Thursday, July 28, 2016

Stump the Priest: Tree of Knowledge

Question: "Why did God create the Tree of Knowledge?"
"And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.... And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Genesis 2:8-9;15-17).
God created the Tree of Knowledge, and then commanded that out of all the trees of the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve not eat from that one tree, because for man to grow and mature, they had to be able to exercise their free will.

St. Gregory the Theologian said: "He gave Him a Law, as material for his free will to act upon. This Law was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of, and which one he might not touch. This latter was the Tree of Knowledge; not, however, because it was evil from the beginning when planted; nor was it forbidden because God grudged it to men -- let not the enemies of God wag their tongues in that direction, or imitate the serpent." In fact, St. Gregory says that had Adam and Eve obeyed the commandment, they would have been permitted to eat of it, and that the fruit "would have been good if partaken of at the proper time" (Second Oration on Easter 8).

St. Ephrem the Syrian wrote that God made man neither mortal, no immortal. He created man with the potential for both. "Even though God, in His goodness, had given them everything else, He wanted, in His justice, to give them immortal life that was to be conferred by their eating from the tree of life. Therefore, God set down for them a commandment. It was not a great commandment relative to the great reward that He had prepared form them; He withheld from them one tree, only enough for them to be under a commandment. God gave them all of Paradise so that they could be under no constraint to transgress the law.... If [Eve] had been victorious in that momentary battle, in that brief contest [the temptation of the serpent to eat of that tree], the serpent and that one who was in the serpent would [still] have received the punishment that they received, while she, together with her husband, would have eaten of the tree of life and would have lived for ever. Along with this promised life that [Adam and Eve] would have acquired, they would also have had by Justice all that had previously been given to them by Grace" (Commentary on Genesis 17:5, 18:4 The Fathers of the Church: St. Ephrem the Syrian, Selected Prose Works, trans. Edward G. Matthews, Jr, and Joseph P. Amar (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994), p. 109f).

Likewise, St. John of Damascus explains it similarly:
"When therefore He had furnished his nature with free-will, He imposed a law on him, not to taste of the tree of knowledge. Concerning this tree, we have said as much as is necessary in the chapter about Paradise, at least as much as it was in our power to say. And with this command He gave the promise that, if he should preserve the dignity of the soul by giving the victory to reason, and acknowledging his Creator and observing His command, he should share eternal blessedness and live to all eternity, proving mightier than death: but if forsooth he should subject the soul to the body, and prefer the delights of the body, comparing himself in ignorance of his true dignity to the senseless beasts, and shaking off His Creator’s yoke, and neglecting His divine injunction, he will be liable to death and corruption, and will be compelled to labor throughout a miserable life. For it was no profit to man to obtain incorruption while still untried and unproved, lest he should fall into pride and under the judgment of the devil. For through his incorruption the devil, when he had fallen as the result of his own free choice, was firmly established in wickedness, so that there was no room for repentance and no hope of change: just as, moreover, the angels also, when they had made free choice of virtue became through grace immovably rooted in goodness" (Concerning Foreknowledge and Predestination (Book 2, Chapter 30 of Exposition of the Orthodox Faith).
See Also:

Concerning Paradise (Book 2, Chapter 11 of Exposition of the Orthodox Faith), by St. John of Damascus

Friday, July 22, 2016

Stump the Priest: Degrees of Sin

Question: "I often hear sin is sin and no sin is greater than another. What's the church's stance on this particular subject?"

We see that there are degrees of sin very clearly in Scripture. For example, in Numbers 15:22-31, we are told about a general sacrifice that was offered for the unintentional sins of the people, and individuals who became aware of an unintentional sin could make an individual offering, But then it says that those who have sinned "presumptuously" (which in Hebrew literally means "with a raised hand") are not covered by these sacrifices.

You also see that different kinds of sins are dealt with very differently in the canons. Some sins can warrant very lengthy excommunications, but then when it comes to other sins, one simply needs to confess the sin, and no penance would be necessary. It would be ridiculous, for example to not recognize that there is a significant difference between mass murder, and someone briefly having an unchristian thought about another person. Of course even the most minor sins need to be repented of, and we should never excuse ourselves and ignore them, but both Scripture and Tradition recognize that not all sins are equal in their seriousness.

St. Nikodemus of the Holy Mountain explains in chapter 3 of the Exomologetarion (A Manual of Confession):

Concerning these you must know that, just as a physician is required to know what the illnesses of the body are in order to treat them, you who seek to be a Spiritual Father are obligated to know what the illnesses of the soul are, that is, sins, in order to treat them. Although the illnesses of the soul are many, they generally fall into the following three categories. Hence, you need to know which are mortal, which are pardonable and not mortal, and which are sins of omission or inaction.
1. Concerning Mortal Sins
According to Gennadios Scholarios, George Koressios, the Orthodox Confession, and Chrysanthos of Jerusalem, mortal sins are those voluntary sins which either corrupt the love for God alone, or the love for neighbor and for God, and which render again the one committing them an enemy of God and liable to the eternal death of hell. [11] Generally speaking, they are: pride, love of money, sexual immorality, envy, gluttony, anger, and despondency, or indifference. [12]
2. Concerning Pardonable Sins
Pardonable sins are those voluntary sins which do not corrupt the love for God or the love for neighbor, nor do they render the person an enemy of God and liable to eternal death, to which transgressions even the Saints are susceptible, according to the words of the Brother of God: “For in many things we all sin” (Jas. 3:2), and of John: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (l Jn. 1:8), and according to Canons 125, 126, and 127 of Carthage. These sins, according to Koressios and Chrysanthos, are: idle talk, the initial inclination and agitation of anger, the initial inclination of lust, the initial inclination of hate, a white lie, passing envy, or that which is commonly called jealousy, which is slight grief over the good fortunes of one’s neighbor, and the like. [13]
Know also, Spiritual Father, that the many sins which are generally called pardonable are not of one and the same degree, but they are of varying degrees, smaller and larger, lower and higher, and that pardonable sins and mortal sins are two extremes. For in between these extremes there are found varying degrees of sins, beginning from the pardonable ones and proceeding up to the mortal ones, which degrees were not given names by the Ancients, perhaps because they are many and varied according to the class and specific kind of sins, but could have named them if they so desired. Here we name some of them, for the benefit of clarity and for your knowledge, beginning from below: pardonable sins, those near the pardonable, those that are non-mortal, those near the non-mortal, those between the non-mortal and the mortal, those near the mortal, and finally, mortal sins. Here is an example of the sins of the incensive aspect of the soul: The initial movement of anger is pardonable; near to the pardonable is for someone to say harsh words and get hot-tempered. A non-mortal sin is to swear; near the non-mortal is for someone to strike with the hand. Between the non-mortal and the mortal is to strike with a small stick; near the mortal is to strike with a large stick, or with a knife, but not in the area of the head. A mortal sin is to murder. A similar pattern applies to the other sins. Wherefore, those sins nearer to the pardonable end are penanced lighter, while those nearer to the mortal end are more severely penanced. [14]
3. Concerning Sins of Omission
Those good works, or words, or thoughts, which are capable of being done or thought by someone, but through negligence were not done, or said, or thought, are called sins of omission, [15] and are brought forth from the mortal sin of despondency, as we have said. I know very well that these sins of omission are not considered by people as full sins, because those are few who consider it a sin if they did not perform such and such a charity when they were able to, or had the means to either give good advice to their neighbor, or to do a certain amount of prayer, or do another virtue, and did not.
But this, however, I know for certain, that God will render an account on the day of judgment concerning these. Who verifies this for us? The example of that slothful servant who had the one talent and buried it in the ground, who was judged, not because he committed any sin or injustice with it (because he who gave the talent to him took it all back, as Basil the Great says in the Introduction of The Long Rules), [16] but because being able to increase it, was negligent and did not increase it: “Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury” (Mt. 25:27). It is also verified for us by the example of the five foolish virgins who were condemned for nothing other than an absence of oil. And concerning the sinners placed at the left hand, they will be condemned, not because they committed any sin, but because they were lacking and were not merciful to their brother: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink” (Mt. 25:42). The reason that God gave to man natural strength was not in order to leave it idle and useless, without results and fruit, just as that slothful servant left the talent of the Lord idle, as we said above, but He gave it to man in order for man to put it into action, and into practice, and for it to increase, doing good with it and the commandments of the Lord, and so to be saved through this. On this account Basil the Great said: “We have already received from God the power to fulfill all the commandments given us by Him, so that we may not take our obligation in bad part, as though something quite strange and unexpected were being asked of us, and that we may not become filled with conceit, as if we were paying back something more than had been given us.” [17] And also in agreement with the above words, his brother, Gregory of Nyssa, says: “As each shall receive his wages, just as the Apostle says (1 Cor. 3:14), according to his labor, so also each shall receive punishment according to the extent of their negligence.” [18]
Those things which are also called sins of omission are those which we were able to prevent, by word or act, but did not prevent. On this account those who commit these are likewise penanced according to Canon 25 of Ancyra, Canon 71 of Basil the Great, and Canon 25 of St. John the Faster. [19]
Furthermore, Spiritual Father, you must know that the degrees of sin from the beginning until the end are twelve. The first degree is when someone does good, but not in a proper manner, mixing the good with the bad. This occurs in seven ways, as Basil the Great says, “As regards the place, the time, the person, the matter involved, or in a manner intemperate, or disorderly, or with improper dispositions.” [20] An example of a sin of the first degree is when someone performs an act of mercy, or fasts, or does some other good deed, so that he might be glorified by people. The second degree of sin is complete idleness in regard to the good. The third degree is an assault of evil. The fourth is coupling. The fifth is struggle. [21] The sixth is consent. [22] The seventh is the sin according to the intellect, according to St. Maximos, which is when a person, having consented, plans carefully to accomplish that sin which is in his intellect so as to do the deed. The eighth is the deed itself and the sinful act. The ninth is the habit of someone committing the sin often. The tenth is the addiction to sin, which with violence and force compels the person to sin voluntarily and involuntarily. The eleventh is despair, that is, hopelessness. The twelfth is suicide, namely, for a person to kill himself, while having a sound intellect, being conquered by despair. So then, Spiritual Father, you must try assiduously in every way to turn the sinner around to smaller degrees of sin and to prevent him from proceeding to the greater degrees ahead. And most of all, you must endeavor to sever him from despair, no matter in how great a degree of sin he is found. [23]
Click here to see the footnotes.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) Elected Bishop of Sacramento

The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church just approved the election of Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) as bishop.  Here is a machine translation of the Russian text.

CONSIDERED the approval of the decision of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church on election Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) bishop of Sacramento, Vicar of the Western American Diocese. 


In accordance with paragraph 17 of Chapter XI of the Constitution of the Russian Orthodox Church, the norms of the Charter apply to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in view of the Act of Canonical Communion of 17 May 2007.

In accordance with the Act of Canonical Communion of 17 May 2007: "The bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia are elected by her Council of Bishops or, in cases stipulated by the Regulations of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, the Synod of Bishops. The election is approved by canonical norms by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia and the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. " 
July 1, 2016 the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church elected Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) bishop of Sacramento, Vicar of the Western American Diocese. July 6, 2016, His Grace Metropolitan of Eastern America and New York Hilarion addressed to His Holiness Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill with the request to approve the decision of the Holy Synod. 

To approve the decision of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church on election Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) bishop of Sacramento, Vicar of the Western American Diocese, leaving the place and time of his ordination to the discretion of the Hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church.
You can read about Bishop-Elect Irenei here:


There is more from the ROCOR web site on Fr. Irenei's election, and his background:

Friday, July 01, 2016

Stump the Priest: The Unpardonable Sin

Question: "What is the unforgivable Sin and how do people commit it?"

Fr. Michael Pomazansky addresses this question very thoroughly in the context of his discussion of the sacrament of confession in his Orthodox Dogmatic Theology:
"Holy Scripture speaks of cases or conditions when sins are not forgiven. In the word of God there is mention of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which "shall not be forgiven unto men, neither in this world, neither in the world to come" (Matt. 12:31-32). Likewise, it speaks of the sin unto death, for the forgiveness of which it is not commanded even to pray (1 John 5:16). Finally, the Apostle Paul instructs that "it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance, seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame" (Heb. 6:4-6).
In all these cases, the reason why the forgiveness of sins is not possible is to be found in the sinners themselves, and not in the will of God; more precisely, it lies in the lack of repentance of the sinners. How can a sin be forgiven by the grace of the Holy Spirit, when blasphemy is spewed forth against this very grace? But one must believe that, even in these sins, the sinners, if they offer sincere repentance and weep over their sins, will be forgiven. "For," says St. John Chrysostom about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, "even this guilt will be remitted to those who repent. Many of those who have spewed forth blasphemies against the Spirit have subsequently come to believe, and everything was remitted to them" (Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew [Homily 41]). Further, the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council speak of the possibility of forgiveness for deadly sins: "The sin unto death is when certain ones, after sinning, do not correct themselves . . . In such ones the Lord Jesus does not abide, unless they humble themselves and recover from their fall into sin. It is fitting for them once more to approach God and with contrite heart to ask for the remission of this sin and forgiveness, and not to become vainglorious over an unrighteous deed. For 'the Lord is nigh unto them that are of a contrite heart'" (Ps. 33:18)" (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, trans. Fr. Serpahim (Rose), (Platina, CA: St. Herman Press, 1984), p. 289f).
St. Augustine makes the identical point in his sermon on Matthew 12:32. He says that it is not merely the act of blaspheming the Holy Spirit which is unpardonable, but refusing to repent of that blasphemy: "...even this shall be forgiven, if a right repentance follow it...But that blasphemy of the Spirit Himself, whereby in an impenitent heart resistance is made to this so great gift of God even to the end of this present life, shall not be forgiven" (Sermon 21 on the New Testament). So as long as a man lives, repentance is possible, but if he persists in rejecting the Holy Spirit, it is impossible for him to be pardoned, because there is no pardon without repentance.