Saturday, February 28, 2015

Stump the Priest: Is Lent Biblical?

Question: "This article was sent to me as "proof" that Lent is contrary to the scriptures: How do we respond?"

The author of this article has to concede that fasting is itself legitimate, because Christ Himself fasted, said that fasting was necessary, and said that his disciples would fast. But in order to find some fault with the idea of regular corporate fasting he cites a number of passages of Scripture that have nothing at all to do with fasting.

One such passage cited is 1 Timothy 4:1-5:

"Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer."

This passage is not talking about fasting or abstaining from some good things for a period of time devoted to prayer. St. Paul himself speaks of married couples abstaining from sex by mutual consent so that they can devote themselves to prayer and fasting (1 Corinthians 7:5). St. John Chrysostom says of this passage: "This is said of the Manichæans, the Encratites,and the Marcionites, and the whole of their tribe, that they should hereafter depart from the faith. Seest thou that this departure from the faith is the cause of all the evils that follow!" (Homily 12 on 1 Timothy).

Another passage cited is Galatians 4:9-11:

"But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain."

In the context of this epistle, St. Paul is noting here that in addition to observing circumcision, the Galatians were also observing the Jewish calendar, with the Old Testament laws associated with it. He was not suggesting that Christians could not observe the Lord's Day (Sunday), or any feast days, because it is clear that the Christians -- including St. Paul himself -- did observe these days, from the New Testament itself:

"For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hasted, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost" (Acts 20:16).

"And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight" (Acts 20:7).

"Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come" (1 Corinthians 16:2)

"I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet" (Revelation 1:10).

Then the author quotes from Colossians 2:16-23, and in this instance uses a highly questionable translation that gives the appearance of condemning asceticism:

"Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh."

This is from  the English Standard Version, which is usually not the worst translation one might use, but in this case, it is way off the mark. The English word "asceticism" comes from the Greek word "askesis", and since the original text of Colossians is Greek, you would expect to find some form of that word there, if this was a fair translation, but you find nothing of the sort. The word in question is "ταπεινοφροσυνη" which means "lowliness of mind" or "humility." Blessed Theodoret tell us that what St. Paul is referring to here is to a sect that taught, out of a false humility, that God was beyond their reach, and could only be reached through the mediation of the Angels -- and he mentioned that there were still remnants of that sect up to his own time (Blessed Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, Vol. 2, trans. Robert Charles Hill, (Brookline, Ma: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2001), p. 95). There is thus nothing in this passage that condemns Christian asceticism. Christian fasting is not about saying that any food is evil, but about limiting how much we eat, how often we eat, and what we eat for periods of time that are devoted especially to prayer, which is completely consistent with the teachings of St. Paul. Canon 51 of the Holy Apostles says: "If any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon, or anyone at all on the sacerdotal list, abstains from marriage, or meat, or wine, not as a matter of mortification, but out of an abhorrence thereof, forgetting that all things are exceedingly good, and that God made man male and female, and blasphemously misrepresenting God’s work of creation, either let him mend his ways or let him be deposed from office and expelled from the Church. Let a layman be treated similarly." It is unusual for a canon to call not only for a clergyman to be deposed, or a layman to be excommunicated, but also for them to be expelled from the Church, but we see it in this canon, because the Church so strongly rejects such erroneous and divisive teachings.

The author suggests that only in the "medieval period" did the practice of fasting for 40 days take shape. However, in the canons of the First Ecumenical Council, the practice of fasting for 40 days is already mentioned in passing in Canon 5: "As for these synods, let one of them be held before Lent, in order that, with the elimination of all small-mindedness, the gift may be offered to God in all its purity; and let the second one be held sometime in autumn." The original Greek word for "Lent" in this canon is "Τεσσαρακοστή", which means "forty days", and is the equivalent of the Latin "Quadragesima". Clearly, for a reference of this sort to be made at the First Ecumenical Council, the practice of fasting for forty days was already fairly universal, and unobjectionable -- how those forty days were calculated varied, but not the basic idea.

Some scholars believe that there was a forty day fast that originally followed Theophany (or Epiphany), which is the commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord, in imitation of Christ's forty day fast in the wilderness which immediately followed that event. They suggest that eventually, this fast shifted to immediately precede the shorter fast of Holy Week (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1969), p 135ff). In fact, in the Orthodox Church we do not count Holy Week (Lazarus Saturday through Holy Saturday) as part of the forty days of Lent, but as a distinct period of fasting. Which is why the first hymn at Vespers for Lazarus Saturday says:

"Having completed the forty days that bring profit to our souls, we beseech Thee in Thy love for man: Grant us also to behold the Holy Week of Thy passion, that in it we may glorify Thy mighty acts and Thine ineffable dispensation for our sakes, singing with one mind: O Lord, glory to Thee."

In the Roman Catholic Church, Holy Week is included in the forty days of Lent, but the Sundays of Lent were excluded because on those days, they did not fast, and so this is why they begin Lent on Ash Wednesday, and the Orthodox begin Lent two days earlier, on Clean Monday. We simply do not have enough documentation to determine exactly how and when the observance of Lent took shape, but aside from minor differences, it was observed by all Christians prior to the Protestant Reformation. But in any case, the objection raised by the author really has little to do with the length of time of the fast. His real issue with the idea of corporate fasting per se. However, the practice of there being some corporate fast prior to Pascha was clearly very early, and universal.

In the Gospels, Christ did not say that his disciples might fast if they wanted to. He said that they would fast:

"Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly" (Matthew 6:16-18).

"Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast" (Matthew 9:14-15).

Only in our individualistic culture would you find people arguing that fasting should only be done according to the whim of the individual, and alone, rather than corporately. In the Old Testament, there were specific times of fasting appointed (Leviticus 16:29-34Zechariah 8:19), and there were fast that were proclaimed for a specific need or purpose (2 Chronicles 20:3Ezra 8:21). In the Didache, which is the earliest Christian writing outside of the New Testament, we find reference to the apostolic practice of fasting on Wednesday and Friday (Didache 8:1-2). Even Protestants would often fast corporately -- for example, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of prayer and fasting on March 30, 1863. However, in more recent times, the reality in most Protestant circles is that fasting is almost unheard of in actual practice, and this is because it is left up to individual whim -- and individual whim usually is not inclined to fast. So given that Christ said his disciples would fast, and given that few Protestants actually do fast, who are the ones actually not following what the Scriptures teach on the subject?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Stump the Priest: Celibacy

Question: "The Hebrew Bible nowhere thought celibacy praiseworthy (St. Paul was an exception). So why does Orthodoxy teach that monastic celibacy is the greatest ideal and superior to marriage?"

The assumption of this question seems to be that if St. Paul was the only one in Scripture that suggested that a life of celibacy was praiseworthy, that this would be insufficient to establish that this was so. That is a dangerous approach to take, and is rooted in an insufficient understanding of the inspiration of Scripture.

Aside from that, it is not true that St. Paul is the only one that advises that a life of celibacy is praiseworthy. In Matthew 19, after Christ talks about divorce, and the high standards that Christians are held to with regard to marital fidelity, the apostles responded by saying: "If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry" (Matthew 19:10). And Christ did not answer by saying, that this statement was incorrect. Instead he says: "All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (Matthew 19:11-12).

So obviously, if Christ says that those who can accept it, should accept it, it must be a good thing, and since Christ Himself lived as a celibate, that is further proof that this is a praiseworthy life.

This is of course not to say that those who are married are to be condemned. Canon 51 of the Apostles says:

"If any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon, or anyone at all on the sacerdotal list, abstains from marriage, or meat, or wine, not as a matter of mortification, but out of an abhorrence thereof, forgetting that all things are exceedingly good, and that God made man male and female, and blasphemously misrepresenting God’s work of creation, either let him mend his ways or let him be deposed from office and expelled from the Church. Let a layman be treated similarly."

So if you are celibate out of asceticism, that is good. If you are celibate because you despise marriage, you are not only to be deposed or excommunicated, but expelled from the Church... which is one of the most strongly worded canons to be found among the Ecumenical Canons.

So marriage is good. Celibacy for the right reason is a higher good (1 Corinthians 7:32-24). Neither is evil in and of itself, but despising marriage is evil, and despising celibacy is also evil.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Stump the Priest: Essence and Energies of God

Question: "To be Orthodox, must a person hold to the distinction in God between essence and energies?"

Let me first ask a slightly different question: to be Orthodox, must a person understand the distinction between God's essence and energies? The answer to that question is "no". Salvation is not a pop-quiz in theology. There are many Orthodox faithful who are not capable of understanding theology on an intellectual level (very young children, those with mental handicaps, etc.). But an Orthodox Christian certainly must not reject this distinction. This distinction was an important part of St. Gregory Palamas' defense of hesychasm, and his defense of hesychasm is celebrated as a second triumph of Orthodoxy on the second Sunday of Lent... and so the Church has clearly embraced St. Gregory's understanding of this question. Orthodox Christians are not free to have their own opinions on matters that the Church has a clear and universal teaching on. And certainly, every Orthodox Christian should try to understand as much of the teachings and Traditions of the Church as they possibly can.

For more on what the Church teaches on this question, see:

Vladimir Lossky on the Essence and Energies of God

Theosis and Orthodoxy

GOD: Essence and Energies (from the Illumined Heart Podcast) (It is a good idea to take the suggestion at the beginning of this podcast, and listen to this several times).

Monday, February 02, 2015

Response to "Orthodox Fundamentalism" by George Demacopoulos

Dr. George Demacopoulos of Fordham University recently posted an article entitled "Orthodox Fundamentalism," on the Greek Archdiocese's website. There are a number of problems with it that I think need to be pointed out.

To begin with, he doesn't really explain what he means by the term "Fundamentalist". The term, as it was originally coined, referred to those conservative Protestants that, in response to modernist tendencies, especially in mainline Protestant denominations, posited that there were five fundamental (one might even say "minimal") beliefs that Christians had to adhere to:

1. The inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture
2. The deity of Jesus Christ
3. The virgin birth of Christ
4. The substitutionary, atoning work of Christ on the cross
5. The physical resurrection and the personal bodily return of Christ to the earth

The term "Fundamentalist" was later (beginning in 1979, around the time of the Iran hostage crisis) applied to radical Moslems, and then later to just about any conservative expression of any religion. I don't think this broadening of the meaning of the term was an accidental move. It was an attempt to associate conservative Christians, like Jerry Falwell and his group "The Moral Majority" with the likes of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden, and this was done for domestic political purposes. The term has thus really ceased to have much meaning, aside from those who wish to use it as a synonym for "stupid," and that seems to be the primary level of meaning with which Dr. Demacopoulos is using the term.

Dr. Demacopoulos makes a loose connection with the original meaning of the term when he says: "Like other fundamentalist movements, Orthodox fundamentalism reduces all theological teaching to a subset of theological axioms and then measures the worthiness of others according to them." The only problem with this statement is that he provides no examples, and the statement is simply not true. If we take, for example, the Greek Old Calendarists, which would be among the most likely candidates to fall into the category that Dr. Demacopoulos is speaking of, you could say that the Calendar issue is used by them as a litmus test issue, but it is hardly the case that they would argue that one needed to only be on the Old Calendar to satisfy their definition of fidelity to Orthodoxy. In fact, the fault the Greek Old Calendarists have, is not that they have a minimalist understanding of Orthodoxy, but that they are maximalists who take some issues which should not be matters over which one should be willing to break communion over, too far. Even among the Old Calendarists themselves they have further divided over many issues. So in fact, their tendency is exactly the opposite of Protestant Fundamentalists, who really were focusing on the minimum one had to believe. And it is actually the Orthodox modernists who typically try to reduce the "essentials" of the Orthodox Faith to the lowest common denominator, and so they are far closer to being fundamentalists in the original sense of the term.

Dr. Demacopoulos then asserts: "The key intellectual error in Orthodox fundamentalism lies in the presupposition that the Church Fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters." This lazy straw man caricature is not what one would expect of professor of theology at a respected university. If that is the key intellectual error, I would like to find one example of a person who actually fits that description. I doubt that even the slug-nuttiest Old Calendarist that one might find would argue that "the Church Fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters."

We are then told that "Typically, this manifests itself in accusations that individuals, institutions, or entire branches of the Orthodox Church fail to meet the self-prescribed standard for Orthodox teaching." I would be curious to know why St. Mark of Ephesus would not be considered an "Orthodox Fundamentalist," because he broke communion with those who failed to meet what St. Mark considered to be the standard for Orthodox teaching. Probably, the answer we would get is that St. Mark was not a intellectual troglodyte, but regardless, there obviously are boundaries that can be crossed that warrant such an action, and so the issue is not whether someone is a fundamentalist because they believe there are such boundaries, but rather the merits of the specific issues at stake... which we are not provided with in this article.

He then goes on to provide examples that knock down the straw man he has set up:

"Indeed, a careful reading of Christian history and theology makes clear that some of the most influential saints of the Church disagreed with one another—at times quite bitterly. St. Peter and St. Paul were at odds over circumcision.  St. Basil and St. Gregory the Theologian clashed over the best way to recognize the divinity of Holy Spirit.  And St. John Damascene, who lived in a monastery in the Islamic Caliphate, abandoned the hymnographical tradition that preceded him in order to develop a new one that spoke to the needs of his community."

Here again, we find careless overstatements. Where do we find St. Peter and St. Paul disagreeing over circumcision? We find them in very clear agreement on that issue in Acts 15. Most likely, he has in mind Galatians chapter 2, but the disagreement was not over circumcision... it was over St. Peter's hypocrisy while around those "of the circumcision" -- there is no indication that they had a substantive disagreement on the issue. They had a disagreement over St. Peter's behavior and inconsistency, and St. Paul called him on it, to his face, and in the presence of all (Galatians 2:11,14). There is also no indication in the text, nor in Church Tradition that this was a matter of ongoing disagreement or division between these two saints. This was rather an example of even a great saint being capable of falling into temporary error.

It is also clearly excessive to claim that St. John of Damascus "abandoned the hymnographical tradition that preceded him". What was the hymnographical tradition that preceded him? The way older aspects of the services have generally ended up being sidelined was not usually by them being replaced by new hymns, but rather by being supplemented with newer hymns, and then as time went on, some of the older texts were generally omitted. If you take the introduction of the texts we use now for the canons at Matins, these hymns were originally sung with the Biblical Odes, which were the older texts that preceded the composition of those hymns. Only as time went by did the practice develop of generally omitting the odes, and retaining the troparia that were composed to be sung with them (though the older practice is still followed to some extent on the weekdays of Great Lent). So to suggest that St. John tossed out all that preceded him is simply contrary to fact.

Also, there is a wee difference when a holy man, such as St. John of Damascus, introduces some new liturgical practice, than when a committee of cigar smoking "theologians" does so. For example, the Greek practice of saying "With the fear of God and with faith and love, draw near" is clearly a change from the original form of "With the fear of God and with faith, draw near". But it was, I believe, introduced by the Kollyvades Fathers. I was told by someone who is a good source on the matter that St. John of Shanghai also followed this practice. I am inclined to bow to the wisdom of these saints, but think it is right to be skeptical of changes that are introduced by someone who may be very intelligent, but who is not in the same league as these saints.

We find even further hyperbole when Dr. Demacopoulos asserts: "It is important to understand that Orthodox fundamentalists reinforce their reductionist reading of the Church Fathers with additional falsehoods.  One of the most frequently espoused is the claim that the monastic community has always been the guardian of Orthodox teaching.  Another insists that the Fathers were anti-intellectual.  And a third demands that adherence to the teachings of the Fathers necessitates that one resist all things Western."

While it is true that monastic communities have generally been bulwarks of Orthodoxy, I don't know of anyone who would say that this has always and invariably been so. I doubt a single example could be produced of anyone who would seriously argue that the Fathers were anti-intellectuals. And the closest example of one who argues that the teachings of the Fathers necessitates that one "resist all things Western" would be Fr. John Romanides, and his admirers... but not even they would make such a sweeping statement as is made here, and I don't think Fr. John Romanides was an anti-intellectual.

And when Dr. Demacopoulos makes the assertion that "By repurposing the tradition as a political weapon, the ideologue deceives those who are not inclined to question the credibility of their religious leaders", it would be helpful if he would provide some examples and name some names so that we would have some idea of who and what he is referring to.

Furthermore, I am not so sure that "The significance of the Fathers lies in their earnest and soul-wrenching quest to seek God and to share Him with the world." If that were the case, I am not sure how they would be any different than Lao Tzu, Gautama Buddha, Socrates, or Muhammad. Their significance is in how they explained, articulated, passed on, and earnestly contended for "the Faith once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 1:3). They were not just smart men who were earnest, but holy men who received the Faith of the Apostles, and passed it on without alteration -- and in doing so, in the face of new challenges to that Faith, enriched the Church with their words, their faithful lives, and their examples. We understand the Faith better because of them, but we do not now have a new faith or a different faith.

And he closes with this call to action: "It is time for Orthodox hierarchs and lay leaders to proclaim broadly that the endearing relevance of the Church Fathers does not lie in the slavish adherence to a fossilized set of propositions used in self-promotion." But I don't see how Orthodox hierarchs or lay leaders can answer his call, even if they were inclined to do so, because Dr. Demacopoulos gives us no indication exactly who or what he is talking about.

If someone can be pointed to that is fairly described by the descriptions found in this article, I would certainly think such a person was worthy of criticism. But let's talk specifics, rather than tossing around meaningless terms that would have us believe that there is real line of philosophical agreement between the average conservative Evangelical Protestant, some unspecified group of Orthodox Christians, and Jihadist terrorists that are beheading and stoning those they disagree with.

Update: Someone referred me to the conference that Dr. Demacopoulos was apparently referring to. There was a conference (entitled "Patristic Theology and Post-Patristic Heresy") held in Piraeus, Greece, on February 15, 2012, which was at least in large part in response to the Volos conference he mentioned. Among its speakers were Protopresbyter George Metallinos, Professor Emeritus of Athens University, and Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos). Are these really the "Orthodox fundamentalists" who claim that the Fathers were anti-intellectual, and agreed on all points of theology and ethics? You can read their papers, among others, in a pdf format, by clicking here and clicking here.