Authority and Idolatry

Authority and Idolatry

Recently I’ve been challenged to think about the role images play in the Christian church. I notice a lot of Orthodox and Catholic polemicists against Protestants in particular discuss the importance of the seven ecumenical church councils. By this they really are placing emphasis on the last, the second council of Nicea which validates the use of images in church.

Imagery came up again in reading William Dalrymple’s “From the Holy Mountain” which details his travels through the Middle East in the footsteps of John Moschos back in the 6th century. Whilst travelling through the Syria of the mid 90’s he comments on John of Damascus, known for defending the use of images whilst living under Islamic rule. I’ve haven’t read the ‘Fount of Wisdom’ but John’s (the latter of the two mentioned) peculiar and unique situation made him and his views something I’ve been curious about. The only quotation I’ve found of his on images, without access to any writings directly reads the following..

Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honour is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.

We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.

St. John of Damascus

I think the comparison of the cross is potent namely because many Protestants have no issue with displaying a cross in church, or even wearing one. In fact I know of few aside from the Puritans et al who’d have an issue with this. Particularly because in the example given the worship is directed towards God alone. The contention however lingers on the term ‘venerate’ namely because it is a word rarely used in the everyman’s English language and is synonymous with worship. For John to say he venerates instead of worships images is akin to stating that he lingers in the bath instead of soaking. It is largely a linguistic phrasing without a substantive difference to the everyman.

Despite disputing of the term veneration, to be honest if we are referring to images of God alone the harm that can be done in any confusion is minimised. What is questionable however is in John’s example of the cross. Detractors of Protestantism accuse us of worshiping the Bible but in the case of Orthodoxy or Catholicism in a literal sense this is much closer to the truth. In the venerations of objects of worth; crosses, gospels, bread, wine and even the images and appendages of the departed there are actions involved. Bowing, kissing, prayer these are all ultimately directed to God we are told. Yet at the same time I have detractors of Protestantism say it is too cerebral, too internal and does not inhabit the body. This is why an Eastern or Latin Christian might stand a particular way or face a particular direction in prayer and I would confess that their is some truth to the criticism of Protestantism in this case. Yet by this reasoning if we enact worship with our bodies their is a disconnect when we say that our exhibition of this behaviour to created objects is not in fact worship because of some interior difference.

Whatever you or your church believes on this the interesting thing to me is the emphasis placed on it. The theology at work behind the second council of Nicea seems to be largely about the nature of the incarnation and the redemption of the physical world through the work of God. This is absolutely important and Protestants do uphold this. The linking of the issue however to the veneration of specific objects and images is an issue that, depending on your view of the Eastern or Latin Church is linked to a persons salvation pushes this beyond the immediate theological dispute into something more. More in that it ceases to be about the immediate flashpoint issue of idolatry and instead about authority.

The issue of authority becomes central because it is not enough that a Protestant hold to a particular view of the incarnation and God’s work in the world. It is the idea that truth is ultimately vested in an institution. I mention this more so after listening to an episode on ‘Non-Mainstream Christianity’ (Part 2c) from the podcast ‘Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy’ in which Eastern Orthodox Fr. Stephen Damick, having detailed several cults highlights the trouble of adhering to an institution other than the Orthodox church. That discerning for yourself the truth is the same process by which a heretic might by lead to set up their own church. That even though you might have good intentions, others might exploit this same ‘mechanic’ for their own gain. Such is the history of Protestantism.

In this light the claims of a historical council are less important to the everyman than the point of adhering to the council itself. Truths pertaining to right, wrong and salvation slip into the guise of an institution. Dostoevsky in the Brother Karamazov touches on the friction of this in his short story ‘the Grand Inquisitor’. The story itself  reflects the actual life of Christ and echoes the plight of the Old Testament prophets over and against the idolatry of an unbelieving Israel. The thread through all of this is that truth can transcend an apparent authority.

Yet when confronted with an unbelieving world we cannot escape the question that Pilate confronted Christ himself with “What is truth?”. The serpent similarly challenged Eve with the question “Did God really say…?”. The serpent is worse of the two because he did not deny God but gave grounds for Eve to live outside her creators will. The temptation exists to desire that God had taken away such freedom from Adam and Eve. Just as the Church in the tale of the Grand Inquisitor took the freedom from humanity.

Oh, never, never, will they learn to feed themselves without our help! No science will ever give them
bread so long as they remain free, so long as they refuse to lay that freedom at our feet, and say: “Enslave, but feed us!” That day must come when men will understand that freedom and daily bread enough to satisfy all are unthinkable and can never be had
together, as men will never be able to fairly divide the two among themselves. And they will also learn that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, miserable nonentities born wicked and rebellious. Thou has promised to them the bread of life, the bread of heaven; but I ask Thee again, can that bread ever equal in the sight of the weak and the vicious, the ever
ungrateful human race, their daily bread on earth? … True, they are vicious and rebellious, but we will force them into obedience, and it is they who will admire us the most. They will regard us as gods, and feel grateful to those who have consented to lead the masses and bear their burden of freedom by ruling over them–so terrible will that freedom at last appear to men!

– Excerpt from The Grand Inquisitor by Dostoevsky  

The Grand Inquisitor gives his reason for acting and believing such in that he is acting in the service of the serpent. Did God then, being himself and not the serpent, give Adam and Eve the ‘burden of freedom’ to act as they would? Aldous Huxley in Brave New World touches on this idea in his own way when he details an exchange between the ‘Savage’ and Mustapha Mond.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

– Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I guess it is too Protestant of me to say that the ability to ‘claim them all’ that the Savage describes is an intrinsic part of a inherited Christian worldview and in their own way gifts of God.

In closing, I can’t help but be reminded, when thinking of idolatry and authority but be reminded of Daniel chapter 3. Daniel and his peers knew that God was able to save but would not crave to the pressures of this authority that made such demands of them. When I think about Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace I think of Tyndale who, like Daniel and his friends, went to the flames willingly but unlike them won a martyrs crown. In both instances it is faith in God alone that is the bulwark against authority whether temporal or spiritual. We know that God is able to rescue, but even if he should not we can say to the world “we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up”.

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The Prayer of the Weak and the Joy of Singing Psalms

The Prayer of the Weak and the Joy of Singing Psalms

TheWeeFlea.com

Imagine that God had given us a hymn book? – one with his words.  One that revealed his character.  One that expresses our emotions and hearts in words that the Holy Spirit inspires.  One that speaks of and to Christ.  One that is traditional, modern, post-modern and contemporary. One that is praise, lament, confession, rejoicing, individual and collective.   What would we give for such a book?    What value would we place on it?   Well he has – the book of Psalms – and yet it appears that many evangelical churches seem to place very little value on it.   I genuinely don’t understand churches that don’t sing psalms – apart from Ps 23 and those like 10,000 Reasons (based on Ps 103) that draw inspiration from them.

I think for me I would find it almost impossible to go to a church that did not use the…

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Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over,
The bending poplars, newly bare,
And the dark ribbons of the chimneys

Veer downward; flicked by whips of air,

Torn posters flutter; coldly sound
The boom of trams and the rattle of hooves,
And the clerks who hurry to the station
Look, shuddering, over the eastern roves,

Thinking, each one, ‘Here comes the winter!
Please God I keep my job this year!’
And bleakly, as the cold strikes through
Their entrails like an icy spear,

They think of rent, rates, season tickets,
Insurance, coal, the skivvy’s wages,
Boots, school-bills, and the next instalment
Upon the two twin beds from Drage’s.

For if in careless summer days
In groves of Ashtaroth we whored,
Repentant now, when winds blow cold,
We kneel before our rightful lord;

The lord of all, the money-god,
Who rules us blood and hand and brain,
Who gives the roof that stops the wind,
And, giving, takes away again;

Who spies with jealous, watchful care,
Our thoughts, our dreams, our secret ways,
Who picks our words and cuts our clothes,
And maps the pattern of our days;

Who chills our anger, curbs our hope,
And buys our lives and pays with toys,
Who claims as tribute broken faith,
Accepted insults, muted joys;

Who binds with chains the poet’s wit,
The navvy’s strength, the soldier’s pride,
And lays the sleek, estranging shield
Between the lover and his bride.

St. Andrew’s Day, 1935 – George Orwell

Pushed up into the world

Pushed up into the world

Over the last few years I’ve been noticing a particular shift in my beliefs. I don’t know why, because it isn’t intentional and it feels in many ways out of my control. What seems right or decent today is something I’m not sure the me a decade or even five years ago would necessarily agree with. A decade ago I was more ‘principled’ I believed in rights or values that were universal. I believed society should be organised along those rights and values applying them without consideration to all people. Yet in many ways whilst this is admirable I’ve increasingly seen such things enacted or enforced by those in authority, in power to pressure smaller groups, increasingly individuals, to fall in line. These principles don’t have to be popular they just have to be ‘right’ to those with the ability to enact change.

Today I increasingly see the value in community, in immediacy and the particular. That is an intrinsic part of being British, in our politics we don’t have a constitution like the US, we have a tradition. It’s not always for the ‘best’ but love it or hate it this is who we are, and if we don’t like it we acknowledge that and change it but we cannot forget who we are. This is why the blind insistence on ‘British values’ by politicians in trying to combat extremism is so asinine. The very attempt is an exercise in denigrating who we are by conjuring up vague, ahistorical and generalised principles that we should fall in line with. What is being British? In reality it has a great more to do with Tolkein’s ‘Hobbits’ than Parliament’s ‘Values’. Who we are is a particular thing more rooted in our history, culture, habits and language than any abstraction. Abstraction is what we have been seeing increasingly in the tail end and conception of the 20th and 21st centuries which has gone hand in hand with a diminishment of individual liberty.

From my own perspective, this change is a shift of seeing the good in the world not as something pushed down on the world but instead as something pushed up into the world. It starts with the individual, family and what they produce is important. They produce beliefs, aesthetics, languages and homes. They might be good, they might be bad but an abstraction of the truth does not determine this. Truth isn’t abstract but grounded in the particular, there is a reason Christ was born to Mary, died on a Roman cross and rose again. These things are increasingly being treated by the world as incidental or even optional but they are not, they’re important. Truth is ultimately found in Christ, nothing else. It can’t be abstracted, it can’t be divorced from Christ and his particulars. We live in an age where we are taught that secularism is value neutral, this is a lie. Secularism is a relativising notion that supplants any truth for the authority of the state. A Monarch in that sense is more honest in their particularity of beliefs and convictions, just as you can be an honest opponent or supporter for your own differing reasons. The contemporary secular state by contrast claims it has no time for the particulars of right or wrong and instead seeks to universalise, to homogenise. In place of truth is pure commerce and the erosion of anything other than the facilitation of the state and its financing.

This particularism is the natural outworking of position that prioritises a love not just of home but the land itself. We should care about our environment because it’s not only our home but our sustainer. Environmental abuse is nearly always perpetrated by those who have no attachment to the land being abused. This is most applicable to the natural environment, but I believe increasingly it applies to our social and cultural environments. None of these are sustainable in our current circumstances. We are fortunate in that social and cultural environments are inevitable and should old ones be supplanted new ones will be founded. Yet this is to say nothing of the cost of loss passed on to a community in the event of such a thing.

As a result of this change I realise I don’t really believe in things like ‘human rights’ anymore and the statement ‘we hold these rights to be self-evident’ in the US constitution I think are based on a faulty premise. Yet as a Christian I know certain behaviour is warranted of me by God that might constitute something akin to human rights but that the language is not helpful. Economically I subscribe much more to something like Distributism these days. I feel like I have a greater respect for other cultures and languages and how we communicate the kingdom of god to various cultures becomes a much more important consideration. I’m interested in how that has been done historically in addition to being much more passionate about my own history, the good and the bad. People do matter, but the term people is too abstract. My neighbour matters.

Responding to Orthodox criticism of Sola Scriptura

Responding to Orthodox criticism of Sola Scriptura

I’ve recently started listening to the Ancient Faith Radio (an Eastern Orthodox podcast network) series ‘Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy‘. This is done by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and compares Eastern Orthodox doctrine to other beliefs.

For the most part I’ve found it an interesting listen on the differences between Roman and Eastern Christian beliefs (I’m only seven episodes in as of writing). So far I’m less surprised by the points I disagree with him, but I am surprised by the points on which I generally agree.

Episode seven of the podcast addresses what is known as the ‘Magisterial Reformation’. This is what most people think of when they imagine the Reformation. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli all get mentions including the Anglican Church and the five Sola’s of the reformation. Fr. Andrew being Eastern Orthodox disagrees with the Protestant view but his assessment of the doctrines I feel is particularly deficient. In fact it is deficient enough to actually write down the reasons as to why, partly so I can process this response in a manner outside of my own mind in order to see if my views bear out.

Early on in Fr. Andrew’s description of Sola Scriptura he states that the principle fails at the first hurdle because the principle itself is found nowhere in scripture. Yet this highlights a belief that Protestants subscribe to a form of circular reasoning emerging from the text itself. This isn’t true, Protestants do not hold to scripture but the view that what it contains is trustworthy. We trust scripture because it is an authoritative window on the life, identity, work and implications of Christ as depicted by his apostles and prophets. In addition, the outworking of the miraculous in the lives of those contained within are taken as signs of divine assent, the greatest of which being Christ’s conquering of death. We do not trust a text but the reliability of what the text depicts.

Fr. Andrew however builds on his view of Sola Scriptura by highlighting that whilst scripture is one thing, how we interpret something  can vary massively, as is highlighted by the differing beliefs of all the major reformation churches. He effectively upholds the old claim that the Protestants here have exchanged the Pope singular for making ourselves Popes plural. That we are interpreting scripture in our own image.

This claim of Fr. Andrew however is forcing an overly narrow understanding of the Protestant theological outlook. We recognise that we are fallible, that just as St Augustine or St John Chrysostom might of been correct in some things doesn’t mean they were always right. Yet this is not to say we should cease from making any and all truth claims. Just as we might make one claim, there is the honest likelihood that others might disagree and this is where the separate churches emerge amidst the peculiarities of cultural and political norms of the period. Personally I do not believe the reformers were definitively ‘right’ I just believe they were more right than wrong. The degree to which they are right is in the degree of faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The approach taken by Fr. Andrew however feels like it teeters on an almost Post-modern rejection of ‘truth’ altogether. In place of truth is pure authority in the absence of understanding.

There is also a degree to which however Fr. Andrew opens Eastern Orthodoxy up to criticism here too. If scripture is not sufficient, the tradition must step in to support and help frame it. Yet the root criticism that we cannot genuinely know or interpret scripture can be applied to the interpretation of tradition and the decisions of various councils. Even in this matter Eastern Orthodoxy is not without schism and disagreement, the division with the Roman church being the most obvious example. I could not help but feel that Fr. Andrew’s framing of such divisions, particularly with the Roman and Eastern church was more about who was going to be ultimately recognised as the preeminent authority on tradition and that in such arrangements there could be no ultimate reconciliation. Fr. Andrew says as much in this episode. I confess we all must have our lines which we cannot cross but to somehow put the Protestants in a box in which they alone in being unable to faithfully understand or interpret what they consider sacred seems to be inconsistent.

At the beginning of the Podcast series Fr. Andrew compares the exercise he and the listeners are about to undertake as similar to; a mathematician checking his proofs or a scientist interpreting their data. That ultimately he is convinced of Eastern Orthodoxy because of its ‘truths’. Yet this is precisely what he argues the Protestants are guilty of at the time of the reformation in this episode. This is the process of examining the evidence before them and using their own judgement and reason to discern truth. This is to say nothing of history and theology being less of a science than the aforementioned things. Consistently Eastern Orthodoxy is presented as something not true because an individual is convicted of such a thing but because of its episcopal traditions and councils. This is truth taken on Authority, not reason. The contrast I think is reflected in the well-known exchange between William Tyndale and a Catholic depicted in Foxe’s book of Martyrs.

The clergyman asserted to Tyndale, “We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” Tyndale responded: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”

John Foxe, “Chap XII”, Book of Martyrs.

The claims to authority are emphasised to a greater degree where Fr. Andrew later negatively conflates the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scripture with the view that we must constantly revise our understanding of scripture in light of new archaeological discoveries that shed light on a relevant era. I would agree with this but see it as a positive thing, I believe scripture ultimately communicates truth, that truth is totally contingent on historical events. Paul himself wrote “And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.”. He later goes on to specify that was a literal event in the same passage, yet if it turned out Christ had not really been raised then I would need to reevaluate my trust of scripture. I do not think Fr. Andrew would necessarily disagree here but I feel it is something of an own goal for the point he is trying to make. Ultimately, whether we want to or not we are accountable for our decisions and interpretation of what is true and what is false based on how we make sense of the world. What defines the historical Protestant movement is an insistence that ultimately scripture is the highest authority.

In relation to my own tradition, Fr Andrew makes the point that the original Anglicans upheld ‘scripture, tradition and reason’ as their guiding lights. Whilst he correctly highlights that we have since deviated from such a thing (for shame) I cannot help but associate myself with those convictions. Scripture is my highest authority, I respect the councils and fathers of the church that compiled and gave us the Bible yet acknowledge they are fallible. On some points they took things too far or I do not think they were right. Many Orthodox and Catholics look back on the some of the writings of someone like Origen, Augustine or even Tertullian in potentially similar ways. Even in scripture Peter is shown to be fallible at times in his judgement and actions. I think the Orthodox do a lot that is right and I associate with them in some ways more than with my liberal counterparts. Yet ultimately Fr. Andrew gives an deficient account of the faith of the reformers in his summation. The reformation has created a great many issues reflected in the profusion of different theologies that have emerged over time in the west since the split from Rome. Some of the pentecostal and prosperity preaching I see today in particular just makes me want to sack the whole thing in. Yet I look back to the faith of the reformers, I look back to the early church and take heart. I’m thankful for the lives and witness of these saints and ultimately they inspire me to believe that the situation today isn’t beyond redemption, God willing.

As a final point I want to add that there was no transcript available of the talk so if I have taken anything out of context, or misunderstood it in any way I ask for forgiveness.

Amusing myself to death

Amusing myself to death

I’ve been struggling for some time in knowing where I fit in with Christianity. I know I am a Christian of some sort. It is God’s truth, love, wisdom and beauty that keep me going, outside of it I am nothing. Despite this the conflict between my personal convictions and trying to work them out have been giving me a level of cognitive dissonance that is hard to reconcile. So much so that I have become aware that I’ve been closing up in regard to seeking to express my faith confidently amongst unbelievers and believers alike.

As a Protestant I adhere to Sola Scriptura, yet I have been struck by my own historical ignorance and the clash that contemporary evangelicalism has with the church of history. It seems naive to cling to the Bible but to reject entirely any respect for the context out of which it was collated and propagated. To uphold the Bible abstracted from its historical context is bookish, abstracted and dry. I am also tired of verses being taken out of context to promote some new angle on scripture that is marketed to the faithful on backs of emotionalism and the personal brand of celebrity pastors. As a balance I increasingly can’t help but value the input of the Church Fathers have on the scriptures and admire the fruit of their convictions that is born out in the accounts of their lives.

I’m also increasingly drawn to the ideas caught up in what might be known as Sacramentalism. Not too long ago I listened to a discussion on worship in which a Charismatic minister stressed the different ways people encountered God in worship. These are the sacraments, preaching and singing. In his own tradition it was the singing, in more reformed churches it was the preaching and in the more traditional churches it was the sacraments. I agree with him on this but I don’t see a scriptural argument for the emotionalism and hype given to singing in charismatic churches. On preaching, Lord knows that the quality of preaching can vary dramatically from one person to the next, and these days thanks to the internet you don’t even need to go to church for decent preaching. Yet a focus on the sacraments takes the focus off us and onto God. It cannot be packaged and sold like singing and preaching and has the added advantage of being explicitly commanded by Christ himself.

Despite this all I know is the Evangelical world. I’m still one deep down and thought I could straddle both worlds in something like the Church of England. Yet the hounding of people like Philip North and the entire principle of ‘Good disagreement’ are things I increasingly just don’t associate with what I see in scripture. In that sense Orthodoxy and Catholicism I commend for their adherence to and championing of what they believe is the truth, even if I disagree with aspects of it. In many ways I really wish I could become one and the fact that theres an impasse, an inability to reconcile really twists me up inside.

So what do I do? I don’t know, thats the problem. I increasingly turn to distracting myself from these issues. I try to focus on other things than; the sadness of what the CoE is, the inability to talk about things like church history with my peers, the cognitive dissonance I experience in church, the fact that I no longer agree at all with a female priesthood, having female friends who are ordinands, the fact that every day I listen to audio devotionals from orthodox and protestant ministers back to back, I turn down requests to play in the band at church because I am more interested in exploring plainsong, sacred harp and psalm singing, the fact that despite all this I can’t shake the sincere belief that some of the catholic and orthodox practices are wrong. Where do you fit in? It’s easier to watch TV, love your wife, play games, read, throw yourself into work and go to the gym. The position feels untenable and I have no idea what God is asking me to do with all of this, I could be wrong or right in any number of ways but that doesn’t matter if you don’t do anything with them. Distraction is not healthy in the long term, but in the short term it makes the heavy tension bearable.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Do Not Be Anxious to Be Modern In Theology

Reformedish

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

(Ecclesiastes 1:9-12)

If we had to classify the Teacher of Israel, it’s fairly clear he was not a modern.

Commenting on some of the defining marks of the theory of progress and the heart of the modern, Peter Leithart notes:

“The theory of progress rests on the notion that there is a cut in time between all that went before and what comes after the beginning of modernity. Modernity establishes itself by digging a monumental ditch, a ‘great divide,’ between the past and the present, between those still living in the past and those who are fully in touch with the possibilities of the present. The modern distinction of us and them and the boundaries that accompany it map out the world as modernity sees it. Modernity is an act of cartography, a zoning operation, an exercise in ‘chrono-politics.'”

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