Tag Archives: God

Jonathan Edwards: America’s Greatest Mind

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Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is considered by many to be the greatest mind that America has ever produced and he is certainly this country’s greatest theologian and was a leading figure in the First Great Awakening and that revival’s learned supporter and advocate.

He was born on October 5, 1703 in East Windsor, CT. His mother was a daughter of Solomon Stoddard, pastor of the famed Congregational church at Northfield, Massachusetts for fifty-seven years. He began study of Latin at six years of age under the tutorship of his father and four older sisters. Before he was 13, he had a good knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew and he entered Yale at age 13 in 1716 and in 1720 he graduated with the highest honors (at age 17). His conversion took place around the age of 17. He stayed on for two more years at Yale to receive a Masters degrees in theology. In 1722, before age 19, he went to New York City where he preached at a small Presbyterian church for eight months. Edwards then received a call from Yale to become a tutor and he returned to Yale for two years. In 1726, he was ordained a colleague of his grandfather, Rev. Stoddard, and married Sarah Pierrepont, the following year. He then assumed full ministerial duties when Stoddard died in 1729. He would remain pastor there until 1750.

In a sermon entitled A Divine and Supernatural Light, preached in 1733, Edwards described religious knowledge as “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God.” Edwards’ all-important distinction is between a “sense” of divine truth and an “understanding” of it. The first concerns the innermost will (the heart), whereas the the second applies to rational speculation (the head). He stressed that unless the heart is affected through regenerative grace, religion is nothing more than what unregenerate man can know through natural reason. 

And religious experience on a large scale describes New England’s Great Awakening (1733-1745) which by 1735 involved not only Northampton but the whole Connecticut River Valley. Edwards saw the revival as evidence of God’s redemptive work in New England. In 1737, he published an account of the revival entitled A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, which was widely read in America and abroad. Notwithstanding the dramatic sermons of George Whitefield, who visited in Northampton in 1740, the most famous sermon preached during the Great Awakening if not in all of American history was Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of Angry God preached in 1741, which had a powerful effect upon its hearers. In order to make religious revivalism theologically understandable, Edwards wrote The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741) and Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival (1743). 

Edwards believed that God performs saving works, sometimes in extraordinary ways, but he also stressed that vital piety, consisting of holy affections seated in the heart, requires constant self-scrutiny. His analysis of religious experience culminated in a Treatise Concerning Religious Affections published in 1746. It affirms the heart as the locus of religious experience and the integration of the transformed heart and visible acts. 

In 1750, after he had been in Northampton for 23 years, an old controversy concerning the terms of full admission in the church was revived. Edwards opposed the view and practice held by his predecessor and held on to his own views. He was shortly ejected from the pastorate preaching his Farewell Sermon on July 1, 1750.

In 1751, he became pastor at the Congregational church at Stockbridge, MA and missionary to the Housatonic Indians. His years at Stockbridge proved to be his most productive.

In 1754, he published the Freedom of the Will which was a defense of the doctrines of foreordination, original sin, and eternal punishment, a masterpiece of philosophical reasoning. Man’s natural will is free in time but his depraved moral will can only choose grace when divinely inclined. In 1757, he was elected president of Princeton College in New Jersey. Five weeks after his inauguration in 1758, at the age of fifty-six, died as a result of a smallpox inoculation. Jonathan Edwards was the outstanding Calvinist preacher and theologian of colonial New England and the founder and leader of Edwardean or New England theology. One of the brightest minds America’s ever produced, his legacy and influence continues to this day. 

A Famous Sunday School Song: Onward Christian Soldiers

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Whitmonday was a festival for schoolchildren. During the day children would march to neighboring villages carrying crosses and banners. In 1864, local pastor Sabine Baring-Gould wanted a new hymn to encourage the children in their marching. In just fifteen minutes, he wrote a song called “Hymn for Procession with Cross and Banners.” It was later renamed “Onward Christian Soldiers.” He had no intention of it ever being published, especially in adult hymnals. Sabine-Gould was at the time a curate of a parish in Yorkshire county in northern England. He recounts how and why he wrote the song:

“It was written in a very simple fashion…Whitmonday is a great day for school festivals in Yorkshire, and one Whitmonday it was arranged that our school should join its forces with that of a neighboring village. I wanted the children to sing when marching from one village to another, but couldn’t think of anything quite suitable, so I sat up one night resolved to write something myself. ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ was the result. It was written in great haste and I am afraid some of the rhymes are faulty. Certainly nothing has surprised me more than its great popularity.”

Though it was never intended for publication, it found its way into a periodical later that year and soon into English hymnals around the globe. Louis Benson suspects that it caught on in the U.S. because it tapped into the “soldier spirit left in the hearts of young and old Americans by four years of Civil War” which had just ended. 

The music was composed by Arthur Sullivan in 1871. Sullivan named the tune “St. Gertrude” after the wife of his friend Ernest Clay Ker Seymour, at whose country home he composed the tune. The Salvation Army adopted the hymn as its favored processional. The piece became Sullivan’s most popular hymn. The theme of the hymn is taken from New Testament references to the Christian being a soldier such as II Timothy 2:3 (KJV): “Thou therefore endure hardship, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”

When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in 1941 on the battleship Prince of Wales to agree to the Atlantic Charter, a church service was held for which Prime Minister Churchill chose the hymns. He chose “Onward Christian Soldiers” and he made a radio broadcast afterwards explaining his choice:

“We sang Onward Christian Soldiers indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals…it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.”

The hymn has been sung at many funerals, including that of Dwight D. Eisenhower at the National Cathedral in D.C. in March 1969. Apart from its obvious militant associations, the songs has been associated with protest against the established order, particularly the civil rights movement. An attempt was made in the 1980s to strip “Onward Christian Soldiers” from the United Methodist Hymnal and the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 due to the perceived militarism. Outrage among parishioners caused both committees to back down. However, the hymn was omitted from the 1990 hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Australian Hymn Book. 

Largely because of its association with missionaries of various types, the song has been sung in a number of movies and television programs including M*A*S*H, Little House on the Prairie and The Simpsons. 

I grew up with this hymn being sung at church and from my days in the church’s youth handbell choir. So it has great sentimental value. And indeed it is one of the great hymns of the church which has inspired and roused the hearts of generations of believers. 

 

 

Now Thank We All our God: Its Amazing Backdrop

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Now Thank We All our God is a popular Christian hymn that is often sung at weddings and at other times of rejoicing. In Germany, it is sung at times of national thanksgiving. Nun danket alle Gott (its German title) was written by Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), being inspired by Sirach, chapter 50, verses 22-24, from the praises of Simon the high priest. He was born in Eilenberg, Saxony (Germany), a small town near Leipzig, which during the twentieth century ended behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany for several decades. 

Rinkart studied for the Lutheran ministry and was called to be the pastor of his own hometown of Eilenberg. He arrived there just at the start of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a war that would devestate Germany in general and Eilenberg in particular. Being a walled city, it became a place for refugees to flee to and it soon became overcrowded, thus rendering it susceptible to disease. And the result was indeed famine and pestilence. Armies overran it three times. The Rinkart home was a refuge for the victims, even though he was often hard-pressed to provide for his own family. At the start of 1637, the Year of the Great Pestilence, there were four ministers in Eilenberg. But one abandoned his post for healthier regions and could not be persuaded to return. Rinkart officiated at the funerals of the other two ministers. As the only surviving pastor, he performed 40 to 50 funerals per day, some 4,480 in all that year. In May of that same year, his own wife died. By the end of that year, the refugees had to be buried in trenches without services. The plague decimated Eilenberg killing some 8,000 people. 

Yet, amazingly, it is out of such horrific tragedy, that Now Thank We All our God was written around the year 1636. Rinkart was a prolific hymn writer and he did not let the horrors of war, famine and plague deter him from writing praises to our God. Yet the first two stanzas were not written, not as a hymn for public worship, but as table grace for his own family. At the end of the war, Nun danket alle Gott was sung at the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the treaty that ended the war. Rinkart would die the following year in 1649 in Eillenberg. 

It was set to music by Johann Cruger (1598-1662) around 1647 (tune: “Leuthen Chorale”), who composed the music for many other hymns including Ah Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended and  Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness. The hymn tune, Leuthen Chorale is also used in Bach’s cantatas, such as BWV 79, 192 and in his BWV 252, 386 and 657. The now-familiar standardization was devised by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840, when he adopted the hymn, sung in the now-standard key of F Major, with its original German lyrics, as the chorale for his second symphony, known as Lobgesang or “Hymn of Praise.” The Late-Romantic Germanic composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert was one of the more recent composers to use this hymn composing a Marche Triomphale, a famous piece in the classic pipe organ repertoire. After the Battle of Leuthen during the Seven Years War, a soldier of the triumphant Prussian army started to sing it and soon all 25,000 soldiers joined in the hymn. Now that would have been something to hear!

Yet we in the English-speaking world would not have known of this great hymn of the church if it were not for the efforts of Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), an English woman who translated many hymns into English during the nineteenth century. Other hymns she translated are Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness and Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates. 

If Martin Rinkart could sing such a great hymn of thanksgiving during a time of unimaginable horror and upheaval, surely we today, who will most likely not see such tragedy like he did, can do the same. So as we in America celebrate Thanksgiving in a couple weeks, let us remember the amazing account of the Rev. Martin Rinkart and may we, like him, sing with one voice:

Now thank we all our God, with heart, and hands, and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom the world rejoices; who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us! with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us; and keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplexed, and free us from all ills in this world and the next.

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given, the Son, who reigns with them in highest heaven, eternal, Triune God, whom earth and heaven adore, for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore. Amen. 

Birth of Christendom: Coronation of Charlemagne (800)

By the dawn of the ninth century, the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25 was a well-established practice. And so was the odd mixture of Christian content and pagan festivity that so characterizes Christmas celebrations. But something also happened on Christmas day in the year 800 that greatly changed the face of Europe and the course of history in the West.  The turning point happened in Rome at St. Peter’s church. At the end of the day’s main service, Charles, king of the Franks (modern France and much of Germany) rose from praying before the tomb of the apostle. As he did, Pope Leo III walked forward, and in the words of an eyewitness, “the venerable holy pontiff with his own hands crowned Charles with a most precious crown.” Then all the people apparently arose as one and having been told what to say, shouted three times: “Carolo Augusto a Deo coronato, magno et pacifico imperatori, vita et victoria” or in English: “To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, great and peace-giving emperor of the Romans, life and victory.”

Now what happened was not on the same level as the Nicene Council or the founding of the monasteries. If these events had not occurred, the same results would have most likely marked the progress of Christianity during the Middle Ages. But what happened was a dramatic symbol of relationships undergoing permanent change. It also anticipated the future and outlined the shape of Christianity for the next seven or eight centuries.

There was the rise of papal power. Now the coronation of Charlemagne did not represent the height of papal power. But rather a strategic alliance between the papacy’s expanding influence and a political house that was also expanding in influence.

There was also the rise of Northern Europe which had the expansion of Islam to thank for its rise in power and influence. Due to the expansion of Islam in the East, there was a geographic refocusing and a papal willingness to give up the ideals of a Mediterranean Roman Empire for one centered in the North. When the crowds addressed Charles as Augustus, they were evoking the past majesty of Rome. The papacy realized that the connection between Rome and Constantinople was now bankrupt. You therefore had the transition of Western Christianity from a Mediterranean eastern-oriented faith to an strictly European northward-looking faith.

Charlemagne’s grandfather was the famous Charles Martel who led the Franks to victory at Poitiers in 732 and halted the western expansion of Islam. It is no exaggeration to state that Charles Martel and his successors came to be seen as the saviors of Europe. Charles Martel initiated friendly relations with the papacy and his son and grandson succeeded to this alliance between them and Rome. When Pope Leo III crowned Charles emperor, he was only solidifying a connection that had been developing for more than fifty years. The papacy had turned to the north where a new imperial household was emerging. The link with Rome was now secure. For the next eight centuries and more, the politics, learning, social organization, art, law and economics of Europe would be “Christian,” not in the sense of fully incorporating the gospel, but because the fate of the church in the West was so decisively linked with the imperial household across the Alps.

Charlemagne and those who succeeded him bequeathed Christendom to Europe and Christendom would endure as the shape of Christianity in the West. It affected the practice of the Christian faith in every way. Today we regard the sacred and secular spheres separate. But Christendom harmonized those two spheres of life. This ideal was symbolized by the integrated view of life in which everything from politics to religious life was based on the Christian life as communicated by the Church and protected by the actions of secular rulers.

But Christendom did not function with the harmony and efficiency that the ideal suggested. But for all of its failures, Christendom remained a powerful ideal. At the heart of it was the all-encompassing presence of divine grace in every aspect of life. And in practice of this ideal was the cooperation between church and state.

After many centuries, Christendom would be fatally wounded by the Renaissance, Protestantism, the modern nation-state, atheism, and the spread of of the Christian faith beyond Europe. But as a symbol for the inauguration of a new, long-lasting and far-reaching era of Christianity, it is tough to beat the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800.

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The Reformed Pastor: Richard Baxter (1615-1691)

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Richard Baxter represents Puritanism at its very best. He was born at Rowton, Shropshire on November 12, 1615, he lived through one of the stormiest and most creative periods in English history. Baxter was an English Puritan church leader, poet, hymn-writer, theologian and controversialist.   He made his reputation by his ministry at Kidderminster and at that same time started a long and prolific career as theological writer. Baxter served as a chaplain in the Parliamentary Army during the English Civil War. He was very distrustful of King Charles I but had little love for Oliver Cromwell (who avoided him). Baxter lived through the Commonwealth and played a leading part in the recall of Charles II.

After the Restoration, of which he took a major role, he returned to his parish at Kidderminster. He actually declined an invitation to become bishop of Hereford, due to the fact that he could not in good conscience accept the requirement that episcopal ordination was essential for the Christian ministry. Nor could he state that the Book of Common Prayer was perfect and beyond criticism and that he would not seek its revision. So, along with 1,800 others, he with much sadness became a nonconformist, and suffered much persecution, distraint and imprisonment. But he became one of the most influential of the nonconformist camp.

Baxter was a learned man with a wide-ranging curiosity and an eager interest in all that was happening around him-politics, science and literature. Yet above all he was a zealous pastor and preacher. His zealousness stemmed from his belief that his precarious health presaged an early death. His parish ministry at Kidderminster was one of the most noteworthy in church history. The most bitter fruit of his nonconformity was that he was forbidden to preach. Baxter believed in a moderate episcopacy and an ordered liturgy and he tried to take the middle path between the two camps. This resulted in him taking fire from both sides. His eagerness would often overcome his tact and even when he made attempts to promote reconciliation his olive branches were apt to be fired from a catapult, as a contemporary of his commented. Baxter played a great part in the political, theological, and religious life of England, and the influence of his writings was powerful for generations after his death in 1691.

Richard Baxter wrote 168 separate works including his Autobiography. The most famous and influential was The Reformed Pastor written in 1655, at the age of 41. By the term ‘reformed’ he did not mean Protestant. Rather he meant recalled to faithful service. “If God would but reform the ministry, ‘ he wrote, ‘and set them on their duties zealously and faithfully, the people would certainly be reformed. All churches either rose or fall as the ministry doth rise or fall (not in riches or worldly grandeur) but in knowledge, zeal, and ability for their work.” This is indeed the theme of this work. And that the ministry was in sad need of reform during the seventeenth century is borne out by much evidence.

It has been said that Baxter was not just an upholder of lofty ideals but also offered helpful practical advice from an experienced minister in the conduct of congregational life. This little book has searched the hearts of Christian pastors and rekindled the flame of service for over three hundred and fifty years. One editor has written, “Behind his criticism and advice lies the experience and authority of his remarkable ministry at Kidderminster. He reproaches some of his brother ministers with being dull and drowsy preachers. At least there is no drowsiness here. The book blazes with white hot zeal, evangelistic passion, and eagerness to convince his readers. And he still has much to say to us.” Here are some quotes from the work:

To the lay reader: “Entertain not any unworthy thoughts of your pastors, because we here confess our own sins. You know it is men and not angels that are put by God in the office of church guides; and you know that we are imperfect men.”

“Though we teach our people, as officers over them in the Lord, yet we may teach one another, as brethren in office, as well as in faith…We have the same sins to kill and the same graces to be quickened and corroborated, as our people have.”

“See that the work of saving grace be thoroughly wrought in your own souls. Take heed to yourselves lest you be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others and be strangers to the effectual working of that gospel which you preach…Take heed to yourselves lest you perish while you call upon others to take heed of perishing.”

All the flock, even each individual member of our charge, must be taken heed of and watched over by us in our ministry. To which end it is necessary that we should know every person that belongs to our charge. For how can we take heed to them if we do not know them?”

“Maintain your innocency, and walk without offense. Let your lives condemn sin, and persuade men to duty. Would you have your people be more careful of their souls, then you will be of yours?”

On September 24, 1662, he married Margaret Charlton, a like-minded woman. She died in 1681. Baxter wrote the the words for the hymn Ye Holy Angels Bright in that same year.

Richard Baxter died on December 8, 1691 in London at the age of 76. His funeral was attended by churchmen as well as Dissenters. He is commemorated on December 8.

Saint Stephen: Deacon & Protomartyr

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Stephen the Deacon was a Greek-speaking Jew and the first Christian martyr. The circumstances of his conversion are unknown, but his death is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. He was an early deacon in the church at Jerusalem who aroused the anger of the Jews by his preaching. Having been accused of blasphemy, he made a long speech at his trial denouncing the Jewish authorities who were pronouncing judgment on him and had him stoned to death. His death was witnessed and approved of by Saul of Tarsus (later Paul) who was holding the cloaks of those who were throwing the stones. Saul would later become the greatest convert to the Christian faith and one of the greatest missionaries in church history.

He is venerated as a saint by the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches. Stephen is derived from the Greek meaning “crown.” Traditionally, he is invested with a martyr’s crown and is often depicted in art with three stones and a martyr’s palm. In the Eastern church, he is often seen as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing deacon’s vestments and often holding a miniature church building or a censer.

Stephen is first mentioned in the book of the Acts as one of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to the Hellenistic widows and poorer members if the community (Acts 6:5). Another deacon, Nicholas of Antioch, was born Jewish and so it could be assumed that Stephen was also born Jewish. Yet nothing more is known about his previous life. The reason for this appointment was that the Greek Jews felt that their widows were being ignored for the Hebraic ones. Since Stephen is a Greek name, it can be assumed he is one of those Hellenistic Jews. Stephen is said to have been full of faith and the Holy Spirit and to have performed miracles. It was among the Hellenistic Jews that he performed his teachings and miracles since it was said that he aroused the opposition of the “Synagogue of the Freedmen” and “of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of them that were of Cilicia and Asia.” Members of these synagogues challenged his teachings. But inspired by the Spirit, Stephen bested them in the debates. Having been humiliated, they brought about false witnesses who charged him with blasphemy and dragged him before the Sanhedrin, the legal court of the Jewish elders. They accused him of preaching against Moses and the Temple. Stephen did not get angry despite all of the false charges, but was said to have had “the face of an angel.”

Stephen’s speech, which takes up almost all of chapter 7, is the longest in Acts. In it, Stephen presents the history of Israel. The God of glory appeared to Abraham, thus establishing his first main theme that God does not dwell in one particular building (i.e. the Temple). He recounts the story of the patriarchs in some depth and the history of Moses. Despite all that God did for his undeserving people, Israel turned to other gods. This disobedience was Stephen’s second theme.  Stephen was accused of declaring that Jesus would destroy the Temple and of changing Jewish customs. Stephen appealed to the Jewish scriptures to show that the Mosaic law was not subverted by Jesus but instead were fulfilled. He denounces his listeners as “stiff-necked” people, who just as their ancestors, resisted the Holy Spirit.

The crowd could no longer contain their anger. Stephen, though, looked up and cried out “Look! I see heaven open up and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!” To the Sanhedrin, this claim that Jesus was standing on God’s right hand was such intense blasphemy they covered their ears so as not to hear it. They rushed toward Stephen, drove him outside the city to the appointed place and stoned him. Jewish law permitted death by stoning as punishment for blasphemy. The witnesses, whose duty it was to throw the first stones, laid their coats down in order to do this at the feet of a young Pharisee named Saul. Stephen, full of compassion, prayed to God to receive his spirit and to forgive his executors. He then fell to his knees and died. Saul approved of his execution.

Acts 8 reports his burial, but the location is unknown. In 415, a priest named Lucian had a dream that supposedly revealed the location of the saint’s remains. The reputed relics of the martyr are said to be preserved in the Church of St. Stephen in Jerusalem.

In the West, the Feast of St. Stephen is celebrated on December 26 and is mentioned in the English Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” It is a public holiday in many nations. In Eastern Christianity, it is celebrated on December 27 and is known as the “Third Day of the Nativity.” In the Oriental Orthodox church (Syrian, Indian) it is on January 8.

Many churches and other places commemorate St. Stephen. There is St. Etienne in Paris and in other places in the French speaking world. In Vienna, there is Stephansdom (Cathedral of St. Stephen) founded in 1147 and the seat of the cardinal archbishop of Vienna. It is the symbol of the city of Vienna and of Austria, has the country’s tallest spire and is the country’s most famous church. In the old city of Jerusalem, the “Lion’s gate” is also known as “St. Stephen’s Gate” after the tradition that his stoning occurred here, though it was most likely at the Damascus Gate. In the great city of London, St. Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster was first built in the reign of Henry III of England. It was the first site of the debating chamber of the House of Commons. St. Stephen’s Clock Tower was the original name for the tower that housed Big Ben until it was renamed Elizabeth Tower to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

 

Life & Doctrine: Council of Chalcedon (451)

council-of-chalcedonOn May 23, 451, the Eastern emperor, Marcian, summoned an ecumenical council of bishops that he helped would “end disputations and settle the true faith more clearly and for all time.” They met at Chalcedon, just across the Bosporus from Marcian’s imperial capital of Constantinople. About 520 bishops attended, all but four from the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Nicaea had settled the momentous question of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father, but it raised questions regarding the relationships between the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. The bishops met for fifteen arduous sessions between October 8 and November 10 and they came up with an answer that answered the question for which it had been called. And that answer has stood the test of time: Jesus was one person consisting of two natures. But before they came up with this time-tested answer, there was plenty of passionate controversy. In general, those theologians who were linked with Alexandria emphasized the deity of Christ; those sided with Antioch emphasized his humanity at the expense of his deity.

One controversial view that did injustice to Christ’s true humanity was developed by Appolinarius (c.310-c.390), rhetoric teacher and bishop of Laodicea. He developed this view when he was around age 60. Before this point, he was a good friend of Athanasius and a notable champion of orthodoxy. In order to avoid the undue separation of the human and divine natures of Christ, Apollinarius taught that Christ had a true body and soul but that his spirit was replaced by the logos. This logos as the divine element actively dominated the passive element, the body and soul, in the person of Christ. He stressed the deity of Christ but minimized his humanity. This view was officially condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

In contrast to this was the view developed by Nestorius (c.381-c.452), a scholarly monk who became patriarch of Constantinople in 428. He disliked the term theotokos (God-bearer) as a name for Mary, the mother of Jesus, because it seemed to exalt her unduly. He offered the term Christotokos, as an alternative, arguing that Mary was only the mother of his human side. By doing this, he made Christ out to be a man, in whom, in Siamese twin fashion, the divine and human natures were combined in a mechanical union rather than in an organic union of natures. Christ was in essence only a perfect man who was morally linked to deity. He was a God-bearer rather than the God-man. The leaders at the Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned this doctrine. Yet the followers of Nestorius continued their work in the eastern half of the empire and carried their version of the gospel to Persia, India and even China in 635.

Enter into the fray, Pope Leo I also known as “the Great” due to his talent, seriousness, and dedication and because of his lasting importance in the history of Christian thought. His driving goal in doctrine as well as church order was to secure stability in an age of fragmentation. Leo’s response to this controversy, known as his Tome, took a straightforward response: Jesus was a single person with two natures. Leo walked a tightrope that many had fallen off of. Each form of Christ as God and man “carries on its proper activities in communication with the other.” With these words, Leo kept together distinctiveness of natures along with unity of person. This later became a cornerstone of the definition at Chalcedon.

After intense debate, the emperor Marcian himself read aloud the definition formulated on October 25, 451:

Following the holy fathers, we confess with one voice that the one and only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, and that he has a rational soul and a body. He is of one substance with the Father as God, he is also of one substance with us as man. He is like us in all things except sin. He has begotten of his Father before the ages as God, but in these last days and for our salvation he was born of Mary the virgin, the theotokos, as man. This one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-Begotten is made known in two natures which exist without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. The distinction of the nature in no way taken away by their union, but rather the distinctive properties of each nature are preserved. Both natures unite into one person and one hypostasis, that is substance. They are not separated or divided into two persons, but they form one and the same Son, Only-begotten, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets of old have spoken concerning him and as the Lord Jesus Christ has taught us and as the creeds of the fathers has delivered to us.

Chalcedon had important theological consequences. Of first importance was the way the balanced statement of Chalcedon articulated fundamental Christian doctrine. It reflected the teachings of the New Testament with commendable caution. In a way, it constructed a fence within which further reflection upon the person could continue. Whatever else might be said, it was always necessary to affirm Christ as one person with two natures. Getting questions right about the personhood of Jesus Christ was important because Christ and what he did were of immeasurable significance. Chalcedon preserved room for further thought on the person of Christ while it gave reassurance for the great work of salvation this Son of God  performed.

Second, Chalcedon marked the successful translation of the Christian faith out of its Jewish context (where words and concepts were shaped mainly by the Old Testament) into the Hellenistic (Greek) context (where words and concepts were shaped mainly by Greek thought and Roman might). For the Greek world, what occurred at the Council of Chalcedon could not be more important. Chalcedon showed that the heart of the gospel message could be preserved even in new conceptual language. The terms ousia, hypostatis, substantia, and persona are not found in scripture and the biblical world has very little connection to the conceptual worlds in which these terms arose. “Yet Chalcedon showed that the message of God becoming incarnate to effect the salvation of his people was a message that could be heard distinctly, adequately, and powerfully in precisely these extrascriptural terms and within that non-Judaic intellectual milieu.” (Noll)

Lastly, Chalcedon was not Pentecost. But because it faithfully synthesized scriptural history, the people of the Greek world could now hear the “wonders of God” in their own tongue. Because Chalcedon’s work faithfully translated scriptural teaching, Greeks would now express those wonders of the Lord God in its own conceptual terms. This synthesis and translation would need to happen again and again.

The Definition of Chalcedon retains its momentous importance not just because it is such a skillful and well-balanced statement. It also faithfully represents the reality about which it speaks. We Christians can live in the world and for the glory of God we serve and worship, because the fact of one “person” can coexist with the fact of two “natures” because it really happened, as the apostle John attests, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)

 

Prayer & Work Together: The Rule of St. Benedict

St._Benedict_St. Benedict (540-604) lived in central Italy during the fifth and sixth centuries. He was born in the town of Nursia and as a young man he went to Rome for his education. The young Benedict was appalled by the secularism and hedonism that he saw. He then went into the mountains and spent some time as a hermit in a cave. His way of life and the healing miracles he performed attracted followers. Benedict was asked to be an abbot of a local monastery, but his strict rule soon led to the monks attempting to kill him. They first tried to poison his drink but when he picked up the cup the cup shattered. The monks then tried to poison his food but a raven flew in the window and snatched the bread and carried it off. The wise Benedict then left that monastery. This is most likely the reason why Benedict is some depicted with a raven.

He went on to found a string of twelve monasteries including Subiaco and most famously at Monte Cassino. It was at Monte Cassino that he wrote his famous Rule. Like earlier rules for monastic life, it depended on earlier sources such as the desert fathers but also benefited from his own wisdom and experience.

With genuine humility he called it ” a minimum Rule for beginners” and a “school for the service of the Lord” and he hoped that it would lead faithful disciples to the “loftier heights of doctrine and virtue” of other monastic authorities. The wise and humble monk wrote nothing else. His contemporaries took no note of him, at least not enough for him to be mentioned in any document of the time. What we know of his life and work comes from Book II of the sixth century Dialogues of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, which Gregory says came from the testimony of contemporaries and near contemporaries of the recently dead abbot saint.

When it comes to St. Francis, one is drawn by the stories told of him which are known to Franciscan and non-Franciscan alike. They are great stories about how he embraced the leper, stripped himself of his garments, rebuilt the ruined church, gathered disciples, journeyed to the Holy Land and received the stigmata. But stories is not how Benedict is known. Gregory tells how we are drawn to the abbot:

“With all the renown he gained by his numerous miracles, the holy man was no less outstanding for the wisdom of his teaching. He wrote a Rule for monks that is remarkable for its discretion and its clarity of language. Anyone who wishes to know more about his life and character can discover in his Rule exactly what he was like as an abbot, for his life could not have differed from his teaching.”

Benedict was thoroughly immersed in the two hundred years of monastic tradition that preceded him and reflects it in his Rule. St. Benedict would not have seen himself as an innovator. His way was simply the monastic way. His work was to codify that way for his own community and other communities which might find his way helpful. Innovator or not, his version of the monastic tradition “was so imbued with his own wise personality that it won an acceptance which would eventually eclipse all other monastic rules.” Above all, his way was marked by moderation in all things. It was the simplicity of a life lived in common, reticence in speech, humble obedience to a spiritual master, the willingness to allow personal ambition and career to be set aside for the good of the community, work and prayer and a discipline known as lectio divina.

His Rule is famous for its codifying vows of obedience, stability and conversatio morum (continual conversion). It was noteworthy for its far-sighted concern for what it would take to keep individual monks and entire monastic communities on an even keel. It was also intentionally flexible and could be adapted to different conditions. Yet it was not a manual for slackers. It was clear that even younger members were to join in in the search for perfection. But it was stern for theological reasons. Benedict writes, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods of manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.” His grouping of physical and mental labor together would open the way to the monks’ great contribution to learning that would be sustained almost from the first.

At its core foundation was a commitment to prayer. And the practice of prayer was to mold a life of prayerfulness: “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent…This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge in evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.” But a life of prayer, however, was not to be divorced from a life of service. There were injunctions to care for the visitor, the stranger and the sick. These laid seeds for future charitable work. From such humble beginnings would grow vast monastic enterprises attending to both the body and the soul.

The concluding words of the Rule speak to its judicious and Christ-centered character: “Are you hastening toward your heavenly home? Then with Christ’s help, keep this little Rule written for beginners. After that, you can set out for the loftier summits of the teaching and virtues we mentioned above, and under God’s protection you will reach them.”

Benedict lived at the end of the classical age when Roman civilization had been overrun by barbarian tribes. It was the spiritual sons and daughters of Benedict  who, in the words of Pope Paul VI, “brought Christian culture to the peoples scattered from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Ireland to Poland” and through the law of Christ “brought stability and development to public and private institutions.”

Benedict is still important for us in the modern day. Cardinal Basil Hume says, “The Rule of St. Benedict reminds us that a sense of community has to be created and constantly worked at.” He also says that we are to be a “society of people with a shared interest in each other’s welfare.” This relates to what Benedict says about good zeal: “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.” And this applies to everyone. There were to be no elite or exclusiveness in the monastery. The abbot was not to show favoritism. Benedict wrote that the abbot “is to show equal love to everyone.” An abbot is to work for the good of the whole community. This also ties into the Benedictine virtue of hospitality: the monastery is to be open to all and all guests are to be welcomed as Christ himself. We are to have respect and reverence for one another. Brother Tvedten writes, “Being Benedictine means trying a little harder to show the courtesy of love for one another, to see Christ in the people with whom we live, work, and pray and to look for him even in the people with whom we disagree. The Rule has endured because it was written for people who want to dwell together in unity in the midst of their diversity. It was written for people who want to be family, community.”

In closing, there is a prayer that speaks well: “Almighty God, by whose grace St. Benedict. kindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and a shining light in the church; inflame us with the same spirit of discipline and love, that we may walk before you as children of light, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”