As Iron Sharpens Iron

An ongoing and online discussion between: an Orthodox informed Ecumaniac without a denominational home, an ordained Baptist youth pastor with an open mind, a Calvinist worship leader/seminarian with a staggering vocabulary and ability to make a point, and a cradle Catholic with a love/hate relationship to Rome.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Cappadocian Fathers and Immanuel Kant

Anyone who tries to describe the ineffable Light in language is truly a liar – not because he hates the truth but because of the inadequacy of his description.
- St. Gregory of Nyssa (c.330 – c.395)

Some of our discussions have made me think of two topics. The first is Apophatic Theology and the second is Experiential Theology. They are both related, so I'll write about each.

Apophatic Theology is the process of not saying what God is, but rather, what He is not. Likewise, those attributes that He is are known to be beyond our understanding. Ultimately, we can't know God in His fullness. The quote above touches on that, as does this excerpt from the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston:
The Eastern Church approaches God from an apophatic point of view…a negation that describes what God is not. In other words, while the West says “God is love, good, holy, etc”, the East says, “Yes, God is love, good, holy, etc.; yet He is beyond love, good, holiness, etc. as we comprehend these terms.” God is beyond our imagination, beyond our scope of understanding, beyond any manner of human description. God understands us; we do not understand Him. But through His love, mercy, compassion and grace, He allows the Holy Spirit to work in us and to allow us a miniscule taste of the experience of His Holy Presence.
Here is where I get stuck, and where my dialogue with Edwin has been difficult. Adam and Eve did walk in the Garden in a state of purity and innocence. St. Gregory of Nyssa said that, despite that, they had not achieved the fullness of what God wanted for them. The Incarnation would have occurred regardless to take us to the next level, the one where we have union with God in greater fullness. This fullness is sometimes believed to have been witnessed at the Transfiguration when Moses and Elijah were with Christ, each shining with such holiness that the disciples had to shield their eyes. This was post-Incarnation.

But this also happened pre-Incarnation with Moses when he saw the back of God and spoke with Him. His face glowed such that he had to veil it. I could explain this away by saying that the Incarnation went into effect as soon as man fell, but I'm not sure. But here's the key to each of these. This is not a super "understanding" of God in the gnostic sense, but an experiential walking with God which rendered them glorified.

Back to philosophy, and something I've written about before. Immanuel Kant wrote about Ding an Sich or Things in Themselves. We don't know a quarter in itself. It looks silver, but we receive that by our senses and, thus, don't truly know its color. We think it round, but our vision can be distorted, thus, we do not know its true shape. We know the quarter AS WE EXPERIENCE IT, but not AS IT IS. It is the same with God. We know Him as we experience Him, but not as He is.

The Cappadocian Fathers; Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa; addressed the question of how it is possible for humans to have knowledge of a transcendent and unknowable God. They (especially Nyssa) drew a distinction between knowing God in His essence (Greek ousia) and knowing God in His energies (Greek energeiai), although workings or activities is probably a more appropriate English translation, since it avoids the esoteric connotations the word energies has acquired today. They maintained the orthodox doctrine that it remains impossible to know God in His essence (to know who God is in and of Himself), but possible to know God in His energies (to know what God does, and who He is in relation to the creation and to man), as God reveals himself to humanity.

So the Orthodox (again, I apologize for blithely expressing this in terms of West and East) don't seek the Scholastic "understanding" of God, but the "experience" of God. Here's the thing that I find somehwat paradoxical in Orthodox theology. They insist on unity of Faith in much more depth than, it seems, any other Christian branch in order to be considered part of the Body. In that sense, it must be known and believed in a corporate manner. Yet, in its most full expression, Orthodox theology is about a very personal, inexpressible, walking with God which changes the walker in a way that cannot be known corporately. This is evidenced by Western and Eastern understanding of the word theology. Western theology, as popularly concieved, is an almost academic undertaking. An atheist can know Western theology as well as a Christian. Yet, in the East, this is not possible as theology entails the understanding that comes from the relationship, something that cannnot be shared. A quote from the later Cloud of Unknowing, influenced by St. Denis (whose works Aaron knows well) expressed this nicely:
Our intense need to understand will always be a powerful stumbling block to our attempts to reach God in simple love, and must always be overcome. For if you do not overcome this need to understand, it will undermine your quest. It will replace the darkness which you have pierced to reach God with clear images of something which, however good, however beautiful, however Godlike, is not God. And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.
In an entirely different thread, let me know how you fare on these tests:

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Friday, January 27, 2006

A New Take on Hell

I found this quote in C. Plantinga, Jr.'s Not the Way it's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. It is a quote from Professor Henry Stob, a Reformed theologian, and comes from an article entitled "Sin, Salvation, Service." I think it mirrors Pauper Frater's understanding of the relationship between God's holiness and human sin in quite an uncanny way, considering its provenance. Enjoy.

Hell in the either very hot or very cold, depending on whether the sinner is perceived as a rebel or an alien. In either case hell is not a divine creation. Hell is made by those who climb the holy mountain and try to unseat the Holy One who, ablaze with glory, dwells in the light unapproachable. Those who mount an attack on God and cross the barrier of his exclusive divinity die like moths in the flame of him who will not and cannot be displaced. And hell is made by those who, turning their backs on God, flee the light and move toward the eternal blackness that marks God's absence. Hell, then, is unarrested sin's natural and programmatic end. Sin is either rebellion or flight, and, when persisted in, leads either to the fiery furnace or to the cold and desolate night.

Strong stuff.
Sir R.F. Burton

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Hymn of Thanksgiving

I have a Coptic friend whose parish (they're all English) are struggling with Coptic hymnody. This is an attempt to render the Prayer of Thanksgiving (said during the Hours, which he is trying to do daily) more accessible. I envision it sung to the same tune as Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise. The original prayer and my version are below. I split it into six sections of four lines and attempted to convert each section into a verse. It was all done in about fifteen minutes, so forgive it if it's terrible.

We thank thee, benificent, merciful God
Thou, father of Jesus, our Savior and Lord
For shielding us, saving us, kept in his power
As loved and supported we're brought to this hour.

Keep us in Your Peace, Lord, on this holy day
And all of the rest of our life in your way
In every condition we offer our praise,
In any condition for all of our days.

Our armour, deliverer, Lover of men
Our keeper, supporter, forgiver of sin
The hours of this day and the days of this year
We ask to complete in all peace with Thy fear.

All envy, tempation, all Satanic sway
The intrigue of enemies, all wicked ways
Remove from your people by Your tender Grace
And from this, Your dwelling, your high, holy place.

For that which is praisworthy, all things of worth
Provide them, we ask of You, Lord of the Earth.
On serpents and sin by Your Will we have trod
So lead us on right paths, delivering God.

Through grace and compassion and love of all men
Thy only Begotten killed death and crushed sin
Thou with Him are due honor, glory and praise
One God with the Spirit 'till the end of days.


Let us give thanks unto the Beneficent and Merciful God,
the Father of our Lord, God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
For He has shielded us, rescued us, kept us, accepted us unto Him,
had compassion on us, supported us, and brought us unto this hour.

Let us ask Him also, to keep us this holy day
and all the days of our life in all peace, the Almighty Lord our God.
O Master, Lord, God Almighty, Father of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ;
we thank Thee upon every condition, for any condition, and in whatever condition.

For Thou hast shielded us, rescued us, kept us, accepted us unto Thee,
had compassion on us, supported us and brought us unto this hour.
Therefore we ask and entreat Thy goodness, O Lover-of-man,
grant us to complete this holy day, and all the days of our life in all peace with Thy fear.

All envy, all temptation, all the influence of Satan,
the intrigue of wicked people, the rising up of enemies, hidden and manifest,
take away from us, and from all Thy people,
and from this, Thy holy place.

But as for those things which are good and useful provide us with them.
For Thou art the One who gave us the authority to
trample on serpents and scorpions and every power of the enemy.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one,

through the grace, compassion and love of man,
of Thine only begotten Son, our Lord, God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Through whom glory, honor, dominion, and worship
befit Thee with Him and the Holy Spirit, the lifegiver who is of one essence with Thee,
both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Pacifism and the Church

I've noted that among conservative, traditional churches (those which keep some semblance of Christianity), it seems that only the Roman Catholic Church has taken a real stand for peace. Sure, they have written about just war and such, but the general consensus seems to be avoid war whenever possible. I contrast this with the Orthodox (who have liturgical prayers blessing weapons and soldiers), Baptists, "Orthodox" Presbyterians and such who seem to see war as blessed by God. Conversely, those churches that play fast and loose with Christianity (ECUSA, ELCA, PCUSA, UMC) seem to be at the forefront of the peace movements.

I admit, it gives me pause to consider my own pacifist stance.

Theosis and Corinthians

I would like your take on 1 Corinthians 15, especially the following verses:
1Cr 15:45: And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam [was made] a quickening spirit.
1Cr 15:49: And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Hate and Love of God are the Same

How is it possible for the following to both be true:
  1. God is always loving, gracious and merciful to sinners
  2. God is always just, lawful and hates sin
God is like rubbing alcohol. When you have a diseased cut, you might pour it in. What will happen, simultaneously, is terrible pain and healing. The pain is the death of the disease as the alcohol kills it. The healing is that same death, that same pain.

The key is to understand evil as the Socratic (and, yes, Augustinian) "absence of God."

What is dryness but the absence of moisture.
What is cold but the absence of heat.
What is darkness but the absence of light.
In what way is rain or sun violent? Because, by their nature, they destroy (respetively) dryness, cold and darkness. We could say the Sun had clobbered the darkness, or banished or scattered it, but that wouldn't be correct, technically, since there was nothing there to be clobbered or banished or scattered. The Sun "annihilated" darkness just by infusing it with what it lacked: light.

What is death but the absence of life?
What is unbelief but the absence of faith?
What are lies but the absence of Truth?
What is hate but the absence of Love?
How does He smash death? By providing Immortality.
How does He end unbelief and lies? By providing that Truth which gives faith.
How does He cure hatred? By loving us so much we are moved (and enabled!) to love Him back, and to lover one another. ("We love Him because He first loved us.")
How does God "cobber" the gracelessness in this world? By bringing the world His Grace.
How does He counter ignorance? By coming to teach us and show us.
That's how His gracious Presence is reconciled with His hostility to evil: they are one and the same.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Ancient Celtic Prayer to Archangels

May Gabriel be with me on Sundays, and the power of the King of Heaven.
May Gabriel be with me always that evil may not come to me nor injury.

Michael on Monday I speak of, my mind is set on him,
Not with anyone do I compare him but with Jesus, Mary's son.
(Sts. Michael and Gabriel are pictured right)

If it be Tuesday, Raphael I mention, until the end comes, for my help.
One of the seven whom I beseech, as long as I am on the field of the world.

May Uriel be with me on Wednesdays, the abbot with high nobility,
Against wound and against danger, against the sea of rough wind.
(Sts. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael are pictured right)

Sariel on Thursday I speak of, against the swift waves of the sea,
Against every evil that comes to a man, against every disease that seizes him.

On the day of the second fast, Rumiel -- a clear blessing --
I have loved, I say only the truth, good the friend I have taken.

May Panchel be with me on Saturdays, as long as I am in the
yellow-coloured world, May sweet Mary, together with her friend, deliver me from strangers.
(All seven archangels are pictured right)

May the Trinity protect me! May the Trinity defend me!
May the Trinity save me from every hurt, from every danger.

Troparion of the Holy Archangels:
Let us praise Cherubim, Seraphim, Thrones, Powers, Authorities and Principalities, Dominions, Archangels and Angels for they are the Bodiless ministers of the Unoriginate Trinity and revealers of incomprehensible mysteries. Glory to Him Who has given you being; glory to Him Who has given you light; glory to Him Who is praised by you in thrice-holy hymns.

Friday, January 13, 2006


The What Would Jesus Do slogan is pretty irrelevant because Jesus consistently does the unexpected and miraculous. Behind on your taxes? Catch a fish and pay with the money in its mouth. At a party and the beer has run out? Make some more on the spot. Vendors are cheating churchgoers? Overturn their tables and whip them out of the building. Dead? Arise in three days! These aren't actions any of us are equipped to try at home. A better rule of life would be "What wold the saints do?" They're the ones who, with no guarantee of miraculous intervention, humbled themselves in imitation of Christ.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


These are two comments made on another thread. The topic they open is large enough to warrant a new post with separate comments.

Hajiburton said...

Dear PF,

I'm interested in your comment about theosis. Where does it come from? It reminds me of what might be a parallel concept in monastic theology, which lies at the heart of early western mysticism (i.e., non-visionary, non-passion obsessed, associated with Gregory, Augustine, and Bernard). It is the concept of "deification," (lat. deificare), which is not becoming God, but becoming one in willing and affection with God- it is the experience of Union which "consummation" epitomizes as regards the individual soul, and which all true Christian mystical experiences prefigure here below. I encountered it in Bernard, but he received it from Gregory (I think). You might look for it in Bernard's Sermons on the Song of Songs 71.9.

Sir R.F. Burton

Pauper Frater said...

St. Athanasius of Alexandria said, "The Son of God became man, that we might become God." Right of the bat, you can see that the Incarnation will play a much larger role in Orthodoxy. In their conception, the Incarnation was not needed because we fell. It would have happened anyway. God didn't just want to return us to our pre-Fall state. He wanted to do something more, and had planned that something from the beginning.

So how do we "become God" without becoming God, as it were. Palamas made a distinction between God's Essence and His energies. We cannot become one with God in His Essence. Rather, we become one with His energies.

Thus, we must struggle in addition to our faith. We struggle to attain that union. In the terms I grew up with, it's more about Sanctification than Justification. The latter is kind of a by-product of the former. But the common conception of Sanctification is not sufficient to describe Theosis. It's much more. My guess is that most Protestants would be quite uncomfortable with it.

Ecumanaically yours,

Pater Noster and Authority

I was telling someone about the txt version of the Pater Noster, when I stumbled on an interesting debate which kind of relates to the primacy of Scripture over tradition. It centers around the Greek word Epiousios. The flexibility of Greek allows several translations for this word, some which imply taking no thought for tomorrow, some which imply looking to the future, and some which imply Eucharistic meaning.

For me, of course, this leads to the larger question of Authority. When there are multiple translations which promote different takes on doctrinal issues, whose interpretation do you trust? Or, as I said before, without an infallble AND inerrant AND authoritative interpreter, does it matter if the source document is itself any of those?

Further, is it absolutely necessary for there to be some infallible, inerrant, authoritative source? We all seem to be suffering from the fallacious Appeal to Authority. We all accept that Christ IS the Authority and the full Revelation. So what you'll notice is that each of the traditions connects their secondary authority to Christ. For Protestants the Bible is (and this really bothers me) called The Word of God. Catholics have THE Vicar of Christ. Orthodox have their councils. In each tradition, there are those who say their source is, and must be, both infallible, inerrant and authoritative. So I point to the councils and you point to the Bible and he points to the Pope and, again, we're stuck.

I ask again, is it necessary?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006



What is God? Where is God. And of whom is God?
And where is God's dwelling place?
Does your God have sons and daughters?
Has he gold and silver? Is he immortal?
Is he beautiful?
Have many people fostered his son?
Are his daughters beautiful and beloved of men?

Is he in heaven or on earth?
Or on the plain?
In what manner does he come to us?
In the mountains? In the glens?
Is he young or old?
Tell us of him, in what manner is he seen?


Our God is the God of all men, the God of Heaven and Earth,
of seas and rivers, of Sun and Moon and stars,
of high mountains and deep valleys,
the God over Heaven and in Heaven and on Earth,
and in the sea and in all that is therein.
He informs all these things, he brings life to all things,
he surpasses all things, he sustains all things.
He gives light to the Sun, and to the Moon by night.
He makes fountains in the dry land and islands in the seas,
and he sets the stars in their places.
He has a Son, co-eternal with himself and in his own likeness.
Neither is the Son younger than the Father,
nor the Father older than the Son.
And the Holy Spirit breathes in them.
The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit cannot be divided.
In truth I wish to unite you to the Heavenly King,
you who until now are the daughters of an earthly king.

- Taken from St. Patrick's conversion of the princesses


An Interesting Quote

Abba Xanthias said, "The thief was on the cross and he was justified by a single word; and Judas who was counted in the number of the apostles lost all his labor in one single night and descended from heaven to hell. Therefore let no one boast of his good works, for all those who trust in themselves fall."

Monday, January 09, 2006


It occurs to me that our discussions are hampered because one might say, "The Bible says this" and I reply, "Well, the Church says this". Why does this matter? Because we have to agree, somewhat, on our source of Truth before we can appeal to it in our debates. I think we all agree that God is Truth, but we also believe that He is faithful in transmitting Himself to us. Thus, Christian Epistemology is how we know what we know.

I'm going to post all the links to my and Josh's debates over this. However, my position can be ultimately summarized thusly. IF we can trust that the Council was faithfully led by God in choosing the Canon of Scripture, THEN shouldn't we trust them in other matters, like their interpretation of those selfsame Scriptures? And IF our interpretation doesn't match up with what they were saying (as a whole, not individually), THEN should we question whether our interpretation is a good one?

Finally, before moving on, I tried to represent Catholic, Orthodox and my own viewpoints here. I probably did a poor job of each. Fra Edwin will correct me on the RC take and I'll do my best to be faithful to the Orthodox take.

Christian Epistemology

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Theodicy vis: the Justice of God

Dear PF,

It is an interesting opinion you have posted, and all the more interesting because it does not seem to come from someone who hates, but one who loves, God. All the same, the sense of the comments has the smell of foolishness.
The parable of the workers is an interesting case in point to argue for God's injustice (in our favor). However, the master's response is telling: "is your eye evil, because I am good?"

The evil eye, in 1st century Jewish culture, is not an idiom expressing demon-possession, etc, but one which countenances greed. An evil, or bad eye (kakos) is a greedy, or stingy eye. The master reproves the malcontented worker for his greed, which has entered into him because he perceived the goodness (here, generosity) of the master. The first lesson to be learned from this curt response is this:
God is Good. He is the standard. He is not another character on the stage whose actions may be evaluated, but the Absolute against which all other actions are evaluated. He is Truth, and there is no reason, no righteousness, and no justice apart from Him. It is a common sickness of the modern mind to imagine that these elements in society are derived from conceptual forms or even common consent. Yet the Biblical authors did not believe anything of the kind. To question God's justice is like questioning whether a meter is really 100 cm long, or whether 1 = 1. God is the standard, and what he does is just. It remains to the wise to seek to understand Him, since his ways are far from self-explanatory.

In fact, it is the perplexing of God's actions in the world that gives rise to this parable. Jesus is speaking, of course, against the indignation of Jews that the Gentiles, who have not "known God's name" are being included in God's covenant promises in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. The problem is not that the Jews are receiving less than they deserve (the worker in the story is paid a day's wage), but that the Gentiles are receiving more than they deserve. And here is the core of the author's contention, in claiming that, in being merciful to us through Jesus Christ, God is unjust.

The Old Testament vocabulary of justice is one of even measures, and honest scales. It is a justice, receiving what is due to one. However, when it is a question of whether one should receiving more blessing than is one's due, there is never any thought that justice is repressed by liberality- those are the ravings of a mind infected with late 20th-century bureacratic thinking- in a word- with an evil eye.

To receive more than one's due of punishment is cruel. God will mete out the "full measure" of his wrath. To receive less than one's due of reward is cruel. God despises "unjust scales." To receive less than one's due of punishment is unjust. God always punishes sin, and never fails to do so. (Of course, the punishment has fallen on Christ for those that trust Him). But to receive more than one's due of reward is mercy, kindness, liberality, grace- but never injustice. The only reason to imply injustice in a case of generosity is to suppose that others had received less to provide the extra measure- and can we accuse God of stealing salvation from the Jews in order to give it to the Gentiles? No. Romans argues out what the parable states succinctly- the worker who works is paid.

With generosity,
Sir R.F. Burton

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Prayer for the New Year