Scripture does not interpret itself; we interpret it. There are two main methods of interpretation: one’s own reading; or the reading of a tradition within Christianity. We can see from John’s Epistles that there were those in his own Community who would not accept his word on who Jesus was. We can also see Paul, Jude and Peter all warning against false teachers. From the beginning there have been these two interpretations – what an individual claimed, and what the Church as a community claimed. One of the first areas of dispute was the one we have begun to consider – which is the question of the relationship between Jesus and the one He called ‘the Father’.
It is easy for the unwary to fall into the trap Bosco has – that is insisting that Jesus is the Father, and that the words can be used interchangeably – as though ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are the same thing. It was partly in response to the the false teachings which he detected in his own Community that St John set down his Gospel as he did, paying attention to what we now call Christology, in a way the other Evangelists did not. Hence we get St John writing such verses as:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
I and My Father are one.”
If one reads this a meaning that Jesus is the Father and the two are interchangeable, then precisely what does John 14:28 mean:
You have heard Me say to you, ‘I am going away and coming back to you.’ If you loved Me, you would rejoice because I said, ‘I am going to the Father,’ for My Father is greater than I.
If Jesus and the Father are the same person then here Jesus is saying he is ‘greater than himself’ – which would be plain odd. We can turn to Hebrews 2:9 for help, as it tells us that Jesus ‘was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death’. As Paul told the Philippians:
Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.
But the problem is that read unaided, this still does not provide proof that Jesus is not a creation of the Father, and might, in the wrong hands lead the believer even further astray. Indeed there were some in the early church who read this as meaning that Jesus only appeared to be a man – which led to a heresy known as Docetism. But they were as wrong as Bosco is in insisting Jesus ‘is the Father’. It was in trying to understand these statements that the early Church developed the doctrine of the Trinity.
Clearly Jesus is saying He is God, and as St John tells us, in words which condemned the docetists:
2 By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess that[a] Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.
But Jesus is also made man, so in that sense He is lower than God; He is also not the Father, although the Father is God. Now, had Bosco taken the trouble to read, instead of mock, St Cyril of Alexandria, then he would not only not make claims which Jesus never made (He never says ‘I am the Father’), he would begin to know who Jesus is.
St Cyril explained the relationship by what he called the ‘hypostatic union’, which Bosco feels he can mock as having nothing to do with salvation. Unlike his own ruminations, the idea of the hypostasis is based upon what is in the Bible, not what someone wants to be in there. To quote a summary so good that I cannot see how it could better put:
This is the union of the two natures (Divine and human) in the person of Jesus. Jesus is God in flesh (John 1:1,14; 10:30-33; 20:28; Phil. 2:5-8; Heb. 1:8). He is fully God and fully man (Col. 2:9); thus, he has two natures: God and man. He is not half God and half man. He is 100% God and 100% man. He never lost his divinity. He continued to exist as God when he became a man and added human nature to Himself (Phil. 2:5-11). Therefore, there is a “union in one person of a full human nature and a full divine nature.” Right now in heaven there is a man, Jesus, who is our Mediator between us and God the Father (1 Tim. 2:5).
This is the answer to what Jesus means when He tells us that He who has seen Him has seen the Father, and that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him. It explains who Jesus is praying to, and how the Father can be greater than Him and yet Jesus is God. As the Trinitarian diagram as the top puts it: ‘The Father is God, the Son is God – the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father.’
But we should not be surprised at such disputes, for, as we shall see in the next post, the Apostles themselves were familiar with them. Yes, there were men so proud that they would deny the words of the beloved disciple himself. They were, of course, they claimed, inspired by a new spirit. There are many such in this world, of course, but not all of God.
For the last few weeks readers have borne patiently with two series on one of the more obscure parts of the history of the Church. For our friend Bosco it was all pretty irrelevant: ‘Either one is saved or one isn’t. everyone is wrong. But only a few are saved.’ This is, as so often, at the extreme end of a not uncommon reaction among contemporaries; the new, the modern, is always more relevant than the old. What, Bosco asked elsewhere, was the point of all these ‘add ons’ to Christianity?
Pride, the desire to become as wise as God, led to the Fall of Man, and we see examples everywhere of where it leads us: being able to mine the resources of the earth to make life better for ourselves, we did so without regard for its effects, and when some of those effects are pointed out, we don’t much like it; being able to reason to make better laws for our governance, we forgot, or at least are forgetting, their foundation in the Natural Law, and so invent laws which defy it; being able to make weapons to defend ourselves, we have been able to make ones which can destroy the whole planet. But perhaps the most deadly pride of all is the one which we can trace through the history of the Faith we have been looking at these last few weeks?
Nestorius, like Arius before him, cited Scripture for his view that Mary was not the Mother of God. Arius had argued that Scripture showed that Jesus was a creature, the first of the creatures made by God, but a creature all the same. Against that, Bishop Alexander and then Athanasius had argued the opposite; but they had on their side not simply their own definition of Scripture, but the tradition they had inherited going back to the Apostles. But it was not the only ‘tradition’. We know, from St John’s Epistles, that there were those in in own community who denied his witness and taught that Jesus was not the Christ come in the flesh. Even in the earthly lifetime of the Incarnate Word, there were those who questioned His witness and left Him when he said that to be saved people would have to eat His body and drink His blood. One of the difficulties with claiming one is inspired by the Spirit is that anyone can do it, and from very early on, with Simon Magus, people did. How was the ordinary person to know who was, and was not, inspired by the true Spirit?
We see, in the history we have been reading, how early Christians sought to solve the problem – and we also see the problems that solution caused. Jesus founded a Church, and when His followers were in doubt, they were adjured to take their concerns to the Church. We see, in Acts, with the Council of Jerusalem how the Apostles interpreted that, and the Councils with which we have been dealing saw themselves as continuations of that. As it became clear that those who expected the Second Coming to happen in their lifetime (an expectation that can certainly be read from Christ’s words) were wrong, the scattered, and often persecuted, Christian communities, sought to ensure that, as the Apostles had wanted, only the right Gospel was preached. How did they do that, and how can we be sure they were right?
This is a vexed question for the historian, and there was, and still in some quarters is, a fashion for saying that the answer is that we cannot be sure, and that what is ‘orthodoxy’ was simply the stronger faction within Christianity, which asserted its will through force. There are two difficulties with this: the first is that it puts Christ out of the equation; the second is the historical context. Jesus founded a Church and said that the very forces of hell would not prevail against her, and read in this light, there is a hermeneutic of continuity to be discerned; despite the trials and tribulations, the Truth survived and was passed on. Secondly, at least until the days of Theodosius in the 380s, Christians possessed no State apparatus, and far from persecuting, were persecuted. So the early arguments over who Christ was and whether ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ were one or three Gods, and if One, how could there be three persons, were hammered out with a reference to the traditions of the Church.
One of the fatal flaws in the often heard argument that by relying on one’s own reading of the Gospels one can somehow recover the primitive belief of the ‘real’ and ‘original’ Church, is that it means ignoring the lessons learnt by the Church in the past – and thus repeating old heresies, but with the added disadvantage that, being one’s own reading, and believing the Bible interprets itself, one leaves one in a state of spiritual pride. If, as he claims, Bosco is inspired by a new spirit, then what need has he of all these old stories? He has the Scriptures and as he put it recently when asked how he read the Bible: ‘I read one word after another. Do you have a better way?’ This is not how the first Christians proceeded, and the dangers in it are clear enough when you end up writing things like this (inspired, Bosco says, by his new spirit):
If I was god, I wouldn’t have gone thru all that.
let me let you in on a secret. There are laws, laws that even God cant break. I don’t understand them, and neither does anyone. Why cant he wave his magic wand and make it all better? I don’t know. But here is the deal……these sins separate us from god somehow, and they have to be cleansed. Cleansed befor we can sit in his presence. Why are they sins? I don’t know. But God is lonely. hes sick and tired of being alone. He wants a help meet. So, in order to make a bride, the bride must want to be his bride, and this bride must be of the same stuff as god. We all love our cats, but they aren’t human. The only way god can be with a bride is if she is like him…..sinless.
Quite what any of this has to do with the Gospel preached by Jesus and proclaimed by the early Church, I can’t say It is the way Bosco reads Scripture, ‘one word after the other’. Is there a better way? It would be hard to find a worse.
We have seen, in the history we’ve been reading, that even the early Church found it hard to agree on all essentials, so we shall now turn to examine how it tried to deal with some of the difficulties its members encountered. But to read the Book which the early Church canonised and to ignore its understanding of that Book and to substitute for it one’s own reading is both unhistorical – and spiritually dangerous.
As we can see from this brief survey of St. Cyril’s theology, the Incarnation was at the heart of all his thinking. The Incarnate Word unites our nature with that of God as a salvific act; the power of the one heals and transforms the marred nature of the other. It was essential to this scheme that the Word suffered, albeit ‘impassibly’. There is only one personal reality in the Incarnate Lord, and that subject is the divine Word who has made a human nature His own; the Word has not simply adopted a body, He has taken on a whole human life; He is ‘the Word enfleshed.’  The whole point of the Incarnation is that through it, our fallen nature is raised to new heights. Christ’s flesh is, indeed, ‘life-giving’. If His flesh were not divine flesh it could not heal us, but if it were not also flesh, we could not receive its healing at the Eucharistic Feast. What Christ deifies in his own flesh, he deifies through Grace in mankind.
This was the position St. Cyril enunciated against the heresies from Constantinople and Antioch, and he had found it years before in his commentary on St. John 1:11-13, where he realised that the Incarnation had three aims: to condemn sin in the flesh; to overcome death by his death; and to make us children of God by which we receive a regeneration in the Spirit. [ 2] As Professor Keating so aptly remarks: ‘There is something of grandeur, and even beauty, in Cyril’s conception of our share in the life of the triune God.’ 
It has long been held in parts of the Protestant tradition that patristic exegesis is, in fact, eisegesis – that is a misreading of the Bible. Despite the fact that the Fathers helped establish what was, and was not, the canon of Holy Scripture, we are asked to believe that their inspiration failed them when they came to examine the same texts. This is not the Orthodox understanding, for it separates text, meaning and action. St. Cyril was not just a theologian; he was a bishop and pastor, a great teacher who held responsibility before God for his flock. He wrote not for the academic journal, but for the salvation of souls. Everything he confessed he derived from Scripture and from the Alexandrian Holy Tradition of which it is such an important part, and in setting his own mark upon that tradition he is, indeed, ‘the Seal of the Fathers.’
St Cyril’s part in the death of the Pagan philosopher, Hypatia, which I have dealt with elsewhere on this blog has tended to overshadow his reputation in a world which prizes a feminist Whig theory of history over theology, but it is worth recovering his theology, and going beyond the controversies which have defined him in the history books. Like his own hero, Athanasius, Cyril is strong meat to a generation whose faith in relativism fails only when it comes to the foundation of its own faith, but the traditional Coptic reading seems to me the most persuasive. Cyril was a man steeped in Scripture (you can hardly read three lines of his writing without coming across a Biblical reference) and in the Fathers. He saw himself as the inheritor of the great Alexandrian tradition of theology, and his job was to defend what he had inherited. He had a keen ear for novelty and a keen nose for unorthodoxy, and he brought the full weight of his intellect to bear on both when he thought that there were wolves in the sheepfold.
St Cyril’s patriarchate was the high-water mark of the See of St Mark at Alexandria. Like his uncle Theophilius, whom he had succeeded, Cyril was a skilled ecclesiastical politician. Both men had been careful to build and maintain an alliance with Rome, which appreciated both the intellectual fire-power of Alexandria, and its place as a counter-balance to the ambitions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Theophilius had been able to depose the golden-mouthed John Chrysostom after the Synod of the Oak, and Cyril was able to depose the heretical Nestorius. In both cases, their enemies alleged that this was the result of Alexandrian bribery, but whilst, as was always the case in that era, ‘gifts’ were given, in Cyril’s case at least, it was the weight of his argumentation which counted most. But when his successor, Disocoros, tried to repeat the success of his predecessors at the second Council of Ephesus in 449, the manner of his initial success led to a Council being convened at Chalcedon in 451, where he was reprimanded for his high-handedness. Lacking Cyril’s intellectual weight, he was out-marshalled, and, failing to get the Bishop of Rome on side, was deposed, with his enemies alleging he taught heresy. This led, across the next 150 years to what became a permanent schism, which opened the way to the triumph of Islam. If Alexandria lost its place in the Christian Pentarchy, then Jerusalem, Antioch and, fianlly, Constantinople, would fare no better. After 1453 Rome was the only one of the ancient Sees of the early Church not to have been swamped by the Muslim tide; a position it retains to this day.
But let us not finish this short series on a pessimistic note. As I write, Pope Tawadoros II and Pope Francis have issued a joint statement on Coptic/Catholic relations
We, Francis, Bishop of Rome and Pope of the Catholic Church, and Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of Saint Mark, give thanks to God in the Holy Spirit for granting us the joyful opportunity to meet once more, to exchange a fraternal embrace and to join again in common prayer. We glorify the Almighty for the bonds of fraternity and friendship existing between the See of Saint Peter and the See of Saint Mark. The privilege of being together here in Egypt is a sign that the solidity of our relationship is increasing year by year, and that we are growing in closeness, faith and love of Christ our Lord. We give thanks to God for this beloved Egypt, the “homeland that lives inside us,” as His Holiness Pope Shenouda III used to say, the “people blessed by God” (cf. Is 19:25) with its ancient Pharaonic civilization, the Greek and Roman heritage, the Coptic tradition and the Islamic presence. Egypt is the place where the Holy Family found refuge, a land of martyrs and saints.
2. Our deep bond of friendship and fraternity has its origin in the full communion that existed between our Churches in the first centuries and was expressed in many different ways through the early Ecumenical Councils, dating back to the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the contribution of the courageous Church Father Saint Athanasius, who earned the title “Protector of the Faith”. Our communion was expressed through prayer and similar liturgical practices, the veneration of the same martyrs and saints, and in the development and spread of monasticism, following the example of the great Saint Anthony, known as the Father of all monks. This common experience of communion before the time of separation has a special significance in our efforts to restore full communion today. Most of the relations which existed in the early centuries between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church have continued to the present day in spite of divisions, and have recently been revitalized. They challenge us to intensify our common efforts to persevere in the search for visible unity in diversity, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
St Mark was, we are told, the interpreter of St Peter, and the See of St Mark has a special place in the heart of the See of St Peter. What a joy, then, to see their successors speak of the goal of unity. Let us pray that Cyril’s successor may one day write, as the great Saint did upon the reconciliation with Antioch in A.D. 433 – ‘Let the heavens rejoice’ – Amen.
 McGuckin, p. 186.
 Farag, p. 111.
 Keating, Divine Life, p. 205.
I suggested yesterday that it is clear that Christians have developed their understanding of Scripture from the earliest times; that tradition, oral and written to which Paul refers in his second letter to the Thessalonians, has been preserved and studied. One of the distinctive features of Christianity is that it sees God in Three Persons, the Blessed Trinity. We like to say that it is inherent in Scripture, and indeed Father, Son and Holy Ghost are all found there; but the relation between the Three has not always been clear, and if the early history of Christianity shows us anything, it is that left to themselves, even learned men can be led, and lead others, astray. In this short series I want to examine the developing understanding of ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ in the early Church.
Strictly speaking heresy is only rightly so called when it appears in opposition to orthodoxy, and it is often the case in the early Church that beliefs which were, when enunciated debatable, later became classified as heretical, and it is well to say upfront that in the long debate over this matter, heresy has played a useful part in forcing the Church to be clearer about what is and is not orthodox belief; another reason, of course, why absent authority, chaos is not far away. Most Trinitarians accept a definition arrived at by the Church and guaranteed by it, even if they cannot accept the Church which gave that guarantee.
One common early reading, which is still present in some Pentecostal churches is called ‘Modalism’. Modalism is the belief that God, rather than being three persons, is one person who reveals himself in three “modes,” much as an actor might play three roles in a movie. It is also called Sabellianism or monarchianism. Modalism is associated with two notable early church figures, Praxeas and Sabellius, both of whom gained a large following in the church in the late 2nd (Praxeas) and early 3rd centuries (Sabellius). The size of their following and an explanation for it is given by Tertullian in A.D. 200:
The simple, indeed, (I will not call them unwise and unlearned), who always constitute the majority of believers, are startled at the dispensation [of the Trinity], on the ground that their very rule of faith withdraws them from the world’s plurality of gods to the one only true God.
They fail to understand that, although he is the one only God, He must yet be believed in with his own order. The numerical order and distribution of the Trinity they assume to be a division of the Unity, whereas the Unity which derives the Trinity out of its own self is so far from being destroyed, that it is actually supported by it.
They are constantly throwing out against us that we are preachers of two gods and three gods, while they take to themselves the preeminent credit of being worshippers of the one God, as if the Unity itself with irrational deductions did not produce heresy, and the Trinity rationally considered constitute the truth. (Against Praxeas 3)
There is not One Divine Person, there are Three. The earliest definition of Our Faith is to be found in St. Irenaeus:
The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith:
[She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them.
And in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation
And in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Tertullian shows us the problems the early Fathers had:
Before all things God was alone … He was alone because there was nothing external to him but himself. Yet even then was he not alone, for he had with him that which he possessed in himself—that is to say, his own Reason.
… Although God had not yet sent out his Word, he still had him within himself …
I may therefore without rashness establish that even then, before the creation of the universe, God was not alone, since he had within himself both Reason, and, inherent in Reason, his Word, which he made second to himself by agitating it within Himself.
It is easy to see from this how Arius could conclude: “there was a time when the Son did not exist.”
The early church answer was that there was a time when the Son was not separate from the Father, but there was never a time when he did not exist. Before He was separate from the Father, He was already the Logos inside of God. There was a term for this: homoousios (of the same substance). It was so important that it was inserted in the Nicene Creed twice.
The second part of this series will explain why this word was so important. But already we have, I think, established that left to themselves, there is no guarantee that theologians or ordinary Christians, will come to an orthodox understanding of who God is.
When I was a young man at University my tutors had a firm line on St John’s Gospel. They were agreed that it was a second century document; that it was a product of Hellenistic thinking; that it had in it Gnostic elements; and that whoever had written it, it could not have been the ‘Beloved disciple’ who stood at the foot of the cross. One of the pleasures of growing older has been to see nearly every element in this exploded.
The conclusion that it was second century came from the belief among scholars back then that its theology was far too complex for the early Church. The fragment of St John’s Gospel now at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, known as P52, is thought to date from around 120 AD. It was found in Egypt. No one believes it was written there, so it is a copy. We cannot know where it originated or how many copies there were in circulation at the same time. We do know it takes time for copies to be made and to circulate, and it is not unreasonable to suppose it might have taken a decade between the composition of the Gospel and its arrival in Egypt. Modern scholarship suggests, in other words, that c.100 A.D. is probably the latest date for its composition.
Bishop John Robinson was a controversial figure for the views he expressed in his book Honest to God, but for me, his best book remains Redating the New Testament which was published in 1976. His views, as ever, did not command universal support, but in terms of the dating of the Scriptures, there are strong arguments in his favour. For him there was one fact as of fundamental importance – the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. A datable fact, and one which rocked the Jewish world on its foundations, it is never once mentioned in any of the NT books; this, Robinson pointed out, is exceedingly odd. It is like someone writing a history of modern Britain and not mentioning world war II; you would do that only if you were writing before that war had taken place.
By the 1950s the conventional consensus was something like this:
|50-1||I and II Thessalonians|
|53-6||Galatians, Philippians, I and II Corinthians, Romans|
|90-5||I Peter, Revelation|
|100+||I and II Timothy, Titus|
Much of this, Robinson pointed out, was based on theories of what theological developments it was supposed were relevant to what date; anything ‘advanced’ had to be late, and as John’s Gospel was, theologically speaking, very sophisticated, that meant it must be the latest. That rather presupposes the conclusion you want to reach, and seems an unreliable method.
The early church was very cautious about claims of texts to be apostolic, there needed to be a real tradition about the provenance of a Gospel, and John’s was accepted from the beginning. It is impossible to read the text without coming to the conclusion that the person is claiming to be the Beloved Disciple. Much paper and ink have been spent on the notion of a Johannine comunity, the existence of which (outside those pages) has never been shown to exist, and yet, on the basis of an academic construct, scholars have argued that the text is not by John but by others in his name. The evidence for this is the supposed existence of the ‘community’. The circular element in this argument is all to apparent, but if we read the text without the presuppositions scholars brought to it, then we have no need to assume other authorship.
Scholars have extrapolated from the tradition that John lived to a grand old age, and assumed that the Gospel must have been written towards the end of his life; for this there is no hard evidence. The end of the Gospel is clearly written by another hand after John’s death, but that is no reason to assume that the rest of it was also written in the late first century. The similarities between some of the ideas in the Dead Sea Scrolls and John’s Gospel kicks the props away from the old theory that it had to be late because of Hellenistic influence; there was much more interpenetration between Hebrew and Greek thought than scholars once recognised. As Robinson puts it: ‘The gospel shows the marks of being both Palestinian and Greek – in contrast with the Qumran literature which is Palestinian and Hebrew. I am not convinced that this simple difference has been given sufficient weight.’
Kilpatrick’s conclusion about St John is worth quoting:
What have we learned about him? A poor man from a poor province he does not seem to have been a bookish person. In Greek terms he was uneducated with no contact with the Greek religious and philosophical literature of his day. This creates a problem: how does a man without these contacts have so many apparent similarities to a writer like Philo in his thought? As his material conditions as far as we can elicit them indicate a man of Palestinian origin it seems reasonable to look for the background of his presentation of the Gospel there. Our sources of information will be the LXX and related works, the literature of the Qumran and the Rabbinic texts especially the traditions of the Tannaim. On other counts we arc being forced to recognize that notions we have associated with Hellenistic Judaism were not unknown and not without influence in Palestinian Judaism in the first century AD.
Robinson’s conclusion on the date is as follows:
|30-50||Formation of the Johannine tradition and proto-gospel in Jerusalem|
|50-55||First edition of our present gospel in Asia Minor|
|60-65||II, III and I John|
|65 +||The final form of the gospel, with prologue and epilogue.|
If we take on board the witness of the early Fathers, then there is no evidence of any ‘community’ at work in the writing of the Gospel. Possibly our earliest independent witness is Papias of Hieropolis, writing in the early second century, and acquainted with those who had talked with the Apostles and other eyewitnesses. What survives of his prodigious output are small fragments embedded in Eusebius. Using this material, and analysing the text, scholars such as Martin Hengel and Richard Bauckham have challenged the views of more liberal scholars, that the book was a compilation, and even the view of Raymond Brown that it was the product of a ‘Johannine community’; Bauckham attributes it to the ‘John the elder’, who is mentioned by Eusebius as the author of ‘Revelation’.
Their arguments are ingenious, but unnecessary, and they do what is all too common in modern scholarship, fail to take into account the authorial voice. It would be very hard to read John’s Gospel and not assume he was the one who had leant on the Lord’s breast at the last supper. If (and Hengel and Bauckham suggest) this John ‘the elder’ was prominent enough in the church to have produced 4 or 5 books of the New Testament Canon, surely more steps would have been taken to distinguish him from John the son of Zebedee. The early church went to great lengths to distinguish between James the brother of Jesus and James the son of Zebedee, and between the numerous men named “Judas.” It seems strange that ‘John the elder’, the author of five conical books, would have falenl off of the historical radar. (Note also the distinction in the Synoptics between John the Baptist and John the son of Zebedee. If it weren’t for the latter John, perhaps John the Baptist would just be known as “John.”)
I can see no reason to suppose that in place of the eye-witness of the Last Supper we need another chap called ‘John’. It reminds me of the old joke that the Illiad wasn’t written by Homer, but by another fellow of the same name.
Gene Veith of Cranach reported an article the other day by Mathew Block, Communications Director of the Lutheran Church of Canada. I think it has bearing on the ongoing dialogue with Bosco, in which as we all know, he continually inveighs against the Church, usually the Catholic Church specifically, but in truth, all churches. Most of us realize as Chalcedon has said many times, “Christ founded a church”. And he did, Chalcedon’s definition differs a bit from mine as a Lutheran, but as America came from a reformed Great Britain, so too did Lutheranism come from a reformed Catholic Church. You could say much the same for all the other churches, in some form or another. We all hold some truths self-evident, for instance:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
That’s all that is required to be a Christian really. All the rest is mostly about how to live that Creed, which we all do imperfectly.
But Veith’s opening perfectly summarizes Bosco, and probably many like him. “[…] He argues that part of the problem is a misunderstanding of the authority of the Bible. People say the Bible is their authority, then consider that to be a license to interpret scripture any way they want to. Instead of sola scriptura, we have solo scriptura.”
Block makes several points, which are applicable here.
Because they privilege their own personal understanding of Scripture over the historic witness of the Church, it’s not surprising that Evangelicals deny that their congregation should have any meaningful authority over them: For example, 57 percent denied that their local church should have “the authority to withhold the Lord’s Supper from me and exclude me from the fellowship of the church.” In other words, Evangelicals believe the Bible is authoritative; and that authority is mediated by individual believers, rather than the church (even though the Bible explicitly says that authority is to be exercised by the church—e.g., Matthew 18:15-17, 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, Titus 3:10-11, etc.) […]
If instead we ignore the ways in which the Church has expressed its beliefs—if we ignore the ways in which God has shaped the faith of the Church historic through His Word—then we are really denying that the Scriptures are authoritative at all. We are in effect saying that we do not trust God’s Word to have acted on any Christians other than ourselves. Instead, we are elevating ourselves—our own hearts—as the ultimate judge, both over Scripture and the God who has shared that Word with the Church down through history. And that is heresy of the highest degree.
via: EVANGELICALS, HERESY, AND SCRIPTURE ALONE. Do read the whole thing.
I’m reminded that the Rev Dr. Martin Luther in his Homily for Trinity XIX, Church Postils said that, “God does not desire the Christian to live for himself.” I also doubt that he really intended us to live by ourselves either, without the community to keep us in check, and our pastors should be of large account in that community, otherwise we will undoubtedly come to see ourself as the final authority, supplanting God Himself in that role. And that is always the sin of pride showing itself.
There is something else here also, that G.K. Chesterton phrased far better than I can.
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
God is Infinite; we are not. That being so, it is natural that two things follow: we do not fully comprehend Him; and we tend to emphasise the parts of Him that seem most relevant to us. To these limitations, we can add our own sinful natures. Little wonder that we need Christ to save us and to show us more clearly who God is. But even there we have to be careful of our own limitations. Christ spoke in hyperbole at times. For example, if my right eye happened to catch a rather fetching young lady and my thoughts turned in a direction they should not have as a result, then should I actually do what the Lord says in Matthew 5:29? As I look round, I see no one with gouged out right eyes, so I assume either that everyone is utterly immune from the temptations which sight can bring, or that we are, and we all understand that what Jesus is really saying is not ‘rip your eye out’ but that we should exercise caution and be aware of occasions of sin. But if anyone wants to be a literalist here, let me know and I can recommend help.
If we are not literalists here, why are we about, say, Matthew 25:31-33 or Luke 13:24? Well, few of us would feel that we wanted to rip out our right eye, but many would feel more comfortable with the idea that whilst they, following the narrow way, were going to be saved, many others – those sinners over there, who I am not like – were going to get the just desserts for their sinful ways; that is a part of our fallen human nature. It is less clear, or so it seems to me, that Jesus thought this way. His strictures towards those who did, indeed, think of themselves as being better than that sinner over there are clear from Luke 18:9-14. The Law of Moses was absolutely literal about the penalty for being caught in adultery (Lev 20:10; Deut. 22:20) and it was precisely for that reason that the Pharisees thought they would catch Jesus out by bringing the woman caught in adultery to Him. Tired of his preaching of mercy and love, they presented him with a case which they thought would oblige him either to abandon that teaching, or to clearly break the Law; either way, they would have been able to discredit him. We know the result, the Lord of Creation confronted those judgmental men with their own sins, and so touched their hearts that not one of them could play the hypocrite by throwing the first stone.
That interesting word Paraclete might detain us for longer than it usually does. The Church teaches is He is the Holy Spirit, but that Greek word covers a variety of meanings, including ‘advocate’ – He is our advocate, as Jesus is our mediator. If you want to think of it in terms of courts, when we get to the final judgment we have a powerful advocate and a mediator. Let us take Saul of Tarsus, a nasty, judgmental sort of fellow if ever there was one. A well-educated Pharisee, he has no time for those backsliding followers of the crucified prophet Jesus, and was happy to persecute them. We are not shown any sign that he repented of his sins before that scene on the Damascus Road. How could he move from non-repentance to repentance in the twinkling of an eye? St John gives us the answer in 1 John 4:19 – he loved us first. If we will but repent, then we can receive that love. It is there already, only our false pride and our blindness prevent us from seeing it and receiving it.
Even on the Cross in agony, one of the last things Jesus did before surrendering his Spirit was to ask for forgiveness for those who, moments earlier, had hammered nails into his hands. So, yes, sheep and goats will be separated, but to assume, as some do, that we have to take Jesus literally when he says ‘many’ will not be saved, but not when he tells us to pluck our eye out, raises interesting questions about how we, as individuals, emphasise those parts of Scripture which seem most relevant to us. Jesus is warning us about ourselves, he is telling us not that we should literally tear our eye out, he is warning us of the effects of sin; so, too, is he doing when he talks to us about sheep and goats. If we will but receive him, he will redeem us. He knows, alas, that many of us will reject him, but he still loves us, and he wants us all to be saved. That we shall not all be is down not to a vengeful God, but to a foolish and prideful humanity which in its folly rejects the offered love because it has not the humility to receive it.
Our friend Bosco does not like religions. He knows Jesus personally and can’t see why it is necessary to have what he calls ‘costume holymen’ who misuse their infleunce over what he takes to be the credulous. It is a variation on a theme one often hears from atheists and even agnostics – one can be ‘spiritual’ without going to church. If the question were to be asked ‘are you spiritual?’ there would be more positive responses than there are to the question ‘are you religious?’ All of this supposes a spiritual practice centred on oneself – a form, if you will, of ‘well being’ – something which, if one if to judge by the book shops, is a popular genre. We live in a western world very much focussed on ‘me’, but from a very particular angle, one which might be characterised as ‘me as consumer’. One is either consuming goods, or conserving oneself in order to do so; the good life is defined in largely material terms. If it were otherwise, it might be that not quite so much ‘stuff’ needed to be consumed – and where should the current economic model be then? That may be a trifle cynical, but it is not a million miles removed from where we are.
The traditional Christian model does not start from me, it starts with the truth that God exists, that he has manifested himself at various times and in various places, and that the fullest revelation he has given us is through Jesus Christ. It does not proceed from what might be call a privatised view – that is that each of us has his or her own personal revelation, but from what might be called a corporate point of view, which is that Jesus founded a church, and did so for a reason for a reason. He did not, though he might have chosen to, write a book in the manner Mohammed did. The Church preceded written scripture, and that Church was able to determine which of the many writings surviving from the early days of the church were authentic revleations of the Apostolic deposit. Paul himself commended written and oral tradition to his churches; indeed, Paul founded churches. There is no recond of any of the Apostles saying to anyone ‘get on with it as the Spirit moves you’? Indeed, we see constant warnings from the writers of the New Testament about the dangers of unahgtorised teaching – ‘another gospel’ Paul called it. We see in St John’s anguished letters other teachers daring to say that even the’ beloved disciple’ had got it wrong.
What they thought he had got wrong was the issue which would cause controversy for centuries – which is who Jesus was? It was easy, because it was comprehensible by the human mind’ to say he was the ‘Son of God’. That meant he was a creature, the best of the creatures, but not God himself. John called those who taught thus ‘antichrists’, and his teaching, like that of the other evangelists was that Jesus was God. How could that be without positing more than one God? It was around that question that most of the bitter early dispute centred. The Church wobbled from time to time, but thanks to St Athanasius and other brave men and women, it held to that truth passed on. It formulated the dogma of the Trinity, which no one would be so unwise as to say was easily comprehensible by the human mind; but then is is probable that the vastness that is God would be easily grasped?
My point here is a simple one. It might be that a human could come to these truths by direct revelation, but history shows God working through his church. Our religion is about God, who loves us and who redeems us through his son. It is not simply a private affair to be decided by our feelings. That runs counter to the modern fashion of course, but so much the worse for modern fashion.
The Church in England and Wales marks today as the solemnity of the Assumption, so rather than giving the NT reading for the 20th Sunday in OT, year C, I give the one for this occasion
Ambrosiaster reminds us that in stating that Christ rose, Paul is refuting those false prophets who claimed Christ was never incarnate, so not having been born, could not rise again. The resurrection proves Christ was a man and able to merit, by his righteousness, the resurrection of the dead. Although he was, by nature life, he tasted death, St Cyril tells us, for the sake of us all; by his ineffable power he trampled on death in his own flesh that he might be the first born from the dead – he destroyed the power of death. He does not suffer in so far as he is viewed as God by nature, yet the sufferings of his flesh were according to the economy of the dispensation. For in what other way could he be the ‘first born of every creature’ and ‘of the dead’ unless the Word, being God, made his own flesh to suffer?
Athanasius teaches is that by the sacrifice of his own body, Jesus put an end to the law that was against us and made a new beginning of life for us, by the hope the the resurrection which he has given us. Since it was by man that death prevailed over us, so for this cause was the Word of God made man and through his sacrifice has cancelled the bond of death and destroyed its dominion over us. If the redeemer did not pay the price in his own flesh, St Basil tells us, then he could not have destroyed sin; we who had died in Adam could not have been raised in Christ unless Christ had truly been man.
This does not mean, St Augustine wrote in his City of God, that all who die in Adam will be raised in Christ, for not all will confess him, and those who do not will be punished for eternity by a second death. Adam died because he sinned, Ambrosiaster wrote in his commentary, and so it was only Christ, who was without sin, who could overcome death for us. We enter death through Adam, and eternal life through Christ alone. It is the rule of the devil and of death that Christ will destroy utterly, and the powers of hell will be nullified.
St Gregory of Nazianzus challenges anyone who interprets verse 25 as meaning Christ’s reign will have an end. Who, he asks, will bring that reign to an end? Who could? This is to mistake the meaning of the word ‘until’ (as some do with Matthew 1:25), which is not always exclusive of what comes after. What sane person would interpret Jesus’ saying “I am with you until the end of the World’ as meaning he could be with us thereafter?
Just as death was the first fruit of Adam’s sin and was the first sin to enter the world, so it will be the last to be destroyed, Chrysostom reminds us. Our new life begins by faith and is carried on, says Augustine, by hope, but the time will come when death shall be destroyed and we shall be changed and be like the angels; we have now mastered fear by faith, but then we shall have the mastery in love by vision. He takes upon himself our infirmities, and heal them through his love and his sacrifice.
In saying all things will be subject to the Father, Christ is not saying, as the Arian falsely taught, that he and the Father are not one, Theodoret of Cyr reminds us. They confuse two things – Christ’s humanity, which like all humanity will be subject to the Father, and his divinity, which is , of course, one with the Father