Fruitfulness from Barrenness

I was tired and harried when I saw Father Stephen’s lastest blog post. For instance, “God brings forth fruitfulness from barrenness – it is a theme of His work of salvation.”

Yeah, yeah, Father; that’s nice. But why did you have to drag it out so long?

I’m glad I went back fresh this morning, because this is another landmark reflection, I think.

Orthodox Christianity is full of guys like me: long-time Christians from some other (of the countless) Protestant denominations or traditions, lugging a ton of “baggage” that seems to drop away ever so slowly. We’ve been called “Byzantine Evangelicals” by one curmudgeonly Orthodox blogger — and the label would sting more if one of my first learned lessons in Orthodoxy hadn’t been to stop taking myself so damned seriously.

I don’t want to make this post “all about Father Stephen” because Orthodoxy is not all about Father whoever, or even Patriarch whoever. But someone once called C.S. Lewis “the most thoroughly converted man I ever met.” With Lewis, it was a conversion from unbelief. I’m starting to think that Father Stephen is “the most thoroughly converted Orthodox I ever read.” I sense almost no baggage in his writing — never a false note of which I think “I’m surprised that he hasn’t gotten over that yet; even I know better than that.” (For instance, some converts of my acquaintance bring with them intact a right-wing political ideology that I don’t think stands up well in Orthodoxy.)

Instead of shocking me with the baggage, Father Stephen delights me at his ability to translate what I would have thought was ineffable into something pretty cogent, or at least delightfully evocative of things I’ve glimpsed or begun to apprehend.

Enough praise for him. Back to his latest posting. I’ll excerpt to whet your appetite. Then linger with the original.

St. Irenaeus, in an attempt to describe this faith, used the term “Apostolic Hypothesis” to represent what was a matter of settled, received teaching. Those who had been appointed as successors of the Apostles were also given the Apostolic faith (how could they not?). This faith was summarized by what St. Irenaeus called the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” He did not mean by “hypothesis” what we would mean today. It was not a “guess” on the part of the Apostles. Instead, he used the word hypothesis is its more pure Greek meaning, to refer to an underlying structure or matrix upon which the rest of the structure rests.

What is consistent throughout the Apostolic Hypothesis, as witnessed in the Scriptures, the Creeds, and the writings of the early Fathers of the Church (most of whom were Bishops in Apostolic Succession) is the nature of the incarnation and of human sin and of the role of Christ’s death and resurrection in the salvation of the human race and of all creation.

God brings forth fruitfulness from barrenness – it is a theme of His work of salvation. In modern Protestant parlance we would say, “We are saved by grace and not works.” The barren woman cannot be fruitful of herself – it is entirely the grace of God which causes fruitfulness to occur. This is very obvious in the case of the elderly Abraham and Sarah. It is echoed in the extra-canonical story of Joachim and Anne. Our salvation is a work of grace, not of human effort.

One of the things that really grabbed me here, and maybe helped me lose a bit more baggage, was this:

The image of fruitfulness being brought forth from barrenness is merely interesting if considered apart from the Apostolic Hypothesis. However, when placed in that proper context, it becomes a hallmark of the Gospel are type of salvation itself. The image of fruitfulness from barrenness goes as deep as Genesis 1:1 and its ancient commentaries. The God who created the world brought it forth from “nothingness.” No image of barrenness can be found that is greater than “nothing.” For many Christians, this teaching of the faith is simply a datum of cosmology: God created the universe from nothing. But to make this a matter of mere cosmology is to miss the point. The God who created the universe out of nothing delights Himself in bringing forth something from nothing. As St. Paul says, “He has chosen…the things that are not” (1 Cor. 1:28).

It is a consistent pattern throughout the Old Testament from the creation to the birth of Isaac, to the very creation of the nation of Israel. The work of God’s election is not a choice among things that are, but a bringing forth of things that never could be (apart from grace)