A man’s got to know his limitations

Thadam_reation_iconic1ere are few things that I can do to aid Syria’s roughly two million Christians, the vast majority of which are Orthodox (and many of the remainder Eastern Catholic), but what I can I do, namely pray for them throughout the day, post stuff on Facebook that I get from Jonathan Companik, John Anderson, Gabe Martini, or a host of others. One of the things that encourages me is that many of the things posted are picked up by my evangelical friends and relatives and shared on Facebook. Aside from that, I find that I must bend myself to the things God has asked of me, which I have been neglectful of these past few weeks, namely reading, writing, and teaching. Now, I shouldn’t so much say the reading part, for I have been doing a lot of that, but there comes a time you can take only so much from heretics (in this case the sixteenth-century radical, Michael Servetus), and so you seek to purge your mind with other things. I have found that looking at the lunatic foreign policy of the current administration (as opposed to the bonkers foreign policy of the previous one) only agitates me, and so I have to move to matters less of the moment, and leave things out of my control in the hands of God, whose mercies are infinite. So I turn to theological blogs, and one of my favorite, for a number of reasons, is Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy.

A few days ago on O & H, Fr. Andrew (the big Kahuna of the blog) posted a video of an interview with James Jordan, a man well-known in Reformed circles, initially for his days as a Theonomist, first working with Rushdoony, but then after Rushdoony and his son-in-law fell out, Gary North, he moved his shop to Tyler Texas to the parish church of Ray Sutton (who afterwards decamped to the Reformed Episcopal Church). Jordan, last I heard, was somewhere in Florida, and back in the PCA. Jordan, Rushdoony once said in a crowded discussion, was a wayward mind, for he had gone after the worst kind of Orthodoxy, that of Alexander Schmemann. Well, now ole Jim has gone full circle and is attacking the Orthodox, and has been doing so for some time. He was starting on it even back in the early 90s when a bunch of us got together one evening, not far from Westminster seminary, for some drinks and theological conviviality. The comments to the video at H & O are more than worth reading (except for a brief aside two people got off on about the relative diabolism of Calvin). What I wish to touch on here are some rather extraordinary statements Jordan made, which shall lead into a discussion of the veneration of the Saints.

The first was that Orthodox are necromancers. This floored me as either depraved or ignorant, or, to be economical, just depraved ignorance. For a man who claims to have investigated these matters to make such accusations, ones that Calvin at his most verbose and vitriolic hottest did not make, demonstrates, if he actually thinks this, how shallow has been his reading of not only the Fathers, but also holy Scripture. The alternative is, as some have pointed out in the comments, that this is nothing but disingenuous vitriol, employed to make Orthodoxy odious to those Jordan fears might start investigating things for themselves. He could be doing it, of course, just to keep his bona fides in check with the PCA powers that be, especially given the number of defections to Rome and Orthodoxy over the past years from presbyterianism, defections that often begin when inquiring minds start reading Jordan et al’s books. To the charge itself, necromancy was clearly not a mere consorting with the dead, but with the putative spirits of the dead, i.e., with demons. Furthermore, while we have instances of the Saints appearing to the living, this is something that is ever and always a grace: the saints are not at our beck and call, as if they were just an incantation away from our Ouija board. No, we pray to the saints for they are part of the body of Christ, as are we. To ask their help and prayers is an admission that we cannot obtain glory by ourselves, but are in need of the aid, prayers, and grace of the whole Church. Finally, God is not the god of the dead, but of the living, for we all live to God, whether in life or in death. To address ourselves to the saints is to ask them to minister to us as do the angels (who, let’s face it, unlike the saints, do not share in either of Christ’s natures). It also means that we ask them to help illumine our minds through their teachings. How should we think, if we cannot speak with the saints, of our Lord’s speaking to Elijah and Moses on Tabor? Is Christ a necromancer for speaking with Moses and Elijah about his pending death in Jerusalem?

Secondly, Jordan is taking up an old saw, going back to the Reformers, that we are idolaters. This charge was made time and again by Reformed Prots, despite the fact that Catholic apologists kept saying “we don’t worship images.” Some Prot apologists even brought up that Charles the Great was an iconoclast, only to have that blow up in their faces by the Catholics pointing out that Charles was working off of bad translations of the Greek, and made the basic error they did (and further, that Charles did allow a pedagogical use for images, and didn’t forbid them). Again, this is either ignorance or dishonesty. As ignorance, it is something that we can only really beat the air about, for it is and ignorance that often doesn’t want to change. But as dishonesty, we have the obligation to point it out (yet again). I am not sure why they don’t read the Reformation debates on these matters, there are lots of things written, and you would think that for the sake of mere honesty they would want to know what their opponents believe. You would think they also wouldn’t answer a matter before they hear it. Perhaps this disposition can be traced to something else, but more anon.

Lastly, in a companion video to the one posted, Jordan talked about how the Liturgy was pedagogical, and that Liturgy was really corporate discipleship, and this is why there was a need for rich hymnography. He goes on about how Rome and the Lutherans have abandoned the old hymns (including one I had never heard of before, the “Glory in excelsis” by which, he meant the Gloria). I can overlook clumsy Latin (I do teach it, so if I didn’t, my students would never succeed), but Jordan’s vacuity is surely breathtaking, for this very hymn, the Gloria, is said every matins and compline by the Orthodox (the Doxology or Great Doxology), along with a host of others. The immense hymnography of the Orthodox Church, built on the Psalter (and the Psalter itself is so integral to the Orthodox daily offices and services) takes years just to approach a sane mastery of. Just look at the webpage of the St. John of Damascus society or browse through Ancient Faith Radio. While hymns and the Psalter can teach us much, Jordan’s point about discipleship is actually more, and most notably revealed when he calls the Church a “particular kind of new model army.” For those who don’t get the allusion (and maybe Jordan himself wasn’t making this one), the New Model Army was the army of Oliver Cromwell that eventually brought him to power over Charles I of England; an army, while possessed of some aristocratic elements, was largely those who opposed the Church of England, and were various forms of Puritan dissenters. Thus, Liturgy and the offices of the Church are turned into ascetical exercises. On this point, Jordan has missed the whole boat: it is my ascetical exercises that get me ready for Church, that discipline me at home so I can pray with saints.

And this brings me to my last point: why do we venerate the saints? Many reasons can be given, but I think the ultimate one has to do with the order of reality and the nature of creation. For the Orthodox, creation is not a matter of the natural and the supernatural, of nature and grace, but rather of created and uncreated. The cosmos, like the tabernacle and temple, is patterned after celestial realities, based upon the Logos and the Logoi, the Word and Words of God. We are naturally disposed to God, for our created end is life in the Trinity, to share in God’s glory, love, and life. We naturally possess virtue, needing the ascetical discipline, as St. Maximus says, to rub away the rust. Thus, our bodies, and not just our souls, are suited toward eternal life, even though as created (out of nothing, ultimately) they are liable to corruption once Adam turned from life to use things in abeyance of God’s creative Word. We see in the transfiguration how Christ’s body shone with resplendent light and glory. This same glory has been also with the saints, often with them even in this world. But just as important, is that the saints possess the perfections of virtue, and because of this, master the cosmos. A great place to see this is in St. Athanasius’s description of St. Antony of Egypt, when he comes out of his solitude:

14. And so for nearly twenty years he continued training himself in solitude, never going forth, and but seldom seen by any. After this when many were eager and wishful to imitate his discipline, and his acquaintances came and began to cast down and wrench off the door by force, Antony, as from a shrine, came forth initiated in the mysteries and filled with the Spirit of God. Then for the first time he was seen outside the fort by those who came to see him. And they, when they saw him, wondered at the sight, for he had the same habit of body as before, and was neither fat, like a man without exercise, nor lean from fasting and striving with the demons, but he was just the same as they had known him before his retirement, And again his soul was free from blemish, for it was neither contracted as if by grief, nor relaxed by pleasure, nor possessed by laughter or dejection, for he was not troubled when he beheld the crowd, nor overjoyed at being saluted by so many. But he was altogether even as being guided by reason, and abiding in a natural state. Through him the Lord healed the bodily ailments of many present, and cleansed others from evil spirits. And He gave grace to Antony in speaking, so that he consoled many that were sorrowful, and set those at variance at one, exhorting all to prefer the love of Christ before all that is in the world. And while he exhorted and advised them to remember the good things to come, and the loving-kindness of God towards us, ‘Who spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all,’ he persuaded many to embrace the solitary life. And thus it happened in the end that cells arose even in the mountains, and the desert was colonised by monks, who came forth from their own people, and enrolled themselves for the citizenship in the heavens.

First, notice the equipoise of St. Antony, neither this extreme nor that vice, but also possessed of divine grace so as to teach, heal, consol, and exercise demons: because he was not beset by vice, he had the virtue necessary to set the world aright. This is in keeping (a point made repeatedly by C. S. Lewis) with St. Athanasius’ teaching on miracles, that they are not mere “prrofs” of God, but that they are actually a setting the world in order, a restoration from death to life, from brokenness to wholeness, from sickness to salvation. St. Antony then taught others this life. But second, note that St. Antony comes from his solitude as from a shrine, that is, as if he himself were the article of veneration. Filled with the Holy Spirit, “he had the same habit of body as before, and was neither fat, like a man without exercise, nor lean from fasting and striving with the demons.” That is, he had obtained not the vices of the extremes, but the virtues of mean. As such, he was now an instrument of God’s grace, a means of salvific energy for the benefit and salvation of those who came to him. This is how we Orthodox see the saints, as bearers of God’s light, life, love and grace, and who, as the ministers of the new and living way, minister these to us. A denunciation of the veneration of the saints is at once a denunciation of God’s created order, and of God’s teleological order. May we never be so conceited in our assumptions that we fail to honor those God honors, and to magnify them whom He has magnified.

As to why Jordan does this, I am not quite ready to say that it is from odium and bellicosity, but rather a psychological malady to which we all can be a victim. I think it a matter of having invested so much in his system, emotionally, et cetera, that he has become unable ever to see its unreality. For as George Smiley said to Toby Esterhazy “The more you pay for it (a forgery), the less inclined you are to doubt its authenticity.” Jordan has paid a lot for his fraud. Let us pray that he finally sees it for what it is.

This was originally posted at Lux Christi

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3 Responses to A man’s got to know his limitations

  1. Matthew Petersen says:

    Didn’t you know that drawing pentagrams on the floor is an important liturgical act during Small Compline? /sarcasm

  2. Cyril Jenkins says:

    Matthew, would that be before or after the Doxology?

  3. Matthew Petersen says:

    During the prayer “Spotless, undefiled, immaculate, unstained, pure Virgin…”

    (Also, just to be clear, I’m being sarcastic. My point is that there really is nothing in common between prayers to the Virgin and necromancy.)

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