Friday, August 29, 2014

Stump the Priest: Why a Catechumenate?


Question: "Why does the Orthodox Church require adults who are preparing for baptism to become catechumens, and to wait before they are allowed to be baptized. This requirement does not fit the pattern of conversions in Acts. On the day of Pentecost, about the 3000 that were baptized the same day Peter preached to them (Acts 2:37-42). The Samaritans who Philip preached to were baptized when they believed (Acts 8:12). The Ethiopian eunuch was baptized the same day (Acts 8:26-39). Cornelius, a gentile, was baptized the same day after he met Peter (Acts 10:44-48). The Philippian jailer who was baptized within a few hours of believing (Acts 16:31-34). Why was there a change in practice?"

Most of the people mentioned above were people who had a a prior knowledge of Judaism. For a Jew, or a Gentile God-fearer, becoming a Christian was not entering into completely foreign territory. The only exception is the Philippian jailer, whose conversion was a rather dramatic one. However, when you have people with pagan backgrounds who became interested in Christianity, but who had no background to immediately understand it, it makes sense that the Church would normally want there to be a period of time in which such people would be instructed in the Faith prior to being admitted to the sacraments. Consider the fact that St. Paul taught that if someone partakes of the Eucharist unworthily, eats and drinks damnation to themselves (1 Corinthians 11:27-29) -- wouldn't the Church want to give a convert from paganism some time in order to come to understand what the Eucharist means, before putting them into a position in which they likely might unworthily partake of it?

As time went on the experience of the Church also confirmed the need for converts from paganism to be well instructed before being baptized, because when persecutions arose, so many of them fell away, because they were not sufficiently grounded in the Faith.

Christ gave the Apostles the power to bind and to loose (Matthew 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23), and the Church teaches that this power was passed down through their successors, the bishops. And so even during the time of the Apostles, the Church has made decision and established standards that "seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us" (Acts 15:28). In fact, the same Church that decided which books belonged in the Bible, also decided that the catechumenate was a good idea when receiving adults converts. The length of time someone should remain a catechumen depends on their background, and also on how diligent they are in studying the Faith.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Review: Psalm 118: Commentary, by St. Theophan the Recluse


Psalm 118: Commentary, by St. Theophan the Recluse; trans. Archpriest Gleb Wleskov; edited by Seraphim Englehardt.

Psalm 118 (119 in Protestant Bibles) is the longest chapter of the Bible, and is a unique psalm in many respects. It is an acrostic psalm (it has 22 sections, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and each section consists of 8 verses); and every verse uses one of about a dozen synonyms for God's law (testimonies, commandments, precepts, word, ways, truth, judgments, statutes, etc).

In his introduction, St. Theophan notes that St. Augustine was for a long time unable to write a commentary on this psalm: ""How often," said he, "was I asked to give its interpretation, but when I was ready to begin, I backed off, realizing that it was above my strength. For the simpler this psalm would seem to be, the deeper it actually turns out to be, and I am unable to say how profound it is. Other psalms have dark spots; this one is so clear that all one has to do is read or listen; there is nothing to interpret. And yet, getting ready to comment on it, I cannot say I will be able to do anything even now." St. Ambrose also wrote: "Other psalms contain moral issues, but they are like stars spread out in the sky; this one is like the sun, abundantly pouring forth its light at high noon."

Given that the Church has appointed this psalm to be read every day of the week (Monday through Friday) at the Midnight Office, on every Saturday at Matins, often also on the Sunday Matins, and at Funerals, the Church clearly wants us to spend time studying and meditating on this Psalm.

St. John of Shanghai, commenting on the importance of the Psalms especially drew attention to the importance of this psalm:

"Perhaps it will happen that you will die without having once in your life read in full the Psalter of David... You will die, and only then will good people read over your lifeless body this holy Psalter, which you had no time even, to open while you lived on earth! Only then, at your burial, will they sing over you the wondrously instructive, sweetly-wise-but alas, to you completely unknown-words of David: Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord... Blessed are they who search His testimonies. who keep His revelations, and seek Him with their whole heart. Do you hear: Blessed are they who search His testimonies, seek out the revelations of the Lord; and you had no time even to think of them! What will your poor soul feel then, your soul to which every word of the Psalmist, repeated by a reader or singer over your coffin, will sound as a strict reproach that you never read this sacred book?... Open now, before it is too late, this wondrous book of the Prophet King. Open it and read with attention at least this 118th Psalm, and you will involuntarily feel that your heart becomes humble, soft, that in the words of David are the words of the merit of God, and you will repeat involuntarily, many times, with sighing of heart, the verse of this Psalm: I have gone astray like a sheep that is lost; seek out Thy slave, Lord!" (from his weekly diocesan bulletin (Shanghai, November 24, 1941, no. 503).

St. Theophan's commentary on this psalm is a very comprehensive (this book is 351 pages), and weaves the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church together in a masterful, and spiritually edifying way. Each verse (there are 176 verses to this psalm) is commented on in depth. The translation has been in the works for many years, and is well done. It is also nicely bound. This text is not only a great reference work, but would be suitable as daily devotional reading. The price is a bit on the high end ($40.00), but it is well worth it.

You can order a copy by clicking here.


.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Stump the Priest: Triple Immersion


Question: "I am not opposed to triune immersion, but I do want to question the idea that triune immersion is the ONLY way. Why isn't there a single mention of triune immersion in the New Testament? Other than the Didache, I see no explicit support for triune immersion from the writings from the first and second century. Tertullian speaks of thrice immersions as being "an ampler pledge" than what is found in Scripture. Ampler means greater. Therefore, he is saying that triune immersion is somewhat greater than what Jesus described in Matthew 28, and therefore something beyond what Christ commanded."

There is no explicit mention in the New Testament of either single or triple immersion, and so we have to look beyond the New Testament for answers here. You say "other than the Didache", as if the fact that the Didache does mention this is a small matter. The Didache is the earliest Christian writing that is not part of the New Testament, and was highly regarded in the early Church, as can be seen by its mention in St. Athanasius' famous Paschal Epistle of 367, in which he provides the earliest complete list of the New Testament canon, as the Church has received it. Most of the writings that we have from the second century are Apologetic writings, directed towards those outside of the Church. The internal teachings of the Church were still intentional left unwritten, until the time that the persecutions in the Roman Empire ceased.

The comment that you mention from Tertullian dates from about 204 a.d., and is found in his treatise "De Corona", chapter 3:

"And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down?  Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded. Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom, affords us any precedent.  To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with baptism. When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel."

First, it should be noted that Tertullian was not writing to convince anyone that Christians should be baptized by a triple immersion -- he is arguing another point, based on Church Tradition, and cites this as an example of Church Tradition that is not found explicitly in Scripture, but which no one disputed.

Furthermore, when he speaks of the person "making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel," he is not referring to the triple immersion... because that is not a "pledge." A "pledge" is a solemn promise, and Tertullian simply notes that there are a number of promises made at baptism that you will not find explicitly required of a person being baptized in Gospels.

St. Basil the Great makes an almost identical argument in his treatise on the Holy Spirit, in which he argues that the Holy Spirit is a Person, and cites the doxology "Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen." in support of that argument. He counters the objection that the doxology, though an ancient part of the universal liturgical tradition of the Church, is not found in Scripture by saying:

"Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us "in a mystery" by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay; — no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice [i.e., by triple immersion]? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? Well had they learnt the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed: to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents. What was the meaning of the mighty Moses in not making all the parts of the tabernacle open to every one? The profane he stationed without the sacred barriers; the first courts he conceded to the purer; the Levites alone he judged worthy of being servants of the Deity; sacrifices and burnt offerings and the rest of the priestly functions he allotted to the priests; one chosen out of all he admitted to the shrine, and even this one not always but on only one day in the year, and of this one day a time was fixed for his entry so that he might gaze on the Holy of Holies amazed at the strangeness and novelty of the sight" (Treatise on the Holy Spirit, 66).

Again, St. Basil is not trying to convince anyone that Christians should be baptized by a triple immersion -- he is appealing to the fact that everyone accepts this unwritten tradition to argue for authority of another unwritten tradition: the doxology. And one has to ask, how did this universally accepted Christian Tradition come to be universally accepted, if it did not come from the Apostles themselves? However, the bottom line here is the question of the authority of the Church. If you accept that the Orthodox Church is what it claims to be -- the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church established by Christ, then questions like this are easily answered.

I would suggest you read my essay "Sola Scriptura: In the Vanity of Their Minds," and St. Cyprian of Carthage's treatise "On the Unity of the Church."


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Silent Holocaust: The Persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and What We Can Do About It


More details will be forthcoming, but on September 5th, 2014, at 7 pm, the Orthodox Clergy Association of Houston and Southeast Texas will have a meeting at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, in Houston to discuss the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. We are inviting all the members of the Orthodox, Coptic and Syriac Christian communities in the area to participate. We are also asking all the members of the congressional delegation of the Houston area to come. We will have speakers who will talking about what is going on, we will have questions and answers, and we will be talking about what we can do about it. Contact your congressman and ask them to come and participate... and if you don't know who your congressman is, or if you know, but don't know how to get in touch with them, see this web site: http://www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us/Home.aspx

We also need volunteers to help contact members of the media. If you are interested, please e-mail Fr. John Whiteford.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Stump the Priest: Near Death Experiences

Fr. Seraphim (Rose)

Question: "How does the Orthodox Church regard Shared Near Death Experiences? This is where people have a vision similar to the person dying of the white light of love and tunnels and such but return to their body. If these are found to be actual experiences how will this affect our understanding of the afterlife if at all?"

Fr. Seraphim (Rose) dealt with this question extensively in his book "The Soul After Death."

You can also read about this in several articles on Orthodoxinfo.com.

In short, these experiences do not change how we understand death, but the Tradition of the Church does shed light on how we should understand these experiences. People often misinterpret these experiences, but they are evidence that there is life beyond death.

Fr. Seraphim also cites many examples of people who report experiences of torment in their near death experiences. Those reports do not get a lot of attention, because people prefer the warm fuzzy experiences, but they are not uncommon.

So the short answer is that we should not take these experiences on face value, but compare them with the experiences of the Church, and understand them in the light of Scripture and Tradition.



Saturday, August 09, 2014

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Stump the Priest: Saved in Childbearing?


Question: "What does 1st Timothy 2:15 mean when it says that a woman shall be "saved" in child bearing? How do the Orthodox interpret that passage?"

One important thing to keep in mind here is that the word translated as "saved" has a broader meaning that is often assumed in our culture, which has been heavily influenced by Protestant thinking. It can mean "help", "deliver", "heal", etc.

As is often the case, St. John Chrysostom provides the best answer to the question:

“The woman,” he says, “being deceived was in the transgression.” What woman? Eve. Shall she then be saved by child-bearing? He does not say that, but, the race of women shall be saved. Was not it then involved in transgression? Yes, it was, still Eve transgressed, but the whole sex shall be saved, notwithstanding, “by childbearing.” And why not by their own personal virtue? For has she excluded others from this salvation? And what will be the case with virgins, with the barren, with widows who have lost their husbands, before they had children? will they perish? is there no hope for them? yet virgins are held in the highest estimation. What then does he mean to say? Some interpret his meaning thus. As what happened to the first woman occasioned the subjection of the whole sex, (for since Eve was formed second and made subject, he says, let the rest of the sex be in subjection,) so because she transgressed, the rest of the sex are also in transgression. But this is not fair reasoning; for at the creation all was the gift of God, but in this case, it is the consequence of the woman’s sin. But this is the amount of what he says. As all men died through one, because that one sinned, so the whole female race transgressed, because the woman was in the transgression. Let her not however grieve. God hath given her no small consolation, that of childbearing. And if it be said that this is of nature, so is that also of nature; for not only that which is of nature has been granted, but also the bringing up of children. “If they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety”; that is, if after childbearing, they keep them in charity and purity. By these means they will have no small reward on their account, because they have trained up wrestlers for the service of Christ. By holiness he means good life, modesty, and sobriety" (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 9 on 1 Timothy).

So the reproach against the female sex that was due to Eve's deception is undone by child bearing and the bringing up of children. St. John notes that not all women have children, and so it is not that individual women are saved only if and when they give birth, but the female sex as a whole is delivered from the reproach of Eve through child birth. This is especially true of the Virgin Mary, whose obedience has undone the disobedience of Eve.