Thursday, April 14, 2016

Stump the Priest: Out of This World?

Question: "What is meant by the first part of "I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil." in John 17:15? St. Theophylact is rather mute on that point."

To understand this verse, you have to read it in the context of the entire chapter, which is composed of what is often called Christ's "High Priestly Prayer." This prayer has three sections. It begins with a prayer for Christ Himself (1-5), then for His disciples (6-19), and finally for all who would come to believe in Him through His disciples (20-26).

Most relevant to the meaning of the verse in question is a theme throughout this prayer of "the world". The word "world" (kosmos) in the New Testament can mean the creation, the people of the world (such as in John 3:16: "for God so loved the world..."), and it can also refer to the fallen evil system of this world. We see all three meanings used in this prayer.

Christ has glorified the Father on earth (4) and now prays that the Father will glorify Him "with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was" (5). Christ has manifest the name of the Father "unto the men which Thou gavest me out of the world" (6). Christ in this prayer, prayed "not for the world, but for them which Thou hast given me..." (9). Christ, who now is preparing for His passion which would soon be upon Him says "And now I am no more in the world, but these [His disciples] are in the world..." (11), While He "was with them in the world," He kept them in the Father's name, and none were lost save Judas "that the scripture might be fulfilled" (12). And of His disciples He says "the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world" (14). Then we have the verse in question: "I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil" (15). Which is immediately followed by the statement: "They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world" (16). Even as the Father "hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world" (17).And He prays for all those who would come to believe, that they would be one, " that the world may know that Thou hast sent me..." (23), and that they may "be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which Thou hast given me: for Thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world" (24).

And so the point here is that Christ was sent into this world, and is about to complete His work, but just as He was sent into the world, His disciples are being sent into the world, that the world may know Him. And so now is not the time for them to be taken out of this world. Their work has only begun. They are in the world, but are not of it. And that is our calling, to fulfill the work that Christ has given us to do in this world, but to keep ourselves from becoming part of the evil  that is in this world.

Here are what two Church Fathers have to say about this verse in particular:

St. Cyril of Alexandria says:
"What, then, is His prayer, after that He has shown that the disciples are hated by those who are fast bound by the evil things of the world? I pray not, He saith, that Thou shouldest take them from the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil one. For Christ does not wish them to be quit of human affairs, or to be rid of life in the body, when they have not yet finished the course of their apostleship, or distinguished themselves by the virtues of a godly life; but he wishes them, after they have lived their lives in the company of men in the world, and have guided the footsteps of those who are His to a state of life well pleasing to God, then at last, with the glory they have achieved, to be carried into the heavenly city, and to dwell with the company of the holy angels. We find, moreover, one of the Saints approaching the God Who loves virtue with the cry: Take me not away in the midst of my days; for pious souls cannot, without a pang, put off the garment of the flesh before they have perfected their life in holiness above their fellows. Therefore also the Law of Moses, teaching us that sinners are visited as in wrath, and by way of penalty, with premature death, often reiterates the warning to stand aloof from evil, that thou diest not before thy time. Besides, if the Saints chose to keep themselves apart from our daily life, it would infer no small loss to those who are unstable in the faith; nay, they could in nowise be guided in the way of righteousness, without the aid of those who are able to lead them therein. Paul knew this when he said, To depart and be with Christ is far better for me, yet to abide in the flesh is more needful for your sake. Christ, therefore, in His care for the salvation of the uninstructed, says that those who are in the world ought not to be left desolate without the Saints, who are men of light, and the salt of the earth; but prays rather for the safe keeping of His holy ones, and that they may be ever untouched by the malice of the evil one, shunning the assault of temptations by the power of His Omnipotent Father" (Commentary on John 11:9).
St. John Chrysostom says:
"...Christ came not to put us to death and deliver us from the present life in that sense, but to leave us in the world, and prepare us for a worthy participation of our heavenly abode. Wherefore He saith to the Father, “And these are in the world, and I come to Thee; I pray not that Thou shouldest take them from the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil,” (John 17:11,15) i.e., from sin"(Homilies of Galatians 1:4).
For more information on this chapter you can read three homilies St. John Chrysostom gave on this chapter:

Homily 80 on John 17:1-5
Homily 81 on John 17:6-13
Homily 82 on John 17:14-26

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Stump the Priest: Laws about Slavery

Question: "Doesn't the fact that the Old Testament has laws that allow for slavery constitute an endorsement of slavery?"

I have previously addressed the issue of why slavery existed during the period of time that the Scriptures were written, and you can read that article for more on the subject generally:

"Stump the Priest: What about Slavery in the Bible?"

But to address this specific question, let's consider the question of whether the fact that there are laws regarding divorce in Old Testament constitute an endorsement of divorce. We are told in no uncertain terms that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). Christ was asked by the Pharisees about the issue of Divorce in Matthew 19:1-9, and He stated that divorce should not happen: "What God has put together, let not man put asunder". But when asked why the law of Moses allowed for divorce, Christ answered "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery." Divorce is the result of sin, and the Law regulated it in order to place some limitations on it, but this does not mean that divorce is something that God is in favor of.

Likewise, slavery was a universal fact of life in the ancient world, for reasons that are addressed in the above referenced article. In fact, we still have forms of involuntary servitude even in our current legal system. The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, allowed for involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime, and we also still have the potential for a military draft, which is likewise a form of involuntary servitude. And even voluntary military service is somewhat analogous to indentured servitude, because once you make the commitment, you are not simply free to quit, like you would be at a regular job. All this is true, even in our times, in which we have advanced in terms of technology, education, and infrastructure beyond the imaginations of people of ancient times. There is still a social necessity for some forms of involuntary servitude, even now.

It is difficult for us to imagine what life was like during the Old Testament period, but if we want to understand it, we have to make the effort to try. They did not have the United Nations, a prison system, or a much in the way of a welfare system, though there was some provisions made for the poor. However, in those days simply having enough food to eat was a challenge, and for many people, selling themselves into slavery was a preferable option to starvation. The laws we find in the Old Testament provided rights to slaves, and placed limitations on their masters. This was in stark contrast to the pagan world which generally afforded no rights to slaves at all.

So no, the fact that there were laws to regulate something does not at all suggest that God endorsed it as a good thing.

For more information, see:

Does God Approve of Slavery According to the Bible? by Rich Deem
Does God condone slavery in the Bible? (Old Testament), by Glen Miller
Does God condone slavery in the Bible? (New Testament), by Glen Miller
Stump the Priest: What about Slavery in the Bible? by Fr. John Whiteford

Friday, March 25, 2016

Stump the Priest: Communion Spoons

Question: "Doesn't the 101st canon of the Council of Trullo forbid the use of communion spoons? Why are the laity not allowed to receive communion in the hand and from the chalice, as they did at the time of the Ecumenical Councils?"

The canon in question has nothing to do with communion spoons. It addressed the practice of some people who rather than receive communion in the hand, as was the practice at that time, would make vessels of their own, and would receive communion in these vessels, thinking it was more pious than to receive it in the hand. Some may also have used these vessels to take some of the Eucharist to their homes. This practice was specifically prohibited by that canon:
"The divine Apostle loudly proclaims the man created in the image of God to be a body of Christ and a temple. Standing therefore, far above all sensible creation, and having attained to a heavenly dignity by virtue of the saving Passion, by eating and drinking Christ as a source of life, he perpetually readjusts both his eternal soul and his body and by partaking of the divine grace he is continually sanctified. So that if anyone should wish to partake of the immaculate body during the time of a Synaxis, and to become one therewith by virtue of transessence, let him form his hands into the shape of a cross, and, thus approaching, let him receive the communion of grace. For we nowise welcome those men who make certain receptacles out of gold, or any other material, to serve instead of their hand for the reception of the divine gift, demanding to take of the immaculate communion in such containers; because they prefer soulless (i.e., inanimate) matter and an inferior article to the image of God. In case, therefore, any person should be caught in the act of imparting of the immaculate communion to those offering such receptacles, let him be excommunicated, both he himself and the one offering them."
The practice of distributing the Eucharist to the laity with a spoon became the norm because of the practical issue of laity accidentally dropping particles of the Eucharist when communing. If you pay attention when people come up to kiss the Cross at the end of the liturgy, and receive the antidoron, you can't help but notice that there are almost always crumbs on the floor. We should of course make every effort to avoid this, even when it comes to antidoron, but when it comes to the Eucharist, this is an infinitely more serious problem.

The clergy still receive communion in the hand, and drink directly from the chalice -- and they have the benefit of having the Holy Table to do this over, so that if something falls, it falls on the Holy Table, and can easily be consumed. However, even in the Altar, and despite the usual care that is exercised, accidents sometimes still happen. Such things are far more likely to happen outside of the altar.

If we believe that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, we have to believe that when it makes a change, like the introduction of the use of communion spoons, there is a good reason for it. There are those who selectively advocate some ancient practice be revived because "this is how they did it in the early Church," but they usually do not advocate a return to the strict penitential system that they had in the early Church. Those who joined the early Church did so at a time when doing so could easily result in their martyrdom, and they were held to a very high standard, and so there are practices that made sense in that context that do not work so well in the context of a Church in which many people, unfortunately, grow up in the Church with a much lower level of piety.

We don't have to speculate about the results of returning to this practice in our time. We can look at what has happened in the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II when they began to allow laity to receive communion in the hand. The result was not an increase of piety, but just the opposite. I know of a pious Roman Catholic who says more cockroaches receive first communion each week than people, because particles so routinely drop to the floor -- and most people do not seem to be concerned about it, either.

No less than Pope John Paul II observed:
"In some countries the practice of receiving Communion in the hand has been introduced. This practice has been requested by individual episcopal conferences and has received approval from the Apostolic See. However, cases of a deplorable lack of respect toward the eucharistic species have been reported, cases that are imputable not only to the individuals guilty of such behavior but also to the pastors of the church who have not been vigilant enough regarding the attitude of the faithful toward the Eucharist" (Dominicae Cenae 11.9).
The wisest course for us is to humbly accept the Tradition as we have received it, and to trust that what the Church has established is for our salvation.

See Also: Communion and Germs

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Stump the Priest: A Time to Keep Silence

Question: "In the Old Testament we read that there is 'a time to keep silence and a time to speak' (Ecclesiastes 3:7). What is the value of silence and quiet in a time when we are always 'plugged in'?"

This passage is actually speaking about silence in terms of when we should speak. However, your question is more focused on silence in terms of removing distractions from our life, particularly for times of spiritual focus. Both aspects are important to consider.

What Ecclesiastes is saying is that there are times when we should speak, and there are times when we should not. There are times when we can betray God by speaking, and there are times when we can betray God by our silence. When to speak or when not to speak is a question of wisdom, and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

How does one acquire the wisdom needed to make the right choices? One thing we need to do is to inform ourselves by studying the Scriptures, which contain great wisdom. We should also seek wise counsel, and we should pray for divine guidance. And then, you have to make what seems to be the wisest choice, but remaining open to the correction of others and praying that God will correct you, if you have made the wrong choice.

The Fathers say quite a bit about the virtues of silence. One good source to read on this is "The Evergetinos," which is a compilation of sayings of the desert fathers, but arranged topically, by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. In volume 2, beginning on page 353, there is a section entitled "Concerning speech and silence, how and when to make use of them, and that idle talk is a sin." Here are a few excerpts from that section:
"An Elder said: "One man thinks that he is being silent, and yet his heart is judging others; such a man is always talking. Another man talks from morning until evening and yet keeps silence; that is, he says nothing that is not beneficial."
"A brother visited a certain Elder and said to him: "Abba, give me a word, so that I may be saved." The Elder replied: "If you go to someone, do not hasten  to speak before you consider what you are going to say." Filled with compunction at this saying, the brother made a prostration and remarked: "Truly, I have read many books, but never have I come across such learning." Thus edified, he departed."
"Abba Isaiah said: "Wisdom does not consist in speaking; wisdom means knowing the time when you should speak and when to reply as necessary. Make it seem that you know nothing, although you have knowledge, so as to avoid great distress; for he who appears to have knowledge lays burdens on himself. Do no boast about your knowledge, for no one knows anything."
"An Elder sais: "If you acquire silence, do not pride yourself on having attained to virtue, but say: 'I am unworthy even to speak.'""
From St. Diadochos: "Just as, when the doors of the baths are left continually open, the heat inside is quickly driven out, so also the soul, when it wishes to say many things, even though everything that it says may be good, disperses its concentration through the door of the voice. Hence, the soul, deprived of suitable spiritual ideas, loses the strength to struggle against thoughts and babbles with anyone it encounters. Since in this way (through loquacity) the soul drives out the Holy Spirit, it cannot keep the intellect free from harmful fantasies; for the Good Spirit always flees from loquacity, which is the cause of every upset and fantasy. Timely silence is good, since it is nothing other than the mother of the wisest thoughts."
"Two brothers from Sketis wanted to visit Abba Anthony. They embarked on a boat, and with them embarked a certain Elder, whom the brothers did not know and who was likewise going to visit Abba Anthony. As they sat on the boat, the brothers discussed what the Fathers say about the Scriptures and also talked about their handiwork. The Elder was silent. After they had disembarked from the boat and reached their destination, Abba Anthony said to the brothers: "You found good company in in this Elder." Then he said to the Elder: "You had good brothers travelling with you, Abba." The Elder replied: "They are good, but their house has no door; anyone who wants to can enter the stable and untie the ass." He said this in order to show that they said whatever came into their mouths."
Here are some thoughts on the question of distractions:
"There are a number of important things that should be observed by those seeking spiritual development. One of these is physical and mental quiet (hesychia), made possible by living in a quiet place [or turning off the TV at home, the radio in the car, etc.], away from noise, confusion, and distractions. Control of talking is another. Such control helps bring about inner silence, which strengthens a person spiritually, whereas unnecessary talking does the reverse" (Anchored in God: Life, Art, and Thought on the Holy Mountain of Athos, Dr. Constantine Cavarnos).
"Silence greatly helps in spiritual life. It is good for one to practice silence for about an hour a day: to test himself, to acknowledge his passions and to fight in order to cut them off and purify his heart. It is very good if there is a quiet room in the house which gives him the feeling of a monastic cell. There, “in secret”, he is able to do his spiritual maintenance, to study, and to pray. A little spiritual study done before prayer helps greatly. The soul warms up and the mind is transported to the spiritual realm. That’s why, when a person has many distractions during the day, he should rejoice if he has ten minutes for prayer, or even two minutes to read something, so as to drive away distractions" (Excerpts from Family Life, by St. Paisios the Athonite).
We cannot avoid distractions all of the time, but we need to set aside times when we intentionally avoid them, so that we can make progress in the spiritual life. Great Lent is one tenth of the year. We should treat it as a tithe, and especially set this time apart for spiritual focus. This does mean we need to cut down the usual noise, and spend more time in prayer, more time reading the Scriptures and other spiritually edifying books, and more time in the services of the Church.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Stump the Priest: When does a Fast Begin and End?

Question: "Does a fast begin and end at the time of Vespers, or at midnight?"

While the liturgical day begins and ends at Vespers, we begin fasting no later than midnight, and we end the fast at some point after midnight, depending on whether or not there is a liturgy at which we will receive communion.

There are some who argue that we can break a fast after Vespers rather than at midnight, but consider what this would mean for Pascha. It is true that at the Vesperal Liturgy on Holy Saturday, we begin to enter into the celebration of Pascha in an anticipatory way (e.g., the liturgical colors are changed from black (or purple) to white at this service); but we do not break the fast. In fact the ecumenical canons specifically forbid breaking the fast before midnight:
"The faithful celebrating the days of the saving Passion with fasting and prayer and contrition must cease their fast about the middle hours of the night after Great Saturday, the divine Evangelists Matthew and Luke having signaled us the lateness of night, the one by adding the words “at the end of the sabbath” (Matt. 28:1) and the other by saying “very early in the morning” (Luke 24:1)" (Canon 89 of the Quinisext Council).
Also, except for infants, or those with health issues, we begin a complete fast from all food and drink from the midnight before the day of the Liturgy at which we will receive communion.

See also: 

The Importance of Fasting and its Observance Today (Draft document of the Pan-Orthodox Council, adopted by the 5th Pan-Orthodox Pre-Council Conference in Chambésy on October 10-17, 2015)

On the Participation of the Faithful in the Eucharist (Document approved at the Hierarchal Consultation of the Russian Orthodox Church, February 2–3, 2015 in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow)

Living an Orthodox Life: Fasting

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Stump the Priest: Infant Baptism

Question: "St. Paul tells us that "as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:27); and St. Peter tells us that "...baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:21). How can an involuntary child "put on Christ" if they had no say in the baptism? In what sense and in what way is baptism salvific if the child is unable to answer God with a good conscience?"

What Saith the Scriptures?

The New Testament does not explicitly say anything about infant baptism, one way or the other. But St. Paul does tell us that baptism is the sign of entry into the New Covenant. He calls it both "the circumcision made without hands" and "the circumcision of Christ":
"In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead" (Colossians 2:11-12).
So in the Old Testament, was circumcision limited to those who were old enough to speak for themselves and choose it, or was it mandated for infants as well? When God instituted circumcision, he specifically stated that it was mandatory for infants:
"And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant" (Genesis 17:12-14).
Note that it not only states that a child should be circumcised on the eighth day, but also states that the child who is not circumcised on the eighth day "shall be cut off from his people..." Why? Because "he hath broken my covenant." A child who is eight days old cannot speak for himself. He can neither compel his parents to have him circumcised, nor does he have any power to resist it if his parents chose to have him circumcised. And yet God tells Abraham that a child who is not circumcised has broken the covenant. This is because the Scriptures do not reflect the extreme individualism of our contemporary culture. Our parents make all kinds of decisions for us. We are connected with them, and they can exercise faith on our behalf. They can also make bad choices that negatively affect us. At some point we either have to choose to continue along with those decisions, or we can choose to chart our own course, but when we are infants, this is clearly not the case.

St. Peter said in his sermon on the day of Pentecost:
"Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call" (Acts 2:38-39).
Now one could interpret this to mean that this promise would apply to their children when they came of age at some future point, but given that he was speaking to Jews who had since the time of their father Abraham initiated their sons into the covenant through circumcision on the eighth day, unless infants were specifically excluded by the Apostles, these people would have had every reason to believe that this had a more immediate application, and that baptism was for even their infant children.

Furthermore, there are references in the New Testament to an entire household being baptized (e.g. Acts 16:33-34). While this does not prove that infants were included, there is no suggestion that they were not, and it is very likely the case that they were.


The Tradition of the Church is abundantly clear on this subject. One of the earliest Christian writers outside of the New Testament was St. Hippolytus of Rome, and when speaking of how baptisms were done, he says:
“Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16 [written in 215 A.D.]).
And St. Cyprian of Carthage, responding to a dispute about whether children should be baptized on the eighth day or sooner, wrote:
"But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified with in the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man" (Epistle 63:2, To Fidus, on the Baptism of Infants, written around the year 253 A.D.).
And what is very significant here is that no one was suggesting that infants should wait until they were old enough to speak for themselves -- only about whether one should wait eight days, or less.

One could multiply quotes from the Fathers on this subject, but you can find many of them here:

What are Infants Capable of?

Finally, I am not so sure that we can assume that infants have no spiritual awareness, given what we are told about St. John the Baptist in Luke chapter one. We are told that while he was still an unborn child in his mother's womb he leaped for joy when his mother greeted the Virgin Mary who was already carrying the unborn Christ in her womb:
"And it came to pass, that, when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit" (Luke 1:41).
And previous to this, when the birth of St. John the Baptist was foretold to father, St. Zachariah, he was told:
"For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink [i.e., he will be a Nazarite]; and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1:15).
This clearly indicates that St. John the Baptist had a spiritual life even as an unborn infant. While St. John the Baptist was a uniquely called and gifted person, nothing in Scripture suggests that his ability to experience the grace of God as an infant was unique to him.

For more information:

Infant Baptism in the Orthodox Church, by Fr. John Hainsworth

Is Infant Baptism Biblical?, by Robert Arakaki

R. C. Sproul (a Presbyterian Minister and Scholar): A Biblical Defense of Infant Baptism:

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Stump the Priest: The Death Penalty

Question: "How can someone who is pro-life oppose abortion and yet be in favor of the death penalty?"

There is not the slightest contradiction in being opposed to the murder of the innocent, while also favoring the the lawful execution of the guilty. There is also nothing in either Scripture or Tradition that calls for opposition to the death penalty, when justly imposed.

Under the Mosaic Law, the death penalty was imposed for a number of reasons in addition to murder. Many Christians would illegitimately dismiss this by saying "Well, that's the Law of Moses, but we are under the Gospel." However, the clearest call for the death penalty in Scripture came long before the time of Moses, in Genesis 9:6, in which God provided Noah with the minimal standards that all of his descendants would be answerable for, which included a command to impose the death penalty on murderers:
"Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man."
And what you won't find is any Father of the Church interpreting this passage in a way that dismisses it as only relevant to those in the Old Testament, or otherwise not applicable to us. Instead they affirm this as a necessary restraint on fallen man's impulse to murder.

And we find this again affirmed by St. Paul in Romans 13:4, in which he speaks of the authority of civil rulers:
"For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil."
The purpose of a sword is not merely decorative. It is an instrument for killing people, and St. Paul says that the power to punish evil doers with the sword is a God ordained power delegated to civil authorities... even unbelieving or pagan civil authorities. And again, you do not find any Father of the Church trying to find a way to negate the plain meaning of the text, but rather, they affirm it.

St. John Chrysostom, for example, says:
"You see how he hath furnished him with arms, and set him on guard like a soldier, for a terror to those that commit sin. “For he is the minister of God to execute wrath, a revenger upon him that doeth evil.” Now lest you should start off at hearing again of punishment, and vengeance, and a sword, he says again that it is God’s law he is carrying out. For what if he does not know it himself? yet it is God that hath so shaped things. If then, whether in punishing, or in honoring, he be a Minister, in avenging virtue’s cause, in driving vice away, as God willeth, why be captious against him, when he is the cause of so many good doings, and paves the way for thine too? since there are many who first practised virtue through the fear of God. For there are a duller sort, whom things to come have not such a hold upon as things present. He then who by fear and rewards gives the soul of the majority a preparatory turn towards its becoming more suited for the word of doctrine, is with good reason called “the Minister of God” (Homily 23 on Romans).
Likewise, Ambrosiaster* writes:
"It is clear that rulers have been appointed so that evil will not occur. There we must be warned that if someone stands in contempt of the law, the ruler will punish him. Since God has ordained that there will be a future judgment, and he does not want anyone to perish, he has ordained rulers in this world who, by causing people to be afraid of them, act as tutors to mankind, teaching them what to do in order to avoid future punishment" (Ambrosiaster, Ancient Christian Texts: Commentary on Romans and 1-2 Corinthians, trans. and ed. Gerald L. Bray (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2009) p. 96).p. 101).
St. Innocent I, Pope of Rome (ca. 405) also writes:
"It must be remembered that power was granted by God, and to avenge crime the sword was permitted; he who carries out this vengeance is God's minister (Romans 13:1-4). What motive have we for condemning a practice that all hold to be permitted by God? We uphold, therefore, what has been observed until now, in order not to alter the discipline and so that we may not appear to act contrary to God's authority" (Ad Exsuperium, Episcopum Tolosanum, PL 20,495). 
Furthermore, in the Gospel of Luke, we have the wise thief commenting on the justness of the death penalty for those who are guilty:
"But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss" (Luke 23:40-41).
And in Matthew 15:1-9 and Mark 7:1-13, Christ mentioned the death penalty which the Law of Moses imposed on those who dishonored their parents without any suggestion that this was either unjust or no longer valid.

 Contrary Arguments

Those who wish to convince people that Orthodox Christians must oppose the death penalty make a number of arguments... none of which hold up to scrutiny:

1. The Ten Commandments say "Thou shalt not kill."

The problem with this argument is that the word in question clearly means murder, rather than killing in the context of war, or of an execution.

2. St. Nicholas interceded to save men who were condemned to death. 

True, but they were unjustly condemned to death. They were not guilty. No one is in favor of innocent people being put to death. The Exapostilarion of St. Nicholas sums up the matter:
"Let us all praise Nicholas, the great archpastor, hierarch and prelate of Myra; for he saved many men who were unjustly condemned to be executed, appearing to the emperor and to Ablavius in a dream, annulling the unjust verdict." 
He did not annul a just verdict, nor did he ask for a just verdict to be commuted.

3. St. Vladimir, after he converted to Christianity, abolished the death penalty. 

Also true, but with the encouragement of the Church, he also reinstated it.

The Position of the Russian Church

At the All-Russian Council in 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church approved a very important document, The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, which addresses a number of contemporary issues -- including this question. And here is what it states:

"The death penalty as a special punishment was recognised in the Old Testament. There are no indications to the need to abolish it in the New Testament or in the Tradition or in the historical legacy of the Orthodox Church either. At the same time, the Church has often assumed the duty of interceding before the secular authority for those condemned to death, asking it show mercy for them and commute their punishment. Moreover, under Christian moral influence, the negative attitude to the death penalty has been cultivated in people’s consciousness. Thus, in the period from the mid-18th century to the 1905 Revolution in Russia, it was applied on very rare occasions. For the Orthodox church consciousness, the life of a person does not end with his bodily death, therefore the Church continues her care for those condemned to capital punishment.
The abolition of death penalty would give more opportunities for pastoral work with those who have stumbled and for the latter to repent. It is also evident that punishment by death cannot be reformatory; it also makes misjudgement irreparable and provokes ambiguous feelings among people. Today many states have either abolished the death penalty by law or stopped practicing it. Keeping in mind that mercy toward a fallen man is always more preferable than revenge, the Church welcomes these steps by state authorities. At the same time, she believes that the decision to abolish or not to apply death penalty should be made by society freely, considering the rate of crime and the state of law-enforcement and judiciary, and even more so, the need to protect the life of its well-intentioned members" (Section 9:4).
And so, while this statement provides a number of reasons why one could oppose the death penalty, none of them are to be found in Scripture or Tradition.

In an interview, Patriarch Kirill elaborated on his own opinion on this question:
Chisinau, October 12, Interfax - Death penalty is acceptable in special cases, but existing judicial system cannot provide its justified use, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia believes. 
"I'm against death penalty in today's Russia. Today to get rid of a competitor, they order a killer. Considering current state of our courts, if there's a death penalty, people will be "removed" legally. And it's a great danger," the Patriarch said in his interview with Moldavian, Romanian TV channels and Rossiya-24 TV.
According to him, there have already been several cases "when suddenly, in the last moment, it was cleared out that the person wasn't guilty."
"Thus if we speak about bringing back death penalty in some concrete cases, when we refer to maniacs, mass murders, terrorists, but we should have absolutely strong evidence that the person committed it and he wasn't forced to take this guilt, such things can take place in future," Patriarch Kirill believes.
The Primate reminded that the church tradition does not condemn or refuse death penalty, Christ Himself "was crucified, He went through death penalty, but He has never said that criminals shouldn't be executed and holy fathers don't say it either" 
"Rejection of death penalty is not the result of Christian tradition, but the result of a new liberal philosophic idea that appeared in West European space," he said.
The Patriarch noted that though the Church had never spoke against death penalty, it spoke against applying it and there were only seven or eight cases of death penalty in the Russian Empire for more than hundred years (Interfax, 12 October 2011, 10:41, Patriarch Kirill against introducing death penalty in modern Russia).
Patriarch Kirill was expressing his own opinion about the death penalty, and did not rule it out in some cases. His primary concern seems to be with the quality of the criminal justice system in contemporary Russia. But like the Social Concept document, he notes that there is nothing in Scripture or Tradition that requires opposition to the the death penalty.

Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), in his essay "The Christian Faith and War," took a much more favorable view of the death penalty.


Orthodox Christians are free to oppose the death penalty if they wish, and many people whom I greatly respect do so. One could argue that in ancient times, life in prison was not a practical option for society, but it is today, and so we should reevaluate the need for the death penalty. You could argue that we spend far too much money on death penalty cases, and that it would be wiser to opt for life in prison. You can point out that life in prison gives prisoners more time to repent. And many other arguments can be made which would try to persuade others that it would be wiser to choose other options. However, what one cannot argue is that either Scripture or Tradition require one come to such conclusions, because clearly this is not the case.

*"Ambrosiaster" is the name given to the author of commentaries long attributed to St. Ambrose of Milan, but which scholars believe to have been written by a later author.

See also: Sermon: War, Capital Punishment, and the Sixth Commandment, by Fr. John Whiteford

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Stump the Priest: A Mercy of Peace

Golgotha (inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher)

Question: "I have heard it argued that the phrase in the Liturgy "A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise" is both nonsensical and a corruption of an earlier text. Is this correct, and if not, what does the phrase mean?"

It is true that there are some textual issues related to this text. There are are number of manuscripts that read "Mercy, peace, a sacrifice of praise," and some argue that this reading makes more sense. However, in an article by Robert Taft on the subject, the oldest text that is cited, is text of the commentary on the Divine Liturgy by St. Germanus of Constantinople, and it has the reading just as we use it today (Textual Problems in the Diaconal Admonition before the Anaphora in the Byzantine Tradition (Orientalia Christiana Periodica, 49 (1983) 345; St. Germanus of Constantinople, On the Divine Liturgy. Trans. [with Greek parallel text] Paul Meyendorff (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1984), p. 90f.), This variant also made its way into the pre-Nikonian Slavonic texts, though since the Nikonian reforms, the mainstream Slavonic texts have followed the standard reading.

The fact that the standard text is criticized as being a more difficult reading is actually an argument in favor of its authenticity. One of the basic principles of textual criticism is that (all things being equal) the harder reading is more likely to be original, and a smoother reading is more likely the result of a later correction. If such a "harder reading" were found only in an isolated manuscript here or there, one could perhaps make the case that it was the result of some error in copying -- but not when such a reading is the predominant reading.

In any case, whether it was the original reading or not, it is the accepted reading that the Church has embraced. That being the case, suggesting that the text is "nonsensical" reflects both a lack of humility and piety. If the Church has embraced it, it cannot be nonsensical. It may be that it is hard to understand, or that one might not understand it; however, just because a person does not understand what it means, this does not mean that it is incapable of being understood. After all, this is not a line from some obscure text that few would have ever encountered, or would have encountered infrequently. This is a line from the most prominent part of the most prominent service of the Church, which is served almost every day of the year. Consequently, it is unfathomable that such a text could have gained such wide acceptance in the Church had it truly been nonsensical.

Some try to argue that the text, at least as it stands in English, is ungrammatical, because "mercy" is an uncountable noun, and so cannot be used with the indefinite article ("a"). However, if you look up the word "mercy" in Merriam Webster's dictionary online, one of the examples of how the word is used is "it was a mercy they found her before she froze." Countless examples of this could be cited from the great works of English literature... and so it is simply not true that this construction is ungrammatical.

As for what this means, keep in mind that this line follows the words of the deacon: "Let us stand well, let us stand with fear, let us attend, that we may offer the holy oblation in peace." And so, in context, we see that this line is referring to the holy oblation.

Fr. Thomas Hopko provides a concise explanation of what this means:
"The Holy Oblation is Christ, the Son of God who has become the Son of Man in order to offer himself to his Father for the life of the world. In his own person Jesus is the perfect peace offering which alone brings God’s reconciling mercy. This is undoubtedly the meaning of the expression a mercy of peace, which has been a source of confusion for people over the years in all liturgical languages.
In addition to being the perfect peace offering, Jesus is also the only adequate sacrifice of praise which men can offer to God. There is nothing comparable in men to the graciousness of God. There is nothing with which men can worthily thank and praise the Creator. This is so even if men would not be sinners. Thus God himself provides men with their own most perfect sacrifice of praise. The Son of God becomes genuinely human so that human persons could have one of their own nature sufficiently adequate to the holiness and graciousness of God. Again this is Christ, the sacrifice of praise" (The Orthodox Faith, Volume II - Worship: The Divine Liturgy, Eucharistic Canon: Anaphora, January 26th, 2016<> Emphasis in the original).
See also:

A Mercy of Peace, a Sacrifice of Praise, by the Very Rev. John Abdalah

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Stump the Priest: "Against me is Thine anger made strong"

Question: "How do we understand Psalm 87[88]:7 ["Against me is Thine anger made strong, and all Thy billows hast Thou brought upon me"] that we do in the Six Psalms of Matins? This Psalm is about Christ, yes? And if so, how do we understand that in regards to Him?"

I am sure that there are patristic commentaries that I do not have access to, but of those that I do, it seems most of the Fathers do interpret this Psalm as referring to Christ, but of those who do. This would include St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, and Cassiodorus. Of these fathers, only St. Augustine and Cassiodorus comment on this specific verse, at least so far as I have seen. Cassiodorus used St. Augustine's commentary when writing his own, and so it is not an entirely independent witness on this.

Blessed Theodoret also comments on this verse, but he interprets this Psalm as referring to the Jews in the Babylonian Captivity. Since there are often multiple levels of meanings to any given passage, Blessed Theodoret's interpretation is not mutually exclusive with those Fathers who see this in reference to Christ.

But here is what St. Augustine says about this passage, which is interesting to me primarily because of what he does not say:

""Thy indignation lieth hard upon Me" (ver. 7), or, as other copies have it, "Thy anger;" or, as others, "Thy fury:" the Greek word θυμὸς having undergone different interpretations. For where the Greek copies have ὀργὴ, no translator hesitated to express it by the Latin ira; but where the word is θυμὸς, most object to rendering it by ira, although many of the authors of the best Latin style, in their translations from Greek philosophy, have thus rendered the word in Latin. But I shall not discuss this matter further: only if I also were to suggest another term, I should think "indignation" more tolerable than "fury," this word in Latin not being applied to persons in their senses. What then does this mean, "Thy indignation lieth hard upon Me," except the belief of those, who knew not the Lord of Glory? who imagined that the anger of God was not merely roused, but lay hard upon Him, whom they dared to bring to death, and not only death, but that kind, which they regarded as the most execrable of all, namely, the death of the Cross: whence saith the Apostle, "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth upon a tree [Galatians 3:13]" (Exposition on the Psalms, Psalm 87).

Likewise, Cassiodorus says of this verse "This was the belief of those permitted to prevail for their own destruction, that through God's anger Jesus Christ had confronted the hazards of the of the passion" (Explanation of the Psalms, Vol. 2, trans. P. G. Walsh, (New York: Paulist Press,1991), p. 345).

What is interesting here to me is that if St. Augustine or Cassiodorus believed that at the crucifixion, the wrath of God the Father was poured out on the Son, this would have been a perfect occasion for him to expound upon it, but instead he says if this verse that this verse only alludes to the false opinion of those who rejected Christ. This goes to show that this distortion of the doctrine of the Atonement was unknown to these Fathers.

For more information, see:

Stump the Priest: The Atonement

Stump the Priest: Allegorical Interpretations of Scripture?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Stump the Priest: Thy Life Hanging Before Thee

Question: "In Deuteronomy 28:66-67, Moses talks about fearing the day and night. What all is going on there? I know verse 66 is quoted in the hymns for the Exaltation as Christ our Life hanging before our eyes but I don't understand the rest of the verse."

Here is a literal translation of that text:
"And thy life will be hanging before thee, and thou shalt fear day and night, and thou wilt not believe in thy life. In the morning thou shalt say, Would it were evening! and in the evening thou shalt say, Would it were morning! for the fear of thine heart with which thou shalt fear, and for the sights of thine eyes which thou shalt see."
To properly understand this text you have to keep in mind that there are different levels of meaning to the Scriptures, and also keep in mind the context of the passage. So before we discuss how this speaks of Christ, let's talk about the literal meaning of this passage in its context.

This passage falls within the context of a book in which the terms of the Old Covenant are recapitulated, and in this section (Chapters 27 to 28), the Prophet Moses states the blessings for those who obey the terms of the Covenant, and then the curses. At the beginning of chapter 28, we have the blessings for those who obey:
"And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth: And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God. Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. Blessed shall be thy basket and thy store. Blessed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and blessed shalt thou be when thou goest out. The Lord shall cause thine enemies that rise up against thee to be smitten before thy face: they shall come out against thee one way, and flee before thee seven ways. The Lord shall command the blessing upon thee in thy storehouses, and in all that thou settest thine hand unto; and he shall bless thee in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. The Lord shall establish thee an holy people unto himself, as he hath sworn unto thee, if thou shalt keep the commandments of the Lord thy God, and walk in his ways. And all people of the earth shall see that thou art called by the name of the Lord; and they shall be afraid of thee. And the Lord shall make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground, in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers to give thee. The Lord shall open unto thee his good treasure, the heaven to give the rain unto thy land in his season, and to bless all the work of thine hand: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, and thou shalt not borrow. And the Lord shall make thee the head, and not the tail; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath; if that thou hearken unto the commandments of the Lord thy God, which I command thee this day, to observe and to do them: And thou shalt not go aside from any of the words which I command thee this day, to the right hand, or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them" (Deuteronomy 28:1-14).
Then beginning at verse 15, the curses for those who disobey the covenant begin, and that section continues on through verse 68... and so the curses are almost four times the length of the blessings. Here are just some examples of them:
"But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee: Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field. Cursed shall be thy basket and thy store. Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. Cursed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and cursed shalt thou be when thou goest out. The Lord shall send upon thee cursing, vexation, and rebuke, in all that thou settest thine hand unto for to do, until thou be destroyed, and until thou perish quickly; because of the wickedness of thy doings, whereby thou hast forsaken me.... And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. The Lord shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed. The Lord shall cause thee to be smitten before thine enemies: thou shalt go out one way against them, and flee seven ways before them: and shalt be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth.... Thou shalt betroth a wife, and another man shall lie with her: thou shalt build an house, and thou shalt not dwell therein: thou shalt plant a vineyard, and shalt not gather the grapes thereof. Thine ox shall be slain before thine eyes, and thou shalt not eat thereof: thine ass shall be violently taken away from before thy face, and shall not be restored to thee: thy sheep shall be given unto thine enemies, and thou shalt have none to rescue them. Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and thine eyes shall look, and fail with longing for them all the day long; and there shall be no might in thine hand.... And thou shalt become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword, among all nations whither the Lord shall lead thee..." (Deuteronomy 28:15-68).
And so in context, the literal sense of verses 66-67 is that those who do not abide by the terms of the covenant with be in a constant state of anxiety. When it says their lives will be hanging before them, it means that their lives will be in constant jeopardy. They will have no respite, either by night or day, and they will never have confidence that they will survive.

It is unlikely that prior to Christ's crucifixion anyone would have read this passage as applying to the Messiah. However, this was seen by the early Church as hidden prophecy of the crucifixion, and of the unbelief of those Jews who rejected Christ. The connection between this sense of the text and the literal sense is that it applies to those who have not fulfilled the Covenant in both instances, but only in retrospect could this passage been seen in the light of the Cross.

In the early Church there is some evidence that there were documents in circulation that consisted of citations from the Old Testament that demonstrated that Jesus was the Messiah, and if that is true, this passage was likely a standard part of such apologetic documents. Here are some examples of how this text was used:

St. Irenaeus (who reposed in 202 a.d.):
"And again, he indicates that He who from the beginning founded and created them, the Word, who also redeems and vivifies us in the last times, is shown as hanging on the tree, and they will not believe on Him. For he says, “And thy life shall be hanging before thine eyes, and thou wilt not believe thy life” (Against Heresies 4:10:2).
"For the Creator of the world is truly the Word of God: and this is our Lord, who in the last times was made man, existing in this world, and who in an invisible manner contains all things created, and is inherent in the entire creation, since the Word of God governs and arranges all things; and therefore He came to His own in a visible manner, and was made flesh, and hung upon the tree, that He might sum up all things in Himself. And His own peculiar people did not receive Him, as Moses declared this very thing among the people: "And thy life shall be hanging before thine eyes, and thou wilt not believe thy life." Those therefore who did not receive Him did not receive life. "But to as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God"" [John 1:12] (Against Heresies 5:18:3).
Tertullian (who reposed in 240 a.d.):
"Now the mystery of this “sign” was in various ways predicted; (a “sign”) in which the foundation of life was forelaid for mankind; (a “sign”) in which the Jews were not to believe: just as Moses beforetime kept on announcing in Exodus, saying, “Ye shall be ejected from the land into which ye shall enter; and in those nations ye shall not be able to rest:  and there shall be instability of the print of thy foot: and God shall give thee a wearying heart, and a pining soul, and failing eyes, that they see not: and thy life shall hang on the tree before thine eyes; and thou shalt not trust thy life” (An Answer to the Jews, 11).
St. Cyprian of Carthage (who was martyred in 258 a.d.) cites this passage as one of the many passages that prophesied that the Jews would crucify Christ (Three Books of Testimonies Against the Jews 2:20).

St. Athanasius the Great (who reposed in 373 a.d.):
"But, perhaps, having heard the prophecy of His death, you ask to learn also what is set forth concerning the Cross. For not even this is passed over: it is displayed by the holy men with great plainness. For first Moses predicts it, and that with a loud voice, when he says: “Ye shall see your Life hanging before your eyes, and shall not believe” (On the Incarnation 35:1-2).
And in the services, as mentioned in the question, when the Cross is brought out for veneration on the Exaltation, one of the stichera that we sing is:
"O God, the words of Moses Thy prophet have been fulfilled, who said: "Ye shall see your life hanging before your eyes!" Today the Cross is exalted, and the world is freed from deception. Today the resurrection of Christ is renewed, and the ends of the earth rejoice, offering to Thee a hymn on cymbals, like David, and saying: "Thou hast wrought salvation in the midst of the earth, O God: the Cross and resurrection! For their sake Thou hast saved us, O Good One Who lovest mankind! O Almighty Lord, glory be to Thee!""
As for the specific question of how the phrase "and thou shalt fear day and night" would apply to the crucifixion, I have not seen anything in the Fathers that attempts to apply it directly to that, and so I would personally see this as being in reference to the literal sense of the text. I think that what is going on here is sort of a prophetic wink from God. The Holy Spirit inspired Moses to speak these words in such a way that they would have a double meaning, and this evidently was a compelling argument when trying to convince Jews to accept that Jesus was the Messiah, judging by how frequently we find the argument made.

See Also:

Stump the Priest: Allegorical Interpretations of Scripture?

Friday, January 08, 2016

Stump the Priest: Because of the Angels

Question: "In 1 Corinthians 11:10, when St Paul talks about women wearing head coverings "because of the angels," what does he mean by that? I have my ideas but I don't wanna trust my ideas." 

We have already covered the question of women covering their heads in a previous article, but this question was not specifically addressed in that article.

The King James Version provides a very literal translation of the verse in question:

"For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels."

Before we get to what it means that a woman should cover her head "because of the angels" we should first consider what it means for a woman to have "power" on her head. Most modern translations follow the interpretation found in the King James Version's margin notes, and add some words that are not explicitly in the original in order to provide a clearer meaning:

"For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels" (NKJV).

This is consistent with the interpretation of St. John Chrysostom. And what this means specifically is that it is a symbol that the woman is under the authority of her husband.

So why should a woman wear a head covering "because of the angels"? There are three interpretations of this.

1. Tertullian interpreted this to refer to angels being tempted by the daughters of men, but this interpretation hinges on his interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4, which was rejected by most of the Fathers of the Church (See: Stump the Priest: Giants in the Bible?).

2. St. Cyril of Alexandria interpreted this to mean that the angels are offended by women who are disobedient, and show disregard for this practice:

3. Blessed Theodoret interprets this to mean that women who disregard this practice offend the guardian angels of the men who might be distracted in prayer by their lack of modesty; and their own guardian angels as well:

"By authority he referred to the covering, as it is to say, Let he show her subjection by covering herself, and not least for the sake of the angels, who are set over human beings and entrusted with their care. Likewise also in acts, "It is not he, but his angel" [Acts 12:15]; and the Lord, "See that you do not despise one of these little ones who believe in me: Amen I say to you, their angels continually look upon the face of my Father in heaven" [Matthew 18:10] ( (Blessed Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, Vol. 1, trans. Robert Charles Hill, (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2001), p. 205).

The interpretations of St. Cyril and Blessed Theodoret are by no means mutually exclusive, and I think together, they make the best sense of this verse.

See also:

Stump the Priest: Head Coverings

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.