Thursday, December 31, 2015

Stump the Priest: Did the Early Church Venerate Icons?

An Iconoclast removing an icon of Christ

Question: "Isn't the fact that there were controversies over icons well into the 9th century proof that the early Church did not venerate icons?"

There were indeed controversies at various times, most notably the Iconoclastic controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries, but these controversies were primarily focused on the question of whether one could have icons at all. Even the iconoclasts did not object to the veneration of the Cross, or other holy objects. Their problem with icons was that they considered them inherently objectionable, regardless of whether they were being venerated or not. In fact, there was never any movement of Christians that accepted iconography, but rejected their veneration, prior to the Protestant Reformation.

It is a matter of fact, only 30 years prior to the first iconoclastic controversy, icons were not a controversial issue, as is shown by the the fact that the Quinisext Council issued a canon about the content of certain icons, that shows no hint of the making of icons being a matter of any controversy:
"In some of the paintings of the venerable Icons, a lamb is inscribed as being shown or pointed at by the Forerunner's finger, which was taken to be a type of grace, suggesting beforehand through the law the true lamb to us Christ our God.  Therefore, eagerly embracing the old types and shadows as symbols of the truth and preindications handed down to the Church, we prefer the grace, and accept it as the truth in fulfillment of the law.   Since, therefore, that which is perfect even though it be but painted is imprinted in the faces of all, the Lamb who taketh away the sin of the world Christ our God, with respect to His human character, we decree that henceforth he shall be inscribed even in the Icons instead of the ancient lamb: through Him being enabled to comprehend the reason for the humiliation of the God Logos, and in memory of His life in the flesh and of His passion and of His soterial death being led by the hand, as it were, and of the redemption of the world which thence accrues" (Canon LXXXII of the Quinisext Council).
And it is also a fact that archaeological evidence shows the ubiquity of Christian iconography going back to the catacombs. Clearly those who objected to iconography were outside of the Christian mainstream. What made icons controversial in the 8th and 9th centuries was the rise of Islam, and the desire of the iconoclastic emperors to bring those who had converted to Islam back into the Christian fold -- and icons were seen as an obstacle to this. It is also not coincidental that the iconoclastic emperors all came from parts of the empire in which Islam had made significant inroads.

Furthermore, a closer look at the texts of Scripture show that the Israelites had extensive iconography in both the Tabernacle and then later in the Temple. You find images of cherubim:
When you add all these references together, it is clear that there were Icons everywhere you turned in Israelite worship.

But some will object: "Isn't bowing before an icon and kissing it forbidden by the Second Commandment?" The issue with respect to the 2nd commandment is what does the word translated "graven images" mean? If it simply means carved images, then the images in the temple would be in violation of this Commandment. Our best guide, however, to what Hebrew words mean, is what they meant to Hebrews -- and when the Hebrews translated the Bible into Greek, they translated this word simply as "eidoloi", i.e. "idols." Furthermore the Hebrew word pesel is never used in reference to any of the images in the temple. So clearly the reference here is to pagan images rather than images in general.

Let's look at what the Second Commandment actually says:
"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image (i.e. idol), or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor shalt thou serve (worship) them..." (Exodus 20:4-5).
Now, if we take this as a reference to images of any kind, then clearly the cherubim in the Temple violate this command. If we limit this as applying only to idols, no contradiction exists. Furthermore, if this applies to all images -- then even the picture on a driver's license violates it, and is an idol. So either every Protestant with a driver's license is an idolater, or Icons are not idols.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the meaning of "graven images" lets simply look at what this text actually says about them.  You shall not make x,  you shall not bow to x, you shall not worship x.  If x = image, then the  Temple itself violates this Commandment.  If x = idol and not all images, then this verse contradicts neither the Icons in the Temple, nor Orthodox Icons.

Abraham bowed himself before the people of Hebron (Genesis 23:7, 12); Joseph’s brothers bowed before him (Genesis 42:6; 43:26, 28); and many other examples could be cited that show that bowing was an expression of respect, and bowing to idols is only objectionable because the object in question is in fact an idol, an image of a false deity. And kissing holy things is a very common act of devotion among Jews to this day (see: Kissing: An Act of Religious Devotion, by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin (From To Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer book and the Synagogue Service, (New York: Basic Books [Harper Collins], 1980), p.43f).

There is no reason we should assume that the early Christians would not likewise have bowed before and kissed holy things, like their Jewish forefathers. And icons of saints or Biblical scenes would have been given the same veneration that the texts of Scripture were given.

For more information see:

The Icon FAQ: Answers to common questions about icons (this article is especially important, and has extensive hyperlinks to other articles relevant to this question).

Stump the Priest: The Veneration of the Cross

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Answering Atheists

I recently gave a lecture at the St. Herman's youth conference in Albany, New York on the subject of Answering Atheists. At Archbishop Gabriel's request, I first spoke briefly about how I became Orthodox.

You can listen to the lecture by clicking here.

You can read a more detailed account of my conversion by clicking here.

You can also read an article that I mentioned about the question of the violence of the Old Testament by clicking here.

You can read about the 2013 Finnish study on Atheists by clicking here.

You can read St. John Chrysostom's "A Treatise to Prove that No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself," by clicking here.

Here is a speech by Dinesh D'Souza, entitled "How Do I Know God Exists?" which covers some of the same ground, but makes some very compelling arguments:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Did St. Mark "Blunder"?

Note: While I disagree with Fr. Gregory Hallam on the issues I will address in this article, I appreciate the fact that he produces the podcasts that he does, which are generally very informative. 

Is it correct that St. Mark "blundered" in the writing of his Gospel? There is no reason why we should conclude that he did, and you will never find any Father of the Church making any such suggestion. However, this is what Fr. Gregory Hallam stated recently in his E-Quip lecture series, in a lecture about St. Mark's Gospel [beginning at about the 16 minute mark of the recording]:

“…Indeed we must admit, [that St. Mark] sometime got the sequence of events and geographical details in the Gospel incorrect…. In Mark 5:1 Jesus exorcises the Gerasene demoniac  -- however, Gerasa is 30 miles south east… south southeast of the lake in question, that is of course what is now known as Galilee. That’s a pretty big jump for those pigs. OK? There is also no 30 mile long embankment running down from Gerasa  to the lake to accommodate this onward rush. St. Matthew recognizes St. Mark’s blunder in handling this material, and tries to correct “Gerasa” to “Gadara,” from which we get, of course, the Gadarene swine, but Gadara is still 6 miles from the lake, so it’s hardly a very satisfactory solution. We could say that these are minor matters, and indeed they are. But we could list many others in Mark’s Gospel  where  he gets geographical or indeed cultural details wrong, concerning Judaism of the time, and the rights of women or otherwise to divorce, he gets wrong. So… you know… this reminds us that these are the writings of ordinary men who were attempting faithfully to present what Jesus said and did, but they’re not verbally inerrant – and I am sorry if that offends some people who are listening to this on Ancient Faith Ministries, but research it yourself. Find out about these geographical lapses and these cultural lapses in Mark’s Gospel, and let that minister to you as you think how we can still call this the word of God and accept human fallibility its compilation. Because that is a fact, you can’t just argue around it, and try and translate “Gerasa” or “Gadara” in different ways. Geography is Geography.

First off, there is a textual issue with these passages that Fr. Gregory does not address here. Fr. Gregory is assuming the accuracy of the readings found in the Nestle-Aland/United Bible Societies critical editions of the Greek New Testament, which are based on assumptions that are Protestant in origin (namely, that there was an earlier pure version of the Greek New Testament that was later corrupted, and has to be rediscovered and reconstructed, as opposed to accepting the text as the Church has actually preserved it). According to those texts, this is how the Synoptic Gospels describe this place in question:

Mark 5:1: "the country of the Gerasenes..."

Matthew 8:28: "the country of the Gadarenes..."

Luke 8:26: "the country of the Gerasenes..."

It should be noted that the readings in Mark and Matthew are rated "C" in the United Bible Societies text, and the reading is Luke is rated a "D." In that text an "A" reading is one that the editors are very sure of, "B" is less sure, "C" is more questionable, and "D" is the lowest rating that they give to a reading that they adopt in their text.

In the vast majority of Greek manuscripts -- and in the texts which the Church has universally received -- the names of this place that are found in the Synoptic Gospels are as follows:

Mark 5:1: "the country of the Gadarenes..."

Matthew 8:28: "the country of the Gergesenes..."

Luke 8:26: "the country of the Gadarenes..."

The evidence for these readings are very strong, though there is some support for "Gergesenes" in Mark 5:1. But in any case, any way you slice it, we have at least two names in the Gospels for this place. It should be noted that in none of these readings do we find it speaking of a city directly associated with these names, but rather it speaks of "the country of...", which is a very general description of the place. The Tradition of the Church tells us exactly where this miracle took place -- the present day Kursi, or Kersa, which was known in ancient times as "Gergesa," which is on the eastern shore of the sea of Galilee. This place fits the narrative perfectly. And yet this place was probably not well known, and so it is described as being in the region of the Gadaranes (i.e. the district of Gadara -- which was the chief city of the area at that time, and would have been generally better known).

The textual variations are most likely due to the fact that you had two place names found in the Synoptic Gospels, and some scribes attempted to harmonize them. But does this mean that at least one of these names is wrong? No. This area was a pagan area, and so there were no doubt Greek names for the locations in this area, but Aramaic speaking Jews would have used some variation of those names.

I live in Spring, Texas (which is also where my parish is), but Spring is actually not an incorporated city, and so is really governed by Harris County, though Houston is the city that dominates Harris County, and the City of Houston has some extra-territorial jurisdiction over this area (as I discovered much to my irritation during the permitting process for the construction of our current Church building). When people ask me where I live, depending on how much time I have to explain, and whether or not I think they have any idea of the local geography, I sometimes will tell them that I live in Houston, simply because most people don't know where Spring, Texas is, and it is in fact part of the Metropolitan Houston area. So I could say that I live in Spring, Texas, or Houston, or Harris County, and yet all three statements would be true -- and this is true without mixing in the question of variations on place names due to the transmission of those names through different languages.

The following video deals with this question at about the 50 minute mark:

If you watch this video from the beginning, you will see that it addresses some other claims of geographical errors in the Gospel of Mark, and does so very handily.

Fr. Gregory alludes to another claim, made by Bart Ehrman, that the Gospel of Mark is in error, when it says in Mark 7:3 that the Jews would not eat with unwashed hands. The video above addresses that claim just after the 20 minute mark, and it points out that this claim is baseless, and that there is ample extra-biblical evidence of this being the common practice of the Jews of that period.

Furthermore, Fr. Gregory references the claim that St. Mark erred in Mark 10:12, by speaking of women divorcing their husbands. It is argued that Jewish law made no provision for a woman to divorce her husband, and so therefore, St. Mark clearly didn't know what he was talking about here. However, this ignores the rather notorious example of Herodias, who divorced her first husband in order to marry Herod, her brother-in-law. That this happened is recorded not only by the Gospels, but also by the Jewish historian Josephus. The above video addresses this question about the 24 minute mark.

So it is not simply a matter of fact that St. Mark erred in his Gospel. Geography is geography, but when you are talking about the names of places in a region that has experienced more than a few cultural upheavals in the past 2000 years, it is not simply a matter of getting out a map and proving that St. Mark made an error. In fact, on closer inspection, the geography of St. Mark's Gospel is very accurate, and provides a great deal of evidence of its traditional origins as an account written by St. Mark but based on the recollections of St. Peter.

For example, here is a lecture by Dr. Richard Bauckham: "Mark's Geography and the origin of Mark's Gospel":

Here addresses the question of the story of the Demoniac in Mark 5 beginning at just before the 30 minute mark. He assumes that the reading of "Gerasenes" is correct, but provides a very plausible explanation for how that name would not refer to the city of Gerasa, as Fr. Gregory assumes, but to the region of the eastern shore of the sea of Galilee. The entire lecture is well worth listening to.

Regardless of how one decides the textual issues I mentioned, there is no reason why an Orthodox Christian needs to conclude that the Gospels are in error. The Tradition of the Church clearly teaches us that the Scriptures are without error.* When we see something in Scripture that seems problematic, we may or may not always know how to definitively resolve the question of how to explain the problem, but the faith of the Church is that the Scripture is without error, and it is contrary to that Faith to make assertions to the contrary.

*For those who assert that the Orthodox Church does not affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, I refer you to the quotations from the Fathers in the article on inerrancy below, and challenge anyone to produce a single instance of a Church Father that asserted that there were any real errors in Scripture.

For More Information:

The Inerrancy of Scripture, by Fr. John Whiteford

I would also recommend Dr. Richard Bauckham's lecture "The Authenticity of the Apostolic Eyewitness in the New Testament":

Update: Just today there is news of new archeological evidence in support of Kursi as the location of the miracle in Mark 5: Archaeologists Find Hebrew Letters Engraved on Tablet at Jesus Miracle Site.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Stump the Priest: The Nativity Fast and Christmas Parties

Question: "Now that the Christmas season has begun — in our secular society called the “holiday season” — there are parties held at workplaces. But we are fasting, and the celebration of the Lord’s Nativity does not comes until December 25/January 7. How would you counsel Orthodox Christians on this subject?"

In the past 50 years, American culture has gone from the older practice of putting up Christmas decorations on Christmas eve, and then celebrating Christmas on the actual day (albeit New Calendar), and continuing that celebration through either New Year's day, or Epiphany (what we usually call Theophany) on January 6th. This is evident from the older classic Christmas movies, such as "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Bishop's Wife," and even the Charlie Brown Christmas Special (the next time you watch these movies, pay attention to when the Christmas Trees are being decorated). Of course during the period leading up to Christmas there has always been a great deal of anticipation and preparation. However, most Americans now begin celebrating Christmas in earnest after Thanksgiving, and the weeks and days prior to Christmas consist of one Christmas party after another. Then on Christmas day, people are taking down their decorations, you see Christmas Trees on the curb waiting to be carted off to the dump, you cease hearing Christmas music on the radio usually by noon at the latest, and the time leading up to Christmas is observed in a manner that is completely opposed to the traditional order of things. The forty days prior to Christmas period is supposed to be a time of prayer and fasting. It is not as strict of a fast as Great Lent, but it is certainly not supposed to be the marathon of gluttony that it has become in the popular culture. For those of us on the Old Calendar, this made even more difficult by the fact that our fast continues until it is broken on January 7th, according to the civil calendar (which is December 25th on the Old Calendar). 

So how should Orthodox Christians deal with this situation? We have family, friends, and co-workers that regularly invite us to participate in these parties, but how are we to keep the fast and prepare properly for the celebration of the Nativity of Christ? Obviously, we should make the effort to keep the fast, but how one goes about it is a question of wisdom, and so let me lay out how I approach it, keeping in mind that there are other ways that one could approach some of these issues.

We have a few priorities as Christians that sometimes have to be weighed against one another:

1. Fasting is an important spiritual discipline. The Church calls on us to fast corporately at certain times of the year, and this is one of those times (Matthew 9:15; Canon 69 of the Holy Apostles)

2. We should not make a show of our fasting, nor should we going around with a sour look on our faces, complaining about how hard it is to keep the fast (Matthew 6:16-18).

3. Fasting is not an end in and of itself, but a means to an end. There are some (rare) circumstances in which it is better to break the fast than to be lacking in love for others. There are also some circumstances in which breaking the fast might be necessary for some other reason (e.g., ill-health, or extreme circumstances such as those serving in the military, and unable to fast due to the demands of their duty, etc).

If it happens to be a fast day, and some non-Orthodox loved one surprises you with a special meal that they went to great pains to prepare and they did not know it was a day that you should not eat most of what they have fixed, this would probably be one of those rare instances in which it would be better to break the fast than to hurt them by insisting on keeping the fast. However, one should not make a point of visiting as many non-Orthodox family and friends as you can during the fasts, and then using charity as an excuse to regularly break the fast. 

Furthermore, while it is true that we should not make a show of our fasting, if you are in regular contact with family or friends who are not Orthodox, I think it is a practical necessity to let them know that there are many times during the year when you cannot eat certain kinds of foods. You don't need to make a big deal about it. You certainly shouldn't demand other people accommodate you, and prepare special meals for you, but if you are going to keep the fasts, you will have to gently let them know that this is how things are with you. Especially in recent times, the idea that people have special diets is not uncommon.

If you are asked why you are not eating certain kinds of foods by people you really do not know, it is probably better to simply say that you are on a special diet (which is certainly true during the fasts), or to just say, "I can't eat that." Most people who don't know you, will probably not probe further. However, if they do, just answer the questions they ask without making a bigger deal about it than necessary. You should just not go out of your way to inform people you are fasting, when there is no need for them to know.

If you work around non-Orthodox people, on a regular basis, I think it is likewise practically impossible to keep the fasts without eventually letting them know about it. Especially during the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there is often a steady flow of non-lenten food that is brought to the office. The intentions of those who bring these foods are friendly, but you can gently refuse these things with a smile and good humor, without offending anyone. 

If there is an office party during a fast, you don't want to draw any more attention to yourself than is necessary, and you should not ask anyone else to plan such things to accommodate you, but you can be sociable and participate in these meals by looking for what is available that is lenten (usually, there are at least some vegetables, and maybe some chips and salsa (fairly standard fare in Texas, at least). You can also make a point of bringing something yourself that is lenten.

And when the fast finally does come to an end, you can then invite non-Orthodox friends and family to come and join you in celebrating the feast. For example, most parishes have some sort of a Christmas party (a "Yolka") on the Sunday after Christmas. This is a great opportunity to invite such people to visit your Church and join in the fun. Maybe you could also bring some donuts to work on the first day after Christmas that you are back on the job, and offer them to your coworkers, for a change. It is important to fast, but it is also important that we joyfully celebrate the feasts, and if we want others to be attracted to our faith, we should make sure that we do not leave them with the impression that we just fast a lot, but that we also know how to enter into the joy of our feasts at the end of those fasts.

See also:

Don’t Pre-Celebrate Christmas!, by Fr. Andrew George

The Two Wings of Prayer (audio), by Fr. John Whiteford

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Stump the Priest: Assurance of Salvation

Question: "Often in Protestant circles and Bible studies one will reference 1 John 5:13, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life." This is a verse that they claim as a basis for having complete assurance of their salvation. What is the Orthodox teaching on this passage?"

The question here is what does it mean to know that you have eternal life? Do we have to know that there is nothing we could possibly do to lose our salvation in order to know that we have eternal life?

This sort of thinking is something that has emerged from a strange Protestant mix of Arminianism and Calvinism. Calvinism teaches that God has decreed before all eternity who will be saved and who will be damned, and so obviously, if you are among the elect, there is nothing you could possibly do to become unelected. But a Calvinist would say that those who are elect will show the fruits of their election at some point before they die, and begin to live like Christians. Arminians, on the other hand deny that God determines who will be saved, and that the offer of salvation is open to everyone, and that furthermore, one can fall away from God and lose their salvation. Most Baptists are partially Calvinistic and partially Arminian -- they believe that salvation is open to all, but that once who are saved, you cannot lose your salvation. You could "steal a horse and ride it into heaven." And for those who have bought into this perspective, the idea of eternal security is something they believe in very strongly. And in fact, they seem to have a hard time understanding how anyone could have any confidence in their salvation if they did not have the absolute assurance that they could not possibly lose their salvation.

I have known my wife since I was 17, and we have been married for more than 27 years. I feel very secure in our relationship, but I am quite certain that there are things I could do to destroy that relationship. I am not in fear of that happening, however, because I have no intention of doing any of those things. So I know that my wife loves me, but I also respect her, and make sure that I treat her with love and respect so as to maintain that relationship. Our relationship with God is similar. We know God loves us, but we also know that if we turn our back on Him, we will not remain in a right relationship with Him. All we need to do, however, is to not do that.

St. Nicholas Cabasilas explains how we are saved in our cooperation with God this way:

"There is an element which derives from God, and another which derives from our own zeal. The one is entirely His work, the other involves striving on our part. However, the latter is our contribution only to the extent that we submit to His grace and do not surrender the treasure nor extinguish the torch when it has been lighted. By this I mean that we contribute nothing which is either hostile to the life or produces death. It is to this that all human good and every virtue leads, that no one should draw the sword against himself, nor flee from happiness, nor toss the crowns of victory from off his head" (The Life in Christ, trans. by Carmino J. DeCatanzaro, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), pp. 48-49).

Countless passages of Scripture could be cited to demonstrate that it is possible for us to lose our salvation, but the following words of the Prophet Ezekiel are a fairly clear example:

"The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live. Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God: and not that he should return from his ways, and live? But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die" (Ezekiel 18:20-24).