029 Foundations For Our Faith

One of C.S. Lewis’s maxims I agree with (but too often fail to heed) is this: for every just-published book you read be sure and read at least two old books, classics which have stood steady amidst the winds of change. I’ve recently feasted on some durable classics which truly deserve their acclaim.

To understand Christianity, we need to know ancient history as well as biblical texts, to appreciate foundational thinkers as well as more recent interpreters. Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957, 1st pub. 1940) provides a classic text which I first read 25 years ago and recently re-read to my profit.

In Part I, “Reconstruction,” Cochrane describes the development of the Roman Empire, replacing the Roman Republic, the fulfillment of Augustus’ designs. Impressive on many counts (e.g. establishing a judicial system based upon the natural law), Rome’s world conquest simultaneously imposed “a virtual servitude for all but the few in whose hands lay the means of exploitation, the control of economic and political power” (p. 18).

Along with its political structures, one learns, under Cochrane’s tutelage, to appreciate the intellectual struggles between the philosophical advocates of materialism and idealism, neither of which fully satisfied the soul of antiquity, opening doors of opportunity for the message of the Early Church. In some significant ways–for the ultimate failure of Rome, as Tacitus and others argued, was due to spiritual bankruptcy–the Church gradually replaced the Empire as the only cohesive, preeminent social institution bequeathed by antiquity to the Medieval Era.

The empire collapsed amidst a litany of liabilities: increasingly oppressive taxation which drove the rich to flight and the common folks to despair; the bankruptcy of municipalities as well as individuals; the professionalization and accompanying decay of the military; increasing crime and violence. (Though I routinely warn students not to simplistically equate “symptoms” of decay in ancient Rome with trends in today’s society, it was frankly difficult, while reading Cochrane, to refrain from drawing uncomfortably close parallels myself!)

In Part II, “Renovation,” we explore the “new republic” which Constantine established. “The year 313 [when Constantine issued the ‘Edict of Milan’ and granted religious toleration to Christians] has rightly been taken to mark a turning-point in European history” (p. 177). Fifty years after Constantine’s edict of toleration, another emperor, Theodosius, imposed Christianity as the “official” religion of the empire, and what we label “Western Christian Culture” gained political power and prominence.

Concerning Constantine, Cochrane neither celebrates nor denigrates his efforts. In a rather fair appraisal, he presents the emperor’s work as a blend of sincere religious conviction and shrew political strategy. Cochrane critiques the compromises the Church made to gain respectability, yet he refrains from the kinds of pompous (usually Evangelical Protestant) critiques one often finds leveled against the emperor. Unlike some Catholics, however, Cochrane refuses to enshroud Constantine in a halo of sanctity! He was primarily a political leader whose self-interest granted significant political gains to the 4th century Church.

Much transpired as a consequence of the overtly-Christian policies of Theodosius. For example, Sunday, the “Lord’s Day,” became an enforced, legal holiday. Pagan cults were suppressed. Pagan temples were seized, their statues destroyed. Heretics became enemies of the state, all too frequently persecuted for their views. Bishops, priests, monks, became figures of authority and consequence. Such were the socio-political consequences of a “christianized” empire. Yet, for all its failings, the politically-installed “new republic” was but a passing preface to the enduring legacy of the Christianity.

That is explored in Part III, “Regeneration.” This is the capstone of the work, the part that enables thoughtful Christians to better grasp the significance of the Early Church and its theologians. Brilliant, saintly thinkers such as Athanasius, Ambrose, and Augustine dared to declare that “all truth is God’s truth” and struggled to shape “a synthesis of human experience for which there had been no parallel since the time of Plato” (p. 360).

They (Augustine especially) set forth a radically new notion of history: a cosmic drama detailing Adam’s fall and Christ’s redemption, a victorious message of salvation and hope. The Kingdom of God (in the ultimate and invisible sense) and the Church (in the immediate and visible sense), reveal the eternally significant workings of God.

Unlike the pervasive pessimism of most ancient historians, who shared Herodotus’ cynicism–“‘Of all the sorrows which afflict mankind, the bitterest is this, that one should have consciousness of much, but control over nothing'” (p. 468)–Christians saw meaning in the past and reason to hope in the future. We humans have a role, not a dictated fate, because God grants us freedom to cooperate with Him in His work. Thus, as Augustine insisted, we must never confuse grace with fate! We are indeed saved only by grace–it’s all God’s work–but it’s not autocratically imposed upon us.

These theologians also found in the doctrine of the Trinity the ultimate answer to profoundly spiritual questions. “The revelation of Christ was the revelation of the Divine Nature as a Trinity. Accordingly, in the Trinity, Christian wisdom discovers that for which Classicism had so long vainly sought, viz. the logos or explanation of being and motion, in other words, a metaphysics of ordered process. In so doing, it does justice to the element of truth contained alike in the claims of classical materialism and classical idealism; while, at the same time, it avoids the errors and absurdities of both” (pp. 436-37).

In his work, The Trinity, St Augustine “discovered a principle capable of saving the reason as well as the will, and thus redeeming human personality as a whole. It saved the reason because, while denying its pretensions to omniscience and infallibility, it nevertheless affirmed the existence of an order of truth and value which being in the world as well as beyond it, was within the power of man to apprehend. And, in saving the reason, at the same time it saved the will, by imparting to it that element of rationality without which it must degenerate into mere subjective wilfulness” (p. 384).

Thus faith and reason cooperate. Neither blind faith nor autonomous reason suffices. Faith enables us to understand and understanding clarifies faith. The Christianity which emerged out of classical culture remedied the flaws of antiquity, and, as magisterially articulated by Augustine, shaped the emergent ethos which would give structure to Western/European Civilization.

This is a rich book, full of illuminating quotations and penetrating explanations. It’s the rare kind of book which so profoundly explores the roots of our culture as to deserve the label of an “historical classic.” Few books better clarify the thoroughly theological issues which give foundations to our faith.

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Preparing for my chapel messages this fall, I re-read one of the true classics of our tradition, St Augustine’s The Trinity, tr. Stephen McKenna (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, c. 1963). Though perhaps less famous than his Confessions or The City of God, “‘It surpasses,” one scholar asserts, “in profundity of thought and in wealth of ideas, all the other works of the great Doctor, and is the grandest monument in Catholic theology to the august mystery of the Most Holy Trinity'” (xvi).

True to his axiom of “faith seeking understanding,” Augustine never endeavors to reduce the doctrine of the Trinity to tidy rational compartments. Rather, he urges readers to join him in contemplating a mystery which will (if God wills) be partially unveiled to prayerful inquirers.

“Contemplation is indeed the reward of faith,” he wrote, “and our hearts are purified by faith in preparation for this reward, as it is written: ‘Cleansing their hearts by faith.’ But that our hearts will be purified for that contemplation is proved in a very explicit way by this sentence: ‘Blessed are the clean of heart for they shall see God'” (p. 25; I, #17).

As the above quotation reveals, Augustine’s work overflows with biblical quotations. He literally lived and moved and found his being in the scriptures: “As for myself I meditate on the law of God, if not day and night, at least during the few moments of time that I can” (p. 9; I, #5)–a realistic note which most of us can understand! Thus he scoured them for God’s Truth which alone could nourish the questing soul.

To accomplish this, “in order to contemplate God, which we are not by nature, we had to be cleansed through Him, who became what we are by nature, and what we are not by sin” (p. 133; IV, #2). Indeed, “the mind must be cleansed by faith, by abstaining more and more from sin, by doing good, and by praying with the sighs of holy desires, in order that by making progress, through the help of God, it may both understand and love” (p. 171; IV, #21). Christ’s redemptive work enables us, who were originally created in God’s image, to partially understand the nature of the Triune God by fully loving Him as Lord.

Building on the work of theologians such as Tertullian and Athanasius, who preceded him, Augustine accepts as authoritative the consensual Church’s creedal statements concerning God’s one-nature-in-three-persons. Consequently, much of The Trinity is a biblical exposition of the Father as Creator, the Son as Savior, and the Spirit as Sanctifier.

Beyond this, however, Augustine employs illuminating analogies, mainly drawn from human nature. All creatures, to a degree, show forth God’s glory. But men and women are unique, for we are rational, thinking persons. If, in truth, we’re created in the image of God, it makes sense to try to understand His triune nature by discerning triune dimensions to our own nature. As persons, for example, we remember, understand, and love–three distinct functions inseparably part of a single self. All analogies have limits. Augustine realizes this. But his profound insights into the nature of human nature, his resolute honesty in attending to his own mind’s workings, enable him to draw us imaginatively, as well as prayerfully, into this theological inquiry.

Fittingly, he concludes his treatise much as he began, imploring God’s guidance. “Directing my course according to this rule of faith [the Church’s trinitarian confession], insofar as I could, and insofar as You made it possible for me, I sought You, and desired to see with my understanding that which I believed, and I have argued and labored much. O Lord, my God, my only hope, hear me, lest through weariness I should not wish to seek You, but may ardently seek Your face evermore. Give me the strength to seek, You who have given me the hope of finding You more and more. Before You are my strength and my weakness; preserve the one, heal the other. Before You are my knowledge and my ignorance: where You have opened to me, receive me when I enter; where you have closed, open to me when I knock. May I remember You, understand You, and love You. Increase these gifts in me, until You have reformed me completely” (p. 524; XV, #28).

As such quotations demonstrate, Augustine is one of the most quotable of Christian thinkers. He so clearly articulated enduring truths concerning God, man, and salvation, that he perennially re-freshes thirsty souls seeking the fountain which will never grow dry. Many fine theological treatises have been written on the Trinity. Many surpass Augustine’s work, in given areas. But nothing I’ve read more ably brings the reader into a meaningful exploration of one of the cardinal mysteries of the Christian faith.

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In his diary entry for July 30, 1736, John Wesley wrote: “I read Macarius and sang.” One assumes he sang because he found in this ancient “Father” a message of life and light, an explanation of the gracious spiritual transformation available to us sinners through the workings of a gracious God. According to Macarius, “Whoever approaches God and truly desires to be a partner of Christ must approach with a view to this goal, namely to be changed and transformed from his former state and attitude and become a good and new person, harboring nothing of ‘the old man’ (2 Cor 7:17)” (p. 223; H.44).

Unlike Wesley, however, few of us have the facility with Greek to read Macarius, so we’re blessed to have a new translation, Pseudo-Macarius: The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter, tr., ed. George A. Maloney, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, c. 1992). Modern scholars have almost given up trying to decide who exactly “Macarius” was (several candidates by that name have been located) or precisely when he lived. So we just call him “pseudo-Macarius” and know he lived sometime around 400 A.D.

Wesley’s affinity for Macarius, becomes understandable when you discover the ancient saint’s concern for the work of the Holy Spirit which imparts Grace and brings about entire sanctification, holiness of heart, in obedient believers. “Thus the soul is completely illumined,” Macarius said, “with the unspeakable beauty of the glory of the light of the face of Christ and is perfectly made a participator of the Holy Spirit” (p. 38; H.1).

Still more: “the souls who seek the sanctification of the Spirit, which is a thing that lies beyond natural power, are completely bound with their whole love to the Lord” (p. 52; H.4). Unlike many of the Western Fathers, who at times over-stressed the role of good works, Eastern Orthodox theologians such as Macarius singularly attributed sanctification to the Holy Spirit.

Indeed, in his “Introduction,” George Maloney writes: “Macarius is one of the first witnesses of what modern Christians would call the baptism in the Holy Spirit. He conceives this to be an ongoing process of surrendering to the indwelling guidance of the Holy Spirit to the degree that the individual cries out for the Spirit to heal the roots of sinfulness that lie deeply within the soul” (p. 19).

The cleansing from sin, which comes about as one participates with the life of the Holy Spirit, Who enables one to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Being holy is not so much a matter of external performance as of inner attitude and commitment. “Perfection” is not flawless behavior but forthright surrender to God’s perfect will.

Surrender is our free response to God’s gracious invitation and working. Macarius continually insists that we retain freedom of the will throughout the sanctifying process. “You can trust me,” said Macarius, “that grace did not prevent the Apostles, who were brought to perfection by grace, from doing whatever they wished to do, even if they preferred occasionally to do something that was not in keeping with grace. For, indeed, our human nature tends toward both good and evil and the opposing force acts by enticement, not by necessity. You possess free choice to move in the direction that you wish” (p. 178; H.27).

Yet our free choice, our role in the process, never diminishes the fact that we are saved by grace. Wesley no doubt found Macarius’ stance on prevenient grace congruent with his own. Maloney insists: “Macarius gives a solidly orthodox teaching on the interrelationships between God’s unmerited grace and man’s free will to cooperate with grace and thus actively work for his salvation. Macarius always insists that the Christian could not even begin to make a move toward the Good, toward God, without God’s graceful help” (p. 15).

In the Preface to this volume, a contemporary Eastern Orthodox scholar, Kallistos Ware, summarizes Macarius’ theology: “Christianity, as Macarius understands it, involves much more than assent to reasoned arguments or outer obedience to a moral code. It consists above all in the awakening of our spiritual senses, so that we attain a direct, palpable awareness of God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts” (p. xiv).

Since it’s a lived experience, a process whereby God fully saves sinners, the prescribed spiritual process takes a soul born into sin which needs to be (and may in fact be) delivered from sin’s bondage. This involves a successful struggle with evil whereby the believer, the disciple, cooperates with the divine initiative, culminating, Ware says, in “the stage when sin is cast our from the heart by the Holy Spirit, working in cooperation with our human will. Cleansed from evil, the soul is then united to Christ the heavenly Bridegroom and is ‘mixed’ or ‘mingled’ with the divine Spirit, in this way attaining a state higher than that enjoyed by Adam before the fall” (p. xiii).

In Macarius’s words: “. . . sin is uprooted and man receives again the first creation of the pure Adam. By the power of the Spirit and the spiritual regeneration, man not only comes to the measure of the first Adam, but also reaches a greater state than he possessed. For man is divinized” (p. 164; H.26).

Westerners, Wesleyans included, rarely go so far as Macarius in claiming so much for the sin-cleansing work of God in man. Wesley himself refused to even allow the possibility of regaining “Adamic perfection” while here on earth. Yet Macarius shares with the Orthodox the conviction, espoused by first-rate thinkers such as St Irenaeus and St Athanasius, that “God became man that man might become God.”

I’ve extensively cited the Preface and Introduction to this volume because they admirably sum up and evaluate Macarius’ thought. The “fifty homilies” and “great sermon” are, as the titles suggest, simply collected sermons. Macarius treated various texts and developed appropriate themes. Thus any systematic understanding of his works is considerably helped by the scholarly interpretations found in this volume.

The sermons themselves, however, are refreshing to read, delighting both devotional and theological appetites.