Destruction And Beauty

Scenes of statues toppling and pictures of defaced public spaces can be disturbing. Sometimes, they can be exhilarating. I recall watching statues of Lenin and Stalin fall during the collapse of the various Communist states. It felt like freedom. I also recall my dismay during my first trip to Greece where nearly every public wall and monument (Church and otherwise) is covered in graffiti.

There is an instinct at work surrounding images (both their making and their destruction) – one that is profoundly religious in nature. As such, it has the capacity to save us or to destroy us. But make no mistake – it is filled with power.

Not all Christians care for icons. Some positively despise them. But none of them can deny the power of the image (icon) itself. “Image” is the word used to describe the very act of human creation. We are created according to the “image and likeness” of God. No other statement enshrines the dignity and true worth of human beings in such an inarguable manner. It puts a stamp of ultimacy on our very existence. Not only are we described as having been created in the image of God, but our salvation itself is portrayed as a return to the fullness of that image as we behold the face of Christ.

But we are also “smashers” (iconoclasts). When Rome defeated Carthage in 146 BC, it leveled the city. Some say that they even plowed the ground and sowed it with salt, consigning the space to oblivion. In 70 A.D. Rome destroyed Jerusalem, along with its temple. Today, in order to reach the streets of Jerusalem upon which Jesus walked, you have to dig deep underground – what stands on top represents much later construction.

Such actions seem to have a role of “catharsis” or “cleansing,” in which an enemy is not only defeated but erased. Who hasn’t wanted to do such a thing to the memory of a hurt that haunts? We hear it echoed in St. Paul’s prayer that “God will speedily crush down Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). We not only want Satan to be defeated – we want him erased.

We have to recognize both impulses within us (the love of icons and their smashing) to come to grips with the whole of who we are meant to be. At its deepest level, we do not understand icons until we understand beauty and its crucial role in our existence.

The love of beauty and our desire for it are the most fundamental parts of our being. This is particularly true if we use the word “beauty” in the fullest sense of its meaning. Beauty encompasses being and truth as well. It is God’s word for His creation (usually translated as “good,” the word in Scriptures also means “beautiful”). That which is beautiful and good is reflective (iconic) of the God who created it. All of creation longs for union with this Beauty and groans for it to be made manifest.

In the life of the Church, the making of icons begins early, possibly in its very beginning. Israel already made a careful use of images (some are prescribed for use in the Temple itself). St. Paul, and others following him, elevated a “theology of the image” into a central place in Christology and the doctrine of salvation. There were already hints of this theology in some of the writings of the Second Temple period. The fulfillment of the image of God in Christ allowed the veil to be torn away from that mystery and its clear form to be discerned.

Nevertheless, the drive towards iconoclasm has remained rooted in our hearts. Every sin against another human being is a form of iconoclasm. Violence is probably its most dangerous form, although every sin against another carries an element of violence within it (Matt. 5:21-22). We are experiencing an unprecedented display of public anger and iconoclasm in our cities and news cycles. Of course, the quiet iconoclasm of injustice has far deeper and long-lasting effects. The one does not justify the other. Injustice added to injustice only adds up to injustice. That we might understand it does not change its nature.

The Church’s witness to icons and their veneration is, ultimately, a witness to beauty. It is also a witness to the only path of salvation, both for individuals and the world as a whole. St. Augustine described the work of salvation as the “City of God.” And though we idealize the natural setting of a home in the wilderness, it is the image of a city that the Scriptures use to describe salvation. St. Paul writes: “But our citizenship [“politeumaπολίτευμα] is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20–21).

The word “politeuma,” translated as “citizenship,” is formed from the word, “polis,” or “city.” Citizenship is the “place where we have our “city-ness”). It is the New Jerusalem that we await (Rev. 22:2), a “city whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). Cities require human relationships and exist well when the beauty and health of those relationships is foremost in its planning and execution. Cities whose inner being exists only for economic profit serve as images of a god, Mammon, and its people begin to resemble slaves.

The building of cities, in this highest sense of the word, is a construction of “city-ness,” an icon of the city that is to come. This is not a call for utopianism, but a recognition that there are holy patterns given to us that make for a greater wholeness in our lives. This is hard work. Iconoclasm and destruction are the work of a moment, driven by passion and the darkest places in our hearts. Anybody can smash. To make something beautiful takes care, love, and attention to detail. It is a work of holy living.

In the great wash of news stories of the past weeks, an image of beauty came across my desk that was encouraging. In Atlanta, scene of many racial tensions through the years, also the site of an egregious racial killing in recent days, there was a march on Juneteenth (a date marking the end of slavery). It was sponsored by One Race, an organization founded by black and white pastors in the Atlanta area back in 2017. They have been doing a slow work of common prayer, common discussions, and common understanding towards the healing of racial sins and the union of the faithful. They profess that only in Christ can such sins be overcome.

On that day, some 15,000 faithful gathered for a peaceful march to lift up Christ and to profess their common faith and love for one another. It was encouraging because it was not simply a passion of the moment, but the fruit of three years of patient work, something that will likely continue for some time to come. When the news cycle easily leads toward despair, it is good to see so many knees that bow to Christ walking together and professing faith in the city whose builder and maker is God.

The opposite of iconoclasm is “iconodulia” (the honoring of icons). At its heart, iconodulia is the love of true beauty. This love is quite the opposite of the drive towards iconoclasm. Iconoclasm need love nothing: the will to destruction is entirely sufficient to provide motivation and energy. In the end, it might yield nothing more than nothing-at-all, an emptiness of fruitless effort that collapses back on itself. It is not life-giving.

Iconodulia requires inward attention as well as outward responsibility. It is slow and requires patience. Some efforts of beauty can be so great that they survive for millennia and more. The beauty of Hagia Sophia (for example) continues not only in that single, striking building, but in the thousands of echoes that have shaped so many Orthodox temples since. It’s power lies in the fact that its beauty reaches beyond itself towards a greater Beauty that only God can build. As such, it is echoed in every element of beauty that we find in nature as well.

Such beauty requires people who live beautiful lives. They need neither wealth nor power, only the living icon of the Logos to be manifest in their being. It is the secret to Christian “civilization” – not an empire maintained by force of arms or economic power. Rather Christian civilization is the politeuma of the heavenly city that is continually reborn in the heart of every Baptism. That city is built in the heart. It is there that we repent and there that we forgive. It is there that we find within us the image of the city that God has already prepared for us.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The image shows the crucifixion, with Christ being offered a drink of vinegar on a sponge; in the foreground, the iconoclasts, John Grammaticus and Bishop Anthony of Pamphylia, efface the image of Christ with a sponge. The Chludov Psalter, Byzantine, 9th-century.

To Be Really Creative

The first time I heard the suggestion that human beings should think of themselves as “co-creators” with God was in a liberal, mainline, seminary (Episcopal). This was in the 1970s.

The meaning at the time was something of a mish-mash of culture-notions that was little more than a way of underwriting the myth of cultural progress as a God-given program, as well as a windfall of new-age silliness. We were not only making the world a better place, we were doing so as Co-creators. I must confess that every time I hear anyone speaking about making the world a better place I hear echoes of Cabaret with a pretty blonde Nazi-boy singing, “Tomorrow belongs to me!”

I offer this as a preface to my reflections on current language regarding “co-creation” and “sub-creation” with the far healthier pedigree found in Tolkien and Lewis. Both authors, with some variation, recognized the human participation in myth-making in genres such as fiction and fantasy. But the question remains: to what extent is it right to describe ourselves with such lofty language?

The sobriquet of co-anything with God immediately raises questions concerning “synergy.” Eastern Orthodoxy is supposedly famous for its thoughts on synergy, in that we “co-operate” with God in our salvation. This stands in stark contrast to certain early versions of Protestant theology in which there is literally nothing contributed by human beings to the work of salvation: God’s work is strictly “monergistic,” belonging only to Him. That extremist view (still found in Reform circles) came to be balanced in Protestant practice by the sentiments of free-will Pietism in the mid-19th century.

Orthodoxy traditionally holds to a synergistic approach to salvation, though, I have come to think of this as problematic for those whose minds have been shaped in modern thought (whether consciously, or not). Modernity is steeped in the concept of our own freedom and the imagined power of our choices. We are said to be creating and shaping our own reality – even our own being.

The doctrine of synergy, as I’ve encountered it in contemporary Orthodox conversations, seems to me to overstate the case. It is accurate to say that we “participate” in our salvation through our freedom, that there is a necessary cooperation on some level, but, I think it is wrong to say much more than this. For one, we simply have little or no clue of the truth of our salvation: it is hidden (Col. 3:3).

The content of our salvation is nothing less than the image and likeness of Christ Himself. This is being made known to us, though in a glass darkly (I Cor. 13:12). Our participation and synergy consists in our persistent “yes” to the work of God. Our role as sub-creators is not unlike that of the Theotokos. She says, “Yes,” to God, and without her ‘yes,’ there is no incarnation. She contributes her “flesh” to that incarnation and participates in the life that grows in her womb.

This is important, even in the world of fiction and fantasy. Not every work of fiction or fantasy can properly be said to belong to “sub-creation.” Nor is every work of art a work of sub-creation. A work succeeds in these acts of creation inasmuch as it participates in the work of God, and fails inasmuch as it rejects that same work. Tolkien famously thought of his fantasy as an act of “sub-creation.”

He definitely did not see it as “allegory” (in contrast to Lewis’ fantasies). But Tolkien’s sub-creation can be described as such, not because it stands as a complete world, but in that it works with the same truth as the creation in which we live. To be good in Middle Earth would count as goodness in this world as well. Tolkien’s world is not an allegory, but every sub-creation must “rhyme” with God’s creation in order to be worthy of the term.

Tolkien succeeds, I suspect, because he was a Christian down to the deepest level of his soul. He would have been repulsed by an anti-creation fantasy. This is another way of saying that all created things are created “through the Logos,” and that “apart from Him, nothing was made that was made.”

The Logos can be discerned in Tolkien’s work, as He can in much of great literature, many times in an unconscious manner. But, there are works of anti-Logos that fail. When such things, lacking in any true beauty, have influence or popularity, it is almost certain that they do so only as a result of a sort of propaganda rather than any popular love. That which is natural coinheres in the Logos. That which is contrary to nature does not, and eventually collapses in on itself.

This same process can be applied to the human life. There is much about us that is a work of “creation.” In our present culture, we speak of individuals “re-inventing” themselves. But that which we “invent” is not at all the same thing as “co-creating.”

The work of creation that is the true self is a gift. It is discovered and welcomed, but not formed and shaped. The deepest act of creation in the human life is that of repentance and the life of true humility.

We do not create ourselves – for one, we stand at the wrong point in time to do such a thing. The Scripture tells us that our life is “hid with Christ in God” (Co. 3:3). Additionally, we are told that: “…it does not yet appear what we shall be. But we know, that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn 3:2).

The causality of our life is not found in the past or the present; it lies in the age to come. That which we shall be draws us forward towards our true end. God said to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” The truth of our existence is eschatological and its manifestation in our present life is itself a glimpse into the Kingdom of God.

This is not only true of ourselves, but of creation itself. The “new heaven” and “new earth” are not the eradication of what exists; they are the revelation and fulfillment of creation in the “glorious liberty of the sons of God” (Romans 8:21).

But what of fiction and fantasy? Both Lewis and Tolkien were greatly influenced by the theories of Owen Barfield. They shared a common belief in a transcendent realism – that behind and beneath creation as we see it are realities that form and shape the world.

None of them should be described as Platonists, but all shared the worldview that was common to the perceptions of the early Christian fathers that had much in common the Hellenistic Platonism. Lewis’ Professor Digory declares, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”

That greater reality is a manifestation or reflection of the Logos (Christ), “by whom and through whom all things were made.” As this is the case, even fiction and fantasy, at their best, themselves participate in this deeper and greater reality. They serve, in their own way, to reveal what might otherwise be hidden.

It is also possible for fiction and fantasy to distort and obscure the Logos, though nothing can truly efface all evidence of His work. If you will, the very existence of language, thought, reason, cogency, etc., that mark every form of human communication is Logos-bearing. The very act of denying Him is itself impossible without Him.

This serves, as well, as a model for thinking about the self. The narrative of our own self is under constant revision. Each day’s part of the story serves to re-write what has gone before.

The beginning is always being revised by the end. The creativity that marks our own participation in creation (including the revelation of the self) is, most properly, a variation or improvisation on a theme that is being sung by the Logos. This means that listening and observing are among our most essential activities. You cannot sing along if you do not hear the music.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The image shows, “Artists Sketching in the White Mountains,” by Winslow Homer, painted in 1868.

Only The Mother Of God

The first time I offered prayers to Mary I had a panic attack – literally. I was in college and my best friend had become Roman Catholic. We argued a bit, and he won (mostly). It resulted in my return to Anglicanism, to the “high” side. So, like a good high churchman, I got a rosary and a book, and started my prayers. Then came the panic attack.

Many Protestants are viscerally opposed to Catholicism. It’s in their heart and bones. I had no idea at the time that my bones (and heart) were as firmly orange as they seemed to be (let the Irish explain). My experience showed me otherwise. But, theology wins. I spent the next nine months reading about Marian devotion and early Christian practice. After that long “cooling-off” period, I picked up my rosary and gave it another try. No panic. I’ve never looked back.

Western devotions to Mary have forms that differ from Orthodox practices, and I’m not at all sure that the Western, Catholic understanding is the same (I’ll admit that I don’t know). My Anglican use of the rosary and devotion to Mary, which largely followed Catholic practice, certainly made my conversion to Orthodoxy ever so much easier. Indeed, her presence in the text of an Orthodox service far exceeds anything you’ll ever see in Rome.

The Orthodox veneration of the Mother of God is grounded in its understanding of salvation. As such, the veneration of Mary is an expression of the most foundational doctrine of the faith. This is generally misunderstood by the non-Orthodox for the simple reason that they do not understand salvation itself. Salvation is about a union or communion with God. It is a participation in the very life of God. We were created for this communion, breathed into us in the act of our creation. Through sin, we have broken that communion and become subject to death and disintegration.

Christ, in becoming a human being, united Himself to our human nature. He suffered death and was buried. But in His death, because He is also God, He tramples down death and rises from the tomb. Our human nature is raised with Him. When we are Baptized, the Scriptures say we are Baptized “into His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection.” In Holy Communion, we eat His very Body and drink His Blood, a true communion and participation in His life.

When this fundamental doctrine is understood, Mary’s role in history and her place in the Church become clear. Christ does not enter her womb as though it were a borrowed space. The Creed says, “He took flesh of the Virgin Mary.” Christ’s humanity is not a separate creation, but “bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh.” She is truly His mother.

The Scriptures recognize this in various ways. In particular, when Mary brings the Christ Child to the Temple on the 40th day, the Prophet Simeon prophesies the coming sufferings of Christ and adds, “…and a sword will pierce your soul as well.” This is far more than saying, “It will make you unhappy.” In Christ’s suffering on the Cross, Mary suffers as well. This is because of the peculiar union that was their relationship from the beginning.

Christians describe the life of salvation as “beholding Christ face to face.” Mary would have done this quite literally numerous times a day for nearly three years as she nursed Him. In St. John’s gospel, at the Wedding in Cana, there is a level of communication between mother and Son that transcends words.

At the wedding feast, she comes to her Son and says, “They have no wine.” She does not ask Him anything. His response is frequently misinterpreted. He says, in the Greek: “Tί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί,” (Jn. 2:4). (“What is this to me and you?”) It is a very strange phrase in the Greek, but is a direct quote from the widow of Zarephath when she is speaking to Elijah about the death of her son (1 Kings 17:18). Christ is warning His mother that “it is not my time.” But, if He acts in helping with this wedding and its wine, it will set in motion something that cannot be stopped – His kairos – His time. And when His time comes, she will be like the widow of Zarephath, a widow whose son is dead. All of this is contained in this tiny conversation of but a few words.

Her response is equally terse, “Do whatever He tells you.” This is similar to her first words to the angel, “Let it be to me according to your word.” She is ready for what will take place, including its most fearful consequences.

But all of this can only be rightly understood if we remember the nature of the union between mother and Son. It is also a union that will be our own salvation. Christ has become what we are by nature, that we might become what he is by grace. This is the great “exchange.”

Orthodox prayer gives expression to this communion. St. Paul says that the Holy Spirit prays within us saying, “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6). Those words are the words of the Son (the one says, “Abba”). We do not pray as strangers, but as members of the household, now emboldened to speak with the very voice of the Son of God. It is this same voice that speaks of Mary as “Mother,” and gives her honor. That honor, or veneration, is the expression of love. Just as she loves Him, so she loves us.

In my experience, devotion to the Mother of God comes very slowly for converts to the faith. Five hundred years of Protestant thought have created a Christianity in which Mary has little place other than on Christmas cards and in badly produced movies. English translations of the Scriptures often butcher Marian passages conveying false images.

The Wedding at Cana passage cited above is frequently rendered: “What do I have to do with you, woman?” which is simply inaccurate. It gives the impression of disrespect, as though Mary were being a bother to her Son. What is deeply lacking is the spiritual consciousness rooted in salvation through union with Christ. None of the doctrines expressed in the Great Seven Ecumenical Councils make any sense apart from that awareness. Put simply, it is how both the Scriptures and the early Fathers understand our salvation. Union (communion, participation) is the fundamental grammar of Christian teaching.

When this grammar is properly grasped, it becomes clear that we cannot speak of Christ apart from Mary (nor Mary apart from Christ). By the same token, we cannot speak of Christ apart from the Church, nor the Church apart from Christ. We are told in 1 Cor. 12:21 that the “head cannot say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you,” and this in the very passage in which we are told that Christ is the “head of the body (the Church).” We cannot speak of one member of the Body apart from all the others, for the life of each is the life of all and the life of all is the life of each.

In our devotional life, this is expressed in the communion of saints, our prayers that gather all together in union with Christ: “Commemorating our most holy, most pure, most blessed lady, Theotokos, and ever-virgin Mary, and all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.”

On the personal level, the experience of the Church has taught us private devotions as well. Within those, we begin to discover the mystical bonds that only such devotions reveal. Years ago, in a reference I have long since forgotten, I read a quote in which St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “There are things about Jesus you cannot know until His mother tells them to you.”

This part of the Orthodox life is difficult to describe. It is a perception of Christ, though with a greater fullness, one that extends into the persons of the saints. In Mary, that person encompasses an intimacy with Christ that is without equal. In my own experience, this intimacy includes the depths of her maternal love, for her Son, and for all creation.

The absence of Marian devotion and awareness has created a Christianity with an absence of the feminine. I do not suggest that Mary is a cipher for an abstract universal, or of a “divine femininity,” but it is simply bizarre to have a Christology that speaks of the “humanity” of Christ that is somehow devoid of a human mother (for all intents and purposes). Orthodox Christology begins its formal expression in the 3rd Ecumenical Council in which the largest and most central question was Mary’s title of “Theotokos” (Birth-Giver of God). Classical Christology began with consideration of Mary.

The most egregious example I have ever encountered of anti-Marian sentiment is a treatment in which she is seen as a mere “container” for Christ. It is an insult to every woman who has ever borne a child.

I offer no speculation as to the damage done to Western culture by a distorted Christology. Secularists would argue that Christology has nothing to do with our cultural constructs: such is the ignorance of our own foundations. Secular modernity is built on the foundation of a distorted version of Christianity. We are children who deny our parents, imagining that we have created ourselves.

Now that is a cause for panic. Holy Mother of God, pray for us.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows the play of light on a mural of the Virgin and Christ, inside the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey). Photo credit: Dr. Shafi Ahmad.

Are Pandemics Evil?

Recent conversations have brought up questions about good and evil, particularly in the natural world. When the world is locked down in response to a virus, it is easy to wonder about the nature of things. Can a virus be called “evil?” Is that the right word for it? In truth, we use words in a very loose manner in our common speech.

We say “evil” about many things, without thinking carefully (or meaning to) about what we’re actually saying. This changes, however, when we attempt to do theology. For theology is always something that involves words, and often turns on the right use of the right word for the right thing. Classically, some of the largest controversies turned on a single iota.

We do not speak with precision in our daily life, and it is silly to expect that we should. But, it is also good to pause, now and again, to think carefully about our speech and what we mean. This article is a small attempt to speak carefully about the nature of good and evil and how Orthodox theology, at its most careful, speaks of them. I’ll also try to define my terms with some care. Here goes.

The Fathers, particularly the Cappadocians through Dionysius and St. Maximus the Confessor, belonged to a school of speech that took great care to hammer away at certain terms, reaching consensus on use and meaning. The seven Great Councils all belong to a single vocabulary project that, over time, developed a working consensus on terms and their application. Some of those words are key:

Being
Nature
Essence
Substance

Person
Hypostasis

Existence
Subsistence

Will
Energy

Movement
Change

This list could be expanded even further, but I’ll stop with this. There are some fundamental ideas in all of this. First, and foremost, is the understanding of “being.”

Being, like goodness, and beauty, is foundational. Everything that exists, apart from God, is created out of nothing. And everything(!) that is created is good. God is not the author of evil. Thus, nothing can be said to be “evil” in its actual being. And here we have to think carefully about our language.

When reading classical theology, “essence” or “ousia” or “substance” all refer to the actual being of something – the simple reality that it is. Further, the word “nature,” or “physis,” is used to describe the “what-ness” of something. Thus, a tree has the nature of a tree; a rock has the nature of a rock; an angel has the nature of an angel, etc. If we ask what the “nature” of a tree is, we would answer “to be what a tree is.” A tree is not a rock nor an angel. Again, these are words that describe “being” or “what something is.”

The terms “person” and “hypostatic” are a bit more problematic. For nothing simply “is.” Everything that exists, exists in a particular manner. The tree outside my window is a unique tree and not just the essence of treeness. This expresses something of the uniqueness of what exists. It not only has being (essence), but a particular being (hypostasis).

When speaking of human beings, “hypostasis” or “person” have a quality that is more than mere particularity. There is a relational aspect of our unique existence. I am not fully “who” I am except as I am also in communion with others (more or less).

Related to this, with regard to all things, are the words “existence” and “subsistence.” Something not only has “being,” but the actual being it has is expressed in some manner that is describable. My “existence” encompasses everything that I am doing and every way that I function. Thus, if something is “existential,” it is a matter of the basic expression of my being in a way that can be described and experienced.

Two additional words are quite interesting: “will” and “energy.” Interestingly, the “will” in its most proper meaning, is a faculty and property of the nature (our essence or being). It is a nature’s drive to naturally be what it is created to be. Trees never want to be anything else. A virus wants what a virus wants (by nature). It does not do something else. You can count on it.

Human beings, however, have a different experience of the will, a consequence of our brokenness and lack of communion with God. We have a natural will (the will of our nature), that always tends towards our proper end, that is, what we were created to do and be. But there is what St. Maximus termed the “gnomic” will – a sort of experience of choosing.

That will is not governed by our nature but has a kind of unguided freedom. Generally, when we speak of the “will,” we mean this “gnomic” will. The very fact that we have one is not natural. It is unnatural and is a cause of great suffering in our lives. Christian ascesis, to a large extent, concerns itself with the healing of this disruption in our makeup.

Indeed, according to the authoritative teaching of St. Maximus, Christ Himself did not have a “gnomic” will – a separated, fallen, choosing sort of confusion about His actions. He acted with complete integrity and union as a human being (united with His Divine nature). This can quickly become a very complicated discussion, so I will leave it at that. I will say that we often speak about the human will and human freedom in a manner that ignores this distinction and leads to some very false assumptions about what it means to be human.

For what it’s worth, we see a somewhat similar kind of integrity in the actions and life of the Theotokos. But that’s for another day.

“Energy” is a very interesting word. For years I imagined it in terms of physics, thinking it described some sort of force emanating from a being. However, it’s far more simple. “Energies” are our actions, our “doings.” With God, His actions and His being are one. God is what He is and He is what He does. We’re a bit more problematic.

Our doings are often in contradiction to our being. For example, anything we do that is a movement or action against true existence (our being) is a contradiction of who and what we are. Murder is an action that is inherently evil. Note, it’s not the “being” that is evil, but the misuse of the being in its evil actions.

The Fathers (particularly the Cappadocians, Dionysius, Maximus, etc.) view the creation as inherently good, which is also the same thing as saying that it exists and has being. But they do not see the creation as having the fullness of the Good.

Everything that exists is created to move towards union and full participation in the Good (God Himself). Creation is dynamic and moves and changes. Sin and evil are a deviation from this dynamic. The path the Fathers describe is: being, well-being, eternal being. Being is a given. Our present life should be an increasing acquisition of well-being. Our final goal is full participation in eternal being, the very life of God.

I have found it very helpful to keep all of this in mind when thinking about sin and evil. Orthodoxy makes a strong link between sin and death. Sin is a movement, a misdirection, a drive and direction towards non-being. It displays as murder, lies, deceit, etc., everything that moves us away from the path to God. It is, however, a false path, and not the thing itself.

We may say that a man is evil, but, if we are precise, we must say that his actions (energies) are evil. It was certain errors in the West that led some to speak of human beings as totally depraved and actually evil – or, in Luther’s phrase, “a mass of damnation.” That imprecise language did much harm.

What about the things in the world that are called “natural evil?” This would include events (earthquakes, floods, plagues, etc.). What is “evil” about such things? There is nothing inherently “evil” in the shifting of planetary plates (earthquakes). It’s what planets like ours do. It creates continents, mountains, etc. It is normal. We use the word “evil” in describing these things because of the suffering and death that comes in their wake. But earthquakes are not death and suffering itself, nor is a virus.

Sometimes people speak of the world as “fallen,” and go on to describe the world as therefore bad or evil in some manner. “Fallen” is not a term found in the Scriptures, and can sometimes be a bit problematic. St. Paul speaks far more carefully about creation’s problematic state. He says that it was made “subject to futility.”

What he meant by that was that creation (like human beings) was made subject to death, decay, and destruction. It does not mean that creation itself is death, decay, and destruction. Those things are a sort of anti-creation, part of that drive towards non-existence. But they are not part of the natural order itself. They are its destruction.

The problem is death, not creation. Christ’s relationship with creation is interesting. He is asleep in a boat during a storm, unperturbed. The disciples are afraid (they fear death). They wake Him up. He speaks to the winds and the sea and says, “Peace. Be still.”

I suppose He went back to sleep after that. There was nothing “evil” about the winds and the sea, though they could well have sunk the boat and drowned the disciples. Christ “rebukes” fevers. He tells demons what to do. He withers a fig tree.

In Christ, we see a foretaste, or a small glimpse of humanity and creation in its right order. St. Paul describes creation as “groaning like a woman in child-birth” longing for the restoration of this relationship in its fullness. He calls it the “glorious liberty of the sons of God.”

St. Dionysius the Areopagite’s The Divine Names, has a very dense passage on all of this, in chapter 4. He uses a very interesting verb in describing evil, borrowing from an earlier usage of St. Gregory of Nyssa. The word is paryphistimi (παρυφιστημι – a sort of “standing beside”) which essentially equates with the noun, παρυποστασις. It is an attempt to describe the “parasitic” character of evil. It doesn’t exist in and of itself, but is spun out of the will of sentient creatures.

In dealing with the so-called “problem of evil,” it is important to place it squarely in the realm of God’s providential care for all creation. The death and decay to which we are subject certainly have the capacity to draw us towards non-being. Conversely, they also draw us toward repentance, turning towards God and the path of life.

We are not dualists. The battle between good and evil is not a level playing field. The whole of the field is the arena of our salvation and the working out of the whole of creation’s union with God. Even death has a strange place in all of this.

In Christ’s Pascha we hear echoes of this place. Christ tramples down death by death. The very thing that is our enemy is the same thing used to destroy our enemy. It is the ultimate statement of God’s good will triumphing in all things.

Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered. Let those who hate Him flee before His face!

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The image shows Christ healing the Leper; a mosaic in the church of Monreale.

Our Shared Work With Christ

The average Christian, reading his Bible in happy devotion, stumbles across this passage: Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church (Col 1:24).

The passage is particularly disturbing for a certain strain of Protestant thought that emphasizes Christ’s sufficiency for all things. Christ has accomplished all things necessary to our salvation and we are thus able to “rest” in His completed work. For many, this is at the heart of grace. God has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. What remains is for us to trust that this is so. Christ declares, “It is finished.” There is nothing left for us but trust.

This sentiment recently came crashing into a discussion of the Russian novel, Laurus. I attended (and spoke) at the Eighth Day Symposium in Wichita, Kansas. The presenter, Jessica Hooten Wilson, had spoken on the Russian novel, Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin, in which the lead character enters the long, arduous life of a holy fool following the death of a woman and her child, a result of his own inaction. Wilson made mention of a review by Alan Jacobs (Baylor University) that described its spirituality as “Hindu,” and castigated its approach to Christianity. He wrote: “…though I know that Eugene Vodolazkin is a Christian, I remain uncertain about just what vision of the Christian life is being held out to me in this book…. In Laurus…long, hard spiritual labor pays for sins, as it does for the world…”

Vodolazkin nowhere characterizes Laurus’ labors as a payment for sin. Indeed, the concept is foreign to Orthodox thought. It is an absence that is so profound that a Protestant professor of literature felt the need to supply it, and with it, distort a beautifully Orthodox novel. In the discussion at the conference, a Protestant participant agreed that the novel seemed strangely unable to “rest” in Christ. Inasmuch as I am often not in dialog with Protestant Christians, I was caught off-guard by these observations. I forgot how foreign all of this is. Happily, it is also foreign to the New Testament.

Whatever one might think of grace, the work of Christ on the Cross in no way removes the work of the Cross from the lives of believers. We are baptized into the death of Christ, and continue to say throughout our lives: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live” (Gal. 2:20). It is Christ who taught that we ourselves must take up the Cross and follow Him. There is no “resting” Christianity made available by a substitutionary work of Christ. The work of Christ is a matter of participation (koinonia) – we are baptized into it, live through its presence in us, and do not cease to share in that work, ever.

It is always difficult to listen to what is actually being said and not try to hear a conversation that is not taking place. Salvation, in Latin Christianity, was made captive, rather early on, to the language of “grace” and “works.” Within what would become a dominantly juridical framework, grace and works were easily externalized, raising questions about who was doing the “saving.”

When St. Paul says that he is filling up “that which is lacking” in Christ’s afflictions, he is either subscribing to some form of Pelagianism, or he simply has no notion of a juridical salvation. No doubt, the latter is the actual case.

When he says that he is crucified with Christ, St. Paul means precisely what he is saying. Indeed, it is the deepest cry of his heart: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him – the power of his resurrection, and the communion of His sufferings, becoming like Him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8-11).

This has nothing of the language of earning, much less external grace and works. It is the language of the most intimate, mystical communion.

We know a little bit about this experience, for it is common in relationships marked by intense love. The coldness of a conversation regarding who did what, or what is owed to whom, has no place in such intimacy. Love speaks in terms of union. It wants to share in the deepest manner possible the life of the beloved.

There appeared a rift in Protestantism within its first two to three centuries. That rift, to a large extent, represented a deep dissatisfaction with a cold, sterile presentation of the life of grace. Early Protestants almost universally held to a doctrine of “cessationism,” teaching that miracles ended when the New Testament was completed. What remained were the rather mechanical/intellectual doctrines that assured of salvation. Dry as dust.

The reaction to this was the birth of Pietism, in a variety of forms and places. At its worst, Pietism’s emotionalism led to extremes of belief and practice. At its best, it produced holy lives and gave heart to what would have been little more than a dry death to Western Christianity. Inasmuch as Western Christianity survives our present difficulties, it will be the heart born in Pietism that saves it (or so I think).

The transformation of the Pietist conversion experience into the doctrine of being “born-again” has tended to confuse Pietism and classical Protestantism, framing the experience of the heart in the rigid language of doctrinal necessity. Like many aspects of Protestantism(s), fragmentation in doctrine and experience has been a continuing and dominant feature.

Classical Christianity, in its Orthodox form, is very rich in its vocabulary and stories of the human experience of God. It is always “ontological” in its approach to doctrine, meaning that doctrine is always about “something-that-is” and not about a theory, or a juridical arrangement. Because “something-that-is” is capable of being experienced, it is always seen as quite natural that the work of God has a describable, experiential component.

If I am being crucified with Christ, it is inherently the case that such a thing is experienced in some manner. In the case of a holy fool, it might look a lot like the Laurus character. He must be contrasted with the middle-class American who sings happy songs on Sunday, perhaps even moved to tears, satisfied and assured that Jesus has taken care of everything such that he can safely return to the banalities of his life. Isn’t Jesus wonderful!

The simple truth is that the Kingdom of God “suffers violence, and the violent bear it away” (Matt. 11:12). The gospel engages the whole person and assumes that we will love God “with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.” That such an engagement might be described by some as “works righteousness” is merely indicative of a bifurcated Christianity that has placed God in a second-storey doctrinal reality, while the secular party rages here below.

Thank God for the Lauruses sprinkled across the historical landscape. The unity of faith and experience exemplified in their sometimes stormy lives whispers hope that God dwells among us and loves us, willing Himself into the messiness of our crucified existence, ever-straining Himself into the depths of our being, while we strain to respond in kind, enduring “that which is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” – our own response to His love.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The image shows, “Basil the Blessed, Praying,” by Sergey Kirillov, painted in 1994.

The Crisis In Modernity

The ideas that constitute “modernity” center around life as management. Modernity assumes that life can be managed, and that human beings are well-suited for the job. Its greatest successes have come in the careful application of technology towards various problems with a resulting rise in wealth. The well-being that comes with that wealth is limited to the things that money can buy. Non-tangibles remain as elusive as ever.

Modernity prefers problems that can be solved. As such, the short history of the modern world is the story of a civilization that staggers from one crisis to another. It derives its sense of self-worth and meaning from the problems it solves. It is existentially desperate for such problems.

No one historical event or idea created the modern world. It is an “accidental” philosophy, made up of disparate elements assembled in the wake of the collapse of the Medieval world (generally called the “Reformation”). The times that gave rise to modernity were revolutionary and radical (or were perceived to be). It’s heady stuff to be reforming the world. It’s also exhausting.

I have often thought that people generally have narrow interests. We want to work, to play, to love our family, to live in peace with some modest level of comfort. Of course, a consumer economy cannot operate in a world of satisfaction. Modern consumption with an ever-expanding economy requires that our dissatisfaction remain somewhat steady.

The same is true of the political world. For people to vote, they must be motivated (like shopping). Problems need to be advertised so that people will vote for their solutions. As such, our society has moved from crisis to crisis, slogan to slogan, with a faithfulness that can only be described as religious in nature.

Though America invented the notion of the “separation of Church and State,” nothing is more political than American religion, nor is anything more religious than American politics. Modernity is a religious project. (Christianity in its modernized forms is also driven by crisis and slogan. As such, it often resembles the politics of the world it inhabits).

Religion, per se, needs no gods or temples. It requires purpose and direction and a narrative for the direction of life. Human beings are not constructed in a manner in which we live devoid of religion. The term itself is instructive. “Religio” is a Latin word that refers to “binding” (“ligaments” has the same root). “Religion” is “that which binds us,” or “holds us together.”

Modernity, as a set of ideas, has been the dominant religion of Western culture for well over 200 years. What Christianity that continues to exist within it generally exists as a Christianized version of modernity. Modernity is the set of ideas, therefore, that answers the question, “What would Jesus do if He was going to fix the world?”

Ecumenism tends to flourish in such a setting because the “religious” differences between denominations are insignificant. What matters is the State and the culture as State. (The State is that arm of society in charge of “doing.” If Modernity as religion is about managing the world, then the State will always be its primary expression).

Modernity has been marked by a series of quasi-religious projects. The “New World” itself largely began as a religious project. The problem was not escaping persecution (an American myth). Rather, it was the dream of building a new world according to the radical ideas of English Puritanism (at least in New England).

The “rights of man” exploded as a religious campaign in France, sweeping away the old order as well as not a few heads. Again, it is a mistake to think of such fervor as “political” in nature. Politics is about governing – revolutions are always religious in nature – people “believe” in them.

America’s Westward drive can only be understood as a religious campaign. Notions such as “manifest destiny” married the American project to the book of Judges and the conquering of the land of Israel. Bob Dylan observed, “You don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.”

The single greatest act of idiocy of the modern project was the “War to End All Wars” (World War I). The mass carnage of an entire generation brought nothing of significance as a result. Again, mere governance is incapable of such madness. Only the blindness of a false belief can create such nightmares.

Following the Second World War (which was utterly conceived in religious terms) the struggle with Communism became the great religious impulse of the post-war period.3 Towards its end, Reagan declared the Soviet Union to be the “Evil Empire,” capturing the religious mood of an era.

Billy Graham’s preaching in the 50’s was as much about anti-Communism as it was about sin and redemption. Presidents loved him. It is worth noting that in its 220 years of history, the United States has only known 17 years of peace. To a large extent, the modern state exists as war (a religious war).

The collapse of the Soviet Union created something of an existential/religious crisis in the West. Historian, Francis Fukuyama, declared it to be the “end of history.” Without the religion of anti-communism, capitalism itself felt empty. Did we spend all of that treasure and energy resisting Communism just so we could have Walmarts?

Indeed, the spiritual emptiness of the West was apparent to almost everyone (except the West). Solzhenitsyn shocked American pundits when he described the vacuity of its spiritual life in his Harvard Address (1978).
I live in Oak Ridge, TN. I moved here shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This city (the home of the Manhattan Project that built the first atom bomb) went into a bit of a tailspin in the 90s as the Cold War came to an end. It was a microcosm of the whole military-industrial complex (in which is located in some dark corner, the Vatican of modernity’s religion).

The decades since have been marked by a fevered search for a religious substitute. This has partly been found through the propaganda-driven recreation of the Cold War by the demonization of post-Soviet Russia. Both political parties today channel a hatred and fear of Russia that eclipses anything ever expressed about the Soviet Union.

The single most successful current religious movement surrounds the issues of climate change. I am not suggesting that the climate is not changing nor that human activity is not a contributor. Rather, I am suggesting that it has gained a religious basis that serves the larger purposes of modernity and its religious needs. If fingers were snapped and tomorrow the climate suddenly stabilized and returned to 1960 standards, the emotional loss for many would rival the death of God.

When the pronouncements of religious leaders agree with the headlines of the New York Times, we do well to ask which religion is being espoused. Regardless of actions taken and not taken, we will not “save the planet” nor lose it. However, the concept of saving the planet serves well the unifying cohesion of modernity’s religious needs. (Communism itself was a religious project. Its wholesale destruction of the Orthodox Church was an effort to eliminate a threat to its own religious claims).

The religious character of the current “crisis” is not to be found in a concern for the environment. Rather it is in the concern for a crisis. How desperate things are has little or nothing to do with the matters at hand and everything to do with modernity’s desperate need for purpose and meaning. The very people who wring their hands about future suffering justify present suffering (such as the wholesale slaughter of the unborn) in that its presence helps pay for the uninterrupted lifestyle of consumer capitalism.

The concerns of modernity’s religious demands often contain an element of truth. That same truth is ultimately swallowed up by the unattended destruction that provides for its way of life. Fulfilling those present demands is no more a solution to the problems of the world than any of its previous wars, genocides, and head-chopping revolutions. Filled with good intentions, they are the demands of a religion of insanity.

Christian theology has a concern for all things: “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” As such, it is possible to construct a “theological” account that supports the various projects of modernity. However, the Church does not exist to serve the demands of a false narrative. Coming to understand who we are and why we are is essential to Orthodox existence. Its endangerment may be the only true crisis of our time.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The image shows, “The Song of Life,” by Giorgio de Chirico, painted in 1914.

Venerating Mary, The Holy Mother Of God

The most difficult part of my Orthodox experience to discuss with the non-Orthodox is the place and role of the Mother of God in the Church and in my life. It is, on the one hand, deeply theological and even essential to a right understanding of the Orthodox faith, while, on the other hand, being intensely personal beyond the bounds of conversation. I am convinced, as well, that the Orthodox approach to Mary is part of the apostolic deposit, and not a later accretion.

When I was doing graduate studies some decades back, I decided to concentrate my historical research on the “cult of Mary” (the veneration of Mary) in the historical Church. With that decision came a semester of intensive research, combing through materials of every sort. And throughout all of that research the question, “When did this begin?” was uppermost in my mind. I came to a surprising conclusion. It began at the beginning.

The historical evidence for Mary’s veneration is so obvious that it is simply overlooked: her place in the gospel accounts. I find much of the “historical” evidence about Christ to have a similar feature. It is amusing, and annoying, to read modern historical critics of the New Testament who come away from those documents arguing that the notion of Christ’s divinity was a later development.

Somehow they manage to read the New Testament and miss the most obvious thing: the writers all believe that Jesus is divine. They fail to notice that the very existence of the “Jesus material” of the New Testament exists solely because its writers believed He was God. Every line flows from that belief.

In a similar manner, Mary’s place within the gospels carries a message of veneration. Those who do not see this obvious feature of the New Testament generally get lost in the details, reading too much into sayings such as Jesus’ “Woman what have I to do with you?” and the like.

First, the stories of Mary hold an important place in the gospel narrative. St. Mark has the least mention of her, with no birth narrative. St. Luke has the most material, and St. John perhaps the most important. Biblical critics take a “least is best” approach and will say things like, “St. Mark knows nothing of a birth narrative,” a patently overstated claim.

For me, it is the seemingly “gratuitous” material that points to veneration of Mary. St. Luke’s account has the Magnificat hymn in which Mary declares, “All generations will call me blessed.” It is a phrase that can only be compared to God’s promise to Abraham: “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).

In Mary’s encounter with her kinswoman Elizabeth (and with the child in her womb, John), the focus is on Mary herself rather than the child in her womb: “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (Luke 1:43-44).

Later in Luke, when the child Jesus is presented in the Temple, the elder Simeon prophesies: “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).

Here, Mary is linked to the Cross of Christ in the piercing of her soul

I describe these stories as “gratuitous” in that they go well beyond the simple point of the Virgin Birth. Mark and John have no mention of the conception or birth of Christ (though they both include Mary in their narrative). The abundance of Marian material in Luke can only point to her veneration in the primitive Church.

She is not just the Virgin who gives birth to Christ – she is also blessed by all; she is the cause of joy to the Prophet John even in his mother’s womb; she is a unique participant in the sufferings of Christ, destined herself for a mystical sword that will pierce her very soul.

This is information that points to the unique place of Mary in the first century Christian community. How can the Church not venerate one whom John the Baptist greeted with a leap of joy when he was in the womb? How can the Christian community be rightly centered on the Crucified Christ and ignore the soul-pierced Mother?

The material in Luke isprima facie evidence of the primitive veneration of the Mother of God. That veneration never ceases in the Church, but matures over time as the Church considers the meaning and depth of Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection.

It is obvious that many Christians would prefer to read only Mark’s gospel and ignore the obvious implications in Luke and John.

John’s gospel seems to me to be marked with a profound understanding of the mystery of Mary. Of special note is his first mention of her. We meet her at the Wedding in Cana. John provides no introduction to her character – he presumes a prior knowledge on the part of his readers. At the Wedding, the wine runs out. And with no explanation of a practical sort, John simply relates that Mary tells Jesus, “They have no wine.”

It is profound. His disciples have seen nothing as yet. No miracles have been performed (this Wedding will be the scene of the first miracle). And yet Mary knows who He is and what He means. She is already fully initiated into the truth of His life and ministry.

Many Protestants have made much of Christ’s reply to her: “What is this between you and me?” They have treated the statement to mean: “What business is this of yours?” In fact, it simply asks, “What is this between you and me?” But St. John puts the statement in a context: “For mine hour has not yet come.” Christ says to His mother, “It’s not time. This doesn’t have to begin yet.”

They share the bond of the coming Cross. His life will be offered, a sword will pierce her soul. And once He begins, nothing can stop the movement to Golgotha. Her response is simple: “Do whatever He tells you.” It is a repetition of her earlier, “Be it unto me according to your word.” Her complete humility and self-emptying before God is a human reflection of the self-emptying of Christ on the Cross. With this new “fiat,” the inexorable journey to the Cross begins.

The mystery of her participation in Christ does not end with historical moments – for the sharing of those moments in the gospels are in no way merely concerned with the historical record. They are primarily theological moments. She holds not just a place in the history of salvation, but in its theological understanding and existential participation as well. The gospels are written for our salvation, and not as mere information.

And it is this theological and existential reality that are missing from many contemporary accounts of the Christian faith. The question is often asked, “Why do I need to venerate Mary?”

First, the Orthodox would not say, “You need to venerate Mary.” Rather, we say, “You need to venerate Mary as the Theotokos” (birth-giver of God). This is the theological title dogmatically assigned to her by the Third Ecumenical Council. She is venerated because she is Theotokos. To venerate the Theotokos is an inherent part of rightly believing in the Incarnation of the God-Man. To ignore her as Theotokos is to hold a diminished and inadequate understanding of the Incarnation.

But this is speaking in terms of mere ideas. The Incarnation is not an idea – it is a reality – both historical and now eternal. The Incarnation is the God/Man Jesus Christ. And, more fully, the Incarnation is the God/Man Jesus Christ born of the Holy Spirit and the Theotokos. This is what is asserted in the Nicene Creed.

The reality of this statement is not an idea, but a Person, both in the case of the God/Man, and in the case of the Theotokos. The act of believing in the Incarnation of Christ is made manifest in the worship that is properly directed towards Him and in the veneration that is properly directed towards the Theotokos.

And it is this that is so difficult to explain to the non-Orthodox. For doctrines are easily perceived by them as ideas, even factoids. In Orthodoxy, these doctrines are living realities. It is of little importance to acknowledge that someone is, in fact, my mother. It is of the utmost importance that I honor my mother (by Divine command) and love her.

We do not think doctrine. Doctrine is a description of the realities by which we live. We venerate the Theotokos because, knowing what we know, we cannot do otherwise.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Virgin of Deliverance,” by Ernest Hébert, painted 1872 to 1886.

How Not To Misunderstand The Bible

There are certain ideas that, once introduced, tend to change how people think of everything else. This is certainly the case with the Bible. For of all the ideas about the Scripture, the most recent is the notion of “the Bible.”

The word “Bible” simply means “book.” Thus, it is a name that means “the Book.” It is a particularly late notion if for no other reason than that books are a rather late invention. There are examples of bound folios of the New Testament dating to around the 4th century, but they may very well have been some of the earliest examples of such productions.

The Emperor Constantine commissioned a large number of such copies (all produced by hand) as gifts to the Bishops of the Church. How many such editions is unknown, though it may have been several hundred. One of the four manuscripts dating to the 4th century may very well be a survivor of that famous group.

In the Church (and to this day in Orthodoxy), the gospels are bound as one book and the Epistles, etc., are bound as another. And these are only those books appointed for reading in the Church. The Revelation is not usually included in such editions.

The “Bible,” a single book with the whole of the Scriptures included, is indeed modern. It is a by-product of the printing press, fostered by the doctrines of Protestantism. For it is not until the advent of Protestant teaching that the concept of the Bible begins to evolve into what it has become today.

The New Testament uses the word “scriptures” (literally, “the writings”) when it refers to the Old Testament, but it is a very loose term. There was no authoritative notion of a canon of the Old Testament. There were the Books of Moses and the Prophets (cf. Luke 24:27) and there were other writings (the Psalms, Proverbs, etc.).

But writers of the New Testament seem to have had no clear guide for what is authoritative and what is not. The book of Jude makes use of the Assumption of Moses as well as the Book of Enoch, without so much as a blush. There are other examples of so-called “non-canonical” works in the New Testament.

It is difficult on this side of the Reformation for people to have a proper feel for the Scriptures. First, though we say “Scriptures” (sometimes) we are just as likely to say “Scripture” (singular) and always have that meaning in mind regardless. We think of the Scriptures as a single book. And with this thought we tend to think of everything in the Book as of equal value, equal authenticity, equal reliability, equal authority, etc. And this is simply not the case and never has been.

The New Testament represents, in various forms, the Christian appropriation and re-reading of the Scriptures of Pharisaic Judaism (or even wider). The writings in the Old Testament do not, of themselves, point to Christ or prove that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. The Jews of Christ’s time, though expectant of a Messiah (God’s “Anointed One”), did not expect such a one to be the Son of God, nor Divine, nor to be crucified dead and resurrected.

All of these understandings with regard to Christ are understandings that are post-resurrectional. The New Testament is quite clear that the disciples understood none of these things until after Christ’s resurrection, despite being told them numerous times. St. Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians describes the failure of the Jews to see Christ in the writings of the Old Testament as a “veil,” and compares it to the veil that Moses put over his face.

Thus the New Testament reading of the Old Testament is a “revelation” (an “apocalypse”) of the “mystery hidden from before all the ages.” Were it clear in the Old Testament, the mystery would not have been hidden. This is a unique and peculiar claim of the primitive Christian community. They present a novel, even apocalyptic interpretation of the writings of Judaism, and describe them as the true meaning of the Scriptures as revealed in Jesus Christ.

This is a world removed from modern (post-Reformation) claims for the Bible.  For the equality (in authority, authenticity, etc.) of each writing within the Scriptures only becomes paramount when their individual worth is eradicated in their assumption by the whole. Thus, Joshua suddenly becomes of equal importance with the Pentateuch (the 5 books of Moses) simply by reason of being included in “the Bible.” But historically, the book of Joshua never held the kind of central role that belonged to the Pentateuch. Saying this is not intended to diminish its importance, only to remove an importance to which it is not properly due.

Of course, starting down such a course raises enormous red flags for many. The concern would easily be voiced, “How, then, do you know what is more valuable and what less?” And this brings us back to the proper place. For the role of interpretation, weighing, comparing, etc., is the role of the Church, the believing community.

There can be no Scriptures outside the Church. To say, “Scriptures,” is simply to name those writings which the believing Church holds to be important and authoritative – nothing more and nothing less. St. Hilary famously said, “The Scriptures are not in the reading, but in the understanding” (scriptura est non in legendo, sed in intelligendo).

The creation of a “canon” of Scripture was never more than a declaration of what a general consensus within the Church treated as authoritative. The Scriptures as a place for creating and proving formal doctrine is something of a fiction. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is the primary verse trotted out in defense of Scriptural authority: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

But this is a very troublesome and questionable translation. In Protestant usage, the key phrase is “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” But, in fact, the phrase “given by inspiration of God” is a single word (θεόπνευστος), just as accurately translated, “all Scripture that is inspired of God,” thus being a limiting phrase and not one that serves as an authoritative licensing of something later described as “the Bible.”

What we actually have in 2 Timothy is a very homely, parenetic expression in which the author suggests that reading the Scriptures is a good thing. It is not, despite its use as such, a foundational proclamation of the Bible as sole authority. For it is the Church that is described as the “Pillar and Ground of Truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

And the “canon” of Scripture was historically not a list of authoritative books, but a list of those works commonly read in the Churches. It is, something of a catalog of the lectionary. What we actually find in the Fathers is not the later proof-texting from an authoritative text, the Master Book of All Knowledge, if you will, but a use of quotes that seemed at hand and most useful for whatever topic was being treated.

There are, to be sure, careful expository writings, such as those of St. John Chrysostom and others, but these are what they are: expositions of various writings. When the Church turned to the central core doctrines of the Faith, such as the Trinity, the natures and Person of Christ, the character of salvation, etc., arguments were far more wide-open and non-expository. Reason and language played as much of a role as Scripture itself.

The words homoousioshypostasis and ousia that play such completely central roles in the foundational doctrines of the Trinity and Christology are not given meanings drawn from Scripture, but from arguments that incorporate Scripture and every possible tool. 

The Church is not a Bible-based teaching institution – the Church is the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the Body of Christ, divinely given by God for our salvation and it uses the Scriptures and everything that exists for the purpose of expounding the truth it has received from God from the very beginning.

The only “thing” approaching a “Bible” in the sense that has commonly been used in modern parlance, is the Church. The Scriptures have their place within the life of the Church and only exist as Scriptures within that context.

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[Protestants will] take me to task for arguing that “books” themselves are late inventions and contending that the Bible was not therefore thought of as a “book.” [They may] cite some early codices from the late 2nd or early 3rd centuries – but [they become] examples that actually reinforce my central point. [They may] note examples of bound gospels and an example of bound epistles. What [they] cite are precisely what we would expect: liturgical items.

The Orthodox still use the Scriptures in this form – the Gospels as a book (it rests on the altar), and the Epistles as a book (known as the Apostol). They are bound in such a manner for their use in the services of the Church, not as private “Bibles.” These are outstanding examples of the Scriptures organized in their liturgical format for their proper use: reading in the Church. They are Churchly items – not “The Book” of later Protestantism. They are the Scriptures of the worshipping Church.

And this is my point. The Scriptures are not “above” the Church nor the Church “above” the Scriptures. The Scriptures are “of” the Church and do not stand apart from the Church.

It is very difficult to have a conversation with certain Protestants. They have a view of the Scriptures as “Bible,” rather than a more contextualized position as part of the life of the Church. Any attempt to rein in their run-away Bible-agenda is seen as an attempt to diminish the Word of God or to exalt the Church to some wicked deceiver of Christians. But this is simply the tired rhetoric of the Reformation. I do not seek to convince readers that the Bible is a problematic construction – rather – Sola Scriptura Christians are problematic interpreters. The fruit of their work bears me out.

Sola Scriptura, as taught and practiced in Protestant thought, is simply wrong and an invention of the Late Medieval and Modern periods. All of the writers cited by [Protestants] for their “lists” of books are eventually described as the “Canon of Scripture,” [and] are Orthodox Christians, mostly priests and bishops. They spoke and thought as the Orthodox do to this day.

They never (!) saw the Bible as a book “over the Church.” These were men of a thoroughly sacramental world. The Bread and the Wine of the Eucharist was universally believed to be the very Body and Blood of Christ. These men ate God (using the language of St. Ignatius of Antioch).

Yes, the Scriptures are theopneustos (“God breathed”), but so is every human soul. The God-breathed character of the Scriptures does not exalt them over us but raises them up to the same level as us. For ancient authorities (and the Orthodox faithful to this day) were Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ and were thereby united together with Him.

The Church was not and is not “under” the Bible, for it cannot be. Christ is Head of the Church, part of His Body. Is Christ “under the Scriptures?” All of the “lists” that are cited in the notion of the evolution of the Canon are lists of what the Church reads. 

And the Church reads them in her services as the Divine Word of God, just as the Church herself is the Divine Body of Christ, just as the Liturgy is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, etc. The “Canon” of Scripture is as much a statement about the Church as it is about the Scriptures.

But all of this is lost, because for those who have reformed themselves out of communion with the historical faith and practice of Christianity, the context has been forgotten. They do not understand statements about the Church because they have forgotten the Church.

There are crucial tests that can be applied that reveal the truth of things and the errors of Sola Scriptura. The championing of the Bible as the Word of God “over the Church” is a ruse. It is and has been a means of exalting culture and private fiefdoms over the proper life of the believing community, disrupting the continuity of faith.

A very grievous example can be found in the very American reform community from which Kruger criticizes my Orthodox teaching. For the very groups that exalted the Bible as Sola Scriptura, for years also exalted a Bible-based justification for the most egregious racism the world has ever seen. It has been a matter to which reformed Christians are today attending with repentance (to their credit).

But by what criteria did their fathers find such racism in the Scriptures? And by what criteria do they themselves now not find it in the Scriptures? Are they not simply giving voice to various cultural winds and using the Scriptures as a convenient support? Have they not always done this? Today’s proponents of the radical sexual agenda rightly point out that these “Bible-based” teachers have always found Biblical support for their own cultural prejudices. Their history should leave them speechless.

Orthodoxy is not without its sinners. But in the 2000-year unbroken life of the Church, error has never been raised to the place of “Biblical teaching.” The Orthodox have never said that blacks do not have souls.

The Orthodox have never declared one race to be inferior to another. Biblicists do well to repent of such things, but they fail to see that their own hermeneutical principles are at fault. Only a life lived with a true, genuine continuity of the tradition that is the very life of the Church can “rightly divide the word of truth:” Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

God promised to the Church that the gates of hell would not prevail. He declared the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of Truth. He revealed the Church to be the Bride of Christ (and I could fill pages with such statements).

This is not to exalt the Church “over” the Scriptures, but to recognize the Scriptures place within the Divine Life of the Church. The Orthodox do not exalt a bishop over the Scriptures, nor do we declare a bishop to be the head of the Church (we declare that to be error).

But we acknowledge that the Scriptures cannot be rightly read outside of and apart from the life of the Church. Such decoupling of the Scriptures has only created false churches, false brethren, and false teaching. No gathering of Christians hears as much Scripture as the Orthodox do in the context of their services. The Orthodox liturgical life is the singing of Scripture in the praise of God (from beginning to end).

But in the name of “Biblical authority” contemporary Christians are today subjected to a growing and continuing phenomenon of rogue organizations built around charismatic personalities with little or no accountability (except to “the Bible” as they see it). Orthodoxy lives by the same rules (canons) that were in effect when the Scriptures were “canonized.”

Those who canonized the Scriptures venerated the Mother of God, honored the saints, prayed for the departed, believed the Eucharist to be the true Body and Blood of Christ. They were the same Orthodox Church that lives and believes today. You cannot honor their “Canon of Scripture” while despising the lives and Church of those who canonized them.

While the Orthodox Church lives the same life under the same canons, reading the same Scriptures as it has always done – those who champion “God’s un-changing Word” and claim to be under the authority of the Bible cannot point to even two decades in which they have remained the same. They are a moving target. It is to be welcomed when they repent of past institutional sins – but their history reveals that they have primarily been subject to the spirit of the age, even if it’s a conservative spirit.

Christ never wrote a word. Christ never commanded his disciples to write a word (an exception being in Revelation). They were commanded to go forth, preach the gospel and to Baptize. Christ established the Church. The Church is the Scriptures and the Scriptures, rightly read, are the Church. This is the declaration of St. Paul to the Church in Corinth: “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Is that epistle of less value because it is not written in ink? It is only by being the living Scriptures that the Church can and does truly read and interpret the Scriptures. There is no “Bible” in the Bible.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, from 1454.

Where Is God’s Space?

Is there a God “out there”? God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” we say in our Orthodox prayers, but is He “out there?” For what it’s worth, I want to suggest for a moment that He is not. Largely, what I am describing is what takes place in our imagination – that is, what we picture when we pray and how we think of God as we seek Him.

There are, to my mind, two primary ways of thinking and speaking about God. One is “juridical,” the other “ontological.” Juridical relationships are largely how we imagine relationships in our modern culture. We think of ourselves as individuals with rights and obligations, with a series of demands made on us by others and on others by us. The rules and laws of our society govern these forces. For us – everybody and everything is “out there.” Thomas Hobbes, writing during the years of the English Civil War, described this as the “war of all against all.” He opined that only a strong government could manage such a state of nature.

“Ontological” means “having to do with being.” My relationship with myself is ontological. I am not “out there” from myself. In the modern imagination, that is where ontology stops. There is my existence (“in here”) and everything else and everyone else is “out there.” The war goes on.

This is a deeply inadequate view of life. Consider the relationship we have with our parents. We are, quite literally, “bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh.” We share a biological reality that is itself our existence. This can be extended towards other human beings. We never(!) exist alone. We can be “considered” alone for the purposes of study and the like, but we are no more alone than any of the cells within our bodies. We are social beings, but social in a manner that has to do with our very being and not merely with juridical arrangements.

The story of Joseph Stalin’s death is an interesting case in point. His exercise of brutal force on all those around him (including members of his own family) was a triumph of juridical ideology. As he lay dying (so the story goes), no one goes to his aid. There is too much fear. In the end, relationships that are shaped along purely juridical lines fail to give life. Indeed, they foster death.

St. Silouan said, “My brother is my life.” Nothing better states the ontological character of our existence. If my brother is my life, however, what is this space between us? An image that comes to mind is leaves on a tree. The life of every leaf depends on the life of every other leaf, just as all leaves depend on the life of the tree. The “space” between the leaves exists only in an imaginary manner. They are connected in a single life. The life of one is the life of all.

The space between is part of our modern imagination. The language of rights, for example, seeks to assert connectedness by juridical means, but only increases the emptiness of the space between. It is little wonder that this juridical imagery, when turned towards God, fails to nurture the soul. What we know of “out there” is always surrounded with uncertainty and anxiety. The juridical depends, ultimately, on violence. We can only “make” (“force”) things to bridge the empty space between us. And, of course, the space remains empty, regardless.

The modern paradigm, composed of juridical relationships, is the mother of loneliness, teaching our hearts that they exist in a fragmented world of temporary, negotiated cease-fires in an otherwise war-of-all-with-all. The language of rights, rooted primarily in older warrior cultures of Northern Europe, have given us our world of contracts, but never a world of true being.

God is not “out there” in the sense imagined by the juridical mind. At its very heart, “everywhere present and filling all things” means that there can be no “out there” with regard to God. God is only “here.” The Scriptures commonly describe God as dwelling “in us.” St. Paul describes our bodies as “temples of the Holy Spirit.” The language of Holy Baptism is not one of establishing a juridical relationship. It is the language of union, as is the language of the Holy Eucharist: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (John 6:56).

All of this can easily remain little more than an intellectual distinction. My conversations over the years, however, tell me that our juridical imagination dominates how we see God. We long for a relationship with One who is “out there,” while remaining oblivious to the God who dwells in us. In a recent conversation with a young convert who was struggling with a sense of God’s absence, I said, “But you breathe Him!”

Life (and existence in all forms) has been reduced to science-facts, objects or properties of objects. In truth, all things have their existence in God (not in themselves). We live in a creation that was brought into being out of nothing – it has no being in and of itself. From an Orthodox perspective, the existence of anything is proof of the existence of God.

We recognize, however, an even greater union within human beings. Of us alone, it is said that God breathed into us and we became living souls. To know God is also to know oneself – and, we may say, we cannot know ourselves apart from God, for there is no such self.

Of all the writers in Scripture, the one who says the most about problems of being, existence, connectedness and such, is St. John. And, for St. John, the key within all of these things is love. Consider this classic statement:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

“…if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” This is the language of mutual indwelling that has no place within a juridical model of relationships. God is love. Indeed, in this passage there is a consistent blending of action and being. God not only does (He loves us) but He is what He does (God is love).

This manner of being is the image according to which we are created. Love constitutes our true being. “My brother is my life.” This is more than a moral statement: it is a reflection on the very nature of true existence. For this reason, the “space between,” must be seen as a delusional artifact of the juridical imagination. We are created to exist as love – love of God, love of the other, love of self. When we withdraw from the love of God and the love of other, then the love of self collapses into a solipsistic loneliness. Sadly, we have frequently structured the modern world to accommodate and promote the lonely self. Our neighborhoods, our cities, our mode of transportation, our world of entertainment and consumption thrive on the lonely self and seek to fill the space between. However, you cannot fill emptiness with emptiness.

“Out there” is “in here.”

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Eternal Father,” by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), painted in 1646.

History’s Long Defeat

“Actually I am a Christian,” Tolkien wrote of himself, “and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory” (Letters 255).

History as a long defeat – I can think of nothing that is more anti-modern than this sentiment expressed by J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a thought perfectly in line with the fathers and the whole of Classical Christian teaching. And it’s anti-modernism reveals much about the dominant heresy of our time.

We believe in progress – it is written into the DNA of the modern world. If things are bad, they’ll get better. The “long defeat” would only be a description of the road traveled by racism, bigotry, and all that ignorance breeds.

And our philosophy of progress colors everything we consider. 19th century Darwinian theory wrote a scientific version of progress into his theory of evolution. Of course, using “survival” as the mechanism of change gave cover to a number of political projects who justified their brutality and callousness as an extension of the natural order. 

The metaphor of improvement remains a dominant theme within our culture. A few years ago a survey of young Americans revealed the utterly shocking conclusion that for the first time in recorded history, the young did not expect to be as well off as their parents. It was a paradigm shift in American progressive thought. It remains to be seen how that will play out.

But Tolkien’s sentiment bears deeper examination. For not only does it reject the notion of progress, it embraces a narrative of the “long defeat.” Of course this is not a reference to steady declining standards of living, or the movement from IPhone 11 back to IPhone 4 (perish the thought!). It is rather the narrative of Scripture, first taught by the Apostles themselves, clearly reflecting a Dominical teaching:

But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. …Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith; but they will progress no further, for their folly will be manifest to all, as theirs also was. But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra– what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived (II Timothy 3:1-13).

This is Tolkien’s warrant for the “long defeat.”

 And the thought is not that we wake up one day and people are suddenly boasters, proud, blasphemers, etc. Rather, “evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.”

It was a common belief among the Desert Fathers that successive generations of monks would become weaker and weaker, unable to bear the great trials of their predecessors. Indeed it was said that in the end, the simple act of believing would take greater grace than all of the ascetic feats of the earliest monks.

This is not a Christian pessimism. If history tells us anything, it is that this is a very honest, even prescient reading. The evils of the 20th century, particularly those unleashed during and after World War I, are clearly among the worst ever known on the planet, and continue to be the major culprits behind all of our current struggles. That first war was not “the war to end all wars,” but the foundation of all subsequent wars. May God forgive our arrogance (“boasters, proud”…). However, the Classical Christian read on human life contains the deepest hope – set precisely in the heart of the long defeat.

It is that hope that sets the Christian gospel apart from earlier pagan historical notions. For the “long defeat” was a common assumption among the ancient peoples. The Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves to have exceeded the heroes who went before. They could model themselves on Achilles or Aeneas, but they did not expect to match their like. The Jews had no hope other than a “restoration of the Kingdom,” which was generally considered apocalyptic in nature. All of classical culture presumed a long decline.

The narrative was rewritten in the modern era – particularly during the 19th century. The Kingdom of God was transferred from apocalyptic hope (the end of the long defeat) to a material goal to be achieved in this world. This was a heresy, a radical revision of Christian thought. It became secularized and moderated into mere progress. It is worth doing a word study on the history of the word “progressive.” 

But Tolkien notes that within the long defeat, there are “glimpses of final victory.” I would go further and say that the final victory already “tabernacles” among us. It hovers within and over our world, shaping it and forming it, even within its defeat. For the nature of our salvation is a Defeat. Therefore the defeat within the world itself is not a tragic deviation from the end, but an End that was always foreseen and present within the Cross itself. And the Cross itself was present “from before the foundation of the world.”

Tolkien’s long defeat, is, as he noted, of a piece with his Catholic, Christian faith. It is thoroughly Orthodox as well. For the victory that shall be ours, is not a work in progress – it is a work in wonder.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “Galadriel,” by the Brothers Hildebrandt.