Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Stump the Priest: "What About the Violence in the Old Testament?"

 The Destruction of the city of Ai

Question: "What are we to make of passages of Scripture in the Old Testament in which God commanded  the Israelites to slaughter entire cities or tribes, including the women and children? How do we square such a vengeful God with the merciful God we find in the New Testament?"

This is a question that is often raised by atheists to attack the Christian Faith, but it is also raised by sincere laymen who are unsure of how we should understand these passages. To answer the question requires that we consider several issues, and not look at the question in a superficial way.

What is interesting is that people do not generally raise moral objections to the flood in the days of Noah, even though every man, woman, and child, except Noah's family, was drowned. Nor do they raise moral objections to the fact that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even though women and children were no doubt killed. And no one raises moral objections when the Scriptures talk about God sending other nations to destroy the Israelites, even though men, women, and children were killed as a result.

The problem we have with God telling the Israelites to kill women and children is that we live in a rationalistic age, and people are not so sure God really talked to people like Joshua. Also, we don't want folks to go around killing people because they claim God told them to do it. But if God could wipe out a city with fire and brimstone, there's no reason why He couldn't do it via the Israelites if that was indeed His choice. And so if He did indeed tell the Israelites to utterly destroy a city, He had the sovereign right to do so, and the people of Israel, who had seen so many miracles worked by God had every reason to believe that God was speaking to them through, Joshua, and later through their Judges. The Church has not taken this as a precedence, but has seen it as something of literal application only to that specific time and place. The applications we can make from these passages today would be primarily of an allegorical nature, from a patristic perspective.

Another thing that we should keep in mind is that, if you really believe in God and in the afterlife, death is not the worst fate that could befall someone. Far worse than physical death is spiritual death, and it was for the salvation of future generations that these things were commanded. Death is a punishment for sin, but it is also a mercy in that it puts limits on the evil men may do, and also gives them cause to repent and turn to God. God sometimes allows people to die young in order that they might be spared worse things that would come their way. For example, the wicked king Jeroboam’s son was allowed to die at a very early age, “because in him there is found something good toward the Lord God of Israel in the house of Jeroboam,” and so of the house of Jeroboam, only this child died in peace, and was properly buried. And no doubt, in his early death he was also spared the evil influence of his family (1 Kings 14:13).

God judges nations in history. Nations do not have an afterlife in which they can receive punishment or reward. God dispenses His justice upon nations in history, and so this justice by its very nature is dispensed collectively. If a nation is wicked, it will suffer the fruits of that wickedness, and unfortunately that means even the youngest children in that nation reap the bitter harvest sown by their parents. Our culture is very individualistic, but in Scripture, we find a view of the human race that sees us as having a corporate personality as well as being individuals. We are ultimately judged as individuals in eternity, but in this life we are not just individuals... we are part of families, tribes, and nations. If our forefathers make wise decisions, we reap benefits that are not due to our individual choices or merit. If our forefathers make wicked decisions, we also reap what they have sown. This is why you find people in Scripture not only repenting of their own sins, but of those of their forefathers. Of course if we come from a line of unbelievers, we can make the decision to embrace the Gospel and change the future for our descendants for the better. Is it “fair” that a child who is born in a Christian home hears the Gospel, and is more likely to grow up as a Christian than a child born to an unbeliever? Is it fair that a child born to a drug addict will grow up facing challenges that other children do not? If you look at this with a purely individualistic mindset, it might seem unfair, but the Biblical worldview is that we are not islands unto ourselves. We are not just souls who had the misfortune or fortune to be born to a particular set of parents, but we are their offspring, and are connected to them on a deeper level. Adam and Eve’s choice to sin has affected all of their offspring – we were not consulted before they made their decision, and yet we have suffered the effects of their decision. However we have been given the option of placing ourselves under a new head, and aligning ourselves with a new Adam – Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:20-49), and so we can change the future for our offspring for the better, though they have not been consulted either.

The other thing that has to be kept in mind is that the level of civilization at the time, made things like internment camps impossible. If the Israelites were going to spare the children, they would have had to have spared the mothers, and unless they were going to marry the mothers or keep them as slaves, they would have needed to spare the men also. But the Canaanites were an incredibly evil people who engaged in ritual prostitution and child sacrifice, and so leaving Canaanite culture in their midst would prove to be a snare to the Israelites, who were like children spiritually, and more likely to be influenced by the Canaanites than to be able to convert them to a better way of living and thinking. It was God’s intention that the Canaanite culture be wiped out, and that could not be accomplished if the adults of the Canaanites were spared. Even the pagan Romans were shocked by the evils of the Carthaginian culture, which was Phoenician colony, that shared the same religion as that of the Canaanites – which is why their battle cry was "Carthago delenda est!" (Carthage must be destroyed!).

But the fact is, the Israelites did not obey God. They did not kill all the Canaanites, and in fact the Canaanites and their culture were a thorn in their side that continually led them astray up until the time that God finally sent the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem, and to take the people into exile. When Israelite farmers had Canaanites telling them that if they wanted their crops to grow, they had to make Baal happy, they repeatedly gave in to the temptation to cover all the bases, and engage in the ritual prostitution and child sacrifice that the Canaanites believed were the only sure way to ensure good harvests. As it says in Psalm 105 (106):34-39: "They did not destroy the heathen, concerning which the Lord had spoken to them. They mingled among the nations and learned their works; and they served their graven things, and it became for them a stumbling-block. And they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto demons. And they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the graven things of Canaan. And the land was befouled with the blood of murder, and it was defiled with their works; and they went a whoring with their own inventions."

It was only after this experience of the exile that the Jews matured spiritually enough that they would never again be tempted into idolatry by their neighbors, though they often lived in a diaspora, in which they were a small minority surrounded by a pagan majority. Having the fullness of Gospel, we are better able to resist the temptations that come with being surrounded by evil people, and in fact, we are called to bring the Gospel to those wicked people, and to change the spiritual climate by the power of the Gospel, and not by the sword, as before, in the Old Testament.

What is perhaps most ironic about this issue is that the atheists that point to these passages to argue against Christianity are appealing to a Christian sense of morality, love, and mercy, in order to be outraged. But the fact is, as Dostoyevsky pointed out, if there is no God, all things are lawful. If there is no God, the slaughter of innocent children is of no more moral significance than when a colony of ants is washed away in a flood. There is no moral standard that one can appeal to. There is only power, and those who have the will to use it. And in fact, if you want to see the worst and most monstrous examples of the brutal slaughter of innocents by the millions, no one has surpassed brutality of militant atheism in the Soviet Union, Communist China, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, etc.

The only moral standard that can have any real meaning is one based on what God has revealed. God has revealed the most excellent way of the Gospel to us, and that is the standard we live by now. God, who is the giver of life, does not have to answer to us when He chooses to take it. We know that He is Love, and we know that He is Holy. We know that He always seeks the salvation of men, but we also know that He punishes the wicked, and places limits on their wickedness by His judgments, and that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalm 18(19):9).

None of this means that we should read these accounts and feel no sense of grief over what happened. In fact, we have an entire book of the Bible that is called "Lamentations", and it was written by the Prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied that the judgment of God would fall on the Kingdom of Judah, and he lived to see it come to pass. And this book is a lament over the fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophesy, because the people did not listen before it was too late. Obviously, he knew that the judgment of God was just, but he nevertheless wrote:

"Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!" (Jeremiah 9:1).

"My eyes fail with tears, my heart is troubled; my bile is poured on the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because the children and the infants faint in the streets of the city" (Lamentations 2:11).

"The young and the old lie on the ground in the streets: my virgins and my young men are fallen by the sword; Thou hast slain them in the day of Thine anger; Thou hast killed, and not pitied" (Lamentations 2:21).

But even in the midst of the Prophet Jeremiah's lament over the destruction of his people, he also confesses:

"But though He cause grief, yet will He have compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. For He doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men" (Lamentations 3:32-33).

We should grieve over such destruction, but we should grieve for the right reason – not because God wished to destroy the Canaanites for some arbitrary reason, and that this was unjust of Him; but rather because sin and rebellion against God inevitably lead to such horrible ends as this.

It should also be pointed out that one finds a great deal of God's mercy revealed in the Old Testament, and one finds a great deal of God's wrath revealed in the New Testament. There was a heresy in the early Church called "Marcionism" and this heresy taught that the God of the Old Testament was not the same as the God of the New Testament, and so Marcion, the heresy's founder, rejected all of the Old Testament, but also much of the New Testament – he only accepted the Gospel of Luke and 10 of St. Paul's epistles, but he also edited those books he did accept in order to come up with a version of Scripture that matched his views. But the Church decisively condemned Marcionism as a heresy, and so the God of the Old Testament is the same God that we find in the New. He find God more fully revealed in the New Testament, but rejecting what we find in the Old is heretical.

Finally, it is a tempting approach to this problem to simply say “Those Israelites were primitive people, and God wouldn’t have really said those things.” However, if you say that about the passages in which God commanded the Israelites to kill all of the Canaanites, there is no reason why someone else could not come along and apply the same logic to the question of sodomy, for example, and say “Those Israelites were primitive people, and God wouldn’t have really said those things.” In fact, once you go down that road, there’s no reason why you couldn’t dismiss just about anything in Scripture that you may happen to not like. However, if we believe, as the Church always has, that the Scriptures are fully inspired, this solution to this question is unacceptable.

Additional Reference:

You can listen to a podcast on this question by Dr. Eugenia Constantinou by clicking here.

Blessed Theodoret writes in his "Questions on Joshua", in Question 12: "There are those who accuse the prophet [Joshua] of cruelty for slaying everyone without exception and crucifying the kings.

    Whoever accuses the prophet accuses him who gave the order: It was he who, through Moses, the lawgiver, enjoined the slaying of every single inhabitant of that land for reaching the limit of lawlessness and committing crimes deserving of extermination. For this reason, in ancient times he brought on the flood and wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah with Fire.

    The prophet also ordered the officers to place their feet on the necks of the kings so that they would grow in confidence and go into battle with greater enthusiasm. And this is just what Jesus our Lord told us to do: "Lo, I have given you power to walk on snakes, and scorpions, and on all the might of the foe." So, may we too put our feet on the necks of hostile spirits!" (Theodoret of Cyrus,trans. Robert C. Hill, The Questions on the Octateuch, vol. 2, On Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007), pp. 285-287).

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Truth About Illegal Aliens, Amnesty Aliens, and Food Stamps

With the current discussion about "immigration reform", on the one hand, you have people like Marco Rubio, saying these those given amnesty will not be about to get "welfare", but others saying that they already do. So can they get Food Stamps (now known as SNAP) or not? The answer is "yes and no", but mostly "yes".

I have not worked in the Food Stamp, Medicaid, or TANF programs directly since 2005, but I checked the online policy handbook for Texas Health and Human Services Commission, and the policies are basically the same in this regard. Most illegal aliens tend to have intact families, and so usually they would not be on TANF (cash assistance), but their children, if born in the United States, are usually eligible for Medicaid, and their children are eligible for Food Stamps. Not only that, the fact that the parents are "not eligible" for Food Stamps, often results in them getting more Food Stamps for their household than they would have if they were eligible -- because instead of counting their income fully, their income is prorated.

I remember when the Amnesty Aliens under the Reagan Amnesty completed their five years of "ineligibility" in the early 1990's. Back in those days my Spanish was better than it is now, but still limited, however, I could usually get through most of an eligibility interview before calling in a translator to make sure that something wasn't confused. And if I was dealing with someone who could speak some English, usually I could get through the whole interview. On one occasion I was interview a man who was a blue collar worker, making decent money, who was married, and had about 5 kids. He had been getting several hundreds of dollars each month in Food Stamps, despite him and his wife being "ineligible". I made it through almost the entire interview, but when I ran the budget on the case, now that he was "eligible" and his income was counted fully, his case was denied. So I tried to explain to him that now that he was "eligible" he was ineligible for anything. He was understandably confused. Finally he said, "Somebody speaka da Spanish?" So I brought in an interpreter, but it didn't make any more sense in proper Spanish. Welcome to the United States of America!

It makes no sense that a household should end up with more benefits because the wage earner is "ineligible" than they would get if he was "eligible". What should be the policy is that the benefits should be calculated for the household the same way as they are for a fully eligible household, but then the benefits should be divided by the number of people in the household, and multiplied by the number of "eligible" people. And so, for example, if the whole household would otherwise be eligible for $400.00 per month, and there are two ineligible adults and 5 eligible children, it should be calculated thus: $400/7*5=$286. But in the case that I mentioned above, since his whole household would have been ineligible, it should have been calculated as $0/7*5=$0 all along.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Stump the Priest: What about "closed communion"?

Question: "What is a considerate response to the question as to why we have "closed" communion, especially since none of us are really worthy?"

First we should talk about the reasons why we do not allow the non-Orthodox to commune, and then we can talk about how to explain them to people whom we do not want to unnecessarily offend.

The word "communion" in Greek is Koinonia, and that word can be translated as "communion" or "fellowship". When we receive communion, we are not just expressing our communion and fellowship with God, but also our communion and fellowship with one another. We are proclaiming our oneness of mind and our unity of Faith every time we commune. So if we commune with those who are not Orthodox, we would be proclaiming a lie, because we do not share a oneness of mind or a unity of Faith. If we did, they would be Orthodox. We do not judge them, or condemn them, but we cannot pretend that we have a unity that we do not. For more on this, see "What should Orthodox Christians do, when there is no parish nearby?"

Now as to how to present this without causing unnecessary offense, it would depend on who you were dealing with. If you are dealing with a typical Evangelical who denies that the Eucharist is really the Body and Blood of Christ, I would begin by asking them what they believe about communion, and when they express their belief that communion is simply a memorial of Christ's death, I would explain what we believe, and then point out that we cannot share communion when we do not agree on what communion is.

If you get into a more involved discussion about the meaning of Communion, you can point out what St. Paul says in 1st Corinthians:

"The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 10:16).

"Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep (1 Corinthians 11:27-30).

What he is saying is that if we do not recognize that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, and approach it with repentance, and awe, we are eating and drinking to our own damnation. And if someone does not even believe the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ, they are clearly "not discerning the Lord's body." And so it is the priest's responsibility to ensure that people who are not prepared for communion do not harm themselves by communing unworthily.

It is true that none of us is worthy of communion, but we can prepare ourselves to partake of communion in a worthy manner, as St. Paul teaches... and being a member of the Orthodox Church, and sharing in the unity of our Faith is a basic prerequisite to that.

Now if the person does believe that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ, then they come from a tradition that also understands closed communion, even if they have relaxed it to some extent in recent years. No group that I am aware of affirms the Eucharist to be the true Body and Blood of Christ, and does not have some measure of closed communion. Roman Catholics are told that they may receive communion from the Orthodox, and would be willing to commune the Orthodox; but the reverse is not true, and this is a very recent change on their part. The historic position of the Church is that only those that you are officially in communion with may share communion. Being in communion with someone or some group is synonymous with saying that we are in the same Church. If we are not in the same Church, we are by definition not in communion.

And after explaining that we cannot share communion so long as we are not of oneness of mind and faith, and members of  the same Church, be sure to point out that we would be happy to fix that for them if they would like, and refer them to your priest, if they are interested.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Stump the Priest: Corrective Baptism?

Question: "I am/was a Baptist convert to Orthodoxy, and though it's been many years (about 20) that I was accepted into Orthodoxy through Chrismation, I have read things in the Rudder, and Canons which state that this was an anathema to the faith of the Church. I still, after all these years, feel that I should have been Baptized, and yet I have done other Sacraments in the Church. I have a certificate of Chrismation, but I still feel very uncomfortable! Should I be baptized in the Orthodox Church now?"

The short answer is "no". But to get to the longer answer, there are several things to consider here:

If the question is should a Baptist, who has been baptized by a single immersion, be received by chrismation? -- my answer would be that I do not believe that they should. The reason for this is that being baptized by triple immersion (or pouring, in cases of necessity) in the name of the Trinity is the canonical standard of a baptism that is valid in outward form. Canon 7 of the Second Ecumenical Council lists various groups that would either be received by confession of faith, or by chrismation, but specifically mentions that the Eunomians "who are baptized with a single immersion" are to be received by baptism. Of course there are bishops and jurisdictions that take the position that anyone who is baptized in the name of the Trinity should be received by chrismation, even when only baptized by a single immersion, and that is why you were received the way that you were.

The historic practice of the Russian Church has been to receive Monophysites, Roman Catholics, Reformed (Episcopalians, Presbyterians), and Lutherans by economia. Since the 70's, the practice of the Russian Church Outside of Russia has been to baptize all converts as a rule, unless the bishop gives a specific blessing to receive someone by economia.

Another question we should consider is how does the Church view the baptisms of those outside of the Church? True baptism unites one to the Church, and obviously, those who are baptized outside of the Church are not united to the Church by their baptism. We pass no judgment on the souls of those outside of the Church, and leave that question in the hands of God, but we can say that at least in this life, they remain outside of the Church until and unless they are received into the Orthodox Church.

In the early Church there was a dispute about whether converts who had been baptized by heretics or schismatics should be baptized or not. St. Cyprian of Carthage took the position that they should, and he presided over a council in Carthage that declared there is no true baptism outside of the Church. And this canon was affirmed by the Sixth Ecumenical Council in its second canon. However, that same canon also affirmed the canons of St. Basil, and his first canon, provides a bit more nuance. He agreed that the Church is under no obligation to recognize baptisms that take place outside of the Church, but states that for the sake of "economia" the Church may do so, though he also noted that in different regions, different practices prevailed when it came to how certain heretics or schismatics were received.

So what happens when the Church accepts a baptism that was done outside of the Church, by economia? St. Augustine compared baptism to the "military mark" which was a tattoo a soldier was given when entered the Roman Army, and it showed what commander he belonged to. St. Augustine said that such a mark could be retained by deserters (schismatics), and it could illicitly be given to those who had never been in the army, and yet unless and until such men actually joined (or rejoined) the army, those marks did not have the real significance that they should have... however if they did rejoin or join the army, the mark would not need to be redone. And so what happens when someone is received by economia is they are finally united to the Church, and their baptism is then given the real meaning of what true baptism is.

But getting back to the question of what to make of someone who had been baptized by a single immersion, and was received by economia -- even though, as I said, I do not agree that this should have been done; the fact is that it has been done. Bishops, as successors of the Apostles have the power to bind and to loose (Matthew 18:18), and so when the bishop over the parish that you were received in made the decision that this is how you should be received, you were truly received into the Church. If anyone will have to answer for that, it will be the bishop, and not you. And so I would not allow yourself to be troubled by this question any further.

Fr. Seraphim (Rose) was a Methodist who was received by Chrismation, and St. John of Shanghai received people in this manner, and never suggested corrective baptism.

The New Martyr Elizabeth Fyodorovna was a Lutheran, who was received by Chrismation prior to the revolution, and is now a highly venerated saint of the Church.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Stump the Priest: Does Hades still Exist?

“I recently heard a priest who said that hades no longer exists, because in our hymns, we say that Christ destroyed hades by his resurrection. Is that true?”

It is true that in the Paschal Matins, we sing: “We celebrate the death of death, the destruction of hades, the beginning of another life eternal, and leaping for joy, we hymn the Cause, the only blessed and most glorious God of our fathers” (Ode 7), but it is also true that we have hymns that say things like “… by Thy death, Thou hast destroyed the devil…” (Bright Wednesday, Praises), and yet we know that the devil has not ceased to exist as a result of the resurrection, because we are told by St. Peter “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Hades and the devil have been destroyed in that their power over mankind has been broken by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. This does not mean that they have ceased to exist. Today is the 69th anniversary of D-Day, and we could say that Hitler's realm was destroyed on D-Day, but it wasn't ultimately destroyed until VE-Day (Victory in Europe Day).

Another problem we have in English is that the word “hell” is used to translate the Greek word “Hades” as well as “Gehenna”. Hades in the New Testament means what Sheol in the Old Testament meant, which is "the abode of the dead." "Gehenna" refers to the lake of fire, or the final place where the wicked are condemned -- which is what most people have in mind when they think of "hell." Even before the resurrection, the wicked were receiving a foretaste of punishment, and the righteous we receiving a foretaste of blessedness. But prior to the Resurrection of Christ, even the souls of the saints of the Old Testament abode in Hades. At the resurrection, the righteous were set at liberty, and taken into paradise, but this is still not the final state of blessedness that will only be accomplished after the general resurrection. The wicked in Hades likewise will only experience the fullness of their punishment, after they are resurrected unto damnation, which is called the “second death”. At present, there are in Hades the souls of those who have died in a state of repentance, but who have not brought forth the fruits of repentance, and are not yet ready to enter into the presence of God. Many of those souls will enter in heaven before the final judgment, through the prayers of the Church, but some will await the final judgment there, and yet be saved. We do not believe that these souls suffer for their sins, but we do believe that our prayers are of some benefit to them. In the Kneeling Vespers of Pentecost, we pray: “[God] Who also on this most perfect and saving feast hast deigned to receive propitiatory prayers for those who are kept in hades, giving us great hope that through Thee release and consolation may be sent down to those held there in bondage and vileness." We even believe that our prayers are of some benefit to those who will not ultimately enter into heaven, though we cannot speak of these things with precision, because these things have not been fully revealed to us.

There is an excellent three part talk on this subject by Clark Carlton that you can listen to here:

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Pictures from Pascha at St. Jonah 2013

The Midnight Office

The beginning of the Paschal Matins

The blessing of Paschal Baskets

After the Agape Vespers

The Paschal PiƱata