This is the twelfth and last in a sporadic series on the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. The previous post was Mystagogy, Sacramental Theology and the Poker Playing Dog.
It’s time, I suppose, to “put a wrap” on this long series on the Cathechetical Lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem. For me at least, it has been a rewarding journey. Whether it has been so for the readers of this blog is something only time will tell.
Looking at this blog, people probably ask themselves, “Why does this guy stick with an Evangelical—and specifically Pentecostal—church?” That’s a legitimate question, and the answer to that isn’t easy or straightforward. But let me set forth the most important reason, and what is, in my opinion, the greatest lesson of Cyril’s Catechetical Lectures.
As I observed in my critique of Jim Wallis’ book, Christianity isn’t primarily a moral system. To say that it is or act as if it is is a grave mistake. It is the restoration of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, his removal of our sin and his transformation of our very being. It’s true that this transformation results in us doing things we didn’t do before and not doing things we did before, but putting “doing things” before the transformation is putting the cart before the horse. Those who have experienced this transformation gather into what we conventionally call the church, the “called out” ones.
That puts me on the wrong side of many people. It certainly puts me on the wrong side of both liberals like Wallis and others who believe that Christianity is a moral system. It also puts me on the wrong side of these who think the church comes before the people, that Christians exist to serve the institution—and receive salvation therefrom—and not the church serving the “called out ones”.
Evangelical churches have distinguished themselves by emphasising the primacy of a real relationship between Jesus Christ and people. I would be the first to admit that they’ve not been perfect: there’s a lot of “churchianity” out there and these days Evangelicals—especially in the West—have been attracting the “poker playing dog” rather than recruiting leaders. But Evangelical Christianity has not survived centuries of marginalisation and legal obstacles to thrive and expand the way it has by simply offering a milquetoast gospel. That emphasis is the main reason why I’ve stuck with one over the years.
That, unfortunately, has been the response of the “Apostolic” churches. Rather than really challenge their people on a consistent basis, these churches have contented themselves with making Christianity a cultural statement. Baptising infants and running people through ritual and sacrament has given a false sense of security to many in these churches. In the past, when we had “Christendom”, that made for institutional perpetuation, but whether by force of arms or cultural changes that won’t cut it for the propagation of the faith.
The big lesson that Cyril has in these lectures—for me at least—is that it doesn’t have to be that way, that Christianity isn’t the either/or proposition it has become.
Cyril is a product of a church that, within living memory, survived three centuries of persecution, the last sixty years of which were especially arduous. One of the advantages of venerating martyrs is that you remember them, and the fact that they gave their lives for Jesus Christ. Some of that persecution persisted via Arianising emperors, a process ongoing when the lectures were given.
Cyril is also a product of a church which had no problem making demands of its adherents, both current and prospective. Jesus set out a demanding gospel, and that had been handed down to Cyril’s day. The fourth century is portrayed as the time when the church sold out to the state and the culture, but it didn’t do so without a fight. Part of that fight was monasticism, but not all. Cyril makes it abundantly clear that those who choose Christ and are baptised in his name need to reflect that commitment in their lives in a real way, a view unchanged by his real sacramentalism.
Cyril also from time to time brings up another issue: the issue of the Christian sexual ethic. Today we have two unappetising choices set before us. The first is what David Virtue refers to as the “pansexual” ethic, where anything goes and, as long as it’s a committed relationship, it’s okay, and everyone who doesn’t like it are bigots and homophobes. The second is what I call “beauty pageant Christianity,” where, as long as it’s heterosexual and we state that sex is to be kept in the bounds of marriage, then just about anything goes. That’s one reason why we have the divorce rate we have in Evangelical churches and fiascos like Carrie Prejean. Cyril comes from a church where the renunciation of sex, although not universal, is a real option for Christians, and that’s something that has been shoved under the rug these days. Jesus’ demands for sexual purity are higher than just about anything being taught these days, and Cyril was as aware of this fact as we are not.
It has been my view for a long time that the “Apostolic” churches were God’s “Plan A”, and that the gaggle of groups we have today the result of human failure. If same churches really want to get the momentum back and move things towards real unity, they should ditch infant baptism (or at least make it optional) and catechise those who come into the church in a similar manner to Cyril. Doing this would put Evangelicals in a corner, but the goal is the unity of the church and the propagation of the gospel.
In Patristic studies, Cyril is generally regarded as a thinker of “second rank”. He is neither a theologian like Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzus nor a preacher on the order of John Chrysostom. But his basic theology is sound, and the lectures give us a priceless picture of basic discipleship in the Patristic church, which brings many issues of the day into a more comprehensible perspective.
But he also brings some issues of our own day in a new light, and that is where Cyril can take his place amongst the greatest.