Friday, July 31, 2015

Stump the Priest: Cremation

Question: "What is the Orthodox Church's view of cremation?"

The Orthodox Church does not approve of cremation, because it is a desecration of the body, which is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. It is also rooted in a pagan worldview which does not see the body an integral part of the human person, and which rejects the Christian belief in the goodness of creation and the resurrection of the body. It is only in very recent times that cremation has re-emerged in what were once Christian cultures. Before Rome and other pagan cultures converted to Christianity, cremation was commonly practiced. The revival of cremation is a sign of the re-paganization of these cultures.

Unfortunately, many Protestants have come to accept cremation in recent years. This is due to their rejection of Church Tradition, which is unambiguous on this issue, and also due generally to their view of salvation, which often sees the bodily resurrection as sort of an after-thought or an anticlimax. Often at Protestant funerals, you will hear people say that the deceased is not in the coffin but with Christ, for example. However, if a person dies in Christ, their souls will be with Christ, but until the general resurrection, their body remains a part of them that will one day be reunited with their souls (though their body will be transformed) -- and as such, the soul apart from the body is not the whole person (2 Corinthians 5:1-5). Our faith in the general resurrection is directly linked with the Resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) -- it is the Resurrection of Christ that makes our resurrection possible. Just as Christ was buried and then arose again in a glorified body, so too are we to be buried -- not cremated -- but rather, planted in the ground like a seed. As St. Paul says: "But someone will say, "How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?" Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body.... So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being." The last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-45).

This, of course, does not mean that God cannot raise the dead if the body is cremated. In fact, everyone who has ever lived will be resurrected, regardless of the treatment their body received after death -- some raised to life, and some raised to the second death (Revelation 20). However, the willful destruction of the body is a desecration of the human body, a denial of the goodness and importance of the body, and ultimately a denial of our Faith.

It is for this reason that the Church does not allow a Church funeral to be performed for those who are cremated, unless it is clear that this was against the wishes of the deceased. This often happens when an Orthodox Christian has non-Orthodox relatives, and fails to plan their funeral arrangements or to make their wishes known. But some Orthodox Christians decide to be cremated out of ignorance of the Church's teaching, or in willful disregard for those teachings.

It should also be noted that our practice of venerating the relics of saints is antithetical to cremation. If cremation were generally practiced by Christians, we would have no bodily relics.

Probably the biggest reason in our times that people opt for cremation is that the cost of a proper burial has steadily risen, and most people do not plan their own funerals. And so when they die, their family is left with the choice of coming up with between an average of $7,000 to $10,000 dollars for a funeral with a burial, or the much lower costs of a cremation (between $1,500 to $4,000 dollars, depending on how elaborate the funeral is, and whether the ashes are interred or not). But planning ahead greatly eases the burden on your family, and ensure that you will be given a proper Orthodox funeral and burial. There are also ways to economize on the costs of a burial (see: "A Guide to an Orthodox Funeral," by Fr. Alexander (Reichert), as well as the book "A Christian Ending" as well as the Podcast by Deacon Mark Barna). And for those who have been active Orthodox Christians, if there is a need for others outside of the immediate family to help cover the costs, a way to meet the need will generally be found.

See Also:

Cremation, by Protopresbyter George Grabbe

Decree of the Synod of Bishops of The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia: "On the Question of Incineration of Bodies of the Departed In Crematoria" (August 20/September 2, 1932).

"Burial or Burning," by Protopresbyter George D. Metallinos

"Cremation: Earth Thou Art and Unto Earth Shalt Thou Return," by Fr. Victor Potapov

Cremation (OCA)

"Pastoral Guidelines: Church Positions Regarding the Sanctity of Human Life," by Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas

Update: Someone asked about how the above would relate to the question of organ donations, and so here is the pertinent section from The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, § XII. Problems of bioethics:

"XII. 7. The modern transplantology (the theory and practice of the transplantation of organs and tissues) makes it possible to give effective aid to many patients who were earlier doomed to death or severe disability. At the same time, the development of this sphere of medicine, increasing the need for necessary organs, generates certain ethical problems and can present a threat to society. Thus, the unscrupulous propaganda of donoring and the commercialisation of transplanting create prerequisites for trade in parts of the human body, thus threatening the life and health of people. The Church believes that human organs cannot be viewed as objects of purchase and sale. The transplantation of organs from a living donor can be based only on the voluntary self-sacrifice for the sake of another’s life. In this case, the consent to explantation (removal of an organ) becomes a manifestation of love and compassion. However, a potential donor should be fully informed about possible consequences of the explantation of his organ for his health. The explantation that presents an immediate threat to the life of a donor is morally inadmissible. The most common of all is the practice of taking organs from people who have just died. In these cases, any uncertainty as to the moment of death should be excluded. It is unacceptable to shorten the life of one, also by refusing him the life-supporting treatment, in order to prolong the life of another.

The Church confesses, on the basis of Divine Revelation, the faith in the bodily resurrection of the dead (Is. 26:19; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:42-44, 52-54; Phil. 3:21). In the Christian burial, the Church expressed the reverence that befits the body of a dead. However, the posthumous giving of organs and tissues can be a manifestation of love spreading also to the other side of death. Such donation or will cannot be considered a duty. Therefore, the voluntary consent of a donor in his lifetime is the condition on which explantation can be legitimate and ethically acceptable. If doctors do not know the will of a potential donor, they should, if necessary, find it out the will of a dying or dead person from his relatives. The so-called presumptive consent of a potential donor to the removal of his organs and tissues, sealed in the legislation of some countries, is considered by the Church to be an inadmissible violation of human freedom.

A recipient assimilates donor organs and tissues entering his personal spiritual and physical integrity. Therefore, in no circumstances moral justification can be given to the transplantation that threatens the identity of a recipient, affecting his uniqueness as personality and representative of a species. It is especially important to remember this condition in solving problems involved in the transplantation of animal organs and tissues.

The Church believes it to be definitely inadmissible to use the methods of so-called foetal therapy, in which the human foetus on various stages of its development is aborted and used in attempts to treat various diseases and to «rejuvenate» an organism. Denouncing abortion as a cardinal sin, the Church cannot find any justification for it either even if someone may possibly benefit from the destruction of a conceived human life. Contributing inevitably to ever wider spread and commercialisation of abortion, this practice (even if its still hypothetical effectiveness could be proved scientifically) presents an example of glaring immorality and is criminal."

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Stump the Priest: Monarchy

Question: "Is monarchy the only form of government man can institute that represents both the fullness of the Orthodox faith and the Incarnational reality of Christ?"

If we go back to the Old Testament, there was a time when God ruled the people of Israel through prophets and judges, such as Moses and Samuel, who were specially called by Him. Toward the end of the life of the Prophet Samuel, the people of Israel asked him to anoint a king for them, so that they could be like all the other nations, and no longer dependent on God raising up a judge to lead them, and we are told:

"But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the Lord. And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them" (1 Samuel 8:6-7).

So one could argue that the most ideal form of government is a theocracy, but as the history of Israel up to this point demonstrated, such a theocracy only worked out well for the people when they were zealous to obey God, which very often was not the case. So monarchy is perhaps the second best system of government, but not one without problems... because for monarchy to work out well, you need a king that is pious. God warned Samuel, and through Samuel, the people, of the downside of having a king:

"And [Samuel] said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day. Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles" (1 Samuel 8:11-20).

The subsequent history of Israel, and then the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah show that some kings lived up to the ideal of faithfulness to God, and functioned as icons of Christ, but more often then not, they fell short of this -- and sometimes they were more like foreshadowings of the antichrist. King David was the best example of a righteous King -- and he not only served as an image of the future Messiah, but it was from his line that the Messiah would actually come.

With the coming of Christ and the spread of the Christian Faith, there were kingdoms that became Christian, and so looking to the example of King David, the Church anointed them to rule as Christian monarchs. We have many examples of such kings that are now reckoned as saints of the Church, and when you had a pious king who was also a capable ruler, you had the best examples of Christian government we have ever seen. Unfortunately, the combination of piety and competence is something that was not invariably found in such monarchs.

So is monarchy superior to democracy? St. John of Kronstadt once observed "Hell is a democracy but heaven is a kingdom." However, we live in a representative democracy that has afforded us freedom of religion -- and we are grateful for that. But on the other hand, we have also begun to see in recent years that the problem with democracy is that it only works well for a moral people, and given fallen human nature, it can facilitate a rapid decline in morality. The 20th century, especially in the wake of the two world wars, saw the rise of democracy around the world and the rapid decline in monarchy, and in the course of just under a hundred years we have essentially seen the end of Christendom as a result.

In 2 Thessalonians, St. Paul spoke about the great falling away and the coming of the antichrist:

"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).

So what is the restraining force that holds back the mystery of lawlessness, but will be taken away? St. John Chrysostom and other fathers say that this was the Roman Empire (see Homily 4 on 2 Thessalonians). Now many, especially Protestants, might be inclined to dismiss this interpretation, but consider the words of the noted Protestant New Testament scholar and theologian George Eldon Ladd:

"The traditional view has been that the restraining principle is the Roman empire and the restrainer the Emperor. This view, or a modification of it, fits best into the Pauline theology. In Romans 13:4, Paul affirms that the ruling authority (even though it be pagan Rome is "God's servant for your good"" (A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 560).

The Roman Empire is usually said by westerners to have ended in 476. The East Roman empire continued on until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. However, the Russian Empire, which continued both the religious and political tradition of Christian Rome, continued until 1917, and so it may be that this marks the beginning of the removal of this restraining force. It certainly marked the beginning of both rapid moral decline as well as a time of martyrdom which has surpassed the worst persecutions of the early Church in intensity. Of course, we cannot say for sure that the end has come until we see Christ return.

But while democracy may not be an ideal form of Christian government, since we have the right to vote, we should exercise what influence for good we can and assert our rights as citizens, as St. Paul, who was a Roman citizen, often did.

See also: The Mystery Of  The Anointed Sovereigns Tsar Nicholas II & Tsarina Alexandra of Russia

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

"Orthodox Fundamentalism" Discussion on Ancient Faith Today

Awhile back I wrote a response to an article by Dr. George Demacopoulos on "Orthodox Fundamentalism.

You can read his original article here: Orthodox Fundamentalism

You can read my response here: Response to "Orthodox Fundamentalists" by George Demacopoulos

Kevin Allen invited us to talk about this subject on Ancient Faith Today, and you can listen to it here: Orthodox Fundamentalism: what is it and does it exist?

Someone posted a quote that I think well sums up the problem with Dr. Demacopoulos' use of the term "fundamentalist":

"We must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’." -Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: 2000), pg. 245.

One additional point that I would make is with regard to Dr. Demacopoulos' assertion that anyone who uses the phrase "The Fathers say..." has never read the Fathers: Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) is a highly regarded contemporary Orthodox Theologian, and you often find him using the phrase "The Fathers say..." Just googling the phrase, I found it used by St. Dorotheos of Gaza, the Elder Cleopa of Romania, and Fr. John Romanides... and I suspect many more examples could be found. Also, at one point in the discussion Fr. Demacopoulos made the statement: "the fathers believed in the birth death and resurrection of Jesus..." So apparently we can make general statements about what the Fathers believed, and so saying that they as a group would say something is not substantively different.

Also, Dr. George quoted Paul Tillich as saying that the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty. It is true that we do not say that we believe something that we know empirically. A better way to look at this came from a sermon from a protestant minister who spoke about a husband and a wife sitting on a porch watching their children playing. He said that the wife knows that her husband is the father of those children. The husband believes he is the father of those children. Of course the husband's belief is only as good as his wife is trustworthy, but we believe that the Church is absolutely trustworthy... but while we can be certain to a high degree, we will only have complete empirical verification of that when we see Christ face to face.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Stump the Priest: What must I do to be saved?

The Philippian Jailer, before the Apostles Paul and Silas

Question: "What is needed to attain salvation? Verses such as Matthew 7:21-23 concern me greatly, and to help me along the Path, and to put my mind at ease, it would be wonderful to have a concise teaching on the subject that I could study and teach to others."

In Acts 16:25-34, we have the story of the Philippian Jailer. After the Apostles Paul and Silas, who had been imprisoned and prayed all night, there was an earthquake, the doors of the jail were opened, and their chains were loosed. The Jailer, thinking that the prisoners had escaped, and knowing that he would be put to death if that were found to be the case, drew his own sword, and was about to kill himself, when St. Paul called out to him: "Do thyself no harm: for we are all here." Then we are told that "he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out, and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" And they said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house." So belief was the beginning, but it did not end there, because we are then told that the Apostles "spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes [the Apostles had been beaten, before being jailed]; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway." So he believed, and was baptized. At the beginning of Christ's preaching, immediately after He was baptized by St. John the Baptist, we are told "Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel" (Mark 1:14-15). And so while repentance is not explicitly mentioned in the case of the Philippian Jailer, it is certainly implied as well.

However, we cannot simply say that there is a three step process to salvation (repent, believe, be baptized). In the case of the thief on the Cross, he repented and believed, but was not baptized, and yet was most certainly saved. But the Church would also never say simply repent, believe, and be baptized, and that is all that we need to do. For one thing, true faith... works (Galatians 5:6; James 2:22-24). This is not to say that we earn our salvation, but working out our salvation does not end with baptism, that is merely the beginning. As St. Paul said, "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). So we never come to a point at which we can say we are done, and can coast along from here on.

But this also does not mean that we have to be in terror that God may send us to hell because He catches us failing to perfectly meet His standards of holiness. This means we should not take our salvation lightly or for granted, but if we live a life of repentance, and are sincerely seeking to please God, we should believe that He will give us the grace and mercy to finish the race of salvation. God desires that all be saved, He is not looking for reasons to send us to hell, but rather is looking for reasons to not send us to hell.

The entire Gospel is summed up in the Jesus Prayer: "O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." If we keep this on our lips, and constantly repent, we know that God will forgive us our sins, and so in this prayer we find great hope and consolation.

See also:

Stump the Priest: Imputed Righteousness

Friday, July 03, 2015

Stump the Priest: Bishop of Rome

Question: "Why does the Orthodox Church not have a Bishop of Rome?"

There is no official answer to this question that I am aware of, but I think there are two reasons for this. Up until relatively recently, any Orthodox bishop who claimed that title would probably have ended in prison at the hands of the civil authorities in Italy, because they did not have anything like a first amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion. The other reasons is that if any local Church established a diocese in Rome, the canons say that this bishop would be the first in the diptychs, and this would quickly become a very divisive issue in the Church. So if there was to ever be a bishop of Rome in the Orthodox Church, I think there would first have to be pan-Orthodox agreement to establish such a see, and an agreement on how that would be understood in terms of the canons.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

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

One of the best books you can read on the subject of Homosexuality from a Christian perspective is "The Bible and Homosexual Practice," by Dr. Robert Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I found the following videos which provide some of the highlights of that book in lecture format.

The Old Testament

Genesis 1 & 2:


Levitical Prohibition:

David & Jonathan:

The New Testament

The Witness of Jesus:

The Witness of Paul:

Hermeneutical Relevance of the Bible