Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Feast of Nativity of Christ

Leo, Sermon XXI, On the Feast of the Nativity:

Our Saviour, dearly-beloved, was born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is He come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life. For the Son of God in the fulness of time which the inscrutable depth of the Divine counsel has determined, has taken on him the nature of man, thereby to reconcile it to its Author: in order that the inventor of death, the devil, might be conquered through that (nature) which he had conquered. And in this conflict undertaken for us, the fight was fought on great and wondrous principles of fairness; for the Almighty Lord enters the lists with His savage foe not in His own majesty but in our humility, opposing him with the same form and the same nature, which shares indeed our mortality, though it is free from all sin.

Archbishop Demetrios, Encyclical for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ:

The holy birth in Bethlehem of our Savior occurred at a specific time, but His Incarnation and its significance for our redemption are timeless. The Son of God, the Lord of Glory and King of kings who upholds the universe by His word of power, became man so that we human beings might be redeemed, renewed, united with Him, and become fellow citizens with the Saints and members of God’s household.

The magnitude and the depth of the event of the Nativity of Christ are impossible to grasp, but yet its message is clear and true. It is a message of grace, hope, and salvation to all humanity and all of the created order…

As the shepherds and wise men received the invitation to “come and see” the superb miracle of the Incarnation of God, so too we are invited on this great feast to come and encounter Christ, and to see the great and marvelous work He has done for us and our salvation. On this day we come and see the brilliant light of truth and life shining through the darkness and despair of our world. We hear a message of hope and grace that causes us to cease all other thoughts and activities and direct our hearts and minds to the One who has come to bring us peace and assurance. We come to Christ and see justice, holiness, and love and realize the necessity of these for true and abundant life.

Ephrem the Syrian, First Hymn on the Nativity:

In this night of reconcilement let no man be wroth or gloomy! in this night that stills all, none that threatens or disturbs! This night belongs to the sweet One; bitter or harsh be in it none! In this night that is the meek One’s, high or haughty be in it none! In this day of pardoning let us not exact trespasses! In this day of gladnesses let us not spread sadnesses! In this day so sweet, let us not be harsh! In this day of peaceful rest, let us not be wrathful in it! In this day when God came to sinners, let not the righteous be in his mind uplifted over sinner! In this day in which there came the Lord of all unto the servants, let masters too condescend to their servants lovingly! In this day in which the Rich became poor for our sakes, let the rich man make the poor man share with him at his table. On this day to us came forth the Gift, although we asked it not! Let us therefore bestow alms on them that cry and beg of us. This is the day that opened for us a gate on high to our prayers. Let us open also gates to supplicants that have transgressed, and of us have asked [forgiveness.] To-day the Lord of nature was against His nature changed; let it not to us be irksome to turn our evil wills. Fixed in nature is the body; great or less it cannot become: but the will has such dominion, it can grow to any measure. To-day Godhead sealed itself upon Manhood, that so with the Godhead’s stamp Manhood might be adorned.

Pope Benedict XVI, Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord:

The first thing we are told about the shepherds is that they were on the watch – they could hear the message precisely because they were awake. We must be awake, so that we can hear the message. We must become truly vigilant people. What does this mean? The principal difference between someone dreaming and someone awake is that the dreamer is in a world of his own. His “self” is locked into this dreamworld that is his alone and does not connect him with others. To wake up means to leave that private world of one’s own and to enter the common reality, the truth that alone can unite all people. Conflict and lack of reconciliation in the world stem from the fact that we are locked into our own interests and opinions, into our own little private world. Selfishness, both individual and collective, makes us prisoners of our interests and our desires that stand against the truth and separate us from one another. Awake, the Gospel tells us. Step outside, so as to enter the great communal truth, the communion of the one God.

Leo, Sermon XXVI, On the Feast of the Nativity:

Although, therefore, that infancy, which the majesty of God’s Son did not disdain, reached mature manhood by the growth of years and, when the triumph of His passion and resurrection was completed, all the actions of humility which were undertaken for us ceased, yet to-day’s festival renews for us the holy childhood of Jesus born of the Virgin Mary: and in adoring the birth of our Saviour, we find we are celebrating the commencement of our own life. For the birth of Christ is the source of life for Christian folk, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the body. Although every individual that is called has his own order, and all the sons of the Church are separated from one another by intervals of time, yet as the entire body of the faithful being born in the font of baptism is crucified with Christ in His passion, raised again in His resurrection, and placed at the Father’s right hand in His ascension, so with Him are they born in this nativity.

Archbishop Rowan Williams, Christmas Sermon (2009):

Relationship is the new thing at Christmas, the new possibility of being related to God as Jesus was and is. But here's the catch and the challenge. To come into this glorious future is to learn how to be dependent on God. And that word tends to have a chilly feel for us, especially us who are proudly independent moderns...we think of dependency as something passive and less than free.

But let's turn this round for a moment. If we think of being dependent on the air we breathe, or the food we eat, things look different. Even more if we remind ourselves that we depend on our parents for learning how to speak and act and above all how to love. There is a dependence that is about simply receiving what we need to live; there is a dependence that is about how we learn and grow. And part of our human problem is that we mix up this entirely appropriate and lifegiving dependency with the passivity that can enslave us. In seeking (quite rightly) trying to avoid passivity we can get trapped in the fantasy that we don't need to receive and to learn.

Which is why it matters that our reading portrays the Son in the way it does - radiant, creative, overflowing with life and intelligence. The Son is all these things because he is dependent, because he receives his life from the Father. And when we finally grow up in to the fullness of his life, we shall, like him, be gladly and unashamedly dependent - open to receiving all God has to give, open to learn all he has to teach.

Ephrem the Syrian, Second Hymn on the Nativity:

Blessed be that Child, Who gladdened Bethlehem to-day! Blessed be the Babe Who made manhood young again to-day! Blessed be the Fruit, Who lowered Himself to our famished state! Blessed be the Good One, Who suddenly enriched our necessitousness and supplied our needs! Blessed He Whose tender mercies made Him condescend to visit our infirmities!

Praise to the Fountain that was sent for our propitiation. Praise be to Him Who made void the Sabbath by fulfilling it! Praise too to Him Who rebuked the leprosy and it remained not, Whom the fever saw and fled! Praise to the Merciful, Who bore our toil! Glory to Thy coming, which quickened the sons of men!

Glory to Him, Who came to us by His first-born! Glory to the Silence, that spake by His Voice. Glory to the One on high, Who was seen by His Day-spring! Glory to the Spiritual, Who was pleased to have a Body, that in it His virtue might be felt, and He might by that Body show mercy on His household’s bodies!

Glory to that Hidden One, Whose Son was made manifest! Glory to that Living One, Whose Son was made to die! Glory to that Great One, Whose Son descended and was small! Glory to the Power Who did straiten His greatness by a form, His unseen nature by a shape! With eye and mind we have beheld Him, yea with both of them.

Glory to that Hidden One, Who even with the mind cannot be felt at all by them that pry into Him; but by His graciousness was felt by the hand of man!

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Encyclical for the Nativity of Christ:

The unshakeable belief of Christians is that God does not simply or indifferently observe from above the journey of humanity, which He has personally created according to His image and likeness…the divine condescension of Christmas is not restricted to things related to eternity. It also includes things related to our earthly journey. Christ came into the world in order to spread the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven and to initiate us into this Kingdom. Yet, He also came in order to help and heal human weakness. He miraculously and repeatedly fed the multitudes who listened to His word; He cleansed lepers; He supported paralytics; He granted light to the blind, hearing to the deaf and speech to the dumb; He delivered the demonized of impure spirits, resurrected the dead, supported the rights of the oppressed and abandoned; He condemned illegal wealth, heartlessness to the poor, hypocrisy and “hubris” in human relations; He offered Himself as an example of voluntary self-emptying sacrifice for the sake of others!

Perhaps this dimension of the message of divine incarnation should be particularly emphasized this year. Many of our friends and colleagues are experiencing terrible trials from the current crisis. There are countless numbers of unemployed, nouveau poor, homeless, young people with “cropped” dreams…Now is the time for a practical application of the Gospel message with a dignified sense of responsibility! Now is the time for a clear and exact implementation of the words of the Apostle: “Show me your faith with works!” (James 2.18) Now is the time and the opportunity for us “to raise our minds to things divine” to the height of the royal virtue of Love, which brings us closer to God.

Leo, Sermon XXI, On the Feast of the Nativity:

Let us then, dearly beloved, give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit, Who “for His great mercy, wherewith He has loved us,” has had pity on us: and “when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together in Christ,” that we might be in Him a new creation and a new production. Let us put off then the old man with his deeds: and having obtained a share in the birth of Christ let us renounce the works of the flesh. Christian, acknowledge thy dignity, and becoming a partner in the Divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct. Remember the Head and the Body of which thou art a member. Recollect that thou wert rescued from the power of darkness and brought out into God’s light and kingdom. By the mystery of Baptism thou wert made the temple of the Holy Ghost: do not put such a denizen to flight from thee by base acts, and subject thyself once more to the devil’s thraldom: because thy purchase money is the blood of Christ, because He shall judge thee in truth Who ransomed thee in mercy, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “ Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Another Apophatic Moment

From Peter of Damascus, A Treasury of Divine Knowledge:

In our ignorance, however, we should not identify God in Himself with His divine attributes, such as His goodness, bountifulness, justice, holiness, light, fire, being, nature, power, wisdom, and the others…God in Himself is not among any of the things that the intellect is capable of defining, for He is undetermined and undeterminable. In theology we can speak about the attributes of God but not about God in Himself…It is indeed more correct so speak of God in Himself as inscrutable, unsearchable, inexplicable, as all that is impossible to define. For He is beyond intellection and thought, and is known only to Himself, one God in three hypostases, unoriginate, unending, beyond goodness, above all praise. All that is said of God in divine Scripture is said with this sense of our inadequacy, that though we may know that God is, we cannot know what He is; for in Himself He is incomprehensible to every being endowed with intellect and reason.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Four Gospels: A Blogtome by Request

It was recently requested that I post something here regarding the early development of the canon, specifically a truncated version of a paper I wrote as an undergraduate on the canonization of the Gospels. Impossible as it may be to believe, what follows is just such an abbreviation. I have taken the knife to the paper, in a way not unlike Marcion did with Luke, in an effort to make it e-managable. I apologize for the extent to which I failed in that effort.


The discussion surrounding the origin and closure of the Christian canon is in a perpetual state of flux. Dates for the final formation of the Christian canon have ranged from the end of the first century to well into the fourth. Opinions change as new evidence surfaces and old evidence is reinterpreted until the picture becomes nearly too convoluted to understand. What’s more, the discussion of the development of a complete canon has given way to theories about the development of the sub-canonical groups yielding separate dates for the completion of the Pauline canon, the canon of Catholic epistles, and the four-Gospel canon. It is the last of these which will be treated here.

The four-Gospel canon constitutes the greatest canonical development in Christianity. It was unique in its time: four separate and distinct accounts of a single man which were bound into a solitary, authoritative chronicle of his life. It has enthralled and vexed the minds of the pious laity and academics alike for the better part of two millennia. The question remains: when did the four Gospels become the fourfold Gospel—the inviolable, normative, authoritative account of Christ’s life? It will be the contention of this study that the second century saw the practical completion of the four-Gospel canon, that at the close of the century the Gospels had been compiled into a single sub-canonical unit that was both unalterable and widespread in “orthodox” churches.

The argument put forth nearly a century ago by Harnack and more recently advanced by Campenhausen and others that the period of the second century was ripe for the development of canon holds no less true today. The controversies that the church faced in the second century are so intrinsically linked to canon that to posit that the church would not have at the very least been initiating the process of canonizing its sacred literature requires significantly more justification than the more natural assumption that it had. This is all the more true for the Gospel literature which formed the core of the Christian canon. However, when discussing external factors which caused a rise in the canon, the mistake is often made of overestimating the value of any one source of stimulus. Rather than proposing that Marcion or the Montanists were directly responsible for either the creation of the canon or the acceleration of that process, it is better to look instead at a general second century milieu which predisposed Christianity to accept the four-Gospel canon. No one group ought to be afforded overwhelming significance over any other, but rather each should be viewed as contributing to a religious culture which created a more urgent need for the development of canon, including more specifically the four-Gospel canon.

One of the principle figures in any discussion of second century canon is Marcion, whose compilation of a single gospel and truncated collection of Pauline letters into a normative collection was for whatever reason notable even in his own day. The traditional view is that Marcion’s collection of documents constituted the first canon of Christian literature, possibly even created the idea of canon. More recent scholarship tends to reject this interpretation. John Barton, for example, attempts to reframe what Marcion did by suggesting that Marcion was not creating a canon but a “critical reconstruction,” not compiling authoritative documents but excluding heretical documents. He suggests that if Marcion had indeed instigated the creation of an “orthodox” canon of scripture, there would be a marked increase in the citation of those scriptures. This assumes, however, that a transition from non-canonical to canonical status is necessarily accompanied by an increased frequency of citation. The reverse is process is just as plausible, if not more so: that documents which were already in frequent and widespread use, such as the four Gospels, would then make the transition into a canonical status.

Much like Barton, L. M. McDonald and Stanley Porter reject the idea that Marcion had significant import for canon development. In a passage rife with concessions and equivocation, they, like Barton, suggest that Marcion’s canon was in fact merely a loose list of “untainted” Christian literature to which his followers felt free to add to because it was never created with the intention of being a fixed canon. Completely apart from the validity of this claim, it is clear, even in their own work, that the motives of Marcion may or may not have had any relevance with regard to the reaction of the early church. The admissions that Marcion’s “canon,” whatever the nature of the collection was, may have “been an important catalyst” in the church’s process of becoming selective with its scriptures and that he “may have had the effect” of causing the church to evaluate the place of Jewish literature in the canon seem to negate any discussion of Marcion’s motives. Whether he meant to or not is essentially irrelevant to the question of whether or not Marcion and his canon began or significantly sped the development of the canon.

Amidst their discussion, however, McDonald and Porter make a statement which approaches a better understanding, a middle way so to speak between the traditional view of Marcion as a lone innovator (at least with regard to a peculiarly Christian canon) and the emerging view of Marcion as essentially irrelevant: “Marcion may have been an important catalyst in causing the church to come to grips with the question of which literature best conveyed its true identity and possibly which literature could be called Scripture.” Though the development of the four-Gospel canon was already in progress prior to or at least contemporary with and apart from Marcion, the controversy surrounding Marcion should be seen as injecting a sense of urgency into the process.

It is important to note in response to this that when Irenaeus first treats Marcion (Against Heresies, I.27.4) he makes explicit that his primary crime is the mutilation of the Scriptures. The Scripture in reference here is most certainly at least the Gospel of Luke if not the whole canon of Marcion since Irenaeus levels the same accusation of “mutilation” later in connection with Marcion, naming Luke’s Gospel specifically as the violated text. Tertullian as well, in the course of his lengthy treatment of Marcion (Against Heretics, 38), specifically charges Marcion with editing the Scriptures to suit his theological ends. For these reasons, Everett Ferguson’s claim is certainly viable: ‘“At any rate, the four-gospel canon, for whatever difficulties it may give theologians, was seen as a defense against heresy.”

Marcionites were not by any stretch the only heretical group in the second century whose particular view of Christianity likely had an influence on the development of the four-Gospel canon. Just before his famous theological defense of the four canonical Gospels (Against Heresies, III.11.7), Irenaeus indicated that Marcion was not alone in his tendency to cling to a single gospel. The Ebionites, he wrote, used Matthew’s Gospel exclusively; the Docetists used Mark; the Valentinian Gnostics employed John. This importantly demonstrates that Marcion rather than practicing something unique was something of an exemplar among heterodox groups who exalted the one Gospel which best suited their theological tendencies. To a lesser degree, what was true of Marcion’s influence on the development of the four-Gospel canon, is true also of the general trend toward this behavior by other heterodox groups of the second century.

An opposite trend, though no less important, is apparent among the Montanists to whom Campenhausen attributes a critical importance in the development of the canon. The Montanist tendency toward the proliferation of prophecy, recorded in books, which had unassailable authority created a no less vital problem for the church. Rather than showing a limiting of the authoritative literature, it demonstrated an unnerving willingness to expand the basis of normative Scriptures. For this reason, Metzger estimates that the Montanist controversy was primarily important in that it cast a shadow of skepticism over the production of new “sacred” Scripture, while Campenhausen claims that Montanism is the “crisis” which called “a halt to the uncontrolled growth of the New Testament.” This is probably an overstatement, but certainly Montanism should be seen as having a limiting effect in general on what was perceived as authoritative Scripture. Ferguson probably phrases it best: “The Montanist controversy brought to the surface a consciousness that the time of the revelation had ended and that there was a qualitative difference between the era of church’s origins and the present.”

Contrary to claims that the very concept of canon is anachronistic to the second century and that the issue of creating a normative collection of Scripture would not have been on the mind of the early church, the second century does seem to be a fitting time for the church to begin the necessary process of consolidating its normative texts, the core of which were always the words and deeds of Jesus. The rise of the four-Gospel canon in the second century should be seen in part as a balance between the tendency of some heretical groups to conservatively restrict their use to a single gospel and the tendency of others to produce or accept an overwhelming multiplicity of authoritative gospel literature. For Irenaeus, the single Gospel devotions of the Ebionites, Marcionites, Docetists, and Valentinians was both a proof of a distinctly canonical authority of the four Gospels and an inherent insufficiency in the heretics’ system, due to the ability of a single text to be manipulated for a group’s own ends. At the same time, the almost wanton inclination of Montanists and certain Gnostic groups to produce and accept a variety of scriptural literature necessitated a reevaluation of the church’s theology of authoritative prophecy and the place of contemporary literature.

The problem with the above understanding of the nature of canon controversy in the second century is that it is largely open to interpretation. There are as many distinct understandings as there are minds to try to understand the problem. Moreover, rather than simply subtle nuances on basic consensus, the freedom of interpretation has allowed for a growing sense that the second century may not even be the crucial period in canon development. Thankfully, with regard to the Gospels, the above understanding of the second century need not be entirely speculative. There are objective clues which tend toward a second century understanding of the development of the four-Gospel canon. Textual studies have illuminated the issue, particularly recently with a crucial new study of the Gospels undertaken by T. C. Skeat and picked up by Graham Stanton.

An early indication that the Gospels are considered Scriptural literature and thereby authoritative is the utilization by scribes of nomina sacra. The nomen sacrum—the system of abbreviations for sacred words—is a distinctive Christian device which appear in the earliest Gospel manuscripts and, if not fully developed then, is standardized very early. While several theories have been advanced for the peculiar Christian usage of these abbreviations, including connection to the Jewish reference for the divine name and foundation in a mystical “theology of the name,” a more convincing suggestion has been made. Harry Gamble proposes that the nomina sacra are actually indicative of a practical aspect of the documents in question, that is that they were transcribed by Christians for use by Christians in small community settings. The practical use in question can be more specifically narrowed to the reading of the manuscripts in worship. This understanding of the nomina sacra as indicative of liturgical use would seem to indicate an early view of the Gospel literature (which is among some of the earliest preserved) as normative scripture in the church appropriate for public reading in corporate worship.

More critical still are the studies undertaken by Skeat and Stanton with regard to the rise of the codex in early Christianity. Much like nomina sacra, the codex was largely a Christian phenomenon in the second century, and, again like the nomina sacra, no one has conclusively proven why this is. The key to the entire question is to better understand what uniquely Christian task the codex can perform that the scroll, which was preferred by the secular world, could not. Gamble suggests that this task was the collection of the letters of Paul into a single manuscript. Skeat, on the other hand, holds the view that the codex is best suited for containing a four-Gospel canon, the fact which caused its very early rise to prominence in the church. Since all Gospel manuscripts, in fact very nearly all biblical manuscripts, have been found to be from codices, this would make the date for the origin of the use of a four-Gospel canon necessarily concurrent with or antecedent to the rise of the codex, thereby pushing the date back to the turn of the second century. There is still, however, the small hurdle of having any evidence of early four-Gospel codices, a hurdle which Skeat would seem to overcome.

Until recently, it has been assumed that P45 represents the earliest evidence, probably from the first half of third century, for the compilation of the four Gospels into a single codex. Particularly in light of the proposed potential of P53 to be a four-Gospel codex, the textual evidence would seem to keep the date of the birth of four-Gospel codices in the third century. Skeat, however, finds a predecessor to these in P75, a single-quire codex containing Luke and John. He suggests that this is in fact the second half of a four-Gospel codex. A double-quire codex, that is a single quire codex of Matthew and Mark attached to a single-quire codex of Luke and John, would have been the necessary format for a four-Gospel codex of the period, since a single-quire codex of all four would have been extremely awkward to handle, if not impossible. If it is accepted then that P75 was originally a four-Gospel codex—and there is no reasonable explanation for why John and Luke would be circulating together in the absence of Matthew and Mark—then the earliest witness to the four Gospels circulating together could theoretically be as early as 200.

Yet Skeat proposes in a later, more comprehensive study, even earlier textual evidence for the circulation of the four Gospels together in a codex. His examination of P4, P64, and P 67 revealed that the three were actually one: “There can in my opinion be no doubt that all these fragments come from the same codex which was re-used as packing for the binding of the late third century codex of Philo.” P4 is a fragment from the early part of Luke and P64 and P 67 are a collection of small fragments from Matthew, thus making the original manuscript theoretically a Matthew/Luke text. Skeat demonstrates through an examination and explanation of the steady, deliberate reduction of script size throughout the fragments, that these manuscripts likely formed a single-quire codex. From a recognition that this is a single codex like P75, the argument proceeds in much the same manner as it had with P75 concluding with the strong assertion that there is now proof that the four-Gospel codex has ancestors which reach well back into the second century. This fact is further strengthened by the observations of Stanton about the high quality of the P4,64,67 manuscript. He argues that the arrangement of the text, evident planning, and meticulous execution “indicate a most handsome edition of the four gospels which…does not look at all like an experiment by a scribe working out ways to include four gospels in one codex: it certainly had predecessors much earlier in the second century.”

Having shown that the second century most certainly lends itself to the development of a four-Gospel canon and that textual evidence gives strong indication that four-Gospel codices were circulated in the early church for liturgical purposes, it is important now to turn to the evidence presented in the patristic literature. The four-Gospel canon finds stronger evidence in the second century fathers than does any other sub-canonical group. This should be seen in large part as a result of the largely gospel oriented controversies already noted.

The earliest clear evidence of a plurality of gospels being used is in Justin Martyr around the middle of the second century. The precise nature of Justin’s gospel material is often disputed. There have been a multitude of suggestions: that he used a variety of canonical and non-canonical gospel material, that he was in fact utilizing a single harmony, or that he used some smaller selection of canonical literature. It is certain that Justin did know and use other gospel material other than what he calls the “memoirs of the apostles,” however, the use of other such material should not be seen as proof that Justin did not have or had a low view of the canonical Gospels. Quite the contrary, Justin is the first record we have of the Gospels being used liturgically on the same level with, and possibly in place of, the Old Testament Scriptures. Furthermore, he gives us fairly clear indication that he knows all four Gospels. It is broadly accepted that Justin knew at least Matthew and Luke. Justin gives indication that he knows a memoir of Peter, which from the context, is likely Mark (Dialogue, 106). The debate about whether or not Justin knew the fourth Gospel is much more difficult, but Ferguson convincingly argues that the particular terminology used (namely the Word and only-begotten designations) is compelling. Additionally, Brooke Foss Westcott proposed that some of the readings that appear to be taken from other sources are actually variant readings of John synthesized with the period baptismal formula.

Probably the most important statement from Justin comes in his anti-Gnostic exposition of Psalm 22. Here he made what is an important statement, which is often overshadowed in the discussion of the four-Gospel canon by Irenaeus. “For in the memoirs which I say were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them…” (Dialogue, 103). Stanton and others have noted here something that should be fairly obvious, namely that this two group formula assumes a bare minimum of four distinct written gospels, two of which must be written by apostles and two of which must be written by so-called apostolic men. That this so perfectly fits the four-Gospel canon admittedly may be coincidental, but is not for this any less thought-provoking. This passage, coupled with the indication that Justin knew all four canonical Gospels, that they were used as Scripture in the church, and that four-Gospel codices were likely to have been in circulation at this time, lead Stanton to believe, not unreasonably, that Justin likely had a four-Gospel codex at his catechetical school around 150.

Certainly one of the most important, if not the most important, patristic text with regard to the development of a four-Gospel canon is Irenaeus’ theological defense of canon in Against Heresies III.11. Here, Irenaeus draws a comparison between the four winds, the four zones of the earth, the four creatures from Ezekiel and the Apocalypse of John, four pillars of support for the church, and the fourfold Gospel. This is important because, as Campenhausen points out, Irenaeus “appeals to the New Testament documents authority by name, defends their authenticity, and asserts that they are normative.” It is more recently and widely suggested that the very fact that Irenaeus makes a defense of the four-Gospel canon is proof positive that it was not yet established. This view, for whatever reason, seems to presuppose that Irenaeus is directing this argument against other members of “orthodox” churches who are rejecting the four-Gospel canon. Quite the opposite, Irenaeus’ statements are a reiteration of what is already established as a defense against current and rising heresies. The very purpose of his work was, after all, to be a criticism of second century heresies and a defense of the “orthodox” faith against such heresies. He had a consistent and vested interest in presenting only those views which were uniform in the church, something he was uniquely positioned to do having experienced Christianity in Asian Minor, Rome, and Gaul over the course of his life.

While Irenaeus constitutes the most important second century witness, his testimony would be significantly less useful if it stood alone. Luckily, others flourishing soon after him, both in the West and the East, also seem to testify to the strength of the four-Gospel canon at the end of the second century. Tertullian, in his treatise against Marcion’s heresy, gives us an important indication for the strength of the four-Gospel canon in North Africa, particularly that they are apostolic in contrast to all others. “We lay it down as our first position, that the evangelical Testament has apostles for its authors, to whom was assigned by the Lord Himself this office of publishing the gospel” (Against Marcion, IV.2). He then proceeds to name the four by name: “Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instill faith into us; whilst of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards” an affirmation which will be repeated three chapters later.

While Tertullian testifies for the West, Clement and Serapion of Antioch witness to the canon in the East. Serapion of Antioch, who flourished at the turn of the third century, is recorded by Eusebius to have dealt with a controversy arising over the reading of a “so-called Gospel of Peter” (Church History, VI.12.1). Serapion declared this new gospel to be false because it lacked the antiquity and consistency of doctrine that the four canonical Gospels, against which he judged the new gospel. Clement too, accepts the four-Gospel canon and, while making use of extra-canonical literature, does not consider other gospels to be authoritative or in any way on par with the canonical Gospels.
When viewed together, the picture which is painted by the evidence seems clear. The second century was a time of immense turmoil for the church. The rise of various heterodox groups—each making use of its own Gospel or making use of a multiplicity of Gospels indiscriminately—created a milieu fertile for the development of a four-Gospel canon. Evidence of such authoritative four-Gospel collections comes to us textually in the form of four-Gospel codices intended for liturgical use which may reasonably be assumed to have existed as early as the middle of the second century. In addition to this, the church fathers of the late second century seem to give a uniform testimony as to what gospel literature the church accepted as canonical and which it rejected. Beginning some time prior to the middle of the second century, since the process was already underway by the time of Justin, the four canonical Gospels had begun to make the transition from a fluid group of individually authoritative texts to an inviolable collection understood to be a single work, the fourfold Gospel, a point which they had reached by the close of the second century.

Aland, Kurt and Barbara Aland. The Text of the New Testament. Translated by Errol F. Rhodes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.

Balla, Peter. “Evidence for an Early Christian Canon (Second and Third Century).” In The Canon Debate. Editors Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 2002, 372-385.

Barton, John. Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.

------------- “Marcion Revisited.” In The Canon Debate. Editors Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 2002, 341-354.

Blackman, E. C. Marcion and His Influence. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1948.

Campenhausen, Hans von. The Formation of the Christian Bible. Translated by J. A. Baker. Philidelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.

Epp, Eldon Jay. “Issues in the Interrelation of New Testament Textual Criticism and Canon.” In The Canon Debate. Editors Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 2002, 485-515.

Farkasfalvy, Dennis. The Formation of the New Testament Canon: An Ecumenical Approach. New York: Paulist Press, 1983.

Ferguson, Everett. “Factors Leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon: A Survey of Some Recent Studies.” In The Canon Debate. Editors Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 2002, 295-320.

Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

------------- The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

------------- “The New Testament Canon: Recent Research and the Status Quaestionis.” In The Canon Debate. Editors Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 2002, 267-294.

Grant, Robert. The Formation of the New Testament. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1965.

Hahneman, Geoffrey Mark. The Muratorian Fragment and the Development of the Canon. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1992.

Knox, John. Marcion and the New Testament: An Essay in the Early History of the Canon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

McDonald, Lee Martin. The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1988.

McDonald, Lee Martin and Stanley Porter. Early Christianity and its Sacred Literature. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc, 2000.

Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development and Significance. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Skeat, T. C. “Irenaeus and the Four-Gospel Canon.” Novum Testamentum 34 (1992): 194-199.

-------------- “The Oldest Manuscript of the Four Gospels?” New Testament Studies 43 (1997): 1-34.

------------- “The Origin of the Christian Codex.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 102 (1994): 263-268.

Stanton, Graham N. “The Four Fold Gospel.” New Testament Studies 43 (1997): 317-346.
Westcott, Brooke Foss. A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament. 6th ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christ and True Ontology

From Panayiotis Nellas, "Redemption or Deification? Nicholas Kavasilas and Anselm's Question 'Why Did God Become Man?'"

Man finds his existence and being in Christ. Before and outside Christ, his being is a being-unto-Christ. And when it is not oriented towards Christ--when, to be more precise, it is defined in freedom and conciousness indepentently of Christ--then it is a being-unto-death, as Heidegger called it, quite correctly according to his own perspective. United with Christ, the iconic biological being of man becomes a true being-in-Christ. In Christ, man finds his true ontological content.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

RE: The Rebuilding of St. Nicholas

Late last month, I got this notice about the attempts being made to rebuild St. Nicholas Orthodox Church at Ground Zero:

On Sunday, December 5th, at 2:00 PM, on the eve of the Feast Day of St. Nicholas, Archbishop Demetrios will lead a special prayer service at Ground Zero (Liberty and Greenwich Streets). On this solemn day, we will join the parishioners of St. Nicholas, not simply in observing the Feast Day of the Wonderworking Saint and the Name Day of the church, but we will intensify our prayers and supplications that the church dedicated to him, the only house of worship destroyed on 9/11, be re-built at Ground Zero, and soon!

I didn't think much of it, except perhaps that I might have liked to be able to attend the prayer service had it not been in the open air of Manhattan in December. Certainly rebuilding the Orthodox Church destroyed on 9/11 is a better cause than constructing a Muslim community center near Ground Zero, and I believe in the power of prayer to enable and invigorate God's work.

More recently, however, I read a news article that suggests that the good people of St. Nicholas are turning to methods a little more down-to-earth than prayer:

A Greek Orthodox church in New York City that was destroyed on Sept. 11 is taking legal action against the agency that owns ground zero, saying it has reneged on a promise to rebuild the church.

The Wall Street Journal reports that St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church filed a notice of claim against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on Monday. The papers seeks to compel the agency to live up to what it says is a "binding preliminary agreement" from 2008.

I realize that I will probably be in a minority on this, but it seems strangely inappropriate to have one hand lifted in prayer and the other at the throat of the New York Port Authority. In the end, it turns out that the Orthodox don't need my prayers so much as my contribution to their legal fund.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"We're not sorry if we tricked you."

I recently stumbled across an interesting article entitled Insane Clown Posse: And God Created Controversy. It was written this October by Jon Ronson (of "Men Who Stare at Goats" fame, among other things) about the revelation (some years ago now) that ICP has been secretly infusing spirituality into their lyrics in an attempt to prompt their fans to think about God, life, and death. Most interesting of all was the subtitle: "America's nastiest rappers in shocking revelation – they've been evangelical Christians all along." Curiously, in reading the article, neither of the rappers that make up ICP ever use the word Christ or Christian at all, much less to describe themselves. They certainly never label themselves as "evangelical Christians." I'm not sure when, but at some point generic theism seems to have become evangelical Christianity by default. I didn't get the memo.

See you Sunday Shaggy 2 Dope.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Religious Freedom: Fighting for Muslims to Fight for Christians

This is a very interesting article about outrage from Greeks about a variety of recent events that have used the status of the Muslim minority in Greece as a foil to talk about the Christian minorities in Turkey. The author quotes himself from a speech he gave at recent conference about religious minorities in Turkey:

As a human rights defender I really would like to see good examples in Greece in the treatment of Muslim minorities so that I could use it to force my government to do the same thing for non-Muslims in Turkey.

I was discussing recently whether or not I thought it was appropriate for Christians to promote religious freedom as such. I certainly won't suggest that we ought to support or pursue the suppression of religious minorities, but I question the legitimacy, the ethics of actively pursuing the rights of people everywhere to worship idols. While I still struggle with that question in general, this article has at least shown me the utilitarian value of improving the lot of Muslim minorities in Greece. I cannot imagine a more potent weapon in the arsenal of the Ecumenical Patriarch than a Greece that shames Turkey with its humanitarian tolerance. That seems to me to be a thoroughly Christian way of going about things, being so obviously, overtly good so as to shame evil out of existence.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Nicholas Cabasilas on True Joy

The following is something of a long selection from Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, on why true joy has God alone as its object:

God has emplanted the desire into our souls by which every need should lead to the attainment of that which is good, every thought to the attainment of truth. For these we long in their purity: good rather than evil, truth rather than error; for no one enjoys being deceived or is pleased by going astray and meeting with evil instead of good. Yet no one by desiring them has ever attained them in their purity. What is good and true in our eyes does not correspond to the name, but rather the contrary. Thus it is also clear that neither the power of our love nor the greatness of our joy apparent when the things which we must love and which we enjoy are absent, nor is the compulsion of desire or the ardour of its fire known when the object of desire is absent.

For those who have tasted of the Savior, the Object of desire is present. From the beginning human desire was made to be gauged and measured by the desire for Him, and is a treasury so great, so ample, that it is able to encompass even God. Thus there is no satisfaction, nothing stills the desire, even if men attain to all the excellent things in life, for we still thirst as though we had none of the things for which we long. The thirst of human souls needs, as it were, an infinite water; how then could this limited world suffice?

He, then, is its repose because He alone is goodness and truth and anything else it desires. Those, therefore, who attain to Him are hindered by nothing from loving to the extent that love was implanted into our souls from the beginning, or from rejoicing as much as human nature is able to rejoice, or from anything that virtue and the water of regeneration added to these faculties. Since the good things of ordinary life are not true to their name it is impossible for either desire or joy to be fully effective in them, for even if something seems to be beautiful it is but a paltry spectre of true beauty. But in this case, since , since there is nothing which will stand in the way, love is clearly shown to be wonderous and ineffable and joy to be beyond description. Above all this is so because God has ordained each of these passions with Himself as its object, so that we should love Him and find our joy in Him alone. It follows, I think, that the passion should be in proportion to that infinite goodness and thus, so to speak, be in keeping with it.

In reading that, two thoughts immediately to mind. The first is how much thoughts like this make me prefer soteriology which focuses on participation in God rather than remission of sins. The idea that our souls are made to delight eternally in the infinite goodness of God seems so much richer to me than more aneseptic visions that are preoccupied merely with the expiation of sin.

My second thought returns to the perennial issue of apatheia as an ethical imperative for humanity. The argument here is the reverse from how I typically make it-namely that God is impassible and we ought to be impassible in the way that He is impassible-but it seems nonetheless compelling to me. God has created us with divinely ordained passions which we are to actualize in the ways He has ordained for them ("God has ordained each of these passions with Himself as its object"). Not only are we passionate by design, but our passions are intended to be infinite, coressponding to the object of the passion ("passion should be in proportion to that infinite goodness"). Given that the reality of passions does not remove the necessity of impassibility (apatheia) as an ethical imperative, why would be reject the idea that God can be both passionate (i.e. loving, angry, pleased) and impassible?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Confession of Faith Against a Confession of Faith Against Ecumenism

It has perhaps been foolish to try to understand the Orthodox spirit merely by reading Lossky, Meyendorff, and others of their ilk. One could no more correctly grasp the spirit of 18th century congregationalists by studying Jonathan Edwards. Certainly the theologians to whom I gravitate represent a position within the Orthodox Church, even a vocal and prominent position, but they are no means representative of the Orthodox Church universal. There is an equally vocal dissenting group (perhaps even a dissenting majority) that espouse ideas quite opposed to the more temperate positions of many of the Orthodox authors I read. I have encountered these voices more and more, the more I detach myself from the lofty literature appearing in periodicals and collecting dust on the library shelves.

Specifically, I came across a particularly disturbing document recently which seems to have substantial support. A Confession of Faith Against Ecumenism is a vitriolic denouncement of the Orthodox participation in ecumenical dialogues, meetings, and activities. I do not intend to restate the entire document here. Instead, I will give five points which I found especially unsettling, and leave others to be unsettled by the rest should they so choose:

  • Straying dangerously close to Donatism, the authors suggest that all the sacraments of the Catholics and Protestants are utterly devoid of grace on the basis of their errors. Curiously, they are willing to accept unity on the grounds of baptism, provided the baptism is a triple-immersion performed by a legitimate priest (which exist only in the Orthodox Church): "One enters the church, however, and becomes Her member, not just with any baptism, but only with the 'one baptism,' that uniformly performed baptism, officiated by Priests who have received the Priesthood of the Church."

  • So certain are these Orthodox of their own correctness and of the depravity into which the rest of us have sunk, that they refuse to pray with other "Christians," even in private: "As longa s the heterodox continue to remain in their errors, we avoid communion with them, especially in common prayer...not only common officiating and common prayer in the temple of God, but even ordinary prayers in private quarters." I have been blessed in my encounters with the Orthodox never to be confronted with this attitude, but I cannot imagine my response if an Orthodox person refused to pray with me because of the insufficiency of my single-immersion baptism.

  • The document is surprisingly alarmist, all of it coated with a thick layer of fear-mongering. For example, it is suggested that if we make the audacious suggestion that there are Christians outside the Orthodox Church then we might as well call Buddhists Christians: "This inter-Christian syncretism has no expanded into an inter-religious syncretism, which equates all the religions with the unique knowledge of and reverence for God and a Christ-like way of life--all revealed from on high by Christ."

  • The authors seem to describe to the kind of cold, formal conservatism that so many of the authors I read have vocally rejected: "We maintain, irremovably and without alteration, everything that the Synods and the Fathers have instituted. We accept everything that they accept and condemn everything that they condemn; and we avoid communication with those who innovate in matters of the Faith. We neither add, nor remove, nor alter any teaching." Contrast this attitude--that the Orthodox have held fast without addition or alteration to the historical statements of the Church--to the sentiments of Archimandrite Lazarus Moore: "The true traditionalist is not a person who lives in the past, but one who is open and alert to the voice and activity of the Spirit today…[Tradition] is not the sum of past experience, but a living experience of God’s action today." Equally unnerving is the self-deluded senseof nostalgia that accompanies the formal conservatism. If only we could go back to better times, earlier times..."Up until the beginning of the 20th century, the Church has steadfastly and immutably maintained a dismissive and condemnatory stance towards all heresies..." Sure it has.

  • Perhaps most disturbing of all is how convinced the authors (and signers) of this document are that whatever they say and however they say it may be wrapped in a banner of "tough love." Love, apparently, gives the Orthodox carte blanche to be as hateful as they like, to--in their own words--wage war on the rest of us: "The Church's strict stance toward the heterodox springs from true love and sincere concern for their salvation, and out of Her pastoral care that the faithful be not carried away by heresy...There is such a thing as a good war and a bad peace."

Some, certainly, will not object to some of those points. In particular, I have in mind the readiness of the Churches of Christ to condemn as invalid all baptisms which do not take place by immersion or baptisms of children. (Ironically, members of the Churches of Christ might be pleased to see the Roman Catholic Church blamed in the Confession of Faith for the introduction of instruments into worship.) Of course, there are undoubtedly also things to which others will object that I do not. Which is fine. Just so long as we all find something objectionable in this mess.