Category Archives: The Orthodox Faith

Three times holy, whether the Lord of glory was crucified for us or not.

Anger in God

Something to consider, from Philo Judaeus, On the Unchangeableness of God XI:

And this is what follows:  “I will destroy,” says God, ” the man whom I have made from off the face of the earth, from man to beast, from creeping things to the fowls of the air, because I have considered and repent that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:7) Now, some persons, when they hear the expressions which I have just cited, imagine that the living God is here giving away to anger and passion; but God is utterly inaccessible to any passion whatever. For it is the peculiar property of human weakness to be disquieted by any such feelings, but God has neither the irrational passions of the soul, nor are the parts and limits of the body in the least belonging to him. But, nevertheless, such things are spoken of with reference to God by the great lawgiver in an introductory sort of way, for the sake of admonishing those persons who could not be corrected otherwise. For of all the laws which are couched in the form of injunction or prohibition, and such alone are properly speaking laws; there are two principal positions laid down with respect to the great cause of all things: one, that God is not as a man; the other, that God is as a man. But the first of these assertions is confirmed by the most certain truth, while the latter is introduced for the instruction of the many. In reference to which, it is said about them, “as a man would instruct his son.” (Deuteronomy 1:31) And this is said for the sake of instruction and admonition, and not because he is really such by nature.  For of men some are attached to the service of the soul, and others to that of the body; now the companions of the soul, being able to associate with incorporeal natures, appreciable only by the intellect, do not compare the living God to any species of created beings; but, dissociating it with any idea of distinctive qualities (for this is what most especially contributes to his happiness and to his consummate felicity, to comprehend his naked existence without any connection with figure or character), they, I say, are content with the bare conception of his existence, and do not attempt to invest him with any form.

There are two concepts here, both of which are, unfortunately, out of fashion right at the moment.

The first, to cut to the chase, is Philo’s idea that anger in God is an anthropomorphism, i.e., a human attribute spoken of in God to aid our understanding but which is not literally there.  We use this referring to such things as God’s hand, foot, etc., although God is incorporeal.  (The Mormons are not able to get that far, as they posit that God has a body, which cans his omnipresence, among other things.)  In the Greek view that Philo expresses, the passions of the soul (anger, lust, etc.) are connected with the body, while the rational soul, whose task it is to control these passions, is above this.  To attribute to God literal anger is to lower God, and there’s enough of that going on.

The second is that much of the Scriptures, and especially the Old Testament (which is all Philo had,) were written in an instructional way.  As anyone who has taught knows, it is necessary to sometimes simplify the material to get the students to initially grasp it.  Given the first proposition, saying that God is angry is likewise a teaching tool.  Saying that things in the Old Testament are such isn’t restricted to Philo or God’s anger: “Thus the Law has proved a guide to lead us to Christ, in order that we may be pronounced righteous as the result of faith.” (Galatians 3:24 TCNT)

To come back and say that this only exists in liberal Christianity is simply not so: this line of thinking pervades the Fathers of the Church and the medievals, including St. Thomas Aquinas.  And it is really different from liberal Christianity in that liberals do not think that God is angry for sentimental reasons.  The ancients and medievals accepted the fact that bad things happen and that bad things come when we transgress God’s way.  The question is whether we think that God, like the referee in a football game, simply calls the penalty and moves the ball back, or whether the angels duck to avoid the stuff that gets thrown from the throne room.

Today, of course, we’re supposed to be perpetually passionate and worked up, and we have the crazy society to prove it.

Sometimes It Pays to Think

Like in this, from A.B. Bruce’s The humiliation of Christ, about Eutyches, the Monophysite fanatic:

It is plain from those representations that Eutyches had no distinct definite conception of the constitution of our Lord’s person. He felt rather than thought on the subject of Christology. He did not pretend to comprehend the mystery of the Incarnation, but rather gloried in proclaiming its incomprehensibleness. He knew that God and flesh were altogether different things, and he believed that Christ s flesh was real; but the divinity bulked so large in his eye, that the humanity, in comparison, vanished into nothing. And if compelled by fact to admit that the humanity was still there, not drunk up like a drop of honey by the sea of the divinity, he refused, at all events, to regard it as on a level with ordinary humanity: reverence protested against calling Christ s divine body consubstantial with the bodies of common mortals.

The result of this was a mess:

It would have been well had the course of events permitted such a man to pass his life in obscurity. But it was otherwise ordered. Eutyches became the representative of a theory which engaged the attention of three Synods ; being condemned by the first, approved by the second,  and re-condemned and finally disposed of as a heresy by the third, the famous (Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon…)

The criticism Bruce levels against Eutyches has also been directed against the Orthodox in general.  Unfortunately Eutyches’ approach has its counterparts in other parts of Christianity.  And, in this emotionalistic age we live in, even the “rational” places are driven by the same kind of lack of thinking.

You Really Can Do Biblical Preaching From a Lectionary

Recently my wife and I ventured to Regent University for me to deliver a paper.  While there we got the chance to view one of the University’s new acquisitions, namely a Torah scroll from Yemen.

torah-regentThe fact that a Christian university could acquire such a donation is a sign of the times: Evangelicals are about the only reliable Gentile group the Jews have for support, in spite of the attempt by BDS types to worm their way into the system.

A New Testament passage that prominently features a synagogue reading (not from the Torah) is this one:

Coming to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, Jesus, as was his custom, went on the Sabbath into the Synagogue, and stood up to read the Scriptures. The book given him was that of the Prophet Isaiah; and Jesus opened the book and found the place where it says– ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, For he has consecrated me to bring Good News to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and restoration of sight to the blind, To set the oppressed at liberty, To proclaim the accepted year of the Lord.’ Then, closing the book and returning it to the attendant, he sat down. The eyes of all in the Synagogue were fixed upon him, And Jesus began: “This very day this passage has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21 TCNT)

The curator noted that, when Jesus was asked to read from the scroll, the reading was not of his immediate choosing, but came from a cycle of readings–a lectionary–that the synagogues employed.  He was told what to read, he read it and then interpreted it (not entirely to their liking, I might add…)

Lectionaries are the stock in trade of liturgical churches such as the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican/Episcopal churches, Orthodox churches and the like.  But Evangelicals avoid such constraints like the plague.  A good example of this came to me when I was in undergraduate school at Texas A&M.

One of the nice things that ministerial associations promote is pulpit exchanges, where ministers from different churches preach in other places.  For a Catholic church, this can be problematic, but in the 1970’s things were easier.  Our exchange was with a Baptist church; the Baptist pastor and our priest were good friends, shown by their mutually swelling waistlines.  (Gluttony, I might point out, was a sin for the Catholic, but a way of life for the Baptist.)

So the time for the Gospel reading came, and the Baptist preacher got up and, ignoring the fancy three-year lectionary cycle introduced by the Novus Ordo Missae, read from John 15.  His subsequent sermon on “love one another” was different: he observed that “the Aggies love the Aggies and the Catholics love the Catholics, but the Baptists don’t always love the Baptists.” (Subsequent experience would bear that out.)  That alone was probably worth the side trip from the lectionary, but it still was a side trip.

As was the case here, Evangelicals are loath to follow any kind of lectionary or reading pattern for the Scriptures. There are two main arguments against the practice.

First, some will say that it smacks of “formalism,” which is their objection for the liturgical concept.  But there’s no evidence that using a lectionary is a more “formal” way of doing things than doing it ad hoc every Sunday.

Second, Pentecostals and Charismatics will argue that it “blocks the move of the Spirit” if they are forced to preach out a set pattern of the Scriptures.  However, if it was good enough for Our Lord to not only read from a lectionary but to proclaim the fulfilment of prophecy, are we any better?

The major downside of doing it without a lectionary–assuming, of course, the lectionary is comprehensive in its coverage of the Scriptures–is that our ministers tend to develop a very limited repertoire of scriptures and sermons.  And didn’t Our Lord having something to say about repetition?

And, of course, special occasions pretty much demand a lectionary type of choice.  The first funeral I ever helped preach was for a former employee down in Georgia.  We got to the graveside, and the credentialed minister actually asked me what scripture to use.  (The answer can be found in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.)

So my advice to Evangelicals and Pentecostals is this: don’t disparage those who follow a lectionary, it just might improve what you are doing.

After the Resurrection, Did Our Lord Need Purification?

Of all of Jesus Christ’s post-resurrection appearances, this one is, in many ways, the most intriguing:

Meanwhile Mary was standing close outside the tomb, weeping. Still weeping, she leant forward into the tomb, And perceived two angels clothed in white sitting there, where the body of Jesus had been lying, one where the head and the other where the feet had been. “Why are you weeping?” asked the angels. “They have taken my Master away,” she answered, “and I do not know where they have laid him.” After saying this, she turned round, and looked at Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. “Why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” he asked. Supposing him to be the gardener, Mary answered: “If it was you, Sir, who carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away myself.” “Mary!” said Jesus. She turned round, and exclaimed in Hebrew: “Rabboni!” (or, as we should say, ‘Teacher’). “Do not hold me,” Jesus said; “for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my Brothers, and tell them that I am ascending to him who is my Father and their Father, my God and their God.” (John 20:11-17 TCNT)

There have been many explanations of Jesus’ statement “Do not hold me” to Mary Magdalene; in this piece I’ll look at two of the oldest interpretations, from Origen.  Both of these date from the first half of the third century.  The first one we’ll look at is probably the earliest, from his Commentary in John, VI, 37:

 And having by His passion destroyed His enemies, He who is strong in battle and a mighty Lord required after His mighty deeds a purification which could only be given Him by His Father alone;  and this is why He forbids Mary to touch Him, saying, “Touch Me not, for I am not yet ascended to My Father; but go and tell My disciples, I go to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.”

This is a pretty bold statement about someone who, as we saw last week, was sinless.  Origen was given to bold statements, which got him in trouble in life and in death.  But Evangelicals routinely blurt out stuff like “Jesus took on our sin,” so how did he get rid of it?  That’s a question that most evangelicals, as is often the case, don’t have a good answer for.

Simply put, Origen looks at Jesus’ death, resurrection and victory as a very high form of spiritual warfare, from which Jesus emerged victorious for himself and the rest of us.  Some kind of “recovery” after the battle is natural to posit.  It was in this situation that he told Mary Magdalene not to touch him.

Later in life he had the chance to discuss this issue again.  Origen wasn’t above changing his mind about things (as was the case with the transmigration of souls) and in his Dialogue with Heraclides he states the following:

If the spirit was put into the hands of the Father, he gave the spirit as a deposit. It is one thing to make a gift, another thing to hand over, and another to leave in deposit. He who makes a deposit does so with the intention of receiving back that which he has deposited. Why then had he to give the spirit to the Father as a deposit? The question is beyond me and my powers and my understanding. For I am not endowed with knowledge to enable me to say that, just as the body was not able to go down to Hades, even if this is alleged by those who affirm that the body of Jesus was spiritual, so also neither could the spirit go down to Hades, and therefore he gave the spirit to the Father as a deposit until he should have risen from the dead. . . . After he had entrusted this deposit to the Father, he took it back again. When? Not at the actual moment of the resurrection, but immediately after the resurrection. My witness is the text of the gospel. The Lord Jesus Christ rose again from the dead. Mary met him and he said to her: “Touch me not.” For he wished anyone that touched him to touch him in his entirety, that having touched him in his entirety he might be benefited in body from his body, in soul from his soul, in spirit from his spirit. “For I am not yet ascended to the Father.” He ascends to the Father and comes to the disciples. Accordingly he ascends to the Father. Why? To receive back the deposit.

Allegorists like Origen are criticised for playing “fast and loose” with the literal meaning of scripture.  But in reality they often “nit-pick” the scriptures for fine points, and do so better than more “literal” interpreters.  That is the case here.

Origen, in common with both the New Testament and Philo, considered human nature in three parts: body, soul and spirit.  “Then Jesus, with a loud cry, said: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” And with these words he expired.” (Luke 23:46 TCNT) Origen doesn’t simply take Jesus’ words as a figure of speech: he states that Our Lord placed his spirit up with his Father on a temporary basis.  The body then went to the tomb and the soul, with his divine nature, “…went and preached to the imprisoned spirits, who once were disobedient, at the time when God patiently waited, in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared; in which some few lives, eight in all, were saved by means of water.” (1 Peter 3:19-20 TCNT)

But that wasn’t the end of it: “And referred to the resurrection of the Christ when he said that ‘he had not been abandoned to the Place of Death, nor had his body undergone corruption.'” (Acts 2:31 TCNT) The Resurrection was simply the beginning of putting the pieces back together; the body was reunited with the soul, and then the Father returned his spirit to the Son.  But in Mary Magdalene’s early encounter, Our Lord had not been reunited just yet.

God is timeless; the Incarnation, like anything else in the material world, took place in time.  The fact that the process is not instantaneous should not surprise us.  The thing that we should never take for granted is not that it happened in time, but that it happened at all.

Much of this article is based on Crehan, J. H.. (1950) “The “Dialektos” of Origen and John 20:17″ Theological Studies, 11, 368-373.

The Meaning of Outside the Camp: A Good Friday Reflection

If I had to pick a favourite Bible verse or passage, it would be this:

The bodies of those animals whose blood is brought by the High Priest into the Sanctuary, as an offering for sin, are burnt outside the camp. And so Jesus, also, to purify the People by his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go out to him ‘outside the camp,’ bearing the same reproaches as he; for here we have no permanent city, but are looking for the City that is to be.  (Hebrews 13:11-14 TCNT)

I first picked up on this while working as the webmaster for the Church of God Chaplains Commission; v. 12 was their theme scripture, as it is for Outside the Gates Ministries, the current ministry of Dr. Robert Crick, the Commission’s director for many years.

Verses 11, 12 and 13 each take the reader “outside” something.  For v. 12 it is outside the gate.  That’s pretty straightforward: Jerusalem, like most ancient cities, was walled, and to enter or exit same you went in and out of gates.  Jesus Christ was taken through one of those gates outside of the walled city to be crucified and suffer.

But what about “the camp” in vv. 11 and 13?  It’s tempting to read that as an analogy for Jerusalem also, but there’s more to it than that.  To dig a little deeper we’ll have recourse to Philo Judaeus.  The relationship between Philo and the New Testament is subject to some dispute but there’s no question both of them drew to varying degrees from the same well, and no where is that clearer than in the Book of Hebrews.

A little introduction to Philo’s concept of the human person is in order.  Drawn from Greek philosophy and psychology, it posits the existence of an immortal, immaterial soul in each of us, joined to a body while on the earth.  The baser “passions” of the soul came up from the physical body, with its desires and irrationality.  The ideal was for the soul to gain mastery over these passions which, in Philo’s Jewish context, was necessary for us to be oriented Godward.  This runs contrary to much of the spirituality/emotionalism nexus that dominates these days, but the result in the society we have speaks for itself.

It is in this context that the following should be understood:

We have, then , in Jesus, the Son of God, a great High Priest who has passed into the highest Heaven; let us, therefore, hold fast to the Faith which we have professed. Our High Priest is not one unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has in every way been tempted, exactly as we have been, but without sinning. (Hebrews 4:14-15 TCNT)

The idea of Jesus’ sinlessness even while human, expressed more directly here than anywhere else in the New Testament, is one that also bears repeating.

In Allegorical Interpretation III, Philo divides the passions into two types: those of the breast, the “angry passions” which need to be excised completely, and those of the belly, which are related to our embodied state.  The latter too need to be excised.  But then Philo comes to the obvious question:

Is it then possible for us, who are bound up in our bodies, to avoid complying with the necessities of the body? And if it is possible, how is it possible?  But consider, the priest recommends him who is  led away by his bodily necessities to  indulge in nothing beyond what is strictly necessary. In the first place,  says he, “Let there be a place for thee outside of ‘the camp;” (Deut. 23:12)  meaning by the camp virtue, in which the soul is encamped and fortified; for prudence and a free indulgence in the necessities of the body cannot abide in the same place. After that he says, “And you shall go out there.” Why so? Because the soul, which is abiding in companionship with prudence and dwelling in the house of wisdom, cannot indulge in any of the delights of the body, for it is at that time nourished on a diviner food in the sciences, in consequence of which it neglects the flesh, for when it has gone forth beyond the sacred thresholds of virtue, then it turns to the material substances, which disarrange and oppress the soul.  How then am I to deal with them? “It shall be a peg,” says Moses, “upon thy girdle, and thou shalt dig with it;” (Deut. 23:13) that is to say, reason shall be close to you in the case of the passion, which digs out and equips and clothes it properly;  for he desires that we should be girded up in respect of the passions, and not to have them about us in a loose and dissolute state. On which account, at the time of the passage through them, which is called the passover, he enjoins us all “to have our loins girded,” (Exodus 12:11) that is to say, to have our appetites under restraint. Let the peg, therefore, that is to say reason, follow the passion, preventing it from becoming dissolute; for in this way we shall be able to content ourselves with only so much as is necessary, and to abstain from what is superfluous. (Allegorical Interpretation III, LII)

From this we can see the following:

  1. “Outside the camp” was a nasty place.  In addition burning the sacrifices (Heb. 13:11), Philo reminds us that it was the place where people and their sin was sent for purification of one kind or another.
  2. Since Jesus had no need for purification (Heb. 4:15), the reason he went “outside the camp” was not just to get outside of Jerusalem proper, but also to both experience our passions (in the Incarnation) and to achieve purification on our behalf as both sacrifice and priest at the same time (in the crucifixion and resurrection.)
  3. For us to go “outside the camp” does imply a need for purification, which is a process whose perfection is beyond human effort but whose initiation and pursuit involves some decisions and actions on our part.

We tend to make God’s becoming man a commonplace business.  Philo and the Greek world, however, did not: God was way up there and we were way down here.  The same sharp bifurcation is also very strong is Islam. For God to become one of us is amazing in many ways, we should never take it for granted.

And what about us going “outside the camp?” I think there are two levels we can interpret that.

The first is that, since Jesus bore our sin and the reproaches of being executed as a criminal, we should do likewise in the world, and not just hide “inside the camp.”

The second is that, since we bear the sins caused by our own embodied state, we should seek liberation and purification from same, and do so by sharing in his sufferings.  That’s a “penitential” concept of Christianity that’s not fashionable in many circles, but it should be.

As we celebrate the great work of redemption that our God has done for us, let us keep the following in front of us:

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2 KJV)

The Non-Nestorian Theology of “Mary Did You Know”

Jordan Smith’s stunning performance of “Mary Did You Know” on “The Voice” is a reminder of the fact that this song–written by Baptist comedian Mark Lowry–is American Evangelicalism’s “official” Christmas carol.

What Evangelicals probably don’t know is that, for all of their reputation for sloppy theology, Lowry nailed it on this one:

Did you know
that your Baby Boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little Baby you kissed the face of God?

One of the first heresies the church had to deal with after it picked itself off of the floor after Arianism was Nestorius’ contention that Jesus Christ was very dual in his being, that the human and the divine persons were very separate. Nestorius himself contended that “God is not a baby two or three months old”.

And so, Evangelicals, when your Orthodox friends (assuming you have any) rail at you when you don’t know the Thrice-Holy Hymn, or that you do not cross yourself at all let alone with two or three fingers, or that you do not recite the Creed during your worship of God, you can say that you’re not a Nestorian.

Which shows, I suppose, that Evangelicalism is where the comedians have a better grasp of theology than the pulpiteers.

The Ottoman Tales XI: They’d Rather Die Christian

This ends a series inspired (somewhat) by Noel Barber’s The Sultans.  The previous instalment is here.

If there’s one thing to be learned about studying the Ottomans, it’s that there are many strange stories to tell.  What makes up “strange” depends upon one’s frame of reference.  In his book on Palm Beach, Laurence Leamer characterised the town’s social system as madness, but for those of us who are a product of same, is there any other way to do it?  That’s a stretch, but this last tale from the Sultan’s palace is in a league of its own.

A few years before the French Revolution,  the Algerians, the pirates par excellence of the western Mediterranean, presented the Sultan with an unusual gift: a French noblewoman by the name of Aimée Dubcuq de Rivery, whom they had captured and made a slave.  She went from the convent in France to the harem in Constantinople.

That culture shock was just the beginning of a wild ride, as only the Ottomans could offer.

Her stock went up soon when she gave birth to her son Mahmud by Sultan Abdul Hamid I, who was fond of her.  The Sultan died in 1789, succeeded by his nephew Selim.  Selim and Aimée were also fond of each other, but the world they were about to be catapulted into was anything but placid.  Back home in France the Bastille was stormed in July, igniting the French Revolution.  Faced with his own problems at home with the Janissaries, Selim organised a new army (Napoleon Bonaparte volunteered as a military adviser, but was turned down, going on to bigger things while marrying Aimée’s cousin Joséphine) and Aimée promoted things French in old Constantinople.  But Napoleon invaded Ottoman Egypt, forcing Selim to turn to the British.

The Janissaries, true to form, overthrew Selim in 1807, putting Mahmud’s half-brother Mustafa on the throne.  Bairactar Pasha revolted, and the result was that Aimée’s son Mahmud ended up as Sultan.  The Janissaries extracted concessions out of Mahmud but mother and son were secure for the moment.

With his mother’s help, Mahmud turned out to be a reformer, bringing in Western (mostly French) institutions and people in trying to modernise the country.  In the meanwhile there were successes and failures.  Mahmud, with the help of a Turkish officer named “Black Hell” managed to massacre the Janissaries and end their meddling ways.  On the other hand the Russians continued to nibble away at Ottoman territory, and Greece won its independence.

But the time came for Aimée to leave this life.  She had lived at the power centre of Islam and exercised that power when she could as the consort, friend and mother of the Caliph, the leader of Islam (well, Sunni Islam at least).  But with life slipping away, in spite of all of the Islam surrounding her (or perhaps because of it) she demanded of her son that she be given Christian last rites and die in the grace of Jesus Christ.

The highest Muslim he was, but Mahmud acceded to his mother’s request. He summoned a Greek Orthodox priest, who came to the palace and, in Mahmud’s presence he heard her confession, gave her absolution, and died in the Christian faith she was baptised in.

Today, in many of the same territories that Mahmud ruled over, we see Christians confess Jesus Christ and be martyred for that confession.  The circumstances of their passing are far different than Aimée’s, and the new caliph is not in the same league as the Ottoman sultans.  But the idea is the same: when the time for eternity comes, the real Christian wants to enter into the presence of his or her Lord and Saviour.

And this will fulfil my earnest expectation and hope that I shall have no cause for shame, but that, with unfailing courage, now as hitherto, Christ will be honored in my body, whether by my life or by my death, For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. But what if the life here in the body–if this brings me fruit from my labors? Then which to choose I cannot tell! I am sorely perplexed either way! My own desire is to depart and be with Christ, for this would be far better. But, for your sakes, it may be more needful that I should still remain here in the body. (Philippians 1:20-24)

So what about you?  Where (and with whom) do you plan to step into eternity when the time comes?

If you don’t know, or want to do better, click here

The Ottoman Tales VIII: Christians, Keep Your Promises

This continues a series inspired (somewhat) by Noel Barber’s The Sultans.  The previous instalment is here.

The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans was a process written in blood, as was their inclusion in the Sultan’s realm.  The Romanian count who is known as Dracula fought to keep up the independence of his people from Ottoman rule, and did so with cruelty he probably learned from the Turks themselves while held hostage.  By the late 1870’s, the largest realm in the Balkans still entirely under Turkish rule was Bulgaria, and as was the case elsewhere the Turks spared no means in their attempt to keep the land under their control.

But the world was changing; now mass communications media and the expansion of democratic process in Europe meant that public opinion mattered more than ever before.  British opinion in particular was horrified at the Turkish massacres, putting their own government–which was trying to stall the end of the “sick man of Europe”–in a particular bind.  It was a boost to the Russians, who decided that the time was right to make their big move on Constantinople.  In 1877 the Russians declared war on the Turks, who responded by raising the Banner Named Barack.

The Russians invaded Bulgaria.  The time seemed perfect: the Turks were in their usual desultory state, and the British were caught between their outraged public and their strategic interests.  It seemed like the Russian red, white and blue (basically the same flag the Russian federation has now) would soon be flying over the Bosporus.

But the Turks didn’t become the dread of Europe for nothing.  The Turkish general Osman Pasha decided to dig in at the Bulgarian town of Plevna and block the Russian invaders.  In doing so he had learned a few lessons from the American Civil War (in places like Petersburg) and of course the idiotic British Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, that a well-entrenched force with the then-modern weaponry was formidable against attack.  (Kemal Ataturk repeated the same feat at Gallipoli).

When the Russian force finally arrived at Plevna, Osman and his Turks were ready.  The Turks repulsed the first Russian offensive on 19 July 1877.  The Russians then called in Romanian reinforcements, but through August and September they were unable to break Osman’s fortifications.  They were able to cut his supply line by taking the town of Lovech, and the battle of Plevna became a siege.

Osman realised that he could not hold out indefinitely without more supplies and reinforcements.  For both he appealed to Sultan Abdul Hamid II.  Unfortunately, for all the gaudy rhetoric, the latter did not back up his words with action, and when he did send a sorry excuse of a relief force the Russians dispatched it.  Moreover Osman’s superiors blocked his requests to abandon the town, which gave the Russians and Romanians time to completely encircle it.

Osman had managed to gain some goodwill in Plevna itself by executing Turkish soldiers for looting.  Up against it, he attempted a break-out in early December.  Unable to take the Turkish wounded with him, and knowing the local custom, he gathered the local hierarchy of the Bulgarian Orthodox church and made them swear on the Bible that they would not harm the Turks he left.

Osman’s break-out attempt almost succeeded.  “Almost” turned into defeat on 10 December when Osman and his Turks surrendered to the Russians, who treated the officers honourably.  The prisoners of war, however, were allowed to freeze in the cold, and the Bulgarians broke their oath and massacred the wounded they had promised to protect.

Although a loss, Plevna stalled the Russians’ march to Constantinople, and turned public opinion in Europe back the Turks’ way.  The British sent the Royal Navy to Constantinople, and the Russians decided to quit while they were ahead at the Congress of Berlin. Bulgaria became an independent nation again, but the Bosporus would stay in Turkish hands.

There are Christian traditions which take the following to the letter:

 “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘Never break your oath, but give to the Lord what you swore in an oath to give him.’  But I tell you don’t swear an oath at all. Don’t swear an oath by heaven, which is God’s throne,  or by the earth, which is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, which is the city of the great King. (Matthew 5:33-35 GW)

Others interpret it a little more broadly:

As we confess that vain and rash swearing is forbidden Christian men by our Lord Jesus Christ, so we judge that Christian religion doth not prohibit but that a man may swear when the magistrate requireth in a cause of faith and charity, so it be done according to the Prophet’s teaching in justice, judgement, and truth. (Articles of Religion XXXIX)

Irrespective of this, the Christian should learn to keep his or her promises, not only as a witness but also (in this case) to stop the cycle of bloodshed which was all too common in Ottoman times and which has not stopped at present.

An Important Way Church Needs to Be a Safe Space

Anyone who works in a university environment these days–especially in a public university whose state support continually evaporates–has heard about the concept of “safe space”.  It’s an idea promoted by LGBT advocates where parts of the campus are designated as safe for such people to be without fear of opposition.  The problem with that is twofold.  One is that what’s a safe space for one group of people is a dangerous one for another.  The other is that campuses, with the current corporatist ethic run amok, are becoming safe spaces from independent thought of any kind.

The idea of a “safe space” per se isn’t a bad one.  Back around the turn of the millennium, while attending a meeting of the National Coalition of Men’s Ministries, I remember a speaker saying that church should be a safe place for hurting people (and that covers just about all of us) to live and move and have their being.  People being what they are, which is fallen, that’s not always easy, but the more we make it our aim the closer we can expect to reach our goal.

But it’s reasonable to ask: safe from what?  There are many dangers that we meet in this life, but with the forward march of the LGBT community there’s one thing in particular that churches need to learn in a hurry if they expect to survive intact.

In an earlier post I noted the following:

The one letter that never gets into this collection is “A” for abstinent.  The whole concept that someone would voluntarily abstain from sex for any reason is anathema to just about everybody in this deal: gay, straight, in between, you name it.  It’s particularly odious to those who, as noted earlier, define their lives by their sexual preference (and the activity that goes with it).  It’s the main driver why a) the LGBT community hates real Christianity the way it does and b) that hatred resonates with the heterosexual community.

Churches have dealt with the blow back from the sexual revolution for a long time.  They’re trying as always these days to figure out a way to “take a stand”.  It’s hard to take a stand when you don’t understand the ground you’re defending, and a little historical perspective is in order here.

Those of you who studied Greek and Roman mythology will recall that the gods and goddesses, like their human counterparts, were male and female.  They cavorted with and married each other, and when that wasn’t enough they went down and did the same with people.  That mythology was the religion of classical antiquity, which included the paganism against which prophets such as Elijah stood against.

Into this world came Yahweh, who had no consort and no equal and, strictly speaking, no gender either.  He set forth a way for Israel that dispensed with the fertility rites of the neighbours.  That didn’t sit well with neighbours like Jezebel and it didn’t go down well with Israelites like Manasseh either, but captivity and exile drove the message home.  When the time came for God’s son (also eternally generated without sex) to come into the world,  he did so by asexually conceiving him in a virgin.

By the fulness of time when Our Lord came into the world, the centuries of the wide-open sexuality that dominated the classical world was starting to wear a little thin.  Christianity triumphed in a world which had grown weary of its obsession with sex, and the genderless God brought the civilisation past a purely sexual/fertility cycle.

As in ancient Israel, that didn’t sit well with many.  The growth of secularism has been a resurgence in paganism with all the sex-obsessed business that goes with it.  It’s little wonder that one doctrine that is attacked mercilessly is the Virgin Birth: the idea that the world could be saved without sex engenders hostility in Christianity’s opponents as little else does.

But it’s not easy to deconstruct a civilisation, even when the wind is at your back.  It takes determination and people who don’t mind breaking eggs to make omelets.  That has come with the LGBT community, who are as opposed to abstinence heterosexually as they are to their own.  Acceptance of their idea ultimately is a reversion to paganism and the end of meaningful Christianity.  It’s also the end of the civilisation; a civilisation whose highest pursuit is the next hook-up isn’t going to get very far in any other way.

Christianity in the West has tried to manage the changes the best it can.  Evangelicals in particular, who claim (with some justification) a higher level of commitment, have tried to accommodate these things with stuff like “beauty pageant Christianity“.  It’s also shocking in many ways how Evangelicalism has tried to become a “waist down religion” like Mormonism.  But the game is up.

A driving force behind the transgender movement is the search for identity.  For all of the bawling about the fixed nature of human sexuality, as one Christian counsellor pointed out to me human beings are sexual: how they express that changes from person to person and even in time.  If we make the “discovery” (and that’s a duplicitous way to put it) of sexual identity the centrepiece of life, then ultimately we will have to force people to engage in a variety of sexual activities to make the discovery process experiential.  Sex is too powerful a force in human life, and the process too easily manipulated, for this process to result in anything else but a general disaster, where people’s little remaining autonomy is destroyed and adverse unintended consequences become the norm.

What churches need to be a safe space from is the idea that there is no meaningful life apart from sex. Part of that, of course, is to rid the church of child predators.  The campaign to do so in Roman Catholicism, comforting as it is and should be to the victims, has been pushed by people who, in the long run, have the opposite result on the agenda.  But another part is to present abstinence not as a void but as God’s way to getting people through a hormonally tumultuous period, and also by setting instant gratification aside to pursue life-long and eternal goals that get them beyond the next hook-up and bring enduring happiness.

That’s not going to be easy.  Evangelicals in particular like to try to edge up to the culture to “win” it.  But our culture is destructive except for those at the top (and it is for them in another way).  We need to make that clear.

It will be a costly road to take.  As noted earlier, there will be those who won’t take it.  But in the end it will be worth it.

The Evangelical Comeuppance in the Middle East

I’ve not had the time lately to post in as timely fashion as I would like, mostly because of the semester-by-semester crapshoot which is my PhD pursuit.  But there’s a long-term issue that deserves some comment, and that concerns a long-overdue attitude adjustment that Evangelicals need to make because of events in the Middle East.

And I’m not talking about Israel either.  There’s a drumbeat amongst Evangelicals who can’t bear to see the latest bandwagon roll down the street without them to change Evangelical support towards Israel.  Leaving aside the theological changes, they need to consider two things: do they want another Holocaust, and would the land (and its inhabitants) be better off under the rule of the likes of Hamas? (They also need to consider that, these days, Israel has better friends in Cairo and Riyadh than Washington and Brussels).

Eluding them in the search for answers is the simple fact that, in the Middle East, people play for keeps.  We see that plainly with the other news-gathering force in the region: ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever.  ISIS has made itself a stench in people’s nostrils for their wanton destruction of ancient artefacts, but in destroying the remains they carry on the tradition of warfare that has been the region’s hallmark for millennia.  As John McKenzie observed in his Dictionary Of The Bible:

The ancient war was a candid war of conquest or looting.  Both of these ends were sanctified by the religious character of war, which was fought on behalf of the gods of the people and under the leadership and protection of the gods. The cruelty and barbarism of ancient war were equally candid; ancient war is shocking only because it involved the primitive means of personal effort, and could not achieve the vast mechanical horrors of modern warfare. Prisoners of war had no rights whatsoever; the entire population could be enslaved, unless the defeated enemy were regarded as a menace to the victor; if it were, the male population could be exterminated or mutilated.  Destruction of conquered towns was a normal act of the victor.

Today ISIS has social media, fast vehicles, religious motivation and personal weaponry (but not so much air power) and they’ve brought back the personal, brutal tradition of warfare with a vengeance.  It’s almost as if the spirits of the Assyrians, the core of whose empire they’ve conquered, have come back and entered into these people.

Most mentions of the Assyrians these days, however, centre in two places: the artefacts ISIS is destroying and the Christian communities they’re butchering.  Before the Kurds were supplied well enough to stop this advance, the world’s attention was riveted on Christian (and Yazidi) communities being tortured and massacred by ISIS.  Floating to the top in Evangelical circles was this question: where are the Christians to help? Fortunately Evangelical organisations rose to the occasion and have done what they’re supposed to, and things are better.  But the blind spot that Evangelicals have revealed towards Christianity in the Middle East doesn’t need to be passed over in silence.

In my work My Lord and My God, when introducing the church fathers I made the following observation:

Most evangelicals look at church history in a very specific way; there were first New Testament times, then there was the Reformation, and now there’s us. This results in a gap of about a millennium and a half between significant events; surely something happened in that length of time!

Part of the “something” was Middle Eastern Christianity, in its array of Orthodox (Chalcedoninan and non-Chalcedonian), Nestorian, Monophysite and other manifestations.  All of these eventually came under a rotation of one Islāmic state after another.

The switch of populations from Christianity to Islam varied from place to place.  In North Africa, it was complete, which explains why Evangelical (largely Pentecostal) Christianity pretty much dominates the Christian population in Algeria.  At the other extreme is Lebanon, with its sizeable Maronite population, legendary on both sides of the Atlantic.  Then there are those populations which were driven out or destroyed by massacre such as the Armenians, although the driving force behind that was the incorporation of Western ideas of nationalism into an Islāmic framework, which drives much more of Islamicism these days than either the Islamicists or their Western analysts care to admit.

Evangelicals marched into the Middle East with the same attitude towards whatever Christianity was there with the same attitude they did in Latin America: these people are lost as a goose unless we do something about it and they join our church.  And experience teaches that underestimating the ability of very old churches to engage in lacklustre inculcation of the faith is a dangerous proposition.

Events in the Middle East, however, showed that, for all the deficiencies of these churches, their ability to drill scriptures such as Mt 10:32-33 into their parishioners worked: by and large Middle Eastern Christians were ready to die for their faith.  The contrast with the lachrymose approach we see to the subject of martyrdom in the U.S., to say nothing of the knock-kneed approach we’re seeing with regard to the challenges against the Christian sexual ethic, is striking.

Christianity is first about transformation:

Therefore, if any one is in union with Christ, he is a new being! His old life has passed away; a new life has begun! But all this is the work of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave us the Ministry of Reconciliation– To proclaim that God, in Christ, was reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning men’s offences against them, and that he had entrusted us with the Message of this reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19 TCNT)

In looking at other people, we tend to look at the process by which their lives were transformed by Jesus Christ and not the transformation itself.  (And that goes for ourselves, too).  If we do this, we are no better than those who say that, without Church __________, heaven is difficult if not impossible to attain.  And that’s inconsistent with what Evangelical Christianity is all about.  We need to see real Christians in places we haven’t before and act accordingly, and if our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters have made this point stick with their own blood, that blood is a seed in more ways than one.