On September 8 the Orthodox Church celebrated the Nativity of the Mother of God. This is one of a number of feasts involving the life of the Virgin Mary, particularly during this time of the year. Many of the feasts mark events that are unfamiliar to many Christians, in that they are based on Tradition and have no direct account within the Scriptures. This would be especially troubling for some, if these extra-canonical stories changed essential doctrine or added to the faith more than was proclaimed in the Creeds.
However, I would submit, neither is the case. These extra-canonical Traditions not only conform to the Apostolic Hypothesis mentioned by St. Irenaeus of Lyons, they provide commentary and reinforcement to that very deepest heart of Christian teaching.
The situation for St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century needs to be appreciated. Though some Protestant groups constant point back to the point in time when the writings of the New Testament were finished (at the death of the last Apostle), such an artificial date is a modern configuration and was not entirely obvious to the early Church and those who succeeded the Apostles. St. Irenaeus would himself note that he knew Polycarp (the martyred bishop of Smyrna) and that Polycarp knew the Apostle John. Morever, Irenaeus cited the living tradition found in those Churches founded by the Apostles.
His great struggle was against the strongest heresy of the first two centuries of the Church – Gnosticism. This heresy was not one thing, but many things, expounded by many teachers and deeply attractive to a Roman world that was unfamiliar with the Old Testament and the traditions of Judaism. In the presentations of Gnosticism, Jesus was used as a convenient cypher to promote whatever idea a teacher sought to put forward. Some were extreme ascetics, others were extreme hedonists and all used the “phenomenon” of Jesus to justify their philosophies.
There was not a “variety” of teachings about the Christ in the early years – but a variety of opportunists who sought to exploit the growing popularity of Christ as a means to their own ends. The utter lack of unity among so-called gnostic teachers is itself testimony to the opportunistic character of their work. The unity found in the early Apostolic communities, as noted by St. Irenaeus, points to the authentic Tradition and life of the primitive Church. Gnostics did not produce martyrs – that was the work of faithful Christians who held to the Orthodox Catholic faith.
St. Irenaeus, in an attempt to describe this faith, used the term “Apostolic Hypothesis” to represent what was a mattered of settled, received teaching. Those who had been appointed as successors of the Apostles were also given the Apostolic faith (how could they not?). This faith was summarized by what St. Irenaeus called the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” He did not mean by “hypothesis” what we would mean today. It was not a “guess” on the part of the Apostles. Instead, he used the word hypothesis is its more pure Greek meaning, to refer to an underlying structure or matrix upon which the rest of the structure rests.
Such an Apostolic Hypothesis is found in documents such as the Apostles Creed, which was the early Baptismal Creed of the Church of Rome. Such Baptismal creeds were common throughout the ancient Churches, though not completely identical. However, as hypotheses, they were in utter agreement.
That primitive hypothesis can be summarized:
Of course, this is the text of the Apostles’ Creed. But we find echoes of this text within Scripture itself:
Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: (1 Corinthians 15:1-5).
St. Paul describes this, not as his own opinion or authorship, but “I delivered to you what I also received.” The words used are specifically the words of tradition (paradosis). St. Paul reminds the Corinthians of a tradition they have received (and doubtless received by all the Churches of the Apostles) a summary of the Apostolic faith.
When this hypothesis is compared to any of the gnostic writings, the differences become clear. The gnostic writings are not clear on the nature of the incarnation or of the death of Christ on the Cross. Neither are they clear about the nature of humanity (nor even of God).
What is consistent throughout the Apostolic Hypothesis, as witnessed in the Scriptures, the Creeds, and the writings of the early Fathers of the Church (most of whom were Bishops in Apostolic Succession) is the nature of the incarnation and of human sin and of the role of Christ’s death and resurrection in the salvation of the human race and of all creation.
It is this same fundamental understanding that runs throughout the extra-canonical devotions and stories of the Virgin Mary. It does not add to that fundamental understanding or change it. It serves to underline, yet again, the very nature of our salvation in Christ.
The most simple example I can point to is the one most recent in the Church’s calendar: the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. It is a feast that is held very close to the heart of the community in which I serve – for it is named for St. Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary. The story handed down is that the parents of the Virgin Mary were aged and childless. Thus Anna and her husband Joachim, were (in their own Jewish context) considered somehow “unblessed.” Anna’s barrenness was seen as a rebuke.
This is a common theme within the Old Testament. Sarah’s barrenness is the bane of her existence. The promise of God is not simply that He will give Abraham a land, but, more importantly, that Abraham will be “the father of many nations.” As an elderly man with an elderly wife, such a promise seems beyond belief. But Sarah bore Abraham a son and God’s promise was fulfilled.
Such barrenness occurs in the story of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. It occurs as well in the story of Manoah and his wife in the book of Judges (the parents of Samson).
The theme cannot be fully understood apart from the Apostolic Hypothesis. God brings forth fruitfulness from barrenness – it is a theme of His work of salvation. In modern Protestant parlance we would say, “We are saved by grace and not works.” The barren woman cannot be fruitful of herself – it is entirely the grace of God which causes fruitfulness to occur. This is very obvious in the case of the elderly Abraham and Sarah. It is echoed in the extra-canonical story of Joachim and Anne. Our salvation is a work of grace, not of human effort.
The image of fruitfulness being brought forth from barrenness is merely interesting if considered apart from the Apostolic Hypothesis. However, when placed in that proper context, it becomes a hallmark of the Gospel are type of salvation itself. The image of fruitfulness from barrenness goes as deep as Genesis 1:1 and its ancient commentaries. The God who created the world brought it forth from “nothingness.” No image of barrenness can be found that is greater than “nothing.” For many Christians, this teaching of the faith is simply a datum of cosmology: God created the universe from nothing. But to make this a matter of mere cosmology is to miss the point. The God who created the universe out of nothing delights Himself in bringing forth something from nothing. As St. Paul says, “He has chosen…the things that are not” (1 Cor. 1:28).
It is a consistent pattern throughout the Old Testament from the creation to the birth of Isaac, to the very creation of the nation of Israel. The work of God’s election is not a choice among things that are, but a bringing forth of things that never could be (apart from grace).
This same pattern is seen in the story of the Nativity of the Virgin, and of Christ’s virgin birth. Mary is born to elderly parents who are barren. God makes a promise to the elderly Joachim and Anne and they bear a child, Mary. For her, in her youth and purity we have one of the ultimate instances of barrenness: what can be more barren than the womb of a virgin. How can a virgin be fruitful? That Christ is born of a virgin (often bound up in tortuous theories about sin and sinlessness) is perfectly consistently with the actions of a God who creates out of nothing.
Our salvation comes forth from the utterly barren womb of Hades. In His death (what is more empty and barren than death?) Christ descends into death and “takes captivity captive.” As is sung throughout the Orthodox world, “Christ has trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” This great theme of Christ’s Pascha (Easter) is the very theme of our salvation. We are saved by the One who trampled down death by death. The death of our sin is trampled down by the life of His righteousness.
The great miracle of God’s work in creation is of a piece: He creates where there would otherwise be nothing. Our life in Christ is a “new creation.”
The stories of the Virgin Mary, including those the Church observes which are “extra-canonical” are not outside the Apostolic Hypothesis. Our own lives and experience of Christ are not outside that same hypothesis. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Christ says. In my sin I am empty, barren and unfruitful, incapable of true life. Only in the action of the good God, who creates from nothing, who makes the barren womb to be fruitful, who enters Himself into the barrenness of the womb of the Virgin and the emptiness of sinful man, who becomes what we are and enters into the emptiness of death and hell – only such a good God can save and make those things which are not to be as if they were.
God is glorified in His saints! The God of Israel!
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