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.

Elder Joseph on continuous prayer

“Just as a man dies when he stops breathing, so, too, does the soul die without continuous and endless prayer. It dies because that living flesh which is beginning to be conceived by the perpetuity of the prayer falls asleep, and the passions are rejuvenated. For the enemy does not sleep, but fights continuously. And just as an infant which is conceived in its mother’s womb suffocates and dies if it ceases to breathe, the same thing happens with spiritual conception if the noetic work ceases.” – Elder Joseph the Hesychast

Another Quote from St. Isaac

St. Isaac the Syrian

Not to contradict or argue with the thoughts cunningly sown in us by the enemy, but to cut off all intercourse with them by prayer, is a sign of a mind that has found wisdom and power by grace. Its true understanding of the situation frees it from much (vain and superfluous) labor. By taking this short-cut, we cut out the devious circuits of a long ramble. For we do not at all times have the power to reduce to silence all opposing thoughts by argument and to conquer them. For the most part we receive wounds, and the healing of these injuries may take a long time. You are challenging foes with six thousand years experience behind them! Your conversation with them will provide them with the means of bringing about your downfall, for they are far superior to you in wisdom and knowledge. But even if you win, your mind will be defiled by their vile thoughts, and their foul stench will linger in your memory. By using the first method (i.e. by refusing discussion), you will be free from all these effects and from fear. There is no help apart from God. – St. Isaac the Syrian