Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Stump the Priest: What so Great about Certain Saints?

St. Athanasius the Great

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 10, 2015

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

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

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

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

For directions to St. Jonah, click here.

For directions to the Centrum, click here.

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

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Franklin Graham gets it on Russia's intervention in Syria

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

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

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

See also this article from Christianity Today.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Stump the Priest: Millennialism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also 1 Corinthians 15.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information, see:

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

The Inconsistency of Chiliasm , by Bishop Alexander (Mileant)

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

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Stump the Priest: Allegorical Interpretations of Scripture?

St. Paul

Question: "Why do the Orthodox use the allegorical method of Bible interpretation, when there is no evidence of it being used prior to the year 190 A.D.?"

The premise of the question is false, because we find allegorical biblical interpretations in the New Testament itself, and this had its roots in traditional Jewish methods of interpretation.

Philo of Alexandria (who live from approximately 25 B.C. to 50 A.D.), used allegorical interpretations of the Scripture extensively

The parables of Christ have an allegorical dimension, although Protestant scholars have generally resisted that conclusion. However, Christ Himself provided the interpretation of one parable in the Gospels -- the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-9) -- and the interpretation He gave was clearly an allegorical interpretation (Mark 4:10-20).

St. Paul's epistles contain allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament, most notably in Galatians 4:21-31, in which he explicitly states that the story of Hagar and Sarah and their respective sons Ishmael and Isaac was an "allegory":

"Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Hagar. For this Hagar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband. Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free."

Another example is found in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10:

"For it is written in the law of Moses, thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope."

Many more examples could be cited of typological interpretations of  the Old Testament, found in the New.

Protestants generally wish to reject the allegorical method, but when faced with clear examples of the Apostles engaging in that very method, their response is usually to say: "Well, the Apostles were inspired to do it, but no one else is." But this is clearly an arbitrary opinion that has no basis in Scripture or Tradition.

The allegorical sense of Scripture does not negate the literal sense -- it is another level of meaning in the text. Traditionally, there are four senses of Scripture:

1. Literal: This refers to the obvious meaning of the text. In some cases, the text is clearly not intended to be taken literally, but even poetic texts have an obvious meaning.

2. Typological/Allegorical: A type is a stamp which imprints an image. An antitype is that which is imaged by the type.  We find the word "type" explicitly used in Romans 5:12-14:

"Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned— (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come."

And we find the word "antitype" used explicitly in 1 Peter 3:18-22:

"For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him."

A story could be composed as an allegory, such as the Parable of the Sower (the Pilgrim’s Progress being a more extended example), but an historical narrative can also be interpreted allegorically, as St. Paul did.

3. Moral: The moral sense is the practical application of Scripture on an individual or corporate level. To see this reading of Scripture in action, you can read through the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete that is prayed during Lent in the Orthodox Church.  

4. Anagogical/Heavenly/Eschatological: "Anagog" comes from Greek meaning “to go up.”  So this sense looks at how a passage points us to the fulfillment of all things.  

Interestingly, Rabbinic Jewish interpretation of Scripture also sees Scripture as having a Four-fold sense, which has many similarities.

Protestants have reacted negatively to the allegorical method because it was used to such great excess in the west, especially during the medieval period. However, if you read the commentaries of the great Fathers of the Church, you find it used in a way that is far more balanced.

Clearly, if the Apostles could interpret the Old Testament in allegorical and typological terms, no one who claims to be a Christian should object to the Church Fathers doing likewise.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Stump the Priest: Shrimp and Homosexuality

Question: "The Bible says that homosexuality is an abomination (Leviticus 18:22), but it also says that eating shrimp is an abomination (Leviticus 11:9-12), so why do Christians eat shrimp, but oppose homosexuality?"

As these texts are translated by the King James Version, and in several other translations, you do find the same word ("abomination") is used, but in the Hebrew text you find two different words:

Leviticus 18:22 reads: "Thou shalt not lie with a man, as with a woman: it is abomination [tô‛êbah]."

Leviticus 11:9-12 reads: "These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat. And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination [sheqets] unto you: they shall be even an abomination [sheqets] unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcasses in abomination [shâqats (verbal form of sheqets)]. Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination [sheqets] unto you."

These two words, while they have some overlap in terms of their range of meaning, do not have the same range of meaning. The NRSV translates "sheqets" as "detestable," which at least alerts the reader to the fact that the words are not identical. According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, the word "sheqets" is used "mostly in reference to unclean and forbidden foods... Relegating certain animals to the category of "unclean" and "abominable" may in a number of instances involve considerations of health. Yet the main consideration here must be that, whatever the reason, or however much or little it was understandable to the Israelites, certain foods were forbidden and regarded as detested. This was to be accepted on the simple basis of trust in, and obedience to God" (Vol. II, ed. R. Laird Harris, et al. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), p. 955).

While "tô‛êbah" can refer to that which is ritually offensive, it also includes matters that are morally repugnant, such as homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22), human sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:31), ritual prostitution (1 Kings 14:23f), etc. "Whereas tô‛êbah includes that which is aesthetically and morally repulsive, its synonym sheqets denotes that which is cultically [i,e, ritually] unclean..." (Ibid., p. 977).

Even when one uses the very same word, this does not necessarily mean that they carry the same weight. I can say that I love Blue Bell Ice Cream, and I can say that I love my wife, but while I would die for my wife, I will generally only buy Blue Bell when it is on sale. Though the same word is used, it is used in two very different senses.

In the case of eating shrimp vs. homosexual sex, you can tell a lot about the degree to which these things were regarded as sinful by the punishments meted out to those who violated them. In the case of eating shrimp, there was no specified punishment at all. The person who ate shrimp would have certainly been considered unclean for some period of time, pending ritual purification. According to Jewish tradition, they might also have been subject to corporal punishment. The punishment for engaging in homosexual sex was death (Leviticus 20:13).

We can also tell that these things are viewed very differently by the fact that only Israelites were expected to abstain from non-kosher food. On the other hand, the passage that the ban against homosexual sex is listed (in Leviticus 18) is in the context of a list of sexual sins for which God judges even the gentiles. This is stated before this list, and repeated again at the end of it:

"And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, I am the Lord your God. After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances. Ye shall do my judgments, and keep mine ordinances, to walk therein: I am the Lord your God. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 18:1-5).

"Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: and the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations [tô‛êbah]; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you: (For all these abominations [tô‛êbah] have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled;) That the land spew not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spewed out the nations that were before you. For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations [tô‛êbah], even the souls that commit them shall be cut off from among their people. Therefore shall ye keep mine ordinance, that ye commit not any one of these abominable [tô‛êbah] customs, which were committed before you, and that ye defile not yourselves therein: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 18:24-30).

There was no mention that non-kosher foods were forbidden before the Law of Moses. For example, God said to Noah: "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things" (Genesis 9:3). And when Gentiles began entering the Church, the Apostles declared that the Gentiles were not bound by the kosher laws of the Mosaic Law:

"For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well" (Acts 15:28-29).

And it should be noted that the word translated as "fornication" is the Greek word "porneia," which includes any kind of sexual immorality, including those listed in Leviticus 18.

The pro-homosexual argument regarding these passages also completely ignores the vision given to St. Peter which specifically ended the requirement for Christians to abstain from non-kosher food (Acts 10:9-16), and that there are several other New Testament passages that condemn homosexuality. So the argument that Christians are hypocritical in their appeal to the ban on homosexual sex in in Leviticus 18:22, which still eat shrimp, lobster, clams, and crawfish is completely consistent with testimony of Scripture.

Somethings are inherently sinful, and somethings are sinful in specific contexts. For example, it is sinful for an Orthodox Christian to disregard the fasts for no compelling reason, and to eat a hamburger on a fast day, but there is nothing inherently sinful about hamburgers. Likewise, for Israelites, not eating certain kinds of foods had a symbolic meaning, and was a matter of obedience, but there was nothing inherently sinful about eating shrimp. However, it is inherently sinful for a man to have sex with another man, and the Bible is completely unambiguous about this.

A Recent Example:

A recent example of pro-homosexuals trying to argue against taking seriously Leviticus 18:22 by appealing to the biblical illiteracy of the average American is the following clip from the TV show "West Wing", which "Occupy Democrats" have been circulating via social media recently, which even resulted in CNN's Don Lemon playing portions of it:

(the pertinent part of this clip begins at about 1:18)

This line of argument is really not just against the Church's position on homosexuality. It is also an argument against taking the Bible seriously at all. No one who considers himself a Christian should have any sympathy for such arguments. But we should know how to respond to them, and so let's look at the passages referenced in this video:

Exodus 21:7-11: This passage provides some special protections for female slaves, because they obviously were in a more vulnerable position. For more on this question, see "Stump the Priest: What about Slavery in the Bible?", but suffice it to say here that this passage does not command that anyone own slaves, nor that anyone sell their children into slavery -- it puts limits on how slaves could be treated. This was quite in contrast with Roman law, for example, in which a master could do whatever he wished to a slave, up to and including killing them, for any reason.

Slavery is no where in the Bible presented as a good thing. A Christian can certainly not own slaves and oppose most forms of slavery without violating any tenet of Scripture or Church Tradition (we still allow for involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime, and in the form of the military draft). And so the comparison of this issue to the question of whether or not homosexual sex is a sin is a red herring.

Exodus 35:2: This passage calls for the death penalty for those who break the Sabbath. The Church still believes that the Ten Commandments, including the commandment to remember the Sabbath day, apply to Christians, but we consider the Lord's day (Sunday) to have taken the place of the old Sabbath as the primary day of Christian rest and worship, though we also continue to observe Saturday the day of creation. The Church does not call for the death penalty for violating this, nor does it call for it in the case of homosexuality. For more on this, you can listen to the sermon: The 4th Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

The Old Covenant was given to people who were at a very low level of spiritual understanding. The harsh penalties that are often found in the Old Testament law were due to this. St. John Chrysostom, commenting on the law which condemned Sabbath breakers to death, said that it was "Because if the laws were to be despised even at the beginning, of course they would scarcely be observed afterwards" (Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew 39:3). But while the harsh and immediate penalties for the violation of the law are relaxed in the New Testament, the strictness of the laws themselves are not only not relaxed, but are rather enhanced. Just as you spank younger children, but expect less of them, and expect more of older children, without spanking them, the Old Testament dealt with the Israelites where they were, but brought them gradually to a higher level of spiritual understanding.

Then Martin Sheen's character simply begins to make stuff up. He speaks of the Bible calling for stoning someone who plants different seeds together, and burning to death someone who mixes different kinds of fabrics. While Leviticus 19:19 does say: "Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle breed with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee", you will note that it says nothing about anyone being stoned or burned alive for failure to observe these customs. This shows the complete dishonesty of those who make such arguments. These customs were part of the ceremonial law of Moses (which still has symbolic value, but which no longer directly applies in the New Testament), not the moral law of God -- which was in effect before the law of Moses, and remains in full force and effect today. See: The Continuing Validity of the Moral Law of the Old Testament.

For more information on the Levitical Law and homosexuality , see:

"Dan Savage Savages the Bible, Christianity, and the Pope," by Dr. Michael Brown

As well as the following video from Dr. Robert Gagnon:

Robert Gagnon: The Bible and Homosexual Practice (7 Video Lectures)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Stump the Priest: The Atonement

Question: "Do the Orthodox believe in the Atonement?"

The concept of atonement is found throughout Scripture, and so of course we Orthodox do believe in it. There was in fact a feast in the Old Testament called " The Day of Atonement," which in Hebrew is called Yom Kippur. This was the only fast day specifically called for in the Law of Moses, and was "a most holy sabbath [Shabbat Shabbaton]" (Leviticus 16:31). This is the fast that was alluded to in Acts 27:9, which states that "sailing was now dangerous, because the fast was now already past..."

The English word "atonement" was coined by William Tyndale, and means "to make one" or literally "at one-ment" (taking the two words "at" and "one" and adding the suffix "-ment." This well translated the meaning of the Hebrew word "Kippur,"  which means "reconciliation" -- specifically reconciling sinful men with a Holy God.

Another term which William Tyndale brought into English is "Mercy Seat". William Tyndale based his translation on Luther's translation into German: "Gnadenstuhl," which literally means the seat of grace or mercy. However, there is nothing in the Hebrew term, Kapporet, which suggests "mercy" or "seat." "Kapporet" is a form of the word "Kippur", and literally means "the place of reconciliation". This was the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, and the Mercy Seat was the place upon which the blood of the sacrifice on the day of Atonement was sprinkled, and by which reconciliation between God and men was brought about. The Greek translation for Mercy Seat was "ἱλαστήριον, hilasterion." And we find this word used in Romans 3:24-25: "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God." Interestingly we find in that text the word "redemption", which could be translated as "ransom", and the Hebrew word for "ransom" (Koper) is from the same root word as Kippur -- a word used in reference to the Old Testament sacrifices, and which clearly has the connotation of "payment."

Church Tradition directly connects the Cross wih the Ark of the Covenant, because the Ark and the Mercy Seat was the place of atonement, and the Ark is referred to as "the place where His feet have stood" (Psalm 131:7 lxx) and the Cross is the place were Christ's feet stood, when he made atonement for our sins (see Christopher Veniamin, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p. 86).

There are many contemporary Orthodox writers who wish to deny or downplay a number of concepts that relate to our redemption. They will argue we don't believe Christ had to die in our place, or that His blood needed to be shed to pay the penalty for our sins. They will deny the legitimacy of legal terms, in favor of the idea that the Church is a spiritual hospital. The problem is not that the Church is not a spiritual hospital, but rather that in emphasizing one set of images used to explain our salvation, they deny a whole set of equally valid images that are clearly Biblical. It is true that in the west there was an over emphasis on legal imagery, but the solution to such an imbalance is not a new imbalance in the opposite direction. We can and should speak of sin as an illness, but when we die, we do not go before the final medical exam -- we face the final judgment, which is a legal image if ever there was one. And so we can also speak of sin as a transgression of the Law of God, and of our need to be justified by God, even as we speak of sin in terms of an illness that we need to be healed of.

We reject the idea that Christ's death was a ransom paid to the devil, but that it was a ransom in some sense is confirmed by the Lord Himself, and elsewhere in Scripture (Matthew 20:28Mark 10:451 Timothy 2:6). So we simply have to understand that verbal images point to a reality, but are not the reality itself, and we get a better idea of that reality by considering all the Biblical images that point to it -- not by focusing on one or two to the exclusion of the rest, and certainly not by pressing those images beyond the point that they are intended to make.

St. Gregory Palamas, in his Sixteenth Homily (delivered on Holy Saturday: "About the Dispensation According to the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Gifts of Grace Granted to Those Who Truly Believe in Him"), speaks quite a bit about the need for Christ to die in our place. The entire homily is well worth reading, but here are some excerpts:

"Man was led into his captivity when he experienced God's wrath, this wrath being the good God's just abandonment of man. God had to be reconciled with the human race, for otherwise mankind could not be set free from the servitude. A sacrifice was needed to reconcile the Father on high with us and to sanctify us, since we had been soiled by fellowship with the evil one. There had to be a sacrifice which both cleansed and was clean, and a purified and sinless priest" (Christopher Veniamin, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p. 124).

"Christ overturned the devil through suffering and His flesh which He offered as a sacrifice to God the Father, as a pure and altogether holy victim -- how great is His gift! -- and reconciled God to our human race" (p.125).

"For this reason the lord patiently endured for our sake a death He was not obliged to undergo, to redeem us, who were obliged to suffer death, from servitude to the devil and death, by which I mean death both of the soul and of the body, temporary and eternal. Since He gave His blood, which was sinless and therefore guiltless, as a ransom for us who were liable to punishment because of our sins, He redeemed us from our guilt. He forgave us our sins, tore up the record of them on the Cross and delivered us from the Devil's tyranny (cf. Col 2:14-15)"( p. 128f)."

As is often the case, the proper Orthodox perspective on this question is one of balance. We should proclaim the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), and not just the parts that we find most appealing. Nor should we overreact to the imbalances of heterodox theologians, and thus fall into a new error, by rejecting important aspects of our Tradition.

See also:

Worship at the Footstool of His Feet (Homily on Psalm 98)

Stump the Priest: The Veneration of the Cross

Friday, August 21, 2015

Stump the Priest: More on the Sign of the Cross

Question: "I was wondering about the Sign of the Cross. What is its significance? Why is it performed when it is? When is it preformed besides after a prayer?"

Making the Sign of the Cross is perhaps the most common act of piety Christians engage in throughout the day, and this is a practice of Apostolic origin. We do it to remind ourselves of  the Cross that was the means of our salvation, and the Savior who was crucified upon it. It is the first thing we do at the beginning of the day, and the last thing we do when we lay down to sleep. we do it before we begin any task, and when we conclude it. We make the Sign of the Cross when we are in danger or tempted, and in thanksgiving. By making the Sign of the Cross with reverence, we are strengthen by the power of the Cross, and we confess our Faith in Christ to the world.

On the feasts of the Cross we sing the hymn "The Cross is the guardian of the whole world! The Cross is the beauty of the Church! The Cross is the strength of kings! The Cross is the support of the faithful! The Cross is the glory of the angels and the wounder of the demons!"

St. Athanasius the Great, for example wrote: "demons used to deceive men's minds by taking up their abode in springs or rivers or trees or stones and imposing upon simple people by their frauds. But now, since the Divine appearing of the Word, all this fantasy has ceased, for by the sign of the cross, if a man will but use it, he drives out their deceits" (On the Incarnation of the Word, 47:2).

St. Cyril of Jerusalem said: "Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified.  Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow, and on everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we rise up; when we are in the way, and when we are still.  Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the sake of the poor; without toil, for the sick; since also its grace is from God.  It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of devils:  for He triumphed over them in it, having made a shew of them openly; for when they see the Cross they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, who bruised the heads of the dragon.  Despise not the Seal, because of the freeness of the gift; but for this the rather honour thy Benefactor (Catechetical Lecture 13:36).

Much more could be said, but others have already covered very well.

To begin with, I would recommend you read what Fr. David F. Abramtsov wrote on this subject in his classic catechetical book "The Orthodox Companion," which is available here: 

For more details on when the Sign of the Cross is made, this is covered extensively in the Jordanville Prayer Book, in an appendix entitled "How One Should Pray in Church." You can purchase a copy by clicking here (and it is an excellent prayer book to have anyway). But a good way to learn when to make the sign of the Cross during the services is to pay attention to what everyone else is doing during the services, and emulate what you see, especially with regard to those who you know are regular and pious members.

You can also read some more quotes of the Saints and Fathers of the Church here:


See Also:

Stump the Priest: Wearing a Cross

Stump the Priest: Making the Sign of the Cross

Stump the Priest: The Veneration of the Cross

Articles on the Cross posted at Mystagogy

Friday, August 14, 2015

Stump the Priest: Altar Girls?

Question: "Is it proper for a parish to have altar girls?"

This is clearly contrary to the Tradition of the Church, and is an unfortunate example of creeping modernism that it is tolerated in parishes anywhere -- but thankfully it is still fairly rare.

It is certainly true that there is not an absolute prohibition against women entering the altar when there is a need for it, and in convents, it is common to have nuns serve in the altar, because obviously in a convent there are not a lot of males available for serving in the altar. However, this is done because it is necessary, not because it is "fair" or to give the nuns "something to do" during the services.

See: The Churching of Boys vs. the Churching of Girls for more on that subject.

Why is this the Tradition? We are not always given a list of justifications along with the Traditions that the Church has handed down to us, and so in this case, one cannot point to the official reasons for it, so far as I am aware. However, where the Tradition is clear, we should simply follow it out of obedience. As St. John Chrysostom put it: "Is it Tradition?  Seek no further" [Homilies on the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians 4:2].

However, here is what I think explains this Tradition:

Traditionally, clergy are generally drawn from those who first served as altar servers. Altar servers were once classified as minor clergy, and it is still the case that before one is tonsured a reader (which is called "the first degree in the Priesthood" in that service), the individual being tonsured is first made a "taper-bearer" (or "candle-bearer," i.e. an acolyte). Readers, subdeacons, deacons, priests, and bishops have always been men, and so it makes no sense to have "altar girls" entering into a path that they could not follow.

Of course those who oppose this Tradition would at this point ask, "What about deaconesses?" The office of deaconess was never a female equivalent of deacon. It was a ministry that existed for women, and the primary liturgical function they had was to perform the baptisms of adult women at a time when adults of both sexes were baptized naked. Because adults were baptized naked, women and men were not baptized together, and when women were baptized, the deaconesses performed all the functions a priest would otherwise perform, and a priest would say the prayers behind a screen. When Christianity succeeded in gaining at least nominal adherence from most of the people in the countries in which it existed, adult baptism became rare, because most people were baptized as infants, and so the office of the deaconess ceased to have a need to fulfill, and gradually disappeared. Though in our time, adult baptisms are very common, the practice is no longer to baptize adults naked.

See: Voices from St. Vladimir: Deaconesses, which is a conversation between Fr. Chad Hatfield and Fr. Lawrence Farley on this subject. You may also want to read Fr. Lawrence Farley's book on the subject: Feminism and Tradition: Quiet Reflections on Ordination and Communion.

The next question that one may ask is why only men can be ordained as clergy. Again, we first must simply say that this is the Tradition of the Church. Furthermore, the notion that this is based on cultural prejudices of the time of the Apostles, and that perhaps it never occurred to Christ or the Apostles that women might be ordained is belied by the fact that pagan priestesses existed not only during the time of the Apostles, but also throughout the history of Israel. So clearly Christ and the Apostles made a conscious decision that clergy would be males only. This is not because women are not smart, or capable -- because obviously they are -- but because they have other roles to fill.

Being a priest is a fatherly role... which is why priests are called "Father". There are also motherly roles in the Church, and women fulfill them. Then there are roles that are open to "whosoever will," and women fulfill those roles too. And we as families and as a Church need to encourage men to fulfill those roles which are in fact fatherly. Women tend to be more pious than men, speaking generally. Often at lesser attended weekday services, I am reminded of the women at the Cross of Christ, because when I look out at the congregation, I might see the occasional "John", but the women almost always outnumber the men by rather large margins. Men need to be encouraged, especially by women, to take up their responsibilities as spiritual leaders in the home and in the parish. Of course many in our politically correct culture will immediately react to any suggestion that there is a need for male spiritual leadership, but there is empirical data that demonstrates that this is simply a fact of human nature, as God created it.

There was  a Swiss study that showed that if both the father and mother attend Church regularly, 33 percent of their children will be regular churchgoers, and 41 percent will attend irregularly, and 25 percent of their children will cease practicing their faith altogether. If the father attends Church irregularly but the mother is regular, only 3 percent of the children will attend Church regularly, 59 percent will attend irregularly, and 38 percent will cease practicing their faith. If the father is non-practicing and mother attends Church regularly, only 2 percent of children will attend Church regularly, 37 percent will attend irregularly, and over 60 percent of will cease practicing their faith. However, if the father attend Church regularly but the mother attends irregularly or is non-practicing, the percentage of children who grow up to be attend Church regularly goes up from 33 percent to 38 percent with the irregular mother, and to 44 percent with the non-practicing mother. Clearly this shows that the spiritual leadership of the father, or the lack thereof, plays a crucial role... and that is just the way it is, whether one likes it or not (See: Touchstone Magazine: The Truth About Men & Church, by Robbie Low, you can also listen to a sermon on this topic: Christian Leadership in the Home).

Male participation in the Orthodox Church is generally better than most, but we need to work harder to encourage men to step up to the plate and take on their responsibilities as pious laymen, husbands, and fathers (See: Why Orthodox Men Love: Many men may not love church, but Orthodox men do, by Khouriah Frederica Matthews-Green).

What then should girls and women do during the services? The same thing that men who are not serving in the altar or singing in the choir should be doing -- praying, and worshiping God. That is the first and most important task that we come to Church to perform. And it is not such a small task that one should need something else to do. But some parishes do have some roles they assign to young girls, such as tending the candle stands, or serving the zapivka after the faithful receive Holy Communion. They can also sing in the choir -- and in fact the choir serves a more crucial role than the altar servers, because while a priest can serve without an altar server, if he must, he cannot serve without at least one chanter.

If ever there was a human being (aside from Christ Himself) that was more worthy of any honor the Church could bestow, it would be the Virgin Mary, and yet she was never ordained to serve a priestly role in the services of the Church. However, while she did not preside over the celebration of the Mystery of the Eucharist -- she played a rather crucial part in the Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ, which made the Eucharist possible. Motherhood (both natural and spiritual) is a great honor and a thing of incredible power, beauty, and worth. Fatherhood (both natural and spiritual) is not a better thing, it is simply different. As most of us have noticed, men and women are different, and our roles are different, but they are complementary. Neither is possible without the other, and both depend on the strength and support of the other. And so we should not allow ourselves to be talked into blurring the lines between the two by a culture that is on a self destructive trajectory, and which has only managed to rob both men and women of the virtues of their sexes.

See also: Stump the Priest: The Priesthood.

Update: On Facebook I was asked why a women cannot fulfill a clerical role?

I responded:

"When there are no men who know how to read the Epistle at a service it often happens that a women does read it. I would imagine in a convent, if a bishop came to serve, you might also have some of the nuns doing some of the functions of a subdeacon. It is certainly not that women could not perform the tasks in any in terms of their ability. But if you have a normal size parish, the percentage of people serving in the altar are a small fraction of the total. I think these functions are reserved for males, because men need to be encourage to step up to the plate of spiritual leadership, as I mentioned in the article. I have seen Protestant Churches were there are almost no men that attend. It is only women and children, and the Pastor... and in some cases the Pastor is a woman too. Men need women to encourage them to fulfill active, and positive roles, or else men will shirk responsibility and engage in only negative and destructive behavior."

The person commented that it was sad to see such negative expectations of men expressed, and so I responded:

"In my secular job, I am a Child Support Officer, and so I see this phenomenon on display on a much wider scale than in the context of the Church. I have also seen comments from the fathers that confirm the generalization that women tend to be more pious than men. That does not mean that men cannot be pious or that women always are. But if you take a look at the article I linked to on the Swiss study, it is just a fact that male spiritual leadership is needed. Women often fill the role of spiritual leader in a family because the father is not there, but they also do so in many cases because the father will not step up the plate. They need to expect men to fulfill that role, and encourage them to do it. This should begin with their mothers, and should continue with their wives."

In response to this, Rhonda Dodson told a telling story:

"I am so glad to hear a man say that, Fr. John! I've said that myself & received considerable flack.

I was once in a parish where a few women did everything except serve in the altar. I once saw the priest ask 3 men to help him serve in different aspects...just small & short tasks one of which was to hold the communion cloth. All 3 refused stating that we women could do it. One commented that women should be allowed to serve in the altar if the men did not want to & since the priest was not willing to allow us to do that, then the priest obviously did not really need the help. Another even stated that as far as he was concerned, his "duty" to the Church was done when he dropped his check into the offering box. The third stated that he came to Church to relax, not to "work".

Ironically, a 7-yr old boy who had never served volunteered immediately showing himself to be the real man of the group. Overall, the whole day was extremely sad."

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Stump the Priest: The Septuagint vs. the Masoretic Text

Question: "Does the Orthodox Church teach that the Septuagint is more reliable than the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. If so, why is that?"

In the "Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs" of 1848, which was a reply to the epistle of Pope Pius IX, "To the Easterns," the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, along with the other assembled bishops stated: "Our Church holds the infallible and genuine deposit of the Holy Scriptures: of the Old Testament a true and perfect version, of the New the divine original itself." And so we have always held that the Septuagint is the authoritative version of the Old Testament.

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) notes:

"...the basis of the Old Testament text in the Orthodox tradition is the Septuagint, a Greek translation by the "seventy interpreters" made in the third to second centuries BCE for the Alexandrian Hebrews and the Jewish diaspora. The authority of the Septuagint is based on three factors. First of all, though the Greek text is not the original language of the Old Testament books, the Septuagint does reflect the state of the original text as it would have been found in the third to second centuries BCE, while the current Hebrew text of the Bible, which is called the "Masoretic," was edited up until the eighth century CE. Second, some of the citations taken from the Old Testament and found in the New mainly use the Septuagint text. Third, the Septuagint was used by both the Greek Fathers of the Church, and Orthodox liturgical services (in other words, this text became part of the Orthodox church Tradition). Taking into account the three factors enumerated above, St. Philaret of Moscow considers it possible to maintain that "in the Orthodox teaching of Holy Scripture it is necessary to attribute a dogmatic merit to the Translation of the Seventy, in some cases placing it on equal level with the original and even elevating it above the Hebrew text, as is generally accepted in the most recent editions" (Orthodox Christianity, Volume II: Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church, (New York: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2012) p. 34).

And in the above quote, I think there may be a translation problem, though I don't have the Russian text, and my Russian would probably be too limited to tell for sure by myself -- but when it says "some of the citations taken from the Old Testament and found in the New mainly use the Septuagint text," it is awkwardly worded enough for me to guess that Metropolitan Hilarion meant to say that most (not just "some") of the quotes of the Old Testament in the New Testament are based on the Septuagint... because as a matter of fact, that is true.

Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy, in his classic catechetical text, wrote:

"...it is clear why the Church prefers the Septuagint and Peshitta translations for the authoritative text of the Old Testament, and principally the first, for the Septuagint text was produced under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by the concerted effort of the Old Testament Church" (The Law of God: For Study at Home and School (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1994) p. 440).

There was a time when many Protestant scholars assumed that the Septuagint was an often loose translation of the Hebrew text, and that when it differed from the Masoretic text, it was due to changes made by the translators. However, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now know that the Septuagint is based on a different, and older Hebrew text than the Masoretic text.

The Hebrew Text that has served as the basis for most translations of the Old Testament into English is based almost entirely on the Leningrad Codex, which dates from 1008 A.D. In comparison to the textual evidence that we have for the New Testament Greek text, this is a very late manuscript. It is an example of the Masoretic recension, which is usually dated to have been shaped between the 6th and 10th centuries A.D. This is well after the Septuagint was translated (3rd century before Christ), the Peshitta (1st and 2nd Centuries A.D.), or the Latin Vulgate (4th Century A.D.). According to Christian tradition, the non-Christian Jews began making changes in the Old Testament text to undercut the Christian use of Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of Christ. In any case, the Hebrew Text that we now have was preserved outside the Church. The Septuagint and Peshitta texts were preserved within the Church, and so the Church believes that the text of the Old Testament was been authoritatively preserved in these textual traditions.

Furthermore, it is clear that the text that Christ and the Apostles used most closely matches the Septuagint rather than the Masoretic text. For example, in Acts 7:43, the Protomartyr Stephen quotes from the book of Amos as follows:

“Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, figures which ye made to worship them” (Acts 7:43, KJV).

But when you look this quote up in Amos 5:26 in most translations, you will find that the quotation doesn’t match:

"You also carried Sikkuth your king and Chiun, your idols, the star of your gods, which you made for yourselves.” (NKJV).

Compare the above with the Latin Vulgate:

 "But you carried a tabernacle for your Moloch, and the image of your idols, the star of your god, which you made to yourselves” (Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate).

And then with the Septuagint:

“Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Raephan, the images of them which ye made for yourselves” (Sir Lancelot Brenton translation of the Septuagint).

Also, there are several sections of the Hebrew text that are simply unreadable without keeping one eye on the Hebrew text and one eye on the Septuagint.  For example, if you look at the footnotes for the book of Habakkuk in the NRSV there are 5 places in which it states that the Hebrew text is uncertain, and 3 times in which they state that they are simply translating from the Septuagint, Peshitta, and/or the Vulgate, because the Hebrew text is so unclear.

Another example of a clearly corrupt reading in the Masoretic text is 1st Samuel 14:41, which reads as follows:

"Therefore Saul said unto the LORD God of Israel, "Give Thummim". And Saul and Jonathan were taken: but the people escaped.”

Several modern translations correct this clearly erroneous text based on the Septuagint and Vulgate to read:

“Therefore Saul said, "O LORD God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant this day? If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O LORD, God of Israel, give Urim. But if this guilt is in your people Israel, give Thummim." And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped.”

The Masoretic text simply makes no sense, and obviously at some point a scribe skipped an entire line or two of the text. This is obvious because of the reference to the Urim and Thummim, which were two objects used by the priest of the Old Testament for discerning the will of God on matters such as that described in 1st Samuel 14.

Another example is the text quoted in Hebrews 1:6 (“And let all the angels of God worship him”) which is nowhere to be found in the Masoretic text, but is found in both the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls Hebrew text in Deuteronomy 32:43.

It should be pointed out that the Hebrew text should not be ignored entirely. Particularly when the Septuagint and the Hebrew text are in agreement, we will better understand the Septuagint as a translation if we compare it with the Hebrew text that it is clearly a translation of. It is extremely helpful to understand the range of meaning of the original Hebrew text (when we clearly have it). For example, it is helpful to know that Hebrew does not have a past or future tense, but only a perfect and imperfect tense… and so just because an English translation is clearly in either the past, present, or future tense, it does not necessarily mean that this is what is implied by the Hebrew original. One often encounters the use of the “prophetic perfect”, where a prophecy of something that has not yet come to pass is in the perfect tense, and so is often translated with the English past tense, e.g. “…with His stripes, we were healed” (Isaiah 53:5), when from the perspective of the prophet, he was speaking of something in the future.

That the Septuagint is the most authoritative text in the Orthodox Church is something that is confirmed in just about any Orthodox catechetical text you could consult. The Septuagint text is the text that the Church has preserved. The Masoretic text is a text that has not been preserved by the Church, and so while it is worthy of study and comparison, it is not equally trustworthy. We have the promise that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all Truth (John 16:13), and so can indeed affirm that "Our Church holds the infallible and genuine deposit of the Holy Scriptures" ("Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs" of 1848).

For more information, see:

"Is the Septuagint a Divinely Inspired Translation?" by Gabe Martini

"Masoretic Text vs. Original Hebrew," by Fr. Joseph Gleason

"The Septuagint," by Fr. Andrew Phillips

Friday, July 31, 2015

Stump the Priest: Cremation

Question: "What is the Orthodox Church's view of cremation?"

The Orthodox Church does not approve of cremation, because it is a desecration of the body, which is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. It is also rooted in a pagan worldview which does not see the body an integral part of the human person, and which rejects the Christian belief in the goodness of creation and the resurrection of the body. It is only in very recent times that cremation has re-emerged in what were once Christian cultures. Before Rome and other pagan cultures converted to Christianity, cremation was commonly practiced. The revival of cremation is a sign of the re-paganization of these cultures.

Unfortunately, many Protestants have come to accept cremation in recent years. This is due to their rejection of Church Tradition, which is unambiguous on this issue, and also due generally to their view of salvation, which often sees the bodily resurrection as sort of an after-thought or an anticlimax. Often at Protestant funerals, you will hear people say that the deceased is not in the coffin but with Christ, for example. However, if a person dies in Christ, their souls will be with Christ, but until the general resurrection, their body remains a part of them that will one day be reunited with their souls (though their body will be transformed) -- and as such, the soul apart from the body is not the whole person (2 Corinthians 5:1-5). Our faith in the general resurrection is directly linked with the Resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) -- it is the Resurrection of Christ that makes our resurrection possible. Just as Christ was buried and then arose again in a glorified body, so too are we to be buried -- not cremated -- but rather, planted in the ground like a seed. As St. Paul says: "But someone will say, "How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?" Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body.... So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being." The last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-45).

This, of course, does not mean that God cannot raise the dead if the body is cremated. In fact, everyone who has ever lived will be resurrected, regardless of the treatment their body received after death -- some raised to life, and some raised to the second death (Revelation 20). However, the willful destruction of the body is a desecration of the human body, a denial of the goodness and importance of the body, and ultimately a denial of our Faith.

It is for this reason that the Church does not allow a Church funeral to be performed for those who are cremated, unless it is clear that this was against the wishes of the deceased. This often happens when an Orthodox Christian has non-Orthodox relatives, and fails to plan their funeral arrangements or to make their wishes known. But some Orthodox Christians decide to be cremated out of ignorance of the Church's teaching, or in willful disregard for those teachings.

It should also be noted that our practice of venerating the relics of saints is antithetical to cremation. If cremation were generally practiced by Christians, we would have no bodily relics.

Probably the biggest reason in our times that people opt for cremation is that the cost of a proper burial has steadily risen, and most people do not plan their own funerals. And so when they die, their family is left with the choice of coming up with between an average of $7,000 to $10,000 dollars for a funeral with a burial, or the much lower costs of a cremation (between $1,500 to $4,000 dollars, depending on how elaborate the funeral is, and whether the ashes are interred or not). But planning ahead greatly eases the burden on your family, and ensure that you will be given a proper Orthodox funeral and burial. There are also ways to economize on the costs of a burial (see: "A Guide to an Orthodox Funeral," by Fr. Alexander (Reichert), as well as the book "A Christian Ending" as well as the Podcast by Deacon Mark Barna). And for those who have been active Orthodox Christians, if there is a need for others outside of the immediate family to help cover the costs, a way to meet the need will generally be found.

See Also:

Cremation, by Protopresbyter George Grabbe

Decree of the Synod of Bishops of The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia: "On the Question of Incineration of Bodies of the Departed In Crematoria" (August 20/September 2, 1932).

"Burial or Burning," by Protopresbyter George D. Metallinos

"Cremation: Earth Thou Art and Unto Earth Shalt Thou Return," by Fr. Victor Potapov

Cremation (OCA)

"Pastoral Guidelines: Church Positions Regarding the Sanctity of Human Life," by Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas

Update: Someone asked about how the above would relate to the question of organ donations, and so here is the pertinent section from The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, § XII. Problems of bioethics:

"XII. 7. The modern transplantology (the theory and practice of the transplantation of organs and tissues) makes it possible to give effective aid to many patients who were earlier doomed to death or severe disability. At the same time, the development of this sphere of medicine, increasing the need for necessary organs, generates certain ethical problems and can present a threat to society. Thus, the unscrupulous propaganda of donoring and the commercialisation of transplanting create prerequisites for trade in parts of the human body, thus threatening the life and health of people. The Church believes that human organs cannot be viewed as objects of purchase and sale. The transplantation of organs from a living donor can be based only on the voluntary self-sacrifice for the sake of another’s life. In this case, the consent to explantation (removal of an organ) becomes a manifestation of love and compassion. However, a potential donor should be fully informed about possible consequences of the explantation of his organ for his health. The explantation that presents an immediate threat to the life of a donor is morally inadmissible. The most common of all is the practice of taking organs from people who have just died. In these cases, any uncertainty as to the moment of death should be excluded. It is unacceptable to shorten the life of one, also by refusing him the life-supporting treatment, in order to prolong the life of another.

The Church confesses, on the basis of Divine Revelation, the faith in the bodily resurrection of the dead (Is. 26:19; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:42-44, 52-54; Phil. 3:21). In the Christian burial, the Church expressed the reverence that befits the body of a dead. However, the posthumous giving of organs and tissues can be a manifestation of love spreading also to the other side of death. Such donation or will cannot be considered a duty. Therefore, the voluntary consent of a donor in his lifetime is the condition on which explantation can be legitimate and ethically acceptable. If doctors do not know the will of a potential donor, they should, if necessary, find it out the will of a dying or dead person from his relatives. The so-called presumptive consent of a potential donor to the removal of his organs and tissues, sealed in the legislation of some countries, is considered by the Church to be an inadmissible violation of human freedom.

A recipient assimilates donor organs and tissues entering his personal spiritual and physical integrity. Therefore, in no circumstances moral justification can be given to the transplantation that threatens the identity of a recipient, affecting his uniqueness as personality and representative of a species. It is especially important to remember this condition in solving problems involved in the transplantation of animal organs and tissues.

The Church believes it to be definitely inadmissible to use the methods of so-called foetal therapy, in which the human foetus on various stages of its development is aborted and used in attempts to treat various diseases and to «rejuvenate» an organism. Denouncing abortion as a cardinal sin, the Church cannot find any justification for it either even if someone may possibly benefit from the destruction of a conceived human life. Contributing inevitably to ever wider spread and commercialisation of abortion, this practice (even if its still hypothetical effectiveness could be proved scientifically) presents an example of glaring immorality and is criminal."

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Stump the Priest: Monarchy

Question: "Is monarchy the only form of government man can institute that represents both the fullness of the Orthodox faith and the Incarnational reality of Christ?"

If we go back to the Old Testament, there was a time when God ruled the people of Israel through prophets and judges, such as Moses and Samuel, who were specially called by Him. Toward the end of the life of the Prophet Samuel, the people of Israel asked him to anoint a king for them, so that they could be like all the other nations, and no longer dependent on God raising up a judge to lead them, and we are told:

"But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the Lord. And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them" (1 Samuel 8:6-7).

So one could argue that the most ideal form of government is a theocracy, but as the history of Israel up to this point demonstrated, such a theocracy only worked out well for the people when they were zealous to obey God, which very often was not the case. So monarchy is perhaps the second best system of government, but not one without problems... because for monarchy to work out well, you need a king that is pious. God warned Samuel, and through Samuel, the people, of the downside of having a king:

"And [Samuel] said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day. Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles" (1 Samuel 8:11-20).

The subsequent history of Israel, and then the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah show that some kings lived up to the ideal of faithfulness to God, and functioned as icons of Christ, but more often then not, they fell short of this -- and sometimes they were more like foreshadowings of the antichrist. King David was the best example of a righteous King -- and he not only served as an image of the future Messiah, but it was from his line that the Messiah would actually come.

With the coming of Christ and the spread of the Christian Faith, there were kingdoms that became Christian, and so looking to the example of King David, the Church anointed them to rule as Christian monarchs. We have many examples of such kings that are now reckoned as saints of the Church, and when you had a pious king who was also a capable ruler, you had the best examples of Christian government we have ever seen. Unfortunately, the combination of piety and competence is something that was not invariably found in such monarchs.

So is monarchy superior to democracy? St. John of Kronstadt once observed "Hell is a democracy but heaven is a kingdom." However, we live in a representative democracy that has afforded us freedom of religion -- and we are grateful for that. But on the other hand, we have also begun to see in recent years that the problem with democracy is that it only works well for a moral people, and given fallen human nature, it can facilitate a rapid decline in morality. The 20th century, especially in the wake of the two world wars, saw the rise of democracy around the world and the rapid decline in monarchy, and in the course of just under a hundred years we have essentially seen the end of Christendom as a result.

In 2 Thessalonians, St. Paul spoke about the great falling away and the coming of the antichrist:

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

So what is the restraining force that holds back the mystery of lawlessness, but will be taken away? St. John Chrysostom and other fathers say that this was the Roman Empire (see Homily 4 on 2 Thessalonians). Now many, especially Protestants, might be inclined to dismiss this interpretation, but consider the words of the noted Protestant New Testament scholar and theologian George Eldon Ladd:

"The traditional view has been that the restraining principle is the Roman empire and the restrainer the Emperor. This view, or a modification of it, fits best into the Pauline theology. In Romans 13:4, Paul affirms that the ruling authority (even though it be pagan Rome is "God's servant for your good"" (A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 560).

The Roman Empire is usually said by westerners to have ended in 476. The East Roman empire continued on until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. However, the Russian Empire, which continued both the religious and political tradition of Christian Rome, continued until 1917, and so it may be that this marks the beginning of the removal of this restraining force. It certainly marked the beginning of both rapid moral decline as well as a time of martyrdom which has surpassed the worst persecutions of the early Church in intensity. Of course, we cannot say for sure that the end has come until we see Christ return.

But while democracy may not be an ideal form of Christian government, since we have the right to vote, we should exercise what influence for good we can and assert our rights as citizens, as St. Paul, who was a Roman citizen, often did.

See also: The Mystery Of  The Anointed Sovereigns Tsar Nicholas II & Tsarina Alexandra of Russia