Friday, August 11, 2017

St. Gregory the Theologian and the Literal Interpretation of Scripture


George Demacopoulos gave another lecture at the Eagle River Institute which was recently posted on Ancient Faith Radio, and in the course of that lecture he made the following statement:
"St. Gregory the Theologian actually wrote, in one of his most famous orations on the Trinity, that a Christian who insists on a literal interpretation of Scripture, does so to mask his lack of genuine faith. Let me repeat that... St. Gregory says, quote: "a Christian who insists upon a literal interpretation of Scripture, does so to mask his lack of genuine faith"" ("Was Byzantine Christianity the Normative Orthodox Experience?: Part 2," beginning at about the 12:20 mark).
The first time he referenced the alleged quoted, it could have been taken as if  he was giving the gist of the quote, rather than an exact quote: "St. Gregory... wrote... that..." But he then repeated it, and prefaced it by saying "Quote," which would normally only be used to preface a precise quotation. However, the actual quote bears very little resemblance to what he referenced in this lecture.

Here it is, at least as it is translated in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translation:
"They then who are angry with us on the ground that we are bringing in a strange or interpolated God, viz.:—the Holy Ghost, and who fight so very hard for the letter, should know that they are afraid where no fear is; and I would have them clearly understand that their love for the letter is but a cloak for their impiety, as shall be shown later on, when we refute their objections to the utmost of our power" ("Oration 31, A Selected Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, series 2, vol. 7, eds. Henry Wace and Philip Schaff (New York: Christian, 1887-1900), p. 318).
For comparison, here is a more recent translation:
"Certain people, then, thinking that we have introduced the Holy Spirit as a strange or counterfeit god; are angry at us and fight very hard to defend “the letter”. But they should know that they are afraid where there is nothing to fear; 6 and I would have them clearly understand that their love for “the letter” is but a cloak for their impiety, as we shall see later on when we refute their objections to the utmost of our power" (Gregory of Nazianzus: Five Theological Orations, Translated with an introduction and notes by Dr. Stephen Reynolds, 2011, p. 98, <https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/36303/1/Gregory%20of%20Nazianzus%20Theological%20Orations.pdf> )
This translation provides an interesting footnote to the phrase "the letter":
“the letter”. I.e. of the Scriptures. Gregory does not say “the letter of the Scriptures,” because he will not concede to the opponents he now has in view that they are, in truth, faithfully interpreting the Scriptures. Cf. Oration 4, § 1 (page 71), where Gregory spoke of “difficulties and objections which were ripped from the holy Scriptures by those who profane the Bible and pervert the sense of its texts in order to win the mob to their side and confuse the way of truth.” 
When you look at the actual quote, it is clear that Dr. George Demacopoulos has not even accurately presented the gist of the actual quote. St. Gregory was not attacking those "who insist on literal interpretations," he was attacking those who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, who insisted on exclusively literal interpretations as a cloak for their impiety -- and their impiety was not that they interpreted Scripture literally, but that they denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

It may be that when he was writing the notes to this lecture, he was referencing this by memory, and so we may charitably assume that he did not intentionally misquote the text, but the fact is, he has misquoted it, for whatever reason, and the actual quote does not even come close to justifying the assertion he made based on it.

If he had loosely said that St. Gregory the Theologian attacked those who insisted on an exclusively literal interpretation of Scripture, that would at least be a plausible take on what he is saying, but in the actual context of the quote, even that is a stretch, because he is not attacking the idea of interpreting the Scriptures literally. He is attacking their pretense of doing so, which he makes clear later on in the oration, when he says:
"But since you hold so very close to the letter (although you are contending against the letter)..." (NPNF2, Vol. 7, p. 323). 
So in actual fact, St. Gregory is saying that these heretics are not even getting their literal interpretation of Scripture correct. If his point had been to attack literal interpretations per se, he would have spent a good bit of time arguing that point, and showing what a non-literal interpretation was preferable. But that is not what you find in this text.

The Fathers do not deny the legitimacy of literal interpretations of Scripture (at least ones that are no more literal than the texts are intended to be taken in), though they certainly do affirm other senses of Scripture as well. But here he is not arguing, for example, that you have to take an allegorical interpretation of Scripture to defend the Trinity -- you just have to take a non-willfully-stupid interpretation of the Scriptures:
"But now the swarm of testimonies shall burst upon you from which the Deity of the Holy Ghost shall be shown to all who are not excessively stupid, or else altogether enemies to the Spirit, to be most clearly recognized in Scripture" (NPNF2, Vol. &, p. 327).
Also, when it comes to St. Gregory the Theologian's view of Scripture, one should consider the following statement:
“We however, who extend the accuracy of the Spirit to the merest stroke and tittle, will never admit the impious assertion that even the smallest matters were dealt with haphazard by those who have recorded them, and have thus been borne in mind down to the present day: on the contrary, their purpose has been to supply memorials and instructions for our consideration under similar circumstances, should such befall us, and that the examples of the past might serve as rules and models, for our warning and imitation” (NPNF2-07 St. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration II: In Defence of His Flight to Pontus, and His Return, After His Ordination to the Priesthood, with an Exposition of the Character of the Priestly Office , ch. 105, p.225).
Here St. Gregory references the words of the Lord: "And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail" (Luke 16:17, c.f. Matthew 5:18). St. Gregory not only affirms the verbal inerrancy Scripture, but in fact affirms every jot and tittle inerrancy (jots and tittles being the smallest strokes of a pen).

What is not obvious is what exactly is it about taking the literal sense of Scripture seriously that George Demacopoulos is objecting to? I "insist" on a literal interpretation of "Thou shalt not murder," for example, but I also accept the more spiritual interpretations that Christ gives the commandment, and I think the Fathers of the Church would back me up both counts.

As I discussed in "Fundamental Errors: A Response to "Tradition Without Fundamentalism" by George Demacopoulos," I suspect the issue behind this, is the question of the Church's teachings on the subject of homosexuality (for the reasons stated in that article), though if George Demacopoulos wishes to dispute that, he need only clearly state what he believes to be the teaching of the Church on that subject. I would be happy to be corrected, if he simply affirmed that he believed that homosexual sex was inherently sinful, as opposed to arguing that somehow the literal sense of the Scriptures and canons on that subject should be reinterpreted to mean something else.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible, Part 3: In Context


For Part 1, see: Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible: First Steps

For Part 2, see: Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible, Part 2: Staying on Track

Types of Literature in the Bible (Genres)

To understand the Bible we need to understand how the different kinds of literature in the Bible actually work. We have different kinds of literature in own our culture, and we understand how they work. For example, when we read George Orwell's novel 1984, we know we are not reading a history of the the 1980's. There is truth in that book, but it does not function in the same way that a history book functions. We know what to expect when we read a comic book, and we know it works differently then a how-to guide. The various types of literature we find in the Bible have some features that are different from what we know from our own culture, and so we have to make some effort to try to understand how they work.

For example, we need to know that the patriarchal narratives are not intended to be taken as direct instructions on how we should live our lives. Sometimes we read about very admirable behavior, but in other cases the examples we find are negative, and are not there for us to "go and do likewise."

The proverbs we find in the Bible are wise saying that will generally prove to be true, but are not legal commandments -- you would generally be foolish to ignore them, but that's their point. The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, are not merely helpful hints for hopeful Hebrews -- they are moral laws that apply to us, and are not there for us to take or leave as we might wish.

This video does a good job of introducing the basics of the major literary types you find in the Bible:


You will also find some information on how various literary types work in a particular book of the Bible if you look up that book in a good Bible dictionary, and read what it says. You find much more detail in a good commentary or a Biblical Introduction, but for starters, your Bible dictionary should be sufficient to point you in the right direction.

We will come back to this in more detail in a subsequent series.

Levels of Meaning

Sometimes people ask whether or not we should take the Bible literally. The answer is that we should take it as literally as it is intended to be taken. There are many things in Scripture that clearly were not intended to be taken literally. For example, in the apocalyptic visions of the book of Revelation, read about a "fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads" (Revelation 12:3), but we are not expecting to encounter such a literal beast in the future. This is a symbolic vision, and we have to try to understand what the symbols mean to properly understand the text. But "Thou shalt not commit adultery" has a literal meaning, and we don't get to dismiss that literal meaning by interpreting it figuratively.

It is also true, however, that the same text can often be understood on more than one level. The fact that there can be more than one level of meaning does not negate the more obvious meanings of the passage -- it just means that can be additional meanings found in the same text.

There are traditionally four senses of Scripture, and you can read about those in more detail in these articles:
Sword in the Fire: 4 Senses of Scripture
OrthodoxWiki: Typology
But to simplify things a bit, just keep in mind that there is the level of meaning that is clearly intended by the text, but often there is a less obvious spiritual meaning of a text that you will find brought out in the services of the Church, and in the writings of the saints. You in fact see New Testament writers reading the Old Testament in precisely this way as well, and so this is not something that the Church made up, but comes from Christ and the Apostles (for example, in Galatians 4, St. Paul uses an allegorical interpretation of the story of Sarah and Hagar (which begins in Genesis 16 and ends in Genesis 21).

Becoming familiar with the more obvious meanings of Scripture will enable you to better grasp the deeper meanings you will find in the services and the Fathers.

Reading contextually

When reading Scripture, it is important to read particular parts of Scripture in their proper context.

There are three broad levels of context to keep in mind:
1. The immediate context of a passage within a book.
2. The context within the book as a whole. 
3. The context within the entirety of Scripture. 
Chapters, Verses, and Pericopes

With the exception of the Psalms, the chapter and verse divisions we have in our Bibles today are not original, or really all that ancient. Chapter divisions go back to the 13th century, and the verse divisions who know today were in place by the 16th century. These divisions usually make sense, but sometimes they actually can be deceptive, because they seem to mark a break between one chapter (or even one verse) and the next, when the break may not really be there in the text itself.

The Church has an older system of dividing the Gospels and Epistles into shorter readings that are read liturgically on a given day, and in a particular service. These divisions is called "pericopes," which literally means "a cutting-out" [you can hear how it is properly pronounced by clicking here]. "Pericope" is a Greek word. The word in Church Slavonic is "зача́ло" (zachalo).

Biblical scholars also speak of pericopes, but while the idea is very similar, there is a bit of a difference. Liturgical pericopes can vary. The same passage of Scripture might be divided up differently, for different liturgical occasions, because different aspects of the passage are being emphasized. When we speak of an interpretive (or exegetical) pericope, these do not change, though sometimes there may be some debate about where the lines should be drawn.

Interpretive pericopes are smaller sections of a book that represent a complete unit of the whole (for example, a distinct story, or parable). Sometimes these will follow chapter divisions, but often they will not. Usually, a given chapter of the Bible will have more than one of these subsections.

To see what we are talking about here, let's take a look at the Sermon on the Mount. Where does it begin? The sermon itself begins in Matthew chapter 5, but actually the end of chapter 4 is really the introduction. So you have sort of a preface that begins in Matthew 4:23 and ends in Matthew 5:2. In verse 3 the sermon begins, and does not conclude until chapter 7, verse 27, and then you have an afterword in 7:28-29 that sums up the response of the hearers to the sermon. But between Matthew 5:2 and 7:27 there are a number of interpretative pericopes that make up the total sermon, and should be examined both as distinct sections, but also in their broader context within the sermon. So for example, you would want to look at the Beatitudes as a distinct pericope (Matthew 5:3-12). Christ's discussion of how we are to be salt and light (5:13-16) is another pericope, etc.

You can see verbal ques and shifts of though that will mark were one section begins and ends. Sometimes it is not always so clear where one section ends and another begins, because one section is closely linked with the next. It is not crucial that you always get these divisions precisely right, you just want to keep them in mind, because the most immediate context of a verse is crucial to understanding what is being said. Fortunately, most contemporary bibles actually provide section headings that usually will tell you at least where the editors think these sections begin and end, and in the Orthodox Study Bible, for example, I think you will generally find these divisions to be accurate and helpful. See, for example, the NKJV's headings in the Sermon on the Mount.

You should also keep in mind, that it is often the cases that several pericopes in a row have a collective function in a book. That is certainly true of the Sermon on the Mount, but you see it in many other places as well. For example, in the Gospel of Luke, you have the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son all grouped together, and they all have similar points, but they are also distinct units.

And when we speak of interpreting a passage in the light of its context in the entirety of Scripture, this works in two ways. On the one hand, other passages of Scripture often shed light on a passage. But on the other, we do not believe that Scripture contradicts itself, and so if you interpret a passage in a way that contradicts what the Scriptures as a whole teach, you are reading it wrong.

Reading with the Church

One of the most important ways that we must read the Scriptures in the proper context is by reading them in the context of the Church.

We have already talked about one way that we do this, and that is by ensuring that we interpret the Scriptures in a way that is consistent with the teachings of the Church. And we have also talked a bit about how to use the commentaries of the Fathers as we are able, and have access to them. But beyond that, while it is important for us to read the Scriptures on our own, we also need to study them together with others in the Church. We do this in the context of our immediate families -- every home being a little Church. We should also do this in our parishes. If there is a Bible study that you can participate in, this should be helpful. You also do this by attending the services, hearing the Scriptures read in the services, and also hearing them interpreted in the services of the Church, and by your priest or bishop when he preaches on them.

In St. John Chrysostom's time, people had multiple opportunities to hear sermons. The local bishop would often preach, and any of the priests might preach as well. St. John often preached sermons every day, as is evident from his homilies on the book of Genesis. Few today would have any opportunities remotely close to that. However, with the printing press and the internet, we have access to collections of sermons like that, and a lot more. Not only can you read the sermons of many Fathers and saints of the Church online or in books, but you can read and listen to sermons from contemporary clergy. Also many clergy podcast verse by verse Bible commentaries and Bible studies that they conduct in their parishes.

The opportunities are vast, in fact so vast that you could allow the vastness to overwhelm you. But if you are not sure where to start with such things, you can speak to your parish priest, and ask for pointers, and then go from there.

And again, don't try to do too much all at once. Focus on doing something, and doing it consistently.

In the future, there will be a follow-up series of posts that will talk about how to dig deeper into the Scriptures.

For More Information:

A Guide to Biblical Reference Texts

The Inerrancy of Scripture

Friday, July 28, 2017

Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible, Part 2: Staying on Track

Hearing the Scriptures

Most Christians for most of Church history did not own their own copy of the Scriptures (either in whole or in part). They heard the Scriptures read in Church. While sitting down and reading the text of the Bible is important, we certainly can listen to the Bible being read, and gain great benefit from it. With modern technology, you can listen to recordings on your phone or home computer, and these recordings are available for free. If you are strapped for free time, are a mother with small children that keep you busy, or spend a lot time on the road, this might be the best way for you to study the Scriptures. 

The King James Version was in fact translated with how it would appeal to the hearer in mind (not just the reader), and if you have difficulty reading the KJV, chances are good you will have an easier time listening to it.

And when you feel too tired to read, or are going through sections of Scripture that can seem tedious (like long lists of names in the book of Numbers), you may find listening much easier than reading.

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

The Chinese philosopher Laozi famously wrote: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" (Dao De Jing 64). One of the points of this saying is that we should not be overwhelmed with the length of the journey, but simply begin it, taking one step at a time. A more contemporary saying begins with the question "How do you eat an elephant?" with the answering being "One bite at a time." This is also true of reading the Scriptures. The Bible is a very large book (or more precisely, a large collection of many books), and depending on how diligently you read it, it can take a long time to make your way through it. But if you read 3 chapters a day, you will have read most of the Bible in a year.

However, a better way to look at this is not that reading the Bible is a very long journey that will be difficult to complete, but rather that it is a lifelong journey. It is an important part of living the Christian life, and so it should be something you do every day. You don't really get through the Bible; rather, by regularly reading the Bible, you allow it to get through you. St. Poemen illustrates this point:
“The nature of water is soft, that of the stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the man who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God” (Benedicta Ward, translator, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975, 1984 revised edition), p. 192f.).
No matter how many times we may have read through the Bible, we need to continue to read it, because we need it to constantly soften our hearts, and open ourselves up to God's grace. I have been reading the Bible regularly since I was a boy, and I still learn new things every time I read it. I am also reminded of things that I have forgotten, that I needed to be reminded of. And I don't doubt that this will continue to be true until my last breath.

It is helpful to read something from both the Old and the New Testaments. I suggest a system for doing so in "A Simple Approach to Reading the Entire Bible," but if you simply read one chapter a day from the Old Testament, and one from the New, this would provide for some balance in your reading. Some part of the Old Testament can be especially difficult, and so reading that along with portions from the New Testament can keep you from getting bogged down.

Reading the Scriptures in Accordance with the Fathers

According to Canon 19 of the 6th Ecumenical Council, we are told that the Scriptures must be interpreted in a way that does not deviate from the teachings of the Fathers. When converts are received from other Christian group, they are asked (among many other things):
Dost thou acknowledge that the Holy Scriptures must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the belief which hath been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and which the Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, hath always held and still doth hold?
The answer the convert is to give is: "I do." But how do we practically go about doing that?

There are many commentaries on Scripture from the Fathers. I have gotten my hands on most of what is currently available in English, but the average person probably could not afford to gather such a collection, and reading through them is a massive undertaking unto itself. But even with all of those commentaries, there are many passages of Scripture for which there is no patristic commentary at all. So what do you do when you're reading the Bible, and you don't have patristic commentary to explain what you are reading to you?

St. Augustine wrote "On Christian Doctrine" in order to teach people how to properly read Scripture, but he has an interesting comment about someone who might not get it right. First he explains what the purpose of the Scriptures is for us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, and then says:
"Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception. For there is involved in deception the intention to say what is false; and we find plenty of people who intend to deceive, but nobody who wishes to be deceived. Since, then, the man who knows practices deceit, and the ignorant man is practiced upon, it is quite clear that in any particular case the man who is deceived is a better man than he who deceives, seeing that it is better to suffer than to commit injustice. Now every man who lies commits an injustice; and if any man thinks that a lie is ever useful, he must think that injustice is sometimes useful. For no liar keeps faith in the matter about which he lies. He wishes, of course, that the man to whom he lies should place confidence in him; and yet he betrays his confidence by lying to him.  Now every man who breaks faith is unjust. Either, then, injustice is sometimes useful (which is impossible), or a lie is never useful. Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture. Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads. He is to be corrected, however, and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest, if he get into a habit of going astray, he may sometimes take cross roads, or even go in the wrong direction altogether" (On Christian Doctrine 1:36).
We learn what it means to love God and our neighbor in the teachings of the Church. If we interpret the Scriptures in accordance with the teachings of the Church, we may get some things wrong, but we will never be too far off track.

Because we may not understanding something in Scripture we should of course always be open to being corrected by the Church. If we have questions about something, there are many people in the Church we can ask for guidance. But we should not allow the fear of our misunderstanding something in Scripture to prevent us from trying to understand it.

There are many sources we can turn to to help us better understand the Scriptures. There are books like Johanna Manley's "The Bible and the Holy Fathers," which provide some commentary on the passages of Scripture that are appointed to be read liturgically. All of St. John Chrysostom's commentaries on the books of the New Testament are available online, as are many other Patristic commentaries. So I would encourage you to make use of what is available, and try to get you hands on useful resources, but as long as you continue to try to understand the Orthodox Faith properly, you will be able to read the Scriptures with benefit, and will keep from getting too far off track in how you understand it.

Continued in Part 3: In Context

For more Information:

A Simple Approach to Reading the Entire Bible

A Guide to Biblical Reference Texts

Computer Based Bible Study... for Free

Friday, July 21, 2017

Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible: First Steps


How can someone who has never really read the Bible before begin to read and understand it? I will try to answer that question in a series of posts, beginning with this one.

Why is the Bible Difficult to Read?

Let's face it, the Bible can be difficult to understand, and there are a number of reasons for this. The Bible comes from a very different culture, and it was written in ancient languages that are not our own. It was written a long time ago, and over a long period of time. And while it is all inspired by the same Holy Spirit, it was written by many different human authors who used many different literary types (genres) to convey their message to us.

We should not let this scare us off. There are parts of the Scripture that are very easy to understand. These are the low hanging fruit that God has put there even for the most untrained reader, but there are many things that require work on our part to understand, and we should be willing to do that work.

But why is it that some parts of Scripture are difficult to understand? St. Augustine tells us:
"Some of the expressions [in Scripture] are so obscure as to shroud the meaning in the thickest darkness.  And I do not doubt that all this was divinely arranged for the purpose of subduing pride by toil, and of preventing a feeling of satiety in the intellect, which generally holds in small esteem what is discovered without difficulty" (On Christian Doctrine 2:6).
We are humbled by the fact that we do not completely understand the Scriptures. It takes humility to understand the Scriptures, but it is also inspires humility that there is so much we do not understand.

We also never have a "feeling of satiety" in our understanding of Scripture, because of these difficulties. A "feeling of satiety" is that feeling we often have on Thanksgiving day, when we have had too much to eat, we feel like bloated jellyfish that have just washed ashore on the beach, and we couldn't be tempted to eat another bite, no matter how good the food was that was offered to us. We never get that feeling when it comes to the study of Scripture, because there is always much more for us to learn, and so we are left wanting more. And because we have to work to understand the more difficult things in Scripture, we value more what we learn because of the effort it took for us to do so.

The fact that there are difficulties in understanding Scripture should not leave us with a helpless sense that there is nothing we can do about it, and then just give up. There are many things we can do to help us in this work.

A Good Translation

The first step is for us to get our hands on a good translation of the Bible, and preferably a couple. For a complete discussion of this topic, and of the options that are available, see: "An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible." But to make a long story short, here are the texts I would recommend you get a copy of, at a minimum:
1. A good edition of the King James Version. My recommendation would be to get the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible with Apocrypha, which I think you will find more pleasant to read because it uses modern spelling, punctuation, and paragraphing, but the King James Version comes in many editions, shapes, and sizes.
2. The Orthodox Study Bible. This text is not perfect, and I don't think the translation is usable liturgically, but it is in relatively easy to understand English. In the New Testament it is the standard New King James text. It also has some brief but useful study notes, and introductions to each book of the Bible.
3. The New King James Version. A copy of the standard New King James Version is good to have for comparison with the King James text.
4. The Boston Psalter. For the Psalms, there is really no substitute for this text. This is what is generally used in our liturgical texts, and in the Jordanville prayer book, and there is no reason to not use this as your primary translation for the Psalms.
There are several other translations that are good to consult for comparison, but you don't have to buy them. They are available electronically, for free. Young's Literal Translation, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version, and the Brenton translation of the Septuagint.

The King James is a beautiful and generally accurate translation, and there are good reasons for using it, but if you have not grown up at least hearing it read on a regular basis, you might be better off sticking with the Orthodox Study Bible and the New King James text initially. I would not recommend using any other translation as a primary text for reading the Bible -- and for the reasons why, I would again refer you to "An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible."

War and Peace

I grew up hearing Bible stories at home and at Church and so understanding the basics of Scripture was not a problem for me when I actually began reading the Bible for myself, but I can relate to the problem that many have beginning to read Scripture. I had the same problem with War and Peace -- which is probably the most notoriously difficult-to-finish book of the great classic novels.

When I was a new convert to Orthodoxy, I began reading Dostoyevsky's novels, and loved them. But when I was finished reading those, I thought I would try Tolstoy, and so got a copy of War and Peace, and I read several chapters, and found it difficult to follow. I put it down in 1991 and did not pick it up again for nearly 20 years. The problem with the novel for me was it was a complicated book from a foreign culture, and a bygone era, and it was full of a vast array of characters, and had many elements that I was not familiar with. It was hard to see where things were headed, or to keep track of who was who.

What changed was that I saw the four part Soviet era film based on the novel. The movie is one of the best movies I have ever seen, and the acting was excellent. Watching the movie helped me figure out who was who, and also what the novel was all about. When I then picked the novel back up, I found it to be fascinating and very entertaining. It was also a pretty good way to learn the History of Russia's role in the Napoleonic wars up through Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, which was why Tolstoy wrote it in the first place.

There are ways to get the same bird's eye view of Scripture too, and once you figure out who is who, and where things are headed, Scripture begins to come alive.

Getting the Big Picture

One way to get a feel for the scope of Scripture is to read Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy's "Law of God". About 300 pages of that text are focused on the contents of the Old and New Testaments, and this text provides a very thorough overview of the Bible.

There is YouTube channel called "The Bible Project". The people behind it are Protestants, and they only talk about the books that are in the Protestant canon of Scripture, but they have a summary of each book of those books, and they do a very good job of explaining the structure and content of these books. I would recommend ignoring their word study videos, and their videos on the themes of Scripture, because there you get a lot more Protestant theology then you get help on understanding the actual content of the Bible. Furthermore, if you run across anything that sounds fishy to you, ignore it.

For example, here is the video on Chapters 1 through 13 of the Gospel of Matthew:


And this is example of how the explain the structure of one of the most difficult books of the Bible, Leviticus:


A Good Bible Dictionary

There are a lot of Biblical reference texts that one could buy, but if you are only going to get one, you should get a good Bible dictionary. There is a Bible Dictionary in Russian that was published by the Orthodox Church, and there may be one or more in Greek, but as things stand at present, if you want a text like that in English, you are going to have to make do with a Protestant text.

There are two I would recommend:

1. Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible, published by Thomas Nelson, is the lest expensive option.

2. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (5 Volume Set), is more expensive, but much more complete.

For example, if you are reading Exodus and you run across a reference to the Urim and the Thummim, if you look these words up in a Bible dictionary, it will tell you pretty much everything the Bible says about them, and everything that historians know about them. If you are reading Hebrews, and you run across Melchizedek, you can look him up, and find where else he is mentioned in Scripture and who he is. If you look up the name of a place that is mentioned, you will find things like what the name of the place means, its history, and often also find a map showing where that place is. You could of course look these things up on Wikipedia too, but the information you will find in these texts is generally going to be far more complete and reliable.

Continued in Part 2: Staying on Track.

See also: Computer Based Bible Study... for Free

For a sermon on why we should want to study Scripture, read St. John Chrysostom's 9th Homily on Colossians. You can also listen to a sermon I gave, entitled "Rich Man / Poor Man," which was based on that homily.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Stump the Priest: In the Lord Shall My Soul be Praised



Question "At the beginning of Psalm 33 (in the Septuagint), which we hear often in the liturgical services, is the line "In the Lord shall my soul be praised." This seems a strange way of putting things. What do you think this means? Are there other similar verses in the Scriptures?"

In the Boston Psalter (the translation we use liturgically), this verse is translated:
"In the Lord shall my soul be praised; let the meek hear and be glad."
This is a very literal translation of the Greek Septuagint, which is a very literal translation of the Hebrew. The King James version translates this verse as:
"My soul shall make her boast in the Lord: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad" (Psalm 34:2).
Which translates the Hebrew idiom in a way that more clearly conveys the sense of the Hebrew. A more literal translation of the Hebrew would read:
"In the LORD doth my soul boast herself, the humble hear and rejoice."
By comparing different translations, you can often get a better idea of the range of meaning of the words in a text, and this is a good example of that.

The inscription of Psalm 33 [34], links this Psalm to David's flight from Saul, and his deliverance from the Philistine King of Gath in 1 Samuel 21:10-15:
"And David arose and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath. And the servants of Achish said unto him, Is not this David the king of the land? did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands? And David laid up these words in his heart, and was sore afraid of Achish the king of Gath. And he changed his behaviour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard. Then said Achish unto his servants, Lo, ye see the man is mad: wherefore then have ye brought him to me? Have I need of mad men, that ye have brought this fellow to play the mad man in my presence? shall this fellow come into my house?"
St. Basil the Great's homily on this Psalm provides a good interpretation of the verse in question, which explains it in the light of this background:
""In the Lord shall my soul be praised." "Let no one," David says, "praise my intelligence, through which I was preserved from dangers." For, not in the power of man, nor in wisdom, but in the grace of God is salvation. "Let not," it is said, "the rich man glory in his riches, nor the wise man in his wisdom, nor the strong man in his strength, but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth" the Lord his God [Jeremiah 9:23-24]. If, however, someone is praised for beauty of body or renowned parentage, his soul is not praised in the Lord, but each person of such a kind is occupied with vanity. The ordinary professions, in fact, those of governor, doctor, orator, or architect who constructs cities, pyramids, labyrinths, or any other expensive or ponderous masses of buildings, do not merit to be truly praised. They who are praised for these things do not keep their soul in the Lord. It suffices us for every dignity to be called servants of such a great Lord. Certainly, one who ministers to the King will not be high-minded because he has been assigned to this particular rank of the ministry, and having been considered worthy to serve God, he will not contrive for himself praises from elsewhere, will he, as if the call of the Lord did not suffice for all pre-eminence of glory and distinction? 
Therefore, "in the Lord shall my soul be praised: let the meek hear and rejoice." Since with the help of God, by deceiving my enemies, he says, I have successfully obtained safety without war, by only the changing of my countenance, "Let the meek hear" that it is possible even for those at peace to erect a trophy, and for those not fighting to be named victors. "And let them rejoice," being strengthened to embrace meekness by my example. "O Lord, remember David, and all his meekness" (Psalm 131[132]:1 LXX]. Meekness is indeed the greatest of the virtues; therefore, it is counted among the beatitudes. "Blessed are the meek," it is said, "for they shall posses the earth" [Matthew 5:4(The Fathers of the Church: St. Basil, Exegetic Homilies,, Homily 16, trans. Sister Agnes Clare Way, C.D.P. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1963),  p. 251ff).

Friday, July 07, 2017

Sister Vassa on Homosexuality


Sister Vassa Larin recently sparked a controversy by posting her advice to a mother who has a 14 year old son who "came out" as a homosexual. She has been a popular figure in the English speaking Orthodox world, and is a highly regarded liturgical scholar. She is a very bright and articulate person, and has often been invited to speak at Church conferences around the world --  and in fact was the featured speaker at a youth event in my own diocese, and my parish spent the money to send some of our children to that event, one of my own daughters included. So it is with genuine sorrow and great disappointment that I must take issue with her publicly, because she has publicly endorsed views that are in serious error, at a time when pro-homosexual propaganda is inundating our children from virtually every direction in society. Our children should be able to count on those within the Church to encourage them in the Faith once delivered unto the saints (Jude 3)... and to not be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2).

In the course of the discussions that followed the original post, I came across a sincere Orthodox Christian who has struggled with homosexuality, recognizes that homosexual sex is incompatible with the Christian life, and is striving to live a life in accordance with the Gospel -- and he interpreted much of the criticism of Sister Vassa's post as a failure to appreciate the difficulty of his struggle -- though he recognized that her post was problematic. Let me just say up front to him, and to anyone else who is sincerely struggling against this sin that the problem is not with them and their struggle, nor would I minimize their struggle. I would, however, suggest that while heterosexuals have different struggles, it is not as if we cannot relate and appreciate their plight. We all have crosses to bear. My wife's godmother grew up in the Soviet Union, faced near starvation, was separated from her husband who had been drafted into the Soviet Army, and had to flee for safety when the Nazis invaded with three small children, ending up in a displaced persons camp at the end of the war. She then had to come to a foreign land, and start from scratch. She never saw her husband again, and never knew whether he was alive or dead. On top of all of that, her son was killed during the Vietnam war. Despite all of these hardships, she lived a pious celibate life and was an inspiration to all who knew her. Being a Christian is usually difficult, and it is difficult for different people in different ways, but that it is difficult is something we all share.. and if we don't, it's because we aren't trying very hard. So God bless you in your struggles, and know that we all love and support you.

Now, to the specifics of Sister Vassa's post:

Sister Vassa began by trying to inoculate the rest of her answer with a disclaimer:
"Dear N., Thanks for writing. I can't reply to your question officially, but will reply to it personally. Because my personal opinion is not in line with some official pronouncements of my Church. So please just accept it as my personal opinion, no more and no less than that."
I'm not sure how she could give an "official" response, but presumably she means that this answer is sort of off the record... except that she posted it on Facebook for all the world to see, and it has since gone viral, and has been shared on pro-homosexual "Orthodox" groups. She has taken it down, but the horses are already out of the barn, at this point. She has not (at least as of yet) posted a retraction.

She acknowledges up front that she is disagreeing with the Church, but confines that disagreement to "some official pronouncements". The problem is these pronouncements include the Scriptures and canons of the Church which are clear and unambiguous on this subject.

Following some other introductory comments, she then, after giving quick lip-service to the idea that an active homosexual lifestyle was sinful, proceeded to undermine that belief by minimizing the seriousness of the sin:
"But here’s the thing about homosexuality. And please read this to the end, if you could. I must say, and cannot say otherwise, that actively living it out is a sin. It’s a no-no. But so are many other things, which we tolerate in ourselves as “only human.” Like, our consistent disregard for God’s word, which is worse than the sins of “Sodom and Gomorrah,“ as our Lord points out in Matthew 10: 14: “…And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable (ἀνεκτότερον) on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” (Mt 10: 14-15) [Emphasis added]"
It is simply twisting this text of the Gospels to attempt to equate someone who maybe doesn't read their Bible as often as they should with rejecting the Gospel, which is what Christ is talking about in that passage. I don't take the sin of ignoring Scripture reading lightly, mind you. I generally ask three questions when hearing someone's confession (aside from questions raised by the specifics of their confession), unless they bring these subjects up first:
1). How's your prayer life?
2). Are you reading the Scriptures regularly?
3). Do you forgive those who have offended you?
But not reading the Scriptures regularly is not the same as rejecting the Gospel. Both are sins, but there are degrees of sin. There is, for example, a big difference between having an unkind thought and engaging in mass murder. It would be insane to say that there was no difference between those two sins. Unkind thoughts can lead to the act of murder, and so should not be ignored, but they are not the same. And the canons of the Church show this clearly. There is no canon that suggests a lengthy penance for having an unkind thought. The penances for murder, however, are lengthy -- some suggest excommunication until the person is on their deathbed, other, more lenient canons call for 20 years.

There is no canon that calls for a period of excommunication for failure to read the Scriptures. The stricter canons against homosexual sex call for a 15 year penance, while St. John the Faster allowed for it to be lessened to 3 years, if the person was truly penitent and took their penance seriously. Both sins are sins; however, the sin of sodomy is far more serious. The sin of rejecting the Gospel is even more serious, because there can be no possibility of restoration for someone who has chosen to cut themselves off entirely from the source of healing, but that does not make the sin of sodomy a light matter.

Not a single Church Father could be cited to support the idea that Christ's point in this passage was to suggest that the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah weren't so bad after all. His point was to cite one of the most wicked examples found in all of Scripture, and to say that rejecting the Gospel is even worse than that.

Then Sister Vassa minimizes the sin even further by suggesting that the sin is really beyond the level of choice (which if true, would mean that it was not really a sin at all, in any usual sense of the term):
And here’s the other thing about homosexuality. We do know today, according to reliable scientific studies, that this sexual orientation is formed in most (not all) cases, by the early age of 3-4. Importantly, it is before the “age of reason,” which is traditionally considered the age of 7, so it is not a “choice.” You mention that you knew this about your son well before he came out to you now, at the age of 14. I have heard this from several mothers of homosexual children, including one wife of an Orthodox priest, that they “knew” it from their child’s early childhood.
There is actually little in the way of hard evidence that homosexuality is somehow innate (see for example: "Born gay or transgender: Little evidence to support innate trait"). Furthermore, while there are "scientific studies" that argue for homosexuality being rooted in genetics or other innate factors, they come in a highly politicized context, in which the pressure to produce certain results in this area is very great (just consider the firestorm a University of Texas Study received which shows that children of gay couples have more problems on average than those raised by both a mother and a father). And if you don't think political pressure can influence academic research, I suggest you read up on how Nazi politics influenced some of the most respected academic institutions in the world, and resulted in the kind of pseudo-scholarship produced by the Ahnenerbe to promote Hitler's theories of racial superiority. Academicians are human, and they are often motivated by a desire to be noticed and recognized, to make a good living at their work, and to be advanced. Unfortunately, the desire to find and present the truth for its own sake is all too often subordinated to those more selfish motivations. And so a healthy amount of skepticism is also in order here on issues that are currently driven by political agendas.

We do not accept the idea that we are slaves to our genetics, or to the environmental factors of our upbringing, and so effectively have no free will or ability to make moral choices. Such a view is contrary to the Orthodox understanding of what it means to be a human being. We reject determinism, in all of its forms. However, even if, for the sake of argument, we granted that there was some genetic predisposition to homosexuality, this would still not justify the conclusions that Sister Vassa suggests. There actually is a proven genetic predisposition for alcoholism, but this does not make being a drunk acceptable, nor does it remove choice from the equation. If you get pulled over for driving drunk, saying "I was born this way" is not likely to get you off the hook. It is certainly a lot harder for some people to not abuse alcohol than others, but we know that they have a choice, and in fact all of our laws assume that people who are not legally insane or mentally incompetent are responsible before the law for the choices that they make, no matter how disadvantaged they may or may not be.

The Church does teach that we are all born with an inclination to sin. And yet we are taught that we are to overcome that inclination, by God's grace.

What do you mean "we", Paleface!?
"Hence we come to the question of “culpability” for this state of affairs, in one’s gift-and-cross of (homo)sexuality. We can and do separate the question of “culpability” for the sin, and the sin itself, - so let me point out that God must also. In most cases, homosexuality is not one’s own choice. So, “crossing the line” in this area, and not committing to total celibacy, as one “must” do according to traditional, scriptural law, is “more tolerable” in God’s eyes (as Christ says in the above-quoted passage), than our other kinds of trespasses. Among our “other” trespasses let me mention heterosexual adultery, masturbation, premarital sex, and just “looking lustfully at a woman” (Mt 5: 28), - all “sins,” although we tend to “live and let live” with them, as they are only human. But we have a double standard when it comes to homosexual “sins,” for the plain reason, I think, that most of us feel free-and-clean of this particular thing."
I do not wish to be included in the "we" that Sister Vassa invokes here, and I suspect few Orthodox clergy would either. If someone confesses that they have engaged in heterosexual adultery or premarital sex, and they are not talking about a sin in the distant past, or before baptism, I treat them as very serious sins, that would call for some kind of a penance. The penance would would depend on a lot of other factors, but there would certainly be one.

The Lone Ranger, Tonto, and the presumptuous "we".

And again we have the problem of equating things that are not comparable. Generally speaking, sins that involve other people are more serious than sins that a person commits alone. Also, sins against nature are more serious than sins that are not against nature. And so if you take the sin of masturbation -- this is a sin one commits alone, and so, while still a sin that cannot be excused or ignored, it is not as serious as having sex with another person that you are not married to. Looking on another person to lust is, as Christ said in the Gospels, committing adultery in the heart. However, neither Christ Himself, nor the Church since, ever suggested that there is no difference between committing adultery in the heart, and committing adultery in deed.

Imagine for example two scenarios. In one case, you have a man who looks on his neighbor's wife with lust, and then later repents and goes to confession. At the same vigil service there is another man who actually had an affair with his neighbor's wife, which resulted in two broken homes, great harm to their children, and countless extended relationships being broken. Would it make any sense for the priest to treat these two cases as if there were no difference between them? Of course not. This does not mean it is OK for a man to look on women to lust, or that such a sin should be ignored -- adultery in deed always begins with adultery in the heart. But it is obviously better for a man to be struggling against the sin of adultery in the heart before it gets to adultery in deed, then it is for him to say "what difference does it make?" and fall into the act of adultery with another person.

If we take the teachings of Scripture seriously here, we also have to acknowledge that homosexuality is a sin against nature (παρὰ φύσιν), and so for that reason is worse in some respects than sins that are in many other respects, similar, but which are not contrary to nature (for example, heterosexual sex outside of marriage). First off, this is clearly what St. Paul says about it in Romans 1:26-27, and St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on this passage, elaborates on it further (see his 4th Homily on Romans). Now, in our time, when we say that homosexuality is against nature, those who argue that it is an innate and immutable characteristic for some people, object and say that it must be natural, since it happens naturally. One need only study human anatomy to see that the anus was not designed with the penis in mind. Furthermore, one need only study the serious health and psychological problems, the propensity for drug and alcohol abuse, and  the domestic violence that all go along with living an active homosexual lifestyle, to see that this is in fact contrary to the natural order (see: "Immoralism, Homosexual Unhealth, and Scripture," by Robert Gagnon). Cancer occurs in nature too, but cancer is not something that makes for healthy human living.

Heterosexual sex outside of marriage is still a sin, and as such, will (if not repented of) exclude one from the Kingdom of God too, but life can come from such immoral relationships. Also, such a couple can repent, get married, and their relationship can develop into something that God can restore and even bless. A homosexual relationship can only damage both parties, and cannot be restored into something good (at least not as a homosexual relationship), because it is against God's created order.

When we say that sins against nature are, as a rule, worse than sins that are not against nature, this does not mean that those who commit these sins are to be despised more, it means they are to be more pitied, because the consequences of such sins are greater because of this fact. It is not loving to enable or encourage an alcoholic to kill himself with alcohol, and it is not loving to enable or encourage a person struggling with homosexuality to live a lifestyle that is destructive in so many respects -- and most importantly, a lifestyle that St. Paul assures us will prevent them from inheriting the kingdom of God, unless they sincerely repent and turn away from that sin (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) nevetherless requires that we actually speak the truth.

Pastoral Discretion and Non-negotiable Principles of the Faith

Sister Vassa gets into the practical implications of what she is saying:
So what am I saying practically, about what you should do when your son “wants to date”? I think you won’t be able to change the fact that he will “date,” unless he wants to commit himself to celibacy. But I am going to go ahead and presume he doesn’t want to, and isn’t going to, do that, since he’s “come out” to you, and I don’t think you can change that in him, at age 14. So I would say, let him “date” in the daylight, with your knowledge, so he’s not chased into some kind of underground, of illicit hook-ups in certain kinds of pubs or bars. You aren’t “encouraging” him by saying, bring the guy here. Just like other parents, of heterosexual children, say, bring that girl (even the one of whom we disapprove) home, so we can meet her, aren’t saying, go ahead and do whatever you want. But what you are doing is bringing your child’s relationship into the daylight of your home, where your love, values, and mutual commitment, as family, can lend stability and light to your child’s behaviour in his/her relationships. You know, the whole gay-culture of previous decades led many homosexuals (as I know from a dear Roman-Catholic gay friend aged 60 at this point) to get into irresponsible sexual encounters, inspired by the whole aura of illicitness, in hook-ups in public bathrooms and that sort of thing.
If a mother with a 14 year old boy had written, asking for advice, and her son had informed her that he was a heterosexual, and was intent on having sex with his girlfriend, the proper response for a Christian parent would not be to provide them with a room and a condom. A responsible Christian parent teaches their children that they are not to have sex outside of marriage, and particularly when they are 14, they would generally tell them that they are too young to be dating anyway.

One can debate how best to handle a penitent sinner. The canons often lay out very strict penances, however, in our time we drastically reduce the severity of the penances, and  under some circumstances, we might not impose a penance at all... all depending on the circumstances, and the individual. You could argue that one priest or bishop is too lenient on such things, or that others are too strict. All good shepherds of Christ's flock are motivated by a common desire to see their people grow closer to Christ and to be saved. Practical applications of Church discipline are questions of wisdom, and spiritual insight. What is not open to debate, however, are matters of principle. A person who is engaged in a sin (any sin) and who refuses to repent of that sin cannot be given absolution by the Church, because sincere repentance is a necessary ingredient for absolution to be given. I have had people, who, when I ask if they have forgiven those who have offended them, will respond "No." I then explain why we need to forgive, and what that means and does not mean. However, if all of my efforts to get them to choose to forgive those who have offended fail, I cannot give them absolution. It is just not possible, and that is not a question that reasonable priests might disagree on. The same thing is also true of a heterosexual who is actively engaging in fornication with his girlfriend, and it is true of a person who is engaging in homosexual sex.

Options
As far as your other practical question goes, of finding a faith-community for your son, I think he has two choices: 1. He can “suck it up” in your present community, like the woman wearing a scarlet letter. It’s not the worst thing in the world, because I can tell you from personal experience that it is liberating in many ways, to be the odd man out and OK with that, even if (and this might shock you) you are denied Holy Communion. (I am not homosexual, but I have been “the odd man out” in other ways). Your son’s humble presence in your parish could benefit both him and others, in unexpected ways. Just like the story of Mary of Egypt has been beneficial to all of us, even though she had no Holy Communion for over 40 years. 
St. Mary of Egypt did not have Communion for 40 years because she was living a life of repentance, which is not quite the same thing as being excommunicated because you are living an active homosexual lifestyle without any intention of repenting of that.

An Orthodox Christian Biblical Scholar commented on Sister Vassa's post, and asked why it would be better for a 14 year old to abstain from communion and to continue having homosexual sex, rather than for him to abstain from having sex and continuing to receive communion. Sister Vassa responded, "Have you ever met a 14 year old boy?" The woman she was responding to is a mother and a grandmother, and she pointed out that she was once 14 years old too. When did it become acceptable to assume that a 14 year old boy cannot control himself, and must have sex (either heterosexual or homosexual)?

Also, even heterosexual couples can be separated for lengthy periods of time. A husband might go to war, and be gone for many years. Should we just accept that he cannot control himself, and will have sex with whoever happens to be available? The Christian answer to that question would be "no."
The other choice is 2. Find a parish that is acceptive of your son’s particular gift-and-cross. There are parishes like that, here and there, but I don’t know where you live and whether you have one nearby. 
Encouraging someone to go to a parish that will ignore their sin, and commune them anyway is a shocking piece of advice from an Orthodox nun. There is absolutely no justification for taking such a position. You could not find a single example in the lives of the saints of such a thing, nor could you find anything in Scripture or the writings of the Holy Fathers that would support it.

St. Paul in fact warns against this very thing:
"For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth..." (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
And in case anyone thinks St. Paul does not consider homosexuality to be contrary to sound doctrine, they need only look at his First Epistle to St. Timothy to see that the opposite is true:
"knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites [i.e. homosexuals, Greek "αρσενοκοιταις"], for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust" (1 Timothy 1:9-11).
Then Sister Vassa concludes:
Frankly I find the first option the better one, as shocking and insensitive as that may sound. But here’s what I would NOT suggest: to leave the Church. Our church is our family, and as a family, we are called to learn from one another, to love one another, and, as a result, to suffer to a certain degree, from one another, that we may grow. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but I don’t believe in jumping ship when it comes to church-belonging. I think we don’t grow that way, I mean by jumping ship, but rather stunt or (best-case scenario) delay our growth. Please forgive me if this wasn’t helpful, but it’s all I’ve got. Love to you and your family from all of us in Vienna, SV
It is good that she encourages the mother to try to keep her son in Church, and even if a person is struggling without much success against their sins, the Church is the best place for them to be, because it is the place where they should be best able encounter God's grace, truth, and love. However, going to a parish that actively suppresses the truth, is another story entirely (Romans 1:18-32). Going to Church can help if the person hears the truth there, and God opens their heart to receive it. That is why we have to ensure that it is actualy the Truth that they hear in Church, and not the lies of this world.

Update:

Unfortunately, if there was any hope that Sister Vassa might back off from her comments, or clarify them in a more Orthodox way, she has dispelled them by doubling down on them, and doing so in a way that it would be charitable to call strident. There is no acknowledgment that she should perhaps have suggested that the mother in question encourage her son to refrain from sodomy. There is no awareness that being a childless nun who teaches Roman Catholic seminarians in Vienna has perhaps not made her an expert on child-rearing. Only the assurance from her zillions of fans that she is right.

See: https://www.facebook.com/CoffeeWithSisterVassa/posts/767429780102527

In the course of the discussion that has followed, she said (on her personal Facebook page) in response to a deacon:
"I never said, in that post or in any other one, that I "often" disagree with the church. Please don't change my words. What I said, in black and white, was that I do not agree with some of the "proclamations" of my Church, today. If you read attentively, you will find that there are important nuances here, which point to the fact that I do not, actually, state that I am in disagreement with The Church. In fact I do not think that the dust has settled on what "The Church" actually thinks on this topic, in our today. But in the Orthodox Church we don't have the unified voice to discern and state what we think, because of our crippled state of (dis)unity. But regarding what I said in my little post, unfortunately most readers today do not read anything attentively, looking only for soundbites and lacking the patience to read deeply and prayerfully. That's all I've got to say, in addition to what I've already tried to say, in part unsuccessfully, on the matter."
So the Church may yet, in her opinion, take a very different view of homosexuality.

Another problematic aspect with regard to what is going on here is the fact that those who have disagreed with her have often been blocked and their comments deleted, while pro-homosexual activists have been free to promote their views and attack those who hold to the teachings of the Church. Here pro-homosexual fans seem to think they know where she is heading, and she is doing nothing to dispel that belief.

And with regard to Pope Francis being "the real deal," I think the folks at Lutheran Satire have him pegged pretty well:




Also, one homosexual activist on Sister Vassa's Facebook group took issue with my referencing the propensity of homosexual's to commit suicide, and suggested that this is because of religious people like me. The problem is that this is not borne out by the facts. Denmark is one of the most secular countries in the world, and yet studies there show that homosexuals in domestic partnerships in Denmark are 3-4 times more likely to die by suicide then those in heterosexual relationships:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3662085/

Only 3% of Danes attend church at least once a week:

http://www.gallup.com/poll/13117/religion-europe-trust-filling-pews.aspx

And homosexuality is widely accepted in Denmark:

https://uniavisen.dk/en/research-gay-friendly-denmark-not-tolerant-to-others/

For more information:

A 14 Year Old Boy (a Sermon on this subject)

What Sister Vassa Should Have Said (Replying to Sr. Vassa’s Mail), by Fr. Lawrence Farley

The Bible the Church and Homosexuality: Obscurantegesis vs the Truth

Stump the Priest: Shrimp and Homosexuality

Robert Gagnon: The Bible and Homosexual Practice (7 Video Lectures)

Same-Sex Marriage: Separation of Church-State Issue, or a Moral Problem We Must Oppose? (a Live discussion on Ancient Faith Radio)

Statement on the Comments of Fr. Robert Arida on Homosexuality, by the Orthodox Clergy Association of Houston and Southeast Texas

Sexuality and Gender: Finding from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences

Robert Gagnon had an informative debate with a Lesbian Anglican on Homosexuality which you can watch below (if you only listen to 15 minutes, go to the 49:00 mark):

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

New, but not improved... A Response to Public Orthodoxy, on the Creed

The botched restoration of the Catholic Icon "Ecce Homo!" (Behold the Man!)

Defacing the English Language, one word at a time...

John Fotopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou, in their recent article "Women and the Creed: Who For Us Humans and for Our Salvation," (published by "Public Orthodoxy") have expressed their unhappiness that the Greek Archdiocese has decided to use a translation of the Creed that is in line with pretty much every other translation that English speaking Orthodox Christians have been using for as long as we have had Orthodox Christians speaking English. They are offended by the use of the word "man". Here is the line of the Creed in question,as it is usually translated:
"Who for us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man..."
And here is their suggested "improvement" to that translation:
"Who for us humans and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human..."
Aside from the fact that this sounds like a translation done by a Federation Starship's computer, it is simply ugly and unnecessary. It has long been said that the Greek Archdiocese has intentionally used the worst English translations possible, in hopes that people will just forget the whole thing, and keep using Greek. In this case, they are moving in the right direction. The folks at Public Orthodoxy, however, would have them opt for an even more ugly translation then they had previously ("Who for us and for our salvation...").

Their argument, in a nutshell, is as follows:
"...“men” is not the most accurate translation for the word ἀνθρώπους in contemporary English. Rather, translating ἀνθρώπους as “men” can be viewed, at best, as an expression of outdated English usage and, at worst, as an expression of gender exclusive English translation. There is no good reason to use outdated English in a new translation of the Creed or to use a gender exclusive English term when ἀνθρώπους is meant to be inclusive. The word ἄνθρωπος is the generic term for a human being in ancient Greek, while there are other terms for “man” and “woman.” 
It is certainly true that "anthropos" is not a gender specific word in Greek, but "man" is also not a gender specific word in English -- it can be, as the usage has developed, but we still use it in its non-gender specific sense... all of the time.

The PO folks may not have noticed, but the offending word "man" is also found in the word "woman". That is because a woman is a particular variety of man. The word woman comes from the Old English 'wīfman" -- "a wife man." Males use to be referred to as "werman" (a male man) but gradually the first syllable dropped out of common use. So should we opt for "wo-person" over "woman"?

A friend of mine told me about an English professor he had in college (who was a woman) who insisted on using traditional words like "man" in the generic sense, and she had a young female student who objected. The professor responded: "If you were at the beach, and you were told that there was a man-eating shark in the water, would you go swimming? Because if you wouldn't, you're a hypocrite, because you understand full well that "man" refers generically to all human beings."

If someone accidentally killed a woman, and was charged with manslaughter, I doubt a defense that hinged on manslaughter laws applying only to male victims would go very far.

The word "man" goes very deep into the history of Indo-European languages. We find a form of it in Sanskrit: "manu", which has the same meaning. To purge English of the generic use of "man" you would have to deface a good bit more of the language than just that word "man" itself. Even the word "human" has the offending "man" root word. So should we opt for "hu-person"? Or perhaps we should just go with "hu", since the last three letters in "person" might offend those who want to neuter the language. While this might expand the possibilities for future versions of the old "Who's on first?" routine, it is all just silly, and nonsensical.


The translation proposed by PO is certainly defensible in terms of accuracy, but it is indefensible in terms of the aesthetics of the English language. The reason why the King James Version has stood the test of time, whereas no other modern translation has approached its beauty is because the translators of the KJV were not just accomplished biblical scholars, well versed in the pertinent languages they were translating from -- they also were well versed in the language they were translating the Bible into. They had a sense of the English language that few scholars today have -- and clearly John Fotopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou are not among those few, regardless of how well they no doubt grasp the original Greek.

If we followed their proposal here consistently, we would have to make the following changes to our translations of Scripture:
Instead of Pontius Pilate referring to the blooded and beaten Christ with the words "Behold the man!" (John 19:5) we would have him say "Behold the human!" 
Instead of Christ saying: "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath no where to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20), we would have him say "the Son of Human," or more loosely "The human being has no where to lay his head."
And instead of putting off the "old man" at baptism, and putting on the "new man" (Colossians 3:8-10), we would put off the "old human" and put on the "new human."
None of these steps would be an improvement to accuracy, and they certainly would not add to the beauty and majesty of the services in which they were read.

On the broader question of neutering the English language -- there are two major languages that have no gender distinctions at all, and so the two cultures associated with these languages should have been feminist utopias, if gender neutrality was the key to such a thing. The two languages I refer to are Turkish and Chinese. However, I think one could easily defend the argument that women in European cultures have been treated significantly better in the past two thousand years, despite them having to suffer the indignities of being forced to use languages that make gender distinctions. In fact, I think one would be hard pressed to find two literate cultures in which woman have historically been treated worse than that of the Turks and the Chinese -- and I say that as one who otherwise loves Chinese culture, but the way women were (and to a large extent, still are) treated is not the high point of Chinese civilization.

To this day, Chinese girls are often killed at birth, or aborted selectively before birth, because of a very low view of the value of women. When I was in college, I once worked in a Chinese restaurant, and one day I was asked about my family by an elderly Chinese woman who worked there. When I told her that I had four brothers, she said "Your momma have five boy? Oh, she very lucky!" But my mother had five boys because she wouldn't give up trying to have a girl, until having five boys had sufficiently worn her down. One woman came from a culture with perfect gender neutrality in their language, and the other didn't. Feminists somehow think that the culture with gender distinctions is the one that needs to be fixed. Go figure.

Update:

Giacomo Sanfilippo made a comment worth passing on in response to the article at Public Orthodoxy on Facebook: "To say that ἄνθρωπος is un-gendered strikes me as a bit simplistic, and requires nuance. Gen 2 (LXX) uses ἄνθρωπος interchangeably/synonymously with Adam, going so far as to say the ἄνθρωπος (not ἀνήρ) leaves father and mother to cling to his wife."

Christ Himself also quotes this passage (Genesis 2:24) in the Gospels (Matthew 19:5), and the Greek text uses "anthropos" to refer to a male who leaves father and mother and is joined to his wife.

Furthermore, in Matthew 10:35, Christ says: "For I am come to set a man [anthropos] at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law."

James Latimir provides yet another example: "Consider 1 Esdras 9:40, where anthropos is used in clear opposition to gyne, as in, ‘men and women.’ (Jerome even translates anthropos in this case as vir!) That would make no sense if anthropos meant genderless ‘human’ (‘humans and women’: Public Orthodoxy are the real bigots! 😂), rather than inclusively masculine ‘man.’"

So clearly anthropos can be used to refer specifically to a male, just as the English word "man" can.

For more information, see:

An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible

King James English and Orthodox Worship