Advent with the Church Fathers

An advent reading with Maximus of Turin born in 380 A.D.
An advent reading with Maximus of Turin born in 380 A.D.

For 2000 years the Church has waited expectantly for the coming of Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah, the Prince of Peace. This singular hope has sustained the Church’s witness and nurtured its life since Jesus was first raised from the dead. Since that glorious event, Christians of every generation have sought to remind themselves, and the world, of the hope of his immanent return.

These reminders have often taken the form of sermons and hymns, written mostly by great men (and women!) of the Church, commonly and affectionately known as the Church Fathers. To thicken the texture of your Advent season, The Theologian’s Library would like to share brief excerpts of some of these marvelous sermons with you. We will post a new sermon excerpt daily through Advent so you may add it to your devotional reading. We hope your theological imagination will be quickened and your soul richly blessed by the timely, wise, and enduring words of these heroes of the faith.

Maximus of Turin, Homily 60, 3-4

     Thus, dear brothers, may we who await the birth of the Lord cleanse ourselves of all the remnants of sin! Let us fill his treasuries with many gifts, so that upon the arrival of that holy day we may welcome the strangers, support the widows, and clothe the poor!

“Indeed, what would happen if, in the house of the servants under the same master, one were to proudly don silk garments while another was covered with rags; if one were stuffed with food while another suffered hunger and cold; if one were tormented by indigestion from yesterday’s gormandizing while another could hardly stave off yesterday’s hunger? Or what should the purpose of our prayers be?

May we who are not generous toward our brothers ask to be liberated from the enemy. Let us imitate our Lord! Indeed, if he desires that the poor partake of heavenly grace with us, why should they not partake of earthly goods with us? May those who are our brothers in the sacraments lack no earthly sustenance, even if only so they may give testimony before God on our behalf: may we sustain them and may they give thanks to him. The more a poor man blesses the Lord, the more it will help the one who gives him cause to bless the Lord.”

Blessings this Advent as we prepare for the birth of our Lord!

The Power of Fiction Part 1: Graham Greene, “The Power and the Glory” at 75

Note: This is the first part of a planned 15 part series on the power of fiction. We believe here at the Theologian’s Library that fiction should be read along with theology, philosophy, and all the rest. Fiction has the power to put oneself into the mind and shoes of other people which is a particularly valuable skill for the pastor and cultural interpreter. We hope to give you a solid recommended list of fiction that will improve your preaching and teaching, your understanding of the human condition, and deepen your love of Jesus.

Power and the Glory, Graham Greene, Theology Book Review
Graham Greene’s masterpiece “The Power and the Glory” turned 75 this year.   It is as relevant as ever.

Haunting, apocalyptic and desolate are the three obligatory superlatives that come to mind in thinking over Greene’s masterpiece in its 75th birthday and the mood that Greene creates in its 200-something pages. Time has the novel on its “Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century List” and for good reason. It contains a weight, a gravitas, that is hard to come by in fiction today. Greene’s Catholic faith is well-documented but it is worth reiterating that without it, there is no masterpiece, no Power and the Glory. Take that Christopher Hitches and your “religion poisons everything” the subtitle to his 2007 book, God is Not Great. (By the way, I do miss you Mr. Hitchens. In fact, I should see what you had to say about Greene, I always do value your input on literature, if not so much on questions of faith.) In his forward to the edition that I read, John Updike says that The Power and the Glory is the first novel in which Green’s Catholicism doesn’t feel “tacked on” and somewhat superfluous. Indeed, the specter of genuine faith in the midst of starvation, ruination and hopelessness is what makes Greene’s dodranscentennial novel  (75th birthday) a masterpiece.

During the reading of The Power and the Glory, I googled (yes, it is in the OED, I have just learned) “Graham Greene / Cormac McCarthy” because, having come to McCarthy first, I was struck with the similar apocalyptic-like tones of both of these writers.  Sure enough, Penguin publishing has written in the 75th anniversary edition that Graham’s novel traces its history “back to Dostoyevsky and forward to McCarthy.” The Dostoyevsky comparison is obvious because of the very real, yet grotesque, suffering of the “whiskey priest,” the nameless main character of the novel.

Just a quick side note, having just read Vanhoozer’s Pastor as Public Theologian and traveling to Chicago to hear him at the “Pastor as Public Theologian Conference”, I was surprised that he didn’t list Greene and his “whiskey priest” (the anonymous main character of the novel) as an example of men of the cloth in his survey of popular portrayals of pastors and the negative effect those usually have on religion.  Regardless, I appreciated Vanhoozer’s section on the power of fiction and why ministers need to be reading fiction in order to preach more powerfully and to understand the human condition more deeply. If you are looking to be persuaded that fiction is indeed, important, I would recommend picking his book up.

A little autobiography before I get to the book itself: My only contact with Greene before reading this work was reading his Quiet American (1955) for senior honors English back in the day. I remember writing a paper contrasting the protagonist (Alden Pyle) with —with whom…— Hamlet perhaps? I would love to find that paper and read it. I’m sure it would make me cringe, but many of my writings do that, like I’m sure they do for you as well. It’s like hearing your voice played back to you, no one likes that!

I remember writing that paper in the late evening hours at Homer’s Coffeehouse on 91st and Metcalf in the Kansas City suburbs. It was one of the first times that I realized I thoroughly enjoyed literary criticism and the power of words to speak into the painful realities of everyday life. I remember feeling drawn out of myself —what a tremendous experience!— and catching a glimpse of the world around me, a glimpse that is so hard to grab in the teenage years (and many never grasp it).  Renaissance humanists understood this power, the dunamis of literature to make the present make sense, the power of words written centuries ago to transform this very second. They called it bonae litterae. So Greene was powerful in my early formation and my senior English teacher was as well, giving me the space to discover what those Renaissance rascals meant by that beautiful Latin phrase. I have since reconnected with him in order to tell him so. (I am a bit ashamed to admit it now, maybe I shouldn’t be I don’t know, but it was reading Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg per his recommendation that sent me off on my love of the written word and my love of books in young adulthood. For that, I am eternally grateful.)

Theologian's Library
Laurence Oliver as the whiskey priest in the 1960 adaptation of Greene’s novel.

To the book itself.

A way in to this masterpiece for those unfamiliar comes from the pixels of a recent, but already of classic-status television show. Lovers of Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” will undoubtedly devour The Power and the Glory; there are so many parallels, so many similar scenes. Greene’s novel is set in the heat, desolation and atheism of a 20th century Mexico stripped of its faith by a quasi-communist government (the “red shirts”.) Walter White’s life is set in the emptiness, desolation and meaninglessness of 21st century New Mexico. From the beginning, though, the whiskey priest’s situation looks much more existentially dire than Walter’s. Walter, in the beginning, though confronted with a cancer diagnosis still has a loving family and seemingly stable emotional well to draw from, but his life quickly descends into chaos and both men are forced by circumstances outside of their control to confront their past, and ask how and why both have become who they are and if they care to stay that way.   Walter’s search leads him to create an alter-ego complete with piles of cash, sunglasses and that ridiculous hat to his ignominious end (in the eyes of this writer to be sure). The whiskey priest is lead back into the clutches of the lieutenant who has been hunting him like an animal by the plea of a dying renegade for last rights, knowing that it will signal his martyrdom but unable to evade his “duty” as he refers to it.

One of the most powerful questions posed by Walter and the whiskey priest and why both works of art will be talked about for years to come is, who is a person, really? And what happens when the person that once was becomes so radically different from his past that he becomes unrecognizable? Was he ever that person, or were those years simply an apparition of extended fabrication? That’s the question that the whiskey priest is forced to ask himself over and over in the novel and the answer, he knows, means life or death.   Christianity has been outlawed and so to admit that he, indeed, is a priest and to live that out will be at one and the same time, to find his life and lose it. Therein lies the pull of the novel. Is the whiskey priest more alive when he is living up to his vocation as a minister of God, even though it may end his life, or should he scrap all of that now in order to survive?  The priest wrestles with whether his life is even worth preserving. Is he is doing greater harm to those he comes into contact with as an affront to the idea of God? If this is a man who has represents God, then what do we want with that God? the priest imagines people will say. Hiding out in one of the villages the priest asks himself,

If he left them, they would be safe, and they would be free from his example. He was the only priest the children could remember; it was from him they would take their ideas of faith. But it was from him too they took God – in their mouths. When he was gone it would be as if God in all this space between the sea and the mountains ceased to exist. Wasn’t it his duty to stay, even if they despised him, even if they were murdered for his sake? even if they were corrupted by his example? He was shaken with the enormity of the problem (65).

The authorities have taken to shooting a hostage in every village until the whiskey priest turns himself in. The constant tension between turning himself in as the last hold out priest to save the lives of innocents and continuing to run to preserve his own life and to do the work of God is what gives the novel its immediacy, it’s what turns it into bonae litterae. The whiskey priest knows that he is not a good priest, but he is all that’s left. The bursting of this almost unbearable weight comes, not when the priest has decided to give himself up in order to administer last rights to the dying fugitive, but in his conversation with the lieutenant after he has been arrested.

“You have such odd ideas, the lieutenant complained. He said, ‘Sometimes I feel you’re just trying to talk me round.’
‘Round to what?’
‘Oh, to letting you escape perhaps – or to believing in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints…how does that stuff go?’
The forgiveness of sins.’
‘You don’t believe much in that, do you?’
‘Oh yes, I believe,’ the little man said obstinately” (206).

And so there it is. The priest does truly have faith. He has not been running away simply to survive. He does believe that he is the hands and feet of Christ, that the host does turn in to the body and blood of Jesus and that confession will save people from eternal separation. And so we, the readers, also continue to believe. The little priest has given us his permission. And his life.

-Mark

 

 

An Email from David Bentley Hart

Earlier this year I got the idea to email the acclaimed theologian David Bentley Hart about books. Hart, as you may know, is arguably one of America’s greatest living theologians. While sitting firmly within the Orthodox tradition, Hart evinces thoughtful ecumenical sensibilities and has written powerfully and persuasively on an array of subjects as wide as the Trinity, consciousness and the philosophy of mind, metaphysics, church history, and travel literature. By all accounts Hart is a polymath whose mind is an irreducible gift to the Church catholic. This is my opinion, at least.

Anyway, due to my deep respect for Hart and his work, I desired to know what books he’d recommend to people like myself who are keen to learn more about philosophy and theology and their relationship to one another. So, on a whim, I found his email address and asked him what he’d recommend. He was kind enough to send me the following response which I’ve posted below for your enjoyment.

Dear Ben,
I assume you want basic guides to metaphysics to begin with. Richard Taylor’s Metaphysics (4th edition) is a good introduction to certain classic questions. Two volumes by E. L. Mascall–He Who Is and Existence and Analogy–are excellent guides to Christian metaphysics in the West, as is W. Norris Clarke’s The One and the Many. Avoid Peter van Inwagen: he’s brilliant at confusing things. Perhaps William Hasker’s Metaphysics is good, but I haven’t read it.

As for theology, always start with the fathers: Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Making of Man and On the Soul and Resurrection, Ps-Dionysius Complete Works (a short volume), Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ, Athanasius On the Incarnation, St Isaac of Ninevah’s treatises (especially the “Second Volume”), Maximus the Confessor’s Chapters on Love and the SVS volume “The Cosmic Mystery of Christ.” Don’t bother with Augustine until later, because for all his genius he got so much wrong (because he couldn’t read Greek, in large part). For mediaeval and early modern theology, Symeon the New Theologian’s Mystical Discourses (or whatever it’s called in English), Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind into God, and the Paulist Press volume of Nicholas of Cusa. Thomas Traherne’s Centuries and all three volumes of George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons are indispensable masterpieces. As for modern theologians, Bulgakov’s Bride of the Lamb, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, part IV of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Henri de Lubac’s Supernatural (currently being translated I believe, but if you read French go ahead), Rowan Williams’ Resurrection (2nd edition).

I hope this helps,
David

If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to read any of Hart’s books, allow me to suggest the following two: The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, and his little book of essays entitled, In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments. I hope to review both books, as well as the others in Hart’s repertoire, in the near future.
Happy reading!

Ben

Fleming Rutledge- The Crucifixion

Fleming Rutledge and Justification

A discussion of justification through Fleming Rutledge's new book on the crucifixion.

Fleming Rutledge – The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. Eerdmans, 2015.

This is a good time for the church – there are many women doing great work in theology at the moment. I think of Sarah Coakley’s first volume in her systematics God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay on the Trinity (2013), Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology Vol 1: The Doctrine of God (2015), and Fleming Rutledge’s new book on the crucifixion to name just a few. I’ve read Coakley and return to her often. Her notion of desire has had an impact on my thinking. Desire is that constant pull at the heart that recalls us to our source of existence, the source of goodness, truth, and beauty, God in three persons. This seems to me to be the best apologetic that I have as a Christian. Everyone experiences that pull of desire that hints at a fullness that is missing here in this life and points toward another life. That is not to diminish this one, but to put it in its proper place. We were meant for more. I have not yet read Sonderegger but she has a blurb for Rutledge’s new book where she calls Rutledge one of “America’s premier pastors” and that this book is a must for “every student of the Scriptures.” I picked Rutledge’s book up at the Eerdman’s table at the Center for Pastoral Theologians first conference held in Chicago a couple weeks back.

Rutledge is an Episcopalian priest and while I was initially skeptical of that designation given the sad state of that denomination, the list of those endorsing the book is a veritable who’s-who. Flipping through the three or four pages of endorsements was impressive and I turned to my friend and said anyone who can get both Stephen Westerholm and David Bentley Hart to blurb a book is doing something right! What follows is not a book review in the traditional sense, though that will hopefully follow at some point, but some reflections on Rutledge’s discussion of justification in the eighth chapter of the book, “The Great Assize.” Wrestling with her understanding of it has been fun and deepened my love of the Scriptures.

An “assize” I have learned, is a judicial inquest, and the “great” assize is an allusion to the Day of the Lord, the Final Judgment. For those not enamored by theological happenings, the doctrine of justification has probably been the issue of the last five years for Biblical scholars and theologians alike. This is not the place to engage in a comprehensive overview of that debate but here is a helpful summary of one of the highlights of that debate http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/a-justification-debate-long-overdue. (I was actually privileged to be a part of that discussion, I swiped a lanyard from a table because the conference was sold out and preceded to nervously make my way to the conference room only to find out no one was checking registrations. I do not regret my deception! Haha!)

But to make quick of the matter before getting to Rutledge, I am convinced that when the scriptures talk about “justification by faith” they do not mean how one becomes a member of the family of God. Justification is not the initial moment of salvation but the declaration of God after one has proclaimed that Jesus is Lord. This is widely disputed but, I think, is the correct interpretation of the biblical doctrine of justification, even though I have a great deal of sympathy for those who miss it because Paul often does seem to conflate “salvation” with justification.

To Rutledge:

In “The Great Assize”, Rutledge contrasts a forensic interpretation of justification with an apocalyptic interpretation, clearly rooting and arguing for the latter. (One of the things that is most helpful about N.T. Wright’s massive volume on Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, is that his understanding of God’s “righteousness” as covenant faithfulness seems to do away with having to choose between one or the other and a host of other issues besides. I will come back to that in a later post.) Rutledge’s understanding is guided by the great scholar Ernest Kasaemann and his notion of “apocalyptic.” The fundamental premise of this view is that the righteousness of God is “not a gift so much as it is a power.” What does that mean without going in to the minutiae of New Testament interpretation?

For Rutledge, God’s justification—his declaration that those who are in the family of God are no longer sinners but saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8)—is a performative action “it has the power to create what it requires. When God regards one as righteous, a true metamorphosis is occurring” (334). Justification, for Rutledge, is God’s logizomai (the creative power that spoke the entire cosmos into being in Genesis 1) “brings transformed persons into being. This is called dikaiosis, (justification)” (333). This is how Rutledge, I presume, would respond to Wright’s dismissal of the Reformer’s notion imputation of righteousness as some type of “gaseous substance” (makes me chuckle every time) in his response to Piper in Justification (IVP, 2009).

The question that naturally followed for me is so then we are justified on who weare, because we are actually made righteous? But Rutledge affirms Hays subjective genitive interpretation of the phrase “the faith of Jesus Christ” rather than “faith in Jesus Christ” in places like Galatians 3 so is clearly placing the impetus on Jesus action rather than ours. I think this is spot on. So I was a little confused reading her conception of logizomai and her affirmation of the subjective genitive reading of dikaiosune theou. In my understanding of the forensic notion of justification, per Wright, is not that God is able to declare “justified” because we actually are righteous, but because we are in a sense “hidden” in Christ and so in a sense, God does not look on us at all, only the crucified and risen Lord, declaring him justified and so us as well, us who “no longer live but only Christ in us” (Galatians 2:19-20). I still think that she is also a little confused on this point, clearly believing in the “imputation of righteousness” of the Reformers through which we are declared “justified!” but also holding on the subjective genitive reading. These two things seem to stand in a bit of tension to me but I would welcome insight there.

N.  68 on pg. 333 is an important part of the discussion but seems to further muddy the matter. She brings up the term “alien righteousness” of Luther, a righteousness, in other words, that “never becomes our own possession but is always received gratefully from God as a gift” (n.68, 333). As I alluded to earlier, on the next page she quotes Kaesemann and says that God’s righteousness is not a gift so much as it is a power; here, again, she seems to want to have her cake and eat it too. Is justification primarily to be seen as an “alien righteousness” i.e. a gift, or is it a transformative speaking, i.e. a power? She seems to argue for both. She says that

‘[I]mputed righetoussness’ and ‘alien righteousness’ are still concepts of tremendous importance because they protect the central theme of Paul in the Corinthian letters, panta ek tou theou, and they guard against works-righteousness – provided that the phrases are understood to refer to something that is truly happening, not just theoretically ‘counted as’. The righteousness of God is a gift that is received anew daily from the Giver, but it really is a gift, whereby, the receiver participates in righteousness through Christ (n.68, 333).

So God’s declaration of “justified!” is truly a performative utterance making us actually righteous, and yet it is an “alien righteousness” which isn’t really ours but is a pure gift. Isn’t she, like the Reformers, misunderstanding the imagery of the lawcourt which is central to justification? Much more to say but it will have to wait, given the length of this already!