Why I Did Convert to Eastern Orthodoxy

An article  recently started making the social media rounds, that describes the reasons why an individual elected to not become Orthodox. I started writing a response that was going to argue against his piece.  It then dawned on me that perhaps the better approach would be to simply capture why I did convert and how to address the Episcopal Church from which I had come.  In that, perhaps I could address some of his concerns.

My conversion process was ultimately a conversion from pretty serious agnosticism.  The conversion began when, during a particularly difficult period in my life, I decided to go to church one Sunday morning.  As it turned out, there was an Episcopal church in walking distance from where I lived at the time.  Since I was raised in the Episcopal Church, it seemed like a reasonable place to go.  I became a member and joined the choir along the way.  Fast forward a couple of years, and I started dating a girl who challenged my level of commitment as a Christian.  I took that as a challenge and began to attend bible studies with her, and started digging deeper into the historic faith.  Since the Episcopal Church, and in particular, the AngloCatholic subset to which I belonged, expressed a strong belief in Tradition, I felt it appropriate to begin studying history.  This all led to me ultimately joining the catechumenate program as, at first, a student, and ultimately as the lead instructor.  During that process, we changed the program from a long weekend to almost a full year with multiple retreats.

I explored the history of the Church in more and more depth, and kept landing first in the Roman Catholic Church, then the Orthodox Church.  Without getting into a lot of detail, the Orthodox Church won out on the basis of Tradition.  Rome had been guilty of changing doctrine.  Not simply clarifying, but actually changing.  Although it is frequently related that at the various Ecumenical Councils doctrine was being established, what was happening was doctrine was being declared based on what had been handed down.  New doctrines were not created.  When England broke with Rome, they didn’t return to Orthodoxy, they established their own Church with new doctrines.  Some remained the same as with Rome, others were derived from the various Reformation groups on the Continent.

So I became convinced that the Church of England and the Episcopal Church needed to return to Orthodoxy.  I attempted this on the inside, but was ultimately led to the conclusion that I needed to leave.  I addressed this many years ago in this article.  You’ll note at the end of that article that there was a vast theological chasm between the two Churches.  That is quite true.  The question is, is the chasm one of full vs. not full (i.e., where one faith has simply not developed all the way), or is it a matter of contradiction?

If you read my old article, you’ll find many examples of teaching in our parish that was at odds with Orthodoxy (or even historic Anglicanism).  Anglicanism, itself, teaches things contrary to Orthodoxy.  Whether its the filioque (which is, simply put, erroneous), the canon of Scripture (the Anglican Church argues that the so-called Apocrypha are not scripture) or the nature of salvation, or any one of a number of doctrines, there is conflict between the two.  It is not a case of Anglicanism having a more primitive type of the faith and it simply has not developed all the way, so Orthodoxy completes it, or fills it.  Rather it is mistaken.  If you convert to Orthodoxy, you must, in the interest of intellectual and spiritual honesty, reject the doctrines of Anglicanism that are incorrect.  That is not to say that everything they teach is erroneous, but you cannot agree to the doctrines of both churches.

The same is true for Roman Catholicism and every variety of Protestantism.  The author of the article belongs to a reformed church.  That means he believes in sola scripture, sola fide, and predestination.  All of these are incorrect.  If he attempted to join the Orthodox Church and still hold to these teachings he would have been living a lie.  Unfortunately, as much respect as I have for Met. Kallistos, he and others who play the “fullness” card in the interest of not offending non-Orthodox do both sides a disservice.

 

 

 

Orthodox Fundamentalism, A Response

Recently a friend pointed out this article, by a George Demacopoulos, who is a professor of Historical Theology and the Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.  His position and title are somewhat germane to the following analysis.

When I asked about what I thought regarding the article, I was going to write up a response, then decided not to when I ran across this response posted by Fr. John Whiteford.  My friend has since posed the following response:

I went back and reread Father Whiteford’s response. I didn’t read Democopoulos’ piece as if it were a piece of systematic theology. It was only a couple of pages long, more of an essay or a precis to an essay. I think W. Is taking D. a little too literally. I think D. was trying to relate to the reader some of his reservations with Orthodox fundamentalists (I think you and I probably agree on who he’s talking about without putting too fine a point on it). Speaking as a convert, I agree with D., generally speaking. But if I interpreted D. In W’s terms, I wouldn’t agree.

Perhaps D, could have been a little less polemical with his terms, but don’t you think D. got most of it right?

I’m going to come right out and say that, no, I don’t think he got most of it right.  Before I commence, a few caveats are important.  One is that I lean toward the traditional side in my Orthodoxy.  I have a great number of friends who are likely the targets of Demacopoulos’ piece, and I may be classified in the same group by him.  I suspect I would be.  I’m sure Fr. John would be.  The other is that Fr. John and I are both survivors, not without some injury, of the Episcopal wars that have led to an increasingly irrelevant religious body that stands for nothing except for what is in opposition to the history of the faith.  We see individuals within the Orthodox Church who make statements that are very similar to the sorts of things one would hear out of so-called Episcopal theologians say 20 or 30 years ago.  Thus, we are likely a bit sensitized to such things.  Finally, I will say that I know nothing much about the Volos conference, although I guess I’ll have to look further into it, and perhaps post back more regarding it.  My difficulties with the Demacopoulos piece are with the piece itself.

Style

I will agree that the piece was not meant to be a significant theological treatise.  However, it is much more than an offhand remark made in passing or during some form of interview.  Rather, this was a widely posted essay (and yes, really more the introduction to what could become a much longer piece) meant to effectively belittle the more traditional Orthodox.  If it was merely an introduction, followed by a more detailed essay with citations, I could accept it a bit more, although it is still replete with errors.

I think that people some times have more that should be demanded of them because of the position they hold.  Professional athletes, for instance, are chastised for behaviors that are not entirely uncommon in our society (drug use, dishonesty, etc.), and are in fact, somewhat accepted by many, precisely because of their position as role models for young athletes.  They may not have specifically set out to be a role model, but it is a necessary part of their job.  Professors and other academics have an expectation placed upon them for a certain amount of intellectual rigor.  Straw men, broad generalizations, and blatant untruths are the things of politicians, and we are right to expect better out of those charged with educating our children and our future leaders.

Professor Demacopoulos comes across in this piece as either a standard issue politician or a petulant child who’s favorite toy (in this case a conference his university hosts) has been broken by some neighborhood children.  Frankly I expect better.

The Bogey Man

Demacopoulos starts out aiming his piece at a Orthodox fundamentalist.  While Fr. John is correct in pointing out that the term is technically inaccurate, I think he gets a bit carried away.  We know precisely why Demacopoulos chooses the term.  It is because the best connotation it brings is Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, which are largely held in low view throughout this country, and certainly amongst the intelligensia, while the worst connotation is that of ISIL and their current campaign to send the Middle East, and frankly the rest of the world if they have their way, back to the stone age.  By tarring Orthodox Christians who disagree with Demacopoulos and those of his view as fundamentalists, he is seeking to shut down argument immediately.  It is polemic at its very lowest.

Orthodoxy does change over time, but quite slowly.  New hymns are introduced, but slowly.  Vestments have morphed, the structure of the service has both contracted in some places and expanded in others.  All of this, however is done very slowly as we are necessarily cautious.  The controversies that led to the early church councils are the reason.  We know that something new needs to be evaluated to ensure that it is in keeping with the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”  We’ll come back to this specific point later, but it is important to note that within Orthodoxy there are those who are very hesitant to accept things that appear to be new, and in particular that appear to contradict the faith.  At times, this can take the form of unnecessary polemic, and there are certainly those who are too ready to trot out the term heretic and apply to thus and such a person.  I think that labeling a person as a heretic is best left to Ecumenical Councils, but I think it is appropriate to use the term heresy or heretical teaching.  That being said, those of us who are traditional should show more than a bit of restraint and analyze new teachings with a spirit of charity before assigning labels.

Demacopoulos attributes several statements to this fundamentalist bogey man in his piece.  However, since we have no references, citations, links, etc. to anyone or any organization actually making these statements, we are left to take him at his word (for instance, when he says “radical opportunists in the Church of Greece accused it and its bishop of heresy”, it would be nice, given the tone, for him to provide some backup).  Given some issues he has with accuracy elsewhere in his piece, I’m not entirely sure why anyone would take him at his word.

The Bogey Man made of Straw

Strawman

The bogey man is claimed to hold four specific positions.  The first, and apparently the key error, is that he believes that “the Church Fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters”, and that Orthodoxy has never changed.

The second is that the monastic community has always been the guardian of Orthodox teaching.

The third is that the Church Fathers were anti-intellectual.

The fourth is that adhering to the teaching of the Fathers requires resisting all things Western.

Again, we have no actual examples of anyone holding these views.  I will say that I know of no one who actually holds even one of these views.  The great modern teachers that those of us of a more traditional approach like to read, such as Fr. Romanides, or Metropolitan Hierotheos, never make such claims.  I’d have to go back and look, but if ever these topics arose, I’m sure they would argue against them.  Amongst the rank and file  traditional Orthodox, I similarly have never heard such statements.

As my friend points out, we know to whom Demacopoulos is referring.  People who criticize a priest because of the lack of a beard, or who doesn’t push adherence to the fasts, or who tends to cut services short at times.  At times the priest can be accused of heresy (and similarly bishops) for these sorts of “infractions”.  Some of these represent reasonable criticisms, although there is often examples of a judgmentalism that is, itself, not Orthodox, and we all must remember to tend to our own failings first.  However, Demacopoulos, by constructing this straw man and knocking it down, seeks to dismiss traditional Orthodox out of hand.

Errors and Weak Foundations

Demacopoulos uses his straw man as the basis for arguing for the truth of the matter.  However, he is guilty of some rather significant errors, some of which Fr. John highlights.  In other cases, he is not so much in error, but there is left an ambiguity which can then become the foundation for error, as the foundation itself is in error.

The first error is the assertion that Sts. Peter and Paul disagreed over circumcision.  Orthodox and Catholics are often accused by protestants of not reading the Bible, and I fear that Professor Demacopoulos comes across in that statement as someone who has not read the Bible, and is, instead relying on someone else’s interpretation.  Acts 15 records the very first Church Council.  As we are told, St. Paul and St. Silas go to Jerusalem to address adherence to the Old Covenant practices with regard to Christians.  St. Paul clearly is of the opinion that the faith that was revealed to him by Christ after his conversion experience does not require adherence to the Jewish practices.  St. Peter arises, during the council, and makes a brief, but eloquent speech, in which he agrees with St. Paul.  The Apostles and Elders determine, based on the revelation that had been given them, that circumcision was not to be required.

Subsequent to this event, St. Paul describes an event in Galatians 2, where, unfortunately, St. Peter appears to be playing the part of the hypocrite.  It is not that he believes differently about circumcision, witnessed by the fact that he will eat with the Gentiles, but that instead of standing up to the Judaizers, he acquiesces when they are around and withdraws from the Gentiles.

A similar error, as Fr. John points out, exists in the description of what St. John of Damascus did with the hymnography.  For the Orthodox, the hymnography is one of the safeguards of theology, so messing with it would be significant, and abandoning it would be unthinkable.  What St. John did was to add some hymns into the mix.  Over time, the Biblical odes fell into disuse in most churches, and only those additional hymns remain.  I suspect this was acceptable because the hymns provided a summary teaching of the odes that preceded them.  The assumption is likely that people are familiar with the odes and their contents, and so the summary teaching, the interpretation, is more critical.

None of this is to argue that the Fathers were in complete agreement on all things.  However, what tends to happen is that people like Demacopoulos take the idea that there are disagreements in the Fathers at times, and thus all things are open to revision.  Now, this is decidedly my assertion about where he is heading, and so is necessarily unfair as he has said nothing directly like this in this article or elsewhere.  He may not even believe it, but there are those who will take what he says as the foundation for such a teaching.  This is where my history in the Episcopal Church comes into play.  I’ve seen this very thing argued.

Demacopoulos further supports my assertion when he says “The significance of the Fathers lies in their earnest and soul-wrenching quest to seek God and to share Him with the world”.  Really?  I would challenge Demacopoulos to support that assertion.  I’m a chanter (or at least I try to be), so I can say that over the 8 years or so that I’ve been involved in that ministry I have chanted a great number of hymns about various Fathers of the Church.  For many/most bishops among the saints, the hymns read similar to this one for St. Athanasius:

You were Orthodoxy’s steadfast pillar, holding up the Church with godly dogmas, O great Hierarch, for you did preach unto all that God the Son is one essence in very truth with God the Father; thus you did shame Arius.  Righteous Father Athanasius, do you entreat Christ God that His great mercy may be granted unto us.

Or, this one, for St. Basil

Your sound has gone forth into all the earth, which has received your word.  Thereby you have divinely taught the Faith; you have made manifest the nature of all things that be; you have adorned the ways of man.  O namesake of the royal priesthood, our righteous Father Basil, intercede with Christ God that our sould be saved.

For others that were either monastics of great piety or martyrs (that is, we know of them primarily from their martyrdom), the hymns have a different flavor, although typically it is that they were deep in piety and adherence to Orthodoxy, such as St. Pelagia.  The “soul-wrenching quest to seek God” isn’t a process for these saints of starting from something new, or attempting to create something new, but rather is a process of deep adherence to Orthodoxy and its ascetical disciplines.  While their quest is a great example, and is significant, it is not “the signficance,” or the hymnography for those concerned with dogma would be quite different.  Demacopoulos reveals a bit about himself on this point that underscores the opposition he has received.

His final major error, I would argue, is his views of Ecumenical Councils.  He asserts that Orthodox Theology has changed “or else there would have been no need for the Fathers to build consensus at successive Ecumenical Councils.”  I look to a distinction that Metropolitan Hierotheos uses in his book on the Person in Orthodox Theology.  There is an experiential theology, which is the actual theology of the Church.  It is the experience of God that the saints of the Church have had.  It is this that comprises the Faith once delivered.  Over the centuries, when you read the stories of the great ascetics, you find remarkable unity, from the earliest desert Fathers up to St. Seraphim of Sarov.  Then there is dogmatic theology.  As Met. Hierotheos states, this is necessarily more polemical.  It’s purpose is to express the experiential theology in dogmatic fashion.  It is where the Fathers have had to adopt various philosophical terms and at time get quite technical.  This is what was happening at the councils.  It was not a consensus building exercise in order to develop new teaching – or worse yet, revise teaching.  It is commonly taught among certain Orthodox (and it is positively dogmatic in the Episcopal church at this point), that since the councils were constructing new teachings, we can construct new teachings now, which might necessarily mean we strike down old teachings.  Finally, it is hard to describe the entire process as one of consensus.  Certainly the dating of Pascha was essentially consensus building and harmonization.  Likely the punishments for those involved in the Arian heresy was probably consensus as the subject is quite pastoral in nature.  However, with regard to the main issue, that of the teaching of Arius, it is hard to describe the process as consensus building when the following is stated in a letter to the Church in Egypt from the council:

The holy Council has anathematized all these ideas, barely able to endure it as we listened to such impious opinions (or rather madnesses) and such blasphemous words.

Yes, as I indicated before, I am reading into some of this essay, and so perhaps I’m being unnecessarily critical.  But I hear the not so faint echoes of the sorts of things that were being taught by leaders in the Episcopal Church not so long ago.  If I imply that the Fathers are only significant as pious examples, I exclude them as sources of dogmatic teaching.  If I imply that the councils were developing new theology through a process of consensus building, I open the door to simply creating new theology now.

So, to reiterate, I find that Democopoulos got his letter mostly wrong, not mostly right.

 

 

 

The Rapture, Ancient Teaching or Recent Heresy?

The Rapture, Ancient Teaching or Recent Heresy?

With the upcoming release of the first “Left Behind” movie, a lot of attention has been brought to a teaching that is largely peculiar to American evangelicalism, that is the doctrine of a pre-tribulation rapture.  The basics of the teaching are that there will be a great tribulation that will fall on the whole earth, and that at the end of the tribulation Christ will return for the last judgement.  Before the tribulation, however, Christ will also come and take away all true believers so that they don’t have to experience the tribulation.

There have been numerous arguments brought forth against this teaching, but one of the more common in recent years is that the concept of a pre-tribulation rapture is a novel teaching, having largely been promulgated by John Darby in the 19th century, with some support from  17th and 18th century American evangelists.  For non-Orthodox, I think the point of this argument is that if a pre-tribulation rapture was truly authentic, it would have been a common teaching earlier in history.  I find this an interesting argument to see Protestants bring forth, as they pride themselves on being Sola Scriptura, and thus a new teaching doesn’t necessarily reflect an incorrect teaching.  As long as it is established from Scripture, then it would be a valid teaching.  I understand the argument from a Roman Catholic perspective, as they believe in the development of doctrine, and so a completely new teaching would be a bit troubling.  The thing I find really surprising is to see Orthodox apologists trot out this argument.  Orthodoxy is all about the teachings that have been handed down from Christ and the Apostles.  In this regard, a new teaching would clearly not qualify.  On the other hand, even if the teaching appeared much earlier in history, it would not become any more valid.  Arianism is a pretty ancient teaching, but it is still a heresy.

In response to this, adherents of the pre-trib rapture theory have endeavored a response on two levels.  Both of these were posted by a friend of mine on Facebook, hence my response here.  The first argument, which is a bit fallacious, is that a lack of known evidence that the doctrine was taught earlier in history is not sufficient proof that it wasn’t.  This is sort of a special pleading.  The burden of proof clearly lies with those arguing that the teaching did exist in history.  It is virtually impossible to ever prove that something absolutely doesn’t exist.  I can’t prove that the Loch Ness monster doesn’t exist, nor can I prove that ancient Greeks didn’t hold an annual festival in central Oklahoma.  However, if I were to assert that either of those things are true, the burden would fall to me.

The second argument is that the teaching did exist in history, and a variety of sources are brought out to establish that.  It is this that I promised to respond to, and thus I will.  I’ll go one by one through the listed sources:

2 Esdras

A quick note that this refers to what among Orthodox would be known as 4th Esdras, a piece of Jewish apocalyptic literature that is only considered canonical by the Ethiopian Church.  2 Esdras or 2 Ezra is a different book in the Orthodox canon.  At any rate, we have three passages from this text.  The first is from the 6th chapter, beginning at the 18th verse:

“The days are coming when I draw near to visit the inhabitants of the earth, and when I require from the doers of iniquity the penalty of their iniquity, and when the humiliation of Zion is complete. When the seal is placed upon the age that is about to pass away, then I will show these signs: The books shall be opened before the face of the Firmament, and all shall see my judgment together. Children a year old shall speak with their voices, and pregnant women shall give birth to premature children at three or four months, and these shall live and leap about. Sown places still suddenly appear unsown, and full storehouses shall suddenly be found to be empty, the Trumpet shall sound aloud and when all hear it, they shall suddenly be terrified At that time friends will make war on friends like enemies, the earth and those who inhabit it shall be terrified. Then we have the tribulation period, then at the end when Jesus returns with us, as the armies of heaven : They shall see those who were taken up, who from their birth had not tasted death, and the heart of the earth’s inhabitants shall be changed and converted to a different spirit. For evil shall be blotted out and deceit shall be quenched, faithfulness shall flourish, and corruption shall be overcome, and the Truth, which has been so long without fruit, shall be revealed.

The passage clearly refers to the tribulation before the final judgement.  The question has to do with the line that begins “Then we have the tribulation period…”  I have looked at the RSV version of this passage at the University of Michigan, and another version from sacred-texts.com, and both don’t include that passage.  Instead, the closest we have is from the RSV:  ”

And it shall be that whoever remains after all that I have foretold to you shall himself be saved and shall see my salvation and the end of my world. And they shall see the men who were taken up, who from their birth have not tasted death; and the heart of the earth’s inhabitants shall be changed and converted to a different spirit. For evil shall be blotted out, and deceit shall be quenched; faithfulness shall flourish, and corruption shall be overcome, and the truth, which has been so long without fruit, shall be revealed.”

The question is, what is meant by “And they shall see the men who were taken up”?  Does this refer to some rapture event?  The phrase is qualified as “those who from birth have not tasted death” as the restatement of those who were taken up.  After seeing these, people’s hearts will be changed.  The King James translation has the text saying this:

Whosoever remaineth from all these that I have told thee shall escape, and see my salvation, and the end of your world.  And the men that are received shall see it, who have not tasted death from their birth: and the heart of the inhabitants shall be changed, and turned into another meaning.

Which implies that the men that are received are, in fact, those believers who came through the tribulation.  It is their witness, in effect, that changes hearts.  This interpretation is actually closer to the historic, Orthodox understanding that Christians will undergo the tribulation, and some will make it through the tribulation without losing their faith, but others will not be so fortunate.  There is some discussion of people who escape tribulation, and we will discuss under what circumstances that happens a bit later on.

The next quote is from chapter 13:

The days are coming when the Most High will deliver those who are on the earth, And bewilderment of mind shall come over those who inhabit the earth. They shall plan to make war against one another, city against city, place against place, people against people, and Kingdom against Kingdom. When these things take place and the signs occur that I showed you before, then my Son will be revealed”.

The King James as this section as follows:

Behold, the days come, when the most High will begin to deliver them that are upon the earth.  And he shall come to the astonishment of them that dwell on the earth.  And one shall undertake to fight against another, one city against another, one place against another, one people against another, and one realm against another.  And the time shall be when these things shall come to pass, and the signs shall happen which I shewed thee before, and then shall my Son be declared, whom thou sawest as a man ascending.

And the RSV:

Behold, the days are coming when the Most High will deliver those who are on the earth.  And bewilderment of mind shall come over those who dwell on the earth.  And they shall plan to make war against one another, city against city, place against place, people against people, and kingdom against kingdom.  And when these things come to pass and the signs occur which I showed you before, then my Son will be revealed, whom you saw as a man coming up from the sea. 

I would be curious to see the underlying text (in Latin or Greek) from which this passage comes.  I suspect that the man coming up from the sea may more appropriately refer to coming up from the depths or the grave.

Regardless, does this speak of a pre-tribulation rapture?  Nothing in this speaks to the rapture.  We see that God will deliver (or begin to deliver depending on the translation) those who are on earth.  This will happen at the second coming, so what in these passages point to a pre-tribulation rapture?

The last passage is the following, from chapter 16 v. 74 and following:

“Listen, my elect ones, says the Lord, the days of tribulation are at hand, but I will deliver you from them. Do not fear or doubt, for God is your guide. You who keep my commandments and precepts, says the Lord God must not let your sins weigh you down or your iniquities prevail over you .

The other translations by and large agree with this one, but on the other hand there is nothing here that argues for a pre-tribulation rapture.  Yes, being delivered from the days of tribulation could be used to support that teaching, but it hardly establishes that it was the teaching at the time.  Further on, when I discuss the Orthodox understanding of the end times, I will explore what it means to be delivered from tribulation.

Before leaving Esdras, I must highlight that the translations my friend posted for the first quote don’t compare well in that critical sections with the RSV or KJV.  The translation, in fact, contains a line that sound almost like an insertion written by a pre-trib rapture proponent.  This wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal except that as we are about to see, there appears to be a tendency among some groups supportive of the pre-tribulation rapture to simply manufacture evidence to support their position.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been a treasure house of insight into the religious environment of the holy land around the time of Christ.  We have great evidence regarding the various manuscript traditions that would ultimately inform the various translations of the Bible that we have today.  Given the amount of scholarship that has gone into the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, they provide a tempting target for use to defend a certain belief.

In this case, we seem to have a situation where a group, in the interest of defending their view, seems to have fabricated a quote from the Dead Sea Scrolls.  What my friend posted was the following:

The Dead Sea Scrolls 150+ BC
“The Rapture will occur suddenly. And countless thousands will vanish from the earth. Swept up to heaven to live with Jesus and escape the torment of the Tribulation, the others will be left behind.”

The first problem is that the Dead Sea Scrolls have all been catalogued.  Typically, references to quotes within them include a reference to the cave and fragment associate with the quote.  As I said previously, there has been a great deal of scholarship associated with the scrolls.  The absence of any reference makes it impossible to study this quote in any manner.

Attempting to find this scroll through online searches has only yielded one result.  That this scroll doesn’t exist, and that it was fabricated by Jack Van Impe Ministries.  The referenced scholar and theological school don’t appear to exist.

It is sad that people resort to fabricating evidence to support their views.  Between this, and the interesting modification to the Esdras text we saw above, I have to admit I have a greater than normal sense of skepticism regarding any claims by dispensationalists about the existence of evidence supporting their view.

One other thing we must be on guard against is the reading back into ancient texts, modern notions.  This is especially risky when one is fishing for the odd quote to support their position.  I think we will see a bit of this in the following.

The Shepherd of Hermas

This text would be very interesting if it taught a pre-trib rapture.  Primarily, this is because it was held in sufficiently high regard that it nearly became part of scripture.  The quote that was provided is:

“You have escaped from great tribulation on account of your faith, and because you did not doubt in the presence of such a beast. Go, therefore, and tell the elect of the Lord His mighty deeds, and say to them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation that is coming. If then ye prepare yourselves, and repent with all your heart, and turn to the Lord, it will be possible for you to escape it, if your heart be pure and spotless, and ye spend the rest of the days of your life in serving the Lord blamelessly.”

However, let’s actually read the quote with more context:

Clothed, therefore, my brethren, with faith in the Lord and remembering the great things which He had taught me, I boldly faced the beast. Now that beast came on with such noise and force, that it could itself have destroyed a city. I came near it, and the monstrous beast stretched itself out on the ground, and showed nothing but its tongue, and did not stir at all until I had passed by it. Now the beast had four colours on its head— black, then fiery and bloody, then golden, and lastly white.

Now after I had passed by the wild beast, and had moved forward about thirty feet, lo! A virgin meets me, adorned as if she were proceeding from the bridal chamber, clothed entirely in white, and with white sandals, and veiled up to her forehead, and her head was covered by a hood. And she had white hair. I knew from my former visions that this was the Church, and I became more joyful. She saluted me, and said, Hail, O man! And I returned her salutation, and said, Lady, hail! And she answered, and said to me, Has nothing crossed your path? I say, I was met by a beast of such a size that it could destroy peoples, but through the power of the Lord and His great mercy I escaped from it. Well did you escape from it, says she, because you cast your care on God, and opened your heart to the Lord, believing that you can be saved by no other than by His great and glorious name. On this account the Lord has sent His angel, who has rule over the beasts, and whose name is Thegri, and has shut up its mouth, so that it cannot tear you. You have escaped from great tribulation on account of your faith, and because you did not doubt in the presence of such a beast. Go, therefore, and tell the elect of the Lord His mighty deeds, and say to them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation that is coming. If then you prepare yourselves, and repent with all your heart, and turn to the Lord, it will be possible for you to escape it, if your heart be pure and spotless, and you spend the rest of the days of your life in serving the Lord blamelessly.
Read in context, we see that God protects the Shepherd from tribulation by “shutting up the mouth” of the beast, not by removing the Shepherd.  There are a couple of different ways to read this.  One is that the Lord will literally not allow devout Christians to be harmed in the tribulation.  The other is a more spiritual reading, that the devout Christian who does not doubt, even in the face of tribulation will not be spiritually harmed by it.  I prefer this latter reading, because it is more consistent with what we know of the martyrdoms that were very common at the time this text was written, and it is more consistent with earlier portions of the Shepherd, that indicate that everyone can expect to undergo actual tribulation.
So, the support from the Shepherd of Hermas really isn’t there when you read the text in context.  In fact, the protection from tribulation here is much more similar to what we saw earlier in Esdras.  Faithful Christians will not suffer spiritual damage.  They will be protected from succumbing to the tribulation, not protected from undergoing it.
(Update on November 14th, 2014):  I was just listening to Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick delivering a talk on the Pre-Tribulation Rapture and he pointed out this line from Jesus’ high priestly prayer:  “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.”  So Jesus asks the Father to keep believers from tribulation, but not by removing them from this world.

Bishop Victorinus of Pettau

The following is the quote from this Bishop:

“Seven angels having the last seven plagues, for in them is completed the indignation of God. And these shall be in the last times when the church shall have gone out of the midst.”

This is taken from his commentary on the Revelation of John, specifically the 15th chapter.  The difficulty here is that this comment is somewhat vague.  What is meant by the “church shall have gone out of the midst”.  Does it mean they have been raptured away, or does it mean something more akin to the church having gone out of the midst of the sinners?  Given his treatment of chapter 14, where he makes reference to the people mingling with the nations, followed by a discussion of certain nations being destroyed by God during the tribulation.  Further, previously, he notes that the faithful will be gathered together in Judea, where they will “be supported there for three years and six months from the presence of the devil.”  Whether Judea refers to Israel or the Bishop is referring to a more spiritual understanding is unclear to me from the limited reading I’ve been able to give this text, but there is nothing in his writing to indicate that he believes the Church will be physically taken away to heaven.  Given that this notion of heaven and hell being separate physical places is a bit modern, it would be quite surprising if it were otherwise.

So, once again, we see that there is a bit of proof texting going on.  Taking one quote out of the overall context, both of the text from which it is derived, and of the environment in which it is being taught, can lead people to incorrect conclusions.  This is particularly a risk when one is approaching the text with the express intent of finding support for their position

The ancient Church has always taught, as laid out in the Bible, that Christians will undergo tribulation.  Some will escape that fate, but it is because they died before those time.  Further, when we see a phrase, such as the Church has gone out from the midst, this avails of multiple interpretations.  One that comes to mind, especially in light of recent events, is that this is the time when the Church leaves its public place and goes back into hiding.

So what

So, why does it matter about the historicity of the teaching about the rapture?  As I mentioned earlier, from an Orthodox perspective, that is not terribly relevant.  It is that this teaching is not that which was handed down from Christ and the Apostles that is the issue.  So, why am I particularly concerned with this, why would Orthodoxy be concerned with this teaching?

The problem isn’t whether or not the teaching is historic, but whether it is correct.  Because this isn’t a teaching we have received from the beginning, we would automatically suspect that it might not be correct.  However, it is that it teaches things contrary that which we have received that should concern everyone, and it is in these contradictions that a real danger lies.

The Contradiction

The teaching of the pre-tribulation rapture opposes the Orthodox teaching in two key areas.  One has to do with the “geography” of heaven and hell, as one Orthodox Priest has described it, and the other has to do with what could be regarded as an essentially fundamental aspect of being a Christian, that of suffering.

From the geography perspective, the notion that Christ will come and take people away to heaven, as if it is a physically separate place.  As addressed, both here, and even better, here, that notion is mistaken.  It is, in fact, a somewhat modern idea.  It is a basic Christian teaching that God is present everywhere.  The concept for this is see within the Psalms and elsewhere.  Within the Orthodox Church, we say a prayer at almost every service that starts with “O God, who is everywhere present and sees all things.”  If God is truly everywhere present, where exactly would Heaven be, if not everywhere?  The fact that we do not perceive heaven, in fact, speaks to our state, not to God’s.  The experience of heaven and hell, then, has much more to do with our spiritual state, and not with geography.  In a talk to an Orthodox youth group, one Orthodox theologian points out that the river of fire, and the pain it causes the unrighteous, is, in reality, God’s grace.  To the righteous, to those that have learned to love others and God before themselves, this grace will be light and warmth.  To the the unrighteous, to those who love themselves above others, this grace, this essentially pure love, will be painful.  I’m giving the full teaching short shrift, so I would recommend reading the linked articles to fully get the nuance involved here.  I will say, to wrap this up, that it is well known among the Orthodox that there is much more around us that we do not routinely perceive, but are occasionally given glimpses of.  Many stories exist, frequently of adults, but much more often involving young children, that describe them seeing things around us that those of us who’s vision has been darkened by our sins cannot see.  From saints and angels to priests surrounded by fire during the liturgy, to my own daughter who, when very young simply let out a big “wow” at a very holy moment in the liturgy (we’ll never know what she saw), there is an ever present reality of heaven that we simply don’t get.  We see through a glass, darkly, is how the Apostle puts it.  Some day – after the second coming – we’ll see clearly.  The pre-trib rapture theory seems to imply that none of this is true.  That God exists somewhere up on the second story of our universe, which is where we’ll go if we behave ourselves.  If we follow the rules.  There seems to be little in the theory that speaks to our experience of God Himself.  Frankly, it all feels rather hollow.

The other problem is, in many ways related.  The theory, developed during a time when Christianity was the law of the land, implies that somehow Christians won’t need to suffer.  It was promulgated largely by people who had never really experienced persecution, and who seemed blissfully ignorant of the real history of Christianity.  As noted earlier, when we read documents such as the Shepherd of Hermas, who states, in part, “Happy you who endure the great tribulation that is coming on,” is writing in a time when Christians were subjected to torture and death frequently.  Christians knew that there was, in fact, benefit to this suffering, that it helps purify us.  Refines us as if by fire.  When we look at the the prototype of prototypes, Christ, we see that our salvation is realized through His suffering.  When we look at the the Protomartyr Stephen, we see that he has a vision of heaven as he is being stoned.  He isn’t angry or scared.  He doesn’t curse his persecutors.  No, God protects him from the tribulation, not by removing him from it, but by being strengthening him, which is really the promise we find in the ancient writings quoted.  Those who propose that good Christians will never experience a great tribulation, are not only historically ignorant, but ignorant of current events.  Some of that ignorance is self imposed, because it threatens their world view, such as the fact that Christians have been persecuted by the state of Israel for years.  The rest is because the U.S. media is largely uninterested in reporting things, such as the fact that Christians have been driven out of Nineveh for the first time in 2000 years, and that children are beheaded because they are Christian.  Denying ourselves is a key component of our growth as Christians.  It is why Christians have always practiced things such as fasting.  It is a very small taste of suffering that helps us learn to put others ahead of ourselves, to love others, to be more conformed to Christ.  To propose that suffering is somehow something that God will not allow us to endure is not only unbiblical, it is outright spiritually dangerous.  Of course, many Christians will never experience true tribulation, but the problem here is the assertion that somehow all Christians will be removed from it at some point in time.

To close, I will need to add one more aspect of the pre-tribulation rapture related to this escape from suffering concept that I find, at the very least, to be a sad thing to witness.  The people I know who are very heavily into this teaching seem to focus on the notion that the coming tribulation is bad, and if you want to escape it you should become a Christian.  While warnings of dire consequences to the lapsed are hardly unknown biblically, this does not sound much like the Gospel.  Where did Christ say that he was coming so that individuals could escape suffering?  When did Christianity become all about punishment and reward?  The Gospel message of the pre-tribulation rapture is that you better become a Christian or else you will suffer.  The message of the Gospel is that you will become a Christian and suffer, but you should fear not.  “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.” (Matthew 10:28).  According to Blessed Theophylact, “Those who slay accomplish the destruction of only the body, while they are perhaps the benefactors of the soul.”  Christianity is about having life, and having it abundantly, not about avoiding pain and suffering.  It is about being united to Christ, not avoiding punishment.  When we turn Christianity into something entirely about punishment and reward then we turn it into another religion.  Love isn’t about punishment and reward.  As Orthodox, we understand that while we strive to become more righteous there is nothing that we do which merits a reward.  While those who adhere to a belief in a pre-tribulation rapture claim to believe this as well, their views about the rapture seem to indicate otherwise.

 

 

On the Ecumenical Councils

For years after I became actively involved in Christianity again, I had developed a misunderstanding of the nature of the Ecumenical Councils. Part of this can likely be attributed to the influence that conservative Catholics had on my formation at this time. My error was in believing that the role of the Ecumenical Council was to develop new doctrines. To be sure, these doctrines had to flow naturally (whatever that means) from previously held doctrines, but these were new developments. Other Western groups had a more severe understanding, and felt that by and large the councils had the job of creating entirely novel doctrines in many cases. Some groups might accept the doctrine of the divinity of Christ as having been correctly developed, but much else was just erroneous (most notably the proclamations about icons).

It wasn’t until I was becoming Orthodox, and maybe not until after, that I understood that the role of the Ecumenical Council was not to develop anything. Instead, their job was to proclaim with one voice that which had been passed down from the Apostles. Generally, these councils were called to address new “developments” and bring an end to them, not to create them.

This morning, I received the following quote from the Church Fathers Yahoo group, which makes the point nicely:

”…the following remark of Father Florovsky has much to commend it: ‘It will be no exaggeration
to suggest that [Oecumenical] Councils were never regarded as a canonical institution, but rather
as occasional ‘charismatic events.’  That is to say, ‘under the guidance of the Holy Spirit they
have witnessed to the Truth, in conformity with the Scripture as handed down in Apostolic
Tradition.’  What makes them authoritative is that they both ‘bear witness to’ and ‘defend the
truth;’ they do not so much define as express the truth.  This they could not have done without
the antecedent labors of the Fathers, who themselves testified to the same truth that was revealed
to the Prophets and the Apostles.  

Father James Thornton, The Oecumenical Synods of the Orthodox Church, Center for
Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, Etna, CA, 2007, p. 18.”

Attitude Toward the Ancient Church

Virtually all religious groups that align themselves with Christianity make claims about their connection to the early Church. These claims can generally be divided into types – those that claim continuation with the early Church, and those who claim to be restoring the faith to it’s early roots.

The first question is, what is meant by the early roots. Almost always this refers to the Church of the New Testament era, and generally not a day later. Some have asserted that the Church began to fall away almost immediately after the death of St. John the Evangelist. The Anglican Church, however, has tended to make the argument that the Church continued on for a period after the repose of St. John, but later fell into error. More recently, I’ve seen writings by modern groups (most notably Reformed Baptists) that seem to imply that they, too, see the Fathers of the post-apostolic age as continuing on in the doctrine to which these groups adhere. The one thing that all of these groups have in common is that doctrine is the entire definition of the Church. That is, any group holding to the same doctrines as the early Church, are thereby members of that same Church.

Of course, “holding to the same doctrines” is a bit of a tricky question. One has to determine what those doctrines are. To some, all doctrines are contained within the covers of their 66 book Bible. Others, as I mentioned, believe that these doctrines are contained both in Scripture and in the writings of the early Church. There is little effective difference between these two views. In both cases, one needs to come to the text with an interpretive framework that helps you understand the text, and deal with those parts which are either unclear or appear to be contradictory. In both cases, as well, there is no foundation in either Scripture or the writings of the Fathers to hold to the belief. St. Paul, himself, clearly refers to teachings that are not contained solely in his letters, but that were transmitted orally. These teachings are part of the παραδοσισ of the Church. The word, often translated as tradition, refers to that which is handed down. So, the teachings of the Church are part of a larger body of knowledge that has been transmitted, or handed down, throughout the history of the Church. Yes, this includes Scripture, and the Church Fathers, but it also includes the prayers, the hymns, and also an oral tradition.

However, the Church has a much different view of itself. We find that view in St. Paul’s epistles, where the Church is described as the very body of Christ. This is not simply some rhetorical device, its a statement of fact. There is an organic wholeness to the Church. It is certainly the case that holding the same beliefs is a key component to what unites us, but there is also something more. That something more is Baptism and Chrismation. It is through this mystery (the two are done together in the ancient Church, and Orthodoxy has preserved this), that we are united to Christ, and therefore united to the Church. In the traditional forms of the Baptism service, either the Godparent or the new member are asked to state three times that they unite themselves to Christ. This, then, points to another aspect of being united to the Church. It is through our will (or those appointed to speak for us), and therefore we must have the capacity to depart as well. Historically, this, of course, has happened, and the Church has had to decide how to bring those who have left back in, if they so desire. Frequently, this is through Chrismation, as the Church has always been very concerned to not baptize anyone more than once.

So, the only way to be truly connected to the early Church is doctrinally and temporally – that is, being physically and spiritually part of that body which has existed since Christ established it. Realistically, any other approach is simply man made.

 

A Challenge from the Canons

I need to more frequently catch up on available podcasts over at Ancient Faith radio. I hadn’t realized what a treasure a series by Deacon Michael Hyatt is. The information is all good, but there is the occasional special gem that you hear. While listening to his series on the Council of Nicea, I was struck by one of the Canons of the Council of Nicea that deals with people who fell away from the faith, but not by compulsion (basically, who sacrificed to idols with only the social pressure to do so). Here is the Canon:

 

CONCERNING those who have fallen without compulsion, without the spoiling of their property, without danger or the like, as happened during the tyranny of Licinius, the Synod declares that, though they have deserved no clemency, they shall be dealt with mercifully. As many as were communicants, if they heartily repent, shall pass three years among the hearers; for seven years they shall be prostrators; and for two years they shall communicate with the people in prayers, but without oblation.

 

The hearers were basically like the catechumens. They could attend the liturgy until the deacon called to close the doors, then they had to leave. As prostrators, they had to kneel outside the church, begging the faithful to forgive them. Notice they had to do this for seven years. Not seven weeks, not seven months, but seven years! I’m not sure how many people would be willing to do this these days (especially me). Most would probably wander down the road to the local non-denominational where a quick sinner’s prayer would do the job.