Free Will and Tradition

3 Holy Hierarchs

“But I must explain myself a little more clearly. A good many men do not draw their conclusions from the very nature of reality, but merely consider the way men have lived before them; and so they fall completely short of an accurate judgment about reality, and they take, as their criterion of what is good, irrational custom instead of sober reason. Hence they force their way into political office and power, they make a good deal of merely external show since they are unaware of the fact that all this will come to an end after this life. For custom is no sure guarantee for the future, for very often this may lead us to the goats and not to the flock of sheep. My meaning will become clear if you will consider the words of the Gospel. If you consider that which is proper to man, that is, his reason, you will despise the force of custom as irrational, and you will never choose as good that which brings no advantage to the soul. We must not then seriously consider the footprints of those who have gone before us like so many cattle leaving their trace upon the world. For what is best to choose is not clear from sense phenomena – nor shall it be until we depart from this life; then we will know whom we have followed. The man then who merely follows in the tracks of those who have lived before, and takes the custom of this world as his guide in life, and does not distinguish good from evil on the basis of actual reality, very often makes a mistake, and in the day of that just Judgment he becomes a goat instead of a sheep.” (Gregory of Nyssa, From Glory to Glory, pg. 161)

God Reveals Himself to & through His Chosen People

St. Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus:

“Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself  being the chief corner stone, in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”  (Ephesians 2:18-22)

Fr. George Florovsky wrote:

“Revelation is preserved in the Church. It was given by God to the Church, not to separate individuals, just as in the Old Testament ‘the words of God’ were entrusted not to individuals but to the People of God. Revelation is given, and is accessible, only in the Church; that is, only through life in the Church, through living and actual belonging to the mystical organism of the Body of Christ. This means that genuine knowledge is only possible in the element of Tradition.” Creation and Redemption, pg. 36) 

Reading the Gospel, Learning to Hate?

Recently I was asked why in the Luke 14:25-35 Gospel lesson does Jesus teach “hate”:

“Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.'” (emphasis not in the orginal text)

Jesus teaching us to “hate” seems uncharacteristic of the Lord who not only taught us to love not only neighbor but enemy as well, but who died for us while we were still considered to be the enemies of God!

In answering the question about why Jesus said we are to “hate” other family members, I’m not going to address any issues about translating the Greek word for hate or its connotations.   Rather, I want to bring attention to the very way in which we read Scriptures as a key to dealing with the difficult sayings of Jesus. I won’t claim that my answer will address the question satisfactorily, but it raises an issue we should keep in mind as we read and try to comprehend the Bible .

There are the claims that Jesus in this passage is speaking with a certain form of speech referred to as Mideast or Mediterranean “exaggeration.”    I’ve also heard it said that Americans tend to prefer understatement when speaking and thus “exaggeration” seems even more magnified in our minds.   All of this possibly gives us some insight into  understanding Jesus in Luke 14.

There is the fact that Jesus at times confronts us in our thinking and tries to shake us out of our lethargy by making shocking statements.   He speaks from the point of view of the Kingdom of God whose values are often just the opposite of what we might expect say for example of justice which turns out to be forgiveness, or where the first are made last, and the least are made the greatest.

Jesus demands from us a radically new way of life, and if we listen to his words we really have to wrestle with what he could possibly have meant. What is He teaching us to do? This saying about “hating” parents is just the opposite of his teaching to “love your enemies.” It is the world of the up-side-down Kingdom of God. We are to examine our assumptions, loyalties, dependencies, and our worldly values in order to constantly question how it is possible for us to live in this world of the Fall and yet claim membership in the Body of Christ and thus claim membership in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In other words, one possibility is that Jesus wanted to challenge us in our normal thinking and make us realize how different the values of the Kingdom of Heaven really are.

In that sense, His words cannot be taken out of the context of the Gospel. In other words, we cannot simply take one line out of the Gospel and try to create a way of life around it for Christ gives to us the values of the Kingdom of God to transform the world.   It can be a  dangerous thing (which we often do) to take one sentence of Christ’s teaching out of its Kingdom context and try to impose it on our lives in the world of the Fall.  This is very true of Jesus’ teaching on hating family (for He also said other things about family which tell us to love and respect the other members of our families, and when at His death He commends His own mother to the care of His disciple John, he also demonstrates something different than hate for His mother ).

Unfortunately, many Christians rely on single passages or sayings of Jesus as their only encounter with Christ.  There are countless books which “help” us by rearranging the Gospel lessons into neat collections of sayings, one liners, sound bytes, which are designed exactly to give full power to each sentence by taking them out of context so that each saying really stands out in our minds.  This form of Scripture reading when it becomes our only way of reading the Gospels, causes us to think of the Bible as an endless collection of quotable quotes, favorite sayings, and incantations to apply to any situation.   While it is a way to read the bible, it should not be our sole diet of Scripture reading.  Each text will be much more meaningful when also understood in its context.

The saying of Jesus about hating one’s parents or children are meant to shock us, to force us to take notice, and to actively pursue their meaning – but their meaning within the context of all the other things Jesus taught and commanded.  If we simply take one line out of the Gospel context and try to comprehend it separated from the rest of Christ’s discipline and from His body of disciples, we distort its meaning.

The same Christ who spoke to us about hating parents and children, tells us to love our neighbors and enemies. We cannot read each verse as if it is unconnected from all the other teachings of Jesus. We need to read them all within the context of the entire New Testament, and we need to read them within the Christian community in order to be able to search for their meaning.

When we try to treat the bible like a collection of one line pithy sayings, then we think we can just pull any one verse out of its context and use it as almost a magic saying to live by for the day.   In doing this, we begin to treat each line of Scripture almost as some magical spell if we say it correctly will exhibit magical powers.  Think for example of the fictional Harry Potter books and movies.  There the wizards and witches have to memorize one line formulas and each when spoken has magical power to do something.   That is not what Scripture reading is to be.  We are not engaged in magic, we are not invoking the elemental powers of this world.  Rather we are engaged in a process by which we ourselves become transformed by the teachings of Christ:  whether in imitating Him or obeying Him, we begin to conform our lives to the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sometimes  taking individual passages out of their contexts reduces the passage to a magic spell formula.   But that is not what the Scriptures are nor do they ever tell us to use them in that way.  Every text of Scripture is to be kept in the context of the Bible.  When we read them contextually, we also make them the context in which we understand them and try to practice them!  Scripture is theology, not wizardry.

Every Scripture text has its context, and so reading any one of the difficult sayings of Jesus is meant to draw us back into the deep well of the Scriptures and to try to understand the saying in the light of all of Jesus’ other teachings and his own actions. Did He hate his mother or brothers? NO.  In fact He expands His definition of brother, sister mother to include all of His disciples including us (Mark 3:34-35).   Do we see Him showing respect for the 10 Commandments law to honor your mother and father? yes.

So obviously a mere literal reading of a single text taken out of context is not the best way to read the bible.  Memorizing certain passages has value to it, but we are not merely trying to inform our minds, we are trying to transform our hearts and lives.   This happens best when we keep each line of Scritpure in its context:  the rest of the bible and the Christian community.

We are to keep on reading the Scriptures, and wrestling with the text, and learning to understand them within the context of the people of God to whom God entrusted them.

A Halloween Sermon (1989)

October 29, 1989                                Luke 8:16-39

It is the Halloween season again. Stores and merchants are featuring all kinds of spooky sights. It is a time to when many mock devils and evil spirits, and some who belong to pagan and satanic cults come out in earnest to worship their powers.

Friday evening, I went over to the Books and Company. They happened to be having an adult Halloween event of some sort. There were indeed a number of strange characters there. What was most interesting to me was that throughout the store, they were having a variety of New Age religionists practicing their persuasion. There were tarot card readers, and various people sniffing and selling some sort of scented liquids which somehow are supposed to relax you or make you feel the forces of nature. There were people offering free mood altering stones, which they claimed would relax you or improve your sex life. These stone age believers hold some sort of religious ceremonies on Saturdays and they were proselytizing among the people in the store trying to win converts to their religion.

While all of this was being done in the supposedly friendly spirit of an adult Halloween event, the people who were aiming to make converts to their New Age religion were quite serious in what they were doing. They certainly were not interested in fun, but seemed to believe in what they were saying and doing. I found myself saddened by the pure pagan ideas being hawked there, and at the deception for which the people so willingly embraced.

For me personally, it was my first contact with the New Age religion which has become faddish and popular these days. It was obvious that so many people around us are hungering for something religious, something ritualistic, something spiritual. It was obvious that there certainly is a spiritual harvest that can be made in America if only we Orthodox would take seriously Jesus Christ’s command to us to go and preach the Gospel to all people. There is obviously a need. There are obviously a number of people who are suffering this spiritual emptiness and who fill that void with any and every type of belief.

So Christ tells us in the Gospel lesson today:

No one, when he has lit a lamp, covers it with a basket or puts it under the bed, but rather he sets it on a lampstand, that those who enter may see the light.

My friends, in baptism, and through the faithful hearing of the Gospel, the lamps of our hearts have been illumined. We are to shine with the light of Christ to all of those who walk in darkness. Our faith is not some private thoughts between me and God. Rather, our Faith is to be the Light of the World. In all humility, let the light of Christ shine brightly in your life so that all other people may see Christ in you and give glory to God the Father!

As the Lord Jesus told the man whom he saved from demonic possession, “Return to your own house, and tell what great things God has done for you.” Each of us has to become extremely clear as to what God has done for us personally. We need to rid ourselves of fuzzy thinking about God in our lives.

St. Mark the Ascetic, a 4th Century Christian said:

“Can any man consciously call these things to mind and not be moved always to contrition of heart?  Having so many pledges from the past blessings, will he not always have firm hope, in spite of the fact that he himself has so far done nothing good?  He will say to himself: ‘Though I have done nothing good and have committed many sins before Him, living in uncleanness of the flesh and indulging in may other vices, yet He did not deal with me according to my sins, or reward me according to my iniquities (Ps 103:10), but gave me all these gifts of grace for my salvation.”  (Philokalia, Vol. I, pp 148-149).

Certainly, I am one person who know’s the love and patience of God. There was a time when I refused to go to church, when I openly opposed Christians and even God Himself. Yet God in His patient love waited for my conversion from an evil lifestyle. It is that great love which God showed me personally, the love which He has for the Prodigal child, always waiting for us to return, which moved me to become a priest. It is that message which I want to share with you and to have you share with others.

In Saturday’s newspaper there also appeared an article on the new pagan church of Pantheism. It consisted mostly of an interview with one former Roman Catholic man who had abandoned Christianity for paganism. He said there was a spiritual void in his life which the Catholic Church was not meeting.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to be very clear about the activity and love of God in our hearts and lives. We need to share with each other the stories about how God has effected us. We need to have a very clear understanding of who God is and how He relates to us. We must consciously tend to the spiritual needs of the other members of our parish family. Then and only then will we fulfill the commandments of Christ to let the light of the Gospel shine in our lives and to be able to tell others what great things God has done for us.

As was clear to me in yesterday’s workshop in Columbus, we all need to spend more time with each other sharing our spiritual stories, and encouraging each other to be faithful to the Lord God. Our battle in this world is not against armies and the flesh, but rather it is a warfare against the spiritual powers of darkness which are obviously at work right now in our world. In America, we have to be tolerant of the existence of those who want the New Age religion of paganism, spirit forces and magick. As Christians, we have to kindle in our hearts the flame of the Holy Spirit so that we can see the way to the Heavenly Kingdom. Amen.

Denying the Self AND Taking Up the Cross

Mark 8:34-9:1

And the Lord called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom commented on the need of each Christian to take up their own cross as Jesus taught:

Martyrs Boris & Gleb

 “He is not going to be crucified for you every day. There is a moment when you must take up your own cross. We must each take up our own cross, and when we ask something in our prayers, we undertake by implication to do it with all our strength, all our intelligence and all the enthusiasm we can put into our actions, and with all the courage and energy we have. In addition, we do it with all the power which God will give us. If we do not do this, we are wasting our time praying.” (Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, pg. 36)

Denying oneself can also be manifested in “dying to self”:

“‘Dying to self’ is spiritual shorthand for rooting out all manner of exaggerated self-interest, characteristics of ourselves that constrict us in narcissism and blind self-centeredness. This is the self within us, while all too real, is what nonetheless must die, the ‘false self,’ which must give way to the new life we are called to attain. The false self embodies the very characteristics we loathe in our better moments. Were we to look at ourselves honestly, we would see how petty, thoughtless, and loveless we can be at any given moment. We might have an occasional, fleeting insight that we will never attain any real happiness unless we come to terms with what really counts in life. One doesn’t have to search far to find pathetic example of individuals who struck it rich by the standards of ‘the world,’ yet whose personal lives were utterly miserable. Wealth, fame, and talent alone are not good enough to make us happy. When they occur independently of genuine spiritual values, they only throw into greater relief the true poverty and slavery of our lives.” (The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, pgs. 86-87)


The Nativity of the Theotokos (2011)

A blessed Feast Day to all.

Mary, the Theotokos, was born under the Old Covenant, and she gave birth to the New Covenant.  She, humanly speaking, more than Father Abraham links all those of the household of faith together.   She fulfills the promises and prophecies of God by humbly submitting herself to God’s will.   She does for the world what Israel and the temple were supposed to do:  she becomes the very point at which God makes Himself present in His creation.

“… because Mary was… ‘of the house and lineage of David,’ she represented the unbreakable link between Jewish and Christian history, between the First Covenant within which she was born and the Second Covenant to which she gave birth.”  (Jaroslav Pelikan, MARY THROUGH THE CENTURIES, P 25).

St. John Chrysostom (C)

This is the 7th blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog is St. John Chrysostom (B).   This series is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.   This is the third blog dealing with St. John Chrysostom.

The basic method of teaching which St. John Chrysostom advocated was the careful and creative use of biblical stories. First the parents take turns telling the child a biblical story on several different occasions. The story can be used to address a specific problem in the child’s life or behavior.  Then the parents tell the story asking the child to fill in details or asking them questions about the story’s details. Then, the child should be asked to tell the complete story in his or her own words. Then the lessons begin to focus on the story’s meanings for daily living.

Beside the use of story and repetition, Chrysostom relentless advocated teaching by example.  He believed that many things that Christ did as a human being were done as an example to us for how we are to behave as humans. Prayer and fasting were not “needed” by the Son of God, but as the perfect man, he shows us the way to perfection.

But, as I was going to say to prevent you from suspecting that Christ had a lowly nature because of the lowliness of what he did, listen to what he said to them after he washed their feet. “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”  Do you see that he did many things so as to give an example.  A teacher who is full of wisdom stammers along with his stammering young students.  But the teacher’s stammering does not come from a lack of learning; it is a sign of the concern he feels toward the children.  In the same way, Christ did not do these things because of the lowliness of his essence.  He did them because he was condescending and accommodating himself to us”   (St. John Chrysostom,  On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, p. 248).

As teachers, we are to imitate Christ and be examples to our students.  As St. Peter wrote to church leaders, “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).  This is as true for bishops as for priests, teachers or parents.

Next:  Conclusion

Clement of Alexandria (B)

This is the 4th blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog Clement of Alexandria (A).     This series  is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.  This is the conclusion of the blog looking at Clement of Alexandria (d. 215AD).   Clement was one of the first Christians to write enough about education as to give us a sense of what he saw as the goals of Christian education.   Basically Clement argued that we follow Christ by learning to live virtuously.

The content of religious education for Clement is the virtues, carefully taught and applied to each learner in each unique set of circumstances.  His plan is to form a system of wise discrimination in which each Christian’s failures are diagnosed and then the appropriate remedy in the form of training is applied (Geraldine Hodgson, Primitive Christian Education, p. 131).   Ultimately for Clement, the Christian community itself is the schoolhouse for learning.  Everything we see and experience and learn about in the Church becomes an encounter with Christ who is the Word of God, the right reason of the Father, and the true Educator of mankind  (Hodgson, p. 129).

Christ’s chief goal is to train and form our inner being (Clement, Christ the Educator, p. xiv). In Clement’s own words,

Let us call Him (that is Jesus), then, by the one title: Educator of little ones, an Educator who does not simply follow behind, but who leads the way, for His aim is to improve the soul, not just to instruct it; to guide to a life of virtue, not merely to one of knowledge…. As Teacher, He explains and reveals through instruction, but as Educator He is practical.  First He persuades men to form habits of life, then He encourages them to fulfill their duties by laying down clear-cut counsels and by holding up, for us who follow, examples of those who have erred in the past (Clement, p. 4).

He (The Word) educates us in fear of God, for this fear instructs us in the service of God, educates to the knowledge of truth, and guides by a path leading straight up to heaven…. The education that God gives is the imparting of the truth that will guide us correctly to the contemplation of God, and a description of holy deeds that endure forever…. so the Educator, in His concern for us, leads His children along a way of life that ensures salvation (Clement, p. 49-50).

According to Clement, religious education must not only instruct souls, it must form and improve them as well.  True education leads to virtues, not simply intellectual knowl­ed­ge.  It must provide not just facts but examples of how to live.   Education teaches us the fear of the Lord in order to lead us to heaven.  Its goal is the salvation of souls.  Clement was not alone in his understanding of Christ the Educator in terms of virtuous living.   Writing almost 50 years before Clement, St. Justin the Martyr (d. ca 165AD) in his Apologies had taken the viewpoint that

Christ is preeminently the Teacher who enables his disciples to live rationally.  Taught by Christ, they become chaste (chapter 15), gentle, patient and free from anger (chapter 16), and obedient to civil authorities (chapter 17)” (Robert Sider,  The Gospel and its Proclamation, p. 70). 

In Clement of Alexandria, we see several of the goals for education found in the Holy Scriptures being emphasized.  Clement strongly believes instruction should focus on the fear of God, obedience to God’s teaching, and on holiness.  All of this results from the (new) relationship we now have with God in Jesus Christ.

Next:  St. John Chrysostom (A)

The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church

Ss Athanasius, Cyril, Ignatius

This blog series focuses on educational goals which can be gleaned from some of the writings of the ancient church.   I originally wrote this in 1998, and it has pretty much sat in my computer’s memory unread since then.  I decided it was time to bring it up out from under the bushel and see if it provides any light.

Though no one Church Father wrote a theology of Christian education, many Patristic writers were both involved in and concerned about the educational practices of the Church.   The early Church was very involved in catechesis and other forms of education by which the Faith was handed over to the new generation of believers.  This paper is a brief look at the writings of a few early Church fathers who directed some of their comments to the teaching ministry of the Church.

Christianity emerged into the religious and educational world of First Century Pales­tine.   The values of that era and ar­ea of the world were shaped by the Jews and their conquerors, specifically­ the Greeks and Romans. Naturally, the early Church’s vision for education was shap­ed by and against the culture into which she emerged.

Christ’s teaching method was that of the Master with his disciples, which had its roots in the Jewish rabbinical ex­perience.  The Master trained his disciples to be like himself   (Mark 10:24-25).    This Master and disciple relationship would shape the later monastic experience as well.  The Master-disciple methodology is one normative means by which the early Christians also trained their converts and children.

Christianity did not long remain a purely Jewish phenom­enon.  It quickly spread among the Hellenic Jews and pagans as well.  This inter­action wi­th other cultures challenged the first Christ­ians to move beyond a limited, parochial and Jewish cul­tural viewpoint.  It is beyond the scope of this text to examine this cultural interaction.  However, it is impor­tant to rememb­er that Ch­rist­ianity had different goals from those of Greco-Roman pagan religions.  The Christian Vision of their mission guided and shaped their educational ministry.

Greek philoso­phy in the Roman form “concerned itself chiefly with life in this world.  The problem that it attempted to solve was how one should live so as to get the most satisfaction out of life” (Frank Groves, A History of Education, p. 281).   Education for pagans assumed that life was an end in itself.  Christianity, on the other hand was concerned more with transfiguring this life and with attaining the Kingdom of God which was both here and yet to come.  The Church concerned her­self with teaching the way of life needed for a soul to attain salvation.    The early Christ­ian Patristic writers always focused

Theology: Mother of All Sciences

their teaching on Christ­ianity as a way of life. (Frank Groves, A History of Education, p. 279-280).      They did not teach the facts of salvation history apart from an experience of the Holy Trinity.  Their main focus was:  KNOW GOD!  A Christian lives his or her theology daily.  The “know­ledge” to be acquired by Christians was an experience of the revealed truth of God.  This truth was available to all in the doctrine, worship and sacra­ments of the Faith.  Early Christian teachers believed the revealed truth of God was en­countered in life itself, especially in the life of the Christian com­munity – the people of God.  Consequently they, for the most part, did not set up for themselves special schools  (H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, p. 317).   Life within the Christian community – in its worship and charity – was the school for the first Christians (see Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-35).  The lesson of Ananias and Sapphira Acts 5:1-11 is recorded as a communal lesson – one never to be forgotten and hopefully never to be repeated!

Next:  A Curriculum Geared Toward each Believer