Monday, 30 March 2015

Heretical typos: von Balthasar's Origen

Where copyists are concerned, Origen was the unluckiest of all the church fathers. Rufinus complained that heterodox copyists had cunningly inserted heresies into Origen's writings. They "poured the poisonous filth of their own doctrines" into the texts of Origen in order to give their ideas a false aura of authority and antiquity (Rufinus, On the Falsification of the Books of Origen, 2). When Rufinus translated Origen into Latin at the end of the fourth century, he scrupulously omitted or erased anything that looked like a heretical interpolation. As he says in the preface to his translation of First Principles: "Wherever I have found in Origen's books anything that contradicts the devout statements he makes elsewhere about the Trinity, I have either omitted it as a corrupt and interpolated passage, or reproduced it in a form that matches the doctrine that he often affirms elsewhere." And then Rufinus adds that he has also made some interpolations of his own, inserting "explanatory comments" wherever Origen's "obscurity" calls for expression "in a fuller form" (Rufinus, Preface to First Principles).

Poor Origen! Interpolators on every side! Well, Christian reader, I'm sorry to be the one to break the news to you, but the bad luck of this great teacher has continued right down to our own time. One of Origen's greatest modern defenders, Hans Urs von Balthasar, inserts a very peculiar heresy into Origen's soteriology:

"... and by his death destroyed life."
Quotation from Origen in Balthasar, Origen: Spirit and Fire, p. 184.
To be more precise, it is Balthasar's English translator Robert J. Daly who has inserted this latest heresy into Origen. I am not certain, but I believe it may have something to do with Daly's unwholesome fascination with sacrifice.

If only Rufinus were here, he would have tidied things up quite nicely and removed every trace of heresy – something like this (translated freely from Rufinus' Latin):
For although the only-begotten Son of God, whom the holy church acknowledges homoousios with the Father before all worlds, became truly human and suffered for the salvation of the human race, and by his death destroyed death (for let all those who claim that Christ's death was a destruction of life be accursed), and by his resurrection restored life, just as marvellous, apart from the incarnation of the eternal self-subsistent Word, were the things brought about by the Holy Spirit, who is worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Son, world without end.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Trusting in drunkenness: a note on Clement of Alexandria

At the start of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observes that moral action does not arise from deliberation. In order to think clearly about virtue, one must first already have a virtuous disposition formed by good habits. Aristotle drily remarks that the endless ethical debate of some philosophers is really just a sophisticated way of doing nothing. You become virtuous – and thus able to understand virtue – by acting virtuously. Nobody ever reasoned their way into right living.

Clement of Alexandria’s second-century Exhortation to the Greeks has a similar view of the priority of acting over deliberating. Clement’s Hellenistic friends don’t first need to comprehend all the complexities of the Christian faith. What they need first of all is a change of disposition. They need to be charmed by the magic of Christ, enchanted by Christ’s music. The first step is to accept Christ and to begin to follow his way. Understanding what it’s all about comes later.

In a typically affable illustration (he is the most affable of all the early fathers), Clement explains the point by comparing conversion to getting drunk at a party:

Let me give you an illustration. You might have some doubt about whether it’s right for a person to get drunk. But it’s your practice to get drunk before considering the question. Or in the case of self-indulgence, you don’t first make a careful examination: you hurry to indulge. Only when divine things are in question do you first inquire. When it’s a question of following this wise God and his Christ, you think this calls for deliberation and reflection, even though you have no idea what would be pleasing to God. Put faith in us, just as you do in drunkenness, that you may become sober! Put faith in us, just as you do in self-indulgence, that you may live! (Exhortation to the Greeks 10.77)
This is not to suggest that the Christian faith is irrational. For the one who has had a change of disposition, Christ also begins to shine as a rational light. Clement assures his readers that he has "an abundance of persuasive arguments about the Logos" – but these are for those people who have already had their desire awakened and have already begun to "contemplate this clear faith in the virtues", i.e., in the way of life that it initiates.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

On the faulty perfection of the saints

“Bad saints everywhere”–Kevin Hart

Everyone in the church knows that the saints are a bunch of rascals. We could never venerate a faultless person, though we could fault a blameless person. We churchy folk tolerate the ignorance of the heathen about the morality of the saints. We are quite content to let them believe the saints to have been impeccable moral exemplars. But when someone in the church misunderstands the sanctity of the saints and demands faultless perfection, then we sharpen our quills. It is for this reason that John Wesley—lover of perfection that he was—found himself appalled upon reading the work of Rev. Conyers Middleton.

Middleton presumed that it was meaningful to point out that the saintly fathers of the church occasionally demonstrated questionable behaviour and opinion (and he deplored the accounts of their miracles). It takes a perfectionist like Wesley to identify someone who does not have a proper appreciation of Christian perfection.

There are those who will argue against the adjectival use of “Christian”—especially when it is applied to nouns such as “music”, “t-shirt”, or “weight loss programme”. However, when applied to “perfection”, it is an essential modifier. The saints, after all, are not a row of flag poles, but a field of trees. A tree is perfect not because it is rigid and straight and looks like every other tree, but because it is wild. The perfection of the saints comes not because they are blandly flawless, but because they are wildly Christian.

Perhaps it is true to say that Wesley is more credulous of the miracles of the ancient church than is advisable, but he still saw through Middleton’s scepticism to the heart of the matter—Middleton had no love for the fathers. Love, the apostle tells us—rascal that he was—covers a multitude of sins. Christian perfection, Wesley knows all too well, is not faultless performance. Christian perfection is not “sinless perfection”, as he had to remind his critics constantly. The good Lord, after all, had nothing to do with sinless people.

It is not hard, Wesley observes, to find in the Fathers “many mistakes, many weak suppositions, and many ill-drawn conclusions” if one wants to. A saint is not untouched by human infirmity, but one who bears their infirmities with Christian fortitude. “A saint”, G. K. Chesterton once mused, “only means a man who really knows he is a sinner.”

“And yet I exceedingly reverence them”, Wesley concludes, “and esteem them very highly in love.” If the saints were flawless, they could be no example to us. The saints inspire only if they bear the blemishes of human life. Otherwise they would be horribly glorious gods.

Christian perfection, Wesley teaches, is not sinlessness, but love. Wesley’s prayer is nothing more than to be a Christian like the fathers, living a life of love in the service of the God of love. That, he says, would be a perfect life.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Singing in the first person: on “I” and “we” in worship

Recently I went along with a friend to a Hillsong worship service. I was reminded again that one of the distinctive marks of Pentecostal worship isn’t just the style of music but also the prominence of the first person singular. In mainline Protestant worship, the prevailing trend has been to replace the worshipping “I” with the communal “we.” The “I believe” of the creed is changed to “we believe.” The newer hymns are all about “our” needs, “our” lives, “our” relationship to God and one another. When older choruses are sung, the pronouns are often updated to reflect the plural preference. I have been in a service where the deeply personal Geoff Bullock song, “The Power of Your Love,” was amended, from:
Lord, I come to You
Let my heart be changed, renewed
Flowing from the grace that I’ve found in You
And Lord I’ve come to know
The weaknesses I see in me
Will be stripped away
By the power of Your love.
Lord, we come to You
Let our hearts be changed, renewed
Flowing from the grace that we found in You
And Lord we’ve come to know
The weaknesses we see in us
Will be stripped away
By the power of Your love.
Now in principle there’s nothing wrong with either “I” or “we” as far as singing to God is concerned. And the good Lord is probably long-suffering enough to figure out what we mean when we sing a line as daft as “the weaknesses we see in us.” Let’s face it, where hymnody is concerned, the Christian church will only be saved (if it is saved at all) as though through fire.

But I’m sceptical of the assumption that “we” is somehow the more Liturgically Correct word to use – as if the believers who turn up to church on Sunday morning cannot be trusted to remember that they are worshipping in a community. The whole thing smacks (if you’ll pardon the dirty language) of socialism. Are the clergy anxious to make us ever-mindful of our communal loyalties, as if they knew deep down that we would all rather be worshipping on our own at home?

Interestingly, St Augustine’s view of the worshipping “I” was exactly the opposite. In his exposition of Psalm 121, Augustine argued that the “I” is the proper symbol of corporate worship, while the “we” is too individualistic:
Let [the psalmist] sing from the heart of each one of you like a single person. Indeed, let each of you be this one person. Each one prays the psalm individually, but because you are all one in Christ, it is the voice of a single person that is heard in the psalm [Cum enim dicitis illud singuli, quia omnes unum estis in Christo, unus homo illud dicit]. That is why you do not say, ‘To you, Lord, have we lifted up our eyes,’ but ‘To you, Lord, I have lifted up my eyes.’ Certainly you must think of this as a prayer offered by each of you on his or her own account, but even more you should think of it as the prayer of the one person present throughout the whole world. (Expositions of the Psalms, 122.2).
Augustine’s point is that the language of “we” can easily give the impression that the congregation is a collection of atomistic individuals. But when believers sing to God in the first-person singular, it is as if the whole body of Christ were crying to God with one voice. The “I” is intensely personal: I sing as if the song applied to me alone. But it is also mystical and communal: beneath and above and around my own individual “I,” I hear the surge of a greater voice, a corporate “I” of which my own voice is a part. In Augustine’s view, this corporate voice is the voice of Christ. It is Christ himself who sings the psalms and who cries out to God in one voice from one body through the Spirit.

I implore you, my liberal Protestant comrades, don’t be too proud to admit that the Pentecostals might actually have got something right! And don’t be afraid to confront the question whether the experience of community in those ostensibly oh-so-individualistic Pentecostal churches is less intense and meaningful, or more, than what is found in our mainline churches with our theological propriety, our liturgical spit and polish, and all our earnest bluster and blather about we, us, and our.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Rock songs for (named) Gospel characters

  • Zechariah: “Shut Up and Dance” (Aerosmith)
  • Elizabeth: “A Woman Half My Age” (Kitty Wells)
  • Mary (mother of Jesus): “Send Me an Angel” (Scorpions)
  • Gabriel: “Undercover Angel” (Alan O’Day)
  • Joseph: “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” (Joni Mitchell)
  • Simeon: “This Old Heart of Mine” (Isley Brothers)
  • Anna: “Battered Old Bird” (Elvis Costello and the Attractions)
  • Herod the Great: “Children of the Grave” (Black Sabbath) 
  • John the Baptist: “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (Bob Dylan)
  • Simon Peter: “I Am a Rock” (Simon and Garfunkel)
  • Andrew: “Gone Fishin’” (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
  • James: “So Long, Dad” (Manfred Mann)
  • John: “Thunder Rolls” (Garth Brooks)
  • Philip: “Come On” (Wynn Stewart)
  • Nathaniel: “What’s Going On?” (Marvin Gaye)
  • Matthew: “After Taxes” (Johnny Cash)
  • Thomas: “Touch Me” (Doors)
  • James (son of Alphaeus): “Who the Hell Am I?” (Hoobastank)
  • Thaddeus: “Hey Jude” (Beatles)
  • Simon (the Cananaean): “Street Fightin’ Man” (Rolling Stones)
  • Judas Iscariot: “Friend of the Devil” (Grateful Dead)
  • Herod Antipas: “Political Man” (Cream)
  • Herodias: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (Cyndi Lauper)
  • Nicodemus: “In the Still of the Night” (The Five Satins)
  • Joseph of Arimathea: “A Well Respected Man” (Kinks)
  • Mary Magdalene: “Respect” (Aretha Franklin)
  • Joanna: “Uptown Girl” (Billy Joel)
  • Susanna: “Rich Girl” (Hall and Oates)
  • Jairus: “Child of Mine” (Fleetwood Mac)
  • Bartimaeus: “Sweet Blindness” (Laura Nyro)
  • Zacchaeus: “Short and Sweet” (Espernaza Spaulding)
  • Martha: “Take It Easy” (Eagles)
  • Mary: “Listen to What the Man Said” (Wings)
  • Lazarus (John): “Stayin’ Alive” (Bee Gees)
  • Lazarus (Luke): “Who’s Sorry Now?” (Connie Francis)
  • Caiaphas: “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” (Sparks)
  • Pilate: “Hands Clean” (Alanis Morissette)
  • Simon of Cyrene: “Walk Like a Man” (Four Seasons)
  • Mary Magdalene, Mary (mother of James and Joseph), Salome: “Honkey Tonk Women” (Rolling Stones)
  • Cleopas: “Liberty Road” (Elf)

Monday, 9 March 2015

Paddling by the shore: new book by Kim Fabricius

Reader, you will be pleased to learn that our resident gadfly, Kim Fabricius, has published a new book. It is called Paddling by the Shore: Hymns of Kim Fabricius, and I commend it to you. It's available from Wipf & Stock or from Amazon. Some hymns are written for angels, but these ones are written for human beings.

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