Saturday, May 17, 2014

Non-political interlude: reply to two posts (religions haters please skip this one!!)

Today is a beautiful day in Florida.  Yesterday we "survived" not one, but two tornadoes (they mostly hit a national wildlife refuge south of us, there never was any real danger, but this sounds better) and today we get one of those perfect Florida days: blue skies with a few white clouds, beautiful warm sunshine (26C/79F), a cool breeze from the northeast and which brings in the always refreshing smell of the Atlantic ocean (were my lucky son spend six hours surfing the waves this morning).  I know that I have to work on my promised report on world opinion and media coverage of the Ukrainian  crisis, but I want to "seize the day" and go for some nature photography this afternoon (shall I post some pics of sunny Florida here?).  The report will have to wait a little. However, I got two questions recently which I find worth answering in a separate post.  

[WARNING: these two questions deal with religion so those of you who hate religion - please just ignore this post.]

Here are the two issues I want to discuss today: James wants to know what the Church is while Mohamed wrote in a comment that the Scripture was corrupted.  I will take them one by one (though there is a link between the two)

@James: What is the Church?

To reply to this question adequately one could write a PhD thesis.  I will try to make a much shorter reply and point you to a few texts, fair enough?

Since you are a former Latin Christian let me begin by saying what the Church is not.  It is not an organization nor a formal institution.  You probably remember that in the Symbol of Faith (aka the Credo) it says "In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church".  Most people do not seem to be aware that the words at the very beginning "I believe in" also apply to the section "In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church".  In other words, not only do Orthodox Christians believe"in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth and of all things visible and invisible (...) "in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made" (...) in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father" but also "In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church".  The Church itself requires and act of faith similar to the confession of the belief in God.  Orthodox Christians literally "believe in the Church" and this is why the Church is most definitely not an organization.

In theological language the Church is called the Theandric Body of Christ.  Theandric derives from Theanthropos or "Godman" the central dogma of all Christianity.  In other words, the Church is literally the Body of Christ no less than the Eucharist.  This is also why the only valid Mysteries (called "Sacraments" in western theology) can only be found inside that Church.  Just like the Body of Christ, the Church cannot break into parts, have sub-groups, contradict itself, etc.   This is why the Symbol of Faith speaks of ONE Church, no more divisible that God Himself.  Again, to accept that requires an act of faith.

The Church is called "Holy" because it is the Body of Christ and that it is filled with the Holy Spirit.  This is why at the First Apostolic Council in Jerusalem (50 AD) those present wrote "For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us.." (Acts 15: 28).  However, its individual members - laity and clergy - are not necessarily holy at all.  The Church is also a hospital for sinners and not an elite club of perfect holy people.

The Church is called "Catholic" because of the Greek word καθολικός which means "universal", especially in the following two meanings: a) which includes and is not limited to one region, country, continent or part of the world and b) acts in a way which includes everybody.  The first one is obvious, but the second one is not.  In this sense, "Catholic" means "Counciliar" in reference to a "council of all" or, in Greek, a "Ecumenical" (including the whole world) council.  The Russian term Соборный/соборность is very accurate here as it clearly points to a council ("sobor" in Russian).  So being "Catholic/Counciliar" means that there is no "teaching Church" versus a "taught Church", no one instance or clerical rank which is the source of "authority" (to use a Latin concept) or unity.  It is the whole Body of the Church, down to the last layperson, which acting as one has the "authority" of the Church.  Not even a council of, say, 99% of all the Orthodox Bishops - nevermind one bishop or one Patriarch - on the planet can claim to speak for the Church if the rest of the "Body" does not agree with it.  There have been plenty of instances in history were the vast majority of bishops which formally appeared to have remained Orthodox had, in fact, lapsed from the Church.  These are the so-called "robber councils" which, at that time, looked legit and had all the external signs of legitimacy, but which the Body of the Church - the people, really - ended up denouncing and condemning later.  Again, there is no external legitimacy, no authority from which legitimacy can be derived, no person or group of people who can deliver some "certificate of authenticity" to this or that local Church or bishop.  So how do we know which is the one true Church as opposed to those who only appear to be so externally.  Here are the criteria of truth:

1) Apostolic succession.  Simple enough, does not need to be explained.

2) True confession of faith.  The local Church has to confess the exact same faith which, in the words of Saint Athanasios "the Lord gave, was preached by the Apostles, and was preserved by the Fathers. On this was the Church founded; and if anyone departs from this, he neither is nor any longer ought to be called a Christian".  It has to be what I call "backward compatible" meaning absolutely no innovation.   In the words of Saint Vincent of Lerins, it has to be exactly and fully the same as that ""which has been believed everywhere, always and by all".  If they did not all believe and confess X in, say, the 5th century or the 8th century, then it is not Orthodox.  Simple.

3) Unity of the Eucharist: simply put - if you are not in Eucharistic communion with the rest of the Body of Christ, you are not part of the Church.

I would note here that the unity of faith is a prerequisite for the Eucharistic communion: if you do not have the same beliefs as I do, we cannot share the same Eucharist.  Nowadays some got it exactly backward.  They say "let us commune from the same cup, and then iron out our secondary differences later".  This is modern nonsense.  The Church has never taught that.

In the world the visible part of the Church is, for cultural and practical reasons, organized along several independent religious organizations: local Churches, independent ("autocephalous") Patriarchates which can be Russian, Greek, Paraguayan or Japanese.  The pray in their own language, organize themselves in any way they want, have their own customs and traditions.  Just like there were 12 and 70 apostles there can be plenty local and autonomous Churches as long as they maintain the unity of faith and communion.  In fact, if the One Church did not allow that it would not be truly "Catholic" either.  And just like the Apostles did not have some "Big Boss" over them, the Church has no Head other than Christ Himself.  Sure, for administrative and pastoral issues each Church has a senior bishop (put in charge by a council of local bishops) but even that local boss has no more authority in matters of faith, of confession, that any layperson.  There have been plenty instances in the history of the Church when Patriarchs and entire councils strayed from the truth, and they were often reproved and even condemned by simply lay people.  Speaking of which, there are only 4 clerical ranks in the Church: layperson (yes, that is a rank, a layperson can, in case of emergency, baptize in the name of the entire Church), deacon, priest and bishop. All the other fancy categories are only administrative or honorary. So folks with roaring titles like "His Beatitude the Archbishop of X" is no more than a simple bishop. A Protopresbyter is just a priest and an Archdeacon is just a deacon. Clergymen, by the way, are formally addressed with honorary titles "Most Reverend", "Your Grace", etc. but that really applies to the clerical rank, not the person carrying that rank. Same for kissing the hand of a priest - its not because he is so worthy, but because of the high rank (charisma) bestowed on him. He himself might be a dumb jerk (many are) or even a lying hypocritical ignoramus with a bad temper. Remember, the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a club of holy men. There is only one thing that really matters: the confession of faith of this clergyman needs to be 100% Orthodox and his personal sins must not be serious enough to ban him from serving and/or himself receiving the Eucharist (so no pedophilia, no sexual immorality, no killing, no apostasy, etc.).

Okay, I have to stop here even though we barely scratched the surface here.  Let me give you a few good readings I recommend:

Online texts on ecclesiology (what is the Church?): (any text on that page)

General books on Orthodox Christianity: 

I hope that this was useful.  If not, I am sorry.

@Mohamed: was the Scripture corrupted?

Yes and no.  Yes it was, but never successfully.  Let me explain why.

First, if you accept that God did communicate with mankind by means of prophecy and that the prophets did put down the prophecies which they received, you would wonder why then God would let men distort or otherwise corrupt the message He sent us.  Of course, all man can err, we are all sinful, and either by mistake or deliberately man have corrupted the Scripture, no question here, the pertinent question is rather could these men have gotten away with that?

In the Third book of Esdras we have an interesting episode.  Esdras tells God that the Scripture has been burned and asks "If then I have found favor before thee, send the Holy Spirit into me, and I will write everything that has happened in the world from the beginning, the things which were written in thy law, that men may be able to find the path, and that those who wish to live in the last days may live.”  To which God replies "Go and gather the people, and tell them not to seek you for forty days.  But prepare for yourself many writing tablets, and take with you Sarea, Dabria, Selemia, Ethanus, and As′iel—these five, because they are trained to write rapidly; and you shall come here, and I will light in your heart the lamp of understanding, which shall not be put out until what you are about to write is finished".  And, sure enough, Esdras tells us "So I took the five men, as he commanded me, and we proceeded to the field, and remained there.  And on the next day, behold, a voice called me, saying, “Ezra, open your mouth and drink what I give you to drink.”  Then I opened my mouth, and behold, a full cup was offered to me; it was full of something like water, but its color was like fire.  And I took it and drank; and when I had drunk it, my heart poured forth understanding, and wisdom increased in my breast, for my spirit retained its memory;  and my mouth was opened, and was no longer closed.  And the Most High gave understanding to the five men, and by turns they wrote what was dictated, in characters which they did not know. They sat forty days, and wrote during the daytime, and ate their bread at night.  As for me, I spoke in the daytime and was not silent at night. So during the forty days ninety-four books were written.  And when the forty days were ended, the Most High spoke to me, saying, “Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first and let the worthy and the unworthy read them;  but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people. For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge.”  And I did so.

Sorry for the long quote, but I want to illustrate a point: when needed God can command his faithful to restore even the full Scripture provided a) that they are worthy to received the guidance of the Holy Spirit and b) that they receive the "drink like fire" which God gives them (note that this book was written long before the times of Christ!).  What is certain is that the notion that God would grant a revelation through His prophets and then allow that revelation to remain corrupted for centuries is rather ludicrous.

There was, indeed, one grievous attempt at falsifying the Scripture.  It occurred after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD.  At that time the Jewish people were separated into 2 sects: those who believed that Christ was the Messiah and those who did not.  The former become known as Christians, while the latter - mostly Pharisees - created their own group which developed a new spirituality which switched focus from the Old Testament to the Talmud, from the Temple to assemblies (synagogues), from priests to rabbis and from the original Scripture to a new "corrected" text.  This texts had the official imprimatur of the rabbis who declared that it has been corrected by their sages, the scribes and scholars.  Needless to say, what they really did is cut out or alter those parts of the Scripture which were inconvenient to them.  At the time there was a great deal of hostility between the two groups and disputations centered around the Scripture, of course.  The issue at hand was simple: did the prophesies about the Messiah in the scripture match what actually happened in the life of Christ or not?  Could the followers of Christ prove their case by using the Scripture?  Well, the "guardians of the tradition", or "Masoretes" as they became known, "corrected" the Scripture as much as possible to produce a forgery known today as the "Masoretic text" (abbreviated MT).

Christians immediately saw through that and denounced the text as a fake.  One of the earliest documents we have showing that Christians at the time were fully aware that the Jews produced a forgery is the "Dialog with Trypho" in which Saint Justin Martyr (2nd century) explicitly makes that accusation.  The latter Fathers have also confirmed that.

You might wonder which text is the original and what happened to it. We only have parts of the original Hebrew "Old Testament" (which is, of course, not what they called it).  Following the conquests of Alexander the Great much of what is today the Middle-East was "Hellenized" and the language of the elites and the international language of the time was Greek.  About two centuries before the birth of Christ, at the request of the local (Greek) ruler, Ptolemy II Philadelphius, a translation into Greek of the Hebrew text was made for the famous Library of Alexandria by 70 translators from the 12 tribes of Israel.  This text is called the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX) in memory of these 70 translators.  This is the only text ever considered authoritative by the Church.  Following the Latin schism, the LXX was almost forgotten in western Europe where the Latin Church used a translation made by Saint Jerome called the Vulgate.  Because the Latin believed that only the "learned" clergy should read the Scripture and then teach and explain it to the "simple" folks, this text was no very widely circulated.  In contrast, Luther wanted each Christian to have access to the Scripture.  Luther, who was opposed to the Latin clericalism and who suspected that the Latins might have corrupted the text, decided to base his teaching on what he apparently sincerely believed was the "original" Hebrew text, the Masoretic forgery.  As a result, the vast majority of Bibles available in the Western World are based on a text deliberately forged by Christ-hating rabbis, including the (otherwise beautifully written) King James Version.  More recently, newer "corrected" versions of the MT have been made, but there is still only one, rather bad, translation of the LXX in English, the so-called "Brenton translation" (I hear that a new one is being worked on).  But until very recently the West was simply too proud and too ignorant of Patristic thought to remember that only the LXX was the true text of the Old Testament.

I am going into all these details to illustrate a point: yes, Holy Writ can, and has been, corrupted both deliberately (Masoretes) or by ignorance (western  Bibles).  But God never allows the original true text to simply vanish.

I would also note that what the rabbis attempted is first and foremost a substitution: LXX by MT.  They never claimed that the MT was the LXX.  In fact, some Jewish holidays (such as Hanukkah) have no scriptural basis in the MT but only in the LXX (in the book of Maccabees in this case).  Unlike the West, the Jews never forgot about the LXX - they simply did not want to grant it authoritative status, for quite obvious reasons.

There are some sources which claim that an attempt to corrupt the LXX was also made by Jews, but I have seen no good evidence of that.  For one thing, the LXX was simply too widely circulated (not as one text, but as a collection of books) to suddenly substitute another text.  Really, the creation of the MT was for "internal consumption" and to beat back Christian polemicists.

So here is my main point: there is zero historical evidence to attest to the corruption of the original Holy Scripture.  The only known case is the one I outlined above.  We also know from the Scripture itself that God would never deprive his faithful from His Word, the example of Esdras (aka Ezra) above also shows that.  Furthermore, simple logic suggests to us that it is impossible to corrupt a text which is both 1) widely circulated and 2) very closely analyzed and held for sacred.

Let me conclude here by saying that I personally believe that the Prophet Muhammad did hear about the Masoretic forgery and that this inspired him to look at the Christian Scripture with a strong suspicion that the text had been forged.  Obviously, like Luther, he was not aware of the LXX.  It is also possible that Muhammad might have had another reason to declare that the Christian scripture was corrupted: the so-called Old Testament has absolutely no prophecy speaking of any figure like Muhammad, this is why some Muslim scholars have had to declare that the "Comforter" mentioned by Christ to His disciples was a reference to Muhammad and not to the Holy Spirit, an interpretation which even a superficial reading of the New Testament immediately invalidates and which not a single Church Father or theologian between the first and seventh century endorsed.

Whatever may be the case, the Muslim theory that the Scripture has been successfully corrupted is both illogical and a-historical.  One can, of course, chose to believe it, especially if one accepts that everything, including the historical record, has been forged, corrupted or lost, but at least to me faith and common sense should not contradict each other.

I think that it is undeniable that Christianity grew out of the religion of the Jewish people before the birth of Christ.  Christ Himself constantly makes references to the books the Church has united into one volume called the "Old Testament".  If the topic is of interest to you, see all the texts on this page, especially this one and this one.  In contrast, Islam has no other scriptural basis that itself or, rather, the book it produced: the Quran.  

In conclusion I want to say that a closer look at history shows that the notion of "Judeo-Christian" is simply at least as nonsensical as speaking of a White-Black or a Dry-Wet.  As for the so-called "Abrahamic religions" they truly have nothing in common.  Modern Judaism is really nothing else but an "anti-Christianity" while Islam is a faith which appeared ex-nihilo and has no basis in either Jewish or Christian scripture or oral tradition.

I hope that I have not offended anybody here, especially not my Muslim friends and readers, but I felt that it was important to lay out here the original Christian understanding of these issues.  As any other Orthodox Christian I strongly feel that it is my personal obligation to preserve that which has been passed on to me (the "corporate memory and awareness" of the Church, if you want) and to share it with others if/when it is appropriate.  As (hopefully) intelligent and considerate people, we can "agree to disagree", but to do that, you need to be made aware of the nature of what we might disagree on, right?  By the way, I would welcome any offer to present a Muslim view of this - or any other - topic here and if somebody submits it (in the comment section for example) I will be glad to post it.

That's it for today.  I will return to worldly topics tomorrow.

I wish you all an excellent week-end, kind regards,

The Saker