Ep10: Is Jesus Fully Man?

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Thinking about Salvation in Early Christianity (Part II)

Byzantine JesusMost early Christians seem to have lived with a fairly basic understanding of soteriology. Beginning with Tertullian of Carthage, however, deeper investigation into specific aspects of soteriological doctrine began to circulate within the Church.[14] Philosophical language and concepts began to find more frequent use among the Fathers, and soon after the Fathers began teaching that “Christ suffered for our sins, healing our wounds and destroying death by His blood, and that we have been restored to life and our sins purged by it.”[15] In the East, theologians such as Origen and Methodius debated the effect of Adam’s fall and its impact on human freewill, death, and the new Adam of Christ.[16] This eventually coalesced into statements indicating that, “sin called for a propitiation, and Christ stepped forward as ‘a victim spotless and innocent,’ propitiating the Father to men by His generous self-oblation.”[17] The developments in thought, influx of philosophical language, and challenges of geographic distance eventually led to different Christian centers processing different (at least slightly) beliefs regarding the person and work of Christ in human salvation.[18] Continue reading

Thinking about Salvation in Early Christianity (Part I)

diamaid-macculloch-christianityBy the early fourth century, the Christianity had spread across the Roman world with surprising speed, tenacity, and relative uniformity of belief. While the early Church was by no means completely uniform in doctrine, belief, or practice, the vast majority of Christians professed what has become known as Christian Orthodoxy.[1] Heresies such as Docetism, Ebionism, Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism, while threatening the fledgling Church, were never serious threats in the way that the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries were. Chief among the divisions in the fourth century was the question of the deity of Jesus of Nazareth:[2] was the founder of the Church human? Was He divine? Was He somehow both? The answer to this question was important for historical reasons, but was even more important for its soteriological implications. Continue reading

The Christology Debate

Byzantine JesusThe Early Christian Church spent hundreds of years seeking a definitive answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” The answer to this all-important question formed the basis for much of Christian theology and practice. Who is Jesus? Is He God? Is He Man? How does Jesus save us? These are the questions that early theologians had to wrestle with and answer in the first centuries of the Christian faith. Continue reading

Blogging Ecumenically: Background

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on Orthodox-Catholic online dialogue, originally delivered at the “That They May Be One” Conference.

Conciliar PostTwo years ago, Benjamin Cabe, a friend and former classmate, approached me about launching a website. Both us were active academic bloggers and were regularly discouraged by the poor understanding and lack of meaningful dialogue cultivated online through 140-character Twitter interaction, sound-bite news, #hashtagactivism, and rhetoric-oriented theology. The website we envisioned would be fashioned from Christians reflecting on important theological and cultural issues in an informed, faithful, and civil manner. Instead of listening in order to respond to one another, our writers would be committed to listening in order to understand before carrying on conversations or pushing back in disagreement. Thus was born Conciliar Post, a “collection of theological conversations, journeys of faith, reflections on Christianity, and commentary on current events from a Christian perspective” which “promotes edifying dialogue that informs, encourages, and challenges people around the world.”[1] Authors at Conciliar Post hail from across Christian traditions and throughout the United States, and write a wide range of topics and issues. Continue reading

Book Review: Decoding Nicea (Pavao)

Decoding NiceaThe history of Christianity can be a complex, confusing subject, full of competing claims and interpretations. Perhaps no single event in the life of the Church gathers as much contemplation and controversy as the Council of Nicea. Held in 325 CE outside of the newly established capital city of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), this gathering of Christians from around the Roman Empire has been called everything from the paragon of authentic Christian orthodoxy to the great corrupting moment in the history of the Church. In recent decades, Nicea has taken on a new place of prominence in the mind of the average American Christian, as both popular culture (i.e., Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) and historical scholarship (i.e., Gnostic gospels) have cast the council as an important redefining moment for the Christian Church. Addressing this vital historical event comes the latest edition of Paul F. Pavao’s Decoding Nicea: Constantine Changed Christianity and Christianity Changed the World (Selmer, TN: Greatest Stories Ever Told, 2014. viii+442 pgs.). Continue reading

Church Search: Greek Orthodox Church

This post is part of our ongoing Church Search. For more information on our search and the churches we have visited already, please click here. During the “First Exposure” phase of our search, we are visiting different churches to gain a basic understanding of their doctrines and practices. Following these visits, we will post some of the basic doctrinal and practical considerations of the church we visited, as well as some thoughts on our experiences.

Basic History

Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, Long Beach

Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, Long Beach

Much like our previous post on the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church claims a history as long as the history of the Christian Church itself. Thus, we again note that this brief summary of Church History is something of an injustice. The Orthodox Church has long claimed and studied the earliest writings of the Christian faith, most often termed the “Church Fathers.” Of great importance in the earlier Church were the Seven Great Ecumenical Councils (from the fourth through eighth centuries), all of which took place in the Eastern Roman Empire. The growing divide between Eastern and Western Empire played a role in dividing the Byzantine bishops from the West, as did Western claims to papal supremacy (more on that below), the filioque clause, and the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 CE. The Orthodox Church remained the official religion of the Eastern Roman Empire (often called the Byzantine Empire) until the Fall of Constantinople until its fall in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. Orthodoxy remained alive and well, however, in eastern Europe, especially in Moscow, where Russian Orthodoxy remained a strong presence until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. However, Orthodoxy remained throughout Greece and much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and with the fall of the USSR has continued to grow abroad. There are between 225 and 300 million Orthodox today belonging to 14 autocephelous (administered separately but in communion with each other) churches around the world.

Doctrinal Considerations

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Winston-Salem

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Winston-Salem

Orthodox Christians practice what they understand to be the faith handed down from the Apostles, which “has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”, though not without unaltering development of doctrine and cooperation with local traditions compatible with the faith. Of central importance for Eastern Orthodox faith is the Holy Trinity,  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, three-persons, co-eternal, and whom Christians are brought into union. Additionally, of great importance are the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (as originally written, that is, without the filioque clause), the canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Holy Scriptures (Septuagint and New Testament), the writings of the Church Fathers, and the Sacraments, especially Holy Communion (which is believed to be the real presence of Christ, but often differentiated from Roman Catholic transubstantiation, and is in reality closer to the Lutheran teaching on consubstantiation, though not expressed in those exact terms). Perhaps the first thing that one notices upon entering an Orthodox Church is their use of icons, pictorial representations of Biblical scenes, the history of the Church, and the lives of the Saints. Orthodox also affirm that church leadership should include bishops, and though they affirm that the bishop of Rome (the Pope) should be viewed as “first among equals,” they do not affirm his premiership and infallibility. Since Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches are not currently in communion (which may change by 2025), the Orthodox look to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (currently Bartholomew) as the head of Orthodox conciliar leadership.

Local Church Experience

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Interior

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Interior

This past Sunday we visited The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Winston-Salem, which is an absolutely beautiful house of worship. Some might find icons distracting, but we found them to increase our sense of awe and assist greatly in approaching God in worship. If the first thing one noticed upon entering were the icons (and the iconostasis), the second was the language being spoken. Or rather, the languages  being spoken, namely Greek and English. Even as someone trained in Koine Greek, it took some time for me to adjust to the service (and poor Hayley was lost much of the time). We followed the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, as well as a separate memorial liturgy for a member of the congregation who had passed away. Apart from the repetition of these liturgies (we often would say something in Greek and then again in English, the scripture readings, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer, for example), the most notable thing was the lack of a sermon as part of the liturgy, with a homily only coming at the end of the service. One thing I wasn’t entirely satisfied with was the level of congregational involvement in the service, as all the music was sung by the choirs/priests, and there were not even many opportunities for liturgical responses from the actual laos (people). Of final note were (again, like our visit to the Catholic Church) the number of children, teens, and young families present, which was very encouraging. Overall, despite the new-ness of this church experience, we greatly enjoyed our visit to the Greek Orthodox Church and look forward to returning.

This visit marks the scheduled end of the “First Phase” of this church search. Over the next few weeks we will be beginning the “Second Phase,” and we invite you to follow along with us. Thanks for reading!

Early Christian Soteriology

The Light Giver IconBy the early fourth century, the Christianity had spread across the Roman world with surprising speed, tenacity, and relative uniformity of belief. While the early Church was by no means completely uniform in doctrine, belief, or practice, the vast majority of Christians professed what has become known as Christian Orthodoxy.[1] Heresies such as Docetism, Ebionism, Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism, while threatening the fledgling Church, were never serious threats in the way that the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries were. Chief among the divisions in the fourth century was the question of the deity of Jesus of Nazareth:[2] was the founder of the Church human? Was He divine? Was He somehow both? The answer to this question was important for historical reasons, but was even more important for its soteriological implications.

Soteriology is quite literally “the doctrine of salvation.”[3] But by the fourth century, there were many doctrines of salvation. Some Christians, such as Paul of Samosata, denied that Jesus was fully divine; the Gnostics denied that Jesus was actually human; Arius proclaimed that while Jesus was God, He was created and not eternal. Within this debate about the divinity of Christ, salvation became a very important concern, as the various sides of the debate used soteriology to provide support for their respective positions.[4] The kerygma (proclamation) of Christianity had always centered on Jesus Christ as the source of the good news of the true God and salvation for all who believed in Him.[5] It is not surprising, therefore, to see that in the midst of even the most technical and philosophical debates, the early Church was greatly concerned with understanding the soteriological implications of orthodox Christian Christology.[6] Since each competing Christological claim appealed to the words of scripture for support, the Church looked to their history in order to answer the question of what salvation mean for earlier followers of Jesus. Continue reading

Church Search: Roman Catholic Church

This post is part of our ongoing Church Search. For more information on our search and the churches we have visited already, please click here. During the “First Exposure” phase of our search, we are visiting different churches to gain a basic understanding of their doctrines and practices. Following these visits, we will post some of the basic doctrinal and practical considerations of the church we visited, as well as some thoughts on our experiences.

Basic History

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

The Roman Catholic Church claims a history as long as the history of the Christian Church itself. It does injustice to Church History (and the history of Western Civilization) to summarize the history of the church in a paragraph; yet here we must. So, in as much of a nutshell as possible: the Apostle Peter is said to have founded the Church at Rome and been its first bishop, setting the stage for the Roman Church’s leadership for the next two centuries (and indeed, the amount of early Christian literature coming from Rome at least partially supports this claim). While the Western Church was less involved in the great Ecumenical Councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, they nonetheless affirmed the teachings of those councils (as well as the three additional councils of the sixth through eighth centuries). As the dominant city and church of the Western Roman Empire, the prestige and influence of the Roman Church and her bishop steadily increased throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Western Roman Church suffered a series of splits from the Eastern Roman Church (commonly called the Byzantine or Orthodox Church) over the course of the tenth through thirteenth centuries, most famously in 1054 CE. The rise of scholasticism (c. 1100-1700 CE), impact of the Protestant Reformation (begun 1517 CE), and challenge of the Enlightenment further shaped the doctrine and practice of the Roman Catholic Church, most notably in the Council of Trent (1545-63 CE) and First Vatican Council (1868-70 CE). Of greatest importance in our times has been the Second Vatican Council (1962-5 CE), and the worldwide prominence of certain popes, most notably Pope John Paul II (d. 2005) and the current pontiff, Francis. The Roman Catholic Church has more than 1.2 billion members around the world, making it the largest Christian communion.

Doctrinal Considerations (Where possible from the Catechism of the Church)

Much like the long and varied history of the Roman Catholic Church, there are countless Catholic doctrinal points which we could discuss. For the sake of brevity, we will touch only on the major doctrinal stances of Catholicism. With most other Christians, the Roman Catholic Church affirms both the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, though they include the filioque clause in the latter, differentiating themselves from the Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church affirms that “The Sacred Scriptures contain the Word of God and, because they are inspired, they are truly the Word of God”  (CoCC, 135), as well as the canons of twenty-one councils ranging from Nicaea to Vatican II. Among the doctrinal points which distinguish the Catholic Church from her Western Protestant brothers and sisters are the sacraments, Marian doctrines, views on justification, and teaching on Papal infallibility. The RCC believes in seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance and reconciliation, anointing the sick, holy orders (the priesthood), and matrimony. The four Catholic Marian doctrines state that Mary may be called the Mother of God (theotokos, the ‘God-bearer’), was bodily assumed into heaven, remained a virgin perpetually, and was conceived without original sin. Catholic teaching affirms that the Pope (whose full title I need to work in here:  ), when speaking ex cathedra as teacher of the church, is infallible on matters of faith or morals (Vatican I, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 4.9). The most important modification to the Catholic Church in recent decades was the Second Vatican Council, which (among other things) named Protestants “separated brethren” and encouraged the delivery of Mass in the vernacular (instead of Latin). Such changes undoubtedly have helped fuel the increasing number of Protestants who have migrated to the Catholic Church in recent years.

Local Church Experience

St. Leo the Great Catholic Church

St. Leo the Great Catholic Church

We visited St. Leo the Great Catholic Church this past Sunday for our local engagement with the Catholic Church. Having been to Mass before, we were fairly confident in what we would walk into, but were surprised on several fronts nonetheless. The first thing we noticed upon arriving was the food for the poor, which was overflowing into the entrance of the building. The second thing we noticed were the folding chairs– the church was packed, in spite of the fact that we attended the fourth service of the day. The sanctuary was already so full by the time we arrived that we barely grabbed a seat in the last pew, and people were quickly filing the folding chairs along the sides of the sanctuary and the back. The ushers were bringing people and having to make room for people for the first half-an-hour or so of the service. The third thing we noticed was the diversity. People of all ages (lots of children and teens included), backgrounds (from suits to shorts and t-shirts), and ethnic backgrounds were worshiping together. Even the priest who was preaching was from Germany. One thing we would add is that if we had not been familiar with the basic parameters of Mass (i.e., what a hymnal was, how to use the service booklet, to not go up to communion), we probably would have been quite lost, as there wasn’t much instruction of any sort. Overall, our visit was very positive and eye-opening, and we were glad to have worshiped with our Catholic brothers and sisters.

Thank you for following along with our Church Search. We wrap up our “First Exposure” phase with a visit to the Eastern Orthodox Church in a few weeks. We look forward to sharing our experience with you.