is not to conform the Gospel to men, but to help conform men to the Gospel. We of course value our convenience. We also value full stomachs and the freedom to eat whatever we like. That is why Lent is a pain—and why it is valuable. The ascetic value of Lent consists precisely of the struggle to conform our lives to something external, something not chosen by ourselves— not in spite of its difficulty, but because it is difficult. The variations of the Paschal date function in the same kind of way—its variableness challenges us, inconveniences us; it makes us change and conform to a norm we did not choose. The desire to avoid inconvenience latent in the proposed change is part and parcel of a larger secular desire—the desire to conform the world to our desires, and to make our choices the center around which everything else revolves. Changing our lives to conform to a calendar date may be a small thing. But it sets an internal pattern and prepares us for more significant changes, and greater askesis.
          My guess (my crystal ball still being in the shop) is that the Orthodox churches will indeed take a pass on the proposed calendar change. But such a proposal is unlikely to be the last proposal of its kind that the non-Orthodox ecclesiastical world will make. We may continue, if we like, to sit at the same dialogic table with them. But we should take care to bring a long spoon. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Gentile Dogs?

          In the Gospel for the Sunday of the Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-28) we find a phrase that some have found troubling.  The troubling nature of the phrase was brought home to me in a university lecture I once heard, for the lecturer said that in this passage “Jesus called a Gentile woman a dog.”  He thought it rather odd, and evidence that perhaps the Christians had an overly rosy view of their Founder.  One could, I suppose, point out that the Greek of the text does not read “dog” (Greek kuon) but “little dog” (kunarion), but this does little to soften the blow.  If someone called me a dog I would not be much mollified by learning that the dog they had in mind was a diminutive breed.  So, what’s going on here?  Does Jesus really call the Gentile woman a dog?
          Actually, no, but to find out what’s really going on in the passage, one needs to look at it in its wider context.  When we read this wider context we see that in the story of the Canaanite woman we find a collision of two opposing plights, two opposing sets of needs.  The interpretation is helped when we supplement the Matthew 15 passage with its parallel in Mark 7:24-30.  For in the wider Markan context we see that the Twelve were in a state of physical and emotional exhaustion.  In Mark 6:30, we see that after the Twelve returned from their mission (Mark 6:7f), they were exhausted, so the Lord took them to what was to have been a lonely place where they could rest, “for many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31).  When they got there they found another great crowd, and instead of turning away and taking the Twelve someplace else, our Lord stayed there, teaching and healing the assembled crowds.  Of course this long and exhausting day brought another problem—how to feed the multitude.  Our Lord met the need by miraculously multiplying the loaves (Mark 6:34f).  Then another crisis arose:  the multitude tried to come and make Jesus king by force (see John 6:15).  Our Lord reacted to this crisis by quickly sending the Twelve out of the center of danger to a place across the lake while He pacified and dismissed the nearly riotous crowd.  Then as the Twelve were rowing across the lake, a storm suddenly descended upon them, and they could make no progress in rowing.  Our Lord walked on the water toward them, and stilled the storm (Mark 6:47f).  Try to imagine the effect of all this upon the disciples.  They were already stretched to the breaking point before it all began, which was why the Lord took them to a supposedly deserted place to begin with.  Crisis after crisis broke upon them, so that the disciples were a wreck.  The only solution was for Christ to take them out of the country entirely.  That was why He and His Jewish disciples found themselves “the region of Tyre and Sidon” (Mark 7:24) in the first place.  The Twelve, our Lord’s spiritual children, desperately needed a rest.
           While there, they collided with a different desperate need—that of the Canaanite woman.  And let’s be clear what this woman was requesting.  She was asking that the Lord and His disciples accompany her to her home in pagan Tyre or Sidon to heal her daughter.  That would involve not simply a quick quiet trip in and out of her city, but a full-scale mission to the Gentile population of the area.  Jesus of Nazareth was not able to make quick quiet trips anywhere, for wherever He went a great crowd followed Him.  Acceding to the woman’s request would mean days ministering to all the sick, demon-possessed, and afflicted of Tyre and Sidon.  And this was not the time for such a mission to the Gentiles.  As the Lord said, He was then sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel (Matthew 15:24), and even the Twelve were told to conduct their mission only in Jewish towns, avoiding cities of the Gentiles and the Samaritans (Matthew 10:5-6).  The time for a full-scale outreach to the Samaritans and Gentiles would come later.  That is why our Lord refused her request.  To deny the Twelve their desperately needed rest to minister to the Gentiles of Tyre and Sidon would be as inappropriate as taking the food from the table at which hungry children were sitting and giving it instead to the little dogs under the table.  Surely anyone could see that the children must be fed first.  The needs of the Twelve for rest must take priority over the needs of the Gentiles in those cities.
           Then the Canaanite woman makes her response—and changes her request.  Okay:  Jesus will not accompany her to her place of residence.  Let the children be fed.  But little dogs can still eat the odd crumb that falls from the table while the children eat.  Let the Lord say the word and heal the woman’s daughter at a distance, while He and the Twelve stayed here resting!
It was a bold request, and one that showed tremendous faith on her part.  Many people had faith that Jesus could come and heal; this woman had faith He that could heal at a great distance, His simple word of command working a miracle across the miles.  That is why Jesus did not say, “O woman, great is your boldness” or “O woman, great is your perseverance”, but rather, “O woman, great is your faith” (Matthew 15:28).  And because of this faith, Christ granted her second request, healing her daughter instantly across the miles—“she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone (Mark 7:30).
          We see in this passage that Jesus does not in fact call the Gentile woman “a dog” or even “a little dog.”  Rather, He compares the situation of conflicting needs to the situation of hungry children sitting at a food-laden table with hungry little dogs underneath, and says that the children at the table must be fed first—to explain why He cannot accompany her to her home.  His willingness to grant her second and amended request shows His great love for her, and for all the children of men.  That love even bridged the gap between Jew and Gentile, giving to the Canaanite woman in advance what would later come to all the Gentiles of the world.

Monday, February 8, 2016

What God Has Prepared for Those who Love Him

          If the Biblical teaching about hell suffers in the popular imagination, being thought of as a kind of subterranean torture chamber erected and run by all-powerful divine sociopath, the Biblical teaching about heaven and the Kingdom doesn’t fare much better.  The word “heaven” conjures up semi-comic images of people in long white nightgowns with wings and halos lounging about on clouds and playing harps.  It all looks—well, boring, which fits right in with most people’s idea of Church.   But what the Scripture actually teaches about the Kingdom and the final reward of the saints is very different.
            First of all, heaven is not thought of as the final reward, but as an intermediate state.  Christians go heaven when they die not as their reward for being good, but because Christ is there and because before He died He prayed to His Father that those whom He gave Him “may be with Me where I am, to behold My glory” (John 17:24).  So, since Christ is in heaven at the right hand of God, that is where His disciples go after death also.  Heaven is not their reward; being with Jesus is their reward, and He happens to be in heaven.  Put another way, heaven is only heaven because Christ is there.  Paul did not desire to “depart and go to heaven”, but to “depart and to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23); to be absent from the body for the Christian is not to be in heaven, but to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). 
Heaven, therefore is wonderful, but it is not our final reward.  That reward (like the retribution of the unrighteous) comes only after Christ has returned and has raised all the dead, restoring us in our reconstituted bodies.  On that Day we will stand before the Lord and hear His judgment, and only after that receive our reward in the regenerated new heavens and the new earth which He will create (Matthew 19:28, 2 Peter 3:13).
            What is that reward?  If hell is the descent and collapse into unreality, a suffocation of the soul within the prison of its own petrified self-will, then our final reward will be its opposite.  It will be our escape from prison darkness of sin into the full and sweet light of day, the emergence of the butterfly from the cocoon of this age.  Here words can only fail to describe it, and the apostolic author of the Apocalypse has to strain the limits of language to give some faint hint of that glory, slinging symbols and multiplying metaphors.  Even St. Paul, usually never at a loss for words, can only say that they are “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).  He says it is a weight of glory far beyond all comparison, one so immense that mere flesh and blood cannot receive it (2 Corinthians 4:17, 1 Corinthians 15:50).  Unless God had raised us and made us powerful and imperishable, our frail mortal flesh could not bear such waves of glory and joy.
            The Lord Himself gives us the barest of hints.  He compares the reward to receiving authority over cities (Luke 19:17), which suggests that even in the age to come the time of service will not be over.  Paul speaks of us judging the world, and even angels (1 Corinthians 6:2-3).  Some might have drearily imagined that there will be nothing to do in the age to come but lie around in a kind of eternal hammock and doze, which sounds like it would become tremendously tedious very quickly.  But these divine hints suggest that it will not be so, but that the one with the heart of the servant will still find opportunities to serve.  For what could be better than kneeling and receiving commands from the Lord and having the opportunity to do His will and please Him?  St. Gregory of Nyssa suggested the same sort of thing when he suggested that the age to come would bring with it an infinite growth in God.
            Here I continually return to my beloved C.S. Lewis.  In the conclusion of his The Last Battle, the final volume of his Narnian series, he presents the Christ-figure Aslan the lion as saying to the newly-dead, “The term is over:  the holidays have begun.  The dream is ended:  this is the morning.”  “And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.  And for us this is the end of all the stories.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.  All their life in this world had only been the cover and the title page:  now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read:  which goes on forever:  in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
            This is what St. Gregory of Nyssa was talking about:  an eternity of growth in joy, a story so wonderful that no one on earth has read it yet, a story which goes on forever, a story in which every chapter is better than the one before.  This is why we persevere, and say our prayers, and go Church.  This is why we get up and repent every time we fall.  This is our reward.  This is the weight of glory.  This is Pascha.  This is the Kingdom of the living God to which all His children are now hastening.

Monday, February 1, 2016

What Does the Word "Aionion" Mean?

           In the debate about the theological validity of Christian universalism one sometimes finds discussion about the meaning of the word “eternal” in Matthew 25:46. Christ there says plainly that the unrighteous “will go away into eternal punishment”, and the word here rendered “eternal” is the Greek aionion [αιωνιον]. Some suggest that the word simply means “age-long”, indicating that the punishment of the unrighteous will endure for an age and then come to an end, and they point out that the root of the word is aeon [αιων], meaning “age”. What are we to make of this?
          Sometimes the word αιων does indeed mean “age” in the sense of a limited duration of time which comes to an end. Thus St. Paul in Romans 16:25: “ able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages [Greek αιωνιοις] and has now been manifested”. We see here that the word αιων means a limited duration of time, since the ages of time when the mystery had been kept secret came to an end when Christ appeared and was proclaimed by the apostles. Accordingly, one of the meanings of αιων in the Arndt-Gingrich lexicon is “a segment of time, age”. It can also mean “a world” as a spatial concept. Thus Hebrews 11:3: “By faith we understand that the worlds [Greek αιωνας] were created by the Word of God”.
          But it can also mean everlasting, and as such it is applied to God and His dominion and power over all the cosmos, such as in 1 Timothy 6:16: “To Him [i.e. God] be honour and eternal [Greek αιωνιον] dominion”. Presumably God’s dominion is unending and everlasting. The debate about the precise meaning of aionion therefore cannot be solved simply by consulting a lexicon. The word varies in its meaning according to its usage.
          Christ, of course, did not speak in Greek to His disciples but rather Aramaic, and the thought forms He used were those of first century Judaism, and it is to this culture therefore that we must look if we are to understand His words in their original context. In that conceptual universe, we find reference to “the age to come”. The world and its epochs were divided into this age and, after a decisive intervention by God, the age to come. Thus in the Pirke Aboth, the Sayings of the Fathers, we read, “Great is Torah for it gives to those that practise it life in this age and in the age to come” (6.7), and the saying of Hillel, “He who has acquired words of Torah has acquired for himself the life of the age to come” (2.8). We see the same division into the two ages in the Book of Enoch: “And he [an angel] said to me: ‘This is the Son of Man who is born unto righteousness...He proclaims to you peace in the name of the age to come” (chapter 71). For Christians the decisive divine intervention separating the two ages is the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead—Christ’s return will divide everything into two unequal parts: this present age which is under the sway of death and injustice, and the age to come which will be under the rule of God.
          Placed in this context, we can see that the word aionion in Matthew 25:46 means “age” in the sense of “the age to come”. Existence in that age to come will be qualitatively different than existence in this present age, for there will be a profound asymmetry between the two ages. For one thing, at the start of the age to come all the dead will be raised and restored to their bodies, so that life and death as we understand and experience them will be qualitatively different. Existence then will not simply be a prolonged version of existence as we experience it now. The aionion life of the righteous will not be simply unending. It will not be like our present mode of existence with the only difference that it will stretch on forever. As the life of the αιων to come, existence will indeed be unending, but for the righteous it will also partake of the immortal joy which will then fill that transfigured cosmos. And, says Christ, for the unrighteous existence will involve punishment—punishment that also partakes of the quality of the age to come. Like the life of the righteous, it will be unending. But it will be unending because it occurs in the age to come, and partakes of the coming age’s transfigured and eschatological quality. Note: both the life of the righteous and the punishment of the unrighteous are described with the same word aionion. The fates of both groups culminate in the age to come, and both groups partake of that age’s intensity and eternity. In the ongoing debate about the eternity of hell, this parallelism between the two groups must be given its due weight.
          We may see now why the Greek word aidos [αιδως], “unending”, was not used to describe either the life of the righteous or the punishment of the unrighteous. If the word αιδως were used, one might imagine that the issue was simply one of duration, and that our Lord was saying that that the righteous will live unendingly and the unrighteous will be punished unendingly. The stakes are higher than that. The righteous will not simply live without end, but will live with all the joy which will characterize the age to come. And the unrighteous will not simply be punished without end, but punished with all the immortal severity which will characterize the age to come. It is the quality of the age to come—with its intensity both of punishment and joy—that is stressed, not simply its endless duration.
          Another look into the conceptual and apocalyptic world of that time will confirm this. Scholars may debate the lexical roots of words and the ways in which the Fathers used certain terms, but the first and main question is how the disciples and the other original hearers would have understood our Lord’s words. They would have heard Him to some degree through the prism of their culture and informed by its literature. Thus, for example, when Christ spoke of the unrighteous being “bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30), these words would have been heard in same way as the words in the Book of Enoch 10:4: “The Lord said to Raphael, ‘Bind Azazel [a fallen angel] hand and foot and cast him into the darkness...And cover him with darkness and let him abide there forever and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the day of the great judgment he shall be cast into the fire.’”
           Or consider the contrasting fates of the righteous and the unrighteous from chapter 103 of the same Book of Enoch: “And the spirits of you who have died in righteousness shall live and rejoice and their spirits shall not perish, nor their memorial from before the face of the Great One unto all the generations of the world...Woe to you, you sinners, when you have died if you die in the wealth of your sins...Into darkness and chains and a burning flame where there is grievous judgment shall your spirits enter and the great judgment shall be for all the generations of the world”. This kind of apocalyptic literature formed the conceptual prism through which our Lord’s words would have been understood. There is no hint of a final salvation for sinners present in such literature. Christ therefore would have been understood as offering no such final hope to sinners either.
          The Greek word aionion means “partaking of the age to come”, both that age’s intensity and eternity. The stakes are very high, for both immortal joy or immortal horror await us children of men in the age to come. Reducing those stakes by introducing a hope not offered by Christ does not simply violate the meaning of this passage. It may also prove dangerous. Christ spoke in such a way as to motivate our run to righteousness and our avoidance of impending danger. We have no right to blunt His urgent warning.