Remembering the spiritual riches of the early Christians

From my perspective, one of the most striking aspects of Protestantism is its profound spiritual poverty. I don’t mean this in an offensive way at all and I apologize if it comes off that way, but the impression that I get from Protestantism is one of utter spiritual emptiness. I don’t think my impressions are that far off the mark, as statistics on religious conversion have shown time and again the exodus of children raised in Protestantism to more traditional forms of Christianity and, unfortunately, to eastern religions, which are viewed as being more spiritually rich.

I think that the spiritual poverty of Protestantism is the natural offspring of Protestantism’s theological poverty, in which the two most primary events commemorated on the Christian calendar, Nativity and Pascha, are viewed in such a skewed way as to destroy any of the original meaning of these events.

An early Christian view of the Incarnation, the event celebrated on the Feast of Nativity, was very different from the way most Western Christians view it today. To the early Christians, the fact that God had become man was earthshaking news. Mankind was restored to the union with God which had been lost in the primeval fall. Human flesh was made sacred. “God became man that man might become god,” as St. Athanasius of Alexandria put it.

This central belief of Christianity reshaped the culture of the Roman world and beyond. The pre-Christian world had never viewed human life as valuable in and of itself, much less as something sacred. Christian belief in the Incarnation created the belief in the innate value of human beings.

The implications of God assuming human form were enormous. A mystical-sacramental worldview came naturally to early Christians, as God had now reunited the spiritual and material worlds. God had blessed the waters with his Baptism in them. He had blessed motherhood through having a Mother. He had blessed food by eating. He had blessed humanity by becoming human. He had blessed material creation by assuming it, and so it made sense that even the things of the material world could now act as a conduit for the Grace of God. With the loss of a deep understanding of the true impact of the Incarnation, Protestants have necessarily lost this mystical-sacramental worldview of the early Christians.

Similarly, the Penal Substitution theory of Atonement, which has become the dominant view of the Atonement amongst Western Christians, has desecrated the true meaning of Great and Holy Friday and of the Pascha which follows it. The Penal Substitution theory has essentially restored Marcionism, with its view of God the Father as an angry, vengeful pseudo-pagan deity, demanding the blood of a righteous man. This view stands in stark contrast to the view of the early Christians, and the exuberant joy of hearing and proclaming the “Good News.”

The most moving (and most accurate) literary depiction I’ve yet seen of the early Christian view of the Atonement is in C.S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. For those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie, a short summary: Edmund, the youngest boy of the group of children (symbolic of a fallen humanity), becomes a traitor to Aslan (representing Christ) by befriending Aslan’s enemy, the White Witch (representing the devil and death). Edmund repents of his treachery and is rescued by Aslan as the Witch is trying to kill him, but the White Witch demands that he be handed over to her for execution, as the ancient laws say that all traitors are to be handed over to her. Aslan, though, makes an agreement with the White Witch to die in place of Edmund. He is executed in place of Edmund and, of course, Resurrects afterward.

In this story from C.S. Lewis is the early Christian belief concerning the Atonement. While later Western Christianity, beginning with Anslem of Canterbury in the 11th century, would mistake the New Testament’s use of the word “ransom” to mean rescue from the hands of an angry God, the early Christians believed that we had been ransomed by Christ’s death from death itself. The early Christians would have known that the term “ransom” referred to purchasing a slave from his master in order to free him. And this is what Christ did through his death; he purchased us from our former masters, death and the devil, and freed us. And, in his Resurrection, he defeated death once and for all; as the Orthodox Church sings on the Feast of Pascha, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”

How these early Christian views of the Nativity and Pascha devolved to the point of destruction in Western Christianity is not something I can fully comprehend, even with a familiarity of the history of the downfall of Western Christendom. I thank God, though, that he has brought me out of this darkness and into the Church which is the sole heir of the spiritual riches of the early Christians, and which knows like no other how to live the amazing truth of the Nativity and how to sing the profound joy of Pascha.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons & Sola Scriptura

St. Irenaeus of Lyons was a disciple of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who was a disciple of St. John the Apostle. Irenaeus’ greatest achievement, and the one for which he is most remembered, was his five-volume Against Heresies in which he thoroughly examines and refutes the Gnostic heretics. Every time I read anything from this great writing, I have to wonder if Irenaeus was a prophet; he often seems to be arguing against Protestantism over a thousand years before that particular heresy ever existed.

Of particular interest in examining St. Irenaeus’ position on Sola Scriptura are the first five chapters of Book 3 of Against Heresies. Let’s look at the common Protestant proof-text:

“We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those [the Apostles] through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our Faith.” – St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 3, 1, 1

In order to really understand what Irenaeus is saying here, we need to examine the context. This statement is only the beginning of his argument which extends until the end of chapter 5 in the same book. His argument is so intricate (and great, by the way) and his every word so important to that argument, that a summary can’t do it justice. I’ll attempt to summarize his argument, but I highly recommend that you read chapters 1-5 of Book 3 of Against Heresies for yourself here.

Now, I’ll try to explain what Irenaeus is saying; forgive me if I oversimplify his argument. First, let’s note two very important things which it may be easy for some to miss in the quote above:

  1. A careful reading of the quote reveals that St. Irenaeus is not referring to all Scripture as “the ground and pillar of our Faith;” he’s referring specifically to the Gospels, and, even more specifically, to the message of the Gospels which he outlines in the paragraph that follows the quote above:

    “These [the Gospels] have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ the Son of God.” – AH, 3, 1, 2

    These statements are “the ground and pillar of our Faith” which Irenaeus is referring to. And, in saying this, he’s paraphrasing the dialogue between St. Peter the Apostle and Christ in Matthew 16:15-18:

    “He [Christ] said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it.” (NKJV)

  2. His wording is very intentional. He’s calling his reader’s attention back to the words of St. Paul in 1 Timothy 3:15, in which the Apostle says that the Church is “the ground and pillar of the truth.” St. Irenaeus is hearkening back to this statement of the Apostle for a reason: he’s identifying the message of the Gospel with the Church as being our “ground and pillar,” and also identifying “our Faith” with “the truth.” And he’s doing all of this, as he explains in the chapters following, in contradistinction to the “secret traditions” of the Gnostics, which conflict with the True Faith taught by the Apostles about Christ and handed down in the Church via Apostolic Succession (but more on that in a moment).

Another common Protestant proof-text comes from the next chapter:

“When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce. AH, 3, 2, 1

Taken alone, this is often made to sound as if Irenaeus is condemning tradition in general; he’s not, though. As in the previous quotes, in which he juxtaposes Scripture with the Gnostic’s “secret traditions,” he now juxtaposes these “secret traditions” with Holy Tradition. Comparing Holy Tradition with the Gnostic’s “secret traditions,” he enumerates two major differences:

  1. Contrary to the “secret traditions” of the Gnostics, which often contradict each other and trace their lineage back to men like Basilides, Marcion, Valentinus, and Cerinthus, and which are passed down only to “the perfect,” Irenaeus asserts that Holy Tradition comes from the Apostles themselves and is passed down through the Priests whom the Apostles appointed to oversee the Church:

    “But, again, when we refer them to that Tradition which originates from the Apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of Priests in the Churches, they object to Tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the Priests, but even than the Apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. … It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to Tradition.” – AH, 3, 2, 2

  2. In contradistinction to the secretive, “hidden” nature of the Gnostics’ “traditions,” Irenaeus contrasts Holy Tradition, which is open all people through the Church:

    “It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the Tradition of the Apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the Apostles instituted Bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [Gnostic heretics] rave about.” – AH, 3, 3, 1

In Book 5 of Against Heresies he also makes very clear the Scripture can only be interpreted rightly in the context of the Church, building on the identification of Scripture and Church which he laid out in the quotes above:

Those, therefore, who desert the preaching of the Church, call in question the knowledge of the holy Priests, not taking into consideration of how much greater consequence is a religious man, even in a private station, than a blasphemous and impudent sophist. Now, such are all the heretics, and those who imagine that they have hit upon something more beyond the truth, so that by following those things already mentioned, proceeding on their way variously, inharmoniously, and foolishly, not keeping always to the same opinions with regard to the same things, as blind men are led by the blind, they shall deservedly fall into the ditch of ignorance lying in their path, ever seeking and never finding out the truth. It behoves us, therefore, to avoid their doctrines, and to take careful heed lest we suffer any injury from them; but to flee to the Church, and be brought up in her bosom, and be nourished with the Lord’s Scriptures. For the Church has been planted as a garden in this world; therefore says the Spirit of God, ‘Thou mayest freely eat from every tree of the garden’ that is, Eat ye from every Scripture of the Lord; but ye shall not eat with an uplifted mind, nor touch any heretical discord.” – AH, 5, 20, 2

So, we’ve now established that Irenaeus is not arguing for the authority of Scripture alone, nor does he assert Scripture’s authority over or outside of the Church. Instead, Irenaeus asserts that Scripture is a part of the Holy Tradition of the Church whose Truth is preserved by means of Apostolic Succession from the Apostles. And I’ll close this post with a quote from Irenaeus in which he tells us exactly where that Church is to be found — even in our own day:

“Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the Apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the Tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the Apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the Apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the Tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?” – AH, 3, 4, 1 [emphasis mine]

Again, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you read chapters 1-5 of Book 3 of Against Heresies for yourself here. St. Irenaeus’ argument in those chapters is outstanding and I have no doubt that, like me, you’ll be shaking your head as you read and wondering how the Protestant apologist can read these chapters and not realize that Irenaeus is talking about him all throughout. I’m almost certain that St. Irenaeus had the gift of prophecy.

Father Not Sola Scriptura Sola Scriptura
St. Clement of Rome
St. Ignatius of Antioch
St. Papias of Hierapolis
St. Polycarp of Smyrna
St. Justin Martyr
St. Melito of Sardis
St. Irenaeus of Lyons

The real meaning of Christmas

Now that “the Holidays” (as we call the Nativity of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ these days) are over, I’m actually breathing a bit of a sigh of relief. It seemed that the whole thing, in between spending more money than I care to say on toys my son will play with only once or twice, watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Christmas Story in endless repeat on television, and avoiding, to the best of my ability, the odious prospect of singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, was one big struggle to remember what the day is really all about; and, I admit, it was a struggle I, largely, lost.

I felt bad for my son, especially, as he’s four years old now and starting to understand what’s going on a little more than he used to. I came home from the store one day to find him asking me if we could go see Santa Claus; the only, and rather desperate, response I could give was to swiftly show him the Holy Icon of St. Nicholas of Myra. It’s hard for me to express the shame I felt in my own shortcomings as a parent as I watched him dig greedily into his stack of gifts on Christmas morning and spend the rest of the day fighting with my sister (of the same age) over whose toys were whose. Sure, he’s only four, and of course, he doesn’t know better, and yes, why not?, but I made a vow to myself a long time ago that I want to raise my children better than that.

Until I became an Orthodox Christian (read: until I became a Christian) a couple of years ago, I had no idea what Christmas was really all about. I knew that I got lots of free stuff and had a big meal. The closest I came to thinking about the Incarnation of God and its implications was some vague talk I heard about the birth of “Baby Jesus” and the occasional hearing of the cliche that “it’s better to give than to receive” (which, of course, I knew from experience was complete bologna). I feel that my children deserve better than that, and, if I’m going to raise them as Christians, I must give them better than that.

At more than one point during this Christmas season, I found myself wishing I was a member of one of those Churches that are still on the “Old” Calendar. I admit it: I love those years when Pascha falls on a different day from Easter, and the further apart the two are the better. I can hide eggs and talk about magical bunny rabbits and otherwise indulge guilt-free (other than trying to stick to my Lenten fast, which rarely works out) in the completely meaningless and utterly empty “holiday” of Easter and then, a few weeks later, actually commemorate the Resurrection of Christ. There’s something in me that wishes I could do the same with Christmas. On December 25, I could open presents and drink a little egg nog (even though I’d be violating my fasting rules) and have a little fun with that thoroughly secular and commercial “holiday” called Christmas; then, on January 7, I could really, truly, actually celebrate the birth of Christ the Savior and the Incarnation of God with its full implications concerning the union of humanity and Divinity, all while everybody else takes down the multi-colored lights and Santa Claus displays from their houses and yards.

I don’t see such a jurisdiction-jump in my near future, though. So, next year, I’m afraid, I’ll find myself in the same situation all over again. I’d love to hear any advice any of you have to offer here, especially those of you with non-Orthodox or non-Christian (and, yes, nominal Christianity is the same is no-Christianity) family that you celebrate Christmas with. What’s the trick?

St. Diadochos of Photiki on Faith & works

“Faith without works and works without Faith will both alike be condemned, for he who has Faith must offer to the Lord the Faith which shows itself in actions. Our father Abraham would not have counted righteous because of his Faith had he not offered its fruit, his son (James 2:21, Romans 4:3). He who loves God both believes truly and performs the works of Faith reverently. But he who only believes and does not love, lacks even the Faith he thinks he has; for he believes merely with a certain superficiality of intellect and is not energized by the full force of love’s glory. The chief part of virtue, then, is Faith energized by love (Galatians 5:6).” – St. Diadochos of Photiki, On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination, 20-21

St. Melito of Sardis & Sola Scriptura

Unfortunately, not a whole lot is known about St. Melito of Sardis. He wrote around the year AD 170. If the lists of books attributed to him by later Christian authors are any indication, he was a prolific writer, and most sources indicate he was held in very high regard by his contemporaries. Of his many writings, though, only some fragments, mostly found in quotes by later authors, remain to us today.

His significance in the debate over Sola Scriptura is that the oldest list of the books of the Old Testament made by a Christian is attributed to him. This quote is often put forward by Protestants as evidence that their trimmed-down canon of Scripture (which doesn’t include the deuterocanonical books) is the original Christian Old Testament canon. This is an important point in their defense of Sola Scriptura because if Protestants have the wrong canon their entire proposition fails. One unknown but necessary commandment of Scripture is enough to turn Sola Scriptura on its head. Here’s St. Melito of Sardis on the Old Testament canon:

“I accordingly proceeded to the East, and went to the very spot where the things in question were preached and took place; and, having made myself accurately acquainted with the books of the Old Testament, I have set them down below, and here with send you the list. Their names are as follows:- The five books of Moses — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; Joshua, Judges, Ruth, the four books of Kings, the two of Chronicles, the book of the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon, the Book of Wisdom also, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Job, the books of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, of the twelve contained in a single book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras.” – St. Melito of Sardis, The Book of Extracts

There are several problems with Protestants using this passage in support of their canon of Scripture, though. Here are a few:

  1. The list does include one deuterocanonical book — the Wisdom of Solomon.
  2. The list doesn’t include Esther, Nehemiah, or Lamentations (although the latter two are assumed to be included within Esdras and Jeremiah, respectively), all part of the Protestant Old Testament.
  3. There is no indication that the books Melito was reading were part of the Masoretic textual tradition espoused by Protestants. In fact, the evidence is in favor of Melito’s books being part of the Septuagint textual tradition, including the fact that Nehemiah and Lamentations may be included in Esdras and Jeremiah; that Melito refers to the books by their Septuagint names (4 books of Kings = 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Samuel, & 2 Samuel; Esdras = Ezra; etc.); and, of course, the fact that Melito’s language was Greek, not Hebrew. For anyone who has compared the Septuagint with the Masoretic, the problem here is plain: there are verses and even large sections of books (such as in Isaiah, for example) that differ significantly between the two textual traditions.

In the end, this list disagrees with both the current Orthodox Old Testament canon as well as the Protestant canon, and this does much more to undermine the Protestant position than the Orthodox. The Orthodox position does not hinge on any given book or verse; our Faith is preserved in the Tradition of our Church handed down through each generation of believers. The Protestant position breaks with one misplaced, misunderstood, or mistranslated word of Scripture.

And, to conclude, there’s absolutely no indication in any of St. Melito’s surviving writings that he believed in Sola Scriptura.

If you’re interested in reading the writings of St. Melito of Sardis, you may do so here.

Running tally:

Father Not Sola Scriptura Sola Scriptura
St. Clement of Rome
St. Ignatius of Antioch
St. Papias of Hierapolis
St. Polycarp of Smyrna
St. Justin Martyr
St. Melito of Sardis