Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Stump the Priest: Celibacy


Question: "The Hebrew Bible nowhere thought celibacy praiseworthy (St. Paul was an exception). So why does Orthodoxy teach that monastic celibacy is the greatest ideal and superior to marriage?"

The assumption of this question seems to be that if St. Paul was the only one in Scripture that suggested that a life of celibacy was praiseworthy, that this would be insufficient to establish that this was so. That is a dangerous approach to take, and is rooted in an insufficient understanding of the inspiration of Scripture.

Aside from that, it is not true that St. Paul is the only one that advises that a life of celibacy is praiseworthy. In Matthew 19, after Christ talks about divorce, and the high standards that Christians are held to with regard to marital fidelity, the apostles responded by saying: "If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry" (Matthew 19:10). And Christ did not answer by saying, that this statement was incorrect. Instead he says: "All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (Matthew 19:11-12).

So obviously, if Christ says that those who can accept it, should accept it, it must be a good thing, and since Christ Himself lived as a celibate, that is further proof that this is a praiseworthy life.

This is of course not to say that those who are married are to be condemned. Canon 51 of the Apostles says:

"If any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon, or anyone at all on the sacerdotal list, abstains from marriage, or meat, or wine, not as a matter of mortification, but out of an abhorrence thereof, forgetting that all things are exceedingly good, and that God made man male and female, and blasphemously misrepresenting God’s work of creation, either let him mend his ways or let him be deposed from office and expelled from the Church. Let a layman be treated similarly."

So if you are celibate out of asceticism, that is good. If you are celibate because you despise marriage, you are not only to be deposed or excommunicated, but expelled from the Church... which is one of the most strongly worded canons to be found among the Ecumenical Canons.

So marriage is good. Celibacy for the right reason is a higher good (1 Corinthians 7:32-24). Neither is evil in and of itself, but despising marriage is evil, and despising celibacy is also evil.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Stump the Priest: Essence and Energies of God


Question: "To be Orthodox, must a person hold to the distinction in God between essence and energies?"

Let me first ask a slightly different question: to be Orthodox, must a person understand the distinction between God's essence and energies? The answer to that question is "no". Salvation is not a pop-quiz in theology. There are many Orthodox faithful who are not capable of understanding theology on an intellectual level (very young children, those with mental handicaps, etc.). But an Orthodox Christian certainly must not reject this distinction. This distinction was an important part of St. Gregory Palamas' defense of hesychasm, and his defense of hesychasm is celebrated as a second triumph of Orthodoxy on the second Sunday of Lent... and so the Church has clearly embraced St. Gregory's understanding of this question. Orthodox Christians are not free to have their own opinions on matters that the Church has a clear and universal teaching on. And certainly, every Orthodox Christian should try to understand as much of the teachings and Traditions of the Church as they possibly can.

For more on what the Church teaches on this question, see:

Vladimir Lossky on the Essence and Energies of God

Theosis and Orthodoxy

GOD: Essence and Energies (from the Illumined Heart Podcast) (It is a good idea to take the suggestion at the beginning of this podcast, and listen to this several times).

Monday, February 02, 2015

Response to "Orthodox Fundamentalists" by George Demacopoulos


Dr. George Demacopoulos of Fordham University recently posted an article entitled "Orthodox Fundamentalists," on the Greek Archdiocese's website. There are a number of problems with it that I think need to be pointed out.

To begin with, he doesn't really explain what he means by the term "Fundamentalist". The term, as it was originally coined, referred to those conservative Protestants that, in response to modernist tendencies, especially in mainline Protestant denominations, posited that there were five fundamental (one might even say "minimal") beliefs that Christians had to adhere to:

1. The inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture
2. The deity of Jesus Christ
3. The virgin birth of Christ
4. The substitutionary, atoning work of Christ on the cross
5. The physical resurrection and the personal bodily return of Christ to the earth

The term "Fundamentalist" was later (beginning in 1979, around the time of the Iran hostage crisis) applied to radical Moslems, and then later to just about any conservative expression of any religion. I don't think this broadening of the meaning of the term was an accidental move. It was an attempt to associate conservative Christians, like Jerry Falwell and his group "The Moral Majority" with the likes of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden, and this was done for domestic political purposes. The term has thus really ceased to have much meaning, aside from those who wish to use it as a synonym for "stupid," and that seems to be the primary level of meaning with which Dr. Demacopoulos is using the term.

Dr. Demacopoulos makes a loose connection with the original meaning of the term when he says: "Like other fundamentalist movements, Orthodox fundamentalism reduces all theological teaching to a subset of theological axioms and then measures the worthiness of others according to them." The only problem with this statement is that he provides no examples, and the statement is simply not true. If we take, for example, the Greek Old Calendarists, which would be among the most likely candidates to fall into the category that Dr. Demacopoulos is speaking of, you could say that the Calendar issue is used by them as a litmus test issue, but it is hardly the case that they would argue that one needed to only be on the Old Calendar to satisfy their definition of fidelity to Orthodoxy. In fact, the fault the Greek Old Calendarists have, is not that they have a minimalist understanding of Orthodoxy, but that they are maximalists who take some issues which should not be matters over which one should be willing to break communion over, too far. Even among the Old Calendarists themselves they have further divided over many issues. So in fact, their tendency is exactly the opposite of Protestant Fundamentalists, who really were focusing on the minimum one had to believe. And it is actually the Orthodox modernists who typically try to reduce the "essentials" of the Orthodox Faith to the lowest common denominator, and so they are far closer to being fundamentalists in the original sense of the term.

Dr. Demacopoulos then asserts: "The key intellectual error in Orthodox fundamentalism lies in the presupposition that the Church Fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters." This lazy straw man caricature is not what one would expect of professor of theology at a respected university. If that is the key intellectual error, I would like to find one example of a person who actually fits that description. I doubt that even the slug-nuttiest Old Calendarist that one might find would argue that "the Church Fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters."

We are then told that "Typically, this manifests itself in accusations that individuals, institutions, or entire branches of the Orthodox Church fail to meet the self-prescribed standard for Orthodox teaching." I would be curious to know why St. Mark of Ephesus would not be considered an "Orthodox Fundamentalist," because he broke communion with those who failed to meet what St. Mark considered to be the standard for Orthodox teaching. Probably, the answer we would get is that St. Mark was not a intellectual troglodyte, but regardless, there obviously are boundaries that can be crossed that warrant such an action, and so the issue is not whether someone is a fundamentalist because they believe there are such boundaries, but rather the merits of the specific issues at stake... which we are not provided with in this article.

He then goes on to provide examples that knock down the straw man he has set up:

"Indeed, a careful reading of Christian history and theology makes clear that some of the most influential saints of the Church disagreed with one another—at times quite bitterly. St. Peter and St. Paul were at odds over circumcision.  St. Basil and St. Gregory the Theologian clashed over the best way to recognize the divinity of Holy Spirit.  And St. John Damascene, who lived in a monastery in the Islamic Caliphate, abandoned the hymnographical tradition that preceded him in order to develop a new one that spoke to the needs of his community."

Here again, we find careless overstatements. Where do we find St. Peter and St. Paul disagreeing over circumcision? We find them in very clear agreement on that issue in Acts 15. Most likely, he has in mind Galatians chapter 2, but the disagreement was not over circumcision... it was over St. Peter's hypocrisy while around those "of the circumcision" -- there is no indication that they had a substantive disagreement on the issue. They had a disagreement over St. Peter's behavior and inconsistency, and St. Paul called him on it, to his face, and in the presence of all (Galatians 2:11,14). There is also no indication in the text, nor in Church Tradition that this was a matter of ongoing disagreement or division between these two saints. This was rather an example of even a great saint being capable of falling into temporary error.

It is also clearly excessive to claim that St. John of Damascus "abandoned the hymnographical tradition that preceded him". What was the hymnographical tradition that preceded him? The way older aspects of the services have generally ended up being sidelined was not usually by them being replaced by new hymns, but rather by being supplemented with newer hymns, and then as time went on, some of the older texts were generally omitted. If you take the introduction of the texts we use now for the canons at Matins, these hymns were originally sung with the Biblical Odes, which were the older texts that preceded the composition of those hymns. Only as time went by did the practice develop of generally omitting the odes, and retaining the troparia that were composed to be sung with them (though the older practice is still followed to some extent on the weekdays of Great Lent). So to suggest that St. John tossed out all that preceded him is simply contrary to fact.

Also, there is a wee difference when a holy man, such as St. John of Damascus, introduces some new liturgical practice, than when a committee of cigar smoking "theologians" does so. For example, the Greek practice of saying "With the fear of God and with faith and love, draw near" is clearly a change from the original form of "With the fear of God and with faith, draw near". But it was, I believe, introduced by the Kollyvades Fathers. I was told by someone who is a good source on the matter that St. John of Shanghai also followed this practice. I am inclined to bow to the wisdom of these saints, but think it is right to be skeptical of changes that are introduced by someone who may be very intelligent, but who is not in the same league as these saints.

We find even further hyperbole when Dr. Demacopoulos asserts: "It is important to understand that Orthodox fundamentalists reinforce their reductionist reading of the Church Fathers with additional falsehoods.  One of the most frequently espoused is the claim that the monastic community has always been the guardian of Orthodox teaching.  Another insists that the Fathers were anti-intellectual.  And a third demands that adherence to the teachings of the Fathers necessitates that one resist all things Western."

While it is true that monastic communities have generally been bulwarks of Orthodoxy, I don't know of anyone who would say that this has always and invariably been so. I doubt a single example could be produced of anyone who would seriously argue that the Fathers were anti-intellectuals. And the closest example of one who argues that the teachings of the Fathers necessitates that one "resist all things Western" would be Fr. John Romanides, and his admirers... but not even they would make such a sweeping statement as is made here, and I don't think Fr. John Romanides was an anti-intellectual.

And when Dr. Demacopoulos makes the assertion that "By repurposing the tradition as a political weapon, the ideologue deceives those who are not inclined to question the credibility of their religious leaders", it would be helpful if he would provide some examples and name some names so that we would have some idea of who and what he is referring to.

Furthermore, I am not so sure that "The significance of the Fathers lies in their earnest and soul-wrenching quest to seek God and to share Him with the world." If that were the case, I am not sure how they would be any different than Lao Tzu, Gautama Buddha, Socrates, or Muhammad. Their significance is in how they explained, articulated, passed on, and earnestly contended for "the Faith once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 1:3). They were not just smart men who were earnest, but holy men who received the Faith of the Apostles, and passed it on without alteration -- and in doing so, in the face of new challenges to that Faith, enriched the Church with their words, their faithful lives, and their examples. We understand the Faith better because of them, but we do not now have a new faith or a different faith.

And he closes with this call to action: "It is time for Orthodox hierarchs and lay leaders to proclaim broadly that the endearing relevance of the Church Fathers does not lie in the slavish adherence to a fossilized set of propositions used in self-promotion." But I don't see how Orthodox hierarchs or lay leaders can answer his call, even if they were inclined to do so, because Dr. Demacopoulos gives us no indication exactly who or what he is talking about.

If someone can be pointed to that is fairly described by the descriptions found in this article, I would certainly think such a person was worthy of criticism. But let's talk specifics, rather than tossing around meaningless terms that would have us believe that there is real line of philosophical agreement between the average conservative Evangelical Protestant, some unspecified group of Orthodox Christians, and Jihadist terrorists that are beheading and stoning those they disagree with.

Update: Someone referred me to the conference that Dr. Demacopoulos was apparently referring to. There was a conference (entitled "Patristic Theology and Post-Patristic Heresy") held in Piraeus, Greece, on February 15, 2012, which was at least in large part in response to the Volos conference he mentioned. Among its speakers were Protopresbyter George Metallinos, Professor Emeritus of Athens University, and Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos). Are these really the "Orthodox fundamentalists" who claim that the Fathers were anti-intellectual, and agreed on all points of theology and ethics? You can read their papers, among others, in a pdf format, by clicking here and clicking here.


Friday, January 30, 2015

Stump the Priest: One Mediator, Many Intercessors

The Virgin Mary beseeching Christ at the Wedding of Cana

Question: "Protestants often claim that Orthodox (and other Christians)  raise the Theotokos to the divine level of Jesus Christ by referring to her as "intercessor". In their opinion "there is only one mediator; the Man Christ Jesus". Furthermore they point out that by beseeching her to "turn away the wrath stirred up against us" we turn her into a Christian "type" of the pagan Mother & Child deities from the ancient world. These "mother goddesses" were often invoked to similarly turn away their "son-god's" wrath. They say this is a blasphemous aberration that entered the Church under the "paganization process" they claim happened under the Roman emperor St Constantine. How does one answer these accusations from both Scripture and Tradition?"

This claim is based on St. Paul's statement in 1 Timothy 2:5: "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." However, one need only look to the verses immediately prior to that statement to find: "I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:1-4). St. James also tells us that "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (James 5:16). So clearly the fact that Christians are called upon to make supplications, prayers, and intercessions on behalf of others is not a contradiction to Christ being the one mediator.

In what sense is Christ the one mediator? In Hebrews 9:15, St. Paul also says: "And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance." So is the unique mediator between God and Man in that He became incarnate, was crucified, died,  and rose again for our salvation. No one else can possibly provide the basis for our salvation. And yet, God desires that we have many intercessors who pray for others, and that God acts in response to these prayers.

When I was a Protestant, who was interested in Orthodoxy, but had to deal with this question myself, it so happened that one day I was talking to a neighbor who was talking about the wife of a retired professor at Southern Nazarene University (the school I attended). He said that this woman was such a woman of prayer that if you ever needed an answer to prayer, she would be the one to go to, because she “had a hotline to God.” Having known some very pious Nazarenes over the years, I didn't find his account hard to believe. But then it dawned on me, if any woman ever had a hotline to God, that would be first and foremost, the Virgin Mary, wouldn't it? And didn't Christ say that God was the God of the living and not the dead (Matthew 22:23-33), and so if I could ask this pious old Nazarene woman  from Bethany, Oklahoma to pray for me, couldn't I also ask the Virgin Mary from Nazareth of Galilee to pray for me?

As for the question of turning away God's wrath, one finds many examples in which God's wrath was turned away by the prayers of righteous men. For example, Moses himself recounts how he turned away God's wrath from the people of Israel: "Furthermore the Lord spake unto me, saying, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: let me alone, that I may destroy them, and blot out their name from under heaven: and I will make of thee a nation mightier and greater than they.... And I fell down before the Lord, as at the first, forty days and forty nights: I did neither eat bread, nor drink water, because of all your sins which ye sinned, in doing wickedly in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger. For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure, wherewith the Lord was wroth against you to destroy you. But the Lord hearkened unto me at that time also (Deuteronomy 9:13-14, 18-19). And in the Psalms we are told: "Therefore he said that he would destroy them, had not Moses his chosen stood before him in the breach, to turn away his wrath, lest he should destroy them" (Psalm 105[106]:23). So if Moses could turn away God's wrath, I see no reason why it would be blasphemous to ask the Virgin Mary to pray for us, and to turn away God's wrath from us.

See also:

Stump the Priest: Is There Anything Special About the Virgin Mary?

The Gospel of the Virgin Mary

The Icon FAQ: Answers to common questions about icons (which discusses the veneration of Saints)

Can the Virgin Mary "Save" Us? by Fr. Andrew Damick

One Mediator Between God and Men, by Tim Staples (from Catholic Answers)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Stump the Priest: "Valid Sacraments"


Question: "Someone has been insisting to me that the Russian Orthodox Church recognizes the validity of the Sacraments of the Roman Church. And in fact, have since at least 1776. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev said something to this effect as well at one point, but I'm not sure I buy it, how would you respond?"

I think they probably meant to say "since at least 1666-1667, which were the dates of the a controversial council in Moscow, which condemned the Old Rite, and deposed Patriarch Nikon. That council is a topic unto itself, but the documents of that council do speak of "valid" Roman Catholic sacraments. But one can find this expression in one of the oldest Liturgical texts published in English, which is still widely used today -- the Hapgood Service Book, translated by Isabel Hapgood, with the blessing of St. Tikhon of Moscow.

Even in the Ecumenical Canons, we find provision for receiving converts from certain groups by means other than baptism, though included among those canons is the canon of St. Cyprian of Carthage that states that there is no true baptism outside of the Church. This canon was affirmed by the Sixth Ecumenical Council in its second canon. However, that same canon also affirmed the canons of St. Basil, and his first canon, provides a bit more nuance. He agreed that the Church is under no obligation to recognize baptisms that take place outside of the Church, but states that for the sake of "economia" the Church may do so, though he also noted that in different regions, different practices prevailed when it came to how certain heretics or schismatics were received. So in terms of theological principle, we affirm that there are no sacraments, in the fullest sense, outside of the Church, but the Church does receive converts from heterodox or schismatic groups by economia -- which could mean that we chrismate them, or in some cases that we simply accept them by confession and a profession of faith. And in the Hapgood Service, there is a service provided for this very purpose.

Beginning on page 454 of the Hapgood Service Book, there is a service entitled "THE OFFICE FOR RECEIVING INTO THE ORTHODOX FAITH SUCH PERSON AS HAVE NOT PREVIOUSLY BEEN ORTHODOX, BUT HAVE BEEN REARED FROM INFANCY OUTSIDE THE ORTHODOX CHURCH, YET HAVE RECEIVED VALID BAPTISM, IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT".

But the question we have to ask is, what does it mean when it speaks of "valid baptism"? First off we should ask, what does true baptism do? Among other things, it unites one to the Church. But right after the above quoted heading, it says: "The power of granting absolution to such persons, and of uniting them to the Church properly devolveth on a Bishop. Nevertheless, that the converts to Orthodoxy may not be tempted to return to their heresy by reason of delay, it is wiser and more expedient that the Bishop should delegate his power, and grant his blessing therewith, to a Priest well versed in divine lore, and who is competent to instruct such a person in the articles of the Orthodox faith, and to correct his erroneous opinions." And so if a "valid baptism" outside of the Orthodox Church united one with the Church, there would not be a further need for any service to unite them to the Church, but that is precisely what this services is intended to do.

The first question the convert is asked is "Wilt thou renounce the errors and false doctrines of the Roman-Latin [or Armenian, or Lutheran, or Reformed) Confession?" and  then they are asked "Dost thou desire to enter into and abide in the communion of the Orthodox-Catholic Faith?" And after the convert is asked to renounce specifically the false teachings of their former confession, and to affirm the basic tenets of the Orthodox Faith, they are told "Enter thou into the Orthodox Church; and cast away all the errors and false doctrines wherein thou hast dwelt: and honor the Lord God, the Father Almighty, and his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, one true and living God, the holy Trinity, one in essence and indivisible." And all of this is in the service that would be used, even for those being received by confession and profession of faith. This service makes it abundantly clear that we are uniting someone to the Church who was previously not united to the Church.

So what happens when the Church accepts a baptism that was done outside of the Church, by economia? St. Augustine compared baptism to the "military mark" which was a tattoo a soldier was given when entered the Roman Army, and it showed what commander he belonged to. St. Augustine said that such a mark could be retained by deserters (schismatics), and it could illicitly be given to those who had never been in the army, and yet unless and until such men actually joined (or rejoined) the army, those marks did not have the real significance that they should have... however if they did rejoin or join the army, the mark would not need to be redone. And so what happens when someone is received by economia is they are finally united to the Church, and their baptism is then given the real meaning of what true baptism is.

And so when we speak of "valid" Roman Catholic Sacraments, we mean that they are valid in the sense of their outward form. I have not seen any official Russian Orthodox statements that said that the Roman Catholic eucharist was "valid", and this is because we can receive a convert who was been baptized by economia, and we can even receive a Roman Catholic Priest in rank, by economia... but we could never receive the Roman Catholic eucharist by economia. This does not mean that we say that Roman Catholics are all going to hell, or that their worship and devotion to God has no meaning to God. Those things are between them and God. This is not a matter for us to pass judgment. We also pass no judgment on the souls of those outside of the Church, but we can say that at least in this life, they remain outside of the Church until and unless they are received into the Orthodox Church.



Saturday, January 17, 2015

Review: The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition


The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, by Fr. Eugen J. Pentiuc.

One thing that comes across in this book is Fr. Eugen's love of Scripture. In his introduction, he speaks about how when he was growing up in Communist Romania, he first had the opportunity to read a Bible at the age of 13. The Communists limited the Church's ability to print copies of the Bible, but 1968, the Church was allowed to print 100,000 copies (for a population of 20 million people). He was able to get his hands on a copy of the Bible, and read almost the entire text in one week. Then, he says, the services of the Church came alive to him, when he was able to connect all the Scriptural references for the first time. The excitement of this 13 year old boy, who was able to secretly read the Bible still comes across in the rest of the text -- and even more so, when you hear Fr. Eugen speak.

Here are some podcasts of his talks that are well worth listening to, and I think show what I am talking about:

http://www.ancientfaith.com/specials/episode/fr._eugen_pentiuc

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/downtheroad/the_christian_bible_unity_in_diversity

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/downtheroad/scripture_and_tradition

I suspect he is probably the favorite professor of a great many of his students.

This book was very interesting and informative. However, I would not recommend it to those who are unfamiliar with contemporary Biblical Scholarship. It is written on a scholarly level, not really as a guide to the average layman. There are a number of things that he writes that I would take issue with, but I look forward to the next two books Fr. Eugen intends to write as follow up texts to this one.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Stump the Priest: How do we know what the Orthodox Church believes?

The Council of the Holy Fathers 
(various Fathers with St. Constantine the Great, holding the Nicean Creed)

Question: "How does doctrinal authority work in Orthodoxy? In a simplified form, how do I know what Orthodox believe? Less simply, what are the common sources for Orthodox when seeking to believe what the Church teaches? And how is it possible to know that certain teachings are definitely the Orthodox position, not only a possible opinion?"

There are different sources of doctrinal authority in the Orthodox Church: 1. Scripture; 2. Apostolic Tradition; 3. Ecclesiastical Tradition; and 4. the living witness of the Church.

We believe that the Scriptures are the inspired and inerrant word of God, and Scripture is the core of the Orthodox Tradition. However, while we can distinguish Scripture from the rest of the Tradition, we cannot properly understand Scripture outside of the context of that Tradition.

Apostolic Tradition has its origins in Christ Himself, and is preserved in a number of different ways. For example, many aspects of Apostolic Tradition are preserved in the Ecumenical Canons. The basic elements of our worship are based on Apostolic Tradition. It is also preserved in the collective memory of the Church, and is reflected in the writings of the Fathers of the Church.

Not every canon of the Church is based directly on Scripture or Apostolic Tradition. There are also Traditions that are Ecclesiastical Traditions. The Scriptures tell us that Christ gave the Apostles the power to bind and to loose, and Apostolic Tradition tells us that this authority was passed on from the Apostles to their successors, the Bishops. When confronted with heresies or problems that are not addressed directly by Scripture or Apostolic Tradition, the Church has made decisions that are binding. The most authoritative examples of this would be the Ecumenical Canons of the Ecumenical Councils, and those local and patristic canons that those councils approved. Like the Scriptures, the Church believes that these Ecumenical Canons as well as the doctrinal statements made by these councils have an authority like Scripture, and are infallible.

While the above referenced sources of authority have greater weight, because their authority has been firmly established and universally recognized in the Church, the Church continues to have the power to bind and to loose, and so the Church makes decisions all of the time hat have authority for Orthodox Christians. For example, we cannot find in Scripture or the Ecumenical Canons a clear answer to the question of what we should make of artificial insemination, local Orthodox Churches have made statements on this question. For example, in an All-Russian Council in 2000, the Russian Church issued a document called  "The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church," which addressed this question, as well as many other contemporary issues. Technically, this council would only have immediate authority over those in the Russian Orthodox Church, however, other local Churches received it favorably at the time it was issued. At some point in the future, this document may be universally received, and then have a greater level of authority than it does today, but already, Orthodox Christians outside of the Russian Church have looked to it for guidance on these issues.

It takes time for the body of the Church as a whole to come to firm conclusions about the authority of a council, or the writings of a saint. No council was had universal authority simply by virtue of it meeting with a certain number of bishops. It was only when the Church as a whole was able to reflect on such councils that they were either embraced, or rejected.

There are theological or practical matters that there is not a firm, universal answer for, and so within certain bounds, there is room for theological opinions (theologoumena) which may or may not be correct. This does not, however, mean that a person can believe whatever he wants. For example, one could have different opinions on how literally we should interpret the seven days of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, but it would be beyond the bound of acceptable opinion to suggest that the universe came into being by chance, and God did not create it.

So how does one go about acquainting themselves to what the Church teaches? You have to be Orthodox, you have to live the sacramental life of the Church, and you need to study -- study the Scriptures, the writings of the saints, the lives of the saints, and you would also do well to read good books by more contemporary authors that are recognized as good and useful texts. The longer you are Orthodox, and are actively engaged in trying to learn your faith, the more you will acquire an Orthodox mindset, and will become increasingly discerning.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Stump the Priest: The Orthodox Canon


Question: "In the Orthodox Study Bible and in other places online, I've seen a chart comparing the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox canon of Scripture. My question is from what canon of what council does Orthodoxy draw her canon of Scripture from?"

On the one hand we have a precisely defined New Testament Canon, about which there is no dispute... at least not since the 4th century. On the other hand we have an Old Testament canon that has a precisely defined core, and fairly well defined next layer, and then less clearly defined edges. So why the precision in the case of the New, but not the Old?

The New Testament Canon is fixed, largely due to the false canon of the heretic Marcion. The Old Testament canon has been less precisely defined, and so one still encounters some disagreement on the fringes of the list... though most of the books are not questioned at all. The Church simply has not felt the need to be more precise... but this can be an uncomfortable thing for some folks to deal with. However, if you have the proper understanding of Tradition, it becomes much less of an issue.

If you think of the Tradition as a target, with concentric circles, you could put the Gospels in the middle, the writings of the apostles in the in the next ring, maybe the Law of Moses, in the next, the prophets in the next, the writings in the next, the deutrocanonical books in the next, the writings of those who knew the Apostle in the next, the Ecumenical Canons in the next, etc. The only debate would be which ring to put them... and ultimately, is that the most important question? For a Protestant, this is a huge question. For the Orthodox, it is not so much, because we see Scripture as being part of Tradition, not as something separate to it, and certainly not as something opposed to it.

The term "Deuterocanon" is actually of Roman Catholic origin, but I think it is a useful term. In Russian texts, and some patristic texts, you find the phrase "non-canonical" books, but by this, the distinction is between the Hebrew canon and the books excluded by the Hebrew canon which the Church has embraced. Another term is "Readable book", which means a book can be read in Church.

Yet another term is "apocrypha", which we generally do not use with reference to these books, but Origen had some interesting comments on the origin of the the term "apocrypha." In his letter to Africanus (ANF v. IV, pp 386ff.) he was responding to the question of why he quoted from the portion of the book of Daniel which contain the story of Susanna, which is not found in the Hebrew text. Origen responded that he was not unaware of this fact, and he proceeded to defend its authenticity. His response is detailed, but let me highlight a few points:

"And, forsooth, when we notice such things we are forthwith to reject as spurious the copies in use in our Churches, and enjoin the brotherhood to put away the sacred books current among them, and to coax the Jews, and persuade them to give us copies which shall be untampered with, and free from forgery?! Are we to suppose that that providence which the sacred Scriptures has ministered to the edification of all the Churches of Christ, had no thought for those bought with a price, for whom Christ died; whom, although His Son, God who is love spared not, but gave Him up for us all, that with Him He might freely give us all things? In all these cases consider whether it would not be well to remember the words, "Thou shalt not remove the ancient landmarks which thy fathers have set." Nor do I say this because I shun the labor of investigating the Jewish Scriptures, and comparing them with ours, and noticing various readings. This, if it be not arrogant to say it, I have already to a great extent done to the best of my ability, laboring hard to get at the meaning in all the editions and various readings; while I paid particular attention to the interpretation of the Seventy, lest I might to be found to accredit any forgery to the Churches which are under heaven, and give an occasion to those who seek such a starting point for gratifying their desire to slander the common brethren, and to bring some accusation against those who shine forth in our community. And I make it my endeavor not to be ignorant of their various readings, lest in my controversies with the Jews I should quote to them what is not found in their copies, and that I may make some use of what is found there, even although it should not be in our Scriptures. For if we are so prepared for them in our discussions, they will not, as is their manner, scornfully laugh at Gentile believers for their ignorance of the true readings as they have them. So far as to the History of Susanna not being found in the Hebrew."

Skipping further on in the text we find Origen saying that the reason for many of the omissions in the Hebrew text are because the Scribes and Pharisees omitted things that made them look bad:

"The answer is, that they hid from the knowledge of the people as many of the passages which contained any scandal against the elders, rulers, and judges as they could, some of which have been preserved in the uncanonical writings (apocrypha) [which gives new meaning to the term "hidden books"]. As an example, take the story told about Isaiah, and guaranteed by the epistle to the Hebrews, which is found in none of their public books. For the author of the Epistle to the Hebrew, in speaking of the prophets, and what they suffered, says "They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, they were slain with the sword"."

He goes on to mention that, by a tradition contained in the Apocryphal books, we know that the Prophet Isaiah was sawn in half.

The Orthodox Study Bible list of Old Testament books is based on the books included in the Greek Editions of the Scriptures, published by the Church of Greece. The Church of Greece based their decision in part on the decree of the Synod of Jerusalem:

"What Books do you call Sacred Scripture?

Following the rule of the Catholic Church, we call Sacred Scripture all those which Cyril [Lucar] collected from the Synod of Laodicea, and enumerated, adding thereto those which he foolishly, and ignorantly, or rather maliciously called Apocrypha; to wit, “The Wisdom of Solomon,” “Judith,” “Tobit,” “The History of the Dragon,” “The History of Susanna,” “The Maccabees,” and “The Wisdom of Sirach.” For we judge these also to be, with the other genuine Books of Divine Scripture, genuine parts of Scripture. For ancient custom, or rather the Catholic Church, which hath delivered to us as genuine the Sacred Gospels and the other Books of Scripture, hath undoubtedly delivered these also as parts of Scripture, and the denial of these is the rejection of those. And if, perhaps, it seemeth that not always have all been by all reckoned with the others, yet nevertheless these also have been counted and reckoned with the rest of Scripture, as well by Synods, as by how many of the most  ancient and eminent Theologians of the Catholic Church; all of which we also judge to be Canonical Books, and confess them to be Sacred Scripture.." (The Synod of Jerusalem (1672) (from the Confession of St. Dositheus).

The Synod of Jerusalem was held in large part to respond to Protestantism, and in this case, they were responding to the general Protestant position on the canon of the Old Testament, which was to adopt the Hebrew Canon, and to reject any Old Testament books not included by the Jews as "apocrypha." The Council of Jerusalem called these books canonical, not non-canonical, or deuterocanonical. However, the Greek Bible used by the OSB includes several more books, which were not mentioned by that council (see: http://my.execpc.com/~gto/Apocrypha/Summaries/table.html) And you will see that the Russian Bible includes some more yet. The Synod of Jerusalem did not specifically address them. The Greek Church probably included them because editions of the LXX have long included these books. The Russian Church probably also included 2nd Esdras (aka 3rd Esdras) because it was included in the canonical list found in the canons of the Holy Apostles, and is also found in the Latin Vulgate (see: http://www.bible-researcher.com/canon2.html). Which is also why it was included among the "Apocrypha" of the original editions of  the King James Version.

Why is there no absolutely definitive list? The Church has not felt the need to create one... for the Old Testament. It did in the case of the New because of Marcion, and you do find statements, such as that of the Synod of Jerusalem which defended certain books specifically rejected by the Protestants. But for us, whether or not 2nd Esdras is canonical, deuterocanonical, or simply an appendix, reflecting a book considered to be of traditional importance, is not nearly so big of a deal. But most of the books of the Old Testament are canonical, and there is no dispute about them, and so we do have certainty, just not for every book.

If you have a Revised Standard Version or New Revised Standard Version Bible that includes the "Apocrypha," then you can look at the introduction to each of the books and see who accepts them. The Greeks do not include 2nd Esdras (note the comments below about confusion over the titles of the books of Esdras/Ezra (in the Russian Bible it is called 3rd Esdras). The Russian Bible does not include 4th Maccabees. By the way, neither 4th Maccabees nor 2nd/3rd Esdras is to be found in the Orthodox Study Bible.

Now, if you look at the Orthodox Study Bible, you will see that it has 1st Ezra and 2nd Ezra. Why they did this, and without better notes in the introduction is beyond me. What they call 1st Ezra is a deuterocanonical book, found in the Latin Vulgate and the Septuagint, but not considered deuterocanonical by the Roman Catholic Church.  In the Vulgate, and the in the King James, RSV, and NRSV Apocrypha, this book is 1st Esdras. What they call 2nd Ezra, is the book that is called "Ezra" in just about any Bible in English -- and so if you are trying to find a passage in the book of Ezra that most English speakers will have in mind, you will need to look in 2nd Ezra... but most people, who don't look closely, will probably think that 2nd Ezra is either 1st or 2nd Esdras.This is one of my complaints about the OSB: they opted to use non-standard names for many of the Old Testament books, and so they are going to confuse a lot of people who are trying to find a passage of scripture in this or that book. I also think they made a huge mistake adopting the Greek order of the books. They should have used the Vulgate order, because that is the basic order we have used in English Bibles for the past 400+ years.

For more information see:

An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible

Biblical Canon and Interpretation

All Scripture Is Inspired by God: Thoughts on the Old Testament Canon, by Joel Kalvesmaki

Various Canons and comments on the canon of the Old Testament

Friday, January 02, 2015

Stump the Priest: Lot's Daughters

Lot and his two daughters flee the destruction of Sodom

Question: "Why did Lot offer his virgin daughters to the Sodomites? Why wasn't Lot appointed a place with the Sodomites for such a horrible offer?  As a young man I scratched my head at this passage, but now as a father I am incensed. What am I missing?" 

It is very important to understand the genre of a passage of Scripture, if you are going to interpret it properly. In this case, the genre is historical narrative, and historical narrative is always descriptive, but not always prescriptive. In other words, historical narrative tells you what happened, and what people did, but many of the things that we are told that people did are not intended as positive examples, that we should read and then "go, and do thou likewise". And this is true in many cases, even when the good characters in Scripture are involved. For example, one of King David's sons raped his half sister, and while David was angry, he really did not deal with it in any decisive way. This led to Absalom, the full brother of the woman who was raped, to plot to kill his brother, and eventually to lead a revolt against his father (2 Samuel 13:1-18:33). There is nothing in that story to suggest that David handled the rape of one of his daughters in a praiseworthy manner. In fact, it is clear that David's failure to handle this properly led to the disastrous results that followed. Furthermore, given that these events followed closely on the heels of David's sin with Bathsheba, it is clear that these events were in fulfillment of the God's judgment against David, which was pronounced by the Prophet Nathan:

"Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ Thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will raise up adversity against you from your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, before the sun’"(2 Samuel 12:10-12).

And in the case of Lot, while he is described as a righteous man (2 Peter 2:7), not all of his actions were praiseworthy either. For example, we are told earlier:

"Abram dwelled in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelled in the cities of the plain, and pitched his tent toward Sodom. But the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly" (Genesis 13:12-13).

The statement that Lot chose to dwell near Sodom is followed by the assessment of how wicked the people of Sodom were. The next time we hear of him, he is living in Sodom (Genesis 14:12). The narrative does not come out and say that Lot should not have moved into Sodom, but that is a clear inference from the text.

The point of the story of the two angels who visited Sodom was to highlight the depravity of the city. God had told Abraham that he intended to destroy Sodom, but Abraham interceded for them, and God promised that if he could find ten righteous men there, he would not destroy the city. So two Angels went into Sodom, in the appearance of men, and when Lot saw them, he was anxious to have them stay at his home because he knew the wickedness of the city, and knew what they would do to strangers. When the men of the city, both young and old, gathered outside of Lot's home and demand that he send out the two visitors so that they could rape them, Lot was not only concerned for the two visitors, but having a middle eastern sense of hospitality, he saw the violation of his daughters as being less of a shame than the violation of two visitors that he had extended hospitality to. The point of all this is not that Lot's understanding of how hospitality should dictate one's response to such a situation. The point is that this mob of men, given the chance to rape two young women instead, preferred to rape two men. So not only were they immoral, violent, and inclined to take advantage of strangers, they preferred unnatural homosexual sex to natural (though nonetheless forced) heterosexual sex. There is nothing in the text that suggests that Lot's choice was a good one. And as a matter of fact, the two angels blinded the mob, and spared them all from their perversity, and then told Lot to take his family and to get out Sodom, because God would destroy the city, since there were no righteous people in Sodom outside of Lot's own family. 



Friday, December 26, 2014

10 Year Anniversary


This month, this blog hit 10 years.

The most popular posts to date, in reverse order are:

10. Stump the Priest: Head Coverings.

9.  So Gay Marriage Won't Impose Anything on the Rest of Us?

8.  Being Frank.

7.  Stump the Priest: Unicorns?

6.  Unfortunate Trends in the Roman Catholic Church.

5.  The Story of Sgt. MacKenzie.

4.  ROCOR and the Assembly of Bishops.

3.  Further Thoughts on the Ancient Faith Today Discussion: The Pope and the Patriarch.

2.  What should Orthodox Christians do, when there is no parish nearby?

1.  Homilies on the Lord's Prayer.

And what surprises me is that the number one post has more than 3 times the number of hits that the next most popular post has, and as best as I can tell, this is due almost exclusively to google searches.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Stump the Priest: Wearing a Cross


Question: "Is it necessary for an Orthodox Christian to always wear a Cross?"

The practice of wearing a cross is very ancient, and it is done for two reasons: 1). It is a confession of faith that we are Christians; and 2). The Cross is a weapon against evil.

In Russia, to say that someone "took off his Cross" is another way of saying that they have renounced their Christian Faith. One of the most popularly venerated saints of recent times is the soldier Evgeny Rodionov, who was captured by the Muslim Chechens during the First Chechen. He was beaten and tortured, and finally beheaded because he refused to remove his Cross.

There are some good reasons why someone might need to remove their Cross temporarily, perhaps because of some work safety issues, but aside from such exceptional circumstances, one should wear their Cross at all times.

For laymen, the wearing of the Cross is worn next to the skin, and so usually is not visible to others, but is a constant reminder to one's self of their faith. However, it can at times be seen by others, and so is also a testimony to others, as it was most clearly in the case of the New Martyr Evgeny.

On the back of most Orthodox Cross, you will find one of two texts. The most common one is "Спаси и Сохрани," which means "Save and Protect". One also sees this prayer, though usually not the entire prayer, unless the Cross is fairly large:

"Да воскреснет Бог, и расточатся врази Его, и да бежат от лица Его ненавидящии Его. Яко исчезает дым, да исчезнут; яко тает воск от лица огня, тако да погибнут беси от лица любящих Бога и знаменующихся крестным знамением, и в веселии глаголющих: радуйся, Пречестный и Животворящий Кресте Господень, прогоняяй бесы силою на тебе пропятаго Господа нашего Иисуса Христа, во ад сшедшаго и поправшаго силу диаволю, и даровавшаго нам тебе Крест Свой Честный на прогнание всякаго супостата. О, Пречестный и Животворящий Кресте Господень! Помогай ми со Святою Госпожею Девою Богородицею и со всеми святыми во веки. Аминь."

Which means:

"Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Him flee from before His face.  As smoke vanisheth, so let them vanish; as wax melteth before the fire, so let the demons perish from the presence of them that love God and who sign themselves with the sign of the Cross and say in gladness: Rejoice, most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, for Thou drivest away the demons by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ Who was crucified on thee, Who went down to hades and trampled on the power of the devil, and gave us thee, His precious Cross, for the driving away of every adversary. O most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, help me together with the holy Lady Virgin Theotokos, and with all the saints, unto the ages. Amen."

This prayer begins with the words of Psalm 67[68], but go on to interpret that prayer as a prayer against our invisible enemies, the demons, who are defeated by the power of the Cross.

Wearing a Cross is not a lucky charm that would be of any benefit to an unbeliever, nor is it a guarantee that even a pious Orthodox Christian will experience no physical harm while wearing it; but for those who do wear it with faith in the power of the Cross of Christ, it is of great spiritual comfort and benefit.

For more information see:

What the Cross Means for Christians, by Professor I.M. Andreyev

The Wearing of Christian Baptismal Crosses, by Igumen Philip (Ryabykh) and Igor Ponkin

Answers to Practical Questions About The Orthodox Way of Life, No. 1 - On Wearing the Cross

Friday, December 19, 2014

Stump the Priest: The Jesus Prayer & Scripture


Question: "When Jesus was asked how we are to pray, he gave the "Our Father" prayer, and said nothing about the "Jesus Prayer." Some Orthodox writers almost give the impression that a person will not be saved without the Jesus Prayer, but Christ never taught such a thing. Why would God require a mantra from people every conscious moment of their lives? Repetitive prayers (mantras) are a Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic thing. Does not the same practice imply a common source?"

Did Christ Teach it?

Are you sure Christ did not teach us to pray the Jesus Prayer? In the Gospels we have many examples of people calling upon Christ in ways that are similar to the Jesus Prayer:

"And when Jesus departed thence, two blind men followed him, crying, and saying, Thou son of David, have mercy on us" (Matthew 9:27).

"And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil" (Matthew 15:22).

"And, behold, two blind men sitting by the way side, when they heard that Jesus passed by, cried out, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David" (Matthew 20:30).

"And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off: and they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us" (Luke 17:12-13).

But in the parable of the Public and the Pharisee, the prayer that the publican says, for which he is commended, is "God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13). And so unless one disputes that Christ is God, Christ did teach us to pray a prayer that is substantively similar to the Jesus Prayer.

The Name of the Lord

We are also taught in Scripture to call upon, praise, and trust in the name of the Lord:

"I will give praise unto the Lord according to His righteousness, and I will chant unto the name of the Lord Most High" (Psalm 7:18).

"Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will call upon the name of the Lord our God" (Psalm 19:8).

"Blessed is the man, whose hope is in the name of the Lord Psalm" (Psalm 39:5).

"Praise the Lord, O ye servants, praise ye the name of the Lord. Blessed be the name of the Lord from henceforth and for evermore. From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, the name of the Lord is to be praised" (Psalm 112:1-3).

"All the nations compassed me round about, and by the name of the Lord I warded them off. Surrounding me they compassed me, and by the name of the Lord I warded them off. They compassed me about like unto bees around a honeycomb, and they burst into flame like a fire among the thorns, and by the name of the Lord I warded them off" (Psalm 117:10-12).

"Praise ye the name of the Lord; O ye servants, praise the Lord" (Psalm 134:1).

"The name of the Lord is a strong tower; The righteous run to it and are safe" (Proverbs 18:10).

"For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Roman 10:13).

"And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Acts 2:21).

"And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him" (Colossians 3:17).

For more on the significance of the Jesus Prayer, and the name of Jesus, see:

The Power of the Name, by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), and On Practicing the Jesus Prayer, by St. Ignaty Brianchaninov.

So the content of the Jesus prayer is not only unobjectionable, but it is completely Biblical, in fact it is a summary of the Gospel.

Vain Repetitions?

But if the content of the Jesus Prayer is admitted to be Biblical, the next objection that is raised is usually in reference to Matthew 6:7, which says in the King James Version:

"But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking."

So does this apply to the Jesus Prayer? No. To begin with, while the King James is general a very good translation, in this case, the translation is a bit debatable. The word behind that translation "vain repetitions" is the Greek word "battologeō" (βαττολογέω), which more precisely means "to stutter" to "babble". Some examples of contemporary translations that reflect this are:

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words" (ESV).

"And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words" (RSV).

"And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words" (NIV).

The Word Biblical Commentary has this to say about the meaning of this text:

"In view is the attempt to manipulate God through repetitive, perhaps even magical phrases, as the verb battalogein, "babble," and the noun polylogia, "much speaking, " suggest. Battalogein, an onomatopoetic word, is probably derived from the cognate noun meaning "stammerer" or "stutterer." The verb here, however, refers not to a speech impediment but to the repetition of meaningless syllables. Polylogia seems to have in mind vain repetition and lengthiness. They "think" (dokousin) they will be heard by means of these devices, but in this they are mistaken" (Donald A. Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 1-13, vol. 33a (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 147).

And Blessed Theophylact says:

"But when ye pray, do not babble as the Gentiles do." "Babbling" means praying foolishly, as when someone asks for such worldly things as fame, wealth, or victory. "Babbling" is also inarticulate, childish speech. Therefore you, O reader, must not pray foolishly, For they think that they shall be heard for their many words. It is not necessary to make long prayers, but rather short and frequent prayers, uttering few words, but persevering in prayer" (The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Matthew. Fr. Christopher Stade, Trans. (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom  Press, 1992), p. 57).

And so what Christ is speaking of are prayers that meaningless... perhaps treated like magical words, which because of their repetition are intended to make God respond in some desired way. But this is not true of the Jesus Prayer.

For one thing, the words are not meaningless -- they are filed with deep meaning. And the proper use of the Jesus Prayer requires that one pray it attentively, focusing on the meaning of the words. A prayer is only vain, if you don't mean it, or if you pay no attention to what you are saying, or have no understanding of what you are saying.

Is it a Mantra?

The purpose of a mantra is for the person saying it to empty his mind of all thoughts. The purpose of the Jesus Prayer is to fill our mind with the meaning of the words, and to raise up our thoughts to God.

St. Paul teaches us to "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

St. Augustine, in commenting on Psalm 37[38]:9, speaks about the meaning of unceasing prayer:

"And who observed and noticed the cause of his groaning? “All my desire is before Thee” (ver. 9). For it is not before men who cannot see the heart, but it is before Thee that all my desire is open! Let your desire be before Him; and “the Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee.” For it is thy heart’s desire that is thy prayer; and if thy desire continues uninterrupted, thy prayer continueth also. For not without a meaning did the Apostle say, “Pray without ceasing.” Are we to be “without ceasing” bending the knee, prostrating the body, or lifting up our hands, that he says, “Pray without ceasing”? Or if it is in this sense that we say that we “pray,” this, I believe, we cannot do “without ceasing.” There is another inward kind of prayer without ceasing, which is the desire of the heart" (St. Augustine, Commentary on the Psalms 37:14 (NPNF1 8:106-7).

This prayer of the heart is what the Jesus Prayer helps us to achieve. The words of the Jesus Prayer are not magical. There are various forms of the Jesus Prayer in use. But the words of the Jesus Prayer are Biblical, the practice is Biblical, and the purpose is also Biblical.

See also this video lecture by Metropolitan Kallistos:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

You may not be interested in Culture Wars, but Culture Wars are interested in you


There are those in the Orthodox Church who say that we should have nothing to do with the culture wars that have been raging in our culture since the 60's. They accuse conservative converts of trying to bring those culture wars into the Orthodox Church. Ironically, those who talk like this are usually the very people who actually are bringing the culture wars into the Orthodox Church by their promotion of the acceptance of homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion, women's ordination, and various other liberal causes. It is not as if the Orthodox Church was full of people who thought gay marriage was a great idea until converts started showing up. In fact, the Orthodox in traditionally Orthodox countries are very conservative, and though, for example, there are not lots of Protestant converts to Orthodoxy in Russia, the Russian Church has taken a very strong and vocal position on these issues.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow is not a convert from Protestantism, but he made these comments at the end of a recent concelebration with Metropolitan Tikhon of the OCA:

"The task of our Churches is to pray and work in order that the Lord would grant His mercy on the peoples of our countries, so that God’s strength would make moral basics stronger, which originate in God’s morals of the Bible, and so that the relations between our countries would strengthen based on common moral values.

That is why we endure the deviations from these God’s moral standards so painfully. The deviations take place both in the United States and other Western countries at the present time. It is a great challenge for Christian Churches. Many of them, especially Protestant organizations, fail to overcome this challenge – they follow the path of the renunciation of their own identity, refuse from moral values of the Gospel in favor of political fashion. But the Orthodox Churches cannot do this and therefore the Orthodox Churches encourage people to profess the faith. We have a right to speak about it like this here at this cathedral, because our Church has gone through decades of suffering and profession, but it has not faltered or cheated on itself.

That is why we heartily wish that the Orthodox Church in America would preserve the fidelity to Christ, His Commandments, and would be, if not very bright and strong, but still light for its people. We are aware that even the light of a small candle becomes a powerful point of reference and helps people find their way to salvation" (see “Orthodox Church is the Bridge that is Able to Unite Russian and American Peoples," translated by Pravmir.ru).

This coming right on the heels of a controversy within the OCA, in which a senior priest has suggested that the Church needs to re-think its position on homosexuality, I can't help but suspect that these comments were made in reference to it.

It would be nice if we could ignore the culture wars, but the culture wars are coming after us, our Church, and our families. You can choose what you are prepared to defend, but you cannot choose who will attack what you wish to defend. Franklin Roosevelt was not "fixated" on militaristic fascism... but he spent quite a bit of his efforts and energy fighting it, because militaristic fascists were attacking the country that he, as president, was sworn to defend. Today it is pro-abortionists, pro-homosexuals, and certain varieties of feminists that are attacking the Traditions of the Orthodox Church. We didn't pick them, they picked us. We have no choice but to defend the Church and its Tradition, or to raise the rainbow flag and surrender.

We do believe that the Orthodox Church is the True Church, and that the gates of hell will not prevail against it, but that does not mean that large parts of it, including our own, cannot fall into heresy and error, if we are not vigilant. It has happened more than once in Church history, and there is no reason to think that we are somehow immune today.

The people of God are the guardians of piety, as the Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs of 1848 (in reply to Pope Pius the IX) states. It is therefore not only permissible, but obligatory for all of the faithful, and even more so for the clergy, to oppose these attempts to infect our Church with the same heresies that have wreaked such havoc in mainline Protestant Churches, and are in the process of doing the same in the Roman Catholic Church.

For more: Fr. Lawrence Farley, in a recent podcast, made this case very eloquently, and I would encourage everyone to listen to it:

Magical Thinking in the Orthodox Church

And you can read it here:

http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/nootherfoundation/magical-thinking-orthodox-church/

He also was recently interviewed by Fr. Chad Hatfield on the question of women's ordination, and the historic order of Deaconesses: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/svsvoices/deaconesses

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Stump the Priest: Fasting Twice a Week

The Publican and the Pharisee 

Question: "Christ gave a parable about the Pharisee and how he fasts twice a week (Luke 18:12). Why did the Orthodox adopt things Christ condemned in Scripture?"

Nowhere in that passage does it suggest that Christ condemned the Pharisee because he fasted twice a week. What is condemned is his boasting, and his judging himself to be better than the publican. In Matthew 23:23, Christ said: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone." Note that while Christ clearly indicates that tithing the mint, anise, and cummin was of lesser importance than the weightier matters of the law, He nevertheless says that they should have done the former without omitting the latter... not that they should have blown off  the tithing of these things.

We begin our preparation for Lent with the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, and in fact, in the following week we do not fast on Wednesday and Friday to drive home the point that humility is more important than fasting. But in that service, we clearly acknowledge that the good things that the Pharisee was doing were good in and of themselves, and worthy of emulation, but we should reject his pride:

"Let us make haste to follow the Pharisee in his virtues and to emulate the Publican in his humility, and let us hate what is wrong in each of them: foolish pride and the defilement of transgressions" (Lenten Triodion, Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, Canon at Matins, Ode 5, first troparion).

In Matthew 9:14, were are told that St. John the Baptists disciples asked Christ: "Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not?" Christ did not use this occasion to denounce fasting. He instead explained why His disciples were not fasting at that time, by asking them the question: "Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them?" But he went on to say: "...but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast." And so ever since the time of Christ's ascension into heaven fasting has been an important part of the Church's life. Fasting on Wednesday and Friday is apostolic in origin. It is recording in the Didache (8:1), which was a first century record of Apostolic Teaching.

Canon 69 of the Holy Apostles (which was affirmed by the Ecumenical Councils) states:

"If any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon, or Subdeacon, or Reader, or Chanter fails to fast throughout the forty days of Holy Lent, or on Wednesday, or on Friday, let him be deposed from office. Unless he has been prevented from doing so by reason of bodily illness. If, on the other hand, a layman fail to do so, let him be excommunicated."

So clearly fasting is important, but it is important as a spiritual discipline, and is a means to an end -- not an end in itself. It teaches us to say "no" to our desires, which is a skill that comes in handy throughout our life. It is also a matter of obedience to the Church, and of entering into periods of fervent prayer with the whole Church. However, if we fast, but allow ourselves to fall into pride over it, our fasting is of no benefit. But the cure to that ailment is to humble ourselves, not to give up fasting. Indeed "Let us make haste to follow the Pharisee in his virtues and to emulate the Publican in his humility, and let us hate what is wrong in each of them: foolish pride and the defilement of transgressions"