Tag Archives: Orthodoxy

Impressions of “The Orthodox Christian Church: History, Beliefs, and Practices,” by Peter Bouteneff

I recently read Dr. Peter Bouteneff’s overview of Orthodox Christianity, The Orthodox Christian Church: History, Beliefs, and Practices. I had previously read Medieval Christianity: A New History about Catholicism, as well as Wrestling the Angel about Mormonism. Bouteneff does a brilliant job comparing the theology of Orthodoxy to both Catholicism and Protestantism. The continuity of the Orthodox with the Catholic tradition, combined with the affection of many early protestants for thinkers still revered by the Orthodox like John Chrysostom — and of course the skill of the author — make this straightforward. Many of the differences strike one as a change in emphasis (whether the Trinity is emphasized as being One-God-in-Three-Persons or Three-Persons-in-One-God, for example), pastoral practices (emphasizes a holistic imitation of Christ or an enumerated list of deeds to perform or not), and yet-to-be-unpacked legacies of linguistic fossils (such the specific formulation of Mary’s conception without sin, taught by both Catholics and Orthodox).

More interesting to me were the ways in which the Orthodox Church seems to be a version of the Catholic Church that never experienced the Middle Ages. (This can be rephrased as saying the Catholic Church is an Orthodox Church that experienced the Middle Ages). Three medieval waves that affected Medieval western Christianity — the Friars, the Councils, and the Counter-Reformation — simply did not occur. A fourth difference — the humiliating surrender of the Orthodox Church to the Turks – is totally elided by Bouteneff. Another phenomenon — the difference in what constitutes the "Scriptures" between the Orthodox and other Christians — is likewise left out.

The Reforms

The Friars were a reform movement based on evangelization that arose in the 13th century. Separated into different orders with different focuses — the Franciscans, Scholastics, and Dominicans — the friars emphasized evangelization and living the Gospel. Instead of stationary monks praying on a cycle, the friars would engage with heretics, care for the poor, and let their service to Christ through good works be viewed by all. This obeyed Christ’s great commission, where he asked his followers to make "disciples of all the nations":

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Amen.
Matthew 28:16-20

Christ’s specific commands require being a better individual, spreading, the Gospel, and serving others. The friars’ focus on the Great Commission was an intentional attempt to rebalance these three, after the long middle ages where self-improvement through the glorification of God in prayer had become almost the exclusive focus on Christianity. Orthodoxy was not affected by the friars reform movement at the time, and throughout Bouteneff’s book service and teaching are barely mentioned.

Likewise, the Orthodox Church was unaffected by the Counter-Reformation, a Catholic movement aimed at correcting the abuses of an increasingly centralized church — a situation that did not exist on the ground for the Orthodox. The Counter-Reformation’s focus on the Bible as a foundation to the faith was a useful tool for clearing away corrupt practices, such as the selling of indulgences or the Vatican charging for the use of specific paper in letters written to it. But it also lead to a loss of very old traditions that the Orthodox retain. The cycle of Saint Anne from the Protoevangeliun, for instance, is almost completely missing from Catholic churches but a focus of the Liturgy in Orthodox parishes.

Bouteneff does not describe why this difference exist. The history of western Christianity barely exists in this text (even as a mechanism for giving reader context). But if I had to chose a cultural source of the difference, I would put it at Pope Innocent III. Orthodox readers may know Innocent as the Pope who organized the Fourth Crusade. But Innocent also brought the Holy Roman Empire to heel, as well as used the power of the papacy to address local corruption in this west. Innocent’s organizational and political brilliance, whatever else one thinks about him, changed the nature of the Papacy forever. It created a central mechanism (or opponent) for all future reform movements — the Bishop of Rome — and by investing the Papacy with its own political power, allowed it also to become a meaningful source of corruption.

Orthodoxy had neither this opportunity nor this risk. During the Byzantine era, the Orthodox Church was a tool of the state. Afterwards, during the Ottoman era, the Orthodox Church was a tool of a Muslim state. The Orthodox Church has spent less than a century spread throughout nations in a manner similar to what the Catholic Church has spent 2,000 years. This is not trivial.

The Councils

The Orthodox and Catholic Churches make near-identical claims about themselves (both represent the One Catholic and Apostolic Church Christians across the world pray for), and generally recognizes the legality (if not the legitimacy) of ecclesiastical claims made by the other. The split is driven largely by politics, and how the method of meeting to resolve disputes — Councils — should be understood. The first Council, in Jerusalem, occurred shortly after the death of Christ when the relationship of Christianity to gentiles was discussed. After "the apostles and the elders came together to discuss [a particular] matter," the Acts of the Apostles records this resolution:

Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren.

They wrote this letter by them:

The apostles, the elders, and the brethren,

To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia:

Greetings.

Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, "You must be circumcised and keep the law" — to whom we gave no such commandment — it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.

Farewell.
Acts 15:22-29

The text states the "whole church" chose to send missionaries and also wrote a letter. But what does it mean for the "whole church" to make such a plan?

  • The Catholic view is that a Council has the ability to speak for the whole Church.
  • The Orthodox view (since the Catholic-Orthodox split int the 15th century) is that a Council’s actions are only valid if it speaks for the whole church.

So which is it? This theoretical difference came to ahead after the Orthodox Church in 1439, when a legally convened Council united the Orthodox and Catholic Churches after a series of confusions and misunderstandings.

Let the heavens be glad and let the earth rejoice. For, the wall that divided the western and the eastern church has been removed, peace and harmony have returned, since the corner-stone, Christ, who made both one, has joined both sides with a very strong bond of love and peace, uniting and holding them together in a covenant of everlasting unity. After a long haze of grief and a dark and unlovely gloom of long-enduring strife, the radiance of hoped-for union has illuminated all.

Let Mother Church also rejoice. For she now beholds her sons hitherto in disagreement returned to unity and peace, and she who hitherto wept at their separation now gives thanks to God with inexpressible joy at their truly marvelous harmony. Let all the faithful throughout the world, and those who go by the name of Christian, be glad with mother catholic church. For behold, western and eastern fathers after a very long period of disagreement and discord, submitting themselves to the perils of sea and land and having endured labors of all kinds, came together in this holy ecumenical council, joyful and eager in their desire for this most holy union and to restore intact the ancient love. In no way have they been frustrated in their intent. After a long and very toilsome investigation, at last by the clemency of the holy Spirit they have achieved this greatly desired and most holy union. Who, then, can adequately thank God for his gracious gifts?’ Who would not stand amazed at the riches of such great divine mercy? Would not even an iron breast be softened by this immensity of heavenly condescension?
Pope Eugene IV, Laetentur Caeli

Later, the Orthodox side — without a further Council — withdrew from the agreement. Indeed, to do so the Orthodox discovered a new doctrine that they had previously rejected, that a Council is not an agent or meeting place of agents of the church — a Council cannot make "the Whole Church" agree, but the actions only become binding if sometime afterwards "the whole Church" agrees. But elsewhere he insists on the validity of the Council of Chalcedon, even though numerous Orthodox national churches do not agree to that council to this day. I do not understand the logic behind this.

The Scriptures

I was disappointed more was not said about what makes the Orthodox definition of Scriptures unique. I have read and enjoyed books which the Orthodox consider to be part of the Bible, such as the Prayer of Manasseh and the Second Book of Esdras. Likewise there are some books accepted by some Oriental Orthodox that are rejected by the mainline Orthodox Church, such as the Book of Enoch. I’m familiar with the Protestant reason for rejection of some Catholic scriptures like The Books of the Maccabees and Book of Tobit, but not why the Orthodox have kept some additional books and rejected others. The difference in the definition of "Scriptures" is briefly mentioned, but no reasons for it are given.

This is especially disappointing as I enjoyed Bouteneff’s description of Tradition as understood by Catholics and Orthodox. Unlike Protestant denominations, the Orthodox churches in their current form were recognizably part of the Catholic Church during the time the Canon was decreed. As such, Orthodoxy-Catholocism was one religion that formed the Bible, not (like the Protestant churches) religions formed from the Bible. Indeed, the first bishops and even the first Pope are active in their offices during the events of the Bible! Thus, the Bible is a subset of the Tradition — those things passed down from ancient times. Bouteneff also describes Tradition in another way, as a method for making sense of the Bible by placing it in its proper context. This made a great amount of sense to me. But the Tradition is ultimately described in more detail and with no attention than the Bible itself — perhaps there is a message in this.

The Turks

The role of reform movements, and the role of Councils, lead to a topic so momentous in its importance that Bouteneff’s complete avoidance of it is shocking: the Turks. The context of literally every Orthodox decision, from and including the repudiation of the Council of Reunion, was under Turkish influence. The "saint" who encouraged apostasy from the rest of Christendom and the end of the common communion of Christians, Mark of Ephesus, was a bishop in an Ottoman town soon eradicated by the Turks. The actions of the Orthodox leadership during the fall of the Byzantine Empire is comparable to the Judenrat under the Nazis.

The waves of reform and counter-reform — of Martin Luther, John Calvin and the Council of Trent — all occurred in societies at least nominally Christian. The rejection of both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation by the Orthodox, by contrast, was pre-decided by the Turks. Even now the first-among-equals of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew, serves only under Turkish law and at Turkish pleasure. The primary seminary in Orthodoxy, Halki, was extinguished by the Republic of Turkey Perhaps Bouteneff is silent to prevent an even greater eradication.

This is not to deny the faith or suffering of the Orthodox during the Turkish centuries — which for the Patriarchate of Constantinople, continue to this day. Rather, it is to recognize that the Orthodox are churches on the cross, like the crucified Nestorian Church of the East, imprisoned by an anti-Christian powers that are hostile to the Gospel. There is literally nothing, at all, from Bouteneff about this. No recognition of any sort of the Turkish influence on the Orthodox community, or of the ongoing consequence of the Turkish captivity. This fault is so grave and monumental that it forces one to question the selection of any topic or fact in this work.

Conclusion

The Orthodox Christian Church: History, Beliefs, and Practices is a fine introduction to the Orthodox churches, Christian communities that split from Rome around five hundred years ago under grave Turkish pressure, but whose history involved only minimal exposure to the Friars, the Pontifical movement, and other aspects that defined the High Middle Ages and the Modern World. Much of the emphasis of the Orthodox Church preserves an older tradition of Christianity and has much to recommend it. But for reasons never discussed or acknowledged, Bouteneff ignores the fundamental fact of Orthodox history — the Turkish captivity — and leaves the consequences of that collective martyrdom to the imagination of the reader.

I read The Orthodox Christian Church: History, Beliefs, and Practices in the Audible Edition.

Impressions of “Eight Homilies Against the Jews,” by Saint John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom was a Doctor of the Church, Ecumenical Father, and Archbishop of Constantinople during the Roman Empire. His sermons were before the Catholic-Orthodox split, and our revered in most mainline Christian traditions. He addresses multiple simultaneously and clearly is concerned for his flock. His writing affirms core Christian beliefs on salvation, and can help Protestants and Catholics understand each other. But he also has falls. His attempt at a disputation against “Judaizers” is only partially coherent on Judaism, and unlike Augustine he appears not to have spoken to Jews about the meaning of the Old Testament.

But First, there’s no getting around this: John Chrysostom’s Against the Jews — a Doctor of the Church and Patriarch of Constantinople — directly and repeatedly blames the Jews for the murder of Christ

Against the Jews

Jesus died for our sins. We are at fault. And Christians more at fault than others, for we know the cost of sin and do it anyway.

In this context, Chrysostom’s words are both ironic and terrifying:

Is it not foolish, then, to show such readiness to flee from those who have sinned against a man, but to enter into fellowship with those who have committed outrages against God himself? Is it not strange that those who worship the Crucified keep common festivals with those who crucified him? Is it not a sign of folly and the worst madness?

Even if this was a truly held theological point, it is no longer a permissible one. The Council of Trent clarified that all sinners share the guilt for the death of Jesus. He died for John Chrysostom’s sins as much as for those of the Jews.

Should anyone inquire why the Son of God underwent His most bitter Passion, he will find that besides the guilt inherited from our first parents the principal causes were the vices and crimes which have been perpetrated from the beginning of the world to the present day and those which will be committed to the end of time. In His Passion and death the Son of God, our Savior, intended to atone for and blot out the sins of all ages, to offer for them to his Father a full and abundant satisfaction.
Catechism of the Council of Trent Article IV, Part 2, ‘Reasons why Christ Suffered’

In the same sub-part, it is clear that Christian sinners suffer more guilt for the death of Christ than the Jews:

This guilt seems more enormous in us than in the Jews, since according to the testimony of the same Apostle: If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory; while we, on the contrary, professing to know Him, yet denying Him by our actions, seem in some sort to lay violent hands on him.

But even if Chrysostom was gravely wrong about the guilt of the Jews, his target was not actually people who we would call Jews!

Against the Judaizers

There seems to have been a Messianic movement in Christianity that called itself Jews, but kept up animal sacrifices and many of the Jewish festivals in the Bible. When Chrysostom attacks the so-called “Jews” for these sacrifices he’s entirely right! Using only the Old Testament, he successfully disputes the claim of these “Jews” that they are following Jewish law

And that is the reason why God commanded sacrifice [in Jerusalem] only: you have heard the Law that has now been read among us — it runs as follows: “For they shall bring their sacrifice to the doors of the Tent of Witness” — and it goes on to add the reason: “So that they will not sacrifice their idols and to the vain things which which they themselves engage in prostitution.”

Chrysostom is completely correct here. No branch of Judaism practices animal sacrifices outside of Jerusalem. Indeed, the Christian sacrifice is qualitatively different than the Jewish one. And while much of Christianity is is continuous with Second-Temple Judaism, the requirement for recurrent animal sacrifices is not one of them.

That said, much of Chrysostom’s attacks on Jewish-style ritual seems hyperbolic. This passage is emblematic: in two sentences Chrysostom incorrectly states that all Jewish festivals are forbidden outside Jerusalem, and that Jews would never control Jerusalem again:

I did enough to complete my task when I proved from all the prophets that any such observance of ritual outside Jerusalem is a transgression of the Law and sacrilege. But they never stop whispering in everybody’s ear and bragging that they will get their city back again.

Against Salvation by the Law

Chrysostom is on much stronger ground on another area: a firm rejection of both “works of the law” and “faith as a mental state only.” Certain passages read like they could be directly lifted from Reformation-era writers.

That he has justified our race not by right actions, nor by toils, nor by barter and exchange, but by grace alone. Paul, too, made this clear when he aid: “But now the justice of God has been made manifest independently of the Law.” But the justice of God comes through faith in Jesus Christ and not through any labor and suffering.”

as well as:

All, then, who run to Christ are saved by his grace and profit from his gift. But those who wish to find justification from the Law will also fall from grace. They will not be able to enjoy the King’s loving-kindness because they are striving to gain salvation by their won efforts; they will draw down on themselves the curse of the Law because from the works of the Law no flesh will find justification,

While others appear to be as “Catholic” as one would expect from this Catholic bishop, 600 years before the schism between east and west:

For their is one defense left to sinners after they have sinned: to confess their sins.

and:

Your good deeds will not only bring praise to you but also rapid release from your sickness. The nobility of your choice will win God to even greater good will; all the saints will rejoice at what you have done; they will pray for you from the bottom of their hearts.

The solution of course is that faith and faithfulness were not distinguished in Greek. Indeed, Chrysostom specifically preaches on the parable of the three servants to make that point. In this parable, a rich man gave us servants money to spend or invest. A foolish servant, who did not try to make any profit, was condemned by the rich man.

Like Paul in The Letter to the Romans, Chrysostom believes that laboring for Christ is categorically distinct from “works of the Law,” a legalistic interpretation of the Torah aimed at maintaining a distinctive Jewish ethnic identity as a matter of religion. The Greek word translated as “faith” or “believe” in English, ” pistis, also means “faithfulness” or “allegiance.” For instance, a venture capitalist who provides start-up capital to a new company would call that company’s director “faithful” if he can turn a profit on the money.

Then each of us will be able to hear those happy words: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; because you have been faithful over a few things I will set you over many; enjoy into the joy of your Master’

Both the Apostle Paul and Archbishop Chrysostom assumed what Reformation-era debaters on both side did not realize: the emotionally charged argument over “faith” from the beginning of the modern era was not a question of belief or works, but of whether a divine Rule of Law would save one from a Divine Judge. As in Samuel or Solomon, the answer was obviously not. John Chrysostom, who also wrote in Greek, displayed the same unity of understanding about faith.

And I say to you what Paul said to the Galatians: “Become like me, because I also have become like you.” What does this mean? He was urging them to renounce circumcision, to scorn the Sabbath, the feast days, and all the other observances of the Law.

It is this focus on splittism, dividing up one faith along sectarian lines, that drove both Paul’s and Chrysostom’s attacks on reforming Judaizers of their day. I suspect Chrysostom shares my view of both the Catholic-Orthodox split, and the Protestant Reformation:

Moreover, the first thing I have to say to the Judaizers is that nothing is worse than contentiousness and fighting, than tearing the Church asunder and rending into many parts the robe which the robbers did not dare to rip.

and

Fasting at tiffs or that time is not a matter for blame. But to rend asunder the Church, to be ready for rivalry, to create dissension, to rob oneself continuously of the benefits of religious meetings — these are unpardonable, these do demand an account, these do deserve serious punishment.

and finally

So let me finish my discourse at this point, and let us all pray together that our brothers come back to us. Let us pray that they cling fondly to peace and stand apart from untimely rivalry.

Like the money in that parable, good works can produce interest beyond their initial investment.

If somebody else does what you did, you will carry off the reward because it was you who gave him his start, it is you whom he emulated.

The goal of allegiance of Christ is not the ritual celebration of festivals or yearly fasting. These may be tools, but they are not the goal. The goal is to imitate Christ

Why are you a Christian? Is it not that you may imitate Christ and obey his Laws? What did Christ do? He did not sit in Jerusalem and call the sick to come ot him. he went around to cities and towns and cured sickness of both body and soul.

No fasting, no sleeping on the ground, no watching and praying all night, nor anything else can do as much for you as saving your brother can accomplish.

Writing before the debates over the Reformation, and being able to span them through his fluent Greek, he also cuts through another debate: does justification occur organically (by a change in our soul — implying the need for a state or place or cleansing if our soul is not sufficiently clean upon death) or mechanistically (where sins are simply not counted, due to Christ’s saving blood.)

The answer is both, and much more:

To show that David made this whole prophetic prediction in behalf of Christ when he said ‘Sacrifice and oblation you id not desire,’ David went on to say: ‘But a body you have fitted for me.’ By this he meant the Lord’s body which became our common sacrifice for the whole world, the sacrifice which cleansed our soul, canceled our sin, put down death, opened heaven, gave us great many hopes, and made ready all other things which Paul knew well and spoke of when he explained: ‘Oh, the depth of the riches and of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are his judgments and how unsearchable are his ways!’

Against Sin, but for the Sinner

Augustine and Chrysostom go by different ways to build empathy. Augustine’s methods are self-centered — you learn about his childhood, his parents, his job, his friends. Reading Confessions feels like meeting a new friend. The Catholic Church’s strong history of protecting Jews as an intellectual community doubtless owes a lot to Augustine’s personal struggle. It’s one thing ot say that serious interpretation of the Old Testament is necessary to understand Christianity — its another to see a Doctor of the Church reject Christianity as incoherent until Jewish hermenutics are introduced to him!

Chrysostom is completely different. After reading Eight Homilies I don’t know how old he is, how he became Christian, what his friends like to do, or how he came to his opinions. From Chrysostom you can hear the same Christian humanist voice that Pope Francis uses so well in our own day

A human being is worth more than the whole world. Heaven and earth and sea and sun and stars were made for his sake.

John also provides the best homily over the story of Cain and Abel that I ever encountered. Though he uses the Septuagint Bible, which translates some context different, it is so moving:

“Even so, Cain did not listen, he did not stop, he did commit that murder, he did bathe his hands in blood from his brother’s throat. But then what happened? God did not say: ‘Let him go now. What further use in there of in helping him. He did commit the murder, he did slay his brother….’

God neither said nor did anything like that. Instead, he came again to him, corrected him, and said: ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ When Cain said he did not know, God still did not desert him but he brought him, in spite of himself, to admit what he had done…

‘I have committed a sin too great for pardon, defense, or forgiveness; if it is your will to punish my crime, I shall lie exposed to every harm because your helping hand has abandoned me.’ And what did God do then? He said ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain shall be punished sevenfold!… For the number seven in the Scriptures means an indefinitely large number..

And Cain himself became a better man again. His trembling, his fear, the mental torment which never left him, his physical paralysis kept him, as it were, shackled. They kept him from leaping again to any other dead of boldness; they constantly reminded him of his former crime; through them he achieved greater self-control in his soul.”

This focus on pastoral service to individual sinners would largely be lost in the west until it was revived by the Friars. I wonder if this remained in the East and, if so, if its loss in the west was a result of Augustine’s autobiographical (and thus, self-centric) style).

Cain Punished

Chrysostom also is aware he is speaking to multiple audiences simultaneously. For instance, as Patriarch of Constantinople he has priests reporting to him. But as the foremost pastor of Constantinople he is also responsible for the souls of the common people. And as a literary figure his words would be read for centuries.

So he is careful to provide a hermeneutic key, or statement that is literally true, true in context, and true in how the document as a whole should be interpreted. Thus, threats of damnation or Hell must be read as a way to help people act better, and not a sign that God forgets about them

Mothers who love their children also do this: when their children cry, they often threaten to throw them to the jaws of wolves. Of course, they would not throw them to the wolves but they say they will to stop the children from bothering them. Everything Christ did was done to keep us bound together and living at peace with one another.

And just as God came down and was closest to Cain, the emotional meaning of the text is closest to the common believer. While Chrysostom was a pivotal father of not just Christianity in general, but of Orthodox branch in particular, he is careful to praise the common believer, and even flatter him, for good works

If you pour out many words and do everything in your power and still see that he refuses to heed you, then bring him to the priest. By the help of God’s grace the priests will surely overcome their quary. But it will all be your doing, because it was you who took his hand and led him to us.

For Understanding of the Gospel

Like his contemporary Augustine, John Chrysostom appears heavily influenced by Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophy. Thus he looks forward to heaven, correctly, but his goal appears to the pure spiritual life of heaven rather than a reincarnated life on the New Earth

He knew their obstinancy and shamelessnessm, their willfulness and disobedience; he knew that they would not easily choose to give up their former way of life, conducted with sacrifices and burnt offerings, and go toward the higher, more spiritual life of the Gospels

Indeed, Chrysostom appears to believe the “New Earth” is simply a metaphor for a heaven where our old friends the planets no longer exist

We are citizens of a city above in heaven, where there are no months, no sun, no moon, no circle of seasons.

Chrysostom is extrapolating on a passage in The Revelation to John.

The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light.
Revelation 21:23

Now, a lot is going on in this question. St. Thomas Aquinas spends considerable time on it in Summa Theologica. But that the sun is simply a lamp, and in bright places there is no need for it, is hard to agree with. Bright artificial lights can even now evenly illuminate indoor rooms more usefully than the sun. It does not mean the sun is not our Brother, or that we are not happy to be with him.

That said, some of Chrysostom’s inferences are thought provoking. When I first began writing these impressions, I thought that Chrysostom’s conlusion

We read: “Seventy weeks are cut short for your people, no longer does God say: “for my people.”

referring to this passage…

“Seventy weeks are determined
For your people and for **your holy city,
To finish the transgression,
To make an end of sins,
To make reconciliation for iniquity,
To bring in everlasting righteousness,
To seal up vision and prophecy,
And to anoint the Most Holy.
Daniel 9:24*

…seemed arbitrary, until I read the whole chapter, and saw “your people” and “your city” parralleled Daniel’s prayer to God.

“O Lord, according to all Your righteousness, I pray, let Your anger and Your fury be turned away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain; because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Your people are a reproach to all those around us.
*Daniel 9:16

In this context, Gabriel is literally repeating the phrase, but turning its meaning around. I feel like I did the first time I realized cities could be not just holy, but sacred. I don’t agree with Chrysostom’s inteprtation, but he translates correctly and is striking in his explanation.

Wholly absent from Chrysostom’s interpretation are attempts to explain away Bible verses through allegory. This both helps him and hurts him. Famously, Augustine suspected both the “whales” (from the Book of Jonah) and the “fishes” (from the Gospels) were symbols of what actually appeared:

Therefore will I speak before Thee, O Lord, what is true, when ignorant men and infidels (for the initiating and gaining of whom the sacraments of initiation and great works of miracles are necessary, which we believe to be signified under the name of “fishes” and “whales”) undertake that Thy servants should be bodily refreshed, or should be otherwise succoured for this present life, although they may be ignorant wherefore this is to be done, and to what end; neither do the former feed the latter, nor the latter the former; for neither do the one perform these things through a holy and right intent, nor do the other rejoice in the gifts of those who behold not as yet the fruit

As the Scriptures are composed of many genre, this means that sometimes that each hermeneutical approach is acceptable at times. The Book of Jonah reads like a comedy, if not a satire, and an allegorical explanation is only natural. Augustine’s attempts to explain away the miracles of the Gospels, though, perhaps are less admirable.

Unsurprisingly, there are several methods of interpretation which are missing entirely. There are no references to literary genres of the Bible. Temple literature, Canaanite mythology, Second Temple literature are absent from Chrysostom’s methods.

In Biblical times, a “covenant” was an instrument of surrender” dictated by the triumphant power to the weaker power, demanding allegiance in exchange for grace and justification. Contemporary Jews believe there are two operative Covenants in the Hebrew Bible — the Mosaic Covenant and the older Noahide Covenant through which God justifies the gentiles. Many Christians argue the complement, that the Mosaic Covenant is itself complemented by the new and everlasting covenant. Numerous other covenants, both secular and religious, can be identified.

But Chrysostom and Dumbrell make almost opposite errors. Dumbrell insists there is only one covenant. Chrysostom states that while there were old, they have been abrogated and only the new is operational.

Previously saying, “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Hebrews 10:8-10

What is “the first.” The clear meaning is “Sacrifice and offering burn offerings, and offerings for sin.” The second is doing God’s will — having lived faith. Chrysostom (incorrectly identifying the author of Letter to the Hebrews as Paul) writes:

In expalnation of this text Paul said: ‘He annuls the first covenant in order to establish the second.’

Dumbrell goes to the other extreme, arguing there is only one covenant in the entire Bible.

“What this means in real terms is that there is only one biblical covenant, with the end to be reached from the beginning always in view.”
William Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, pg. 8

For Celebration of the Mysteries

In keepng with the Orthodox tradition he would help found, Chrysostom calls Catholic sacraments “mysteries”:

If you approach the altar on the very day of the Sabbath and your conscience be bad, you fail to share in the mysteries and you leave without celebrating the Pasch. But if you wash away your sins and share in the mysteries today, you do celebrate the Pasch in precisely the proper way.

Yet Chrysostom implicitly seems to focus on the need for excitement by the congregation. Though he never explicitly says it, Chrysostom appears to be grant the Judaizers a great compliment: their mass is more accessible to an illiterate or marginal population. He specifically calls out the popularity of Jewish-type rituals for women:

For indeed, I know that most of the crowd that is drawn to go there is composed of women. Now then, the blessed Paul says, “husbands, love your wives”; and again, “The wife should fear her husband.” But I am seeing neither wives’ fear nor husbands’ love.

As well as other marginal populations and social outcasts:

But now that the devil summons your wives to the feast of the Trumpets and the turn a ready ear to this call, you do not restrain the, You let them entangle themselves in accusations of ungodliness, you let them be dragged off into licentious ways. For as a rule, it is the harlots, the effeminates, and the whole chorus from the the theater who rush to that festival.

At least part of the reason is the Jewish-typical festivals are more musical, and more ngaging

But you dsire to hear a trumpet! Then listen to the trumpet of Paul, the spiritual trumpet blaring out from the heavens and saying, “Take up the full armor of God.”

Having once attended a Messianic Synagogue with a friend, these strengths of Judaeo-Christian festivals can still be seen. In the Eastern Churches, John Chrysostom is still credited with having created the contemporary Orthodox Liturgy. The Orthodox Style, with its beauty and ritual, may owe much to Chrysostom’s need to compete with what we would now call a form of Messianic Judaism.

Final Thoughts

John Chrysostom’s Eight Homilies Against the Jews is a complex book. The repeated claim, that the Jews are to blame for the death of Christ, has been explicitly rejected since the Counter-Reformation by the Catholic Church. Perhaps the greatest Greek-speaking Christian intellectual since Paul, Chrysostom’s focus on face, grace, and imitation of Christ help us under salvation by allegiance to Christ, and not the Law. He humanize the Gospel, focusing on God’s love for the sinner and our need to care for each other. He provides a straight-forward, but not literal, interpretation of the scriptures that is a good complement to Augustine’s methods. And of course, he is the father of the Orthodoxy Liturgy.

I read Eight Homilies Against the Jews in the Kindle edition.

Impressions of “Orthodoxy,” by G.K. Chesterton

I previously read The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) and The Everlasting Man (1925) by G.K. Chesterton, so I was interested in Orthodoxy (1908), his description of Christianity. Chesterton falls short of the St. Augustine’s Confessions (400) and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity (1952). Additionally, and oddly, his description of Buddhism is odd, and as this was repeated two decaldes later in Everlasting, I wonder if he relied on some treasured, if incorrect, source. Yet the book is thought provoking, and was not a waste of time.

Confessions is the psychological autobiography of a rich kid finding himself, and finding God. Mere Christianity is an easy to read introduction to very common Christian ideas. Orthodoxy is neither of these. Very little about Chesterton or his life is discussed, but the tone of elevated and somewhat archaic. It feels like a document from another civilization, with rhetorical techniques that seem both clever and artificial.

The best parts of the work are those that tease Chesterton’s later work, The Everlasting Man. There’s some really funny lines about the press, showing that fake news and the quality of news media as the hobbies of the rich were also true a century ago.

This is the tone of fairy tales, and it is certainly not lawlessness or even liberty, though men under a mean modern tyranny may think it liberty by comparison. People out of Portland Gaol might think Fleet Street free; but closer study will prove that both fairies and journalists are the slaves of duty.

Unexpectedly, Chesterton also includes what appears to be an extended defense of the existence of ghosts, noting that the “scientific” conditions demanded by skeptics would fail to include many aspects of human society

The question of whether miracles ever occur is a question of common sense and of ordinary historical imagination: not of any final physical experiment. One may here surely dismiss that quite brainless piece of pedantry which talks about the need for “scientific conditions” in connection with alleged spiritual phenomena. If we are asking whether a dead soul can communicate with a living it is ludicrous to insist that it shall be under conditions in which no two living souls in their senses would seriously communicate with each other. The fact that ghosts prefer darkness no more disproves the existence of ghosts than the fact that lovers prefer darkness disproves the existence of love. If you choose to say, “I will believe that Miss Brown called her fiance a periwinkle or, any other endearing term, if she will repeat the word before seventeen psychologists,” then I shall reply, “Very well, if those are your conditions, you will never get the truth, for she certainly will not say it.” It is just as unscientific as it is unphilosophical to be surprised that in an unsympathetic atmosphere certain extraordinary sympathies do not arise. It is as if I said that I could not tell if there was a fog because the air was not clear enough; or as if I insisted on perfect sunlight in order to see a solar eclipse.

The exact same logic can be used ot defend the existence of “grey aliens” of course… who share many aspects with elves, or demons. This intersection between religion and the paranormal is a hidden theme of The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (2015). Similar themes appear in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength (1945) and Michael Heiser’s The Facade, and the first half of Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites (1967).

Near the end of the book there is a comparison of Buddhist and Christian art. Or there would be one if it was accurate. Chesterton argues that Christian saints are always shown with their eyes open, and that in “Chinese temples,” the saints are always shown with their eyes closed

Even when I thought, with most other well-informed, though unscholarly, people, that Buddhism and Christianity were alike, there was one thing about them that always perplexed me; I mean the startling difference in their type of religious art. I do not mean in its technical style of representation, but in the things that it was manifestly meant to represent. No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real community of spirit between forces that produced symbols so different as that. Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances. The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards. If we follow that clue steadily we shall find some interesting things.

I’ve been in Chinese Buddhist temples, and this is simply incorrect. Buddhist and Catholic sculpture, in particular, often use the same trick of having the statue looking forward and down, so the viewer must kneel and look up to see the statue’s eyes. For example, consider Guanyin the Goddess of Mercy, an amalgamation of a traditional figure in Chinese religion with a historical disciple of the Buddha. The emotional impact to a Chinese Buddhist of looking up at Guanyin’s (the Goddess of Mercy’s) compassionate eyes must be similar to kneeling and looking up at the eyes of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Worse for Chesterton’s argument, just as Mary is often the character of dramatic performances (from nativity plays to more involved medieval passion plays), so is Guanyin. The extension of her many arms, to help every creature, is performed yearly in front of an audience of hundreds of millions on Chinese television (with her eyes open, of course).

Chesterton, attempting to show a difference between Christianity, raises a deeper question: why are non-Christian traditions so like shadows of Christian ideas?  One answer is that it is the devil mocking Christ. Another it is the King of the Universe making straight the way of the LORD. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis argued that such non-Christian depictions of Christian themes are simplified hagiophanies, appearances of the holy, “good dreams” whispered by the Holy Spirit.


Yet that comment about “tradition” brings up another point, and one Chesterton does not spend enough time on. Tradition is the democracy of the living and the dead. In the same way a federal government with checks and powers aggregates different factions to promote the general welfare, preventing any one from being a tyranny, tradition is a block on the tyranny of the age.

But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the
tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with
the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.

So, Orthodoxy is an odd book. In some ways its as inaccessible as Confessions and as impersonal as Mere Christianity. But it is thought provoking. I didn’t expect my review to tough on both UFOs and political philosophy, though here we are. It’d recommend Chesterton’s other books first, and C.S. Lewis before them, but Orthodoxy should be preserved, lest it is forgotten.

I listened to Orthodoxy on unadbridged audible.