The Singular Goodness of God

It has long seemed to me that it is one thing to believe that God exists and quite another to believe that He is good. Indeed, to believe that God exists simply begs the question. That question is: Who is God, and what can be said of Him? Is He good? This goes to the heart of the proclamation of the Christian faith. We believe that God has revealed Himself definitively in the God/Man, Jesus Christ, and preeminently in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Years ago, a friend of mine was speaking with an Orthodox priest about certain matters of conscience. In the course of the conversation, my friend mentioned concerns with the judgment of God, expressing a certain dread. The priest responded by turning around a small icon of Christ that was on his desk so that my friend could see it. It was the icon of Christ, “Extreme Humility,” that pictures Him in the depth of His humiliation and suffering. “Which God are we talking about?” was the priest’s question. My friend’s concerns were answered in that moment. Whatever our concerns might be, the goodness of God is revealed in that icon without qualification.

It is possible to use the entire Jesus story as a way of proving the existence of God, only to then proceed to think of God in terms that are somehow removed from Christ Himself. I’m not sure whether we imagine this “God” to be the “Father” or something else. These conversations (and thoughts) are often expressed in terms of, “I believe that God…” and on from there. I think of this as the God of the blackboard. Jesus is used in order to prove the blackboard but then we begin to fill in that large, blank wall with our own imaginings (or various passages of Scripture that we might use as a counterweight to the story of Jesus).

Sometimes those imaginings are extrapolations from Scripture (this story or that). Sometimes they are the productions of opinion. Many times our imaginings were handed down to us or written in our minds long before we ever thought about the matter.

If the stories of Scripture “prior” to Christ were sufficient for the knowledge of God, Christ would not have spoken in correction of the conclusions falsely drawn from them. There is a Greek word for an interpretation of the Scriptures: exegesis. It is most informative to note that St. John (in the Greek) says:

The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has exegeted Him. (Joh 1:18)

Christ is how we “read” God. We cannot get behind Christ to speak about God as though we knew anything of God apart from Christ. We do not know God “prior” to Christ. When Christ declares that He is the “Way, the Truth, and the Life” and that “no one comes to the Father except by Me,” He is not merely describing the path of salvation, He is making it clear that it is through Him alone that we know God. This is also affirmed in St. Matthew’s gospel:

All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. (Matt. 11:27 NKJ)

Christ not only reveals God, but He reveals the goodness of God. He is what goodness looks like. Throughout His ministry, every word and action is a revelation of goodness. That goodness is supremely made manifest in His voluntary self-emptying on the Cross. This revelation is definitive and must be always borne in mind when we consider who God is and what kind of God He is. He is the kind of God who empties Himself for our sake, unites Himself to our shame and suffering, and endures all things that He might reconcile us to Himself and lead us into the fullness of life in Him.

This is the proper “exegesis” of the Scriptures. Anything that imagines God in a manner that is not consistent with this presentation is a deviant reading (for a Christian). This calls for an inner discipline. When reading even the most disturbing imprecatory passages within the Scriptures, we should search for the image of the Crucified Christ within them. There are frequent paradoxes in such an approach. This is particularly true in the language of hell (and its synonyms).

God has no need for punishment. He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). He cannot will our destruction and punishment while at the same time not willing that we should perish. Even the language of the fires of hell as a self-inflicted reality can be misleading. We know by experience that we are capable of inflicting great suffering on ourselves and we can easily imagine that stretching into eternity. What is being described, however, are the inner dynamics of a relationship with Divine Love: compassionate, forgiving, gentle, self-emptying in the extreme. The language and imagery of Scripture can be graphic, at times repulsive, particularly in the confusion of modern literalism.

These matters must be read within the heart (for that is where they were written). The singular commitment of the heart must be grounded in the goodness of God. We are not asked to look at something that is repugnant or horrible and say that it is good. That would do damage to the soul. What we know in Christ tells us that God is good. It is this that we look for as we search the depths of our world for understanding.

An element of God’s goodness that is frequently overlooked is found in our freedom (even when we misuse it). Nothing else in all creation is given the freedom that marks human existence. Everything else around us expresses its nature. A dog always acts as a dog. Human beings have the capacity in our freedom to act contrary to our nature. Sometimes our own sanity is insane. Some of the Fathers describe this capacity as “godlike.” We have been given a freedom that transcends our nature. It is this freedom that, potentially, finds expression in the fullness of personal existence.

We are created with the capacity to see God “face-to-face,” to interact as an equal, regardless of how absurd that might seem. It is an existence that is not confined to nature or circumstance but finally is above both. It is an existence that is constituted solely by love. I have seen this freedom exercised as love, even within the depths of protracted, life-long suffering. The goodness manifested in such examples is staggering.

I do not think there is a calculus that can be brought into this reality. Is the freedom we are given worth the price? No calculus is possible because we cannot measure the things involved. I cannot measure the suffering of an innocent child (as did Ivan Karamazov) just as I cannot measure the full joy of the freedom of love. What we have in Christ, however, is an example of both.

Here, we profess, is the most Innocent of the innocent, who, “for the joy that was set before Him, endured the Cross, disregarding the shame” (Heb. 12:2). The “joy that was set before Him,” is not some sort of private bliss. It is the joy of love, in freeing those who are held in bondage so that they might see Him face-to-face (as an equal) in all of the fullness of a true personal existence.

I cannot imagine this, nor measure this. But I can say that I see this. I see One who is utterly good, compassionate and self-emptying, walking the path of the unimaginable because He is good and thinks we are worth it. My faith (trust, loyalty) says, “I want to walk that path – help me!” I take His death and resurrection as the revelation of God and of the world as well.

 

 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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251 responses to “The Singular Goodness of God”

  1. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Fr. Stephen,
    My heart rejoices as I read your words! Growing up in church, I heard about Jesus’ love, but dreaded the Father. Before becoming Orthodox I continued this bifurcation into adulthood. I have the icon you reference. I think I need to take it out from a drawer more than just during Pascha. You are correct. It is simply impossible to look at this icon and to believe that God is not good. I do not want the God of the blackboard…but the living, good and gracious God which we see in Christ. Thank you for reminding us that Jesus exegetes the Father by every word He speaks, by every action He takes. As I’ve written before, in my heart, still before God, I have only experienced Christ as good. Stillness is good, the God we meet there is totally Good! Thank this good God for your writings on this blog, thank Him for His holy Church. Since it is His body on earth it continues to this day to faithfully exegete the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to us, through every prayer, liturgy and hymn. I could not have known this good God in His fullness but for the Orthodox Church.

  2. Beth Avatar
    Beth

    I like to remember 1John 4:8 “God is love” when reading 1Cor 13. Then I read ‘God’ in stead of love in each instance. Therefore, ” God is patient, God is kind. He does not envy, He does not boast, He is not proud. He does not dishonor others, He is not self-seeking, He is not easily angered, He keeps no record of wrongs. He does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. He never fails.
    Perhaps one isn’t supposed to do that with scripture, but how else do we know love than Christ revealed unto us. And again , the fuit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) must reveal something of the nature of God Himself – love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. I feel it is all summed up in the word philantropos. Our good and man-loving God.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Amen Father! Joy is a gift of God that cannot be contained. It shines through the deepest grief, sorrow and pain.

  4. Laura Stanley Avatar
    Laura Stanley

    Father Stephen, thank God you posted your thoughts today. I had gone surfing on the web yesterday and got caught up in the teaching of toll houses. I will bookmark this post to read again (and again!)

  5. Subdeacon John (Walt) Kennick Avatar
    Subdeacon John (Walt) Kennick

    When a protestant, I saw God the Father as a distant “great cosmic bushwhacker.” It took coming to the Orthodox Church and experiencing the true faith to know the love of God, Faher, Son, and Holy Spirit.

  6. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Father,
    Laura’s comment made in think of something. Now, your article rings true to my mind and heart. Being so, how does something as frightful as the toll houses get started? Had I first read about them when I first approached Orthodoxy I would have rejected it all outright. After being Orthodox some years I had to toss out a book on judgment and tollhouses. It simply wasn’t what I knew of Christ.

  7. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    So how do we see human freedom with respect to Romans 7 where the apostle twice says ‘If the things I wish to do are not the things I do, but the things I do not wish are what I practice. Then it is no longer I that do them, but the sin that dwells in me.’ How do understand the ‘no longer I that does it’?

  8. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Father,
    I think my own willingness to profess belief in foreign images and expressions of piety that, if I am truly honest with myself, undermine my essential childlike trust in the love of God I see in the face of Christ in this Icon, and which I cannot translate into the language that comes across to me clearly in Orthodox Liturgy and dogma, is not a “noble sentiment”, but rather more like spiritual delusion and a state ripe for the development of prelest (if it is not that already). Maybe that’s a too harsh judgment on myself and I can’t speak for others, but that’s what I suspect.

    That said, I can’t judge pious Orthodox customs in the old country. Otoh, I have run into other converts like myself from non-Orthodox backgrounds (Catholic or Protestant), not just from American culture, but also from other cultures, who by things they told me or did and said with their children in my presence gave the impression of living in an unhealthy fear of displeasing God and of their own sin’s power relative to God’s disposition to forgive, in their own or their children’s lives. I admit I have seen things that have troubled me for them and the kids. I could see that mindset, if uncorrected, reaping some trouble (especially with the kids) down the road (especially if they remain in this culture). Always, but especially when they are young, our kids need to know we do not love them (and God does not love them) only when they behave appropriately or only after they say sorry for an infraction of parental instruction, etc., but ALL THE TIME!

    Going back to my own experience, when we can never completely relax in childlike joy and abandon to the love of God, even right after Confession, that’s a sign there is still healing needed in this area.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    I think that our freedom is impaired. It’s not that we have no freedom, but it is clearly damaged. St. Paul seems to be echoing a common rabbinical understanding of the time – that we have within us the “Yetzer Ha Ra” and the “Yetzer Ha Tov,” the “evil impulse” and the “good impulse.” Paul describes it as “no longer but sin that dwells in me.”

    Take that passage and consider it in light of Galatians 5. There Paul speaks of liberty (freedom). Just as he says in Romans 7 that it is Christ who can set free (from this ‘body of death’). Our freedom is a gift of grace – not the product of a perfectly free will. As such, I think, we frequently experience it as fragile in this life. Paul begs the Galatians to “stand fast in the liberty.”

    We should not think of human existence as possessing freedom – it is capable of freedom. Freedom is an attribute of God – “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” That we can have it is a token of the theosis of which we are capable by grace.

    Be we should not think of human existence as bereft of freedom. Just like all of our capacities, we still have them, even though they are damaged. We still breathe, and think, etc. I think of the man who cries out, “I believe, help my unbelief!” Or, perhaps, Fr. Thomas Hopko’s famous, “Do you want to want to want to?” Sometimes that’s about the best we can muster.

    I’ve said before that if we give God an inch, He’ll take our life. Or, that my prayer is, “O Lord, drag my sorry soul into paradise.” That is a statement of the will – even though I know how hard I’ll fight Him. The morning I “decided” to become Orthodox, I knelt by my bed and prayed, “O God, make me Orthodox.” I meant by that, “O Lord, I want to be Orthodox” and “O Lord, you’ll have to make me.” It took seven years. There was one set of footprints (His), and one set of marks made by two feet that were being dragged.

    And that was only a willingness towards Orthodoxy…which is nothing more than the gate. He’s still dragging me. Blessed be His name!

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Karen,
    You’ll note I deleted my earlier comment. Sometimes I have to moderate myself!

    But, I’ve encountered plenty of fear of an angry God among those who have grown up in Orthodox lands (and elsewhere). Orthodoxy, per se, is not really a protection from it. I think of it as a shallow, under-formed Orthodoxy – far too common in some places. It is quite possible for Orthodoxy to be a “cultural religion” just as being Baptist in the South is a cultural religion (I ought to know).

    St. Anthony the Great said there are three kinds of believers: the slave, the hired worker, and the child. The child acts out of love; the hired worker for reward; the slave out of fear. He advocated the role of the child. But, his saying also did not dismiss the slave or hired hand. Some are saved by fear…though God wills so much better for us. Finding that better thing is often difficult given the circumstances of life. I know plenty of priests who think fear to be of great use. It has never been terribly helpful to me. Over the years, I have noticed that those who prefer fear as a godly approach do not care for my ministry over the long haul.

  11. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Im becoming a big fan of St. Anthony the Great.

  12. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    We should not think of human existence as possessing freedom – it is capable of freedom. Freedom is an attribute of God…[But] we should not think of human existence as bereft of freedom.

    Yep. I agree.

  13. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Thanks, Father.

    St John Climacus also picks up on the language of St. Anthony in his famous work. In the first chapter, he writes:

    “…The man who renounces the world because of fear is like burning incense, which begins with fragrance and ends with smoke. The man who leaves the world in hopes of a reward is like the millstone that always turns on the same axis. But the man who leaves the world for love of God has taken fire from the start, and like fire set to fuel, it soon creates a conflagration.”

    This understanding is reflected in the advice given by Elder (now Saint) Porphyrios in Wounded by Love where he strongly emphasizes doing everything out of love for Christ (rather than the compulsion of fear or duty). He prefers the “soft” way. I find that much more effective for me as well.

    I think somewhere in St. John’s book, he does again pick up this theme using the language of “slave, servant and son” for these stages/types. I think I have seen language about this from the Fathers that suggests salvation (theosis) only properly characterizes the third stage/type and that the first two only save by being the intermediate means (for some) to the third. In my mind, getting stuck in fear or even hope of a reward (external to God Himself) correspond to mistaking the spiritual disciplines as ends in themselves, when they are only a means to the end of a true participation in the love of God, (which mistaken mindset is not salvific). This was the problem of the older son in Christ’s parable of the Prodigal Son. He never stopped performing long enough to find out the Father loved him just because he was a son—not for all the work he was doing….How well I can relate.

  14. Alice Avatar
    Alice

    When my heart worries about judgment, I sometimes think of our being saved as a question of consent. I know that God would do anything for us, has laid down His life for us that we might live forever and know Him, that He desires all to be saved. But just like in modern sexual politics, it all comes down to consent. God created us to love him, but there is no such thing as love without the freedom to choose.

    God can’t be in a relationship with us without our consent. He is all-powerful and could force us to “love” Him, to follow Him, but what kind of love is that? Love is only love when it’s freely given, and that is what I believe He wants from us, our freely given, but imperfect, love. That is why He created us “in His image,” able to choose for ourselves, gifted with the ultimate power of being able to reject the love even of God Himself! Our creator who loves us more even than His own life! And we all do reject Him and betray him every single day in greater and smaller ways. He can forgive it all and bring us back to Him. But only if we desire it.

    I know an alcoholic who has been suffering the deterioration of his esophagus and in great pain from it. But he won’t stop drinking a case of Budweiser a day. He can’t sleep from the pain, but he can’t give up drinking. Sometimes I think we are like that, just so addicted to sin, so unable to imagine life without our vices, without our anger or our selfishness or whatever our worst weaknesses might be, that we can’t put them aside and be healed. We reject the God who loves us and choose slavery to another master who is destroying us.

    I think of judgment as really an extension of that choice. Christ can free us from the chains of our own broken “freedom” that we imagine we have in this life, clouded by our woundedness and the fallen, sinful world, but not if we don’t want Him to!

    The people I pray hardest for are those who say they “hate” God. Often I hear people say, “if God would allow XYZ to happen, then He’s cruel/evil/uncaring/fill in the blank. Why should I worship a God like that?” This post strikes at the heart of the false God these people imagine. A God like what? The icon says it all!

    I’m not theologically trained, so what do I know, but that is how I think of things. I love your blog, by the way, Fr. Freeman, I have been reading silently for a long time, but this is my first time making a comment!

  15. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Father Stephen, i have a friend who was raised Catholic and is now Orthodox. He recently told me that henhoped his father was not in hell. I told him that it was my understanding that no one was in hell at present and that no one would be consigned to hell until after the Last Judgment. Can you please tell me if my understanding is correct?

  16. Mary Ellen Avatar
    Mary Ellen

    Karen,
    The issue of how a fearful image of God informs parenting has also been troubling to me as of late.

    I have noticed that folks who have a fear based faith often embrace parenting philosophies which are authoritarian at best and downright abusive at worst.

    Father Stephen, thank you. This writing answers the deepest cry of my heart to know that God is good.

  17. Mihai Avatar
    Mihai

    Father,

    I believe that the language Scripture sometimes uses – and the language of a dread judgement is found in Scripture- is helpful according to the spiritual state of the one hearing/ reading those words. I’m sure you agree on this.

    In this way, I don’t think it is right to completely toss out the more fearful imagery of the tradition. Especially in our day and age when we consider everything relative, with no consequence whatsoever and we expect to be allowed to do whatever we want, a lot of people may all too easily reach a false conclusion on the opposite extreme of the spectrum: God will always forgive me whatever I do, so I have nothing to worry about. And so never feel any impulse to actually wake up from their torpor and actually get to real ascetical action and true repentance.

  18. Mihai Avatar
    Mihai

    To everyone: on the question of Heaven and Hell, there is a conference on this by Prof. Clark Carlton on Ancient Faith which I think is very good:

    http://www.ancientfaith.com/specials/heaven_and_hell_the_view_of_the_early_church

  19. Janette A Reget Avatar
    Janette A Reget

    I can’t remember when this passage from the book of Wisdom really opened my being to the goodness of God. But it is comforting and confirming to me. I am Roman Catholic, so Wisdom, part of the Apocrypha, is really part of Scripture to me. Wisdom says, “Because God did not make death, nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living. For He fashioned all things that they might have being, and the creatures of the world are wholesome; There is not a destructive drug among them nor any domain of Hades on earth, for righteousness is undying…For God formed man to be imperishable, the image of His own nature He made him. But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who belong to his company experience it.” Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24

  20. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Thank you Mihai. I will listen to it.

  21. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Mihai,
    The danger you mention in your last paragraph is a real one. I don’t think we advocate for removal of the language of the dread of God’s judgement at all in the Tradition, but it is important to recognize that until we are very clear about what kind of God it is who judges here, this language and imagery in Scripture can be very badly misused and misunderstood, such that it is destructive of our very salvation, rather than our sin. This is true whether one rejects the judgment of the (imagined false) “God” we fear or accepts it. In the latter case, where we embrace the false understanding of God’s nature and judgment, it will really work to make us more like the demons than like Christ.

  22. Harold Avatar
    Harold

    Fr Stephen,

    I am struck by your statement “It is possible to use the entire Jesus story as a way of proving the existence of God, only to then proceed to think of God in terms that are somehow removed from Christ Himself. ” [thank you for such provocative sentences!] I catch myself going down this path. If this resultant ‘blackboard God’ is removed from Christ, how can the branches partake of the life in the true vine if we live with this ‘blackboard God’ rather than Christ? This ‘blackboard God’ may be just a man-made construct: it will lead to barrenness, not life. Why do I tend to think of God in terms removed from Christ? Excessive theologizing in the sense of scholasticism? [my background is Protestantism]

  23. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    I find that God speaks to everyone in a way they can understand. I remember hearing an Orthodox priest say that much of the OT makes God sound angry because that’s the language those people understood. In those cultures they were always warring with each other and would have no place for a God that didn’t use a show of force.

    The dwarves of the Last Battle (Chronicles of Narnia) only understood hay and stable water. I know God’s a genius and He could find a way of bringing them into the kingdom, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in the situations where we were standing nearby, that it wouldn’t sound right to us.

    We have this desire to be able to bless everything as onlookers, but that’s rarely possible because we understand so little and are so damaged and standing in the peanut gallery isn’t really our place.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Esmee,
    I’ve heard varying takes on this. The character of things such as heaven and hell, seem to have a timeless character about them at least in relation to how we live and think. I certainly believe (in Orthodox understanding) that regardless of any of it, we may pray for the departed and our prayers are of benefit to them. The careful delineations and distinctions about details in the afterlife are a fairly late development and are not found so much in the early witness of the Church. I pray with confidence – not because of the nature of hell, etc. – but because God is good.

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Drewster,
    The modern reading of the OT is a very sad distortion from many directions. It is always important that we begin and end with Christ’s Pascha.

  26. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Thank you, Father.

  27. Wendy Csaplár Avatar
    Wendy Csaplár

    Thank you, Father Stephen. I don’t always understand but always am fed and ‘directed’ (for lack of a better word,) by your most helpful and Christ glorifying writing.

  28. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father Stephen,
    Is there any literature out there on the OT that speaks to it specifically in regard to Christ’s Pascha? I have a book on my shelf (to be read), “The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition”, by Eugin J. Pentiuc. Are you familiar with it? I purchased it because I was looking for a book that would directly address the OT scripture in one place, rather than in the various homilies and such by the Fathers.

  29. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Fr., Isn’t it appropriate to read the OT as history? It is presented with chronologies and genealogies. Things are time stamped by the the reigns of kings. So, why is the tendency to take these accounts literally misdirected? My assumption would have been that at some point in the the history of Israel these were taken as matters of fact.

  30. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father, about my question above…I do recall you saying that OT scripture is directed to Christ’s Pascha in the words of the Divine Liturgy….

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Paula,
    I understand that Pentiuc’s book is good, but I’ve only skimmed it so far.

  32. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    OK Father, thanks.

  33. Mark Avatar
    Mark

    Dear Father Stephen;
    I would find it helpful and perhaps others as well, to have a much better handle on Marcionism. Both how the heresy arose, how it was handled in its day, and how the Church maintains its Christ-in-His-pascha hermeneutic for interpreting OT scriptures that is *not* a ‘pseudo-Marcionism’ (as some like to think).
    Perhaps if we Orthodox better knew what Marcionism is and more importantly what it *isn’t*, we would have more peace and understanding with our Holy Scriptures (O.T.).

    Thanks as always for your care and insight;
    -Mark Basil

  34. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Simon,
    That’s a very good observation and fair question. Drawing from the many times Fr. Stephen has written on this I’ll try to summarize in my own words, what I have learned from him.

    1) “History” in the modern mind most often means something that is literally not ever possible for humans to know–it is a modern conceit. In modern terms, “history” as “facts and chronological events” is taken to mean “what actually happened in a purely ‘objective’ way (objective in this sense is another modern conceit) from a (humanly imagined) ‘omniscient’ point of view (that literally nobody, apart from Christ, has actually ever had). We are told quite pointedly in the NT after the revelation of Christ has dawned that the OT and even NT prophets “know in part and prophesy in part” or “see dimly as in a dark mirror” (Hebrews 1:2, 1 Corinthians 13). Only Christ sees, knows, and reveals fully to the prophets, apostles and ultimately to us in the Church, “insofar as we can bear it” (in the language of the Hymn of the Holy Transfiguration we will soon be singing) what is “true” or “real”.

    2) This does not mean that the “historical” data we have, whether modern or in the Scriptures, has no relationship whatsoever to people that really existed and events that actually occurred (at least insofar as the former were able to perceive them). It surely does. Both the language of the Apostles in witness to Christ and Christ in witness to the OT prophets makes clear that they do. Nowhere does this become more evident or important to us than in the Scriptural witness to the Person and Resurrection of Jesus Christ Himself. But the relationships of these narratives is not purely “objective” as in the modern conceit. Knowing the content of these narratives certainly does not render the reader omniscient about the events that occurred! The relationship of these biblical narratives to the realities as they occur in heaven and on earth is, according to the Scriptures, “God-breathed”, and our understanding/perception must be similarly “God-breathed”–it must come through the life of God at work in us–if it is to be properly connected to the reality. The important thing to understand is we must have the guidance and inspiration of Christ by His Holy Spirit to understand the importance of these historical witnesses and events for us today. We are given that within the collective witness (Liturgy, Dogma, and Saints) of the Church down through the ages taken together and are granted it within our own hearts as we put into practice all we have been given in the faith (thus proving it over time in a process in our own experience to be true/real and in so doing increasing our own capacity for accurate discernment and spiritual perception).

  35. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Karen, Thank you for your response. Not to be offensive. But, I think it is fair to ask: Did Israel invade Palestine and subjugate the existing population by war? That can be decided both by taking the OT at its word and by archaeology. I get the impression that you are saying that history as a matter of fact cannot be approached empirically. Is that right?

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    Kinda, sorta, yes and no. 🙂

    Even the most historically written accounts in the OT have an underlying theological shape to them. If we think of history as “the facts of what happened” (one of our mistaken notions) – why are certain facts included and certain facts omitted. What makes these facts important? History is never “just the facts.” It is a story (perhaps drawing on facts) and that story has a point that shapes how it is told.

    One mistake to make about the OT is to treat everything the same. It’s a collection of books, written over a very long span of time. Genesis is not at all like 1 Kings, for example. When they are read in that manner, something gets very distorted.

    How did Israel read these writings? In a variety of ways. The assumptions about literal historical reading are mistaken. The notions of literal historical methods are largely a product of modernity. It is a moving of the notion of truth from the realm of God to the realm of a secular, merely factual playing field.

    An example: in the book of Daniel, we see described scenes of heavenly warfare between Michael the Archangel and the “Prince of Persia,” which, in turn, is reflected in the historical events of Daniel’s world and later. I wrote about this in a recent article. At no point is Israel thinking that “history” is a thing created by the actions of this King versus that King. Almost all of their “historical” accounts assume that there is ever so much more going on than can be seen on the ground. Sometimes the accounts are quite specific.

    Let’s leap forward. Suppose you’re reading a book on the history of the American Civil War. If the chapters begin to be shaped by a narrative that says God ordained the defeat of the South because of its many sins against the poor, etc., a modern historian would laugh the book off the shelf. You can’t say such things in a purely “historical” account. But the Scriptures say that sort of thing all the time.

    That said, what we have is a “doctrinally shaped” narrative of history.

    “And God caused confusion to come on the eyes of the Confederate guard such that he shot Gen. Stonewall Jackson, mistaking him for the enemy…”

    The chronologies and genealogies of Genesis have about them something quite different than pure history…but that’s another matter.

    What is interesting from a classical Christian point of view is that we view the OT writings as “Scripture.” They are Scripture because they are inspired (God-breathed), not because they are a precisely, fact-only historical account. These writings may be read within the life of the Church and within them can be found the truth of the Christian faith as made known to us in Christ.

    Christ was raised on the third day “in accordance with the Scriptures.” But, pretty much, the only reference to a third-day resurrection is Jonah’s being coughed up by the fish on the third day. We had to be taught to read Jonah in that manner. It is not at all obvious from the book itself. Jonah is read in its entirety on Holy Saturday each year (one of 15 readings). I would suggest that it is read on that day so that the very setting itself will teach us how to read it.

    Another oddity: the story of Abraham and the battle of the 5 kings is read for the Feast marking the First Nicene Council. That’s quite odd on the face of it until you see that Abraham’s small entourage of soldiers consisted of 318 persons – just as there were 318 bishops in attendance at Nicaea. The two have no historical connection whatsoever – but that didn’t seem terribly significant to those who assembled the lectionary of the Church. They thought about these things in a manner that seems quite odd to us.

    All moderns are literalists. That’s how we imagine the world. It is devoid of magic, enchantment, etc. It has been thoroughly “de-mythologized.” Little wonder that it keeps producing atheists. At best, God lives on the second storey.

    That Jonah in the belly of the whale is actually, really and truly about Jesus in the belly of the earth is almost impossible for us to understand. At most, we think that reading the book in that manner is a literary technique, a way of reading that is fanciful, imaginative, and ok so long as everybody agrees about it. But, as factualists, we would never see it as the basis of a convincing argument.

    St. Paul says concerning Hagar and Sarah:

    But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are an allegory. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar–for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children–but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.
    (Gal. 4:23-26)

    When Paul calls it an “allegory,” he doesn’t mean here’s a neat way of reading the story. He thinks that the nature of anything in Scripture can be read allegorically because that is the nature of Scripture. It has the strange quality about it in which deeper meanings can be found by going beneath the letter itself. If you will (to use modern speech), Paul can use allegory, because he thinks the allegory is literally true. It’s really there.

    The gospels are very good examples. The gospels are written with all kinds of keys and hints about how to read them – even deeper than the letter itself. The story of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ are told in a manner to guarantee that we will be able to see them within the OT Scriptures. They teach us how to read the Old.

    This bothers us, because we think that truth has a modern, literal shape. They do not think that. They believed that what we call “literal” or “fact” is only the end product of something behind, beneath, before that gives it its shape and that you don’t understand anything until you know the behind, beneath and before. Jesus as the Logos is a declaration that He is the behind, beneath and before of everything, always and everywhere.

    Modernity doesn’t think there is a Logos of any sort, other than in the imagination.

    That’s enough for the moment.

  37. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    I will add one last point to my response to Simon’s question.

    In this life, we as limited creatures, only ever know “in part”. We do not know in full, until we see Him face to face (1 John 3:2, I Corinthians 13:9). Nevertheless, what we can know from Scripture, from the Church, will always be sufficient to our growth in grace toward salvation as we cooperate with the grace of the Holy Spirit drawing us toward our proper End in Christ.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark,
    First, almost everyone running around today talking about “pseudo-Marcionism” is, in fact, a modernist in old clothes. Marcion thought (literally) that the God described in the OT was a different thing than the God made known in Christ. The refutation of Marcion was not made by arguing that the stories of the OT were actually really nice stories about the gentle, kind God made known in Jesus Christ. The truth is, the Church was frequently scandalized by certain things in those stories that were contrary to what we see in Christ. Christ rebukes his disciples when they invoke the Elijah story and want to call down bears to eat the people who rejected him. “You do not know what Spirit you are of.”

    Jesus Himself critiques the Torah, suggesting that it was Moses, not God, who gave the teaching on divorce. But, if you read Leviticus, it sure seems to be saying that Moses got it from the mouth of God.

    The Church refutes Marcion by affirming the inspiration and use of the OT. But it continued to use the OT frequently in an allegorical or deeper level of reading. There are a variety of ways among the fathers of doing this – of justifying the violence, etc., of the OT. Not all of them are as successful as others. The worst, in my opinion, are like certain modern Protestants who say, “Yes, this is really how God is and if you don’t behave yourself He’ll do the same to you and worse.” They tend to like the Penal Substitionary Theory of the Atonement because it needs the graphic imagery of the OT God to work. “He’s not like that now so much because He took it out on His Son instead.”

    I have certainly been accused of being a pseudo-Marcionite (though not by the Orthodox to my knowledge). I saw someone critique my use of allegory, etc., as a case of pseudo-liberalism. I’m quite the opposite. Like the fathers, and St. Paul, I think that the types, symbols, allegories, etc. are “literally” there. They are real. Mary really is the Ark of the Covenant. For me, a “mystical” reading is not a fuzzy thing, an ethereal compromise because you can’t handle the literal. It is the real thing, just as the Body of Christ is the reality of the Bread on the altar. I’m a Realist – a very rare thing in the modern world – but the most normative thing of all among the Fathers.

  39. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Simon, in response to your question–what Fr. Stephen just wrote! 🙂

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    That is how Israel tells the story of its settling in the Promised Land. How literal is it? We don’t know. Some archaeologists think there is more imagination in that than actual fact. It’s just not clear “in a historical sense.” But, that is a matter that can be debated and will never be settled. What we can say is that the story of Israel’s conquering of the Promised Land is Scripture and can be read and used (when rightly read and used) for “doctrine and reproof.” We do not use history (in the scientific use of the word) to judge the Scriptures. They are Scriptures because the Church uses them as such. If we determine that every jot and tittle of the stories are literally true – that is interesting – but it doesn’t make them more true than they already are. They stand regardless.

    That approach to the Scriptures befuddles the modern mind. Many defenders (including some among the Orthodox) of a more literalistic treatment of the Scriptures cannot fathom anything other than a literalistic treatment being true. In that sense, I think they are modernists. They fail to see how their own worldview differs from that of the Fathers. It is why I frequently complain about an uninstructed use of the Fathers – when they are just used as “pull quotes” without a real understanding of their mind and worldview.

  41. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Hear is what I honestly heard Fr. say. History is at best a figment of the modern imagination and at worst propaganda. The idea of facts and facticity are a modern fiction. And so the question of the historicity of the OT is moot.

  42. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I also hear Fr. saying that the truth of the OT that the Church is interested in is the allegorical truth embedded in the stories of the OT. It isn’t concerned or at least it is much less concerned about whatever might be historically true.

  43. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    I thank God for your clear exposition of the true apostolic and classical patristic way of looking at these matters, Father. It is a most welcome deliverance from the “modernist in old clothes”, which message, when all is said and done, can be seen to be the very antithesis of the gospel as it has been received in Christ! No wonder it has borne such deadly fruit in people’s souls and in our culture.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    “Empirical” history is detective work. Evidence is gathered and events are inferred. But we can rarely do more than infer. We can look at the walls of Jericho, for example, and see if there is evidence for something like the Bibilical story. But it’s always a bit of a guessing game. Rarely do we get anything that would hold up in court. Ever so often, there is a discovery that cause a complete shift in all the interpretations that have gone before. It’s useful, and interesting, but not requisite for the Christian reading of the OT.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    I wouldn’t go so far to say it is moot or that facticity isn’t of interest. It’s just not of the same interest that modernity thinks it is.

  46. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I won’t lie to you it is so foreign to how I think that I feel like I’m resisting double-speak or brain washing. I’m laughing as I type that…but it’s true. I feel like that I am being told that 2 + 2 = 5.

  47. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I am being very sincere when I say that.

  48. Ivan Avatar
    Ivan

    Beth, I would like to thank you for this common sense synthesis of several New Testament passages. Your approach might not be conventional, but I think it’s a logical, true syllogism (A is B, B is C, therefore A is C, with God as A and love as B), and at least it inspires joy in me.

    I am very pleased by this scriptural discovery, as it helps me trust in God’s connection to love – in the past, I have doubted if love is part of God’s nature. Spelling it all out corrects my doubt.

  49. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Fr. thank you for your responses.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Karen, Simon,
    A little biography here. One of the things that led me to think carefully about “allegory” (which was a catch-all term for a variety of non-literal readings) started when I was in seminary. There were literalists out there, and there were historical-critical scholars who looked for scientific, empirical ways of reading. Then I would come across an allegorical reading in the fathers.

    The key question that came to me was this: “What if this reading of the Fathers is actually true? How could that be possible?”

    That question led me deeper into their world and into the kind of world that would ever have thought that Christ’s teaching on the Eucharist was real and accurate. No modern can ever believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ. At best, he will struggle, but will always doubt. Or worse, he’ll believe it in the wrong way and for the wrong reason.

    The right way is similar to Pat. Bartholomew who says, “The whole world is a sacrament.” Yes – that’s actually a statement about the nature of reality. Reality is sacramental.

    That question about the Fathers’ mind and the nature of reality gradually led to a conversion of my own mind – and through much toil and trouble to accepting an understanding of classical Realism. There were many, many things that contributed to this. One of them that some might find interesting is the work of Owen Barfield, one of the Inklings. His work deeply affected both Lewis and Tolkien. I just threw that in for the fun of it!

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Here’s another quick observation:

    In modernity, things being just things with no reality deeper than what you see on the literal level, all meaning is nothing more than an act of the will, an imposition. As such, meaning can only be a political construct, a way of seeing things imposed by one group on another. That worldview is actually gaining in popularity and is the natural conclusion of the assumptions of modernity.

    For a long part of the modern period, we have been living on the left-over agreements from the older world of Realism. But they survived only as social conventions. As the conventions are shattering, all we are left with is the raw power of politics. Fox/CNN is the shape of modernity – the inevitable consequence of the whole thing. I find that disgusting. It is for reasons like that – that I speak as disparagingly of modernity as I do. It is not about science, test tubes, toilets, medicines, etc. Modernity is about the shattering of the world into competing uses of power. It tries to create its own sacraments. In modernity, some of the most deadly words ever spoken are: “This is my body…”

  52. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Simon,
    I think we all (as those recovering from the relentless modernist propaganda in which we have been submersed all our lives) especially at first feel the same way when we stumble across the real spiritual way the Scriptures (and our lives ultimately) are to be interpreted! It really is very foreign to us and can just seem so wrong, but as I think you will discover it is actually more and more liberating because it is the only true way to relate to Reality, of which the material events we can observe with our ordinary human faculties and means of analysis, are only a very tiny subset. Did not Jesus say, “The Truth shall set you free”? Suddenly so many words, events, and experiences in the Tradition and in our lives begin to find a coherent Paradigm in the Logos that connects all things together in the right sequence and relationship from Beginning to End. Isn’t there some kind of Zen puzzle box that only unlocks when you work out the “key” that opens it, which is actually contained in/on the box itself, but which is not at all intuitively obvious until after you find it by an extremely intense process of trial and error and the box actually opens? I think that puzzle box is an allegory of the real world (not merely the material world we can empirically examine) we inhabit as material/spiritual creatures (“In Him we live and move and have our being.”).

  53. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    “For a long part of the modern period, we have been living on the left-over agreements from the older world of Realism. But they survived only as social conventions. As the conventions are shattering, all we are left with is the raw power of politics. Fox/CNN is the shape of modernity – the inevitable consequence of the whole thing. I find that disgusting. It is for reasons like that – that I speak as disparagingly of modernity as I do. It is not about science, test tubes, toilets, medicines, etc. Modernity is about the shattering of the world into competing uses of power. It tries to create its own sacraments. In modernity, some of the most deadly words ever spoken are: “This is my body…””

    Well, now! If that isn’t one of the most potent and succinct descriptions of the cultural and corrupt spiritual reality we inhabit in the present moment, I don’t know what would be!

  54. Mark Avatar
    Mark

    Thank you for your response Father. I am still hazy on the nature of the Marcion heresy. Is it heresy only because of the separation of the Deity between the testaments? I struggle because I do still find my efforts to read the OT “through Christ’s pascha” a challenge. When I come upon something that is just not consistent with Christ, what exactly do I do with it? This may just require more wisdom and maturity on my part.

    I do also wonder, can we read our own church hymns and history similarly?
    I personally cannot imagine taking Constantine’s interpretation of the sign as he took it– “through this you will conquer.” For Constatine to think that the thing to conquer were his flesh and blood enemies, and to put the cross on carnal weaponry almost like a talisman, directly misunderstands the Christian theological understanding of the Cross and even contradicts it, as well the nature of Christian warfare (spiritual not carnal).
    Should we read this Church history “allegorically” too? And take the true meaning to be spiritual not as it was initially taken by the historical participants?
    Also, “O Lord save your people… grant victory to the Orthodox Christians over their adversary(s)”. (and a few other hymns). As a Christian I simply cannot sing this hymn with its historical “authorial intent”. I have to read and mean it spiritually- true Adversary being Satan, and all that is his (demons, my own passions, the world, etc.). To what extent should we read our own church history “through Christ’s pascha” as it were?
    I see a glimmer of this in how Met. George looks at Byzantine violence.
    I dont know if you’ve ever read the article by Met. George (Lebanon) addressing OT violence?
    http://www.orthodoxresearchinstitute.org/articles/misc/george_khodr_violence.htm

    Where would you place this sort of read on the spectrum of realism, allegory, “the whole world is a sacrament,” the meaning behind the visible, etc.??
    Thanks;
    -Mark Basil

  55. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    When I come upon something that is just not consistent with Christ, what exactly do I do with it? This may just require more wisdom and maturity on my part.

    Ditto for me.
    I don’t find anything at all Christlike or Paschal about wiping out a village with short swords, but sparing the young “women” for yourself or to give to your sons. To be fair, shouldn’t we at least acknowledge that there are really good reasons why someone would reject this as tribalism and dismiss it out of hand?

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark,
    Viz. Constantine. The story about the Cross is not an eyewitness thing, but a later story, and there are a couple of versions. It also only tells us about Constantine’s experience, not what is definitively true. It is not a story that says, “God did this.”

    I do not read Church history allegorically – in the sense that it is the story of what has happened (we have no “Scripture” about Church history other than the Book of Acts). The article you cite is certainly on the spectrum of allegorical interpretation…a bit bold, I might add. But, note. It’s not some little blogger – it’s an Orthodox bishop. So, at the very least, it is an example of an Orthodox reading.

    One way to bring Christ’s Pascha into everything – is to see His Pascha in the unfolding work of Providence. Even terrible things (like His crucifixion) are redeemed and brought into a triumphant, even paradoxical use. He saves us from the inside out.

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    Many of the Fathers would agree completely about that.

  58. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “One way to bring Christ’s Pascha into everything – is to see His Pascha in the unfolding work of Providence.”
    Ah…that was my original question that lingered in my mind while reading all you’ve said so far! I come away wondering if there is any hope for us moderns to be able to read the OT allegorically, as the Fathers did. Because I do not doubt a word you say about the difficulties we face. Father, BTW, I have read one of Owen Barfield’s books on the English language. It was very good…but I still struggle with seeing Christ’s Pascha in the OT!! I don’t mean just Jonah and Paul’s Mt. Sinai….I mean the entire OT! I know it’s going to take much more than Owen Barfield 😉 !
    Another question: there is a difference between “types and shadows” and allegory, isn’t there?
    I think you can write about this from now until Christ comes and I’d still not totally get it! I’m trying though, and will continue to pay attention.
    Thank you for all you’ve said, Father. Hope there’s more coming 🙂 .

  59. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon re History. It is always about interetation. It can never be fully empirical because there are large amounts of data we can never know. There are two basic interpretations of history currently extant. The Nihilist and the Provendential. Father Stephen writes in the Providential mode. Most of us are conditioned and taught to think about history in the Nihilist manner: the triumph of the powerful and the destruction of things (over simplifying).

    In a recent discussion with Fr. Alexander F. C. Webster, Dean of Holy Trinity Seminary, he told me that we Orthodox must learn the Providential reality — especially those who would be priests or it is impsossible to understand in an Orthodox way.

    That one statement brought together my fifty years of studying the philosophy of history as a avocation. Each new found nugget in my exploration has brought me closer to the Providential reality of God with us full of love.

    People tend to overwork our rational brains to “understand” which often is simply a means to control or seem to control. It is certainly that way with history.

    God’s Providence is history. Although it is also the in most spark of love and longing in the center of our hearts and the communion we share with one another in the Church and the burdens we bear for one another leading to the Cross, the Grave, the Ressurection and the Parousia.

    God is good.

  60. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Thanks for biographical and the Owen Barfield suggestion for reading, Father. Another one to add to my list…

  61. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My avocation of history was a direct response to my first encounter with Jesus 50 years ago on a hill in northern Illinois. After 50 years I find I am not seeking to know more, but to know more deeply what I have been given. Facts and data; what and why not so important to me as who. It is a welcome change.

  62. Jeff Avatar
    Jeff

    Father, I have just finished reading your post and have skipped all the comments. I don’t even know what has been said so far. But I must say, this post is one of the most beautiful, the most hopeful, the most helpful, and the most awe inspiring things I have ever read. It explains so much while at the same time making one stop in one’s tracks to bow in worship. Thank you for using your freedom to listen to God and to share what he tells you through our Lord Jesus Christ.

  63. Melba Whitaker Avatar
    Melba Whitaker

    For an excellent study of the Old Testament, I refer everyone to the podcast on AFR by Dr. Jeannie Constantinou called Search the Scriptures. Her 178 lectures are in-depth and address many of the issues that have been discussed in these comments. I suggest starting with the introduction lectures and just listen straight through – preferable with pen and paper for taking notes!

  64. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Melba…thank you! I actually have her podcasts bookmarked. What I was hoping for was a concise reading, like a book (!), in one place, that would be “quicker” than reading or listening to bits and pieces here and there. I want too much too fast I think. I am sure it is better to give some time to absorb, think about and settle. Appreciate your advice.

  65. Christopher Avatar
    Christopher

    “My avocation of history was a direct response to my first encounter with Jesus 50 years ago on a hill in northern Illinois….”

    But an archeologist who works at Modernist State (no agenda there) just discovered it was *southern* Illinois so of course none of this really adds up… 😉

    “Perhaps one isn’t supposed to do that with scripture….”

    I am glad you did Beth – food for thought

    On Pentiuc: his book is a scholarly work that is a kind of survey of a large number of “issues” from a scholastic perspective , etc. It reads like a Ph.D. thesis that was later revised several times into book form (you can spot the ‘breaks’ in writing/though rather easily). Useful reference but not a catechesis as such…

  66. Geri Priscilla Avatar
    Geri Priscilla

    The Christian Old Testament by Fr. Lawrence Farley is a very nice overview. At first it seems almost too simple, but on my second reading, more is being revealed.

  67. Christopher Avatar
    Christopher

    ” It is not about science, test tubes, toilets, medicines, etc. Modernity is about the shattering of the world into competing uses of power. It tries to create its own sacraments”

    Those Romans had nice toilets (sorry, could not resist 🙂 )

  68. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thanks for the heads up on Pentiuc’s book, Christopher.

  69. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Beth,
    I see your comment about the passage in 1 Corinthians 13 is gone (I assume at your own behest—there was nothing offensive in it at all). With Christopher, I can say I think that is an apt and very fruitful way to read St. Paul in that passage. In fact, I have heard others suggest that is a good exercise to do if we want to better understand God in His love. I have found it helpful that way in the past.

  70. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Christopher, that’s funny. Thanks. It was a beautiful hill with a vista of sky and trees with little modern interference. A place of peace.

  71. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Karen,
    The comment is still there…

  72. Allison Avatar
    Allison

    Bless, Father! It seems sometimes that this singular goodness of God I know to be true feels too often absent in Orthodox parishes and even among monastics and is all too often replaced with negative, critical attitudes. I know that early after my conversion almost ten years ago I was zealous to the point of critical of Protestant family which I sorely regret and have since tried to repent of. What is the humble response to Orthodox Christians who are critical of convert parishes as not being Orthodox enough? Example: a
    parish consisting mostly of converts offers Vespers or Compline on Wednesday evenings followed by a meal and a teaching yet does not offer Matins every morning and thus is not a traditional Orthodox parish. Instead the parish is deemed too Protestant because Protestants meet on Wednesday evenings. What should one say in particular to a monastic who makes these repeated complaints about Wednesday evening gatherings or the homily sounding too Protestant because of how the priest chose to convey the message, etc? Should the hearer ignore this or is there anything appropriate to say?

  73. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Beth,
    What you do with I Cor.13 I have done for several years with the Lord’s Prayer. I asked my priest for his blessing to pray the prayer this way. Instead of the plural “us” I insert someone’s name. If I feel the need I can pray in this way for the person several times a day.

  74. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Father, must be these old, tired eyes! I went scrolling to find it after I saw Christopher’s mention to see if my memory was accurate and didn’t find it.

  75. Peter Avatar
    Peter

    WoW! The Extreme Humility icon is beloved in our house and Fr’s article and the commentary here throws much illumination on it, glory to God. What a good blog.

  76. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Allison,
    I think to myself: Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing. In truth, they are ignorant of the faith, mistaking certain practices (like daily Matins) for true piety. Such Orthodox drive away converts, or turn them into something less than Orthodox. If there is no love – then there is nothing. Where God is, there is love.

  77. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Allison, it is also a part of the modern project that one is not considered smart unless one finds fault.

  78. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Michael Bauman, you say that “[History] can never be fully empirical because there are large amounts of data we can never know.” In science, there are always gaping holes in the unknown. But, there are also gaping holes in our theology. That there are data that are inaccessible doesn’t mean that empiricism fails or that the results of inquiry aren’t valid. Everything requires humility. Scientists (and I’m including researchers in history) who aren’t humble become dogmatic…but so do the Orthodox. Dogmatism is almost a certainty in the absence of humility. Humility is what separates a human being from the “one-dimensional man.”

    Personally, I want to believe that every one of those horrible stories in the OT ought to be taken literally and here’s the reason why: The world is a violent and despairing place, so any account of humanity should be one that is true to the world as it really is. Therefore, one isn’t surprised that the OT is violent. BUT, if the OT is only properly understood in the light of Pascha, then the implication that follows is that the world itself is only properly understood in the same manner. If we learn how to read and understand the OT in the light of Pascha, then perhaps that is an exercise in developing a Paschal understanding and experience of the world…or I could be full of my oats.

  79. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    The Paschal understanding of God’s utter solidarity with and transformation of us is scandalous because (like in the psalms) we often want Him to intervene with His power like a magical Zeus. However He mainly (as we see in His denial of power in the 40 day desert temptations or in His exchange with Pontius Pilate) scandalises us with His respectful non-intervention in the face of our eagerness for His (or the sanctioning of our own) intervention. As the sea creates the sand by retreating backwards so does He creates our Spiritual maturity. But accepting this requires the highest humility -of the Mother of God- that releases God from any “duty” to intervene… …it is our trust that His power (once united to us) needs no intervention: it is the Pascha of the telos of cosmic resurrection.

  80. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dino, how do you “properly understand” the conquest of Canaan in that light?

  81. Mihai Avatar
    Mihai

    Regarding the discussion about the Old Testament, I have to make two observations.

    1. It is clear that the view of history of the ancients is worlds apart from what is considered history today and of course this is especially true of the Old Testament: what those authors were after was clearly not an exact exposition of facts, but of the hidden essence behind those events they are narrating. However, they did have the notion of history as opposed to myth.
    The difference between the two is that myth is a presentation (or attempt at that) of archetypes in an imaginative form- like fairytales. They contain a lot of truths but they are presented in a purely archetypal form, not “incarnated” in the corporeal world. History, on the other hand, presents these principles of Divine Providence, these logoi to use the proper language, fully incarnated in space and time.
    So for the ancient authors there was a clear divide between “this event actually happened” (regardless of the details) and “this is just a story or an illustration for the sake of a moral teaching or a theological lesson etc”.
    So to say that it does not matter whether, for example, Sarra and Hagar were actual flesh and blood and living people (in addition to being archetypal representations of two principles) or never existed in this world is falling into post-modernism for whom “there are no facts, just interpretations”. Our faith is not like this, nor did any of the Fathers ever proposed such a thing.
    I always make comparisons with icons. The Nativity Icon is not a photographic picture of what took place at the birth of Christ, it is clearly theological in shape. Yet, it presents in theological form an actual event that took place at a certain time and at a certain place in this world as we know it.

    2. Whenever you hear some news that “modern archaeology says that this event in the Bible is false” Christians usually jump straight into efforts of mental acrobatics to justify how this does not change anything of the faith etc. Yet, they never question the claims of modern scholars because they are so imbibed with our modern age scientistic ideology, that they unconsciously consider what goes by the name of “science” (sometimes correctly, sometimes not) to be infallible.
    For example: I once saw a show of some archaeologists claiming that there is no archaeological evidence for Solomon or his temple. I thought to myself- wow, could it be because the temple was simply razed to the ground about 2,600 years ago and nothing remained of it?
    Archaeology cannot dismiss a written claim. 90% of our history is based on written documents, not on archaeology. Can you reconstitute, for example, the history of the Crusades through archaeology alone?
    What sort of archaeological proof would you expect to find of a battle that took place during the time of Joshua, for example? Swords and bodies conveniently lying around in a big pit at that very location? But the bodies were removed from the field and buried and the swords or other arms were usually taken away by the victor.
    In reality, we are dealing with an obvious anti-Christian agenda that would do anything and support any kind of absurdity for the sake of demolishing every trace of Christianity and the civilization which was/is a by-product of it.
    Yet, many Christians consider this mere “conspiracy theory”, although the elephant lies in the middle of an extremely well-lit room…

  82. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Simon,
    There is any number of interpretations of that specific story. The whole gamut has been explored. I side with what Father Stephen wrote earlier on the matter –which I now read and deeply appreciate and haven’t anything better than that to add to be honest.
    There are saints who allegorized (like Nyssa) problematic accounts (like the ‘stealing’ from the Egyptians prior to Exodus) to great degrees, and others –especially more recent ones – who preferred to bring attention to the need for sober contextualization of the literal basis of such stories, based on the fact that those were unimaginably barbaric (sometimes institutionally barbaric) times, that mustn’t be judged on our post Christian underpinnings…

  83. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Just to be clear, my question wasn’t intended to challenge anyone’s previous replies. I was merely curious what you thought. Ergo, good enough.

  84. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mihai,
    Yes. I do not think we have “mere myth” in the OT (although St. Irenaeus has something very curious to say about that). I want to see if I can clarify what I’m trying to say.

    Modernity (the philosophy) assumes that only “things, facts, objects” are true. And it means by that a very secular, flat sort of thing. It would think that history is self-existing, just like it thinks that we and everything else in the world are self-existing. As such, when it does “historical” research of any kind (archaeology, etc.) it is trying to determine the self-existing facts. It would be like Mr. Spock’s rendition of a rainbow. It would be correct, but would also dismiss anything else as being nothing more than mythic poetry.

    I am saying that nothing is self-existing in all of creation – and this includes what we call history. Just as everything at this moment is providentially related to God (and that is the truth of its existence), so, everything in the past (“history”) is also only truly recounted in that manner. And this providential working of God is not some sort of mere mechanical thing like a force in physics. The “shape” of God’s Pascha is most completely revealed in Christ’s Pascha. That is how St. Paul can say, “All things work together for good…etc.” It’s not an abstract theory, it’s something revealed to us in Christ’s Pascha. Indeed, we would often have a hard time, if not impossible, seeing this from mere observation.

    What we have in the OT (from a Christian perspective) is Scripture. These accounts of various things, including the poetry of Psalms, the Proverbs, etc., are an authoritative text on the work of Pascha (God’s Providence) within the world.

    I would never want to say (incorrectly) that the facts do not matter. It’s that the facts do not matter in the way that modernity would mean that statement. Modernity thinks that the things it calls “facts” matter because there is nothing else. The facts are self-existing. I would say that the facts (the observable things that happened) are not the “primary” matter. The primary matter is God’s Providence.

    I like your mention of icons. Icons sometimes do funny things with “facts” – but three or four things together that did not happen at the same time, for example. But, in terms of Providence, they not only can be viewed in that way – they are better viewed in that manner.

    Did God order the slaughter of innocent women and children? I find the thought to be repulsive and contradictory to what we see revealed in Christ. And, that is quite clearly true in the writings of many Fathers. Within Reform Christianity – these things are taken at face-value and become the basis of an alternative “Christian” theology that portrays the slaughter of innocent women and children as just as revelatory of God as is anything in the NT. And they give us an abhorrent account of Christianity with a God who is not worthy of worship. Even the justifying theories (“He had to do that in order to protect Israel, etc.”) really don’t work. They are facile and flimsy.

    What we see in what I take to be the “best” of the Fathers’ treatment of these things (and not all ‘Fathers’ are equal by any means) is a providential reading of Scripture. It is read with an eye to Christ’s Pascha – the unfolding revelation of God’s singular goodness in all things. It does not ignore the tragic any more than we ignore the Cross.

    The Reform (just to keep picking on them) would see the Cross and say God ordered it to happen because Someone had to pay the penalty demanded by His justice. They see the Cross in a manner consistent with their OT-derived notion of God. They read Scriptures backward. They start with the slaughter of innocents and read it into the whole of everything.

    We should not have an argument with others about archaeology, regardless of the many agendas out there. The reason is that they are looking for the wrong thing. What if the historical facts of some event happened in a manner somewhat different than how it is recorded in the Scriptures? We do not say that what happened doesn’t matter – that “facts” are nothing. But, we say that the Scriptures remain what they are, regardless. These Providentially-governed texts are what we read. We do not read the dirt of archaeology.

    Now. There are things recorded in the Scriptures that make a careful case for historical facticity. When St. Paul speaks about the evidence for the Resurrection of Christ – he cites eyewitnesses as though he were in a court of law. The Scriptures know how to speak in such a manner when necessary. But they do not always speak in such a manner.

    Modernity’s theory of truth and meaning makes it think that if it could “falsify” a single historical detail recorded in the Scriptures, the whole things would collapse. It is just that sort of fallacy that I mean to debunk. There are Christians who think the same thing. Unwittingly, they are Modernists.

    Post-modernism (which is a term often misused, or used in so many ways as to be useless) is a critique of Modernism and nothing more. Sometimes its insights are useful. However, when it is used as a catch-all term for the madness of the present world order, then it simply becomes a useless thing. The insanity of the present world order is a result of modernity itself – not post-modernity. The present shape of insanity has been inevitable for several centuries. My constant critique of modernity is an effort to help people see the true nature of the insanity around them – and to be untroubled through faith in Christ whose goodwill is at work in all things for our salvation.

    (BTW, never take anything you see on TV to be representative of archaeology. The real thing is as alien to such tv shows as possible) TV is largely a view of the world as seen from Hell.

  85. Mihai Avatar
    Mihai

    Father Stephen,

    We are in agreement, mostly, regarding Scriptures and how they should be read.
    My concern is that people tend to misuse this principle to justify and find easy solutions to their own struggles in the faith and their own doubts. Another concern is that people rarely question the so-called “evidence” brought against the Biblical accounts. They seem to immediately start from the premise that the evidences of scholars are infailible, while it is the Biblical account that needs to be re-arranged or turned and twisted so we could go around the “devastating evidence”.

    I do not speak lightly of archaeology (that TV show was just an example I pulled out at random), I have a family member who is a PhD in history and I’ve discussed many times how findings in archaeology are used and misused and how fallacious arguments are brought to the table merely to justify an agenda.

    As for the brutal mass killings of the Old Testament- is is what it is- an image of a fallen world. We could say that the authors of the Old Testament, being bereft of the fullness of Grace, which is only given in and through Jesus Christ, understood to be God’s will what was merely allowed by God. Remember that God says to Abraham that much time will pass until his descendents will claim the promised land- and that is because the sins of its current inhabitants (the Canaanites) have not reached their fullness. So God protects them for quite some time until he allows the cosmic law of action-reaction to bring retribution. That’s how I interpret this.

    Other than that, I agree with you that spending too much time in these debates is pointless. I take, for example, St Paisios from Mount Athos- in his conversations he doesn’t split the hairs in 6 regarding the accounts of the Old Testament and such. He takes everything as true and finds God in all things.
    However, I see a creeping liberalism in Orthodoxy which, I believe, is a real danger.

    As to post-modernism, I would contradict you: post-modernity is not a critique, but it is modernity eating its own tail; it is the consummation of the premises of modernity, which are taken to their logical conclusion.
    Modernity though that it could jettison transcendence and build a worldview entirely on rationalism and naturalism. Post-modernity takes such a premise to where it inevitably leads: to nihilism and complete relativism, because the natural, without any reference to anything above it, is left hanging literally in mid-air.
    Nietzsche is one of the first to have seen the inherent fraud present in modernity: for example jettisoning God and trying at the same time to still withhold a morality based on Christian principles.
    It is just as you say: the world is not self-subsisting, as modernity claims. Post-modernity sees this is true- that the world is not self-subsisting, but does not go back to the traditional Christian view. Instead it takes us one step further- into utter nihilism and relativism.

  86. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    ” TV is largely a view of the world as seen from Hell.”
    Thanks Father for your comments.
    I’ve always liked C.S. Lewis’ take on naturalism and rationalism in his book,
    “Miracles.”

  87. Allison Avatar
    Allison

    Thank you Michael Baumann and Father for your replies. I have saved your words for future reference. What you both said is what my heart knew to be true, but when confronted with someone in monastic attire I start to doubt myself. So true that nowadays one must find fault in order to appear smart. I feel I must redefine how I communicate with this particular monastic, perhaps letters instead of phone calls.

  88. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Wonderful conversation, all!

  89. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mihai,
    My experience with post-modernism is probably different than yours. It’s a broad term. I have known Christian scholars who use certain aspects of post-modern criticism of modernity but ground it in a traditional Christian world-view. It’s a broad term that I prefer not to define too narrowly, much less in terms of the culture wars. As a culture war thing – it’s almost useless as a term. I generally only write about modernity and leave off the subtleties of later iterations.

    I do not know about a “creeping” liberalism in Orthodoxy. That tends to play into a narrative that creates fear. There are certainly some out there who are bad actors and are wolves in sheep’s clothing. There are also who react in a different direction and are just as destructive. I think it is important to do the truth and be grounded in it and a thorough commitment to the faith of the Church. I cannot control the outcome of history, or worry myself about what is or is not a trend in the Church. There are wolves, there have always been wolves, there will always be wolves. However, if my concerns are primarily about the wolves – I’ll have put them in charge of the conversation already. For me, it’s important to write as clearly as I can – taking even more time to clarify and answer questions.

  90. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Allison,
    What Fr. Stephen wrote to you is the reality in a nutshell. Where there is only criticism, not love, God is not present either. That said, it seems to be the case in our American context that we can find this dynamic working both ways and all at once such that it can be very confusing. What I mean is there can be folks being informed by traditions of piety from the old countries, insisting all must observe in exactly this way or it’s not true “Orthodox” piety (like your monastic). Then also there can be converts from other Christian traditions (including some who were clergy there and who very quickly were made priests within the Church) coming in with an “Orthodoxy” that is more the result of book learning and deductions by analyzing ancient practices than a true understanding from experience within the Church. Depending on the nature of their former piety toward Christ—whether it was more one of love in response to the gospel or more one of legalistic performance (and here someone’s image of God is paramount) will also inform the mindset they bring into the Church and how they take up her practices. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of old country Orthodox piety or economic adaptations on the part of cradle Orthodox in the USA within various jurisdictions coming from highly-informed (in the book learned sense) converts as well. It is just as ugly and destructive. It can easily set up a dynamic between the two groups that becomes deeply destructive of the unity of the Church, inasmuch as condemnation in turn gives birth to condemnation by the other. Romans 14 has the antidote to this poison if we will listen.

  91. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father,
    Bear with me, please…
    a lot of thoughts…
    Where you say ” The “shape” of God’s Pascha is *most completely revealed* in Christ’s Pascha.”….
    so in other words, “God’s Pascha therefore is hidden in history and revealed to us in Christ’s Pascha”?
    Pascha = God’s Providence, so that even now as time passes and becomes “history”, even every current event, everything that “happens” is Providental and to be seen with an eye to Christ’s Pascha. It is not that Pascha was a singular past event that is not still “working”, but rather it continues to work as it worked (or unfolds, as you say) in history (OT), as timeless, in moving all things back to that timeless moment…Christ’s Pascha.
    And this is how we are to understand Reality. Yes?
    So Providence (one more time) also can be said to be God’s working the good by embracing even the tragic, every event, all the tragedy that Christ took upon Himself and ….now finish my sentence Father…He took it upon Himself …and what? Is it all about dying to the self, the essence of baptism…this is the transcendence of chaos, evil? But there’s more…in that He is gathering all of creation back to Himself.
    By transcending death by His death Christ took the “wages of sin”, the movement toward chaos, darkness, nothingness, and gave (all creation, through mankind) the only possible way to be drawn back to Life…He is Reality, true Life. This is the transcendence of death in which we partake through the Church and her sacraments. And as for the events of the OT, the types we read about…Israel, Moses, Joshua, the Red Sea, Babel, on and on…these are types (shadows) of the Church, Christ’s Body, which have been united through His Pascha…and that is what we see as “unfolding” in the stories of scripture? This is what is meant by the OT as shadow, NT icon, and Reality the age to come, when He is “all in all”?

    It amazes me, all this…God truly is Love……

  92. Christopher Avatar
    Christopher

    “post-modernity is not a critique, but it is modernity eating its own tail; it is the consummation of the premises of modernity, which are taken to their logical conclusion.”

    Mihai,

    As a french philosophical (i.e. “academic”) exercise I agree with you. These sorts of post-modernists take the epistemic premises of modernity to their logical conclusions, but it must be stipulated that theirs is still a Cartesian exercise. In other words epistemology always rests on metaphysics and/or ontology. Nominalism taken to the extreme (i.e. a rejection of “metanarrative”) IS a metanarrative of creation and subjects in such a creation.

    That said Fr. Stephen is using the term in a broader sense – its meaning outside academic philosophy in the larger world of culture critique and self understanding (and this somewhat paradoxically includes the narrower academic exercise). I agree with him that here that the world we live in (or more accurately our western civilization) is not usefully termed “post-modern”. The Cartesian Self is still the nexus of all this and is still being played out so to speak, and the rush to a “post” modernity (or any thing else) is just symptomatic of modernity’s self story.

    Have you engaged Met. Heirotheos or Met. Zizioulas writing on Heidegger? I know this is not engagement with “post-modernism” per se, but it is a very interesting strand of modernism…

  93. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Paula, it is wonder inspiring, isn’t it? To contemplate everything from within Christ’s Pascha?

    On earth this involves suffering, but suffering that is transformed though the grace of Pascha into wholeness and healing for every soul. We make this our own by offering ourselves together with Christ in the Eucharist to God and receiving from Him in return the gift of life (zoe) in the Body and Blood of the Lord. We are told in Hebrews, Christ “endured the Cross, despising it’s shame” for the sake of “the joy set before Him”. As in our Friday night Holy Week service, we obtain a glimpse of the Ressurection even within that very darkest Event of sacred history.

  94. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Paula,
    Very well said. Yes!
    Consider this: the Scriptures speak of the Lamb “slain from the foundation of the earth.” St. Paul speaks of the “mystery hidden from before the ages.” That mystery is Christ’s Pascha – revealed as an event in history – but always at work, from the foundation of the earth, as God’s providence draw all things to Himself, reconciling all things, trampling down death by death. We are Baptized into Christ’s Pascha (His death and resurrection) such that our life is His Pascha at work in us.

    Pascha is all-encompassing!

  95. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Christopher,
    If you could do it succinctly and in terms us non-philosophy majors could grasp, would you describe what is meant by the “Cartesian soul” and what the alternative(s) might be? Thanks!

  96. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Ahhhh….thank you Father Stephen! Yes, “our life is His Pascha at work in us.” !

    Karen… It surely is wonder inspiring to contemplate everything from within Christ’s Pascha! I can hardly think on it without being greatly moved!
    On another note Karen…I had the same question for Christopher…matter of fact I’ve had it ever since the first time I “met” him on these blogs! Christopher –> 😉 !!

  97. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Correction: “Cartesian Self” is the philosophical construct I was looking for a definition of.

  98. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Paula, thanks! I’m glad I’m not the only one without the inner conceptual framework to know where to “hang” some of the stuff Christopher writes (or many others do, for that matter). 🙂

  99. Christopher Avatar
    Christopher

    Oh boy, I will try. The Cartesian Self is an idea lived, so that makes it a story. A story is personal so allow me to say this: the Cartesian Self is the story of Karen where she is *comprehensible* to herself….in this story she turns and *sees* herself with her thought, and when she does this she comprehends herself with what she already is – her “thought” or self dialogue, the “dialectic”.

    Here is another answer that says more about the link between being/what a thing is (“ontology”) and thought/language:

    Rene Descartes famously said “cogito ergo sum”, most often translated “I think, therefore I am”. The term “think” is a bit loaded here in that when a person “thinks” he is thinking with language – he is “in dialogue” with himself and his ideas and perceptions of the world and reality itself. What Rene did was link this internal dialogue with being itself and the very core of what a human being is existentially. In other words, this internal dialogue IS existence itself, and without it a person does not exist. Since man is dialogue, it makes sense that dialogue is at the center of his relationship with God and other human beings, and even reality itself. If there is conflict in a relationship or a problem to be solved, then it is a conflict of dialogue because everything man is rests on it.

  100. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Christopher,
    Thanks! Very helpful. Yes, good job. That makes sense.

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