Saturday, October 31, 2015

Stump the Priest: Authority in Ancient Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information see:

Sola Scriptura, by Fr. John Whiteford

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Stump the Priest: Theosis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information:

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

The Illumined Heart: God: Essence and Energies

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Stump the Priest: What's so Great about Certain Saints?

St. Athanasius the Great

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 10, 2015

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

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

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

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

For directions to St. Jonah, click here.

For directions to the Centrum, click here.

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

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Franklin Graham gets it on Russia's intervention in Syria

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

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

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

See also this article from Christianity Today.

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

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Stump the Priest: Millennialism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also 1 Corinthians 15.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information, see:

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

The Inconsistency of Chiliasm , by Bishop Alexander (Mileant)

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