Saturday, March 23, 2019

19. ST. MARK THE ASCETIC: THE MYSTERY OF SUFFERING NO MYSTERY


Even though we have properly disposed of the notorious problem of evil as a non-starter, that does not mean there is nothing else to be said about it. 
The people who have agonized over this question1 sadly overlooked St. Mark the Monk.  The purpose of this article is to summarize briefly St. Mark’s teachings on this subject.
By way of introduction, St. Mark the Monk seems to have been a spiritual giant who escaped detection; at least modern scholarship does not have much to say about him.2  Tim Vivian suggests a mid-fifth century date, but finds no evidence to tie St. Mark to any area.3  What we do know is that he was very popular reading.  A monastic slogan recorded in the 14th century was, “Sell everything and buy Mark.”4  When the Philokalia was compiled, St. Mark was naturally included.  He wrote two works—both of which are in the Philokalia—which delve deeply into evils and sufferings:  On the Spiritual Law and Those Who Imagine They Are Justified by Works.  Our plan is to use these works to summarize his doctrine that there is no mystery of suffering.5 
Now, our thesis is that St. Mark does not recognize the afflictions of this life as constituting a mystery of suffering because, in short, they are good for us sub specie aeternitatis (in the very long run).  Since On the Spiritual Law (SL) and On Those Who Imagine They Are Justified by Works (JW) are organized in chapters—i.e., in loosely linked strings of comments—St. Mark nowhere provides an organized doctrine of affliction.  However, due to the organization of his mind, it is easy enough to sketch out his case that afflictions are not evil.
A note on organization:  I decided to give the relevant chapters in order of appearance within each work, since I do not possess any insight as to how they should be ordered to anyone’s benefit.  St. Mark is best left to speak for himself. 

FUTURE BLESSINGS
One theme which St. Mark dwells on is the future value of earthly sufferings. 
A seed will not grow without earth and water; and a man will not develop without voluntary suffering and divine help (JW 70). 
If we fulfil Christ’s commandments according to our conscience, we are spiritually refreshed to the extent that we suffer in our heart.  But each thing comes to us at the right time (JW 93). 
The greater a man's faith that Christ will reward him, the greater his readiness to endure every injustice (SL 44).
When harmed, insulted or persecuted by someone, do not think of the present but wait for the future, and you will find he has brought you much good, not only in this life but also in the life to come (SL 114).
Accept present afflictions for the sake of future blessings; then you will never weaken in your struggle (SL 156).
He who wishes to avoid future troubles should endure his present troubles gladly.  For in this way, balancing the one against the other, through small sufferings he will avoid those which are great (SL 187). 

THE BLESSINGS OF AFFLICTIONS
Another theme he develops is that our afflictions procure us blessings in the present. 
Unexpected trials are sent by God to teach us to practice the ascetic life; and they lead us to repentance even when we are reluctant (JW 8).5 
If you want with a few words to benefit one who is eager to learn, speak to him about prayer, right faith, and the patient acceptance of what comes. For all else that is good is found through these (JW 94).
The mercy of God is hidden in sufferings not of our choice; and if we accept such sufferings patiently, they bring us to repentance and deliver us from everlasting punishment (JW 139).
He who suffers injustice escapes sin, finding help in proportion to his affliction (SL 43). 
By praying for those who wrong us we overthrow the devil; opposing them we are wounded by him (SL 45). 
Consider the outcome of every involuntary affliction, and you will find it has been the destruction of sin (SL 67).
Just as the bitterness of absinth helps a poor appetite, so misfortunes help a bad character. For the first benefits the physical condition, and the second leads to repentance (SL 115). 

THE ACQUISITION OF THE VIRTUES
Still another benefit of suffering is its contribution to the acquisition of the virtues.
Just as suffering and dishonor usually give birth to virtues, so pleasure and self-esteem usually give birth to vices (JW 157).
He who accepts present afflictions in the expectation of future blessings has found knowledge of the truth; and he will easily be freed from anger and remorse (JW 168).
Wisdom is not only to perceive the natural consequence of things, but also to accept as our due the malice of those who wrong us. People who go no further than the first kind of wisdom become proud, whereas those who attain the second become humble (JW 206).
If you do not want evil thoughts to be active within you, accept humiliation of soul and affliction of the flesh; and this not just on particular occasions, but always, everywhere and in all things (JW 207).
He who willingly accepts chastening by affliction is not dominated by evil thoughts against his will; whereas he who does not accept affliction is taken prisoner by evil thoughts, even though he resists them (JW 208).

THE REMEMBRANCE OF GOD
Another blessing conferred by suffering is the remembrance of God.
Distress reminds the wise of God, but crushes those who forget Him (SL 56). 
Let all involuntary suffering teach you to remember God, and you will not lack occasion for repentance (SL 57). 
If you wish to remember God unceasingly, do not reject as undeserved what happens to you, but patiently accept it as your due. For patient acceptance of whatever happens kindles the remembrance of God, whereas refusal to accept weakens the spiritual purpose of the heart and so makes it forgetful (JW 125). 

OUR CONTRIBUTION TO OUR OWN SUFFERINGS
St. Mark’s opinion that suffering is a source of blessings does not mean that he divorces sin and suffering. 
We cannot with all our heart forgive someone who does us wrong unless we possess real knowledge. For this knowledge shows us that we deserve all we experience (JW 49).
Real knowledge is patiently to accept affliction and not to blame others for our own misfortunes (JW 56).
Everyone receives what he deserves in accordance with his inner state. But only God understands the many different ways in which this happens (JW 67).
If, as Scripture teaches, everything involuntary has its cause in what is voluntary, man has no greater enemy than himself (JW 104).
Trials come upon us because of our former sins, bringing what is appropriate to each offence (JW 154).
If you refuse to accept suffering and dishonor, do not claim to be in a state of repentance because of your other virtues. For self-esteem and insensitivity can serve sin even under the cover of virtue (JW 156).
He who fights against others out of fear of hardship or reproach will either suffer more harshly through what befalls him in this life, or will be punished mercilessly in the life to come (JW 171).
He who does not understand God’s judgments walks on a ridge like a knife-edge and is easily unbalanced by every puff of wind. When praised, he exults; when criticized, he feels bitter. When he feasts, he makes a pig of himself; and when he suffers hardship, he moans and groans. When he understands, he shows off; and when he does not understand, he pretends that he does. When rich, he is boastful; and when in poverty, he plays the hypocrite. Gorged, he grows brazen; and when he fasts, he becomes arrogant. He quarrels with those who reprove him; and those who forgive him he regards as fools (JW 193).
Unless a man acquires, through the grace of Christ, knowledge of the truth and fear of God, he is gravely wounded not only by the passions but also by the things that happen to him (JW 194).
When the evil conduct of one person begins to affect others, you should not show long-suffering; and instead of your own advantage you should seek that of the others, so that they may be saved. For virtue involving many people is more valuable than virtue involving only one (JW 214).
No one can experience suffering and remorse in a way that accords with God’s will, unless he first loves what causes them (JW 218). 

SUMMARY
St. Mark’s view then is that when we suffer, we acquire many blessings:  suffering prepares future blessings for us, procure blessings in this life, help us to acquire the virtues and to remember God.  In view of these facts, we may conclude that there is no mystery of suffering.  Suffering is good for us. 
An example may help us.  Whether we get a cavity because we did not brush them, or because of our genes, going to the dentist is still good for us.  Yes, the dentist visit is in this scenario suffering, though the metaphor should not be pushed so far as to make the dentist a devil.
Another example:  consider a cat that must receive medical treatment.  Because we cannot explain why we have to do something painful to it, the cat can only look upon us as doing evil.  Now God has spoken through the Bible and the Fathers about the importance of suffering, so that we can apply their doctrines to our lives as St. Mark urges us.  Unfortunately, because we cannot believe that what the Bible and the Fathers say really applies to us—surely it is my neighbor who must walk the extra mile!—we imagine we have grounds for grievance.  St. Mark warns us that we have no such grounds.

PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS
Let us close with St. Mark’s advice on how to suffer.
Afflictions that come to us are the result of our own sins. But if we accept them patiently through prayer, we shall again find blessings (JW 9).
A sinner cannot escape retribution except through repentance appropriate to his offence (JW 58).
When a sinful soul does not accept the afflictions that come to it, the angels say: ‘We would have healed Babylon, but she was not healed’ (Jr 51:9) (JW 82).
Escape from temptation through patience and prayer. If you oppose temptation without these, it only attacks you more strongly (JW 106).
Do not say that a dispassionate man cannot suffer affliction; for even if he does not suffer on his own account, he is under a liability to do so for his neighbor (JW 123).6 
He who wishes to be spared all misfortunes should associate God with everything through prayer; with his intellect he should set his hope in Him, putting aside, so far as possible, all concern about things of the senses (JW 172).
When tested by some trial you should try to find out not why or through whom it came, but only how to endure it gratefully, without distress or rancor (JW 198).

CONCLUSION
I encourage everyone to read St. Mark for himself—he wrote deeply and lucidly about things besides afflictions in a way that is very accessible.  Three of his works are available in the Philokalia.  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press has printed all of his known works in one volume in their Popular Patristics Series (see n. 2).  

ENDNOTES
1.  I am relying on Niels Christian Hvidt for the background which follows (see “The Historical Development of the Problem of Evil” in Physics and Cosmology:  Scientific Perspectives on the Problem of Natural Evil, ed. Murphy, N., R. J. Russell & W. R. Stoeger (Vatican City State: Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley & Vatican Observatory Publications, 2007), which may be accessed at tro-helbred.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/ Hvidt-CTNS-Final.pdf).  In brief, the mystery of suffering or (more generally) the problem evil is a recent preoccupation even in the West, surfacing here only in the 17th century.  It was then that Leibniz attempted to rebut the rationalists of his day, who faulted the Creator for allowing evils to exist.  As Hvidt points out, Western Christian teaching on this question had been unchanged since the beginning:  all evils ultimately stem from the fall of Adam (p. 19).  In the West, the doctrines of original sin, massa damnata and double predestination were significant means of explaining both the causes and the effects of this fall; we may well imagine that these doctrines would sooner or later have created doubts in the minds of the thoughtful.  In the East, the emphasis was on corruption, an effect of the fall which anyone can verify for himself with a history book, a newspaper or an examination of his own health.  Hvidt observes that before the Enlightenment, the discussion of evils—whether moral, natural or personal—was conducted within a Christian perspective; beginning with the Enlightenment, the same discussion attempted “to provide reasons for [the Christian] perspective” (p. 24).  Christians from the earliest days conceded presumptively that God was just; the only question was how His justice was to be traced; Leibnitz accepted the originally unquestioned starting point (God’s justice) as the bone of contention. 
2.  All the information on St. Mark in this paragraph comes from St. Mark the
Monk, Counsels on the Spiritual Life, ed. & tr. Tim Vivian and Augustine Casiday (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009).  The Prologue from Ochrid gives little enough information on his feast day (March 5).  It supports Vivian’s surmise of a 5th century date, but places the saint in Egypt, not in Asia Minor.  Modern scholarship tends to be tight-lipped about assigning dates and places or about accepting the explicitly stated motives of the Fathers at face value, whereas the underdogs of history—most famously in our age, the Gnostics—are treated generously and excused when necessary.
3.  Idem, p. 24 f.
4.  Idem, p. 32.
5.  I have used G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (trans. and eds.) for “On Those who Think They Are Made Righteous by Works: Two Hundred Twenty Six Texts” (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, vol. I [Faber & Faber, London & Boston: 1979], pp. 125-146), available as a PDF at jbburnett.com/resources/mark_ascetic-righteousness.pdf.  To cite “On the Spiritual Law Two:  Hundred Texts,” I have relied on the same translation, found at https://archive.org/details/Philokalia-TheCompleteText.  Vivian and Casiday’s translations are vitiated by political correctness.
6.  Note the proviso “by divine dispensation.”  This phrase is our assurance that suffering in and of itself is not a blessing and will not procure for us any blessing unless by divine dispensation.  As Somerset Maugham wrote in The Moon and Sixpence, “suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.
7.  This is confirmation of St. Mark’s doctrine that sufferings are a source of blessings, for we are nowhere asked to sin on behalf of our neighbors.

18. MORE PROBLEMS WITH THEODICY SOLVED



Let’s return to the oft-repeated claim of atheists that the existence of evil means that God may be all-powerful or all-good, but not both.  This claim amounts to a judgment upon God.  Is it really true that we are able to judge God? 
St. Maximus the Confessor offers us a simple test.  He says that “God is one, unoriginate, incomprehensible, possessing completely the total potentiality of being, altogether excluding notions of when and how, inaccessible to all, and not to be known through a natural image by any creature.”*
Let’s restrict our attention to one point:  either (1) the God we worship is incomprehensible or (2) He is not. 
Let’s examine (1).  If God is incomprehensible, any attempt to understand Him is pointless and any complaining about what we don’t like about life and the universe is absurd.  We simply cannot understand (what in human terms would be) the rationale for (what in human terms would be) far-reaching decisions made by God. 
For us to complain about an incomprehensible deity is like a kindergartner finding fault with calculus or a cat meowing about her visit to the vet’s office.  The incomprehensibility of the divine defendant sends the plaintiff packing (cf. Ps. 50:6 [LXX!]).
This is not to say that we know nothing about God.  The Bible and the Fathers offer us a great deal about Him in terms so plain as to remove all possible doubt about Him, such as what He is (I Jn.4:8), what He wants for us (I Tim. 2:4) and what he expects from us (Mic. 6:8, Eph. 2:10).  
Indeed, if we have been told what He is is, what He wants for us and what He expects from us, but we have not been told why He permits evils to exist, we may reasonably infer that it is not for us to know why evils exist.  The reason for the existence of evils may, like the return of Our Lord, be knowledge deliberately withheld (Mt. 25:13) or by nature impossible to be understood (Eccl. 3:21).
My cynical guess is that some people are not motivated by His desire for our salvation or enthusiastic about acting justly; they would rather speculate about the origins of evil or catching God out.
(2)  If God is not incomprehensible, we are worshiping and arguing with an imperfect creator who gave us existence but could not guarantee us universal happiness (however defined).  This God is a well-meaning creator who only sometimes gets it right.  This view has the advantage of explaining all evils perfectly, but the creator it envisions is not the God of the Christian faith. 
This fundamentally non-Christian, even non-Biblical conception of God belongs to Gnosticism or the polytheism, both of whom feature hapless creators who cannot get things to work out right for everyone.
In conclusion, each of us must decide whether God is comprehensible or not and then stick to the logical consequences of our decision.  If God is incomprehensible, there are no grounds for complaints.  If God is not incomprehensible, there are indeed grounds for complaints, but they must be taken to a non-Christian forum to be heard and decided.
We may now briefly treat another great source of doubt. 
Why did God make man?  Why indeed did God make anything?  If we concede that God is incomprehensible, then we can dispose of that doubt immediately:  we cannot fathom why we exist any more than we can understand why evils exist.  All we can do is accept the fact of our existence and the terms upon which we exist.       
So, instead of wondering about questions whose answers we are by nature incapable of understanding, let’s get busy doing the good works we were created to do (cf. Eccl. 3:20).
ENDNOTES
*G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (trans. and eds.), “Two Hundred Texts on Theology” (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, vol. II [Faber & Faber, London & Boston: 1979]), p. 114.  The reader may consider for himself how we can judge a Creator to whom the “notions of when and how” do not apply; who is “inaccessible to all”; and who is “not to be known” by the only means we have at our disposal—“through a natural image.”  

Friday, March 22, 2019

17. GIVENS AND THE MYSTERY OF EVIL


In our last episode, we claimed that games are inevitably composed of givens.  Further, we said these givens have what I call the Absurd Property of Givens—which means that it is absurd to sit down to a game and then complain about the injustice of the rules.  The person who stands over a game in progress may be a complainer, but if he has not committed himself to playing, he is not at any rate absurd when he wonders why pawns are so restricted in their movements.
These preliminaries bring us to the threshold of another important gaggle of doubts—theodicy.  Theodicy is the study of the justice of God.  When people say things like “If God is all-powerful and all-good, then the existence of suffering proves that he is one or the other, but not both,” they are dealing with theodicy. 
I wish now to present a view of evil which as far as I can tell removes that kind of doubt.  I hesitate to say that most people will find my view palatable, even if they applaud its consistency.
Let’s first introduce some new terminology.  We say, following von Mises,* that when we cannot analyze something, it is dubbed an ultimate given to signify the uselessness of further reasoning. 
For example, the pawn’s moves form an ultimate given in chess, since there is no way to account for them.
Again, I may divide the word undoable into three parts:  un, do, able.  Each part has its own meaning which contributes to the meaning of the word as a whole.  However, none of the three parts can be broken down any further.  The old question, “Which part of no do you not understand?” actually illustrates this point very nicely.  Therefore, the meaning of un, do and able are ultimate givens. 
Again, I may look at my life as a whole and affirm that both the incredible universe in which I find myself and the main facts of my personal existence—the brevity of my existence, the uncertainty of the aims I pursue during my fleeting life, the absolute certainty of disease, frustration and mortality—are givens.  Furthermore, these are givens from which I cannot excuse myself in order to get a better view of the whole.  I cannot step back, invent or find another universe and congratulate myself for a new and improved lot in life.  All the givens which I face are forced upon me. 
In short, all my questions about theodicy—Why do I have to suffer?  Why does anyone suffer?  Why do people die?  Why can I not be wiser sooner?—are absurd. 
Just as we have no patience with a man who announces that he will play a game of chess and spends the entire game whining about the unfairness of the rules or the dimensions of the board, so we should have no patience with people who ask absurd questions about life and the universe.  Since we cannot check out at any point in order to rewind, revise and replay, the only rational course is to accept the facts which give rise to theodicy as ultimate givens. 
Just as a man who complains about the injustice of chess rules is not really playing chess, so the man who complains about the injustice of life is not really living.  Justice is swift in these cases.  If you are not really playing chess, you are very likely to lose; if you are not really living, what little time you have will not only be wasted but will be even more miserable than necessary.
*Human Action:  A Treatise on Economics (Auburn, Alabama:  Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1998), p. 21.


Monday, September 3, 2018

16. THE GIVENS OF GAMES, MOSTLY



We turn now to another important source of doubts—givens.  In this episode, we restrict our discussion of givens to games, then apply the lessons learned to doubts.
Givens are those things which are accepted for what they seem to be without further thought.  Let’s take chess as an example.  When as a child I was told that such and such a piece was a pawn, I accepted that as a fact.  When I was further told that the pawn was permitted to make a certain number of moves, I likewise accepted those rules as facts without digging any deeper.
Because I learned about all the rules governing the movements of all the other pieces, I was able to enjoy a life-time of games.  
Similarly, cards of a typical deck are given.  Different sets of rules governing the same 52 cards give us different games.  One set of rules gives us solitaire, another gives us blackjack, another one gives us twenty-one and so forth. 
In short, all games are formed from certain combinations of given things (like pieces, boards and cards) and the rules governing them.  
Every time we play a game, we rely on these givens.  We may call this the Inevitability Property of Givens, because we inevitably rely on an arbitrary set of givens--we have to use some pieces and we have to follow some rules--in order to play any game.  In short, you cannot play any game without a set of givens.
It follows that questioning the givens is pointless.  We call this the Absurd Question Property of Givens.  This means that when we doubt givens, we tend to ask silly questions.  Who would play chess with an opponent who wants to know why the pawn moves as it does?  
Looking beyond games, we can see that vending machines, computer programs and so forth share these two properties.  

For example, the givens of a vending machine includes the parts, the programming and the coins required to make it work.  If I want to buy candy from it, I am bound to accept the terms required by (the makers of) the vending machines.  I cannot get candy from a vending  machine without accepting its givens.  Therefore, if a certain vending machine features the given “Coins Only,” then I must either use coins or find another machine.  Asking about why the machine only takes coins gets me nowhere.  For me to shove dollar bills into some part of the machine and then claim that the machine is broken is just silly. 
It may be objected that this view of things is merely an argument for a mule-headed kind of conservatism.  Not at all.  If I want to find a vending machine that does accept bills, I may.  I can even produce my own vending machine that accepts paper money.  However, as long as I am standing in front of someone else's machine, it is still a waste of time to ask silly questions.  
Furthermore, if I produce my own my new vending machine, it will, when all is said and done, still be a package of inevitable givens to another potential user, and it will still be absurd for him to raise silly questions, like "Granted that this machine accepts coins and bills, why doesn't it accept denarii and drachmas?"  
We may now see that whereas givens of games are inevitable, the Absurd Question Property only arises when someone commits himself to a game (of chess or of a vending machine) and in his effort to win the game (capture all of his opponent's pieces or get a candy-bar) starts whining about the injustice of it all.  
By contrast, someone who decides to invent a game based on, say, chess,  is deliberately not committing himself to the old game.  When he asks "Why can't the pawn have a new move?", he simply clarifying his thoughts about a new set of givens for what he hopes will be a better game. 





Saturday, August 4, 2018

15. ST. CLEMENT’S CITATIONS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT (2)

We observed last time that St. Clement likes to refer to speakers when he cites the Bible.
Paul J. Achtemeier explains an important aspect of this fact when he says in a slightly different context that “the New Testament must be understood as speech,”1 not as printed matter. As anyone who has ever examined facsimiles of ancient Greek or Latin knows, nothing in the texts provides the enormous number of clues which modern typography does; all organizational cues are aural.2 
Therefore, we must grasp that the Old Testament did not mean to St. Clement what the it means to us.  For us, Scripture is above all a book.   For St. Clement, the Old Testament, though a book in Greek already available for centuries, was primarily God’s vital message.  It was heard by most people and read by a very small number; its value ultimately came from God or the men whom he appointed to speak for him.      
Returning to the New Testament, we notice that it took centuries before the New Testament would be established as the canonical collection which we have today.  Why did it take so long for that to happen?  Why did the Fathers of the church disagree about the canon of the New Testament so peacefully for so long?  Part of the reason has to be (as Ernst Robert Curtis puts it) that while “Christianity became the religion of a book, . . . it did not begin as such.”3  
This explains why St. Clement could be so excited about the Septuagint and at the same time did not bother himself about the exact wording of any Septuagint text.  This is also why the innumerable and tiny inconsistencies of the gospels were so unimportant to the early Christians that no one bothered to harmonize them.4  Who cares about details when the substance is all that matters?  Why focus on the feather, the stylus, the papyrus, the pixel, the screen, when the only thing that matters is the message?   
As Achtemeier said, the Scriptures were primarily an aural experience.  What he does not emphasize is that this aural experience occurred in a liturgical setting.  The aural experience connects the audience not to the documents but to the authors or the speakers.  From the point of view of the early Christians, the later interest in gathering and comparing manuscripts in order to establish the best readings would likely be seen as signs of cultural rot or dementia, as an inexplicable victory of petty details over dynamic message. 
The indifference of the early church to the Bible as a book is therefore due to the mind of the believers:  their faith was a response to a message of incredibly good news.  While the core New Testament documents were generally agreed upon from a pretty early era, there was no felt need for codification.  Who needs to codify living ideals?  Living ideals drive men to do crazy things to serve them; only dead ideals need to be codified and defended. 
St. Clement needed no authorized canon; indeed, Chrysostom says that if we lived in a truly Christian manner, we would need no Bible.5  Only in our bookish age can anyone conceive of reducing the faith to a codified text; only in our times can we be advised that just as Christ was God’s Word in the flesh, so the Bible is God’s Word in print.6 
In conclusion, St. Clement’s habit of referring to speakers provides us with evidence that what really matters is the message, not the medium.  This habit seems to support Vellas’ view that it is the person who is inspired, not the document.

ENDNOTES FOR THE CURIOUS
1.  Paul J. Achtemeir, “Omne Verbum Sonat:  The New Testament and the Oral Environment of Late Western Antiquity,” Journal of Biblical Literature 109 (1990), p. 19.
2.  Idem, p. 17.
3.  European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, tr. Willard R. Trask (Bollingen/Princeton, 1953), p. 257f.  It was a happy day when I found this brilliant book in the small library of the University of Maryland at Munich.  To further recommend Curtis to the reader, I note his observation that “Church law . . . fixes canonical ages for ecclesiastical offices.  Only in the case of a priest’s female cook is there no definite stipulation.”  Make of that what you will.
4.  Except of course for the heretic Tatian.  Tatian was shunned, but after Christianity became a religion of a book, his Gospel harmony was translated into a huge number of languages from England to Central Asia.
5.  Homily 1 on Matthew.
6.  As an Evangelical Christian charmingly put it to me.  To understand such a bizarre claim, see Alvin Kernan’s account of the 18th century transition from an oral/scribal culture to a print culture in Samuel Johnson and the Impact of Print (Princeton, 1987).  The press might have been introduced to the West from China in the 15th century, but according to Kernan it was not until the 18th century that English culture made the transition to a print-based culture.  So Achtemeier’s article on the oral environment of the New Testament is concerned only with one period in the larger oral/scribal culture which persisted until a few centuries ago.




14. ST. CLEMENT’S CITATIONS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

In my last post, I discussed divine inspiration, revelation and Biblical errancy.  Now I propose a somewhat odd simile.  Think of divine inspiration as the crucial information which various witnesses have been given.  Revelation is the testimony the witnesses give at the trial.  The stenographer corresponds in this simile to the scribe taking dictation from a Biblical author.  

The value of this simile is that it makes it clear that everything depends on the testimony; nobody in his right mind would imagine that the stenographer can have anything but one role to play:  to get things straight.  He does not add his own remarks to the testimony.  His only value lies in staying out of the way.   Any value his transcript has is due exclusively to its fidelity to the court proceedings. 

Is there any corroboration for this unusual comparison?
St. Clement’s epistle to the Corinthians might do.1  We note that this epistle, which was written towards the end of the 1st century, contains numerous citations of the Old Testament. 
St. Clement uses several expressions to quote the Old Testament:  “it is written,” “that which was written,” “it says” etc.  Most of his citations use these kinds of standard expressions.  He also says “the Scripture bears witness” (XXIII.5) and “Scripture says” (XXXIV.6 and XLII.5), expressions which seem to support the court-room simile proposed above.
Other times he introduces quotes in a very different way.  E.g., he introduces a quote from Gen. 2.23 (“This is now bone of my bone etc.”) in VI.3 as “the saying of our father Adam”.  He also introduces a quote from Ez. (33.11-27) by saying that “the Master of all things spoke.” 
St. Clement often introduces a quote with “God says” (VIII.4, X.2, XIV.5, XVIII.1 etc.; cf. XXXII.2, XXXIII.5). In XIII.1, of Jer. 9.23-24, St. Clement says, “the Holy Spirit says.”  In XXII.1, he introduces an Old Testament citation of Ps. 33:12 (LXX) by saying that “Christ . . . himself through his Holy Spirit calls us thus.”  Introducing a quote of Ps. 2.7-8, he says, “But of his Son the Master said thus:  ‘Thou art my son etc.’”(XXXVI.4).
To wrap it up:  in addition to standard ways of citing Scripture, St. Clement also likes to refer to speakers, not just documents.
Next time we will draw a few inferences from this fact.

ENDNOTES FOR THE CURIOUS
1.  The Apostolic Fathers is what we call the earliest fathers after the apostles.  The proper term is sub-apostolic, where sub- means immediately adjacent (The Concise Oxford Dictionary).  The earliest were contemporaries of St. John the Theologian.  There are several collections of their writings of the Apostolic Fathers in print and online.  The online versions tend to be done in archaic English; the best version online may be J. B. Lightfoot’s. 




Monday, July 9, 2018

13. IS THE BIBLE INSPIRED?

In our last post, I pointed out some inconsistences in Caleb’s Hebron.  These inconsistencies create trouble for the Inerrancy Warrant (If the Bible is inspired, then it must be free from errors).  Now I wish to propose new warrants that will cover divine inspiration and inconsistencies. 

Let’s first explore some ideas advanced by Basil Vellas.1 

According to Vellas, since there is no way for man to grasp what God  reveals to him, he must receive “internal illumination” which will help him to understand and record what has been revealed.  This process of inspiration “does not exclude free will, thought or conscience, because it does not bring a Scriptural writer into a state of ecstasy.”2

Vellas goes on to cite the Blessed Theophylact as saying that “the Spirit spoke to each of the prophets and they transmitted what was said by the Spirit in the way they could.”  Just as salvation is a question of cooperation between God and man, so too in the case of inspiration do we find that the prophets and apostles are allowed to participate in revelation. 

This view of revelation, says Vellas, “prevented the Ortho­dox church     . . .  from accepting the verbal inspiration of Holy Scripture, which denies the author's personality.”  This permits Vellas to conclude that divine inspiration does not affect “historical and scientific questions and knowledge of everyday life which could easily be obtained by the authors through their own mental powers.”  Rather, “revelation and the divine inspiration which is conne­cted with it can be applied only to dogmatic and moral truths.”  He adds that “consequently there is a distinction in Holy Scripture between the vital and the non-essential, the per­manent and the transient, the divine and the human element.”

We capture Vellas’ insights in three warrants.  The first is a Revelation Warrant:  Inspired men contribute to the revelation they proclaim.  A Biblical Errancy Warrant naturally follows:  If there are errors in the Bible, they reflect the human contributions made to the records of divine revelation.  The third is a new Biblical Inerrancy Warrant:  Dogmatic and moral truths in the Bible are inerrant.  Let’s apply these warrants to the case of Hebron.

We first ask whether the history of Hebron is something which a divinely inspired author could have provided from his own resources.  Certainly; this agrees with the Revelation Warrant.  Then, whether the muddled history of Hebron suggests errors.  It certainly seems like it, so the Biblical Errancy Warrant applies.  Finally, we ask whether Hebron’s history has a bearing on dogmatic or moral truths.  Of course not; if we wish to suggest that the history of Hebron cannot be accepted at face value as factually true, our new Biblical Inerrancy Warrant clears us to do so.    

By the application of these three warrants, we see that we do not have to treat Hebron as a divinely inspired history whose contradictions must be vigorously whisked away with the broom of piety, nor do we have to concede that the Bible is not inspired.  Rather, we candidly admit that Hebron poses an interesting problem of history and manuscript transmission, without having any bearing on divine inspiration or revelation.

All this goes to show the value of identifying and proposing warrants for our evidence. 

If we retain a warrant to the effect that Biblical inerrancy requires the Bible to have no errors, any evidence of inconsistency—really, the tiniest disagreements among the manuscripts—becomes grounds for dismissing the divine inspiration of the authors and the revelation they proclaimed. 

If we retain a warrant to the effect that Biblical inerrancy does not entail zero-tolerance for errors in the Bible, evidence of inconsistency does not even touch divine inspiration or revelation, let alone dismiss them. 

 

ENDNOTES

1.  All quotes in this essay are from Basil Vellas, “The Authority of the Bible according to the Eastern Orthodox Church,” in Ευχαριστήριον, τιμητικός Τόμος Αμίλκα Αλιβιζάτου (Athens: 1958), 490-503 (http://www.apostoliki-diakonia.gr/ index.html [accessed July 9, 2018]).  I hope in the future to have the hard copy of this book and provide more specific references.

2.  Here Vellas alludes to the kind of prophesy that involves what we would call ecstatic experiences.  Saul himself, when he was bent on killing David, was permitted by God to succumb to this when “he stripped off his clothes also, and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night.  Wherefore they say, Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Sam. 19.24). 

 


19. ST. MARK THE ASCETIC: THE MYSTERY OF SUFFERING NO MYSTERY

Even though we have properly disposed of the notorious problem of evil as a non-starter, that does not mean there is nothing else to be sa...