Fascination with wickedness obscures what is good, and roving desire perverts the innocent mind.
Wisdom of Solomon 4:12

Saturday, May 31, 2014


It is a natural thing among our human race to desire to fit in with the people of our surroundings. In fact, contemporary psychologists consider it a malady when a person desires not fit in.  They call it by various names, but these maladies are considered an inability to attain normal social skills. Notice that we dress certain ways for particular events, and more importantly, that we look at the way that others do things and emulate them so that we are not perceived as strange. Desiring to fit in is normal.   

At the same time, there is another principle at work within us.  It seems that those who set new and desirable trends are even more respected than those who follow the mainstream.  Trendsetters they are called. There is hardly a greater compliment that can be given to a person in our day than being a trendsetter.  This trend setting is in fact the norm in the contemporary world of music, and entertainment.  

Both of these human tendencies can be quite problematic when it comes to our relationship with God, and to the Christian life.  The questions that must be wrestled with are twofold.  One, who set the Christian trend we follow. and two, are we correct to follow it. To be more specific, could it be the we are following a trend set 1000 years after the birth of Christianity by a schismatic Pope and his followers, or could it be that we are following a trend set by a rebelling monk in the 16th century. Even more troublesome, could it that we are following be a trend set in the last 200, 100, or even 20 years.

To address this problem the Orthodox Church looks to its unified voice in the first millennium and clings to it for safety. One such voice is quoted below.

"Some one perhaps will ask, since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason,—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. 

For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation. Moreover, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent."

(A Commonitory (A Reminder), Vincent of Lerins, 434 AD)

The Commonitory of St. Vincent is one of the most prized possessions that the Orthodox Church owns. It contains within it the ultimate formula for stripping the fake wool from the disguised wolves in the Lord’s garden. This claim is not easily accepted by some, especially those who know little about the consensus of biblical interpretation found in the church fathers, and less about the conciliar theology hammered out in the seven ecumenical councils. Nevertheless, Vincent is abundantly clear in pointing out that there is absolutely nothing wrong with scripture, yet, its depth is such that every heretic from Novatian to Nestorious was able to build and support their theological conclusions from the very scriptures themselves. Hence, the problem is not the scriptures, but the interpreters. This leaves a rather large and even embarrassing problem at our doorstep, and it is this: how do we know for certain, and with complete and whole certitude that our interpretation is the actual meaning that God placed on the texts of a particular scripture? The answer given to us by Vincent, our interpretation must be in accordance with that which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. He states it another way: it must be inline with the universality, antiquity, and the consent of the church. Any other kind of interpretation is not apostolic; in fact, it is a renegade approach to God’s truth, and places us in the footsteps of the heretics.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Sola Fidei - NOT!

What follows are excerpts from the famous correspondence between Jeremiah II, Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Lutheran scholars in Tübingen, Germany regarding their "Augsburg Confession."
*Throughout the letter, I placed Scripture quotes in italics, and the author’s points of importance regarding the debate in Bold.

The Reply of Patriarch Jeremiah II to the Lutheran Tübingen Theologians, Concerning the Augsburg Confession[1].
The sixth [article of the Augsburg Confession- The New Obedience] gives the assurance that it is necessary to do good works but not to be dependent on them according to the passage:
"Enter not into judgment with thy servant" [Ps 143:2].
With regard to this we say
That faith precedes, and then the works follow and are necessary according to the commandment of God.
The one who fulfills them, as he must, receives reward and honor in everlasting life.
Indeed, good works are not separate from, but necessary for, true faith.
One should not trust in works nor be boastful in a Pharisaic manner. And even if we have fulfilled everything, according to the word of the Lord,
"We are unworthy servants" [Lk 17:10].
All things should be referred to the righteousness of God because those things which have been offered by us are small or nothing at all. According to Chrysostom, it has been established that God does not lead those of us who are idle into His kingdom.
The Lord "opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble" [1 Pet 5:5; see Jas 4:6; Pr 3:24].
One should not boast about works. But to do and fulfill them is most necessary.
For without divine works it is impossible to be saved.
If, then, we will be convinced by the Lord who says,
"If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them" [Jn 13:17],
It shall be to our benefit. It is necessary to join our good works together with the mercy from above.
If we excuse ourselves because of our weakness or the goodness of God and do not add something of our own, there will be no benefit to us.
How can we invoke mercy for the cure of our iniquities if it, no way have we done anything to appease the Divine One?
Let us hear how Chrysostom explained [the words of] Psalm 129: 1-2.
"Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice"
'From this (verse) we learn two things:
That one cannot simply expect something from God if nothing from us is forthcoming,'
Because first it says,
'I cry,' and then follows, 'hear my voice.'
Furthermore, lengthy prayer, full of tears (a Work), has more power to convince God to hearken to that which has been asked.
But so no one may say that, since he is a sinner and full of thousands of evils, 'I cannot come before and pray, and call upon God, 'He takes away all doubt by saying:
'If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?' [Ps 129:3].
Here the word 'who' should be replaced by the word 'no one,' because there is no one, no one who, according to a strict account of his works, could ever attain mercy and benevolence. If you withdraw mercy and God justly imposes the penalty of the sentence and metes out punishments for sins, who will be able to bear the judgment? Of necessity all would have to submit to destruction. And we say these things not to draw down souls into carelessness, but rather to console those who have fallen into despair. Because who can boast that he has a pure heart? Or who can proclaim that he is free from sins?
And what can I say of others? For if I bring Saint Paul into our midst and wish to ask of him to give an accurate account of what happened [in his case], he cannot hold his ground. For what can he say? He read the Prophets. He was a zealot with regard to the strictness of the law of the forefathers. He saw signs. Nevertheless, he had not yet ascended to that awesome sight which he enjoyed, nor had he heard that awesome voice. Before that he was, in all things, confused.
Furthermore, was not Peter, the chief [Apostle], who after thousands of miracles and such, reproved in council for his grievous fall? If, then, He shall not judge by mercy and compassion but will pronounce an accurate judgment, then [the Lord] will find all of us guilty.
Therefore, the Apostle Paul said:
'I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me' [I Cor 4:4].
And the Prophet said:
'If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?' [Ps 129:3].
And the doubling [of the word Lord,] is not simply said, but [the Prophet] was amazed at, and surprised by, the greatness of God's mercy, His boundless majesty, and the fathomless sea of His goodness. He knew, and knew clearly, that we are responsible to God for many debts, and that even the smallest of sins are deserving of great punishment.
'For with thee is forgiveness' [Ps 129:3].
This means that escape from eternal punishment does not depend on our achievements but on Thy goodness... If we do not enjoy Thy mercy, our achievements alone do not suffice to snatch us from the future wrath. But now You have mercy and justice united together, and You prefer to use the former rather than the latter. And the Lord has plainly said this through the Prophet:
I am He who blots out your transgressions' [Is 43:25].
That is, this is of me, it is of my goodness because those things which are yours, even though they are good, will never be sufficient to free you from punishment if the work of my mercy were not added. And [the Lord] also [said]:
'I will carry you' [Is 46:4].
Indeed atonement rightfully belongs to God, He who is truly merciful. Therefore, He examines sparingly.
'For Thy name's sake I have waited for Thee, O Lord' [Ps 129:5].
Because of Thy name, which is merciful, I have waited for salvation. When I was looking to matters of myself, I would again despair as in former times; but now, attending to Thy law and fulfilling Thy words, I have high expectations. Thou are He who said,
'As the heaven is distant from the earth' [Is 55:9], 'so my counsels are not as your counsels, nor are my ways as your ways' [Is 55:8].
And again:
'As the heaven is high above the earth, so the Lord has increased His mercy toward those who fear Him' [Ps 102:11];
That is, not only have I [God] saved those who accomplish [good] things, but I also have spared the sinners, and amid your iniquities I have demonstrated my guardianship. In Ezekiel He says:
'I do not do this, except for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations' [Ezek 36:22].
This passage says that we are not worthy to be saved, nor did we have any hope because of what we had done, but we look forward to being saved for His name's sake.
This is the hope of salvation and the sacred anchor which has been left for us, who repent in order to be granted His mercy.
If we are obedient, we shall eat the good of the land [cf. Is 1:19] and we shall inherit the promise.
It is necessary, therefore, to hope in God, even if myriads oppress us and drive us to despair and threaten [us with] death. For Him all things are easy; and for the impossible, He can find a way. For with Him is the fountain of redemption, the sea of salvation, the treasure of mercy which springs up eternally [see Ps 36:910; Mt 18:21 f].
Where there is mercy, there also is redemption, and not only a little, but much, for the sea of mercy knows no bounds. If, then, we are bound up by our sins, it is not necessary to fall again, nor to be despondent. For wherever there is mercy and charity, there is no strict reckoning of iniquities by the one who judges. Because of His great mercy and inclination toward charity, many sins are overlooked.
Being such a judge, God grants mercy without ceasing and grants pardon; He is compassionate and loves mankind and imparts salvation to all who have repented and who, according to their ability, perform the good. For truly He is good and abundantly pours forth everywhere the greatness of His mercy, and from Him is that which is truly mercy; it is very clear that He will save His own people, not punish them. Let us then offer those things we have done with all exactitude and wisdom, and let us cherish everything that is from Him, who possesses untold mercy.
Wisdom comes first [to indicate] that a praiseworthy life is one that is cleansed by God rather than one that is deposed. The persons who are without remorse, walking in sin, inclining toward the baser things and are gluttonous, wallowing in the slime, never look to heaven, do not wish to be pitied; for they do not realize how grievously they suffer. It is better for someone to be polluted with unclean mud than with sins.
Those who have fallen in the pit of sin will perish utterly unless they cleanse their defilement not with water, but with great toil and time and sincere repentance, with tears, with wailings, and with the customary spiritual cleansing.
These are the true satisfactions, and not those made through bribes, which arouse the anger of God against those who take them. And, thus, they are subject to myriads of evil things; and every misfortune sent by God comes to them.
There is no forgiveness of sins possible for such persons because zeal is directed toward their own personal gain.
External filth can be dusted off very rapidly, but that which is carried around within is not readily washed away.
"For out of the heart come evil thoughts, fornication, adultery," [Mt 15:19]
And the like. For this reason the Prophet also said:
"Create in me a clean heart, O God" [Ps 50:10].
And another:
"Cleanse your heart from wickedness, O Jerusalem" [Jer 4:14].
And do you see here what pertains to us and what pertains to God? And again:
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" [Mt 5:8].
Let us become cleansed as far as our minds can comprehend and as much as we are capable of becoming. How can this be done?
"Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove your evils from your souls before my eyes" [Is 1:16].
He says:
"Do not become like whitewashed tombs" [Mt 23:27],
Appearing to be guiltless; but, thus, remove [evils from your souls] as being seen by God.
"Though your sins are like purple, I will make them white as snow" [Is 1:18].
Do you not see that we have to clean ourselves first, and then God will make us white as snow? For this reason no one, not even those who sink down to the lowest evil, should despair.
Even if it becomes a habit for someone and he has almost arrived to the nature of evil in itself, let him not be afraid. For even colors which do not fade and have almost become one with the material, nevertheless, are transformed into the opposite condition and become white as snow. Thus, He grants us good hope. Let us seriously try as much as we can to become clean.
Let us pursue good works. Let us not seek the speck that is in the eye of another, but let us see the log that is in our own [cf. Mt 7:3]. And, thus, with the grace of God, we shall be able to attain worthily the good things to come.
Therefore, the power of works is great; and even when they commit sins, God cleanses them through repentance.
One should not boast of them nor depend on them, for that would be sinful; but as much as you are able, fulfill the works which are the result of faith and are necessary. For if those who have cast out demons and who have prophesied are rejected, and have not lived a comparable life, how much more [shall we be rejected] if we are negligent and do not fulfill the commandments? Christ will say to such persons:
"I never knew you" [Mt 7:23; cf. Lk 13:27].
We believe correctly to glorify Him and we live the good life to glorify Him, for there is no benefit of one without the other. And furthermore,
When, perchance, we praise Him rightly but do not live properly according to the commandment, then we greatly insult Him. And although we give Him the title of Master and Teacher, we, nevertheless, scorn Him and do not fear His awesome judgment.
The fact that the pagan Greeks lived an impure life is no surprise, nor are they deserving of such great condemnation. However, being Christians, who participate in so many sacraments, [and] who enjoy such glory yet live impurely is much worse and intolerable and beyond all compassion.
If, as the saying goes, we were to look earnestly toward the great and infinite compassion of God and His extraordinarily great gifts, and imagine that we will be saved by grace alone in the manner of the ingrates, we cannot hope to benefit.
And besides, our own deeds, even if they may approach perfection, are nothing in comparison, except that they are supplementary and demonstrate our disposition—namely, that we are thankful, that we obey the commandments and perform good and virtuous deeds so that we may not be placed into paradise like insensible creatures, which absolutely is not done but, by our preference, through the grace of God.
If we prefer to incline toward sin, we shall appear insensible as paying attention to non-existing things. Indeed, we must avoid it [sin] and detest it since it places us far away from God. And when we intend to commit a sin, then we must conjecture and imagine the dread and intolerable court of Christ in which the judge is sitting on a high and elevated throne to judge those who have lived. All creation is present and trembling at His glorious appearance.

[1] From the First Reply of Constantinople to Tübingen (16th cent.)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Faith Alone is Dead!

Does salvation come by way of faith alone and not by any works associated with faith? This was the fundamental question raised by the magisterial reformers, who tried to separate themselves from a meritorious kind of salvation propagated by the medieval Roman Church. The reformers answered- Yes, salvation is by “faith alone” and not by works.  The reason they answered this way was partially because they understood that human merit held no weight before God. Once we have done all that is right, all we could say is “I am an unprofitable servant.” Nevertheless, to reduce the cause of salvation down to faith alone, actually misrepresents the faith once and for all given to the saints. Why? Because, faith is given by God and exists for no other reason than for the accomplishment divine works which save (heal us). In fact, the scriptures only use the phrase faith alone once, and it does so in a very negative way.
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (Ja 2: 24)

What is this faith? The simplest definition comes to us from the scripture. In the book of Hebrews, where  we read:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11: 1)

In short, it is a hope and conviction in the heart about the goodness and loving-kindness of God. The rest of the chapter goes on to describe what this faith (assurance and conviction) produces. It tells us that by this assurance and conviction those of old understood the words of God, made offerings to God, worked to build the Ark, left everything behind to sojourn in land of promise, etc… In short, faith is that work of God in the heart that convinces the mind to do all that is needed to please God.  

By definition, faith cannot be alone. It is the fuel for the human accomplishment of divine works that heal the human malady, and which therefore please God.  This does not mean that the divine works that faith produces are in any way meritorious or legally satisfactory. Not at all - that is a medieval invention of the scholastics.  In fact, these works fueled by  faith are therapeutic, transformative, and restorative; they humble our will and make us into the image of God (deify). Salvation surely requires faith, without it shall no one be saved (Heb 11: 6). However, this is so because faith is the one thing that enables the divine works that God the Spirit does through us to change us into his image.

Then Peter opened his mouth and said: “In truth I comprehend that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.”  Acts 10:34-35

The sooner that “faith alone” is stricken from Western Christian’s vocabulary, the better. The sooner it is made clear that faith is the very means to the saving (healing) works of God in us, the better.

* Please note, the works born of faith are not one and the same ‘the works of the law’. Whenever the bible speaks of dead works, works of the law, or non-saving (healing) works, it is referring to works of the Torah done out of ethnic duty and not out of faith for the sake of transformation. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

What is Apostolic Succession?

Apostolic Succession was established by the apostles when they selected Matthias to replace Judas (Acts 1:23-26).  This succession has continued since that day, and presently applies to the New Testament offices of Bishop (Episkopos), Priest (Presbytero), and Deacon (Diakonos) of the Orthodox Church. This threefold arrangement of apostolic offices is found in the writings of Sts. Ignatius and Clement (1st century). St. Clement, who was Bishop of Rome, wrote that Christ instructed his apostles to appoint bishops to succeed them in their apostolic offices throughout the local communities of the Church. Regarding this topic, St. Iranaeus said that apostolic succession is not merely the result of being appointed by way of an apostolic lineage, but also by following the life practices and doctrines of the apostles[1]
Apostolic succession is important because it ensures the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ that there are certain teachings worthy of our belief which are not mere innovations or interpretations of individual men, but rather teachings which the Lord himself taught the apostles, the apostles taught the fathers, and which have been handed down from the very beginning[2]. Apostolic succession protects the apostolic faith, and without it, believers are subject to the inventions and private interpretations of men. 
The consequences of failing to accept apostolic succession is clearly manifested in those who have chosen a kind of Christianity that is not the Orthodox faith. The heterodox follow self-appointed teachers who do not follow the apostolic doctrines and practices visible in the early church, and instead interpret the faith according to their own contemporary wisdom. Of the Roman Catholics and the Anglicans, it may be said that they have a physical lineage that is apostolic, however not a doctrinal lineage.  The fact is that they do not hold to the unchanged Orthodox faith of the early church.  Of others, it may be said that they are self-appointed without any regard to apostolic lineage, be it physical, doctrinal, or practical.
Consequently, they regularly fail to understand basic Christian truths. For example, notice how those not protected by true apostolic succession fail to understand the unity of the Trinity (as seen in the penal satisfaction theory). They miss the loving and merciful character of God (as seen in the wrathful God wanting to take vengeance on sinners and on the Son of God in the place of sinners). Notice how they fail to see salvation as deification/Christ-likeness (as seen in juridical imputation). Not to mention topics such as the mysteries/sacraments, ecclesiology, eschatology, and many other basic doctrines of apostolic Christianity. Apostolic succession protects the apostolic faith, and without it, believers are subject to the inventions and private interpretations of men. 

[1] Morris, John W. The Historic Church. Bloomington: Author House, 2011. P. 32-33.
[2] Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. New York: Penguin, 1993. P. 41-43.