“Sincerity is an openness of heart; we find it in very few people; what we usually see is only an artful dissimulation to win the confidence of others.”

Francois de la Rochefoucauld

Ironically, I found this quote in a newsletter I receive. It’s one of the most insincere pieces of marketing hype I have ever seen, but I sometimes like the quotes.

But to the point: What is true of our human relationships is true of our divine relationship. I propose that our “conversion” is but “artful dissimulation” of sincerity. But God, being gracious, accepts even that crumb with open arms. Sanctification is the process of scraping through the whitewash so that we can eventually approach God as we truly are.

When we sincerely approach God with no “artful dissimulation” we have achieved holiness.

I am reminded of St. Paul in 1 Cor 13:12

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”


Known By God

Christ is risen!

In Gal 4: 9 Paul says, “… now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God …”

“Modernity” is the period of time that stretches from the Enlightenment until recently, when our (that is, us humans) confidence in all things human began to be shaken. Some observers suspect the cracks began to be formed with the dropping of the atom bomb – the promise of nuclear power gone terribly wrong. Certainly the Cold War, the failure of big government (Cabrini Green, for instance), and more recently, the failure of capitalism (Enron, for instance), all indicate we really weren’t the smartest guys in the room.

In the modern era we were sure of our knowledge and our knowledge was miraculously solving almost every human malady and expanding our world to unimaginable scales.

Today (post holocaust, post Mi Lai, post Chernobyl, post 9/11, post Sadam, post Lehman Bros) we humans are a cynical lot. We doubt our knowledge. We certainly doubt our leaders’ motives. We’re afraid of our neighbors.

It is the malaise of post-modernity. Post-modernity is the crumbling of world we had so certainly and proudly built up in the modern era. To quote a 70s musician, shortly before his conversion to Christianity, it turns out all our accomplishments were “dust in the wind.”

Modernity wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It turns out that Nietzsche, Hume, and the skeptics were right. Our sure and certain knowledge was mostly an abuse of power (Nietzsche) and an expression of habit (Hume).

It is into this particular human condition that Paul’s words find traction. Our knowledge isn’t worth anything and all too often it has caused us pain and trouble.

“You think you know God?” asked Hume. “You know nothing.”

It turns out he was right.

It was all building towers to heaven, building houses on sand, building cathedrals on a fault line.

It is the modern dilemma.

“You want to know God?” asks Paul. “Then be known by God.”

In classical Greek (according to the ever careful and studious Gottlob Schrenk), the antonym of dikaios (justification) was hubris (pride) [TDNT, II:182}. Modernity was human hubris on a grand scale.

“You want to know God?” asks Paul. Well, you can’t know God in that active, seeking, conquering, curious, and hungry sense. “You want to know God? Then be known by God.”

Pascha (Easter) isn’t our salvation. It’s Christ experiencing the fullness of the human condition, even the chains of death. Well, actually that’s not Pascha, that’s Holy Saturday. Pascha is Jesus Christ – the living and victorious Jesus Christ – coming out the other side of that nightmare.

Bright Week is nearly over. As we continue to revel in Christ’s victory, it seems good to also remember that we’ll never be able to figure it out. It’s too deep, we can’t get under it. It’s too high, we can’t get over it.

But Christ invites us in, and “in Christ” (Rom 8:39) nothing can separate us from that victory. We can’t know it (the modern man’s dilemma), but we can be known by it. Pascha isn’t our salvation, but entering into it is.

The Manner in which God Accepts Us

Christ is risen!

Here’s a wonderful quote for Bright Week:

Justification is not about how individual sinners can find salvation; it begins as a statement of the way in which God accepts all who believe the gospel.

From N.T. Wright, discussing the context (Gal. 2) in which Paul first mentions justification by faith, in a wonderful conversation at Durham Univ. between James Dunn and N.T. Wright about Jesus and Paul. (This taken from the second half of the third seminar down on the page.)

In other words, the doctrine reveals far more about God than it does about man.

Trampling Down Death by Death

Pascha! Happy Pascha!

Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen!

Once again we are reminded that God’s normal operation in creation is to win by losing. He trampled death by death. He didn’t  overwhelm it with strength. He didn’t send 10,000 angels (as the old hymn reminds us). He submitted to the enemy (death) and then transformed it from the inside out.

Trampling down death: Not by might … Not by trickery … Not by espionage … Not through a war of attrition …

… trampling down death by death!

And giving victory to those in the grave.

The Services of the Bridegroom

We have reached Holy Week on the Orthodox calendar. Today was Palm Sunday. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights are the Services of the Bridegroom. They are services of expectation, and more importantly, attentiveness as we prepare for events of the passion.

Today is Easter on the Western Calendar, and so most American Christians are already crying out: He is risen! Indeed, he is risen!

It goes without saying that the point of Easter/Pascha is the celebration of Jesus Christ rising from the dead.

But Christ’s resurrection is not a thing in itself. It is for the sake of his creation and his church. As Paul says in his baptismal teaching: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).

And this brings me to the Services of the Bridegroom. I am far away from home and away from the Services of the Bridegroom on some urgent personal business, but as I reflected on these three services which begin the week where we celebrate Christ’s death and arising from the dead, I was reminded of the glorious words of the Bride about the Bridegroom in the Song of Songs:

“My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone” (2:10f)

The one who did rise says, in turn, “Arise, my love.”

It is the hope of the attentiveness of these three nights.

Personal Authority and the “Amen” of the People

I received a private email about my last essay from a friend who didn’t want his name connected with the Antiochian debate. He took me to task for ignoring the voice of the laity in this debate.

He made a fair point that requires more than a passing comment. I will begin by saying that (1) I stand by what I said, and (2) I didn’t say everything that could be said. It was an essay on two conceptions of authority. It was not an essay on the priesthood, and the question of the priesthood is at the heart of what his critique was about.

The Four Offices of the Priesthood

The doctrine of the four offices of the priesthood is as follows: All Christians are priests. Jesus Christ is our High Priest, and in him we have been created as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and God’s own people” (1 Pet 2:9). It is therefore technically incorrect to single out a presbyter a priest (as nearly all presbyters will tell you – my two priests presbyters since becoming Orthodox, Fr. Tom and Fr. Paul, have said this very thing on various occasions) because all Christians are priests, both laity and presbyters.

But the church is not an amorphous blob; it requires structure or order. That order developed in the early years and that development (although not necessarily the final structure) is witnessed to in the New Testament. The way it all worked out is that among the priests there are four orders: bishops, presbyters, deacons, and laity. Furthermore, if all four orders don’t exist in a church, it’s not really a church because the fullness of Christ’s body is not there.

Thus, laity can’t be the church all by themselves. Similarly, when clergy – bishops, priests, and deacons – get together for conferences, they also don’t reflect the fullness of the church and are therefore can’t be the church all by themselves. Church councils also require the presence of both clergy and laity in order to be taken seriously.

Finally, this isn’t a doctrine peculiar to the Orthodox. It is also taught by mainline Protestantism. Of course there’s some necessary tweaking. Some Presbyterian groups have bishops, for instance, but American Presbyterian groups see the bishop as a corporate office closely associated with the presbytery. (I don’t know with any precision what the Roman Catholics teach about the priesthood.)

How the Four Offices Relate to One Another

Biblical leadership is always a servant leadership. It’s never top-down, but bottom up. Jesus Christ – fully God and fully human – was clearly at the top of any leadership structure from a human perspective. But when he came to earth, he came as a peasant with no place to rest his head, he came as an outcast who ultimately died an offensive death. Jesus summed up this principle that he lived out when he said, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mk. 10:31).

Similarly, the leaders of the church (bishops, presbyters, and deacons) are the lowly servants. Bishops and presbyters are likened unto shepherds while the word “deacon” originally referred to a table waiter. And in the structure of things these “clergy offices” need the blessing of the laity in order to function. (In the Orthodox Church this is symbolized in the “Amen.” A liturgy cannot be performed by a bishop or his presbyter alone, because no liturgy is legitimate without the people’s “amen.”)

In the liturgy itself, where the bishop or his presbyter specifically represents the presence of Christ, this order of blessing is turned upside down, and those serving in the liturgy must receive the blessing of the presiding bishop or presbyter before they serve. In heaven, around the heavenly throne, it is at Christ’s pleasure that we serve, and so we must always go to Christ to receive his unconditional acceptance and never assume it to be so.

It is also at Christ’s pleasure that the priesthood exists, so all of us come to him and become part of the people of God, not merely by our choice, but at his pleasure. The church is a kingdom of priests in the world, serving the world on God’s behalf and praying to God on the world’s behalf. But within the priesthood itself, the bishops, presbyters, and deacons serve at the people’s pleasure. Thus the choice, the act of blessing, and the benevolent leadership flows both ways: from bishop up to laity and from laity down to bishop.

Authority in a Person

And this brings me to the critique that my anonymous reader offered. Historically a bishop is a bishop only if the laity are willing to accept him as a bishop. Similarly, decisions made by councils can only become “authoritative” if the laity agree and are willing to abide by the decisions. (The infamous “amen” of the laity.)

In terms of Antiochian Orthodox polity, the recent decision making process followed the “authority in a person” model rather than the American “authority in a thing” model. Because of that I argued that the process was therefore appropriate. But that’s not the same thing as saying the Synod made the right decision.

If the laity – the first or fourth order of the priesthood, depending on which direction one is going – rejects this decision, they will exercise their authority and things will change. They could change dramatically. Ultimately the laity, and not the Patriarch, has the authority in this decision. If the Patriarch becomes to top-down in his bureaucratic style, he could witness a withholding of the people’s “amen” and blessing, leading to a fundamental restructuring of the church.

In another unrelated controversy the secretary of the Ecumenical Patriarch recently called for all American Orthodox jurisdictions to unite under the Patriarch in Constantinople. (My cynical side suspects he’s so out of touch with the world that he doesn’t even realize he lives in Istanbul now.) The speech laid bare the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarch has lost touch with Orthodox polity and what he really desires is to become the Orthodox pope.

Metropolitan Jonah (of the Orthodox Church in America) is having none of it. In a recent speech he went so far as to rebuke the Patriarch, saying, “If we wanted a pope, we’d align under the real one.”

In this case, Metropolitan Jonah is exercising his personal authority against a clearly bad policy statement. It (that is, his personal authority) seems to be galvanizing the American Orthodox community.

But I don’t want my blog to devolve into a gossip forum about American Orthodox intrigue, so I hadn’t previously gone into details. But the current tempest in the Antiochian Archdiocese and the tempest caused by an increasingly misguided Ecumenical Patriarch illustrate perfectly the reality that all authority, in the end, is personal (whether in the person of a bishop or the people of God), and not tied to any particular document or constitution.

By Whose Authority?

I have been reading the Gospels during this season and was struck by how scripture is used by both Jesus and the religious leaders. (This is not a formal exegetical study; I’m simply reporting my overall perception based on a season of spending some time in the Gospels. I might be totally off base here.)

What struck me is how radically different their application of Hebrew scripture is, and yet their discussion never seems to turn to, “Your interpretation of scripture is wrong and mine is correct.” Whether it’s Jesus’ interpretation or action, the Pharisees’ question is “by whose authority do you do these things?” (Notice the question is “whose authority” and not “what authority.”)

In the Bible (at least in the New Testament – I admit that I didn’t look at every Old Testament reference) authority is always posited in a person and never in a thing. God has authority. Both Moses and the Pharaoh have authority, although their authority has decidedly different sources. Jesus, Pilate, and the Chief Priest also have authority. Particularly notable is that the crowd perceives that Jesus’ authority comes from within himself and isn’t passed down from another person. (“He speaks with authority!”)

It is striking that in the Gospels, laws don’t have authority. In his skirmishes with the religious leaders neither Jesus nor the religious leaders ever cite a law nor a text as their authority, but always a person. (And I have in mind specifically that the Pharisees don’t say, “We have the Scriptures!” Instead they say, “We have Moses!” From our American perspective – see below – we might say it’s the same thing, but it seems obvious to me that their sense of authority is personal, thus they use the euphemism “Moses” for the scriptures.) St. Paul (and other NT writers) are fond of quoting scripture, but they never cite it as the authority. Authority is given to Jesus Christ, who got it from the Father, and who, in turn, gives it to the apostles. Scripture is a witness to these things, but never cited as the authority in and of itself.

In America, on the other hand, authority is sometimes lodged in a thing rather than a person. The US Constitution has authority; articles of incorporation have authority, etc. Being once a Presbyterian pastor I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Book of Order of the PC(USA) has a great deal of authority as well.

I was reminded of this because of a scandal that is currently bubbling over in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. The archdiocese has a constitution which was duly approved both by the American church and the Synod of bishops back in Antioch (or more technically, Damascus). That constitution clearly says that the Archdiocese shall have multiple dioceses complete with diocesan bishops. But in a recent decision the Synod – including Metropolitan Philip, the administrative head of our Archdiocese – summarily dismissed the “authoritative” constitution that had been duly approved by both the American church and the synod, making Philip the sole Antiochian bishop in North America, and turning the other bishops into “auxiliary bishops” (still bishops, but only as extensions of the Metropolitan’s episcopal authority).

At first I was scandalized by the heavy-handedness of it all and the thoroughly Roman-style top down nature of it. (Forget conciliarity, which is supposedly the hallmark of the Orthodox Church.) But after the initial flurry, I’ve come to accept it as a perfectly reasonable decision making process (albeit a shockingly un-Orthodox decision). I’m still scandalized by the undermining of conciliarity for the sake of top-down bureaucratic order, but I suspect much of the fight here in the U.S. has to do with the pre-eminence of documents over persons in the American psyche.

And this brings me back to authority. The reason I’ve settled on the side of the debate that considers the decision process perfectly reasonable has to do with my understanding of authority. It seems obvious to me that in God’s economy, authority resides in a person and not a thing. But evidently most American priests and bishops take the decidedly American view of authority and believe it can reside in a thing, such a church constitution. In this view, the thing trumps the person or the synod (ie, a gathering of persons),

Now all this would be a merely academic exercise except for the fact that the question is, at its heart, theological. Orthodoxy’s central theological criticism of Protestantism centers on this very point. Protestants claim that scripture is their authority. The Orthodox point out that this is impossible because scripture is neither self-interpreting nor self-referential. Its reference point is God-in-Jesus-Christ, and its interpretive framework is the ecclesia or people of God.

Now this brings us into a rather arcane philosophical debate, and I don’t want to get trapped in the minutia of philosophical enquiry, so rather than defining what all that means precisely, I’ll offer an illustration. Throughout its 2000 year history (and this is also true to a lesser extent of the 1000 year history of the Roman Catholic Church) there has been a remarkable continuity and consistency in Orthodox teaching and practice. Of course Rome has been far more creative than the Orthodox Church, but even in that “creative” process, there has been remarkable unanimity across the church. (And please notice that I say “remarkable unanimity” not “complete unanimity.” Both communions have their internal dissenters and occasional schisms.)

But the 500 year history of Protestantism has been remarkably, I would even say shockingly different. For the sake of round numbers, we’ll round down and say there are 20,000 different Protestant denominations. The most commonly cited number is 20,800 that David Barrett listed nearly 30 years ago in the Dictionary of Christianity in America (InterVarsity Press, 1980). According to Barrett these can be divided into seven major groupings and 156 ecclesiastical traditions. (I don’t have a page number. This comes from seminary notes.) A United Nations statistical survey came up with 23,000 denominations in 1982.

Why so many different denominations with often contradictory views about very basic matters (the Godhead, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Church, etc.)? Nearly everyone I’ve read on the matter, whether Presbyterian theologians, academic historians, sociologists, etc. says it’s because Protestants believe the Bible is their only authority, and this turns out to be an impossibility. The Bible has many different interpretations (at least 20,800 by David Barrett’s accounting) and therefore what is authoritative is not the Bible, but rather the interpreter who claims his interpretation is correct. It is evident that the Bible is simply a footstool used to promote this private and personal authority. In short, I become my own private authority (in the name of scripture, but based on my personal interpretation of scripture that is a wee be different than anybody else’s interpretation) and the result is that people do “what is right in their own eyes” (Jdgs 17:6). It was a disaster for ancient Israel and it has been a disaster for Protestantism.

For centuries the church said the Bible was not self-interpreting and one needed a body of tradition and a community of worshipping believers in order to interpret it accurately. Then along came the Protestants who said, “No! The meaning of scripture is clear so scripture is our only authority.” 20,000 contradictory Protestant denominations later, it’s clear that scripture in and of itself is not clear and cannot be authoritative all by itself.

The same is true of the American constitution. There is a laundry list of institutions and practices that are not constitutional in the strictest sense of the word. But “constitutional activism” has become the norm, so all these “improvements” on the constitution, from the Federal Reserve to Homeland Security, have gotten the stamp of approval of the people who actually hold the authority over the Constitution: The Supreme Court. Even in America (despite our claims to the contrary), authority is not vested in a thing, but rather in people.

But this myth that authority can properly be vested in a thing rather than a person is strong in America. So Protestants insist it’s perfectly okay, and even admirable to figure it out all by myself, and Antiochian priests and bishops insist that the Synod and the Metropolitan (who carries out the authority of the Synod in America) have no authority to do what they did because a thing – a piece of paper – trumps the authority that any person or group might have.

“By whose authority do you do these things?”

“By whose authority do you do these things?”

Ultimately the Antiochians will get this sorted out. But it can’t happen until the priests and bishops quit trusting in a thing – a piece of paper – and again begin to grapple with the ancient religious leaders’ question: “By whose authority do you do these things?”

And the Protestants? Well that’s a different can of worms.

Spring Yard Work

We have some trees that tend to keep their leaves well into the winter, so I generally clean up the leaves in the spring as soon as the lawn dries. That’s what I did this week. There were so many I took them to the land fill. (More like a “land hill” than a “land fill” — they put them on the top of a ridge, so no doubt the neighboring corn fields get the leaves.)

I had to weigh in and weigh out. The scale bill said I had 460 lbs of leaves from my yard.

That’s dry leaves, btw. I had waited long enough so they were no longer soggy. FYI, 460 lbs of dry leaves barely fit into a pickup bed. In fact, they don’t fit into a pickup bed. Six of the bags were stuffed in the extended cab.