Halloween 2014

  1. “But it’s only incense!”
  2. Receiving and revising
  3. Why 71% of Evangelicals are heretics
  4. Unus Christianus, nullus Christianus
  5. There are no concepts for things sui generis
  6. Sowing bad rhetorical seed
  7. What else is there to talk about?
  8. On prayer


We read, “Let my prayer arise in your sight as incense,” but what we hear is, “Let the incense be like my prayer…” In the inverted world of modernity, ideas are considered spiritually “real,” while actions and rituals are somehow suspect. “If incense is like prayer, then perhaps it is legitimate,” we reason. And this is precisely how its use is often explained to those who ask.

But this reasoning inverts the Scriptures themselves. For the writer of Psalm 141, the offering of incense to the Lord is spiritual reality. It is an obedience to the command of God and a fulfillment of His divine will. It is “prayer” that is suspect – so much so that he must ask that his prayer be accepted in the same manner as incense.

The modern understanding, in which material efforts are subordinate to mental ones, reveals a very fundamental change in how our relationship with God and God’s relationship to the world is perceived. During the early Roman persecutions of the Christian Church, among the most common demands made of Christians was that of the offering of incense before the image of the Emperor. It was perceived as an act of worship – an honor that belonged to a god. Christians did not disagree with this interpretation – and chose martyrdom instead. The modern Christian would today argue, “But it’s only incense.”

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, The Sweet Smoke of Prayer, emphasis added)


“We cannot revise the gospel we’ve received,” said Russell Moore, head of the convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

(Evangelical Church Grapples With Growth of Gay Rights, Wall Street Journal) That’s a very Orthodox thing for a Baptist to say. It’s also something that this former Evangelical can’t help but see as selective and thus a little hypocritical. If the gospel had been transmitted without revision, there would be no Baptists. This isn’t a matter of conjecture. I even see a big difference between the Evangelicalism of my childhood and that of today.

(Note, too, the Wall Street Journal’s odd characterization of Evangelicalism as a single Church.)


I alluded in my last blog to 71% of Evangelicals being Pelagians. Matthew Block thinks he knows why:

These are not small problems: there’s a reason these views were condemned by the early Church. So how are theologies condemned well over 1500 years ago finding a resurgence in contemporary Evangelicalism? The Christianity Today article suggests a failure in adult Christian education as one cause. Let me suggest another: these heresies are finding a resurgence because too many Protestants misunderstand the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura. Too many Christians mistake “Scripture alone” as if it were a license for them to read the Bible alone—to read it apart from other people. You know the idea: “All I need is me and my Bible.” But that’s not what it means. It means that Scripture is alone authoritative, not that your personal (“alone”) interpretation of Scripture is authoritative.

I don’t think Block’s version of sola scriptura is tenable or any part of historic pre-Reformation Christianity. This, for instance, is really goofy:

But certain pronouncements—like the theological statements of the Ecumenical Councils—have long been recognized by the Church at large as true and faithful understandings of Scripture. They have codified important Scriptural truths—on the Nature of Christ, for example, and on the Personhood of the Holy Spirit—and so we refer to them as authoritative. That’s how the Nicene Creed came to be. These pronouncements do not invent new dogma not found in the Scriptures; instead, they clearly and carefully reproduce the teachings of Scripture. Consequently, they rightly norm our interpretation of the Scriptures. It’s Tradition in service to Scripture, not Tradition on the same level as Scripture.

Arius and his band of merry heretics had plenty of scripture, but they didn’t have the mind of the Church, which I submit had more to do with the outcome than superior exegesis of a canon that was barely fixed if it was yet fixed at all. (The mind of the Church set the canon, too, by the way. You can’t decide which writings are scripture by asking if they agree with scripture, and if apostolic authorship were the key, we’d not have the Epistle to the Hebrews.)

But Block’s version is an improvement over what traditional Christians sometimes snarkily call “o sola meo.”


More on avoiding o sola meo:

… Orthodox Christianity’s truth claims are different from sola Scriptura, however. Orthodox Christianity’s claims, if true, do not bring you into a relationship with a book; the Truth in Orthodox Christianity, properly understood, is not a book, but in a Person, Jesus Christ. The Scriptures are true for no other reason than they point to Christ for the benefit of His Church, His living worshipping community; Christ is not the Truth because of the witness of the Scriptures. Orthodox Christianity is not a rational assent to the contents of a text, in other words; it is a relationship, rather, in the context of community, with the Divine Person who is the Truth. The community is important, even if we don’t understand this in 2014 American life. Unus Christianus, nullus Christianus, as is attributed to Tertullian; no Christian is a single ChristianSola Scriptura would seem to preach a very different idea. Orthodox Christianity’s truth claims point to the Body of Christ (in multiple senses); sola Scriptura has Scripture pointing to itself. Even the demons know Scripture and shudder.

So, my suggestion is this. America is America. It is not an Orthodox country. It’s not even really a Christian country, although it is culturally Protestant. The Orthodox renaissance that Anglophone Orthodox would like to see happen in this country, if it is to happen at all (and I am dubious of that), is not going to happen because of our arguments. In my experience, you’re not going to convince anybody of anything that they aren’t already inclined to believe in some way, or without God’s intervention. Therefore, stop trying to convince people with arguments. To go back to Tertullian again, consider what he said about what made truth claims not just authoritative for the world in his day, but self-evident:

But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how [Christians] love one another, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how [Christians] are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death. (The Apology 39.7)

If we Orthodox want to make an authoritative truth claim, if we want to say that we’re part of the church that Paul (or Nicholas, or Chrysostom, or Basil, or Tertullian for that matter) established we have to back it up with that level of love and self-sacrifice. If we’re not willing to do that, airtight rational arguments aren’t going to get very far.

(Richard Barrett, emphasis added)


Concepts … are necessarily general, and let us remind ourselves that there is no general concept called “Incarnation.” The complete uniqueness of the reality is the root reason it will never be expressed conceptually.

Sometimes even theologians seem to miss this point; I have lost count of the instances when some writer on Christology invoked an imaginary and utterly bogus apriori, a presupposition based on general principles, in order to speak of what is entirely unique in history—as though the particular and distinctive qualities of the Incarnation could be predetermined by a hypothetical premise: “If God were to become man, such-and-such would have to be the case, not this-and-that. And, because God did become man, we must conclude that such-and-such is the case, not this-and-that.” I wonder, when I encounter such writers, how in the world would we know?

(Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon) It was Fr. Pat who taught me (or at least suggested, and I’m believin’ it until someone shows me otherwise) that a lot of heresy starts with trying to explain sacred mysteries conceptually – for evangelistic purposes, for instance.


The rhetorical paradigm advanced by the same-sex marriage movement—its catchwords and phrases, such as “marriage equality,” “gay rights,” “diversity,” “gay marriage,” “inclusivity,” “welcome,” and “acceptance,” and its ideological commitments concerning gender—shapes and inculcates an inadequate understanding of the concepts, ideals, principles, and arguments at stake in what we call “the marriage debate” today. It is advanced precisely for that reason, and for its mimetic potency. It subverts careful thinking by consigning to the dustbin of malice any efforts to contradict the paradigm itself. Thus, proponents of “traditional marriage” are portrayed as opposing “marriage equality,” and so forth. Verbal engineering precedes social engineering and begets it.

(Michael Bradley) I quote this not just because I think it’s thought-provoking in a good way, but because it reflects a recent shift in my own thinking – which might yet shift back, or again, or yet again, since I haven’t stopped engaging the writings of several among the growing tribe of celibate Christian gay writers.

I think some Christian gay writers are so eager to knock down barriers to  inclusivity in the Church that they are adopting trendy but unChristian terminology, thus inadvertently sowing rhetorical confusion that will produce a bad, weedy crop.


I grew up in a highly passionate and politically involved family, so, naturally, discussions at the dinner table often involved both politics and religion.

In fact, my exiled family was so grateful to live in a country where one does not end up in jail because of disagreements on politics, we decided to exercise that right daily. Most of our discussions were both robust and polite, although I confess there was one plate-throwing incident I don’t often talk about. Suffice it to say, there were apologies the next day. And new dishes.

So it was a big shock when, upon graduating from college and coming to D.C. (the political capital of the world!), I was told it was impolite to speak about either religion or politics in social situations.

In my young twenty-something mind, I kept wondering, “Well, what else is there to talk about?”

(Kristina Arriaga of The Becket Fund) Arriaga goes on to talk about the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s collusive lawsuit “against” the IRS, which Becket blocked by intervention, against mixing talk of religion and politics in the pulpit.


“A veil of darkness – the fire of the worldly spirit – surrounds the heart preventing . . . the soul from praying, believing, and loving the Lord as it desires to do” (Philokalia vol. 3, p. 300).

… The Lord desires that we learn prayer as a labor, an arduous journey into the mystery of His Person, and a discovery of our sinfulness and need. Prayer heals our relationship with God and becomes unending growth …

Direct my will, teach me to pray, and pray Thou Thyself in me, O good One. – Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow

(Dynamis daily devotional for October 29, 2014)

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.