In the post on Tradition, I mentioned that the Orthodox (and Roman Catholics) derive their particular Christian tradition from the most ancient sources, and therefore from those sources closest to Christ. They strive to preserve a Tradition that has been faithfully passed down from generation to generation for nearly two thousand years. We know that this transmission has been relatively free of major change because we can go back to the writings of those who lived in the first centuries and compare. Where we find significant differences, we are dedicated to reviving the ancient tradition and eradicating the changes, wherever that is possible and necessary (we would not for example, insist that everyone learn to speak Greek because that is the language of the New Testament!)
Of course, Protestants aim to practice pure, ancient Christianity too, but they go about it in a very different way. For the Protestant, the catchcry is sola scriptura, ‘scripture alone!’ And of course, they are quite right in thinking that the Bible is the closest of sources to Christ Himself that we have available – historically speaking at least, although we would say we get even closer to Christ in the Eucharist, for example. But sola scriptura has problems as a basis for Christianity. For one, like the core Christian Creed we saw in the last post, the Bible must be interpreted. Apostolic and non-Apostolic Christians do not disagree about the authority of the Bible. What they disagree about is how interpret the Bible.
For example, when Jesus said “My flesh is food indeed and My blood is drink indeed” (John 6:55) did He mean us to take that literally? How are we to interpret His words? (more…)
One of the things that divides Christianity in the West into Roman Catholic and Protestant branches is the disagreement about what it takes to make it into heaven. The Catholics insist that both faith and works are necessary. It is not enough just to believe in God, but you have to also do good deeds to prove the sincerity of that faith. Here they often cite the Letter of St James in the Bible, a letter that Protestant pioneer Martin Luther disparaged as being nothing more than a “letter of straw”. What is more, say the Catholics, sacraments are necessary. We must be baptised and confirmed, absolved of our sins in Confession and united with Christ in the Eucharist. Again, there is no shortage of Biblical references for this.
In reply, the Protestants accuse the Catholics of being too narrow, of substituting the inventions of men for the commands of God, and of course they too have plenty of Bible verses to back up their position. “Believe and you will be saved”, they say, and that is all there is to the matter. If you only believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is Lord, and proclaim it with your lips, you have won your place in heaven already, and, many of them add, can never again lose it, no matter what. Sola fidei (faith alone!) is the Protestant catchcry. It is an approach that has simplicity to recommend it, and makes the path to heaven seem so much easier than all that stuff Catholics insist you have to do all your life.
So where do the Orthodox stand in this debate? (more…)
You will notice that in the last post I listed the Bible as a subheading under the heading ‘Tradition’. I did this to emphasise the nature of role of the Bible in Orthodox (and Roman Catholic) Christianity, in contrast to its role in Protestant Christianity. Protestants mostly follow a doctrine named sola scriptura, ‘scripture alone!’ This doctrine developed historically as a reaction to the often misguided human inventions of the medieval Catholic Church in Europe that were commanded as though they came directly from God. Doctrines such as purgatory, indulgences, relic-worship and their abuses were (rightly) rejected by the reforming Protestants. But they took things too far, discarding not only the later additions, but also much of the ancient apostolic traditions as well. Having lost their confidence in the clergy and their laws, the reformers decided that each individual should read the Bible for himself or herself and build their faith on that Bible, and that Bible alone.
This is all good and well, until you realise that the Bible as we have it today did not come into existence until the fourth century AD. For the first three hundred years, Christians lived their Christian lives guided not by a single monolithic text, but by a living tradition, some of which was gradually recorded in that text. That’s right, Jesus didn’t hand out NKJV Study Bibles to His Apostles (with an inspirational message scribbled inside the cover) when He sent them out to preach the Gospel to the world. Does this mean that the early Christians were lost? The Protestant Reformation aimed to return to a simpler more authentic Christianity, yet one of the central tenets of their project, sola scriptura, was something that the first generations of Christians could not possibly have practiced!
The Orthodox (and Catholic) approach seems to me to make far more sense and be more realistic and natural than sola scriptura. (more…)
There has been some heated debate recently over the question of submission in marriage. It has been stirred up by the conservative Sydney Archdiocese of the Anglican Church introducing optional marriage vows for the bride that include the concept of submitting to her husband. This of course is something that has existed int he Coptic Orthodox rite since time immemorial. It is no novel invention, but derives from the words of St Paul:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Saviour of the body. 24 Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22 NKJV)
Liberal Anglicans are outraged. They see this as huge step backwards for their Church, plunging it back into a discredited, patriarchal misogyny. St Paul wrote in the context of first century Greco-Roman society, where the inferiority of women was simply taken for granted. He and those to whom he wrote simply could not imagine a world where things were different, so he was simply giving advice on how to live as a Christian within that existing social structure. Compare slavery, the liberals say. St Paul encourages slaves to be obedient and submissive to their masters as to the Lord. But enlightened Christians in a more developed society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries refused to accept slavery as an institution and changed the whole structure of their society, eliminating slavery altogether, rather than just telling slaves to accept their lot and be submissive. By analogy, they say, our even more enlightened society in the twentieth and twenty first centuries is now changing the very power structure of marriage and introducing the fullness of the equality before God that St Paul mentioned elsewhere:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28 NKJV)
But both the liberal interpretation of St Paul and the objections to submission in marriage are based on a crucial misunderstanding of the Gospel of Christ, reflected in St Paul. Once clarified, submission falls into its proper place and becomes something beautiful. To identify this misconception, we shall go right back to the beginning of the problem… (more…)
Did you know that the fastest growth among the Christian denominations in Australia today is happening in the Pentecostal and Charismatic Protestant Churches?
One of the defining characteristics of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity is the phenomenon of speaking in strange languages. It is believed that this is a miraculous gift from the Holy Spirit, that it continues a practice of the Apostles themselves, and that it is even a sign of God’s favour. People who speak in tongues consider it to be an experience of connecting with God, a superior form of prayer in fact. Some will even go so far as to say that Christians who do not speak in tongues are seriously deficient as Christians
All of these beliefs are highly suspect. But don’t take my word for it; read the evidence and make up your own mind. You will find some detailed research here which I will try to summarise briefly below.
Firstly, if speaking in tongues were truly a gift of the Holy Spirit, one would expect it to be unique to those who believe in the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit. But in reality, speaking in tongues or glossolalia was not only practiced by pagan cults well before Christianity began, but continues to practiced by non-Christians today, including Hindu fakirs and gurus in India and even, worryingly, by voodoo practitioners in Haiti. There is no doubt that pagans began speaking in tongues long before Christianity began, and there is compelling evidence that the practice was smuggled into Christian life by pagan converts to Christianity.
But didn’t the disciples speak in tongues? Here we must make an important distinction, one you will have already noticed if you have been reading your Bible carefully. (more…)
It was such a pleasure to watch them stressing.
Our young Sunday School class, just turned sixteen years old, had bravely decided they wanted to celebrate this milestone by donating blood for the first time at the Red Cross Blood Bank. Sixteen of course is the minimum age for donating blood. Tasoni and I were there to join and encourage them.
It may not sound like much to many people, but it took a lot for some of these youth to do this, and their determination to see it through tells me something very important about them: they are serious about living out the true message of the Gospel.
Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. John 15:13
OK, they weren’t actually dying (though one or two seemed to come pretty close), but they were giving up their lifeblood in order to save the life of another.
What’s even nicer is that when you donate blood you have no idea who’s going to get it. It is not necessarily a ‘friend’. (more…)
I’ve been listening to some terrific podcasts by Fr Thomas Hopko, an Eastern Orthodox scholar and parish priest. It is a series on the clergy of the Christian Church through the ages and begins in the Apostolic Age, working its way slowly through the centuries. For anyone who loves ancient Christianity, and who desires to live the Orthodox Christian faith today as closely as possible to its original form in ancient times, this set of talks is a veritable treasure chest! Keep in mind when you listen that Fr Thomas is from the Eastern Orthodox family and thus views the Council of Chalcedon from that perspective. (While the Oriental Orthodox Churches like the Coptic Church reject that Council, most other Christian Churches accept it).
But his account of the first two centuries is engrossing and makes sense of so many things in our history that we generally hear in isolation and out of context. For example, one can gain a valuable insight into the true spirit of ancient Christian leadership when one learns that the titles for the leaders of the ancient Church were actually taken from the titles of slaves! The Episkopos (over-seer) was the household slave in charge of overseeing the affairs of the household on behalf of his master, and for the welfare and benefit of the master and his family. Episkopos is the title the early Christians adopted for their bishops. The Economos was in charge making sure the ‘economy’ of the house ran smoothly, and thus would look to the day to day details of household provisions and accounts and so on. His role was to preovide the resources that everyone else needed to live their lives happily and safely. Again, the early Christians adopted this name for those among the Elders (‘presbyteros’ ) who were entrusted with caring for the day to day affairs of the household of God, and ‘economos’ has evolved into the modern title, ‘hegomen’.
But note that both these positions were those of slaves. Applied to the Christian roles, what this meant is that the bishop and the hegomen were both ‘slaves’ of the Master of the household, God, and their role was to care for His children. As slaves, they were not to boss the children around or exert authority over them so much as to serve them and provide faithfully for all their needs. And this is of course in keeping with the command of Christ:
But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45
It also intriguing to hear about the developments in the years after Chalcedon, a period of history in which we Copts were not involved for the most part – being more occupied with things like survival in a hostile environment of Melkites and later Muslims. Here, this account explains so much of why both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches are what they are today. (more…)
At the threshold of Passion Week, I present an excerpt from an archaeological article written in 1985 by Vassilios Tzaferis. He reported on the first ever finding of the remains of a victim of crucifixion, although of course, there is a great deal of written evidence that the practice of crucifixion was by no means uncommon in the ancient world. Here he presents a brief history of Crucifixion. I warn you, some of it is not very pleasant reading.
Many people erroneously assume that crucifixion was a Roman invention. In fact, Assyrians, Phoenicians and Persians all practiced crucifixion during the first millennium B.C. Crucifixion was introduced in the west from these eastern cultures; it was used only rarely on the Greek mainland, but Greeks in Sicily and southern Italy used it more frequently, probably as a result of their closer contact with Phoenicians and Carthaginians.
During the Hellenistic period, crucifixion became more popular among the Hellenized population of the east. After Alexander died in 323 B.C., crucifixion was frequently employed both by the Seleucids (the rulers of the Syrian half of Alexander’s kingdom) and by the Ptolemies (the rulers of the Egyptian half). Among the Jews crucifixion was an anathema. (See Deuteronomy 21:22–23: “If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a stake, you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God: you shall not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.”)
The traditional method of execution among Jews was stoning. Nevertheless, crucifixion was occasionally employed by Jewish tyrants during the Hasmonean period. According to Josephus, Alexander Jannaeus crucified 800 Jews on a single day during the revolt against the census of 7 A.D. At the end of the first century B.C., the Romans adopted crucifixion as an official punishment for non-Romans for certain legally limited transgressions. (more…)
There are certain core principles at the heart of Christian life. There is a Latin term that summarises their importance: “sine qua non” or “without this, it is not”. Without living these principles, a person is simply not a Christian.
The calling of Levi (St Matthew) to be a Disciple of Christ is an example of one of those principles. It illustrates the kind of trusting surrender without which no one can truly be called a Christian. Others, more advanced in religious life, like the rich young man (Mark ch.10) failed in this principle and could not follow Jesus. This brought sadness to His heart.
How much did Levi know about Jesus when he accepted His invitation? Had Jesus ‘proved’ Himself to Levi by healing him or working a miracle for him? Neither the gospels nor Church tradition suggest any such thing. The mystery of Levi’s immediate, unquestioning obedience to what amounts to a stranger is the mystery of the human spirit’s surrender to Christ. It is not based on pure logic and appears even to be irrational. It does not grow out of experience alone, nor does it result from the cajoling of others.
True and complete surrender of one’s life to Christ arises out of (more…)
Recently I’ve been delving into alleged “mistakes” in the Bible. There is a lot to say on this subject, but I’d like today just to throw a few thoughts into the ring.
In considering whether a Bible passage has made a “mistake”, it is crucial to understand what we mean exactly by “mistake”. Language is used in so many different ways, and it is by no means exact in the same sense that the language of mathematics may be said to be exact.
If I propose, for example, that E=mc2, I am proposing something that is quite unambiguous. I have defined exactly what I mean by each of the symbols. For example, I have defined mass as being that particular property of a thing that allows it to be acted upon by forces like gravity. I would have a clear distinction in my mind between the concepts of mass and weight, the weight being of course the force exerted by gravity on the mass: proportional to it, but not identical to it. I would also know exactly what the ‘square’ symbol means – to multiply the preceding pronumeral by itself, to do so once and only once. I know that it means that the ‘c’ is squared, but not the adjacent ‘m’, according to a convention where in the absence of brackets, you square only the one pronumeral. And so on; it is a brief yet incredibly precise statement that leaves no room for misinterpretation, given modern mathematical conventions.
But how precise is a sentence like “And she brought forth her firstborn Son” Luke 2:7? What does the language tell us, and what does it leave open to interpretation? There are of course some implications that no one would object to, such as: