Alvin Rapien recently asked me if I would be willing to be interviewed (via email). How could I say no‽ He posted the interview on his website, The Poor in Spirit, last week. Alvin (strong first name!) has interviewed a number of folks, including my good friend Fr Stephen Freeman, and I’m delighted to be included among them. Here is the interview for those who might have missed it:
1) Who are your greatest influences?
On a theological level, I would have to say that over the past forty years C. S. Lewis (Anglican), Thomas F. Torrance (Reformed), Robert W. Jenson (Lutheran), and Fr Alexander Schmemann (Orthodox) have influenced me most deeply. I am a voracious reader. I have read many (too many) theologians, yet I keep coming back to these four. When I am working on a blog article, I often find myself reaching for one of their books.
On a spiritual, personal level, I have to mention Fr James Daughtry, the Episcopal priest who sent me to seminary. He was my mentor and remains an inspiration in my life.
2) What books are you reading and why?
I spent much of May, June, and July working my way through Sergius Bulgakov’s The Bride of the Lamb. I had skimmed the chapters on eschatology about a year ago and knew that when the time was right I would need to tackle the entire book. Bulgakov is a remarkable theologian. Early last spring I read and blogged on the last volume of Dumitru Staniloae’s dogmatics. His discussion of eternal damnation depressed me to no end. That is when I knew the time had come for me to tackle Bride of the Lamb.
I have long believed, professed, and taught the unconditional love and mercy of God. Bulgakov’s God—who is simply, of course, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—never abandons the creatures he has made in his Image, no matter how wicked and sinful they have become. Even in the depths of hell, he searches for his lost sheep. He never gives up on any of us. He is always knocking on the doors of our hearts, always looking for opportunities to restore us to himself in repentance and faith. Bulgakov does not deny the possibility that we can cut ourselves off from our Creator and thus condemn ourselves to the hellish pit of our egoism; but he believes that God’s mercy and grace will ultimately prove irresistible—not in a coercive or manipulative way but in a way that pierces our delusions and reveals to us our deepest truth. And our deepest truth is this: we are made for God and he alone is our supreme good and happiness. Isn’t this the gospel? What other good news is worth preaching? I recommend to your readers, Alvin, my blog series on Bulgakov’s eschatology.
3) You state that your spiritual journey has taken you from Anglicanism, to Catholicism, and you are now in the Eastern Orthodox Church. What were the transitions like on a personal and theological level?
This is a difficult and painful question for me to answer, but succinctly the story is this:
After 25 years as a parish priest in the Episcopal Church, I found that I could no longer, in good conscience, summon anyone into its communion. It had become a church I no recognized as orthodox and catholic. I just could not remain. Waiting for retirement was not an option.
For me there were only two Churches open to me—Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. After much prayer, reading, and soul-searching, I decided to enter into the Roman Catholic Church. It was a hard and close decision. Looking back on it now, I think two elements weighted my decision—the writings of John Henry Newman and the opportunity to continue my priestly ministry. We moved to Newark, New Jersey, and I began work as a college chaplain with the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark.
After two years my wife and I began to see that we had made a terrible mistake. My conversion to Catholicism had largely occurred in my head with my books. I knew very little about the Catholic Church on the ground level. Speaking only for myself, I increasingly came to realize that I could not spiritually survive in the Catholic Church. With the generous support of the Archdiocese, we packed up our belongings and moved to Southern Virginia. Eventually we entered into the Orthodox Church.
What have these transitions been like? On a personal level—difficult, humbling, painful. On a theological level, educative. When I decided to become Orthodox I knew that I needed to immerse myself in the Church Fathers. Readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy know that I have blogged at great, and no doubt boring, length on the Cappadocians, St Gregory of Nazianzus in particular. Two years ago I also discovered the homilies of St Isaac the Syrian, which, quite frankly, were a godsend (especially homilies 38-41 of the Second Part).
4) Some people may be suspicious that an Orthodox priest reads Protestant scholarship. Why do you think it’s important to read Western, non-Orthodox scholarship?
I do not know if there’s a definitive answer to this question. I think it depends on the person and where he or she is in their spiritual life. If one is new to Orthodoxy, it might well be best to restrict oneself to Orthodox writings, at least for a good while. Orthodoxy is a deep and profound tradition. One cannot fathom its mysteries in multiple life-times, much less one. We must use our reading time wisely.
But if one is a preacher of the gospel or just interested in reflecting seriously on theological questions (as opposed to engaging in fruitless polemics), then one simply must include Western theologians in one’s reading. If I desire to increase my knowledge of Holy Scripture, why would I avoid wonderful biblical scholars like N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, or Raymond Brown? And if I desire to tackle dogmatic theology, how can I not read and learn from great theologians like Karl Barth or Hans Urs von Balthasar? Does Orthodoxy hold a monopoly on truth? Does it have nothing to learn from fellow Christians beyond its canonical boundaries? Of course, all theologians must be read critically; but this qualification also applies to Eastern theologians, whether it be Met John Zizioulas, Fr Georges Florovsky, Fr Sergius Bulgakov, or Fr John Romanides. I try to learn something, and hopefully many things, from every theologian I read. There are also many theologians (Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic) that I choose not to read.
5) What is the most important thing to you about the Orthodox Church?
The Divine Liturgy! The Holy Eucharist has been central to my faith since my conversion to Christ in 1975. I cannot imagine my life apart from communion with Christ Jesus in his Body and Blood. My faith has always been deeply sacramental and liturgical. In Orthodoxy I find this faith fulfilled. It’s stepping onto holy ground.
I also experience in Orthodoxy, at least in its best expressions, a theological and spiritual wholeness. I love how Scripture, liturgy, theology, and prayer interweave and cohere. This experienced wholeness, which is the wholeness of the Kingdom, encourages and sustains me with the promise that I too will one day be perfectly healed and made whole.
6) Theology, as you’ve mentioned elsewhere, has been deeply important to you on a personal level. How has theology helped you?
Theology has been deeply important to me, but sometimes I wonder if it’s been more a curse than a blessing. It is scandalously true, however, that I prefer hard theology over spiritual writings. This probably says something negative about the state of my soul, but I take consolation in the fact that C. S. Lewis also found it to be true for himself:
For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.
To give you an example, I remember reading Robert W. Jenson’s The Triune Identity back in the early ’80s. One sentence jumped out at me: “Christians bespeak God in a triune coordinate system; they speak to the Father, with the Son, in the Spirit, and only so bespeak God.” Now that sentence will probably not mean much to anyone reading this interview, yet at the time it deeply impacted me: I suddenly understood that all worship and prayer—and indeed all living—happens in God—and not just in any ole God but in the Father, Son, and Spirit.
I hope that my theological reading and reflection has helped me to be a better preacher and therefore has been a benefit to my former parishioners. I hope it has informed my homilies and given them greater substance. Not that I have ever preached on arcane theological questions. The overwhelming majority of my homilies have been expository and kerygmatic in nature. Who wants to hear a sermon on the filioque or the scholastic doctrine of created grace. I sure don’t. Preaching is proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not Theology 101. But reading theology has helped me in important ways to connect the biblical story with the trinitarian life of God. As I said, I hope it’s been a blessing to my parishioners. If I’m suddenly inundated with emails from folks telling me how I bored them to tears, I’m going to be very disappointed.
7) On your blog, you have a page entitled “Readings in Universalism.” You have wrestled with this topic in many of your articles, staying within the bounds of Orthodox theology. What do you say to those that claim it is a heresy?
Thank you for asking this question and for suggesting that my blog reflections have stayed “within the bounds of Orthodox theology.” Many Orthodox would disagree with your charitable assessment.
Let me respond to the question of heresy in an odd way—namely, by quoting a canon law from the Roman Catholic Church: “No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated” (749.3). In my experience Christians who comment on the internet are often too free in delivering anathemas, particularly when it comes to the universalist hope. Often they do so with only superficial acquaintance with the theological Tradition. But one should never mistake a private opinion, or even a common, popular opinion, for irreformable dogma. Before someone accuses anyone of heresy, that someone had better be darn sure he or she is on solid ground.
When presented with the universalist hope, Protestants will typically quote their favorite biblical proof-texts. Orthodox and Roman Catholics, on the other hand, will typically invoke the Fifth Ecumenical Council, citing the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas. What no one mentions is that historians over the past few centuries have seriously questioned whether these anathemas were ever officially promulgated by II Constantinople. The council was convened by the Emperor Justinian for the express purpose of dealing with the Three Chapters. Not only is there no mention of the apocatastasis controversy in Justinian’s letter to the bishops, but the fifteen anathemas are neither cited nor discussed in the official records of the council. Hence when church historian Norman P. Tanner edited his collection of the Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (published in 1990), he did not include the anti-Origenist anathemas, offering the following explanation: “Our edition does not include the text of the anathemas against Origen since recent studies have shown that these anathemas cannot be attributed to this council.”
Who then wrote the anathemas and when? Over the past century different hypotheses have been advanced, but historians appear to have settled on the following scenario, first proposed by Wilhelm Diekamp in 1899 and more recently advanced by Richard Price in his book The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553 (published in 2009): the anathemas were most likely composed by Justinian and his advisors and submitted for approval to the bishops who had come to Constantinople for the council. This probably occurred sometime before the council formally convened on 5 May 553. We do not know how long before the council this meeting took place (days? weeks? months?) nor do we know who attended; but one thing is clear—the Emperor wanted the anathemas cloaked with conciliar authority. We may confidently affirm, therefore, that the 5th Ecumenical Council never officially issued an anathema against apocatastasis. This is not just my private opinion. It is shared by many historians, as well as by Met Kallistos Ware and Met Hilarion Alfeyev.
But let’s assume, if only for debate purposes, that the Council did issue the fifteen anathemas. There would still remain the challenging question of interpretation. Not all universalisms are the same! Just as there are both heretical and orthodox construals of, say, the atonement, so there are heretical and orthodox construals of the universalist hope. There is a critical difference between the apocatastasis of St Gregory of Nyssa—whose name is never mentioned in the anathemas—and the apocatastasis of the 6th century Origenists against whom the anathemas are directed. The views of the latter appear to have been bizarre in many ways. Let me quote a lengthy passage from Met Kallistos Ware:
There is, however, considerable doubt whether these fifteen anathemas were in fact formally approved by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. They may have been endorsed by a lesser council, meeting in the early months of 553 shortly before the main council was convened, in which case they lack full ecumenical authority; yet, even so, the Fathers of the Fifth Council were well aware of these fifteen anathemas and had no intention of revoking or modifying them. Apart from that, however, the precise wording of the first anathema deserves to be carefully noted. It does not speak only about apocatastasis but links together two aspects of Origen’s theology: first, his speculations about the beginning, that is to say, about the preexistence of souls and the precosmic fall; second, his teaching about the end, about universal salvation and the ultimate reconciliation of all things. Origen’s eschatology is seen as following directly from his protology, and both are rejected together.
That the first of the fifteen anathemas should condemn protology and eschatology in the same sentence is entirely understandable, for in Origen’s thinking the two form an integral unity. At the beginning, so he believed, there was a realm of logikoi or rational intellects (noes) existing prior to the creation of the material world as minds without a body. Originally all these logikoi were joined in perfect union with the Creator Logos. Then followed the precosmic fall. With the exception of one logikos (which became the human soul of Christ), all the other logikoi turned away from the Logos and became, depending on the gravity of their deviation, either angels or human beings or demons. In each case they were given bodies appropriate to the seriousness of their fall: light-weight and ethereal in the case of angels; dark and hideous in the case of demons; intermediate in the case of human beings. At the end, so Origen maintained, this process of fragmentation will be reversed. All alike, whether angels, human beings, or demons, will be restored to unity with the Logos; the primal harmony of the total creation will be reinstated, and once more “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Origen’s view is in this way circular in character: the end will be as the beginning.
Now, as we have noted, the first of the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas is directed not simply against Origen’s teaching concerning universal reconciliation, but against his total understanding of salvation history—against his theory of preexistent souls, of a precosmic fall and a final apocatastasis—seen as a single and undivided whole. Suppose, however, that we separate his eschatology from his protology; suppose that we abandon all speculations about the realm of eternal logikoi; suppose that we simply adhere to the standard Christian view whereby there is no preexistence of the soul, but each new person comes into being as an integral unity of soul and body, at or shortly after the moment of the conception of the embryo within the mother’s womb. In this way we could advance a doctrine of universal salvation—affirming this, not as a logical certainty (indeed, Origen never did that), but as a heartfelt aspiration, a visionary hope—which would avoid the circularity of Origen’s view and so would escape the condemnation of the anti-Origenist anathemas.
Many scholars would now question Met Kallistos’s identification of the views of Origen with the views of the 6th century Origenists; but his key point stands: the conciliar anathema against apocatastasis does not apply to construals similar to those of St Gregory of Nyssa or St Isaac the Syrian. The universalist hope is, of course, a minority view within Orthodoxy, but being a minority view does not make it heretical. The Orthodox Church has yet to speak its final dogmatic word on this subject.