Rebellion And Salvation

May I wish readers a happy and peaceful New Year. A New Year filled with the assurance of Almighty God, hope in Jesus, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As we embark into a new Year New Year, we all need, a message of hope and assurance. What about a message of catastrophe? We have to understand the message of catastrophe first, before we understand the message of hope and assurance.

Let’s start with the facts. All parts of creation are damaged through the consequences of Sin; no one can argue with this fact. Everything has been affected, from a bumble bee, to polar bears and the Inuit, to rain forests and swallows. The once harmonious relationship between God and his creation has fragmented. The once original complimentary relationship between man and woman is darkened into rivalry and accusation.

The once intimate relationship between God and humans is distorted into evasion and rebellion. Instead all around us is, pain, travail, sweat, hate and death. Nothing is exempt from the catastrophe. Nothing is innocent in the catastrophe. Heaven and earth are implicated. Bacteria pollutes blood streams sickening both sinner and saint. Hailstones plummet out of the skies flattening the fields ready for harvest.

Liquid fire rips through the earth’s crust, engulfing, homes, animals, and birds. Rebel angels, disbarred from worshiping in the courts of heaven, infiltrate invisible world realms, twisting and deceiving the world’s nations. Gold and oil are more valuable than human life.  And human beings created in the image of God discover within themselves, often to their horror; they have heart’s that are desperately wicked and deceitful.

This is just a glimpse, a gloss of what goes on day by day. Month by month year by year. The catastrophe is beyond calculation; it is beyond man. Amazingly there is much beauty among the wreckage, such deep goodness, so much moral zest, blessing, active intelligence, good works; generosity of spirit that it is possible to live for long stretches, honestly unaware of the extent of the disaster. Just quietly getting on with life. Then suddenly it is inescapably upon us, around us, engulfing us, and we are in it. We feel utterly lost, we don’t know where we are, we don’t know who we are.

The catastrophe was caused Christians believe, by an act of disobedience and rebellion, going back to the beginning of time. An act designed to displace God with self. That is what most Christians believe. It is not a popular belief.

 The popular belief is that however bad things seem to be, there is no catastrophe. To face the fact of catastrophe would involve, at some point or other, dealing with God. Anything seems preferable to that. So, the devil doctors the report, and the world edits the evidence. Fake news surrounds us. People reduce their understanding of catastrophe to a level that is manageable without getting into the picture in any substantial way. The same act that caused the catastrophe, perpetuates it.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter. If there is no accurate understanding of the catastrophe that we are each part of, there can be no adequate understanding of Salvation; for salvation is about God’s action that deals with the human catastrophe.

Salvation is about God’s determination to rescue his creation; it is his activity in recovering the world. What is salvation about? Essentially Salvation deals with a person’s soul; a family, even a community. It is widespread as it touches sin and sickness. Even the most unlikely people experience salvation across the world. This author being one of them.

Is there an alternative to God’s salvation? Well, it’s salvation by any other means. As we go into another New Year many are being optimistic after the New Year celebrations. It’s nice to be optimistic. But being optimistic is being hopeful without actually relying on God.

There are two types of optimist. Maybe you can identify with one of them.

One is a moral optimist, who thinks that well intentioned gestures of good will, will eventually overcome the mountains of injustice, racism, wickedness and corruption. Applied often enough good will put the world gradually to right.

The other optimist is; the Technological optimist, who thinks that by applying scientific intelligence to the problems of poverty, pollution, climate change, social reform the world will also be put to right.

Both types of optimism are very helpful and beneficial; but neither form of optimism Worships God. Neither sees God as central to the problem. Some tiny space maybe given to God from time to time, but its limited. Now It may seem a bit ungracious about all this intelligence and good will at work. These people after all, are at least doing something to help alleviate the problems. But the bible has a different take on it and this is why the world view will always clash with what the bible says. The bible discerns that a spiritual evil motivates these many good actions.

It is the evil of ignorance or trying to outwit or deny God. Their efforts to live well, to help others, and improve the world are fuelled by a determination, conscious or unconscious, to keep God out of who they are and what they are doing. If people can rationalise and interpret this catastrophe around us as something much less than what it really is; they can deny their need of God for salvation; either for themselves or others around them.

This is what the devil going into 2020 wants you to believe; things aren’t as bad as what they seem. The state of your soul is fine, you’re a good person. It was British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who said back in 1957; ‘most of our people have never had it so good.’ Even many of our television sets bear the logo of the manufacturer LG; Life’s Good.

This optimism is so pervasive. It advertises itself so attractively, and chalks up so many awards, honours and achievements, that it is difficult not to be impressed, and then actually go along with it. The hysteria concerning climate change is a classic example.

It is much easier to believe this falsehood, because then we don’t have to deal with God. Dealing with God, and submitting to him causes many people problems. Because when we deal with God, we soon realise very quickly that we might have to re order our lives by changing our mind, our attitude, changing the way we do things, and turning away from the things God hates.

John one of Jesus’ disciples and the author of the book of Revelation tells us that Salvation is made up of two things. It is made up of A Meal and a War. They are not two things I would have picked. But this is what Jesus revealed to John to record for us. The meal and the war represent two opposites. When you think about it, they are very good examples. War is man’s doing. We are also at war with God internally in our soul. Must people cannot see this. We prefer to do things our way rather than God’s way. Therefore, we create an impasse between ourselves and God. Salvation is God’s doing not ours; brought about through a Meal.

Salvation always begins with a Personal Invitation which leads to a meal.

‘Happy is everyone invited to the Lamb’s marriage supper.’ verse 9. This is the primary way Christian’s are to remember, receive and share in the meaning of our Salvation. Christ is our example; crucified for us, his blood shed for the remission of our sins.

In the sacrament of The Lord’s Supper, we take the elements of bread and wine in our hands. As we do so we maintain continuity with the killed and risen Jesus who is our salvation. This is what we do in response to an invitation concerning our Salvation mean. Salvation for anyone always starts with an Invitation. Jesus invites you to accept him as your Lord and Saviour. He doesn’t make you, because he respects you too much; he invites you to receive him. In some parts of the world people are born as Muslims, they are born as Hindu’s. They automatically enter that faith.

Christianity is different. While a person may be known as a Christian; they are not known as a Christian in the eyes of God until they accept his invitation of Salvation. Which means, to honour God more than anyone else, and to submit to his authority, not your own. That’s what accepting the invitation means. To reject the invite means to keep on going the way you are going along the broad road of life. We nearly all eat three meals a day as routine. But when we want to celebrate a great occasion, a wedding, birthday or anniversary we use a meal as means of expressing that joy to mark the occasion.

Salvation should be no different. On the one hand is Christ on the cross and risen from the tomb, and on the other hand, it is eating bread and drinking wine. The two cannot be separated.

At the Lord’s Supper eating together is an act of trust and love among friends and strangers. We do not, if we can help it eat alone. We come together with others, with family and friends. We show basic courtesies at the table. It is the place where we learn consideration and forgiveness. Grace and humility. Every invitation to the Lord’s Supper acts as a defence against reducing salvation as something that takes place in the strict privacy of the soul. The meal makes it impossible to keep salvation as a private preserve between God and us in the inner depths of one’s soul. The Lord’s Supper is a basic meal for basic people. It’s a level playing field for all present. It is an accepted invitation to equality with one another before God.

This vision of John gives us hope and assurance over catastrophe.  John comes to the end of the Revelation Christ has given him Chapter 19 verse 11. ‘I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called faithful and true. With justice he judges and makes war.’ Here we see Christ on a white horse splendid and victorious, leading Christian’s in a triumphant victory over the dragon Satan and his two beasts.

Salvation is being won here. The two beasts responsible for so much confusion, delusion and suffering are disposed of.

A thousand years later in Chapter 20, the dragon, Satan, responsible for the catastrophe since Eden and the martyrdom of Christian’s, is thrown into hell with them. Why all three are not thrown into the lake of burning sulphur at the same time I do not know. God has his reasons. The last action belongs to God, in that every form and source of evil is banished and destroyed from history for ever.  

Our struggle on this planet is not against flesh and blood, in other words people; our struggle is against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil which orchestrate the wickedness on earth. Do not be deceived into thinking that we live in a benign neutral world. Do not believe the lies of the world that with economic growth, high employment, better health care, it will bring lasting peace and prosperity. There is an evil at work around us intent to deceive and destroy us.

What Salvation does is that it attacks our enemy. When Jesus taught us to pray; ‘deliver us from evil’; he was arming us for a life of Salvation. Not a life of ease. When you look at the Apostle Paul’s life around the Mediterranean Sea, he did not set up moral or ethical societies. He set up churches. He fought battles against the forces of evil. Yet he did not seem to be the least bit frightened or phased. He was always working from a position of victory knowing that on the cross Christ has defeated the devil. Therefore, there is nothing to fear in the act of fighting. Paradoxically the safest place to be is on the battle field for there you will find that Christ is real and active.

Sadly, many Christians have thrown the towel into the ring before the battle starts. They aren’t interested. The devil with his superior intelligence has deceived, accused and confused them. John describes him as; ‘the deceiver of the whole world.’ Yes, we may get bloody noses as Paul and many others did. But are we prepared to fight for Christ in his power and grace this incoming year, or take it easy?

Be of good cheer. God’s redemptive plan is being worked out and he wants us to help him fulfill it.

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The image shows, “The Fall of the Rebel Angels,” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1562.

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.

The Trinity: A History

When the first Sunday of Advent comes and the new liturgical year begins, the Church once again relives the Mysteries of Christ for a whole year. She also summarizes all of history, from Creation to the end of time. The four Sundays of Advent symbolizing the four thousand years of the Old Testament (if we rely on the Vulgate, not the Septuagint), we are, as it were, mystically transported back to the time before the Incarnation of the Man-God. It is opportune, then, to dwell during this time on the Law of types and figures to see New-Testament realities hidden in it.

Saint Augustine has it that novum testamentum in vetere latet. Vetus testamentum in novo patet — “the New Testament is hidden in the Old. The Old Testament is revealed in the New” (see reference information here and here). This canon of interpretation is a standard part of the Catholic approach to the Bible. Let us look, then, for the Blessed Trinity “hidden” in the Old Testament.

We begin at the beginning, Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created heaven, and earth.” The Hebrew for “God created” is bara Elohim, which has the linguistic peculiarity of a plural noun followed by a singular verb, something which actually does not violate the grammatical rules of Hebrew.

The particular kind of plural here used means three or more, (there is, in Hebrew, a plural that indicates only two). A conventional way of dismissing the trinitarian interpretation of this name for God is to say that it is a plurality “of majesty,” much as the queen or the pope might say “we” instead of the first person singular.

This, of course, is not how Christian exegetes classically understood such passages. See, for instance, Saint Lawrence of Brindisi, a man learned enough in Hebrew to preach in it:

“Therefore, since Moses, inspired by the Holy Ghost, wrote bara Elohim, literally, ‘the gods, he-created’ (a plural subject with a singular verb), without doubt we understand the sense of these words: he means plurality of divine Persons in the word Elohim and the unity of essence in the singular verb, ‘he-created.’ That is to say, three divine Persons are not three gods, but one God” (Explicatio in Genesim, Ch. 1).

Nobody, of course, says that this passages proves that there is one God in three divine Persons. That would be a reach. But it does foreshadow what the New Testament later reveals clearly when it indicates a plurality of Persons in the Godhead.

We can say the same about two other passages in Genesis where the so-called “plural of majesty” is found: “And he said: Let us make man to our image and likeness…” (Gen. 1:26), and “Come ye, therefore, let us go down, and there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Gen. 11:7). The first is the divine utterance preceding the creation of Adam, while the second concerns the builders of the Tower of Babel.

God created man in His own image, in the image of God. He was not speaking to the angels, in whose image man was not created, but to Himself in Gen. 1:26. In both Latin and English, we have a plural hortatory subjunctive verb, “Let us make…” in verse 26, followed in the next verse by the singular indicative verb, “God created.” This is substantially the same in the language of inspiration: see an interlinear translation of the Hebrew — v. 26 and v. 27 — for proof.

In confounding the tongues at Babel, there is a similar structure: in Genesis 11:7, the two verbs for “let us go down and confound…” are plural, while the subsequent verse eight has a singular verb for “the Lord [Yahweh] scattered….”

In both cases, Moses was privileged to know — and we to read — the internal counsels of God, speaking in a plurality of Persons.

Remaining in Genesis for one more account, we turn to Chapters eighteen and nineteen, where Moses relates the interaction of the three angels with Abraham and then with Lot. This is the account that terminates in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The whole thing is quite mystical, for Genesis alternately calls these three persons “men” and “angels” — as do the Gospels, by the way, concerning the angels who appeared to the women after the Resurrection. More mysterious is that these three angels show up just after Genesis eighteen mentions that “Yahweh” appeared to Abraham, of whose appearance nothing else is said, unless we assume that the appearance of the three angels is the appearance of Yahweh. Moreover, Abraham “adored down to the ground. And he said: Lord [Adonai], if I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away from thy servant” (Gen. 18:2-3).

If these angels did not stand in the place of God, such an act would be a shocking violation of the Old Testament’s strict monotheism. By comparison, when Saint John bowed down to the feet of an angel (Apoc. 22:8-9), the angel stayed him, and forbidding that he should receive such honors: “See thou do it not: for I am thy fellow servant… Adore God.” But the angels who received similar honors from Abraham made no such remonstration, probably because they were standing in the Person(s) of God.

Saint Augustine interpreted this passage in a Trinitarian sense in book two of his On the Trinity(see here for a brief but interesting discussion of this passage). According to Monsignor Pohle, Saint Augustine was of the opinion that the three angels of Genesis eighteen were just that, angels, not actually God Himself, but their mission was such that the words they spoke were understood to be the words of God; they were, in other words, standing in God’s place. This opinion was shared by Saints Athanasius, Basil, Cyril of Alexandria, Chrysostom, Jerome, Gregory the Great, and others. This “standing in the place of” would help us to make sense out of the Angel’s willingness to allow Abraham to “adore down to the ground”: the adoration was going to the three divine Persons whom they were visibly manifesting.

As can be seen from the list in the last paragraph, it is not only Western but also Eastern Fathers who read this episode as a Trinitarian theophany. One of Christian Russia’s most celebrated icons, the Trinity, by Andrei Rublev, is a depiction of Abraham’s hospitality to these three angels, but with a clear Trinitarian interpretation.

Still remaining in the Pentateuch, we come to the Book of Numbers 6:24-27. This is the blessing that God instructed Moses to teach to Aaron and his priestly sons: “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee. The Lord shew his face to thee, and have mercy on thee. The Lord turn his countenance to thee, and give thee peace.” The blessing is threefold, leading many Christian commentators to see in it the Holy Trinity. Notice that the “face” the Levitical priest wishes God to show us is the second of the three: it is the Holy Face of Jesus! For a brief explanation of this blessing by an exegete who is apparently not a Catholic, see this YouTube video.

Many Franciscan priests will use this formula of Numbers six to bless people. The story of how this blessing came to be known as “the blessing of Saint Francis” is edifying.

We pass now to the Prophesy of Isaias, chapter six, which gives us the Sanctus in our Holy Mass. Here is what Monsignor Joseph Pohle says on it in his text on the Trinity (pg. 12):

“The clearest allusion to the mystery of the Blessed Trinity in the Old Testament is probably the so-called Trisagion [“thrice holy”] of Isaias (VI, 3): “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of Hosts, all the earth is full of his glory,” which is rightly made much of by many Fathers and not a few theologians. This triple “Holy” [uttered by the seraphim, the highest angelic choir] refers to an ecstatic vision of the Godhead, by which Isaias was solemnly called and consecrated as the Prophet of the Incarnate Word, an office which won for him the title of the “Evangelist” among the four major prophets.”

The Hebrew word for “holy” is Kadosh (or qā-ḏō-wōš). Regarding the tripling of the word, some authors claim that there is no regular way of forming the comparative and superlative degrees of the adjective in Hebrew, and that this triple utterance of the adjective is an effort at the superlative. I’ve seen this contested by others, who say that the tripling of the adjective is merely an “intensifier.” I will let the Hebrew specialists fight it out; either way — whether constrained by the conventions of Hebrew usage or the desire to be “intense” — the Holy Isaias taught us that God is not simply “holy,” but “Holy, holy, holy”; and the Church has seen in this sublime utterance of the seraphim a foreshadowing of the full revelation of the Trinity.

In another indication of plurality in the Godhead, the same Isaias also presents the future Messias as God. Here are some of his descriptions of Christ to come: “the Wonderful, the Counsellor, the Prince of Peace… God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come” (Is. 9:6, cf. Luke 1:32); “Emmanuel,” literally, “God with us” (Is. 7:14, cf. Matt. 1:23); “God himself will come and will save you” (Is. 35:4; cf. Matt. 9:5); “Prepare ye the way of the Lord… . Behold, the Lord God shall come with strength” (Is. 40:3, 10; cf. Mark 1:3).

Of the Messianic Psalms, I will select only two passages: “The Lord hath said to me: Thou art my son, this day I have begotten thee” (Ps. 2:7) and “The Lord said to my Lord: Sit thou at my right hand . . . from the womb before the day star I begot thee” (Ps. 109 [110]:1-3). Here, the Messias is shown to be the Son of God. Moreover, He is “my [David’s] Lord,” who is at the same time the Son of “the Lord”; He is, in other words, both Son of God and God. During His public life, Our Lord confounded the Pharisees with the mystery hidden in Psalm 109 (cf. Matt. 22:41-46). If they had had good will, His enemies would have asked Him to explain the passage, which was perfectly fulfilled in Himself, but they held their tongues. Concerning Our Lord’s enemies, Saint Augustine pointed out that the unbelieving Jews of His day understood more of Christ’s claims than the Arians did, for the unbelievers understood Him to call Himself God simply because he called God His Father (cf. Jn. 5:18, and Jn. 10:33; note that Jesus did not deny the accusation), whereas the heretics missed that point, and denied Him divine honors. All of this shows a plurality of persons in the Godhead, at least as concerns the Father and the Son.

One last strain of Old-Testament prophesies that show the plurality of persons in God comes to us from the Wisdom Books. To keep this Ad Rem from getting too long, I will refer the reader to Monsignor Pohle’s page sixteen and following: “The Teaching of the Sapiential Books”.

Those who would like to read more of our offerings on this tremendous Mystery are invited to view a small catalogue of them on Catholicism.org.

The Mystery of the Holy Trinity is a “pure Mystery” or an “absolute Mystery,” meaning both that we have no way of knowing it without the benefit of supernatural revelation, and that we cannot comprehend it fully. Because It is such a Mystery — indeed, it is the greatest of our Mysteries — we cannot know everything about It, but we can know what God has taught us through the Church. And that is both true and sufficient for us to adore the Three:

“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen!”

Brother André Marie is Prior of St. Benedict Center, an apostolate of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Richmond New Hampshire. He does a weekly Internet Radio show, Reconquest, which airs on the Veritas Radio Network’s Crusade Channel.

The photo shows, “The Holy Trinity,” by Luca Rossetti da Orta, fresco, 1738-9, St. Gaudenzio Church at Ivrea (Torino).

What Are You Waiting For?

As Christmas approaches through Advent, we always seem to get busier and busier with jobs to do, gifts to buy, cards to write, food to prepare, events to attend. We push our way through crowded supermarkets and come home exhausted. Mind you there is shopping on line but it can be fraught as well especially when it comes up on your screen that the page has expired.

It can all become a burden as we wait for Christmas Day to arrive. How different it was for the Jews who waited for the Messiah to come that first Christmas. There is a story told in Luke Chapter 2 about two elderly people Simeon and Anna who were waiting.

Simeon was an old devout Jew who was waiting patiently for the promised Messiah. He had been told by God that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. So, what did he do? He didn’t complain, or sulk. He didn’t give up when God did not answer immediately. Instead he went to the temple to worship God, the place where God met his people. He had been there many times over many years but this time was very different from all the others.

I wonder what Simeon was expecting to see. A vision, a revelation from God, an angelic warrior prince to drive out the Romans. Was he really expecting to see a baby? An eight-day old baby in his mother’s arms. Nothing is more helpless than an eight-day old baby. (we know Jesus was only 8 days old because under Jewish law a child had to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. Circumcision signified the separation of the child from a life of sin and death to a life lived for the Lord). Simeon being a regular worshipper would have noticed a young couple walk in and know immediately they were different.

Anyone who has been inside Westminster Abbey London will know that it would take you a couple of days to even find your bearings due to its sheer size. This temple in Jerusalem was on a 35-acre site. It was massive, filled with different courts, chambers, sacrificial areas, corridors and gardens. It would take very little to get lost inside it. But God leads his people to the right place at the right time. He does it even today. But sometimes we have to wait. Even for a long time.  Simeon appears and takes the infant Jesus in his arms and immediately sings a song about him.

He had given a lot of thought to the words he was going to sing as he had been thinking about this moment for a very long time. It is the last song he will ever sing. When you are happy, we sing a song generally don’t we. We sing in the shower, we sing in church, we sing when our favourite team scores a goal because we are happy. Singing is good for the soul. Simeon blessed the family and then he utters a prophecy. He did not question God about his choice of a Messiah coming as a baby. He thanked God for he saw in this helpless baby a light to reveal God to all the nations of the world.

In our society, the story of Christmas is represented nowadays as a sentimental happy one. But there is also a dark side to it. Simeon had difficult words to say to Mary and he didn’t refuse to say them. Simeon told her that the baby would be rejected by many; as well as bringing great joy to many. His words prepared Mary for the pain that she would suffer in the future. Life for us is often full of suffering too.

At Christmas, we cannot forget the suffering of others. In the birth of his Son, God was identifying with the poor, the weak and suffering of this world.It is very tempting to concentrate on our own families at Christmas and ignore the needs of others.  

Simeon was not the only one waiting for the Messiah. To the temple that same day came an elderly widow called Anna. She was over 90 years of age and a prophetess. Her reaction to seeing the baby was one of supreme joy. She began praising God and she talked to everyone she met in Jerusalem about Jesus.

A ninety odd year old going about telling others of Jesus; this is something all of us need to do more often. It is good news we should not keep to ourselves.

Anna like Simeon was also guided by the Holy Spirit at the right time towards Mary and Joseph. We are not sure how she would have seen this family in those days with no glasses and probably in a dimly lit area. But God led her right to them. What a moment that was for her after a ninety year wait. When she came in contact with the infant Jesus and his parents, she was over joyed giving thanks to God. And then we don’t hear anything more about Jesus or his parents for 12 years

What does this short story involving these two elderly people say to us today? There are a few things. Those who love God like Simeon and Anna need to be always tuned into God, and be ready to go where he wants them.  Because Simeon and Anna were tuned into God through their faith, they went to the right place at the right time.

If they had not responded to the leading of the Holy Spirit, they would have missed baby Jesus. And they would have still been waiting.  Its so easy to get distracted with other things that we might even consider important. 

Secondly to see Jesus is to see God; and his salvation. To see Jesus is to see God’s light and revelation. No other God, person, or thing can offer a person salvation apart from Jesus. When Jesus preached to the people, he told them that he, was the ‘light of the world, and whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.’

Jesus does not mention anyone else or any other method. Of course, we don’t see Jesus today the way Simeon and Anna or the 12 disciples or the woman at the well, or Pontius Pilate; saw Jesus physically in front of them. We see Jesus in a different way. He points out to us or speaks to us, in our inner being, in our mind and in our heart, that we need to come to him and love him for who he is. He tells us to repent and believe in him.  We need to be alert to God’s leading. To see Jesus is to see God; and thirdly what do we want for Christmas?

What do we want for Christmas? Simeon and Anna waited for a long time to get what they wanted and they got it. And when they got it, they were overjoyed. With salvation comes joy. Joy within your soul, knowing that God has forgiven you and granted you his presence every day of your life through his Holy Spirit. Is it any wonder Simeon sung a song, and was able to say;’ now dismiss your servant in peace’. Isn’t that lovely. I go to my grave in peace because of you God. I am content. How many of us can say that.?   

 Some of us old enough might remember the song; ‘All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth, my two front teeth’. We can laugh at it. Mind you I wouldn’t mind getting a couple of new front teeth. What do you want this Christmas? What are you waiting for? Maybe its another relationship, maybe it’s the man or woman of your dreams, or the big house, or the exotic cruise, or the next party, or the insurance pay out.

Do you know that the devil convinces us that some of these things or even all of them can bring us true peace and contentment? It’s the greatest lie ever spun. Through this strategy he seeks to make us not content but discontent. That I believe is the greatest scourge in the world today because If we are discontent, there is no inner peace. We are not content with Brexit, we are not content with our salary, we are not content with our condo; we are not content with a court finding until we get the verdict we want.

We are not content with how a country operates; we want to meddle in it, which is how wars start. We are not content with our wealth, we are not content with our health and how we look, we are not content with our sexuality; we are not content with our lives. All of this impact’s society and our lives. And it’s killing people.

And if it’s not killing them its driving them to suicide, depression, despair and substance abuse.  I was talking to a school teacher a few weeks ago about Christmas. She has three primary school children of her own. She said to me, ‘you know I have no idea what I am going to buy my children at Christmas because they have everything they want.’ Not what they need; but what they want.

Imagine by the age of 10 you have everything you want. And then people wonder what’s going wrong in the world. And if you have everything you want you have no need of God. Why would you?  Read the bible it will tell you what’s gone wrong with the world and with people. It will also tell you how a person can have true peace in their heart not just at Christmas but every day of the year.

I hope that each of us will be able to say at some point in our lives; ‘for my eyes have seen your salvation’ and truly know the peace of God granted to us by the Prince of Peace.

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The photo shows, “Christ Taking Leave of the Disciples,” by Duccio di Buoninsegna, painted between 1308-1311.

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.

****

[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.

John Calvin’s Distortions

I grew up with Calvinist thinking. I spent my time reading Puritans and Spurgeon, checking things in Louis Berkhof, and promoting the books of John Piper. I was fully immersed! I made Mark Driscoll look like a soft Arminian.

Over the years I’ve questioned everything. Naturally. This is The Grit! And as I have, I’ve noticed some structural problems in my faith, some tensions, ways that it didn’t all hang together. I now hold my Calvinist heritage in a slightly more nuanced way. I’m thankful for the truth in it, but willing to acknowledge its weaknesses and critique it also.

I think some of the weakness in Calvinism occurs at a deep structural level. After a decade of thinking this over, I’m ready to sum it up. Here’s my critique:

Calvinism starts with the complete sovereignty of God. Whereas it should end there.

By starting where it should end, it collapses the space in which the story might unfold. It has an anti-narrative bent, a static tendency, built-in. There is no deep significance to time in the Calvinist worldview. Whatever time it is, at the deepest level all is well, for every molecule is following the predetermined will of God. And so all times are fundamentally the same time.

But we need space for the story. We need time for the story. Because the story is the gospel.

For Calvinists, God’s sovereignty is defined basically apart from the resurrection of Jesus. Whereas in the NT, I take it, that event is the defining moment for what it means that God is king. When Calvinists say, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’, they don’t intend to be saying anything much about God’s sovereignty: that’s already been established long ago. Whereas for the apostles, ‘Jesus is Lord’ was pretty much all they had to say about God’s sovereignty.

For Calvinists, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t really change much. There is no room for a real coronation, and real victory of God at the cross. Because God’s victory has always been total anyway. He was King the day before, just as he is the day after. The main thing that changes is the appearance of the thing to us down here. But the underlying, unseen relationship between God and the world (i.e. complete sovereignty/submission to his will) remains the same.

In other words, God is not personally implicated or involved in the changes and events that make up the story, because there can be no real event for that sort of God. He is immutable in his utter sovereignty. Try making a story with a leading character like that!

This key aspect of the Calvinist world view, it seems to me, is ultimately anti-gospel.

I have another way I want to express my critique of the Calvinist thought-tradition I belong to. It’s another angle on the same thing:

Calvinism divorces God’s sovereignty from God’s kingdom.

These are metaphors. We can understand something about God by saying he is like one of our human rulers. He is King. He is in charge. He has a territory over which he holds sway. This is his sovereignty.

Or is it his kingdom?

Thing is, the two metaphors are not two, but one. It’s the same image. Therein lies the problem for Calvinism. Let me show you what I mean.

The first mention of God’s sovereignty in Scripture is at the Exodus:

…your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy…
You brought your people in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession,
the place, O LORD, that you made your abode,
the sanctuary, O LORD, that your hands have established.
18 The LORD will rule as King forever and ever.” Exodus 15

What does God’s sovereignty mean here? It means he came down and smashed Pharaoh, and created a people and gave them a land where he would rule over them. It’s not abstract, it’s very concrete. It’s about God’s presence and visible action.

In the Psalms, God’s kingship is introduced as a Messianic concept:

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the LORD has them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” Psalm 2

Another classic ‘kingship psalm’, 29, begins and ends with the image of God hovering over waters:

The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD sits enthroned as king forever. Psalm 29
This is a creation image. God asserted his power over the waters, in the creation. They obeyed his voice. In this sense he is viewed as ‘enthroned’ over the waters. This is his kingship, or sovereignty.

Psalm 74 bemoans that in God’s absence, foes have made a mockery of his land. But that is not the whole story: there is still hope of God’s kingship.

Yet God is my King from of old,
working salvation in the earth.
You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. Psalm 74

This is God’s kingship: his victory over the waters and the leviathan. His parting the Red Sea and smashing the ‘dragon’ Egypt. And it may return.

All of these psalms view God’s kingship as something concrete and visible that happens ‘down here’. We tend to overlay this with a framework of ‘God is already fully king, it just needs revealing‘. This is an abstract structure of thought which I suspect would be meaningless to the psalmists.

Seems to me the Jewish Scriptures have a view of God’s sovereignty which is pretty close to what we might call, ‘God’s kingdom’.

In the NT, of course, God’s sovereignty (or kingdom) is completely bound up with Jesus. Revelation 15 is typical: there the first mention of God’s sovereignty in Scripture, from Exodus 15, is transformed:

And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:
“Great and amazing are your deeds,
Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations!
Lord, who will not fear
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you,
for your judgments have been revealed.”
God can be declared ‘king of the nations’ because of his new victory, which brings all the nations to his feet. Which victory? The victory of the lamb. This is after all ‘the song of the lamb’.

In fact, the NT really has nothing to say about God as sovereign apart from what he has done in making Jesus King. This should give us pause for thought…

This kingdom is of course something that arrives. It means ‘God’s will starting to be done on earth, the way it already is in heaven, as people come under the leadership of Jesus.’ At Jesus’ resurrection and Pentecost, this starts to be a reality.

In Scripture, then there are not two concepts, God’s sovereignty and his kingdom/kingship. They are one and the same.

HOWEVER:

I am aware that systematic theology feels at liberty to use words in a different way from how the Scripture uses them. With its bent towards abstract thought, Calvinist systematics has constructed a whole theology of invisible ‘eternal’ stuff lying behind and prior to God’s action in the gospel, and labelled that concept ‘sovereignty’. Which of course, means ‘kingship’. But it uses this word in quite a different way from how the Scriptures use it.

This is a serious problem for ordinary Christians, as whatever contact they have with Calvinist systematics leads them to misread the Bible’s talk about God’s sovereignty. When they read in the NIV everywhere ‘Sovereign LORD’, they hear it as asserting the Calvinist doctrine of sovereignty. But Adonai Yahweh does not have that meaning. So we have this distortion.

It’s time for the two rival terms and concepts for God’s kingship in the Calvinist tradition to call each other out, confess that they are the same metaphor, go toe to toe and duke it out for the rightful title. This faith ain’t big enough for the two of them.

Historically, ‘sovereignty’ has packed the bigger punch, to the discomfiture of ‘kingdom/kingship’.

But I’m putting my money on ‘kingdom of God’. Coz it’s in the Bible.

Jonathan survived theological college, and now enjoys talking about books, scripture, theology, church, politics, mission, people, stuff like that.

The photo shows, “The Parable of the Blind,” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, paimted in 1568.

Having And Wanting More

Addictions are strange things. I have a friend who says that the problem with alcohol is that there “simply isn’t enough.” Non-addicts frequently misunderstand. I once heard someone say to an addict, “When you decided to go down that road…” There is very little decision within an addiction. The disease of addiction itself does the choosing. The person involved often watches helplessly as they go through the motions of yet another round, watching everything head in a direction over which they feel powerless.

First the man takes a drink.
Then the drink takes a drink.
Then the drink takes the man.

This is easily described in terms of alcohol and drugs. However, I believe we are a culture of addicts. Those on drugs and alcohol are simply lucky enough to be able to see their addiction more clearly.

Within the list of sins that come up in the Scriptures, “drunkenness” has its honorable mentions. However, there is a deeper addiction, far more pervasive, that plays a greater role, both in Scripture and in our own lives: greed. This little English word seems rather quaint. It sounds like something that belongs in a Dickens novel. Indeed, it is so removed from our working moral vocabulary that it can be proclaimed (without blushing), “Greed is good.” Greek has a much richer term: pleonexia. It means “the desire to have more.” And that definition suggests a much larger and pervasive problem indeed.

“To have more” lies at the heart of modern civilization. Wealth and prosperity at ever-increasing levels are held as promises to be desired. We often measure our economies by growth rather than any measure of well-being. Greed for us means nothing more than wanting too much. We fail, however, to challenge the wanting itself.

I am not concerned with economic theory here, except in the relations that can be called the “spirituality” of the culture. If there is a spirituality of consumerism, it is best described as pleonexia, greed. It is what drives consumers. It is sadly true that if greed were to cease tomorrow, the world as we know it would collapse. We have no inherent control on greed other than the limits of our credit cards.

If our desire to have more is to be maintained at its required level, we ourselves are required to believe in it and to agree to participate in it. And here our addiction comes to the fore. We not only desire to have more, we often find ourselves powerless to desire less. “Buyer’s remorse” is not a fiction – it is the consumer’s version of a hangover.

If the desire to have more were limited to material goods, it would, perhaps, be but a bothersome thing. However, the disease of pleonexia is spiritual and infects the whole of our lives. Pleonexia is not a disease that can be isolated to a single area of our lives. We want more of everything: more things, more sex, more food, more entertainment, ad infinitum.

In the Kingdom of God, self-emptying is the principle of true existence (cf. Phil 2:5-11). And so we find ourselves enthralled by a spiritual principle of the deepest irony: we crave more which draws us further and further away from our very being. The more we gain, the less we exist.

“What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” This saying of Christ is daily being fulfilled in the course of our lives. It is worth noting that the great writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn rediscovered his faith when he was in the Gulag prison system of the Soviet Union. Strangely, the emptiness of that bleak existence became a treasure for him. When he was first released into external exile, he managed to find a small shack in which to live. He had no money to furnish it. He found a couple of boxes to serve for a bed. When his circumstances later improved and he gained an apartment, he took the boxes with him for his bed. He feared the road of pleonexia and treasured the spiritual freedom he had found in poverty.

The Orthodox way of life purposefully asks us to renounce the spirit of Mammon. We fast, we practice generosity – and we do so as a way of life. We were not created for acquisition. Our life is found in the Cross. The Cross is both the place Christ accomplished our salvation, as well as the way of salvation itself. It is the wisdom as well as the power of God. The wisdom of the Cross is the self-emptying of Christ. This self-emptying is not anti-life, but the actual mode of true-existence. “Whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Mat 16:25)

There are many who concern themselves greatly about how a nation’s economy works (just post an economic thought on Facebook and watch the traffic). Most of our thoughts are generated by the same consumer/political/information conglomerates who press us towards consumption in the first place. For the time being, Christians should satisfy themselves that their own renunciation of consumerism will not bring the entire economy to a halt. But if we refuse to turn away from the manifold forms of pleonexia, then the whole of our soul will be in danger.

Thinking about the spirituality of pleonexia, we do well to examine the whole of our lives. Our desire to have more drives others away from us, or places them in the position of begrudging competitors. They interfere with my time, my plans, my interests, my pleasure, etc.

For Christ’s sake, lose your life. Why should you keep trying to gain the world?

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, “Girl With a Basket in a Garden” by Daniel Ridgway Knight.

On Images And Culture

Begging my readers’ patience, I will take a small anthropology tour through our culture. What I want to draw our attention to is the place of the image. We are not only fascinated with looking at images, we place them on our bodies as well: t-shirts, tattoos, hats, shoes, pants – in short, everywhere.

There is nothing unusual in this. Were we to examine primitive tribes, we would notice a vast assemblage of image-markings. People cover themselves with colorful muds, distort certain parts of their bodies, do amazing things with hair, dress themselves in utterly impractical costumes. Something is at work in the human soul that is demonstrated in all of these behaviors. My suggestion is that it is an effort to live “according to the image.”

Clothing is mentioned with an essential role in the Genesis account of human beginnings. Our sin plunges us into shame. We are “naked” and seek to “hide.” The theological unpacking of this reality is deeply important in Scripture, particularly in the New Testament. But it also reflects a simple human experience. The naked truth of ourselves is generally experienced in a shameful manner. That is to say that we feel exposed, vulnerable and in danger when various aspects of that truth are seen by others. And so, we cover up.

God provided Adam and Eve “garments of skin” in Genesis 3. Those garments have been deeply elaborated on ever since. Perhaps the deepest commentary on this is found in St. Paul: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27)

This would probably be more accurately rendered, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ as a garment.” The word “put on” (ἐνεδύσασθε) specifically refers to “putting on” a garment. This “putting on” is the true and spiritual fulfillment of which all efforts to clothe ourselves are a mere reflection, and often one of deep distortion.

I take us back to my first observation: we universally seek to cover or mark ourselves with something. Our appearance is a canvas which we cannot help but disguise. And, following Genesis, we can observe that we desperately want to cover or mark ourselves in order to disguise our shame – in one form or another.

It can be argued that we wear clothes because it is too sunny or cold. But our clothing long ago transcended the practical need of hairless animals. Our clothing, like most of our lives, reflects psychological and spiritual issues more than anything. The state of our soul is often on display for anyone who understands the nature of the great human cover-up.

A frequent element of our covering is the projection of power. We use various symbols and clues as signals. Identifying ourselves with a team proclaims the power of a tribe: we are not alone. Much of our political signals are aggressive in nature, not surprising in a culture in which almost all citizens feel largely powerless. Our coverings can signal beauty, strength, anger, sexual desire, any number of things in the cultural dance surrounding inner shame.

The modern fashion of tattooing (more prominent in America than Europe) is a deeper form of covering, at least in its permanence. It strikes me as interesting that such a permanent form of covering should become popular in a culture permeated by impermanence. In my part of the world, it seems less and less common to encounter people who have no tattoos.

Please understand that I am not saying that our clothing and markings are themselves shameful. They are quite the opposite. They represent protective coverings that protect us from the shame we feel and the shaming we encounter in social settings. Our inner shame surrounds our sense of identity. Shame is about “who I am.” Our coverings represent an effort to publicly proclaim, “This is who I am,” regardless of what might be the case inwardly. As such, our coverings are an attempt to say, “This is who I want you to think I am.” Many times these same created coverings are used to hide our inner shame from ourselves. The modern selfie is a fascination with the image, an effort to proclaim an existence and identity in a world where social media has become a substitute ontology: “I’m online, therefore I exist…. And they like me!”

All of this feels intensely personal as I think about it. As an Orthodox priest, I am costumed in almost every setting. In public, I wear a cassock. In Church, I am covered in vestments. But there, the covering is extremely intentional. As he vests, the priest prays: ” My soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for He has clothed me with the garment of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of gladness; as a bridegroom He has set a crown on me; and as a bride adorns herself with jewels, so has He adorned me…. Your Priests, O Lord, shall clothe themselves with righteousness, and Your saints shall shout with joy always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

According to Eusebius, St. James, the Brother of the Lord, wore a linen garment like the High Priest when he served in the Church’s assembly. That ancient reality, still enacted in the Liturgy, is a visible “putting on of Christ.” It is Christ who is present and leads us in our offering to the Father. The robing of the priest covers the person of the priest himself (and his shame), in order to present the Lord of glory.

To wear a uniform or costume (I don’t know what else to call it) in public is always to disappear to a certain extent. My own parishioners, when they occasionally see me without the cassock (when I’m out for a walk, etc.), do not always recognize me – at least not at first glance. It reminds me that I am not “me” to them, but “their priest.” My late Archbishop used to forbid priests to wear things like bathing suits in front of their parishioners. If we wanted to swim, we needed to go somewhere else.

It is possible to lose yourself in such a covering. A priest can begin to mistake himself for the robe he wears. Indeed, I think some are drawn to the priesthood precisely because they want to lose themselves – and for the wrong reasons. We can clothe ourselves outwardly, but if the clothing only hides our shame and does not transform it, then it becomes part of the sickness in our lives that binds us to our shame.

Just as our first experience of shame was our “nakedness” (the emptiness of our existence in the presence of God), so our salvation is expressed in terms of being clothed: ” Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” (Eph. 4:22-25)

The “new nature,” created “after the likeness of God,” is nothing other than the very righteousness of Christ, described as a garment. But this is more than a garment – it is a “nature,” meaning that it no longer represents a garment that hides us, but something that changes us, so that the inside (“nature”) matches the outside (“righteousness of Christ”). We can be seen exactly as we are – without shame.

It is noteworthy that St. Paul completes the admonition with the commandment to “speak the truth.” This is the opposite of what takes place in almost all of our various cultural versions of clothing. What you see of others is never “who they are,” but what they want you to see, an effort that is rarely successful.

However, our holy transformation (conformity to the image of Christ) begins in Baptism, and continues as we “speak the truth,” meaning as we “bear a little shame” in the truth of our confession and repentance and in our dealings with others. It is, admittedly, a most difficult thing. The greater our inward fear and the depth of our wounds, the harder it is to trust this work of salvation. By grace, it is possible.

Nearly six years ago I had a very graphic dream that involved my late Archbishop Dmitri. It was some few months after his death. The last words he spoke in the dream have stayed with me: “I believe that soon, we shall all have to stand naked before the judgment seat of Christ.” I did not know then how important those words would become for me. May God clothe us with the righteousness of Christ and conform us inwardly to His image.

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 Brioche,” by Edouard Manet, painted in 1870.

First Fruits And Harvest

There are seven main Feasts God outlined for the Jewish people to commemorate in the Old Testament as listed in the book of Leviticus. They are; the feast of Passover, of Unleavened Bread, First fruits, Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, Feast of Tabernacles, Feast of Pentecost.

These Jewish feasts are clearly related to Israel’s spring and Autumn harvests and the agricultural seasons. Why were they given to the Israelites in the first place you may ask? They were given to remind the Israelites each year of God’s protection and provision. And What we do for our Thanksgiving/Harvest time has been drawn from these ancient feasts. They are connected.

One of these Feasts is the Feast of Pentecost which simply means the Festival of Harvest. The books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy all make reference to it which was held 50 days after Passover. Passover being the event where God’s angel Past Over the homes of the Israelites in Egypt as they prepared themselves to journey to the promised land. 

Almost everything we eat today has been at least partially prepared by someone else. But in ancient Israel the cycle of sowing and reaping was absolutely central to the very existence of the Jewish people. The agricultural cycle was part of everyday life.

The Feast of Pentecost was an important marker in that cycle of harvest. It commemorated the ending of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest in the land.  And as the ancient Israelites and ourselves celebrate Thanksgiving/Harvest with gratitude we do so with joy.

Deuteronomy tells us in ch 26; ‘bring the first fruits of the soil that you O lord, have given.  Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. You shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.’ It takes place irrespective of whether we have a bumper harvest or a poor harvest.

It may seem strange that God would have to command his people to be joyful. But which one of us does not get weighed down by the cares and troubles of this world. Or having a poor harvest. We often forget the things for which we ought to be grateful to God for. Gratitude and joy go hand in hand. So what God does is this; he comes to us in his word and through festivals like this and says, Stop.

Stop your preoccupation with the cares of this life.

Stop with all the worries that weigh you down. Stop thinking about problems that may never happen. Stop thinking about yourself and your family.

Instead Be happy about what you have AND FOR THE SAKE OF God have a good time. That’s what a festival is about.

A lot of people think of religion in general and Christianity in particular as being a sour, dull, unhappy way to live. People have said; I don’t want to follow Jesus because I’ll have to stop having fun. Really.

If only they could understand God’s heart for his people. He commanded us to Rejoice. What is more, this rejoicing is a community event. It is not something that we’re supposed to experience alone, but with all of God’s people such as today. And Secondly, we are to remember where we came from. Where did we come from?

Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt. Remember your bondage as slaves, your mistreatment, the way Pharaoh mistreated you. Remember that once you were strangers and aliens. But now things have changed; you have been set free from slavery; this is what it means to Rejoice.

This event that took place where God led the Israelites out of Egypt from slavery, to freedom and a new life is a picture of what God can do to an individual today, because We were all at one-time slaves to sin. Sin had control over us, living lives that were ungodly, and selfish, being held captive by the things that God detests.

But God in his grace and mercy gives us the faith to believe in him. It is only God who is able to break the chains of bondage to sin and releases us from our slavery to it. He redeems us, through Jesus dying on the cross while at the same time granting us new life; a new way to live, think and behave. An exchange takes place where Jesus takes our sin and we receive his righteousness.

Because our sin impacts greatly on God’s holiness a penalty must be paid as God cannot let sin go unpunished. The penalty for sin was paid by Christ and was received and accepted by God the father.

When a person accepts and believes what Christ has done for them, they no longer stand condemned. Instead They receive forgiveness, a future, and eternal life. Heaven is assured because of what Jesus has done for all of humanity. This is the message Christ came to tell us.

Tragically Satan has great influence over the whole world as we see and hear continually. But God the Father has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son. God through his love and mercy is able to save anyone, anywhere, at any time. Scripture tells us ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

 Are you ready to take that step of faith by believing that Jesus died on the cross thereby releasing you from the power of sin and making your future secure? He is more than able to save us. We are to rejoice in the Lord for his provision, and rejoice in our deliverance, remembering where we came from.

Thirdly we don’t come empty handed to the Lord.

Presenting first fruits to God is something that the OT speaks about regularly. It’s not a one-off thing as most people think. The idea of first fruits from the harvest is connected to the principle of presenting the first born in scripture. In the same way Mary and Joseph presented their child Jesus by bringing him to the temple in Jerusalem. In the same way as God claims the first born, he tells his people that the first fruits of the ground also belong to him.

Pentecost, this Festival of the Harvest speaks to us of the importance of dedicating our first and our best to the glory of God. Scripture promises a direct connection between our dedication and God’s provision. Proverbs tells us; ‘Honour the Lord with your possessions, and with the first fruits of all your increase; so your barns will be filled with plenty’.

However, this passage and principle should not be used to raise false hopes that prosperity is attainable in proportion to what you give. It would be foolish to calculate one’s giving based on what one expects to receive in return.

Giving that is motivated by what one will receive back, is not giving at all. The key to this verse is not what will I get back based on what I give; it is Honouring the Lord. This is our motivation. What does it mean to honour God? It’s not so much the giving it’s the honouring.

When we acknowledge that all we have including the clothes we wear, the food in our cupboards, the car we drove to church, our homes, the money in our pockets & purses/ ALL belongs to God, then we honour him.

When we dedicate ourselves to serving God and serving others; we honour him.

When we choose to repent from our sin and turn to God, we honour him.

When we seek to carry out justice, feed the poor, fend for the widow and orphan, we honour him.

When we trust that giving our first fruits for his special use will not leave us destitute, we honour the Lord.

In the summer Israelites harvested figs, dates, pomegranates, honey, nuts. In Autumn they gathered in olives and grapes. The first fruits brought before the Lord were the choicest, the best without blemish. Not the left overs.

What do our first fruits include? Apples, wine, plums, turnips, potatoes, cabbages, wheat, barley. But you say well I don’t have any of those things so how can I give them. And You would be right.

But what about other, monetary first fruits like; a pay rise, an increment, an inheritance, a rebate. Are they out of bounds? Are they out of God’s reach? Remember who gave you them in the first place?  

God blesses us because we are to acknowledge that we and all we have are rightfully his and he blesses us because in giving back first fruits, we show our trust that he intends to continue to provide for us. Honouring the Lord with our first fruits not just at Thanksgiving/Harvest time, is part of the dedication and trust he expects and deserves.

Most of us have seen the film Lord of the Rings written by JRR Tolken who was a Christian and close friend of CS Lewis. Frodo Baggins along with his companions sets out on a journey to destroy the ring forged by the evil Sauron. They meet with all kinds of dangers as well as interesting friends.

But the impact of the book hinges on the fact that at each step of the way, the reader can see that the hobbits are part of a larger story of cosmic redemption.

So, it was with Israel and with us. We are part of a bigger picture, on the road to greater events than we can possibly imagine. To thank God for a good crop is one thing. To thank him because we recall how he delivered us, and because each year’s crop is a link in a story leading up to a promise of final deliverance; well that’s something else.

What we read in Deuteronomy is not something we ignore because it happened so long ago. The past is still our story today; the story of thanksgiving, of redemption, and freedom.

For example, the worshippers at Pentecost in the New Testament include themselves in the events of the what happened although they were not physically present at the Exodus and crossing the Red Sea 1500 years earlier.

By looking and applying what we read in the bible to ourselves, we see that God’s salvation story is not only the story of people who lived long ago, it is our story as well. Every lesson that Israel learnt, is for OUR benefit. It is a lesson that we need to remember for ourselves. The God whom Israel came to experience is our God as well. He hasn’t changed.

Likewise, when we read in the New Testament that Jesus died and rose again to take upon himself the sins of the world, we are to realise that it is our sin that brought him to the cross.

First fruits and Pentecost connected us, not only to our history that is our redemption, but also to our future destiny, which means claiming and living out the promises of Almighty God as written in the bible.   

In closing. It is natural for human beings to trust something or someone, but we find it difficult to trust what we cannot see. The Israelites whilst in Canaan the land of milk and honey, were surrounded by pagan nature gods like Baal. As a result, it was easy for them to succumb to these visible graven images.

But through linking harvest celebrations like Pentecost they were to remember that the God to trust now, with our crops, land, wind, and rain, is the same God who rescued them from slavery.

The Canaanite approach is the forerunner of how modern life is lived Today. There was no history with it, and no destiny either; only the yearly cycle; then another, followed by another. Their pagan rites did not look back to a past redemption or forward to a future with God, but only to the annual cycle of rain and growth. This is the way of the unbeliever.

We see this in our time where people live only for today with little regard for history and little sense of destiny. Living only for today is all-consuming. Sadly, this generation distrusts the past and despairs of the future.

However, this is a very different viewpoint for the Christian, because he or she knows where they came from, and where they are going. Their future is assured.

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, Watching football and how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The photo shows, “Harvest Time in Cache Valley,” by Lorus Bishop Pratt, painted in 1913.

True Beauty

Converts are drawn to the Catholic Church for many different reasons: her historical credentials, the clear moral witness of pro-life Catholics, reasons of doctrine and truth, etc.

Some, particularly former high church Anglicans, have spoken occasionally of being impelled by conscience to convert despite the vast doctrinal confusion and liturgical ugliness they found in certain Catholic parishes.

Conversely, some have been drawn to the Church for aesthetic reasons — by the beauty of Gregorian chant, Palestrina, Chartres, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the breath-taking vision of Dante, and the majestic traditional Latin liturgy itself.

Converts from non-liturgical backgrounds attest to the compelling power and beauty of even simple gestures, like kneeling, genuflecting, and the Sign of the Cross.

What is the relation of beauty to truth? Usually truth is understood as a matter of propositions or judgments.

The Medievals distinguished three acts of the intellect: (1) understanding, (2) judging and (3) reasoning. Logically, the object of understanding is a term (“rose”), the object of judging is a premise (“All roses are red”) and the object of reasoning is a syllogism (“All roses are red/This flower is a rose/Therefore, this flower is red”).

In these examples, a flaw is readily apparent in the syllogism because of the false premise: it is not true that all roses are red. This tells us something important: truth applies to judgments, the second act of the intellect. Judgments can be true or false.

But can the term “rose” be true or false? Clearly not. It is either understood or not; but the question of truth seems irrelevant to understanding, the first act of the intellect. Or, at least, so it seems.

The poet, John Keats, once declared: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” What did he mean? Is there a sense in which the beautiful can be true?

Beginning with Plato, a number of ancient and medieval philosophers have referred to the good, the true and the beautiful as though they were somehow inter-penetrating concepts.

Medieval philosophers related these to other concepts like “being,” and called them “transcendentals” (from Latin, transcendere – “to climb over”), meaning they transcend or “climb over” all divisions, categories and distinctions between and within beings.

For example, anything in the world, by the mere fact of its having been created by God, is good. Evil, then, cannot be some sort of existing thing, but rather a kind of non-being, as blindness is the non-being of sight.

The goodness of something (like sight) does not add anything to its being, but is simply an aspect under which its being may be considered.

The same is true of all the other transcendentals: Truth is being as known, Goodness is being as rightly desired, and Beauty is being as rightly admired. Being considered (1) as the object of the intellect is Truth; (2) as the object of right desire is Goodness; and (3) as the object of right aesthetic delight is Beauty. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, then, are various aspects of Being as apprehended by the intellect, will, and emotions.

A little sticking point might be the terms “right” in the definition of Good as the object of “right desire” and Beauty as the object of “right admiration.”

After all, is not the proverbial maxim, De gustibus non est disputandum (“there is no disputing about taste”)? Isn’t “beauty” purely subjective? Aren’t “goodness” and even “truth” considered purely subjective these days? Who is to say what is “really” true, good, or beautiful? Isn’t that presumption a trifle arrogant?

This is hardly the place for a full-blown discussion of criteria for adjudicating differences of opinion over judgments of truth, goodness, and beauty. Suffice it to note several conditions that will serve to define the framework of a traditional Catholic approach to these questions.

First is the conviction that reality is intelligible and that the intellect can know it — maybe not exhaustively, but adequately. Hence, Truth is defined as the correspondence between intelligible reality and the knowing intellect (adaequatio rei et intellectus).

Second is the conviction that what is really (as opposed to merely apparently) good for us is knowable and that we ought to desire it. Hence Goodness is defined as the object of right desire.

Third is the conviction that what is really (as opposed to merely apparently) beautiful is knowable and that we ought to admire and delight in it. Hence Beauty is defined as the object of right admiration.

Beauty has been called “the synthesis of all transcendentals” since it is related not just to one faculty but to the intellect and will and emotions. It is therefore the most complex of the transcendentals.

St. Thomas Aquinas defines it in one place as, id quod visum placet (“that which pleases upon being seen”), which underscores its subjective aspect. The beautiful is pleasing to us. Yet this is not the end of the matter, because we clearly do dispute whether certain objects rightly warrant aesthetic admiration.

Accordingly, St. Thomas adds three objective criteria to his subjective criterion of pleasure: (a) integritas (unity), (b) consonantia (harmony), and (c) claritas (splendor or radiance).

Thus, when John Paul II entitled one of his encyclicals, Veritas splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”) he seems to have touched on the inter-penetrating quality of transcendentals: Truth is beautiful. It exhibits qualities of beauty: unity, harmony, and splendor (or radiance). One could also refer to the goodness of truth. Well, you get the picture.

Can we also speak of the truth of beauty, then? There does seem to be some reason for supposing that truth need not be limited to judgments alone.

While it makes little sense to speak of a beautiful rose as “true” in a strictly propositional sense, a rose nevertheless presents itself as an object of the intellect, and as an intelligible being created by God in correspondence to His own intellect and will.

At the very beginning of his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas refers to “God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves.”

Thus, God signifies not only His existence, but His power and majesty by the sheer beauty of His creation (see Romans 1:19-20). Likewise, the beauty of music, liturgy, and religious art can serve, as do Sacraments themselves, as signs that point to realities and truths beyond themselves.

Professor Philip Blosser teaches philosophy at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. This article is courtesy of his blog.

The photo shows, “Eternal Peace,” by Isaac Levitan, painted in 1894.