Friday, November 27, 2015

Stump the Priest: The Sin of Sodom

Lot and his family fleeing Sodom

Question: "Doesn't Ezekiel 16:49 make it clear that the sin of Sodom was inhospitality rather than homosexuality?"

Actually, no, it doesn't. Here is what Ezekiel 16:49 says:

"Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy."

Which if that was all that the Bible had to say on the subject, would provide some basis for the assumption behind this question. However, let's look at the very next verse:

"And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good" (Ezekiel 16:50).

The word "abomination" in Hebrew is "tô‛êbah," which was discussed in some detail in a previous article (Stump the Priest: Shrimp and Homosexuality). In every other case in the book of Ezekiel in which the singular of tô‛êbah is used, it is in reference to sexual immorality (Ezekiel 22:11; 33:26). Clearly, the abomination that is refereed to here is that of sexual immorality in general, and homosexuality in particular. This is how the famous medieval Jewish commentator Rashi understood that text as well (see Robert Gagnon, Why We Know That the Story of Sodom Indicts Homosexual Practice Per Se). Likewise, the Jewish philosopher Philo, who was a contemporary of Christ, understood the sin of Sodom to be homosexuality (Abraham 133-141).

Furthermore, the Epistle of St. Jude makes it clear that the sins of Sodom included sexual immorality chiefly among them:

" Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire" (Jude 7).

Commenting on this passage Oecumenius says:

"The unnatural lust in which the Sodomites indulged was homosexuality..." (Commentary on Jude, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. XI, Gerald Bray, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2000) p. 251).

St. John Chrysostom likewise connects the sin of homosexuality with the condemnation of Sodom in his homily on Romans 1:26-27.

The sin of Sodom was not that they were rude to strangers. They were sexually perverse, and this led them to the attempted rape of the two angels that visited Lot in Sodom. This sexual perversity is not merely incidental to this story. Dr. Robert Gagnon spells out the reasons for this in great detail in the following video:

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Stump the Priest: Singing the Psalms

Question: "I heard you mention a way to memorize the psalms with singing, and I wondered if you elaborate on that?"

Singing is a very effective tool for memorization and instruction in general. I have posted previously about how Handel's Messiah can be useful in helping one to memorize Scripture, and in the hymns of the Church we sign verses from the Psalms, such as in Prokimena, and we also sing entire Psalms. By singing the Psalms, you can make memorizing them much easier then simply memorizing them as texts, and singing the Psalms is itself a spiritually edifying endeavor that the Apostles repeatedly encourages us to engage in (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; James 5:13).

Here are some practical tips on how to go about this.

First of all, it is important to use a consistent translation. I prefer the "Boston" Psalter, for the reasons laid out in my article on Translations.

I have found it especially helpful to learn to sing songs in Byzantine chant, and there are several CDs out there that use the Boston Psalter translation. Here are two CDs I would recommend for this purpose. The second CD is not exclusively Psalms or Prokimena, but it does contain them:

O Give Thanks Unto the Lord (Hymns from the Psalter, Chanted in English by the Monks of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery)

The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom (Set of 2 CDs -- Contains the choral responses from the Doxology in Matins to the end of Liturgy. Chanted by the sisters of Holy Nativity Convent in Byzantine chant)

You can also get a CD of the Boston Psalter being read:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

2016 St. Innocent Liturgical Calendar, now ready for order

You can now place your orders for the 2016 St. Innocent Liturgical Calendar. In addition to providing liturgical rubrics based on the Jordanville Calendar (Troitskij Pravoslavnij Russkij Kalendar), the calendar also includes a liturgical color chart. The cost is $31.95 Bookstore discounts are available based on the quantity ordered. The Calendar can also be ordered in PDF format. The printed calendar should be shipping by approximately December 21st. The PDF version will be available close to the 7th of December. To order, and for more information, see:

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review: The Four Gospels: Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament, Volume 1

The Four Gospels: Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament, Volume 1
by Archbishop Averky (Taushev)

This text was written by Archbishop Averky for use at Holy Trinity Seminary, and has been used to train seminarians there ever since. But now, with the publication of the text in English translation, this indispensable text is available to the English speaking Orthodox world.

This text has some similarities to the text "The Life and Times of Jesus, the Messiah" in that it covers the contexts of the Gospels, chronologically, and shows how the four Gospels complement one another. But this text also provides a window for English speakers on pre-revolutionary Russian Biblical scholarship, and also brings the commentaries of the Fathers to bear on the subject. Archbishop Averky shows a familiarity with Protestant biblical scholarship, as well.

One could read the commentary cover to cover simply to gain a better understanding of the Gospels, but it also can be used as the starting point for the study of any given passage of the Gospels. Particularly when studying the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), looking at parallel passages can provide deeper insights into a passage. This text helps connect those parallels, and helps one understand how these parallels should be understood together, through the perspective of Holy Tradition.

It is a text that would benefit any pious laymen, but which should be a go to reference for Orthodox clergy. I look forward to seeing the subsequent volumes in this series published as well.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Stump the Priest: Women Singing in the Church

The Daughters of St. Philip

Question: "What does St Paul mean when he says "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law" (1 Corinthians 14:34)? Does this mean that women cannot direct or sing in the choir?"

Interpreting this passage is complicated by the fact that it is in the context of a discussion of how speaking in tongues and prophecy were to be handled during the services of the Church, and yet because of the abuse of these practices by those who were suffering from spiritual delusion, the Church ceased to allow such things to be done in the context of the services altogether. Furthermore, because women who claimed to have the gift of prophecy were very prominent in the Montanist heresy (which began in the second century), in many of the comments about this passage you find in the Fathers, they are using it polemically. And so it may be that polemics led some to take the view that this passage means that women should refrain not only from speaking in prophecy or singing audibly in the Church, but even from praying audibly. However, this view was not unanimously held.

St. Paul said earlier in the same epistle: "But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven" (1 Corinthians 11:5), and here he makes no suggestion that they should not pray or prophesy in Church... only that they should not do so without their heads uncovered. St. John Chrysostom points out:

"For there were, as I said, both men who prophesied and women who had this gift at that time, as the daughters of Philip, (Acts 21:9) as others before them and after them: concerning whom also the prophet spake of old: “your sons shall prophesy, and your daughters shall see visions” (c.f. Joel 2:28 and Acts 2:17 -- from Homily 26 on 1 Corinthians).

In his 37th homily on 1 Corinthians (which covers 14:34), he says that the prohibition is directed against women speaking "idly," or "inconsiderately" (i.e. out of the proper order discussed earlier in chapter 14), but he does not suggest that the statement prohibits women who had the gift of prophecy from prophesying in Church.

The context of chapter 14 is about the proper order that should prevail when people either spoke in tongues or prophesied... and there is a previous instance in which St. Paul speaks of keeping silence:

"If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God (1 Corinthians 14:27-8).

Clearly in this case, St. Paul is not making an absolute ban on such a person speaking in Church -- he is only forbidding him to speak in tongues if there is no one to interpret (in which case no one else would receive any edification). And so the silence is with regard to speaking out of good order.

Then St. Paul again speaks of keeping silent:

"Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints" (1 Corinthians 14:29-33).

When it speaks of letting the others judge, this suggests that after a person would prophesy, others would comment on it -- most likely this would have been done by those who had charge of the Church (certainly an Apostle, if present, and the local bishop, presbyters, and deacons). Probably some would ask questions about what was said. It is in both of these respects that St. Paul is telling women to keep silence, and if they had questions to ask their husbands about it later -- but this meant keeping silence with regard to these specific things. And St. John Chrysostom's comments about refraining from idle talk were certainly also applicable here.

Of course, in our context, we would not allow either a man or a women to speak in tongues or prophesy in the context of a service, but the point is that the statement that women should keep silence was not an absolute prohibition against women praying audibly or singing.

St. Ephrem the Syrian actually formed women choirs in Edessa (see "Spoken Words, Voiced Silence: Biblical Women in Syriac Tradition, by Susan Ashbrook Harvey). According to Fr. Robert Taft (a noted historian of Eastern Liturgics), there was also a woman's choir in the Hagia Sophia (Interview of Sister Vassa Larin, "Orthodoxy is not a Religion of Fear").

There are also long standing traditions of congregational singing, such as among the Carpatho-Russians, which obviously included women in the singing. And those who have grown up in that context will tell you that this was one of the most powerful aspects of parish life.

Furthermore, women have been singing in mixed choirs and even directing choirs in the Russian Church for a very long time now, and saints, such as St. John of Shanghai have not only raised no objections to it, but have blessed it to be so. So while one may make a case against women singing on the basis of the comments of some Fathers, the fact that the Church has allowed it, and that this has been without any controversy, and with the blessing of many saints should restrain anyone from making dogmatic arguments against the practice.

It is also a fact that without women singers and choir directors, many parishes would be hard pressed to pull off a decent service, and so even if you could make the argument that in an ideal world, choirs would consist of only tonsured male readers, the problem remains that we do not live in such an ideal world, and have to use the resources that we have. St. Paul's concern in his first epistle to the Corinthians was that "all things be done decently, and in good order" (1 Corinthians 14:40). If our interpretation of his admonitions leads us to the opposite effect, then I would suggest this means we are misreading him on some level.

When a baby girl is baptized, she is Churched. And in that service, the priest brings her into the middle of the Church and says "In the midst of the church shall she sing praises unto Thee" (c.f. Psalm 21[22]:22). It is hard to imagine why we would say this if we did not intend that it should actually happen.


Since this article was originally posted, someone referred me to "Female Deacons in the Byzantine Church," by Valerie A. Karras, which provides further information about the women choir in the Hagia Sophia, but also about similar choirs in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (more properly, the Church of the Resurrection) in Jerusalem, and the Cathedral in Thessaloniki. I would take issue with the title of this article, because a Deaconess was not a female form of Deacon, but a very different office, but the article contains good information on the subject women choirs.

For More Information:

On Montanism: See Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, 5:16.

On Montanus: See the Dictionary of Christian Biography, s.v. "Montanus".

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Stump the Priest: Authority in Ancient Israel

Question: "What were the sources of doctrine for the Israelites in the Old Testament? Was it Tradition, or Scripture?"

We are told by St. Paul that God,"at sundry times and in diverse manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets..." (Hebrews 1:1). And so there were a number of ways that God revealed Himself and taught the people of the Old Testament, and this changed over time.

At various times in the Old Testament there were instances of direct revelation, in which God communicated directly with specific people. This was of course not something that happened everyday throughout the Old Testament. The Old Testament focuses on these instances, and so it is easy to get the impression that God was constantly working wonders and speaking to His prophets, but a more careful examination will show that these instances punctuated much longer periods of time in which this was not happening. For example, from the time of the death of the Patriarch Joseph, until the time of Moses, there are no recorded instances of any new revelation... and this was a period of nearly 400 years.

So what guided the faithful between the periods of direct revelation? Tradition. The book of Genesis, for example, records God's revelation of Himself to Adam and Eve. But thousands of years would have passed before these things were written down. They were preserved by oral tradition by those who were faithful... and in turn, we believe that the Holy Spirit guided the preservation of these oral traditions. Eventually things began to be written down, and over time books of the Old Testament came to be recognized as authoritative and inspired records of these traditions. However, because these revelations were yet incomplete, God continued to provide new direct revelation through His prophets to correct the errors of the people, and to continue to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah.

But what about the "traditions of men" that Christ condemned in the Gospels? Of course, not all traditions are of equal weight, but if there was no reliable Tradition, we would have no reliable Scripture. The books of Scripture were produced by Tradition, and they were preserved by Tradition. We have no original copies of any books of the Bible. However, we believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the Tradition that formed Scripture, and we believe the Holy Spirit has preserved the Scripture as well. It was also by Tradition that the Israelites knew which books of the Bible were inspired, and which ones were not. The problem with the traditions of men that Christ condemned is that they were "of men" and were a distortion of the authentic Tradition inspired by God. But clearly there had to be an authentic Tradition, preserved by the faithful (which at times was only a small remnant, but which continuously passed the Tradition on).

An example of this can be seen in the worship of the Old Testament Tabernacle, and later in the Temple. In the Law of Moses, there is a lot of detail given about Israelite worship, but primarily what is described was for the benefit of the people. Little detail is given about how sacrifices were actually performed -- which for non-liturgical Protestants is not so obvious, but for those who are part of a liturgical Tradition, and who have experience performing the services, we know that even books written for priests, with extensive rubrics still require some oral tradition to guide the priests on how to actually do them. There is almost nothing of that sort in the Law of Moses -- probably to guard against those who were not priests attempting to illicitly perform them. And yet, when two of Aaron's sons violated God's instructions on how worship was to be done, they were struct dead by God (Leviticus 10:1-7 -- see also "Does God Care How We Worship?"). We are not told in Scripture exactly what Nadab and Abihu were supposed to have done, nor exactly what they did wrong, only that they they offered "strange fire" which the Lord had not commanded them to do. Clearly, the priests knew what they were supposed to do, and this was by Tradition that was not written down... at least not in any text that became part of Scripture, and yet it was authoritative enough to be the cause of killing two priests who failed to abide by it.

So to answer the question of what sources were used by the Israelites for doctrine, we would have to specify which point in their history to more fully answer that question. But after the Old Testament Scriptures began to be written down, it was not a question of Scripture or Tradition, but of Tradition that was both written and unwritten.

For more information see:

Sola Scriptura, by Fr. John Whiteford

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Stump the Priest: Theosis

Question: "Does the Orthodox Church believe Christians are gods in an embryo form? I am troubled by this notion, because it is a fundamental concept of Spiritualism."

We believe that there is only one God in Trinity -- the Creed should be clear enough on that. God is alone God by nature. However, we do believe that we can become divine, or like God, by grace. This is well founded in both Scripture and Tradition.

We are told in Scripture that we will be like God, in some sense:

"Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).

And we are told that we can become partakers of the divine nature:

"Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).

And Scripture speaks of men as being "gods" in some sense (Psalm 81[82]:6; John 10:34-36).

St. Irenaeus (who reposed in 202 A.D., and was taught by St. Polycarp, who was in turn a disciple of the Apostle John), wrote that Christ became "what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself" (Against Heresies, Book V, preface (ANF, p. 526)). This is almost identical to the better known statement from St. Athanasius the Great: "For He was made man that we might be made God" (On the Incarnation, 54, NPNF2, p. 65). Many similar quotes from other Fathers could be cited. This teaching is called "Theosis" or "Divinization."

Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) sums up what this does and does not mean very well:

"Since, then, the union between God and the human beings that he has created is a union neither according to essence nor according to hypostasis, it remains thirdly that it should be a union according to energy. The saints do not become God by essence nor one person with God, but they participate in the energies of God, that is to say, in his life, power, grace and glory" (The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1979), 168).

One cannot read what the Fathers have to say on this subject and conclude that they believed that man could become God in the same sense that the Trinity is God.

Mainstream Protestant theologians have generally recognized that there is nothing objectionable in the Patristic understanding of Theosis, unlike the odd teachings of groups like the Mormons, who actually do believe that men can be gods by nature (see, for example, Mormons and Patristic Studies, by Chris Welborn).

For more information:

Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life, by Archimandrite George of St. Gregorios Monastery, Mt. Athos.

The Illumined Heart: God: Essence and Energies

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Stump the Priest: What so Great about Certain Saints?

St. Athanasius the Great

Question: “Why do the Orthodox use the title "The Great" for some saints (e.g., Anthony the Great), when it is used of pagan and Jewish leaders (e.g., Pompey the Great, Herod the Great)?”

This is certainly not something limited to the Orthodox. I think pretty much all Christians have historically distinguished between Herod “the Great” and Herod ArchelausHerod Antipas and Herod Aggripa. Even in the Gospels we find reference to “James the Less” (Mark 15:40) to distinguish him from the more prominent James, the Son of Zebedee.

There are quite a few saints with the name "Athanasius", and each of them is referred to with some additional words to clarify who were are talking about. For example, there is St Athanasius of Serpukhov; St. Athanasius the Younger, Patriarch of Constantinople; the Martyr Athanasius of Melitene; St. Athanasius “the Resurrected One”, the Recluse of the Kiev Near Caves, etc. However, there is St. Athanasius the Great, who was the great champion against the Arian heresy. Now if St. Athanasius went around calling himself "the Great", then there would be something worth criticizing. But the fact that the Church has called him "the Great" is simply an acknowledgment of the crucial role he played in the defense of Orthodox theology. We could say much the same about St. Anthony the Great, or St. Basil the Great. There are many saints with the names "Anthony" and "Basil", but these two stand out from among them, though they would never have referred to themselves in this way.

St. Paul points out that "one star differeth from another star in glory" (1 Corinthians 15:41), and so it is with the saints. Most saints are not even known by name, but some saints stand out with a special brilliance, and there is nothing wrong with our noting this fact.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

St. Jonah Festal Celebration & Choral Performance, Tuesday, October 20th at 7:00 pm

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015 will mark the 90th anniversary of the repose of our parish's patron saint, St. Jonah of Manchuria. On the eve, Monday, October 19th, at 6:30 p.m., we will have a Hierarchical Vigil, with Bishop Peter presiding. On Tuesday morning, at 9:00 a.m., we will have the Hierarchical Liturgy, followed by a festal meal. At 7:00 p.m, we will have a choral performance at the Centrum. The choir will consist of members of the choirs of St. Jonah, St. Anthony, St. Sava, and St. Joseph, directed by Demtra Durham.

The Houston Balalaika Society Orchestra will be performing during the reception that will follow.

To hear a sample from a previous choral performance, click here. The recording device was not really up to the job, and does not do the original sound complete justice, but it does give you some idea of the beauty you can expect at this performance.

For directions to St. Jonah, click here.

For directions to the Centrum, click here.

For updates on the performance, go to the Facebook Events page by clicking here.
Also, on Sunday, October 25th, after the Sunday Liturgy, we will have our annual parish picnic.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Franklin Graham gets it on Russia's intervention in Syria

The pertinent part of the interview begins at about the 2 minute mark. He says, in short, what Russia is doing may save the lives of Christians. If the Assad government were allowed to collapse, it would mean the slaughter of Christians, and an increase of refugees. He no doubt takes this view because his organization, Samaritan's Purse, has been on the ground in Syria, trying to help the people.

If you ask any Syrian Christian about this, you will find that they support Russia's intervention.

Franklin Graham is a prominent Evangelical Protestant leader in his own right, and the son of Billy Graham.

See also this article from Christianity Today.

Update: Here is a video of Franklin Graham meeting with Patriarch Kirill, in which he expressed his thanks to Putin for supporting the Assad government in Syria, because if Assad is removed, the Christians will be slaughtered:

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Stump the Priest: Millennialism?

One of many charts from the premillennialist book "Dispensational Truth"

Question: "Why do the Orthodox adhere to Amillennialism, when it is so obvious that Satan is alive and active now and not confined. The following fathers were premillenarians: Justin Martyr, Melito, Hegesippus, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus and Apollinaris. So why is Chiliasm a heresy?"

Of the names that are listed, I do not believe there is any clear evidence that St. Hegesippus held premillennialist views. St. Hippolytus actually changed his mind on this question, in favor of rejecting premillennialismTatian, Tertullian, and Apollinaris all ended their lives in heresy and schism, and so their views were clearly not mainstream.

St. Justin Martyr, while he did hold to a premillennial view, acknowledged that many in the Church in his time did not. He wrote:

"I admitted to you formerly, that I and many others are of this opinion [that there will be a future millennial reign of Christ], and [believe] that such will take place, as you assuredly are aware; but, on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise" (Dialogue with Trypho LXXX).

Prior to the Church issuing a definitive statement on the issue, it was possible for saints, such as St. Justin and St. Ireneaus to hold such views, but at the Second Ecumenical Council, the Church added to the creed the phrase "whose kingdom shall have no end" immediately following the statement that Christ "shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead..." This was added to make it clear that there would be no temporary millennial kingdom, but an eternal one, as Scripture itself confirms:

"He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end" (Luke 1:32-33).

"His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:14b).

Premillennialism is based on an erroneous interpretation of Revelation 20:1-3, which states:

"And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season."

The problem with interpreting this as referring to something that will happen after the time of the second coming of Christ is that you then have to believe that for some inscrutable reason, God would turn the devil loose a thousand years later, and that there would still be people in that millennial kingdom capable of being deceived by the Devil and rebelling against Christ, who has come in all His glory, with all the hosts of heaven. You also would have to believe that when Christ returns that the general resurrection would not take place then, but only a thousand years after that, and only then would final judgment take place:

"But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished" (Revelation 20:5).

"And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog, and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them. And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever" (Revelation 20:7-10).

Such an interpretation does not square with what is stated clearly elsewhere in Scripture, that when Christ returns He will raise the dead and judge everyone:

"For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works" (Matthew 16:27)

"When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats" (Matthew 25:31-32).

"For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not precede them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).

"...when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power" (2 Thessalonians 1:7b-9).

See also 1 Corinthians 15.

It makes far more sense to understand the thousand years to be an indefinite time between the first and second comings of Christ. St. Andrew of Caesarea points out that often the number "one thousand" is used to refer to an indefinite number:

"By the number one thousand years by no means is it reasonable to understand so many years. For neither concerning such things of which David said, "the word which he commanded for a thousand generations" [Psalm 104[105]:8] are we able to count out these things as ten times one hundred; rather they are to mean many generations" (Andrew of Caesarea,trans. Eugenia Scarvelis Constantinou, Andrew of Caesarea, Commentary on the Apocalypse, (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2011) p. 206).

As for the releasing of Satan and the deception of the nations, this refers to the coming of the antichrist, and the last days before the second coming. The binding of Satan does not mean that he has no power at all during this period, but that he is restrained until just before the end of this age. This also aligns with what St. Paul said about the coming of the antichrist and the great falling away:

"Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way" (2 Thessalonians 2:3-7).

St. Andrew of Caesarea says that this binding is what Christ spoke about in which He said that to spoil the house of a strong man, the strong man must first be bound (Ibid, p. 205f, cf. Matthew 12:29; Mark 3:27; Luke 11:21-22). This statement, in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, is in the context of Christ speaking of the power by which He caste out demons.

Most Christians, including Protestants, claim to believe the Nicene Creed, and the Nicene Creed is unambiguous on this point, and its statement that Christ "Kingdom shall have no end" is taken straight from Scripture. Some early fathers, who did not have the benefit of the instruction of the Second Ecumenical Council, have some excuse for being mistaken on this point; but now we have no such excuse.

The problem with premillennialism is that it tended to feed into other heresies, such as Montanism, which believed that Montanus was the Holy Spirit incarnate, and which believed that the Kingdom of God was soon to come to be established in Phrygia. We have seen similar heresies with millenialist eschatology in more recent times, with the Jehovah's WitnessesSeventh Day AdventistsMormonism, the Jim Jones Cult, and Branch Davidians. Given the excesses this view has tended to produce, the Church felt it necessary to clearly define the matter.

For more information, see:

On the Thousand Year Reign (Chiliasm), by Elder Cleopa of Romania

The Inconsistency of Chiliasm , by Bishop Alexander (Mileant)

The Error of Chiliasm (from Orthodox Dogmatic Theology), by Fr. Michael Pomazansky

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Stump the Priest: Allegorical Interpretations of Scripture?

St. Paul

Question: "Why do the Orthodox use the allegorical method of Bible interpretation, when there is no evidence of it being used prior to the year 190 A.D.?"

The premise of the question is false, because we find allegorical biblical interpretations in the New Testament itself, and this had its roots in traditional Jewish methods of interpretation.

Philo of Alexandria (who live from approximately 25 B.C. to 50 A.D.), used allegorical interpretations of the Scripture extensively

The parables of Christ have an allegorical dimension, although Protestant scholars have generally resisted that conclusion. However, Christ Himself provided the interpretation of one parable in the Gospels -- the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-9) -- and the interpretation He gave was clearly an allegorical interpretation (Mark 4:10-20).

St. Paul's epistles contain allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament, most notably in Galatians 4:21-31, in which he explicitly states that the story of Hagar and Sarah and their respective sons Ishmael and Isaac was an "allegory":

"Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Hagar. For this Hagar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband. Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free."

Another example is found in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10:

"For it is written in the law of Moses, thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope."

Many more examples could be cited of typological interpretations of  the Old Testament, found in the New.

Protestants generally wish to reject the allegorical method, but when faced with clear examples of the Apostles engaging in that very method, their response is usually to say: "Well, the Apostles were inspired to do it, but no one else is." But this is clearly an arbitrary opinion that has no basis in Scripture or Tradition.

The allegorical sense of Scripture does not negate the literal sense -- it is another level of meaning in the text. Traditionally, there are four senses of Scripture:

1. Literal: This refers to the obvious meaning of the text. In some cases, the text is clearly not intended to be taken literally, but even poetic texts have an obvious meaning.

2. Typological/Allegorical: A type is a stamp which imprints an image. An antitype is that which is imaged by the type.  We find the word "type" explicitly used in Romans 5:12-14:

"Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned— (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come."

And we find the word "antitype" used explicitly in 1 Peter 3:18-22:

"For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him."

A story could be composed as an allegory, such as the Parable of the Sower (the Pilgrim’s Progress being a more extended example), but an historical narrative can also be interpreted allegorically, as St. Paul did.

3. Moral: The moral sense is the practical application of Scripture on an individual or corporate level. To see this reading of Scripture in action, you can read through the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete that is prayed during Lent in the Orthodox Church.  

4. Anagogical/Heavenly/Eschatological: "Anagog" comes from Greek meaning “to go up.”  So this sense looks at how a passage points us to the fulfillment of all things.  

Interestingly, Rabbinic Jewish interpretation of Scripture also sees Scripture as having a Four-fold sense, which has many similarities.

Protestants have reacted negatively to the allegorical method because it was used to such great excess in the west, especially during the medieval period. However, if you read the commentaries of the great Fathers of the Church, you find it used in a way that is far more balanced.

Clearly, if the Apostles could interpret the Old Testament in allegorical and typological terms, no one who claims to be a Christian should object to the Church Fathers doing likewise.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Stump the Priest: Shrimp and Homosexuality

Question: "The Bible says that homosexuality is an abomination (Leviticus 18:22), but it also says that eating shrimp is an abomination (Leviticus 11:9-12), so why do Christians eat shrimp, but oppose homosexuality?"

As these texts are translated by the King James Version, and in several other translations, you do find the same word ("abomination") is used, but in the Hebrew text you find two different words:

Leviticus 18:22 reads: "Thou shalt not lie with a man, as with a woman: it is abomination [tô‛êbah]."

Leviticus 11:9-12 reads: "These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat. And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination [sheqets] unto you: they shall be even an abomination [sheqets] unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcasses in abomination [shâqats (verbal form of sheqets)]. Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination [sheqets] unto you."

These two words, while they have some overlap in terms of their range of meaning, do not have the same range of meaning. The NRSV translates "sheqets" as "detestable," which at least alerts the reader to the fact that the words are not identical. According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, the word "sheqets" is used "mostly in reference to unclean and forbidden foods... Relegating certain animals to the category of "unclean" and "abominable" may in a number of instances involve considerations of health. Yet the main consideration here must be that, whatever the reason, or however much or little it was understandable to the Israelites, certain foods were forbidden and regarded as detested. This was to be accepted on the simple basis of trust in, and obedience to God" (Vol. II, ed. R. Laird Harris, et al. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), p. 955).

While "tô‛êbah" can refer to that which is ritually offensive, it also includes matters that are morally repugnant, such as homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22), human sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:31), ritual prostitution (1 Kings 14:23f), etc. "Whereas tô‛êbah includes that which is aesthetically and morally repulsive, its synonym sheqets denotes that which is cultically [i,e, ritually] unclean..." (Ibid., p. 977).

Even when one uses the very same word, this does not necessarily mean that they carry the same weight. I can say that I love Blue Bell Ice Cream, and I can say that I love my wife, but while I would die for my wife, I will generally only buy Blue Bell when it is on sale. Though the same word is used, it is used in two very different senses.

In the case of eating shrimp vs. homosexual sex, you can tell a lot about the degree to which these things were regarded as sinful by the punishments meted out to those who violated them. In the case of eating shrimp, there was no specified punishment at all. The person who ate shrimp would have certainly been considered unclean for some period of time, pending ritual purification. According to Jewish tradition, they might also have been subject to corporal punishment. The punishment for engaging in homosexual sex was death (Leviticus 20:13).

We can also tell that these things are viewed very differently by the fact that only Israelites were expected to abstain from non-kosher food. On the other hand, the passage that the ban against homosexual sex is listed (in Leviticus 18) is in the context of a list of sexual sins for which God judges even the gentiles. This is stated before this list, and repeated again at the end of it:

"And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, I am the Lord your God. After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances. Ye shall do my judgments, and keep mine ordinances, to walk therein: I am the Lord your God. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 18:1-5).

"Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: and the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations [tô‛êbah]; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you: (For all these abominations [tô‛êbah] have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled;) That the land spew not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spewed out the nations that were before you. For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations [tô‛êbah], even the souls that commit them shall be cut off from among their people. Therefore shall ye keep mine ordinance, that ye commit not any one of these abominable [tô‛êbah] customs, which were committed before you, and that ye defile not yourselves therein: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 18:24-30).

There was no mention that non-kosher foods were forbidden before the Law of Moses. For example, God said to Noah: "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things" (Genesis 9:3). And when Gentiles began entering the Church, the Apostles declared that the Gentiles were not bound by the kosher laws of the Mosaic Law:

"For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well" (Acts 15:28-29).

And it should be noted that the word translated as "fornication" is the Greek word "porneia," which includes any kind of sexual immorality, including those listed in Leviticus 18.

The pro-homosexual argument regarding these passages also completely ignores the vision given to St. Peter which specifically ended the requirement for Christians to abstain from non-kosher food (Acts 10:9-16), and that there are several other New Testament passages that condemn homosexuality. So the argument that Christians are hypocritical in their appeal to the ban on homosexual sex in in Leviticus 18:22, which still eat shrimp, lobster, clams, and crawfish is completely consistent with testimony of Scripture.

Somethings are inherently sinful, and somethings are sinful in specific contexts. For example, it is sinful for an Orthodox Christian to disregard the fasts for no compelling reason, and to eat a hamburger on a fast day, but there is nothing inherently sinful about hamburgers. Likewise, for Israelites, not eating certain kinds of foods had a symbolic meaning, and was a matter of obedience, but there was nothing inherently sinful about eating shrimp. However, it is inherently sinful for a man to have sex with another man, and the Bible is completely unambiguous about this.

A Recent Example:

A recent example of pro-homosexuals trying to argue against taking seriously Leviticus 18:22 by appealing to the biblical illiteracy of the average American is the following clip from the TV show "West Wing", which "Occupy Democrats" have been circulating via social media recently, which even resulted in CNN's Don Lemon playing portions of it:

(the pertinent part of this clip begins at about 1:18)

This line of argument is really not just against the Church's position on homosexuality. It is also an argument against taking the Bible seriously at all. No one who considers himself a Christian should have any sympathy for such arguments. But we should know how to respond to them, and so let's look at the passages referenced in this video:

Exodus 21:7-11: This passage provides some special protections for female slaves, because they obviously were in a more vulnerable position. For more on this question, see "Stump the Priest: What about Slavery in the Bible?", but suffice it to say here that this passage does not command that anyone own slaves, nor that anyone sell their children into slavery -- it puts limits on how slaves could be treated. This was quite in contrast with Roman law, for example, in which a master could do whatever he wished to a slave, up to and including killing them, for any reason.

Slavery is no where in the Bible presented as a good thing. A Christian can certainly not own slaves and oppose most forms of slavery without violating any tenet of Scripture or Church Tradition (we still allow for involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime, and in the form of the military draft). And so the comparison of this issue to the question of whether or not homosexual sex is a sin is a red herring.

Exodus 35:2: This passage calls for the death penalty for those who break the Sabbath. The Church still believes that the Ten Commandments, including the commandment to remember the Sabbath day, apply to Christians, but we consider the Lord's day (Sunday) to have taken the place of the old Sabbath as the primary day of Christian rest and worship, though we also continue to observe Saturday the day of creation. The Church does not call for the death penalty for violating this, nor does it call for it in the case of homosexuality. For more on this, you can listen to the sermon: The 4th Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

The Old Covenant was given to people who were at a very low level of spiritual understanding. The harsh penalties that are often found in the Old Testament law were due to this. St. John Chrysostom, commenting on the law which condemned Sabbath breakers to death, said that it was "Because if the laws were to be despised even at the beginning, of course they would scarcely be observed afterwards" (Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew 39:3). But while the harsh and immediate penalties for the violation of the law are relaxed in the New Testament, the strictness of the laws themselves are not only not relaxed, but are rather enhanced. Just as you spank younger children, but expect less of them, and expect more of older children, without spanking them, the Old Testament dealt with the Israelites where they were, but brought them gradually to a higher level of spiritual understanding.

Then Martin Sheen's character simply begins to make stuff up. He speaks of the Bible calling for stoning someone who plants different seeds together, and burning to death someone who mixes different kinds of fabrics. While Leviticus 19:19 does say: "Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle breed with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee", you will note that it says nothing about anyone being stoned or burned alive for failure to observe these customs. This shows the complete dishonesty of those who make such arguments. These customs were part of the ceremonial law of Moses (which still has symbolic value, but which no longer directly applies in the New Testament), not the moral law of God -- which was in effect before the law of Moses, and remains in full force and effect today. See: The Continuing Validity of the Moral Law of the Old Testament.

For more information on the Levitical Law and homosexuality , see:

"Dan Savage Savages the Bible, Christianity, and the Pope," by Dr. Michael Brown

As well as the following video from Dr. Robert Gagnon:

Robert Gagnon: The Bible and Homosexual Practice (7 Video Lectures)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Stump the Priest: The Atonement

Question: "Do the Orthodox believe in the Atonement?"

The concept of atonement is found throughout Scripture, and so of course we Orthodox do believe in it. There was in fact a feast in the Old Testament called " The Day of Atonement," which in Hebrew is called Yom Kippur. This was the only fast day specifically called for in the Law of Moses, and was "a most holy sabbath [Shabbat Shabbaton]" (Leviticus 16:31). This is the fast that was alluded to in Acts 27:9, which states that "sailing was now dangerous, because the fast was now already past..."

The English word "atonement" was coined by William Tyndale, and means "to make one" or literally "at one-ment" (taking the two words "at" and "one" and adding the suffix "-ment." This well translated the meaning of the Hebrew word "Kippur,"  which means "reconciliation" -- specifically reconciling sinful men with a Holy God.

Another term which William Tyndale brought into English is "Mercy Seat". William Tyndale based his translation on Luther's translation into German: "Gnadenstuhl," which literally means the seat of grace or mercy. However, there is nothing in the Hebrew term, Kapporet, which suggests "mercy" or "seat." "Kapporet" is a form of the word "Kippur", and literally means "the place of reconciliation". This was the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, and the Mercy Seat was the place upon which the blood of the sacrifice on the day of Atonement was sprinkled, and by which reconciliation between God and men was brought about. The Greek translation for Mercy Seat was "ἱλαστήριον, hilasterion." And we find this word used in Romans 3:24-25: "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God." Interestingly we find in that text the word "redemption", which could be translated as "ransom", and the Hebrew word for "ransom" (Koper) is from the same root word as Kippur -- a word used in reference to the Old Testament sacrifices, and which clearly has the connotation of "payment."

Church Tradition directly connects the Cross wih the Ark of the Covenant, because the Ark and the Mercy Seat was the place of atonement, and the Ark is referred to as "the place where His feet have stood" (Psalm 131:7 lxx) and the Cross is the place were Christ's feet stood, when he made atonement for our sins (see Christopher Veniamin, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p. 86).

There are many contemporary Orthodox writers who wish to deny or downplay a number of concepts that relate to our redemption. They will argue we don't believe Christ had to die in our place, or that His blood needed to be shed to pay the penalty for our sins. They will deny the legitimacy of legal terms, in favor of the idea that the Church is a spiritual hospital. The problem is not that the Church is not a spiritual hospital, but rather that in emphasizing one set of images used to explain our salvation, they deny a whole set of equally valid images that are clearly Biblical. It is true that in the west there was an over emphasis on legal imagery, but the solution to such an imbalance is not a new imbalance in the opposite direction. We can and should speak of sin as an illness, but when we die, we do not go before the final medical exam -- we face the final judgment, which is a legal image if ever there was one. And so we can also speak of sin as a transgression of the Law of God, and of our need to be justified by God, even as we speak of sin in terms of an illness that we need to be healed of.

We reject the idea that Christ's death was a ransom paid to the devil, but that it was a ransom in some sense is confirmed by the Lord Himself, and elsewhere in Scripture (Matthew 20:28Mark 10:451 Timothy 2:6). So we simply have to understand that verbal images point to a reality, but are not the reality itself, and we get a better idea of that reality by considering all the Biblical images that point to it -- not by focusing on one or two to the exclusion of the rest, and certainly not by pressing those images beyond the point that they are intended to make.

St. Gregory Palamas, in his Sixteenth Homily (delivered on Holy Saturday: "About the Dispensation According to the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Gifts of Grace Granted to Those Who Truly Believe in Him"), speaks quite a bit about the need for Christ to die in our place. The entire homily is well worth reading, but here are some excerpts:

"Man was led into his captivity when he experienced God's wrath, this wrath being the good God's just abandonment of man. God had to be reconciled with the human race, for otherwise mankind could not be set free from the servitude. A sacrifice was needed to reconcile the Father on high with us and to sanctify us, since we had been soiled by fellowship with the evil one. There had to be a sacrifice which both cleansed and was clean, and a purified and sinless priest" (Christopher Veniamin, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p. 124).

"Christ overturned the devil through suffering and His flesh which He offered as a sacrifice to God the Father, as a pure and altogether holy victim -- how great is His gift! -- and reconciled God to our human race" (p.125).

"For this reason the lord patiently endured for our sake a death He was not obliged to undergo, to redeem us, who were obliged to suffer death, from servitude to the devil and death, by which I mean death both of the soul and of the body, temporary and eternal. Since He gave His blood, which was sinless and therefore guiltless, as a ransom for us who were liable to punishment because of our sins, He redeemed us from our guilt. He forgave us our sins, tore up the record of them on the Cross and delivered us from the Devil's tyranny (cf. Col 2:14-15)"( p. 128f)."

As is often the case, the proper Orthodox perspective on this question is one of balance. We should proclaim the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), and not just the parts that we find most appealing. Nor should we overreact to the imbalances of heterodox theologians, and thus fall into a new error, by rejecting important aspects of our Tradition.

See also:

Worship at the Footstool of His Feet (Homily on Psalm 98)

Stump the Priest: The Veneration of the Cross