Glory to God for All Things

How the Church Reads the Church

You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. (2 Cor. 3:2-3)

The mental habits of the modern world are not unlike the scientific method. We examine things, study them, compare and contrast, weigh and measure, consider and decide. We do this with ideas as well as with objects and situations. We also do this with texts, such as Scripture. Or do we?

What I have described is what we often think we do with information. It works so long as everyone involved in the circle of information (the conversation) agrees that this is what we do. That is one of the common assumptions of the modern era. The debates in this model have generally been about the objects of our consideration. The Post-Modern question has been to focus the discussion on the process of consideration itself.

What happens when we read a text? How does information go from text into meaning? What role do prior assumptions and the community of reception play? These are all obvious questions – though they were often questions that remained unasked through much of the modern period. The arguments between various groups (e.g., Protestants and Catholics) tended to remain with the text itself. Post-Modernism, focusing on the process rather than the text, has tended to say that the text matters very little – truth (or truth claims) rest solely within the community that makes them.

Orthodoxy comes to this conversation as an outsider. The modern arguments between Catholic and Protestant, begin and continue without reference to the Orthodox. For argument’s sake, Orthodoxy doesn’t exist. But the point made by Post-Modern thinkers is not foreign to Orthodoxy. It’s observations about the relationship between text and reader were made long ago by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century). Those same observations go to the heart of the Orthodox approach to the Scriptures.

The discussion involving the use of texts that drew St. Irenaeus’ attention, was engendered by conversations with Gnostics. These “Christians,” put forward a radically different account of salvation and the place of Christ within human history. Often, the Gnostic account included the disparaging of material reality or the dismissal of Jewish history. Suffice it to say that the Christ of Orthodox Christianity and the Christ of the Gnostics were radically incompatible.

Irenaeus is among the few voices in the debate whose writings are still extant. What he says is deeply significant. He cites his credentials (ordained in succession to the Apostles, etc., “I knew Polycarp who knew John”). In this, he is very similar to an earlier Orthodox bishop, Ignatius of Antioch. But Irenaeus presents an argument with regard to Scripture that goes beyond the mere authority of his position. He essentially claims that the Gnostics are unable to read the Scriptures. Father Georges Florovsky gives this summary:

Denouncing the Gnostic mishandling of Scriptures, St. Irenaeus introduced a picturesque simile. A skillful artist has made a beautiful image of a king, composed of many precious jewels. Now, another man takes this mosaic image apart, re-arranges the stones in another pattern so as to produce the image of a dog or of a fox. Then he starts claiming that this was the original picture, by the first master, under the pretext that the gems (the ψηφιδες) were authentic. In fact, however, the original design had been destroyed — λυσας την υποκειμενην του ανθρωπου ιδεαν. This is precisely what the heretics do with the Scripture. They disregard and disrupt “the order and connection” of the Holy Writ and “dismember the truth” — λυοντες τα μελη της αληθειας. Words, expressions, and images —ρηματαλεξεις παραβολαι —are genuine, indeed, but the design, the υποθεσις (ipothesis), is arbitrary and false (adv. haeres., 1. 8. 1).

This same effort to describe how the Scriptures are unique to the Church continues throughout the early Church and its struggles with false teachings. St. Hilary of Poitiers states: Scripturae enim non in legendo sunt, sed in intelligendo. ["For Scripture is not in the reading, but in the understanding;"] ad Constantium Aug., lib. II, cap. 9, ML X, 570. His focus, and that of the fathers, is on  the very process of interpretation and the nature of the community in which it takes place rather than arguments about the text itself. To argue with someone outside the Church about the meaning of a text is to engage in a conversation that is largely useless.

This is decidedly different than the discussions about Scripture within the Modern period. Recent academic work, coming from a Post-Modern perspective, has begun to move conversations about Scripture (and all written material) in this direction. The result is something similar to chaos, since the fragmentation of modern culture gives little to no consensus from which to read anything. The various absurd claims of contemporary liberal Bible studies are only one illustration of this fragmented world. If a Bishop uses the “Scriptures” to deny that Christ is raised from the dead, what is the community from which he speaks?

However, Orthodoxy would largely agree with Post-Modernism that there is no one single, objective place from which everyone, believer and non-believer, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, can read the Scriptures. And so it is that the “Church reads the Church.” It is hard to find an adequate way to express this – our modern habits are so accustomed to thinking of a text as an independent, self-existing fact.

The Church should not be seen as an institution, a business or a club, or an organization existing through the centuries, managing history. Some “Churches” in the West may very well fit this description, but they are not “Church” in the proper sense of the word. The Church is the Eucharist and the Eucharist is the Church. The people, members of the Body of Christ, are those assembled in the liturgy (and in its continual life beyond the immediate assembly itself). That the Church reads is patently part of its liturgical life. What is considered canon, authoritative, is that which is read in the liturgy. The Church not only reads the Scriptures, it prays and enacts the Scriptures. It sings the Scriptures and interprets them in the embodied life of praise and thanksgiving to God. “Bible study,” and such notions, outside of the worshipping Church are akin to nonsense. There can be no study of the Scripture for the sake of the Scripture (or simply for the sake of learning). This would be similar to discussing (ad nauseum) the lyrics of a song whose music you never hear and whose tune you never sing.

The Scripture is the song of God, both sung to the Church by God and sung to God by the Church. In the life that is that song, the Church is continually conformed to the image of Christ. This is the Church’s liturgy (and God’s liturgy), the song of the image of God.

The life that is the continual liturgy is the Christ-conforming life of the believer in union with others within the Body of Christ sharing in the one Spirit. The Scriptures are not a source or reference-book for that Christ-conforming life, they are part of that life itself.

Our habits of thought are so shaped by the concept of a self-existing Scripture, that we fail to understand the life and action of interpretation. When the fathers of the Church are invoked as authoritative interpreters of Scripture, we are primarily referring to the lives which they lived, of which the words they wrote are but one manifestation. But just as God is seen by the pure in heart (Matt. 5:8), so God’s word is heard by the pure in heart. And just as God’s word is heard by the pure in heart, so the fathers are understood by the pure in heart. We cannot invoke a means of authority that will serve for the impure.

To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled…(Titus 1:15).

We can despair, “Who is pure?” But this is the role of continual repentance in the life of the worshipping Church. The Church is pure as it repents and turns to God. In the act of repentance we begin to see and hear. This repentance is also rightly grounded in the liturgical life of the Church. The place of monasticism in the life of the Orthodox faith is irreplaceable. Asceticism and repentance are essential to the purity with which we discern the truth. Nor is there a form of Orthodox faithfulness that is not also grounded in ascetical practice and continual repentance. It is in this manner that we should understand statements such as: “Orthodoxy is not a religion but a way of life.” There is no system of beliefs or doctrines that have any bearing on the truth if those beliefs or doctrines are not rooted in the path of purity. They quickly become something other than they were, even were they given by God. Orthodoxy that is not lived in the path of purity is not Orthodoxy.

Thus St. Paul can say of the Corinthians, “You are our epistle…read by all men.” No other epistle is worth reading.

The consequences of this are immediate: there can be no proclamation of Christ that is not also a proclamation of the Church.

For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake [but Paul does not preach Christ without himself as bondservant!] (2 Cor. 4:5).

It is easy to look at this and wonder where we begin? If the Scripture can only be read in the Church then how do we enter the Church? The mystery of our birth in Christ is always just that. We are birthed in many ways – but always only by God. And we are birthed into the life of the Church. It is there that we begin to discover:

For all things are yours: whether…the world or life or death, or things present or things to come – all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:21-23).

+++

A comment this evening brought this quote forward. It is so apt that I have added it to the original article. From St. Athanasius On the Incarnation of the Word.

But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind and grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven.

67 Responses to “How the Church Reads the Church”

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  1. John Shores says:

    If the Scripture can only be read in the Church then how do we enter the Church? The mystery of our birth in Christ is always just that. We are birthed in many ways – but always only by God.

    In some ways, this reads to me in the same vein as, “It’s a black thing. You wouldn’t understand.”

    Are, then, people like me simply doomed to condemnation? To ask one who relies upon reason to stop reasoning is like asking a speed reader to stop reading so quickly. I doubt it can be done.

  2. Lynne says:

    But is speed reading beneficial for poetry?

  3. Nathan says:

    Thank you for the post, Father. Your thoughts have been very helpful to me. This is something I have been pondering for many months now, by way of a particular quote by Athanasius at the end of On the Incarnation:

    “But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind and grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven.”

  4. fatherstephen says:

    John,
    I suspect very strongly that your reason is not why you are where you are in your life. I’m sure it’s very important – my reason is very important to me as well. But there have been critical moments in my life when things transcended reason. Probably all of the most important decisions in my life were made “beyond” reason – not necessarily contrary to reason – but beyond it. The decision to marry is never entirely reasonable (how can we, finally, reason about such a thing?). I could multiply that list. We’re not Mr. Spock on Star Trek (and even he finds it necessary to be “human” every so often).

    People like you are also people like me. How did I come to Orthodoxy? I had a long route. It included a time within the charismatic movement (even lived in a Christian commune for 2 years). Reason, and some things related to that, took me out of that movement. I had a period of time with great uncertainty – about a lot of things. The delusional character of the charismatic movement was very disconcerting. It was hard to trust anything for a while after that.

    I returned “slowly” to the faith. I returned to the Episcopal Church and went to seminary (first with the intention of going on for a doctorate and teaching – which evolved into priesthood and parish ministry). One of the things that impelled me towards that direction was the role of tradition (in what was called “Hooker’s Stool” Scripture-Reason-Tradition). The years I spent with that proved time and again that there were problems with the model. At the same time I became aware of Orthodoxy. I don’t know how I describe falling in love. But what I would find, time and again, in reading Orthodox work, in reading the lives of Orthodox saints, eventually in digging in Orthodox theology and lastly experiencing Orthodox life and faith, was perhaps not “reasonable” at first. But there was an intuition that there was something to be pursued. That intuition was “beyond reason,” but not unreasonable. It was not absurd. The story had a point in which I converted to Orthodox with my family, the culmination of a 7 year long process. The intuition never ceased, and reason gained increasing evidence and confidence.

    That’s how the process was for me, and will be for many others, perhaps yourself, mutatis mutandis. But, I daresay, you don’t actually live your life by reason (I don’t think anyone does). We live by many things, and use reason when it suits.

    I don’t any of us are doomed. God’s not in the condemnation business (Jn. 3:17).

  5. fatherstephen says:

    Nathan,
    Your quote was so apt – that I’ve appended it to the article. What a blessing to have such solid reaffirmation in the faith! St. Athanasius! Doesn’t get any better than that!

  6. Tom says:

    “But there was an intuition that there was something to be pursued.”

    Four years here. I became a catechumen on September 30th. Thought it would never happen, but something – intuition? – kept me pursuing Truth. I kept going back. . .

  7. John Shores says:

    The decision to marry is never entirely reasonable

    You almost had it right :)

    I daresay, you don’t actually live your life by reason.

    With a wife, five daughters and three granddaughters? I lost my ability to reason years ago.

    I don’t any of us are doomed.

    that’s welcome news.

  8. mary benton says:

    Father Stephen – great article and great comment as well.

    For me to accept the faith I have, it had to “pass” the test of my reason. That was not a quick process – nor is it ever really over (for me, anyway). But I cannot stop at reason alone – because that would exclude love.

    Our “birthing” can only come through God but we do not always know at the time that it is a birthing or that it is God that is leading us through it.

    John – I suspect that reason feels like the safest way of discerning truth at this point in your life – because (as you have stated elsewhere) you don’t want to get duped again. If so, I trust that God has great compassion for where you are and is certainly not going to condemn.

  9. dinoship says:

    Father Stephen,
    This is such a complete article in itself and so useful for those interested in what lies within the true Church.

    “The mystery of our birth in Christ is always just that. We are birthed in many ways – but always only by God.”

    The emergence of the “New Adam”, (the New John, the New Mary, the New Michael), is something that takes a very long time – all of our life- although there are certain periods where, looking back, we realise we were truly being birthed during that period when we might have been unbelievably steeped in the life of the Church. (an obvious, blatant and intense example of this is a novice who suddenly goes from the “world” to a situation where he daily takes holy Communion, confesses to a Father who knows how to “…birth New Adams”, fasts, attends long Services and is supremely energised through a combination of all night vigils of prayer and study and joyous obedience – all away from worldly distractions – even if he then goes back to the “world” to marry after a year of that life, is he not birthed into an new person? )
    Many lesser examples (eg a Lenten Period) also do this to us, they must!

  10. dinoship says:

    JS
    Ellihu gave Job a different view of the silence of God, which could more accurately be called the human deafness, or the tuning to the wrong radio station. Job had his preconceived own idea about how God will answer. When he was not given an ‘answer’, he concluded that God had not spoken. God can speak to us in a different way than what we expect and as a consequence we can not hear (or not be aware of this “secret work”) what he says. God tells us something different from what we expect, because what we expect is wrong. What often blinds us so much is our conceit to think we know better what we really need. Elihu actually suggested to Job to look a little further than his nose and stretch his ears in a different direction, to hear the voice of God.

  11. John Shores says:

    I daresay, you don’t actually live your life by reason.

    I have been reading “IBM and the Holocaust” and discovered that the motto of IBM when it was founded was “THINK.” The founder and the company used its technology to enable the Third Reich to gather statistics on its population using punch cards. They did this knowing full well the intentions of the Reich to eliminate Jews and “genetic undesirables.” The interpretive machines could read 25,000 cars per hour and sort by any criteria.

    This is what made it possible for the Reich to find the non-Aryans and trace their lineage back. Ultimately, it was what made the holocaust possible.

    The numbers that were used on the cards were the same numbers that were tattooed on the arms of the incarcerated.

    Don’t ever let it be said that the god Reason has failed to claim its share of human sacrifices.

  12. dinoship says:

    JS,
    I have read that too, the examples of such use of technology and reasoning abilities, ultimately servicing dubious objectives are unfortunately becoming all the more frequent…

    We humans know how to dig our messy hole deeper and deeper; thank God that, as Saint Maximus points out, God can somehow use even what seems completely useless and evil to our eyes to extract, against our intentions some good,something that will free us from our shackles to this futility.

  13. PJ says:

    “The modern arguments between Catholic and Protestant, begin and continue without reference to the Orthodox. ”

    Father, this may have once been the case, but it simply isn’t true anymore. Many Catholics have great love for Orthodoxy and have come to honor and reverence your saints and ascetics. John Paul II was very interested in the eastern churches, both Orthodox and non-Chalcedonian; Benedict XVI even more so. Indeed, Benedict constantly refers to oriental Christianity, especially its prayers and liturgy, in both his writing and speaking. I just finished “Images of Hope,” a collection of essays on major feast days and significant pieces of liturgical art. He outright mentions or alludes to Orthodoxy in most every single one of them! He even included an image from a church on Mount Athos.

    Catholicism has, by and large, gotten over its triumphalism and chauvinism. It no longer harbors hostility or condescension for eastern Christians. There is also increasing effort to emphasize and spotlight eastern Catholicism, instead of hiding it away like a child who is “different.” We love you like brothers. Often, though, the feeling does not seem mutual. Tens of millions of Catholics — Poles, Ukranians, Hungarians, etc. — suffered and died with the Orthodox during the Soviet years. That helped break down a lot of walls.

  14. Silouan says:

    The seeds of the holocaust were already present regardless of the technology used to fulfill it. Some other means would have been used.

  15. John Shores says:

    The seeds of the holocaust were already present regardless of the technology used to fulfill it. Some other means would have been used.

    “Extermination of the Jews” was certainly not a new concept. However, what this technology allowed was a new strategy where people could be tracked by ethnicity alone, regardless of whether they were practicing their religion or not. This allowed for a more far-reaching campaign against the Jews (and other non-Aryans) than would have been possible otherwise. And unlike pogroms in the past, no one was able to simply deny their faith in order to escape.

    Statistics became a new social weapon, one that is used today and will continue to be used. It is a sobering thought that in 1939, a person’s entire identity could be crunched down into numbers tattooed on their arm. How difficult would it be to use an embedded chip to do the same today (along with GPS to find anyone)?

    Sometimes life in the 12th century looks inviting.

  16. Silouan says:

    It is often said of an icon that it is “a window into heaven”, and I think we can use the same application to scripture. You can look into a room externally from a window and perhaps see a conversation between people happening, but if you go into the room you might actually hear what they are talking about and maybe become part of it.

  17. fatherstephen says:

    PJ,
    What you say is true – though most Catholics (here in the US) still don’t know we exist. The consciousness that would rewrite our historical memories has not yet arrived.

  18. fatherstephen says:

    JS,
    The marriage of technology and evil is perhaps the most frightening modern invention. I had not heard of the IBM connection – it’s fearful. Henry Ford was a great anti-Semite as well (being one of the major publishers of the Protocol). This is a case, btw, of revisiting our history and making proper revisions. It can bring about good repentance and sobriety if handled correctly. Writers such as Huxley (Brave New World, etc.) were quite prophetic at times. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength haunts my newspapers most mornings.

  19. Anna says:

    Father, bless!

    I have continued to follow your blog, in spite of no longer commenting. I very much appreciate today’s article on the importance of (proper) interpretation and the wonderful citation from St. Athanasius, which so concisely speaks about acquiring the mind of the Chuch.

  20. Silouan says:

    Advances in technology provide new vehicles of expression for the condition of the heart. Technology can’t be created or put to use without volition, and our will is either with or against God. Evil is not created, but is parasitic. It is the result of the misuse of our liberty.

  21. John Shores says:

    Lewis’ That Hideous Strength haunts my newspapers most mornings.

    LOL! Welcome to the NICE.

  22. Silouan says:

    Hi JS,

    Please forgive me brother. I’m not familiar with the works of C.S. Lewis, but I like the quote.

    I came from a secular home where we celebrated Christmas without Christ, and I had no exposure to Christianity or scripture. I was a Buddhist for several years prior to my conversion to Holy Orthodoxy, and there is a lot of information within and without the Church that I’m completely ignorant about.

  23. Robert says:

    Silouan,
    Lewis’ space trilogy is well worth reading. That Hideous Strength is the third volume but stands alone if the length of the entire trilogy seems daunting.

  24. Silouan says:

    Hi Robert,

    Thank you for the clarification. I don’t if or when I will be able to read the material though, but perhaps someday. For now I’m pretty much immersed in scripture and the works of our holy fathers.

  25. John Shores says:

    Silouan – If you are not into fiction, the underlying message in That Hideous Strength is well described in Lewis’ non-fiction work The Abolition of Man. If, however, you do like fiction, That Hideous Strength is perhaps my favorite piece by Lewis, particularly because it has a new version of Merlin that I find appealing.

    The trilogy isn’t very daunting. Out of the Silent Planet is actually pretty short and Parelandra isn’t much bigger. Both are interesting and imaginative. (But as good as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series.)

  26. Silouan says:

    Hi John S,

    I appreciate you taking the time to share this information with me. I do like fiction, but I have to be very selective on what I read due to time constraints, and though I haven’t actually read any of the material you are referencing being more informed about the works is actually helpful for me. I will investigate further as time permits.

    Thank you

  27. fatherstephen says:

    Silouan,
    Any time spent reading any of C.S.Lewis will not be wasted. His works demonstrate just how much affinity there once was between certain segments of Anglicanism and Orthodoxy (Lewis was an Anglican). Met. Kallistos Ware, with only slight humor, once referred to Lewis as “that anonymous Orthodox,” and was greeted with a standing ovation by the room full of Orthodox clergy he was addressing (there were about 1000 of us there). He is astonishingly good, and simply solid, with a great feel for what is right. He’s not perfect, but his instincts for the faith and its struggles in modernity are generally unmatched in the English-speaking world.

  28. PJ says:

    Father,

    I think you might be surprised. Among nominal Catholics, you’re probably right, but those of us who are devout are typically very conscious of the Orthodox, whom we by and large consider separated brethren (a notion you disagree with, but still …). There is a great effort to regain a sense of liturgical solemnity and profundity by studying the traditions and general demeanor of “the East.”

    As for Lewis: It seems every camp claims him as their own. Calvinists call him a Calvinist. Catholics call him an Anglo-Catholic. Orthodox call him an “anonymous Orthodox,” as you say. Anglicans, of course, point to him as a model of the “middle way.” Even low church evangelicals lavish him with praise: I believe there is a Lewis collection (manuscripts, photographs, etc.) at Wheaton. It’s a very curious situation, really. The only figure in a similar position is, perhaps, Augustine, though the Orthodox aren’t quite so smitten by him.

  29. dinoship says:

    I remember years ago picking up Lewis’ “the screwtape letters” and thinking it read like the philokalia on the struggle with thoughts…
    It couldn’t believe the guy’s not orthodox!

  30. Silouan says:

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you.

    I don’t think it would be wasted time either and perhaps, God willing, if I’m alloted the time to pursue becoming familiar with the works I will do so, but with the time I have available and given my prior background I’m content becoming familar with the holy fathers.

  31. Lynne says:

    Yes, there is a collection of Lewis’ letters and papers at Wheaton College, along with a large piece of wooden furniture, about six feet tall and five feet wide, with two beautifully carved doors, made by Lewis’ grandfather. I believe that it’s called a wardrobe in Great Britain….

  32. PJ says:

    By Job, relics at Wheaton!

  33. John Shores says:

    I remember years ago picking up Lewis’ “the screwtape letters”…

    I tried to read that in my 20s and it totally screwed me up! I was already neurotic enough about whether I was saved or not. That book messed me up good. I got through it 10 years later but not without much of the same difficulty.

    Personally, I prefer Terry Pratchett’s view that demons are not nearly as clever at evil as human beings are. That is something that I can readily believe.

  34. David Brodeur says:

    This text is as always, great to read. The last quote that you added is very touching and True.

    This begs one minor question. What is exactly Gnostiscism ? Who are exactly the Gnostic ? What exactly is their ”fault” ?

    Thank you,
    Blessings to you.

  35. Tom Hamilton says:

    Dear Father, bless. Please pray for me as I am not there yet. I fail to understand ,however, I am outside the faith (Church). My heart hurts but I am unable to find the door. I hope- in time. May the Lord continue to grant you such Wisdom.

  36. dinoship says:

    John Shores,
    there is no competition, the demons are beings with 1000 of years experience in that game and are (usually) far more cunning than man in evil; HOWEVER, they can not even touch the mind who has found humility as it renders all their wiles utterly useless

  37. fatherstephen says:

    The gnostics were religious groups, evolved in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, employing systems of “esoteric” teachings about salvation. It seems to be a mix of Jewish, Persian and other elements. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, they began to employ Christ and teachings about Christ as part of their systems – the teachings varied very widely. In some, Christ is a bad figure. This is their “problem” – they used Christian elements in a manner that perverted them (from the traditional Christian point of view). And thus they were termed heretics. Remember, at this early stage, Christianity had no temporal power and did not try to punish heresy or such things. Christians were an extremely small minority group. Thus, all that was done was to teach and warn about the heresy. The following is excerpted from Wikipedia:

    A common characteristic of some of these groups was the teaching that the realisation of Gnosis (esoteric or intuitive knowledge) is the way to salvation of the soul from the material world. They saw the material world as created through an intermediary being (demiurge) rather than directly by God. In most of the systems, this demiurge was seen as imperfect, in others even as evil. Different gnostic schools sometimes identified the demiurge as Adam Kadmon, Ahriman, El, Saklas, Samael, Satan, Yaldabaoth, or Yahweh.
    Jesus is identified by some Gnostics as an embodiment of the supreme being who became incarnate to bring gnōsis to the earth.[3] Others adamantly deny that the supreme being came in the flesh, claiming Jesus to be merely a human who attained divinity through gnosis and taught his disciples to do the same.[citation needed] Among the Mandaeans, Jesus was considered a mšiha kdaba or “false messiah” who perverted the teachings entrusted to him by John the Baptist.[4] Still other traditions identify Mani and Seth, third son of Adam and Eve, as salvific figures.[5]

    The Christian groups first called “gnostic” a branch of Christianity, however Joseph Jacobs and Ludwig Blau (Jewish Encyclopedia, 1911) note that much of the terminology employed is Jewish and note that this “proves at least that the principal elements of gnosticism were derived from Jewish speculation, while it does not preclude the possibility of new wine having been poured into old bottles.”[6] The movement spread in areas controlled by the Roman Empire and Arian Goths,[7] and the Persian Empire; it continued to develop in the Mediterranean and Middle East before and during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Conversion to Islam and the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229) greatly reduced the remaining number of Gnostics throughout the Middle Ages, though a few Mandaean communities still exist. Gnostic and pseudo-gnostic ideas became influential in some of the philosophies of various esoteric mystical movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and North America, including some that explicitly identify themselves as revivals or even continuations of earlier gnostic groups.

  38. fatherstephen says:

    Tom,
    Be comforted. I will indeed pray for you. Understand that no one judges you. There is a mystery concerning the boundaries of the Church – may God hide you “beneath the shadow of His wings.” Be patient. God is good and will show you the door.

  39. John Shores says:

    dinoship:

    Personally, I prefer Terry Pratchett’s view that demons are not nearly as clever at evil as human beings are. That is something that I can readily believe.

    there is no competition, the demons are beings with 1000 of years experience in that game and are (usually) far more cunning than man in evil

    I disagree. When it comes to people, there is no end to the ways that we find to torture one another. Whether it’s the rack, performing medical procedures on prisoners of war, shock and awe, flying planes into buildings, or a woman gluing her 2 year old child’s hands to the wall, there is no end to our inventiveness.

    In all of Scripture, only god sent plagues, floods, fire from heaven and other WMDs. And when WMDs won’t do, commanding genocide is part of his playbook. (But I will say that he is not preferential about it. He sends his own people into captivity more than he uses them to wipe out other people.)

    What’s the worst that demons ever did? Chit-chat with Eve? Torment Job (for which the devil had to get gods permission, btw (yes, I realize Job is not an historical figure. Still…))? Possess an individual? (I would have a lot easier time believing books that talk about the spiritual realm if in cases where people are “possessed”, the “demons” were not “cast out” by anti-psychotic medicines.)

    Even when it comes to idolatry, Paul gives all the credit to humans who “became futile in their speculations…and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.”

    So, perhaps you could clarify for me any evidence that you have to support the notion that demons are “far more cunning than man in evil.”

    Only humans are depraved enough to invent talk radio, the stock market, Toddlers in Tiaras, politics, Hollywood and Facebook.

  40. Rhonda says:

    Gee, John! Lighten UP!

    Have you never seen anything good in any human being ever? Yes, humans are capable of performing indescribable evil deeds…the Nazi concentration camps are proof of that, not to mention many other events of history. But the fall of mankind into sin damaged the image of God, it did not totally destroy it, nor could it. Therefore, they also are capable of good deeds just as indescribable.

    For example, 19 terrorists killed thousands of people when they crashed hijacked airplanes into buildings on 9/11. But hundreds of police officers, fire fighters, & other EMS personnel went into the debris & wreckage to save others, sacrificing their lives in the process. One man entered a theatre & massacred so many in Colorado, but at least 4 men lost their lives so that their loved ones could continue living. Evil is the total absence of love, Good is the very essence of love. Even Christ says that there is not greater love than a man sacrifice his own life for others. There are people out there that risk & even lose their lives everyday so that others may not only live, but also live better lives.

    I work in an environment where psychotropic drugs are widely prescribed. Trust me, they do not “cast out” any “demons”, neither those of the inner man nor of the spiritual realm. The drugs merely cause the user to zone out into mindless oblivion where they are no longer capable of remembering the horrors they have committed against their fellow man, not to mention themselves.

  41. Karen says:

    John, based on your comment to Fr. Stephen about the effect on you of reading “The Screwtape Letters”, I’m inclined to read your last comment (and your tendency in other areas as well to cling to a materialistic understanding of “reality” ) as evidence that you are “whistling in the dark” here. You don’t want to understand human evil (especially the worst of it) as evidence of unseen forces of wickedness at work upon and within human beings perhaps because you are deeply fearful that you will have no help from God in the face of such superhuman intelligence directed against us (and have convinced yourself because of your present state of mind that you have never did have any help from Him). At least if the evil is merely human, you can (theoretically) see how to fight back in some way. Am I hitting anywhere close to home here?

  42. Karen says:

    (cont.) John, I should also point out that Orthodox (and, I believe, even the authors of the biblical writings) make a distinction between psychosis or other symptoms of mental or emotional dysfunction originating from physiological and psychological causes (which is ameliorated by drug and/or psychotherapy) and that induced by demons. It recognizes multiple etiologies for similar symptoms in different people.

    I’ve also heard from more than one Christian psychotherapist working in mental institutions that there are definitely cases of psychosis that do not respond to meds,, but do, on the other hand, respond to spiritual warfare (i.e., prayer, the proclamation of Scriptural truth, the use of sacramental/blessed objects, and even rites of exorcism, which is also a form of prayer). Typically in these cases, you will find a background of the practice of some kind of occultism.

    In contrast, folks whose mental illness has a primarily physiological and/or psychological basis can often be deeply devout Christians, and are not typically actively hostile to the mention of the name of Jesus or the expression of Christian faith as are those with psychotic symptoms with demonic origin. They are not exempt from demonic influence and oppression, as Rhonda points out, but it takes a much more ordinary form–simple temptations and struggles with sin as with the rest of us. Often there is a history of mental illness running in the family showing a likely genetic predisposition and vulnerability. I have relatives with mental illness, and this is certainly the case with them.

  43. John Shores says:

    Karen:

    I’m inclined to read your last comment as evidence that you are “whistling in the dark” here…Am I hitting anywhere close to home here?

    I rather think not. The reason that the book messed me up at that time was because I was already fairly far gone, having been raised under a deity that saw and disapproved of a vast majority of my thoughts already. Throw a devil into the mix who could manipulate me and what hope was there? I was not nearly smart enough to out-think Wormwood, let alone Screwtape.

    More to the point, Lewis wrote the book as a work of fiction. It all came from his imagination, which rather makes my point. Human ingenuity is

    Rhonda:

    Have you never seen anything good in any human being ever?

    Most certainly! The fact that people can be evil to one another does not exclude the opposite. Indeed, I think that, by and large, there is far more goodness in the world than people tend to admit. That’s why I never watch the news and prefer shows like “Undercover Boss” and “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” that highlight the better qualities of people.

    What I’m saying is that devils seem to get a lot of credit for things that humans think up. Hitler was not possessed. He was thoroughly bad and ruthlessly efficient. I think that to call him “possessed” would be a form of excusing him.

    Even when I was a Christian, I tended to think that blaming the devil was a cop-out.

    I work in an environment where psychotropic drugs are widely prescribed. Trust me, they do not “cast out” any “demons”

    Would you say then that people with mental illness are possessed? Rather, how would you differentiate between one who is mentally ill and one who is possessed?

    I think what I was trying to point out is that it seems that much of what used to be termed as being “possessed by a devil” is now considered “mental illness.” Is this not so?

    I am not merely speaking on a philosophical level. I am closer to the end of my life than I care to be. My comments and questions in this forum are predicated on the idea that I may be dead next week. None of this is flippant or merely idle chatter. Death all by itself is difficult enough. I don’t want to have to face it wondering if there are devils waiting to snatch me up or (almost as bad) if the god of the Bible is waiting to snatch me up. To be honest, in my opinion, any way you look at those two options it’s a loss. If I had never read anything about god except the story of the Prodigal Son, I would be OK, I think. But the god of the OT and even many parts of the NT does not inspire a feeling of fatherhood.

    But I guess I’ll find out soon enough…

  44. dinoship says:

    JS,
    I admit to agreeing with Karen as far as your understanding of these matters being slightly jaundiced.
    Sorry.
    The main difference regarding demons and humans however, is that we can repent and be saved even after having performed the most vile and perverted tortures imaginable, demons are just not interested – ever.

  45. John Shores says:

    Dinoship – How can you possibly know that?

  46. The less we know about demons the better

  47. dinoship says:

    I am not the one who discovered all this of course! It is the knowledge of the Church that is traditioned down for thousands of years and receives proofs upon proofs of the same knowledge traditioned down for thousands of years by those who wage war at the forefront – unlike us ‘clever’ commenters doubting “whether the wheel exists” unless we ourselves re-invent it…
    Our Ego is far worse of an enemy, second is the secular ‘world’ and last is the devil with his demons.
    The Orthodox Church has such extensive practical knowledge concerning all of these and how to wage war on them that those who even just had a peek at it marvelled at the paucity of the so-called “knowledge” of the secular world (psychology, neurology, sociology etc etc.)

  48. dinoship says:

    Saint Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth as early as the 7th decade AD: “for we are not ignorant of his {the devils} devices.”

  49. mary benton says:

    John – (and others)

    I tend to be with you on the Screwtape Letters. I love CS Lewis but that was not my favorite. I was raised with Catholic guilt and, being a sensitive person, got significantly neurotic about it. Now I can just be a believer. However, I am one who prefers not to give demons (if they exist) much attention for this reason.

    A couple of thoughts (from a Catholic/Christian psychologist): I have had patients tell me that I am an angel sent to them by God – expressing gratitude, not delusion. Now, I know that I am not an angel. But I believe that I can choose to cooperate with good and God can bring people healing through my words and actions – because of His goodness, not mine.

    I also believe that I can choose to cooperate with evil – may I be given the strenth to not do so! We all have this choice, whether or not we believe that demons exist as a separate entity. Being of a sensitive and neurotic nature, I prefer not to direct my attention to such things. I focus my attention on cooperating with the good and repenting when I slip off the path. (“Always we begin again.” -St. Benedict).

    I think it quite possible that some of the “demons” cast out in earlier times may have been people with mental illnesses or seizure disorders that were not understood as such. In more recent times, people with dissociation (previous called “multiple personalities”) have sometimes been subjected to exorcisms – not a good thing – as the “demons” they report are not truly demons. However, I believe that the Biblical accounts of demons being cast out are still legitimate healings, regardless of whether the illnesses were physical, mental or spiritual.

    I have (very infrequently) encountered people who seemed to straddle the line between being mentally ill vs. being caught up in something evil. It is certainly not a distinction that can be made easily or with certainty. But the best weapon again evil is good – and goodness does much for those with psychiatric illness as well.

    So I have used many words to say something simple: we do our best to choose to do good and avoid doing evil, and we make our best effort to understand what that means. Then, when considering our mortality, we trust that we will be met by Good (aka God) when our bodies can no longer sustain our spirits. A big leap of trust, I know, but one I have chosen with joy.

  50. Nathan says:

    Perhaps reading Kyriacos Markides’ book “The Mountain of Silence” would be helpful in regard to the question (and work) of demons. He speaks to a monk who recounts contemporary struggles with demons on Mt. Athos. The writings of the Desert Fathers are helpful, as well.

    I believe that what is most important to realize about demons is that they have one goal: tearing down your faith in God. That is the point of the Screwtape Letters – the demon wants to engender unbelief in the man.

    Whether the mentally ill are actually demon possessed or not is not of much consequence, I don’t think. Whether demons run around committing horrible atrocities also doesn’t matter quite so much, in the grand scheme of things. The “why” of what they do is far more important than the “what” – and the “why” is always to lead us away from God.

    And our greatest defense against that danger is prayer and humility, and the Eucharist and Confession (the “anchors” of our prayer life and substance of our humility).

    From the Desert Fathers:
    “To one of the brethren appeared a devil, transformed into an angel of light, who said to him: I am the Angel Grabriel, and I have been sent to thee. But the brother said: Think again – you must have been sent to somebody else. I haven’t done anything to deserve an angel. Immediately the devil ceased to appear.”

  51. John Shores says:

    Thank you Mary. I am truly touched by your words.

  52. dinoship says:

    God will most certainly triumph in saving us, it is not us who will do any of it, He can use even the most miniscule good found within our hearts, no matter how perverted they are. He is there in our tribulations all the more so, and especially at our last time. So what if I am surrounded by a million legeons of Demons? God is there, I need to simply and singularly pay no attention to my own feelings but my belief in His loving presence and omnipotence and Love.
    The existence of demons and the power of their suggestions is something that should make us never judge another and, rather than doubt God’s willingness or ability to save us, be aware that He takes all of these excusing factors into account when we cannot forgive ourselves and He simply embraces us the minute we leave our last breath…
    We simply need to be humble and trusting. There was nothing else provided by the Prodigal, one can argue that he possibly just came back to his Father because of hunger and nothing else! yet he was still greeted the way he was and God did not even allow him to finish his self abasing sentence!
    Yes, the demons always have a hidden ajenda (which they despise being exposed):
    for most of the “harsh sins” it is not the sinning itself but the following though of despairation (‘you cannot be saved’) IGNORE it and that is the best possible way to fight them according to the whole of Orthodox ascetical experience. That’s why we cling only to the Lord with the unceasing Jesus prayer day and night.
    For most of the “virtues” the demons’agenda is pride (“you are not like the rest of them”) IGNORE it even more
    The theme here is not to pay attention to them or to me or to how I feel. We only pay attention to our belief that God loves us beyond anything we can ever conceieve…
    It is amazingly simple and life transforming, but we are the only ones -not the demons- that stop ourselves from baptizing and rebaptizing ourselves every day and minute in the salvific waters of this re-orientating Christocentric trust.
    Much More than simply being saved, ie: actually becoming a saint is as simple as this: I have a headache, what do I do, become consumed by it? look everywhere for cures? or -like the martyrs- cling tighter still to the Lord and ignore me? It should not scandalize us who call ourselves Christians…

  53. mary benton says:

    I came across a helpful CS Lewis quote today:

    “Wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way.”

  54. Karen says:

    Mary, wise words, indeed. Thanks (from another one frequently tempted to become neurotic!). Your advice also echoes that of St. Paul (Phil. 4:8). :-)

    I should say there was a time in my life I was excessively fearful of demons and such (the result of exposure to monster films and occult stories at a young impressionable age). I have never been tempted by The Screwtape Letters, though, in the way John and Mary describe because I have always seen it as a rather humorous way of describing our various, everyday temptations and the dynamics of how virtues and vices develop and have appreciated, as always, how extremely insightful Lewis was about those things!

    Some decades now after those childhood and teenage fears of evil beings, a long, slow (often halting!) process of spiritual growth has brought me to the place where I have an ever deepening conviction that satan and all his minions are on an unbreakable “leash” held by the hand of an unspeakably good God and that God, Who is uncompromisingly good, allows them only such play in this leash as is compatible with His loving purposes: 1. not to interfere with our freewill cooperation with either good or evil and 2. only when the temptations will further His loving purpose of our attaining true wisdom and transformation into His likeness, which is our ultimate good and the destiny of our humanity.

    Accordingly, I believe it is significant that only those who have been exposed to active occultism and monks and nuns very advanced in the spiritual life and adept at spiritual warfare, typically encounter the demonic in their more overt and monstrous forms. I have been amazed by God’s ability to heal (through a combination of psychotherapy and prayer) someone deeply damaged in childhood by satanic ritual abuse and restore that one into one integrated personality as relationally, spiritually and emotionally healthy (and actually more so than most because of the wisdom and grace gained through a God-transformed experience with such evil) than those of us not so traumatized.

  55. Silouan says:

    No matter how new or clever we think our opposing theological questions are rest assured they have already been answered by the Church before the thought even arose in our my mind.

    There is plenty written about the subject of the devil and his angles throughout scripture and in the works of our holy fathers. Seek the answers and you will find them, and this goes for any other questions you may be struggling with.

    This is not to be pessimistic, because we have hope, but I don’t think it is wise to ignore our adversaries, and we should learn more about how they operate and why-they without ceasing work to draw man away from God. We also must become more aware and vigilant about our own weaknesses. Particularly the passions that are most prevalent in our lives as these are likely to be preyed upon with suggestive and enticing thoughts.

    The angelic realm is different from our realm though our soul is integrated with it. Our bodies occupy the material realm, and man is the bridge between the two realms. Angels and demons are messengers who communicate with us through thought and images. It is the lower faculty of soul where thoughts and images reside which receives these messages. The onus of how we respond to them is on us.

    The presence and influence of the demonic is not taken seriously as it should, and has become a Hollywood joke. However, John Shores provided excellent examples of what man is capable when complacent our ignorant and that is no joke.

    Also, the demons at times don’t want to be known, but they are prideful and do attempt to invoke fear in us, and they do this by making their presence known.

    We can say with our mouths what must be done, but salvation is for those that endure to the end and the road is narrow, and we must go through trials and tribulations to the end. The saints while on earth never said their work is done only to us it appeared so. They battled the serpent dwelling in their hearts right to the end.

  56. mary benton says:

    John, Karen – especially appreciated your words.

    I think we have gotten rather far off track from Father Stephen’s original article. For those of you who find it helpful to focus on spiritual warfare with demons, far be it from me to tell you to stop (I’m in no position to understand your spiritual dilemmas.)

    I, on the other hand, find that focus to be a hindrance in my spiritual life and therefore will continue on my path which focuses on the One I love. There are likely good reasons that we may need to view things from different vantage points.

    I trust God to guide and protect each of us on our unique path, as we seek to find Him with our feeble understanding.

  57. fatherstephen says:

    Mary, et al.
    Readers would be hard put to find an article by me about demons. Someone asked me a while back if I believed in them. I answered, “Of course. They are fallen angels. However, having said that, I don’t know what it means.” I wasn’t trying to be coy – just honest. I believe in angels, too, and I’ve one or two experiences with them. Demons are either outside of my experience or I do not have the discernment to distinguish their work from that of my own passions. I’m also convinced that if they have any power in my life, it is only through my passions. As some others have said, I largely concentrate on Christ. When something does alarm me, there have been one or two cases in which I wondered what was going on with someone I was dealing with, I cross myself, say the prayer of the Cross:

    Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered; and let those who hate Him flee from His face. As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish; and as wax melts before the fire, so let demons perish from the presence of those who love God and who sign themselves with the sign of the Cross and say in gladness: Hail, most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, for Thou drivest away the demons by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ crucified on thee, Who went down to hades and trampled on the power of the devil, and gave us thee, his venerable Cross, for driving away all enemies. O most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, help me, with our Holy Lady, the Virgin Mother of God, and with all the Saints throughout the ages. Amen.

    I heartily commend it for memorization.

  58. Todd says:

    I suspect that I am misunderstanding what you mean when you write: “If the Scripture can only be read in the Church…” Maybe I’m just delusional, but this just doesn’t seem to square with my own experience. As I look back on my path (as I remember it, anyway), I encountered Christ by way of the Scriptures long before I ever encountered the visible Orthodox Church.
    My private times of ‘Bible study’ were not nonsense, but were often an encounter with the voice of God, such that having heard his voice in the Scriptures (prior to any contact with the living body of the Church), I was prepared to recognize his voice when I at last encountered it within the context of his Church. The Scriptures seemed at times to resonate almost audibly with this ‘song of God’, so that when I finally came to hear with my ears the chanting in Church, it felt like, Ah… that’s the tune. Most of all, the reading of Scripture instilled in me a deep hunger for worship that could only be met in the worship of the Church.

  59. John Shores says:

    Mary: I personally couldn’t care a rat’s rear end about demons but this leads to the conundrum that this, coupled with no faith in god, is evidence that I am influenced by them. It’s the sort of circular reasoning that pervaded my Protestant upbringing and was crazy-making.

    I think you and Fr. Stephen are smart to not pay much heed to such things.

    Todd:

    I suspect that I am misunderstanding what you mean when you write: “If the Scripture can only be read in the Church…”

    I believe what he intended to convey is that only the church has the full context of what the scriptures mean, that context being the traditions of the church and the writings of the fathers. If the Scripture is inspired and you are inspired by it, that seems only natural. But to study it by itself (out of the aforementioned context) cannot result in proper understanding of it. I think that without that context, any attempt to study the Bible must invariably lead to “every man doing what is right in his own eyes.” This is why we get authors like Tim Lahaye and Randy Alcorn spewing the most ridiculous ideas based on a personal interpretation of the Scriptures rather than Orthodox theology.

    But what do I know?

  60. mary benton says:

    John – not having faith in God is not (in my mind) the evidence of “demon” influence – you seem to be someone honestly searching for truth. What else can any of us do?

    There is, in another sense, the reality that we all have our “demons” (metaphorically), i.e. the baggage of our pasts that we need to sort through in order for genuine spiritual growth to occur.

    It sounds like you were given some substantial baggage – blessings on your sorting process.

  61. Silouan says:

    Thank you Father.

    I think for my part in responding to the prior postings regarding demons my intention was misunderstood, but that is my error. I just want to clarify that I wasn’t suggesting that we should preoccupy ourselves with them, become demonologists, was referring specifically to demon possession, or to diminish Christ’s redemptive work nor our dependence upon Him.

    In light of the seriousness of our unseen warfare I was trying to emphasize that we should be guarded, sober, and aware. Respect their power, but not fear them. I do not say this just from a position of knowledge obtained through only study, but of experience too, and like you including that of angels.

    I think it is important as Christians to know the economy of salvation in its completeness. For if we see the fall of man at the instigation of the serpent and its consequences as unimportant or merely as myths than what does that make the incarnation, resurrection, and our salvation?

    Forgive me

  62. PJ says:

    “Our good Lord showed me the enmity of the fiend, from which I gathered that everything opposed to love and peace comes from the fiend and his set.

    Inevitably we fall because of our weakness and stupidity – and just as surely we get up with even greater joy because of the mercy and grace of the Holy Spirit.

    Even if our enemy gains something from us when we fall (this is what he likes!), he loses very much more because of our love and humility when we get up again.” –Julian of Norwich

  63. Silouan says:

    That’s beautiful PJ. Thank you for sharing it.

    John S, I agree with Mary in that your doubt is not demonic.

    I also don’t see it as necessarily negative either, but quite the opposite. If I might use an old Buddhist saying “from big doubt comes big enligtenment”. If you continue to push forward, embrace, and keep investigating the things you think are the source of your doubt you will evenutally exhaust your intellect and just let go. You are on the threshold. :-)

  64. John Shores says:

    Thank you Silouan. I must admit that this community allowing me to participate in discussions has been a great help in “pushing forward.” I am truly grateful to you all.

  65. Karen says:

    Todd, what Fr. Stephen writes I believe does not preclude your experience (which was mine, too, btw). He has also written something to the effect that Orthodoxy extends its influence beyond the visible boundaries of the Church. There is something of Orthodoxy (not its fullness, but something) within the various Christian traditions (and even outside those). If the Holy Spirit were not working to illumine and convict those also outside the Church, they would never find their way into the Church in the first place.

  66. Silouan says:

    John S, the feeling is very mutual. We all learn together. Sincerely, Silouan

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