An Exploration of How Paul Knew what he Knew

Saul (that is, the Apostle Paul before Jesus Christ gave him his Christian name on the road to Damascus) was a rather remarkable and faithful Hebrew who, in other circumstances, we would probably want to emulate. He described himself as a “Hebrew born of Hebrews: as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5f). (Remember he sincerely believed the church was teaching heresy. He was not persecuting Christians as much as he was stamping out heresy—a venerable Christian tradition in later centuries.)

Saul’s heart was in the right place. He was seeking after God through a combination of knowledge of God, faithfulness to the rituals that had revealed God through the centuries, and the sort of self-discipline that can only be called athletic in its practice. These are the very things that Christians have promoted as the means to truly know God over the centuries.

While Saul’s heart was in the right place, his intellect had led him astray. He knew the scriptures inside and out. He knew his own tradition inside and out. He knew his internal drives and desires inside and out. But in all of that, he never actually came to know God. And because he never actually knew God, our tendency is to dismiss all these facets of his life as useless. Paul’s own description can be read in this manner, but what Paul finds useless is not his knowledge of scripture (he tells Timothy to study them as “a worker who has no need to be ashamed” to the end that he can “rightly explain” them in 2 Tim. 2:15). Nor does he find his remarkable self-discipline to be wasted, calling on Christians to similar discipline, to run the race, not just to compete, but to “receive the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24). The real problem is not in the running, but rather “running in vain” (Gal 2:2).

It was his encounter with the living Truth that revealed his intellectual vanity. On the Damascus road God “was pleased to reveal his Son to me” (Gal. 1:16). What was revealed was a profoundly different sort of knowledge of God described above. It was a knowledge that defies, and in fact, shatters, human categories of knowledge.

I hesitate to call this mystical knowledge, but if we can move beyond the baggage of that word “mystical,” it is a helpful idea. A mysterion is knowledge that shuts the mouth. (Yes, that’s actually one of the historical meanings of that Greek word mysterion!) It is knowledge that is not gained through the intellect but is instead communicated to the heart (Greek, nous, the center of our being). Paul’s insights into the Gospel were so radical he did not initially trust them and therefore went to Peter and the other apostles to verify that what was revealed was indeed true Gal. 2). This mystical knowledge transformed Christianity from a sect of Judaism into something different and, while continuous with Hebrew faith, was at the same time completely new.

We almost certainly won’t have encounters as dramatic as Paul had, but this is the pattern of how we acquire knowledge of God, as distinguished from knowledge of the Bible, the Church, or theology. I am regularly accused by my Evangelical friends and family of dismissing the Bible, or diminishing its importance. That is only true if one thinks of the Bible as a source of intellectual knowledge about God and faith. I am not seeking fellowship with scripture; I am seeking fellowship with God. And the Bible is the preeminent stepping stone into the mysterious, “mouth-shutting” realm of true knowledge of God that leads to the fellowship Christians seek. There are other stepping stones: the liturgy, the insights of Christians who have gone before us, the athletic struggle of prayer and fasting, but scripture is the preeminent stepping stone. And it must be always remembered that it is a stepping stone. Again, the goal is not knowledge of scripture, but personal knowledge (ie, interaction, and ultimately, communion with God).

The way I just described it was not Paul’s frame of reference, so this is not how he described it. But when Paul warns against human wisdom and rails against the works of the law, this is certainly a big piece of what he is railing against. Knowledge of God is a dangerous thing that drains the power of the gospel and leads to confidence in our own understanding. Knowing God, on the other hand, shuts our mouth and circumscribes our being (will, intellect, emotions, etc) while enlarging the heart so that we can take in more divine presence and thus be transformed from glory to glory.

This new (and yet older than Abraham) form of knowledge is Paul’s greatest gift that he gives to us in gasps and glimpses in his various letters found in the New Testament.

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Wisdom and Works of the Law

I have been doing in-depth study of 1 Corinthians in recent months. The manner in which Paul discusses wisdom has been quite surprising to me. In his best known argument, found in 1 Cor. 1, he claims that human wisdom (what the Greeks seek) and signs (what the Jews seek) are dead ends in light of message of the cross, which reduces the former to foolishness and makes the latter a stumbling block. If either human wisdom or a demand for signs are pursued, they empty the gospel of its power.

This doesn’t mean that Paul rejects wisdom altogether. He makes this clear in 2:4-7.

4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. 6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.

One of my surprises came when I discovered the parallel between 1 Corinthians (the distinction between human wisdom and secret divine wisdom) and Galatians (“works of the law” and “the righteousness that comes from faith”). Paul’s distrust of the law in both Romans and Galatians is well known and a particular interpretation of that distrust is the foundation of the Reformation doctrine of salvation by faith through grace alone. Both the Latin and Greek traditions reject this interpretation that leads to the Reformation emphasis because both traditions consider it bad exegesis, a topic I cover frequently in this blog.

My fixation with the Reformation doctrine caused me to miss the parallels between works of the law (Galatians) and human wisdom (1 Corinthians). Both letters deal broadly with the question, “How do we know?” But Paul’s interest is not so much in how we know, it is rather a question of why we want to know in the first place. What we have come to think of as classic western theology (embodied in the discipline of systematic theology) appears to fall into Paul’s category of human wisdom. It is an attempt to plumb the depths of God in a manner not dissimilar to chemists, biologists, and physicists plumbing the depths of the physical universe. Such knowledge, while valid within its particular frame of reference, empties the Gospel of its power because divine wisdom operates in a fundamentally different frame of reference.

Divine wisdom may lead to a knowledge of God, but this is a side-show that, while profoundly attractive, is ultimately illusory. Divine wisdom, on the other hand leads to righteousness (“[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption… 1 Cor. 1:30) and what later Christians described as a state of “unknowing.” This logical arc is remarkably similar to the logical arc of Galatians where Abraham receives righteousness, not by “the works of the law” (which came 400 years after Abraham), but by believing in the promise of that which was coming in Christ.

Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? (Gal 3:3f)

If the goal is knowledge, then it is “of the flesh” (Galatians) or “human wisdom” (1 Corinthians). But the goal is not acquiring knowledge, it is receiving the Spirit, which leads to righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, and a profound sense of knowing less than when you started. Paul calls this apprehension of that we cannot intellectually know, “things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (2 Cor. 12:4).

In a previous essay I observed that Paul (in Galatians and Romans, and now in 1 Corinthians) is rejecting the preeminence of objective truth in favor of personal truth, and more specifically, living truth (Jesus Christ, the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity), which explodes the category of objective truth because this divine, living Personal Truth, is limitless, fathomless, its fullness always being well beyond our grasp. Objective truth is something we can bring down to our level and box up in a multi-volume Systematic Theology. And to the degree we do that, we have created an idol, which is, by definition, a falsehood. The Living, Personal Truth, on the other hand, is active, changing us, transforming us, and leading us to communion with God. Objective truth, because it is something we can essentially control, becomes our “works of the law,” while Personal Truth is something that takes control of us and thereby transforms us by the “righteousness of faith.”

And this begs the question, where did Paul discover and enter into the realm of Living, Personal Truth? Fortunately, his letters point us in the right direction so that we can answer this question.

 

Archetypes of Conversion, Pt. 2

In the previous essay I presented two of three archetypes of conversion in an attempt to expand our appreciation of salvation. Salvation, while God’s action, requires a human response, but not just a single response. Varying and multiple responses are required when God offers us his grace. The archetypes offer us images of these varying responses. The first can be summed up with the binary of repent/receive and is illustrated in scripture by John the Baptist’s message of, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” The second can be summed up with the binary of accept/receive and is illustrated in scripture by Gabriel’s appearance to Mary and her affirmation of Gabriel’s message (and resulting reception of the divine grace of becoming the Theotokos) of, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (when he was given his Christian name, Paul) gives us a third archetype of conversion. This one offers us the binary of see/recive. Saul is a complicated person to understand. When we consider his own description of his life before Damascus, we have to conclude that he had a heart for God. In Philippians 3 Paul describes that life. “As to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (5b-6).

This description could describe many deeply devoted Christians, both lay people and even monks who spend their days striving (ie, Heb 4:11, “let us strive to enter the rest”) to become holy or defending against false teaching. Saul’s problem was not his heart (he was seeking God and not self) nor his discipline (he was evidently an authentic “ascetic” or “spiritual athlete”). Yet, in spite of his efforts and good intentions, something went horribly wrong and those good intentions became truly evil as he sought to exterminate Christianity (his version of “false teaching”) from the face of the earth.

I believe the key clue to what went wrong can be found in 1 Corinthians, and specifically his distinction between earthly and divine wisdom. He offers his basic argument in ch. 1:19-24.

19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Keep in mind that Saul fits both categories of being a Jew and a Greek. He was evidently a leading “debater of this age.” He was also looking for “signs” of the Messiah. But because he approached his faith through the lens of what we would call propositional truth today and what he describes as earthly wisdom, he missed the signs that God gave through Jesus because Jesus didn’t meet his expectations of a proper Messiah. The Messiah was supposed to defeat the Roman overlords. Instead, Jesus was crucified. Jesus was thus a “stumbling block” to his Jewish sensibilities, and “foolishness” to his Greek sensibilities.

So, based on his testimony, it seems that while his heart was converted and he could rightly be called a follower of God, the problem was his intellect, which had not repented of its reliance on human wisdom (or propositional truth). But the intellect is one of strongest and most devious of our emotions, and it often requires quite a shock to the system to shake the intellect out of its self-sufficient blindness. So it is that the risen and living Jesus Christ himself encountered Saul on the road. “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).

The intellect is such that it can soften the harshest truth and excuse the most evil action (killing Christians because they are Christians, killing Jews because they are Jews, etc.). The intellect is so seductive that it can even seduce an otherwise righteous person into great evil. So it is that conversion which requires intellectual repentance can be one of the most difficult conversions to make. It is therefore not surprising that what we find on the road to Damascus is a scene of terror. Heavenly light flashed around Saul and it left him trembling and unable to even stand.

Truth is personal and living. Most of us prefer to distance ourselves from the living fire of Truth by diminishing it to propositional truth, or book truth, what Paul calls the letter of the law. God “has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). And when someone of Paul’s remarkable self-discipline and spiritual advancement is confronted by the living, personal truth, something remarkable—and terrifying—happens.

Later Christians who have been confronted by this same living Lord and who have had to face conversion through repentance of the intellect often called this living presence “the Shekinah glory,” or “the Divine Light,” or “the Divine Energies.” Paul describes it as being transported to the third heaven, and in that state he “heard things that cannot be told, which no mortal is capable or uttering” (2 Cor. 12:4).

This gets to the heart of the problem with the intellect. The intellect is always trying to frame what it knows so it can be uttered. The framing process boxes in the bit of truth so that the intellect is able to grasp, thus reducing it to less-than-truth, or in the case of Saul, non-truth. But true Truth, being not only personal, but divinely personal truth (the very Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity), explodes the limitations of the intellect, leaving us with mere babbling (2 Tim. 6:20) and seeing through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13:12).

The archetypes of Mary and Paul are dramatic and far beyond any experience we are likely to have. (This, by the way, is why they are archetypes: they illustrate conversion in the extreme.) But they dramatically remind us why salvation not only cannot be separated from repentance, but why salvation requires repeated conversion of different sorts of repentance. Encountering Christ and being saved is not the end of the road. We need a conversion of the heart (John), and conversion of the will (Mary), and a conversion of the intellect (Paul). Furthermore, every time we begin to settle in because we believe we’re getting a handle on things, we need yet another encounter with the living God, the burning light of Christ, to remind us that we don’t know the half of it. This is the gospel of repentance in its various manifestations.

 

Archetypes of Conversion, Pt. 1

We rightly think of salvation as God’s act. It is God who both initiates and culminates our salvation, thus it is certainly true that it is God’s act. But when salvation is considered in its fullness, it is not just God’s act, we humans play a role as well. This is why John the Baptist preceded Jesus. We must receive the salvation offered by Jesus Christ, but the first step of receiving is to repent of our sin. Salvation is an act that requires a human response, a response that, in fact, becomes a part (albeit a small part) of the act itself.

Two more things must be said about this if we are to understand salvation. First the response demanded by God varies from person to person. God doesn’t call humanity in general; rather, God calls us personally and calls us in such a way that we must respond individually and uniquely to God. Second, conversion is not a one time experience. I initially respond to the small extent that I am able, but as I mature, additional conversions occur as new and deeper encounters with God occur. I may repent of some sin while being unaware of other sin. Later, as I become more aware of the corruption within me, I repent again based on the deeper knowledge of who I am and who God is. With this in mind I will describe three archetypes of salvation: John the Baptist, Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Paul the Apostle.

John the Baptist came before Jesus and preached a message of repentance, required because the kingdom of God was at hand. The majority Jewish religious sect of the era was the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a renewal movement that sought to revivify Jewish religion that had become increasingly moribund under the influences of Roman rule and Greek culture. (This too, is a model of repentance.) Most Pharisees were good and faithful people who truly sought after God (Saul, later to become Paul, was one example, to whom we will return later), but as is true with all majority religions, many (especially among the leadership) had succumbed to the lure of power, political influence, and the societal advantages that came with being a good Pharisee. This group was the primary focus of John’s message of renewed repentance.

Their hearts were self-serving rather than following God, and as a result, their religion was outward and not inward (they were “whitewashed tombs” in Jesus’ language, Mt. 23:27). What they needed was a complete change of attitude and direction (ie, repentance) in order for God to enact his offer of salvation. In terms of what Paul describes in Romans and Galatians (for the Judaizers, whom Paul struggled against, were primarily from the Pharisee group), they needed to stop thinking of salvation as something they did for themselves, and start thinking about it in terms of something God does because we cannot. It is not about my actions and self-improvement, it’s about the transformation brought about by the Holy Spirit in spite of our own selves and our own intentions.

This is typically what we think of when we use the word “conversion.” But it is not the only sort of conversion that God enacts and enables within us. And this brings us to the second archetype: Mary. Scripture doesn’t say a lot about Mary, but other writings from the earliest era (from people who likely would have known Mary) tell us that she was already an observant, faithful, and holy Jew before Gabriel ever came to her. Her parents dedicated her to the temple at her birth, and life in and around the temple transformed her heart so that she was truly a follower of God.

We could call what John was calling for the pattern of repent/receive. It is typically the initial form that salvation takes. The second archetype follows a different pattern: rather than repentance, acceptance of something new and radically different in order to receive. We see this in Mary. She certainly didn’t need to repent. Mary was already prepared. But salvation is not a single thing (“Inviting Christ into one’s heart,” for instance). It is a transformation “from one degree of glory to another,” in Paul’s lovely turn of phrase in 2 Cor. 3:18. Gabriel appeared to Mary with just this sort radically new thing.

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” is how Gabriel first greeted her (Luke 1:28). “But [Mary] was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (29). Why was she favored? What does it mean that the Lord is with me? And then the message became more surprising. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus …” (30-33). Mary is not disbelieving, but she certainly doesn’t understand (because, being a virgin, this is impossible), so she responds, “How can this be …?” (34). Gabriel then explains a bit more of what’s going on and eventually Mary responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (38).

In the first archetype, the human action that allows for conversion is repentance. In this second archetype, the action that allows for conversion is humble acceptance. Gabriel never fully explained how this was happening, but he did explain that this was truly and completely God’s action within her, as long as she was willing to accept this gift. Because she already had a long history of being faithful to God and experiencing God’s faithfulness to her in return, she was able to accept this new thing that was simply beyond any sensible explanation.

This second form of conversion is not open to John’s audience. For certain types a conversion, a long history with God and God’s dealings is a prerequisite. This is not a conversion from unbelief to belief, nor a conversion from a self-serving attitude to an acceptance of divine transformation. All of that is presupposed. Furthermore this sort of conversion frequently does not involve a radical change of lifestyle or belief. It is rather a move from one level of relationship to another far more intimate and life-transforming relationship. This second archetype describes conversion of a person who is already a faithful Christian into a person who comes to know God at a far deeper and more intimate level.

The third archetype of conversion—Saul’s Damascus road conversion when he received his Christian name of Paul—requires some consideration of 1 Corinthians. Because of that, I will tackle the third archetype in the next essay.

 

Objective Truth, the Living Word, and Divine Wisdom

The blog has been silent for a while because I’ve been busy working on a much larger project related to 1 & 2 Corinthians. One of the preliminary “aha” items is Paul’s description of divine power (which Paul says looks like human weakness) and divine wisdom (which is foolishness). What has struck me most powerfully is Paul’s conception of wisdom (a term he uses in much the same manner that we would use “truth”) as personal rather than objective. I’ll circle back to this in a moment.

Brenda and I just finished listening to The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. They spend quite a bit of time on Lewis’s Riddell Memorial Lectures in 1943. He was disturbed by the subjectivism that had crept into both theological and philosophical thought. “For Lewis it was a chance to defend against relativizing trends in education, philosophy, and literary criticism. The reality of the universal moral code inherent in all human beings.”

Lewis held objectivity in high regard. In The Abolition of Man (the book form of the Riddell Lectures), he goes to great length to establish a universal, objective foundation of all truth, and especially for a moral code. Lewis’ argument in The Abolition of Man is no longer compelling and the book seems a little silly now. What surprised me is, according to the Zaleskis, it was not particularly compelling in the 1940s either. It was received warmly by those who already agreed with Lewis but was skewered by his critics.

While listening to ch. 13 of The Fellowship, the argument Paul develops in 1 Corinthians kept coming to mind. According to Paul, objective truth is never very objective because our frame of reference is limited by our own limitations. Even Reformed and Lutheran churches, who both historically embraced objective truth, disagreed on what that objective truth is. (This illustration comes from my own family, some of whom are Presbyterian Church in America and some of whom are Missouri Synod Lutheran. While I don’t think there have ever been any actual arguments, it is clear that there is more than one set of “objective truth.”)

And this is quite precisely the problem Lewis ran into. I agree wholeheartedly with his contention that the “relativizing trends in education, philosophy, and literary criticism” are quite disturbing, but trying to solve those trends with an appeal to some sort of objectivity is bound to fail. This is using one form of human wisdom to combat a different form of human wisdom.

In sharp contrast to this attempt to find objective truth, Paul opts for what I would call “personal truth.” I hesitate to use the term because it can be misconstrued to mean, “My truth is mine while yours is yours, and my true and your truth may be different.” This misconstrual is precisely what C.S. Lewis was responding to in his Riddell lectures. In 1 Cor. 1:4f, Paul says that his preaching was not “with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” The foundation is not intellectual nor is it “objective truth” as that term is used in the context of reason. Rather the foundation is divine “power” which is inseparable from divine presence, or more specifically, to the divine persons.

Given my Presbyterian training, all of this reminds me of Karl Barth, who struggled with the same issues as C.S. Lewis. Barth rejected the possibility of competing truths, but didn’t seek objective truth in the manner Lewis did, largely because he recognized that any truth that a human perceives cannot be truly objective, given our sinful proclivity to perceive things with an aim to our own advantage. Lewis’s claim for objective truth, would lead to nothing other than a shouting match of competing truth claims.

Barth viewed the problem with 1 Corinthians in mind, but he also shaped his answer along the lines of Kierkegaardian Existentialism. (Ah, that proclivity to perceive things, not as they truly are, but to our own advantage.) Barth believed the earthly locus of divine truth was in the “preaching event,” which he described in sacramental terms. (Barth himself rejected this comparison, but in retrospect he is clearly using eucharistic language but translated into his existential framework.) Scripture is a “witness to the Word,” “the Word” itself being the Second Person of the Trinity. But the Living Word is enfleshed (although at this point Barth uses the word “encountered”) in the “preaching event,” where Christ crucified is made real to the people of God.

What Barth picks up from Paul, which is in stark contrast to the scholastic Protestantism of his day is that divine wisdom and power cannot be found in scripture itself, but only in the encounter with Jesus Christ, the Living Word, through the Holy Spirit. Barth was suspicious of mysticism and he no doubt would have rejected the idea that we could have the same sort of intense experience today that Paul had. (The Orthodox Church, by the way, does believe that this sort of “pneumatical experience” is an ongoing part of the life of the church.) In spite of his suspicions, he describes a process that is more closely aligned with historic Orthodoxy than with scholastic Protestantism. Being a careful biblical scholar and fluent in antique Christian writings, this should be no surprise.

As I talk to others (who are Protestants) about this, they are politely horrified. The idea of jettisoning objective truth is tantamount to turning my back on the whole Christian program. Evangelicals had a similar reaction to Barth’s “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God” aphorism, so this reaction doesn’t surprise me. But is objectivity actually what we want? We are not scientists of faith after all, we are creatures seeking proper relationship with the living God. Working with 1 Corinthians, I have been struck powerfully by the danger of relying on human wisdom, which guts divine truth of its wisdom and power. I have also been struck that the divine path to which Paul calls us will be perceived as weakness and foolishness.

Cultural Imperialism

I’ve picked up Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances again after being reminded of it. Just ran across this gem on pp 28f.

The earlier anthropologists assumed as a matter of course that the primitive peoples who still survive in various parts of the earth perceive and think in the same way as we do–but that they think incorrectly.

Ah yes, we Western folk with all our science and technology are the ones who know how to think corretly.

Ah yes, we Western folk with our atomic bombs, chemical weapons, and island intern camps are the ones who know how to think correctly.

It’s such a comforting thought.

Michael Sauter Article

I almost didn’t read the article because I’m not interested in yet another analysis of Jordan Peterson. But, hey, it’s Front Porch Republic, so I gave it a shot. Turns out that this isn’t so much about either Peterson or Sam Harris, but rather about the dangers of utility and the need for solicitude.

https://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2018/08/jordan-peterson-sam-harris-and-the-problem-of-bigness/

I also highly recommend the Own Barfield book Sauter mentions, “Saving the Appearances.”

Being both At Rest and Watchful

One of the difficult things for non-Orthodox readers to grasp when they read Orthodox writings is the idea of the “passions.” The word is a technical term of sorts within Orthodoxy, but it is used rather differently than it is in contemporary culture (thus the difficulty in grasping the term). The sentence, “He has a passion for Liverpool F.C” (a soccer team from England), for instance, has no connection to the theological meaning of passions.

The original passion is the prelapsarian drive we have to be in communion with, and eventually, union with God. It is communing with God in the Garden (rather than the forbidden fruit, which was a good creation of God, and forbidden, not because it was bad, but because it was a substitute for God). After spiritual death that is a result of sin, we no longer have a connection to God because we are cut off from his presence, being cast out of the Garden. But this passion for fulfillment that can only come from and with God is part of the divine image, so those passions continue to seek a source of fulfillment. Thus it is, in the postlapsarian world, that the passions are generally bad because they are badly aimed. They are “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” that are commented on in 1 John 2:16. The passions are our desire for fame, fortune, control, popularity, and the illusive goal of a 1,000 upvotes on redit. At their worst they are our addictions. At their best (in our culture’s eyes) the passions are represented by the infatuation of a girl and a boy, and the ends to which they will go for love that Shakespeare commented on in Romeo and Juliet.

In the Orthodox vision of the Christian life, one of the goals is to learn inner peace (apatheia) while being fully engaged in external struggle (pathos), which is more accurately translated “suffering.” But “suffering” is generally considered a bad thing in our culture (yet another disconnect from the teachings about the passions), and is thus not generally associated with our everyday struggles in life, whether those be with our own temptations, our response to injustice, or the difficulty of paying attention in church.

Turning again to Maximos Constas (former Harvard professor and Eastern Orthodox monk), in his, The Art of Seeing, we find a succinct description of the interplay between the two. In ch. 3 he considers the great military martyr saints, and St. George in particular:

The depiction of the saint as simultaneously “at rest” and “watchful,” lends the seated figure [of St. George, with sword pulled half way from its scabbard] a palpable sense of energy and animation. This intriguing duality also expresses the central paradox of Christian martyrdom, and indeed of Christian life in general: the concurrence of inner rest (apatheia) and external sufferings (pathos), for “though the outer man in perishing, the inner man is being renewed every day” (2 Cor 4:16). [Loc 2085 in the Kindle edition]

How many times have I been filled with what I imagined to be holy rage, as I cleaned up debris in the midst of death following the political debacle of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, for instance, or the private conversation in my study with a woman abused by her husband, or the dehumanizing system of family welfare after she worked up the courage to leave said husband, to offer but a few examples from my life.

The art and gift of the authentic Christian life is to fully engage in those activities, yet remain in a state of inner rest and peace. That is what St. George embodies. That is what is necessary to slay the dragons of evil in our world.

 

Lamb of God, Who Takes Away the Sins of the World …

The early history of icons in the Christian church is a bit sketchy because, in the 8th century, an iconoclastic Byzantine emperor (Leo III) ascended the throne. He believed his task was to destroy, and when that wasn’t possible, to deface all the holy icons that were in existence. Today there are only a couple dozen pre-iconcolastic icons that remain, along with a few frescoes, etc. In spite of this unspeakable loss, archaeologists and scholars have pieced together a basic understanding of early iconography. Most notable, for the purpose of this essay, is that Jesus Christ was predominantly portrayed as a sacrificial lamb (The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, Rev. 13:8.) up until the 6th century.

The 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries were a time a great turmoil in the church. The hegemony of Greek ideas and the Christian worldview that grew out of those Greek ideas was coming to an end. Islam would soon be a threat from the south and east. Many of the same world-shaping ideas that led Mohamed to re-frame Jewish and Christian theology into a highly rationalistic and deterministic theology were affecting the Christian church.

Rationalism and Christian faith don’t dwell together in peace. Christian theology expresses the lived experience of God, the nature of whose existence is beyond the ability of human mind to grasp. As a result, authentic theology is a mix of negative statements (“God is not this.”), subtle paradoxes, and even seeming contradictions that Christian theology simply lets stand, because the contradictions express an aspect of our experience of God. This sort of approach drove the rationalists crazy, and they sought to “clarify” theology so that it could be understood by the rational mind and the common people.

Arianism (a heresy with many parallels to Islam) was by far the most successful of these alternative Christian philosophies during this period. Bishop Arius rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, proposing that the Son of God was the first and greatest of the created beings. Why? Because that makes more rational sense than the doctrine of the Trinity.

This quarter of a millennium period marked by the rise of rationalism (and the consequent rise in the assumption that everything was absolutely predestined…yep, the cycle happened again about a thousand years later…was the context of the great Ecumenical Councils where specific language and formulas that pointed accurately in the direction of the lived experience of God was put into place.

One of the many canons (church rules, of a sort) that grew out of this period was that Jesus Christ should be primarily depicted in human form. Pictures of sacrificial lambs and and lambs bleeding and yet healthy and alive were not wrong, but being pictorial metaphors, they tended to downplay the sublime truth that the incarnate Christ was truly human, born of Mary, and not just a metaphor that God loved us so much that he came to us in mercy to offer salvation.

It turns out that there is a whole lot more to this story. Former Harvard professor and Eastern Orthodox monk (and renowned authority on the history and theology of icons), Maximos Constas, offers this aside in his most excellent book, The Art of Seeing:

It seems, then, that in an age of political catastrophe, social decline, and religious anxiety, the sacrificial lamb was no longer deemed an appropriate symbol for imperial self-expression. What was needed was a powerful, adult Christ, whom later ages would call the “Pantokrator,” that is, “All-Sovereign.” No longer subject to time, still less a victim of the times, this Christ promised to appear at the end of time to judge the world (cf. Rev 19:15). [Loc 675 in the Kindle edition]

The Byzantine empire was still a powerful force in the world, but Emperor Theodosius (a theologian in his own right and the driving force behind the move away from the Lamb of God imagery and toward the “powerful, adult Christ” imagery), had an ulterior motive. (At least this is so if Fr. Maximos is correct, and I have no reason to think he’s not.) Theodosius, to borrow an idea from contemporary society, saw an opportunity to advance the rhetoric of making the Empire great again.

But here’s the key take-away: Just because Theodosius had ulterior motive, this doesn’t deny the proper theo-logic of emphasizing Jesus Christ’s human form in iconography. It’s not that Theodosius made up a doctrine out of thin air in an attempt to make the Empire great again. Given that this was a rationalistic age and given that this reductive rationalism needed to be counteracted, the canons specifying that Jesus Christ should be shown in actual human form rather than metaphorical caprine form, was a theologically solid move that the bishops wholeheartedly supported. The best political manipulation is not arbitrary, but is rooted in principles that are already widely accepted. Political manipulation isn’t just pulling the wool over the eyes of the common folk (or in this case, removing the wool, so to speak), it is more typically an attempt to promote something that has been under-emphasized or even forgotten.

The period of the great Ecumenical councils, that is, the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries (bleeding back into the 3rd and up into the 7th) is often decried as…well, to quote Fr. Maximos, “an age of political catastrophe, social decline, and religious anxiety.” The increasingly abstruse and even esoteric distinctions give the appearance of theology used primarily as a tool to exclude one’s enemies, or, at the very least, to try to make the Christian empire great again.

Fr. Maximos’s aside about the move away from the Lamb metaphor and toward the reality of the incarnate Son of God shown as a real man, might seem like an unfortunate slip, giving ammunition to those who want to dismiss fundamental theological principles as mere political maneuvering. But this misses the real point. Again, we need to be careful of a too-easy rationalism that too easily explains away the mysteries of real life.

Let’s start with the politics and embrace the likelihood that Theodosius used the change in iconography as a political tool. Let’s admit that the Emperor was trying to prop up his empire in the face of the massive threat that eventually became the Ottoman Empire. That was precisely what Theodosius was fighting against. He was a politically astute leader who understood how to manipulate both ideas and people to further his ends.

But there’s a glorious paradox in this political history. Theodosius used truth to manipulate the system. One might be dismayed that the move to de-emphasize the metaphorical Lamb and emphasize the real human body of Jesus Christ was probably a cynical attempt to prop up the Empire. One might even want to promote the use of the Lamb of God metaphor, given this history. But the paradox is that this new emphasis on the reality of the incarnation was not only important, but utterly foundational to the life of the church. True truth, even when it is used in a cynical manner to promote a political agenda, remains true truth.

And this should be of great comfort to us. Who among us can say that our Christian lives are controlled by pure motives and absent ulterior, and even cynical motives? But the story of how the rules of how Christ should be portrayed in icons gives all us hypocrites hope. Truth remains truth. Even if my motives are self-serving, God can and will use the truth that we know to further his Kingdom and even transform our lives. The fact is that our every action is unworthy of God. But God uses those very actions to transform us into the people he wants us to be. That’s why the real person Jesus Christ was willing to become the sacrificial Lamb of God. I find great comfort in this paradox.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

 

There’s Something About Mary

Today (Aug. 15) is the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, as the Orthodox name it, or the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, as the Roman Catholics describe it. It is a celebration of Mary’s death and resurrection. It is the last of the twelve major feasts and marks the end of the year in the Orthodox world. The annual cycle begins again on Sept. 8, when the Nativity of the Theotokos is celebrated.

Since my audience is predominantly Protestant, a few words about the church year are in order at this point. Just as we don’t actually know when Jesus was born (the best scholarly guess is early fall), so we don’t know when Mary was born nor when she died. These feasts (Christmas, Mary’s Nativity, and Mary’s Dormition (which is another word for death) are scheduled for theological reasons. Christmas comes near the shortest day of the year. When things were darkest, God entered into the world to bring the Light of Life to a world shrouded in the darkness of sin and death.

The order of feasts follows the plan of salvation. There is an inner and an outer layer. The inner layer (we might think of them as the Christological feasts) starts with the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary, followed by his Nativity, the Presentation at the Temple, the Baptism of the Lord, the Transfiguration, the Holy Week cycle, Christ’s Ascension into heaven, and Pentecost, or the coming of the Holy Spirit.

But the plan of salvation is not something that was imposed upon creation. Salvation requires the action of God (the inner cycle) and the corresponding human agreement (the outer cycle). It is the Annunciation that illustrates this best. The Holy Spirit came upon Mary and she was with child; not the child of Joseph, her husband, but of God. So what the church celebrates is not so much the conception of Jesus, but the human acceptance to this divine activity that immediately preceded the conception. “The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Lk. 1:25). This announcement didn’t make immediate sense to Mary, so the angel explained what was going on (vv. 36-37), and once Mary understood, she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (v. 38).

The incarnation requires a divine component and a human component. This human component is the outer cycle that wraps its arms around and nurtures the mysterious inner cycle. Mary was the person whom God chose to be the bearer of God (the meaning of the Greek word “Theotokos”) and to give him human flesh. So it is that this outer cycle of the church year begins with the birth of Mary and ends with her death.

So Dormition is a very big deal because it completes the cycle of salvation. It is a big deal because the year draws to a close, and now we await in quiet expectation for when it starts all over again in September.

For the Orthodox in America, it is also a time of much hand wringing. Why don’t Christians honor Mary as they ought? is a continuous quiet refrain that seeps into so many conversations about the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. And indeed, Mary is, for the most part, not given her due in predominantly Protestant America. So it is that the Orthodox are always asking, “Why?”

Today I was reminded of the answer. Or, more accurately, I was slapped in the face with answer today. I prefer using the Roman Catholic breviary for daily prayer because of its inclusion of the Psalms. Orthodox prayer books tend not to include the Psalms as an integral part of the individual prayer cycle. One is certainly encouraged to pray the Psalms, and for convenience, I like the breviary because the Psalms are already integrated into the daily pattern, along with prayers, scripture, and hymns. And today, on the Feast of Annunciation, the breviary is Mariological to a fault.

Even for a guy like me, who has been Orthodox for nearly two decades, I find the Roman Catholic approach to Mary quite uncomfortable. (The theology of Mary is one of the great divides between Catholic and Orthodox that make the possibility of reunion to be very challenging.) The Catholic veneration of Mary appears to cross an uncomfortable line in the direction of worship. While I affirm Roman Catholic claims that they do not worship Mary, the language they use still makes me uncomfortable. I understand completely why so many Protestants (and more than a few Orthodox) believe that outright worship is precisely what is going on in Catholic spiritual practice.

This is the great stumbling block when it comes to Protestants (and former Protestants) giving Mary her due. Proper honor of the Theotokos is always suspect because of the excesses of a few. This is an unfortunate reality.

Salvation cannot be understood apart from Mary. Her life envelopes the life of Jesus Christ. Mary is the one who gave Jesus his human body. Mary and Joseph provided the family structure which allowed Jesus to thrive, and thus be able to grow into his own acceptance of his mission in the world (as is celebrated in the baptism). Mary is each and every one of us. And unless each and every one of us assent as Mary did, and say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” then God’s work in the world would come to nothing. Salvation would then become something forced upon us.

God is a gentle God, never coercing and always inviting. When we forget about Mary, we tend to lose sight of the gentleness of God. Indeed, there is something about Mary.