How I Study the Bible as an Orthodox Christian.

As an Orthodox Christian I approach the holy scripture in much the same way as my Protestant brothers and sisters do. I believe they are inspired by the Holy Spirit, both in their content and in their canon. I believe they are spiritual, and that they should be approached prayerfully. I believe they are reasonable and can be studied in a rational manner. Proper exegesis and hermeneutic must be applied, and historical context should be considered.

Where I may differ is that I also realize that they can often be interpreted in various ways. I am aware, in fact, that individuals far more learned, and perhaps sincere, than I have come to polar opposite views by appealing to the very same scripture and using rational exegetical and hermeneutical approaches. Because of this, I do not approach the scripture armed first with my own intellect and reasoning. I go there guided by those who have lived the Christian faith, and whose lives are the fruit of it. I read the fathers, and allow them to shape my approach. I give this particular weight when they are in consensus, believing that this is the witness of the Holy Spirit in the Church. I do not hold them infallible, but I do not flippantly dismiss their testimony in favor of my own understanding.

Further, and forthrightly, I cannot believe that the Holy Spirit who inspired the canon failed to inspire the Church in the understanding of it. Thus, when the whole/catholic Church has spoken in agreement, I believe what the Church has bound on earth is bound in heaven. I speak here of the ecumenical symbols of faith, such as the Nicene and Chalcedonian. While some may protest this assertion, I believe such is rational and, in fact, demanded by the scripture and reason.

These things do not restrict my rationality nor force me to cognitive dissonance, rather they provide safety rails as I traverse the, often treacherous, path toward the knowledge of God in Christ that is given so powerfully in holy scripture. I do this precisely because I believe they are God-breathed. No man should take in the breath of God without tremendous gravity. Like the rails and rungs of a ladder, the fathers and the symbols of faith allow me to move upward in understanding. This is how I study the scripture…

Having Not the Spirit …

In the final days of His ministry on earth, with His disciples gathered with Him, Christ told them that they would not be left as orphans. Rather, Christ says, the Spirit of truth “who proceeds from the Father” will come to you and teach you all things. St. Luke gives us more in the prologue to Acts as He has Christ saying to the disciples after His resurrection “but you shall receive power after that the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be witnesses unto me…unto the uttermost part of the earth.” This was fulfilled with thunderous power at the feast of Pentecost, bringing about the birth of the Church and shaking the foundations of history.

Nearly two thousand years later we have modern Christians who, in this way or that, want to deny and limit the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church today. This takes on many forms and is based on many unfortunate ideas. Then end result is the same however, a Church without the Holy Spirit. Perhaps they have forgotten that James told us that a body without the spirit is dead…

The development of this idea is nuanced, and we are compelled to deal with it at its root. Essentially the idea comes from the idea that the scripture alone is the “rule of faith and practice” for the Church. The concept is called sola scriptura and became a major emphasis in the fracture between Rome and early Protestants. The purpose of this stance is to place the writings of the scripture above the authority of the Papacy. In the end, however, it tends to remove the Pope of Rome and make every man his own Pope. This is not to disparage the scripture, which is Holy and Inspired of God, but rather to admit that the scripture has always been in the care of the Church of God. Rather than the scripture alone/sola scripture, prudence, reason and Christian tradition call for prima scriptura or the scripture in first place. To come to a clear and fast point, the same Holy Spirit that gave us the scriptures, gave them to us through the Church. In order to accept the inspiration of the scripture by the Spirit, we must acknowledge that this same Holy Spirit can and has worked through the Church in all ages bringing men into its light. We stand at a crossroads at this point. We must either deny the working of the Holy Spirit in the Church through the ages, or admit that the Spirit abides in the Body of Christ. Sadly, many have taken the former road to the extreme point that they have a Church with no Paraclete, a body with no spirit.

No where is this seen more than in Full Preterist circles.[1] In a recent conversation on social media I was asked whether I believed that the Revelation was the “final testimony of Christ.” To this I adamantly replied no! God forbid! Think of the logical conclusion of such an idea. Paul says to the Romans “how shall they hear without a preacher, and how shall he preach unless he be sent…then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” If the “final witness” was in 70AD, then who could be saved today?

Of course, to this I am sure that they will reply that they refer to a closed canon of scripture. And we do not deny that the canon is closed (but we might ask them when does the canon itself tell us that it is closed? Without the witness of the Spirit through the Church how would they know?) Yet I myself affirm a closed canon of Holy Scripture, but I also just as adamantly affirm the ongoing and ever-present witness of Christ in the life of His Church. In every missionary and evangelist. In every hospital, orphanage and half-way house. In the sacred worship and life of the Church and in the private prayers and devotion of the faithful. In hymns and prayers. In persecution and prosperity. In every time and every age in all of the world, the Gospel is preached and I rejoice. The Holy Spirit is present in every action of the Church – and wherever there is salvation, there is the Church.

Perhaps it is the tendency to reduce the Gospel to ideas and concepts that help foster this unfortunate idea. Perhaps a long history of emphasizing believing the right things, rather than living the right way. Not that what we believe is unimportant (it certainly is), but that Christ says “take up your cross and follow me”. Follow – imitate. Live as I live. Perhaps in such a sterile environment reducing the Gospel and Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ to dusty historical facts seems perfectly natural. Everything is past – fulfilled. And the Holy Spirit confined to prison … like the headless horseman of Ichabod’s night ride, not daring to pass the threshold of 70AD. Ichabod[2] is appropriate to write over such ideas. What does St. Paul say “the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable”! As long as the Church remains in the world, the Tabernacle of God with men, then she will be graced with the Holy Spirit and power. But then perhaps this is why so many deny the Church as well. The 70AD teaching becomes the final resting place of the foul bird of unbelief. No Church, no Holy Spirit and no faith. This is where many have ended up. Shipwrecked on the rocks of error.

I realize the words above are strong, and that there are many teaching the 70AD doctrine that are devout in faith, if misguided in understanding. But I hope to stir you to repentance here. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that if Christ rises not, then our faith is in vain. I challenge that if the Church is no more and the Holy Spirit not with us, then we have no hope in the world. It is time to truly consider the things which we affirm, and turn to sound doctrine from the winds of teachings that toss so many about. May the Lord have mercy…and on me first, the chief of sinners.

[1] Full Preterism is a recent eschatological view that contends that the second advent of Christ is a past event. While some allow some ongoing presence of the Church today, many deny that the Apostolic Church exists beyond 70AD.

[2] In the OT the name Ichabod was said to mean “the Spirit of the Lord has departed.”

The Thousand Years

Adapted from a larger work: They Shall Reign

By William L. Vincent

© 2018 All Rights Reserved

It is important at this point that we discuss the Full Preterist approach to the Thousand Years of Revelation 20. Research and investigation have produced only two such approaches that have any validity or that make any real attempt to deal with the subject. The first one will receive very little of our time, and the reason for this will be forthcoming. This theory is that the Thousand Years begins with the reign of David and continues on until 70AD. While this approach remains consistent to literalism, it has absolutely no other merit and seems absurd and contrived when we look at the actual prophecy. Another reason for our lack of focus on this approach is that it is an extreme minority position. The second approach will receive the bulk of our attention. This is that the Thousand Year reign of Christ is the small segment of 40 years between the crucifixion and the fall of Jerusalem[1]. In all honesty, and with great effort not to be condescending, merely stating this position matter of fact seems to be enough to demonstrate its absurdity.

The defense of such a clearly contrived position originates from the same argument that Preterist-amillennialism appeals to. This being that the number one thousand is symbolic and not a literal number of years. The issue here, however, is not in the use of symbols, but rather how they are used. We do not need to create a symbol to represent something smaller, or more easily grasped, than the symbol. A symbol, by nature, quantifies something more profound than the mere symbol. Yet FPs would have us believe that the phrase “they shall live and reign with Christ a thousand years” in reality means “they lived and reigned with Christ for 40 years.”

            The fact that the FP approach to the Thousand Years is uncompelling is certainly not the lone argument against it. The Preterist hermeneutic and exegesis provides the needed evidence to sit it aside. Essentially what we need to establish is when the Thousand Years begins. In regards to both the Olivet Prophecy and the Revelation, Preterists would assert that it was future, but eminent, to the audience who received them. In particular, they would assert that the primary historical event being predicted is the fall of Jerusalem. This being the case, it seems logical to posit that the events described in Revelation 20 must initiate at, or be in relation to, the fall of Jerusalem. This seems particularly compelling when we consider that the Revelation builds to the judgment of the Great Whore, whom Preterist contend was Jerusalem. If the Thousand Years is initiated in relation to the judgment of Jerusalem, then this means that the events described in the Olivet Prophecy are, in fact, describing the initiation of the Thousand Years, not its end.

It must be noted here that if the fall of Jerusalem relates to the beginning of the Thousand Years, then this necessarily falsifies the Full Preterist claim that all prophecy was fulfilled by 70AD. For at the least we would have prophecy ongoing for a thousand years after the fall of Jerusalem. Thus, if FP is correct in the timing of Revelations, then it is necessarily incorrect in its meaning.

            At this point it will be helpful to look at the Thousand Years, thus Rev 20, exegetically. What we would like to do is to look at the actual content of the prophecy, and determine whether or not it corresponds to the FP assertion (1000yrs = 40yrs), or to the Preterist-amillennialist assertion.

Students of St John’s Revelation know that it is a collection of interrelated visions. While these visions do not follow a chronological sequence, they do tend to progress and build to a climax. Here we will agree with the Preterist position that this climax is the fall of Jerusalem, which the prophecy describes as the Great Whore. At this point we will not spend a great deal of time proving that proposition, as there are numerous works that make that case. We will take for granted, for discussion sake, that the city guilty of the blood of the prophets and Christ is indeed Jerusalem.

The 17th chapter of the Revelation begins a particular vision sequence that builds to the introduction of the Thousand Years, which is related in the 20th chapter. This segment begins with the prophet being invited by an angel to come and see “the verdict upon the Great Whore who sits on many waters”. The pronouncement of sentence continues on until verse 11 of Chapter 18 where there is a transition and the “heavens are opened” and we are shown Christ making war with the gentiles and their kings. We are also told that the beast and kings of the gentiles will make war with the Lamb until He brings them under an iron rule. This segment is distinguished from the previous section in that, while the Great Whore is receiving sentence in the first segment, now Christ and those with Him, focus on bringing the beast, gentiles and kings under subjection. It is also important to note the change in tense. While the Great Whore has been judged, the beast and kings of the gentiles (all who make war with Christ) will be judged in the same way as the Great Whore. What we see then is that the judgment of the Great Whore becomes the opening volley in Christ’s war with all of His enemies. We are assured that the fate of the Great Whore will be that of all enemies of the Lamb. Further, just as those who suffered at the persecution of the Great Whore were rewarded for their faithfulness, those who campaign with Christ will also be rewarded.

This leads us into the 20th chapter where an angel descends and binds the adversary who has been “deceiving the gentiles.” The previous segment has told us precisely who was working to deceive the gentiles, and now this power is bound with a great chain. We cannot help but think here of St Paul’s words in Ephesians 4 “he took captives, and bestowed gifts upon men.” This, in fact, is just what Rev 20 describes, the Serpent is taken captive – bound, and those who had suffered were rewarded. In fact, it says here that the martyrs were “given judgment”. This is important because early in the Revelation the martyrs had not yet received judgment and were told to wait until the rest of the brothers had spilled martyrs blood (6:9-11). Yet here they are given judgment. If the climax of this prophecy is the judgment of the Great Whore, we open with judgment being asked for, and here it has been given, then this must mean that the beginning of the thousand years corresponds to the fall of Jerusalem. It is also important to note that those given judgment were the faithful martyrs, those whom early chapters described as coming through great tribulation. These faithful martyrs are given thrones and reign with Christ. They are also exempt from the power of the “second death”, which is described as not having one’s name written in the book of life. The “rest of the dead” do not come to life until the Thousand Years are finished. So, we have those who were martyred for Christ given judgment over the Great Whore, life with Christ and freedom from the second death. Finally, we are told that the culmination of the Thousand Years will result in a final war, and that Christ will rain down fire on His enemies and cast death and the grave into the lake of fire.

There are a couple of terms used in this chapter that are worthy of our consideration. Those would be the terms “first resurrection” and “second death.” Particularly we are told “blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection, over such a one the second death has no power.” This must certainly be speaking of those who have, and will, receive new life in Christ through the Gospel. The Apostolic gospel certainly proclaims that those who are in Christ have participated mystically in the resurrection. They are said to have “risen with Christ” and to be “walking in the newness of life.” The entire rite of Christian initiation, in fact, follows the path of Christ’s own death, burial and resurrection. The one who converts to the Christian way is buried with Christ in baptism, are rises with Him in faith. He participates in the first resurrection, and because of this the second death “has no power over him.”

What we suggest here is similar to the FP proposition of resurrection. In fact, within the context of the Thousand Year reign of Christ, the FP notions of spiritual/mystical resurrection is quite solid. The Church as a whole has risen with Christ and is seated with Him in the “heavenly realms.” But we must keep in mind what John’s vision teaches us. This is the first resurrection. If there is a first, then there must be a second. Who does the first resurrection pertain to? It pertains to those in Christ, those who are free from the condemnation of the second death. Yet we read that “the rest of the dead do not raise until the thousand years are finished.” Just as sure as there is a first resurrection, there will be a final resurrection for all the dead, small and great.

At the conclusion of the Thousand Years we read of a final battle, a grand finale. The Adversary who was bound in the opening of this vision is loosed for a season. Being loosed he then goes forth to gather the nations in attacking the city of the Living God – the camp of the Saints. While history has taught us that speculation in such matters can lead to flights of fantasy, we should be able to extrapolate some things from this vision. As we have said, this is the final battle. The last showdown between God and His enemies. In the description we see a mingling of imagery. The gathering in rebellion of Babel and the depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah and the perennial enemies of God; Gog and Magog. They traverse the circle of the earth and come to lay siege to the holy beloved city. They are instantly answered with fire out of heaven. We cannot here help but be reminded of the utter destruction of Sodom. Does this describe one event at the end of the ages, or the war that takes place through the ages? Is this a particular manifestation of the spirit of antichrist, or is this the spirit itself taking on its many forms? One thing seems certain, the wars of the Lamb come to a final and swift end.

I would contend at this point that what is being described here is what St Paul calls the “last trump” in 1 Corinthians 15. He teaches us that “we shall not all sleep, but we will all be changed … at the last trump…for the dead will be raised and we will be changed.” Now remember that the “rest of the dead” will not raise until the thousand years have elapsed. This would place the “last trump” at the conclusion of the Thousand Years. Here the phrase “last trump” has a military connotation. It is the last routing of the enemy, weakened and awaiting defeat. I believe this also correlates to the prophecy of Enoch that we find quoted in Jude’s epistle. “Behold the Lord comes amid myriads of His saints. To execute justice upon all and to put every soul to shame for all their works of impiety, which they have committed impiously, and for all the harsh things that impious sinners have spoken against him.” This certainly reminds us of the Logos of God in the Revelation, riding forth in war against the nations and executing judgment upon is enemies. It also brings to mind Paul’s terminology in 1 Cor 15 “He must reign until all His enemies are destroyed…the last enemy is death.” In John 17 Christ prays that, in His ascension, His followers be “with Him to behold His glory.” In Revelation 20 we see them being given this very glory. Then we read that they return with Him to affect His final victory.

What we see then is that the Thousand Years must begin in correlation to the fall of Jerusalem, seeing that at its beginning sentence is given in favor of the saints and martyrs; which for Preterists must be the fall of Jerusalem. Further we see that the saints, who are given thrones, continue with Christ until all His enemies are destroyed. We see that while Jerusalem has been judged, that Christ will go on to conquer those who make war with Him and His Church. Thus, making the fall of Jerusalem the first victory of Christ the Logos over those who hate Him and giving us hope that all of His enemies will also be destroyed. This has been our hope in every age. Whether we were ravaged by the Roman beast, sieged by Muslim invasions, oppressed by Atheist regimes or insidiously encroached upon by modernism and materialism, we have known in every age that all these enemies must fall. We know that He sits at the right hand of the Father until His enemies are made His footstool. We know that to live is Christ, and to die is gain. In the words of one old song “kings and kingdoms will all pass away, but there is something about that name.” And I saw heaven opened, and look: a white horse, and the one siting on it called Faithful and True, and he judges and wages war in justice…his name is called the Logos of God…and the armies who were in heaven followed him on white horses…and from his mouth comes forth a sharp sword, so that with it he might strike the gentiles; and he will shepherd them with a rod of iron.” Amen.

[1] While there are several variations of this concept, the variations are inconsequential to the argument against them.

The Until Passages

 

Adapted from a larger work: They Shall Reign

By William L. Vincent

© 2018 All Rights Reserved

One does not need to be around Preterists very long in order to hear of time-texts. These are important texts that Preterists depend on in order to demonstrate that many things prophesied in the New Testament would find their fulfillment “soon”, “at hand” and “before this generation passes.” It could be said that Preterism is built on time-texts. If this is the case, then I would contend its weakness (and error in the case of Full Preterism) are missing the until-passages. Just as time-texts demand a limiting chronological context for their fulfillment, the until-passages also set chronological parameters. But unlike the time-texts, the until-passages expect that a prophecy is unfulfilled until a condition is met.

When we think about how the Kingdom is described by Christ, it is always progressive. A seed is planted, grows and reaches maturity. Leaven is added to meal until it is all leavened. Crops grow, first blade, then stalk and finally mature plants. A mustard seed, He says, begins as the smallest of seeds, but becomes a great tree. Thus we have a beginning, maturation process and a culminating event.

It should not be missed that the Kingdom and the “coming” are intertwined. Those described in the time-text who “would not taste of death” would see the “Son of Man coming in His Kingdom.” But we must remember the nature of that Kingdom. It begins small, grows and finally reaches a point of maturity. One of the mistakes of the Preterism, and Full Preterism in particular, is reducing the “coming” to a singular and instantaneous event. I would contend that what “came” in the first century was something that grew, and grows, until.

The first of the until-passages that we will deal with is found in Acts Chapter 3. Here Peter and John have gone to the temple at the hour of prayer, and healed a lame man. In his sermon St Peter makes the following statement speaking of Christ who had ascended into heaven:

Whom the heavens must retain until the restitution of all things.

This is an important passage for several reasons. First of all, it makes the Full Preterist proposition impossible. It demands that the present state of Christ being absent from the earth is not a permanent and eternal one. No, Christ must remain in heaven, but also must return. This, in fact, is just what we are told that the angels tell the Apostles at the beginning of Acts “this same Jesus who you see ascend will in like manner come again.” The one who ascended must descend.

Typically, the FP camp will contend that Christ reigns in the heavens, which is correct. They would also contend that Christ is present with the Church, which is also correct. Yet all of this is true in Acts 3, yet Peter still says that the heavens will retain Christ until a point in time, and then Christ will no longer be “retained in the heavens.”

A second and important point is the contingency. Christ must be retained in heaven until “… the restitution of all things.” What this means is that as long as Christ is in the heavens, then all things have not been restored. It also seems to indicate that the restitution of all things is an objective of Christ’s being, presently, in the heavens.

Here it is important to point out that the statement about Christ being in the heavens is not arbitrary. This is a phrase that has significant messianic connotations. Christ is not just in heaven, or outer space. Rather, Christ is sitting at the right hand of the Father. He is in the heavens on business. When this business is accomplished, and all things have been restored, then He will return to earth. Further, if all things are accomplished, then there is nothing left to do. No more enemies to conquer and no one to save. This can be no other than the Last Day and this must be the last act of God in regard to the present state of things. Yet Christ remains in the heavens until then.

Another until passage that must be examined is presented by St Paul in the 15th chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians. Here Paul deals with a contention that has arisen in Corinth. It seems that some of them were contending that there was no resurrection. This is an interesting contention, and one can only guess at its formulation and nature. We do not, however, need to guess at the Apostles response. His answer is concise – if Christ was raised from the dead, then how can anyone claim that there is no resurrection? While, again, the details of this debate among the Corinthians are not given, we could imagine a position very similar to that taken by Full Preterists. Surely they could not have denied the doctrine of eternal life, or that those who died in Christ were “with the Lord.” In fact, Paul seems to summarize a major contention of their argument in verse 35 when he charges “some will say how are the dead raised, and with what body do they come?” I would contend here that the Corinthian dissenters were not denying eternal life, but rather the resurrection of the body. At any length, whether that was the Corinthian claim or not, Paul’s reproof certainly sets aside the modern Full Preterist confusion over the resurrection. Christ rose from the dead bodily, and we should expect the same. It is because of this dispute among the Corinthians that Paul outlines the “proper order” of resurrection.

Paul contends that the resurrection will affect all, but that this will come to all in the course of time. Paul says that the “full completion” comes after Christ has “rendered every Authority and Power ineffectual.” He then goes on to give us our until passage. “For He must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet, the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

In the last chapter (see the complete work: They Shall Reign…) we introduced the Thousand Years, and the concept of Christ’s progressive subjugation of His enemies. Here we find Paul adding to this concept. In the Revelation we are told that Christ goes forth to conquer all those who make war with Him – His enemies. Here Paul tells us that Christ must reign until all enemies are placed under His feet – the last is death. We should note that it is at the end of the Thousand Years, and at the judgment of the Great White Throne that death and the grave are cast into the Lake of Fire. Thus the sequence Paul gives us, the “order of resurrection”, fits perfectly with what we suggest as the nature of the Thousand Years. It begins in correlation to the judgment of Jerusalem, and ends when all enemies are destroyed by the conquering Christ, the last being death and the grave.

Now that we have made this connection, we introduce a concept that does major harm to the Full Preterist idea of the “destruction of death”. FPs like to contend that death is destroyed in a “spiritual resurrection”. Yet the body, in their view, remains a corpse in the grave. Yet the Revelation tells us that death AND the grave are cast into the Lake of Fire. Thus, the destruction of death that Paul speaks of to the Corinthians must include the removal of the grave as well as death; spiritual or not. Further, the contention that death had already been destroyed by Christ’s resurrection does not hold true; at least not in the sense that they describe it. That is, while it is true that the raising of Christ from the grave is the event horizon that eventually brings the “order of resurrection” to the whole cosmos, this does not preclude the removal of the grave, as FPs contend. Finally, whatever destruction of death Paul describes has yet to take place, at least in fullness, at the time Paul writes. Paul says that “then will be fulfilled the statement death has been swallowed in immortality.” Then is future to Paul’s writing, yet the resurrection of Christ was past tense. Thus, and again, death had not been destroyed as Paul predicted that it would eventually be in the final act of Christ’s judgment upon His enemies.

Another important until passage is found in Revelation 20. Here we find, as we discussed earlier, that the martyrs and faithful reign with Christ in heaven until the thousand years are finished. Further, that Satan is bound until the Thousand years are finished. Now this brings up an important point of discussion about the nature of the Thousand Years in regard to the duration of Christ’s reign. If the reign of Christ is a “Kingdom which has no end”, then how can the reign of Christ have a conclusion? Here we should note that this is a problem regardless of whether we have a literal or symbolic Thousand Years. How can the reign of Christ end? My contention here will be that it does not. The reign of Christ does not end, but the condition of Christ’s reign, particularly during the Thousand Years, changes. We have already shown that Christ reigns until all of His enemies are destroyed, thus it is only a logical step to imagine that there must be a time when Christ reigns with no enemies remaining. The Thousand Years cannot simply be the reign of Christ, but a particular way in which Christ reigns. The Thousand Years must be the time before the until passages have been realized. This is the time when Christ “reigns among His enemies”, as the Psalm declares. This is the time when Christ reigns in heaven, until the restitution of all things.

It is important to understand, at this point, that the above until passages are derived from a very important messianic psalm (Psalm 110[111]). Here the psalmist writes “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool”. It is in this very psalm that he writes “reign thou in the midst of thine enemies.” This then ties together the previous until passages. The ascension of Christ into the heavens and sitting at the right hand of the Father is inextricably bound to an until culmination. The reign of Christ must be until all enemies are subjugated. Why? Because Christ is invited to sit at the right hand of the Father until His enemies are made His footstool. This was something that the first disciples clearly understood. When they declared that Christ was seated at the right hand of God, they were immediately indicting the enemies that were persecuting them. Further, the fall of Jerusalem, in accord with Christ’s own prophecy was the ultimate sign that “the Son of Man is in heaven.” Christ was seated at the right hand of the Father and the first enemy to fall would be those who had shed the blood of the prophets and martyrs, and Christ Himself. The first to fall, but not the last. “Many shall make war with the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them.” He must reign in the heavens until all enemies are destroyed and all things are restored, the last enemy being death.

So we see that the until passages set the nature and duration of the present Kingdom. While the time-texts may limit prophetic events, in regards to when they can occur, the until passages do quite the opposite. Time-texts specifically define certain aspects of when a prophecy should be expected to achieve fulfillment, until passages deliver the culmination of prophecy to the hands of mystery and Divine providence. It is in this regard that Christ tells His Apostles “it is not for you to know the times and seasons that the Father has set by His own authority.” Or as Christ says on the Mount of Olives “but of that day knows no man …”. What day does He speak of? This must be the Last Day, when all things are restored to God and when Christ returns from the heavens at the restitution of all things. This must be that great and terrible day when the dead, small and great stand before the Ancient of Days and the books are opened. When the saints judge angels. When, after all enemies of God are vanquished, that death, hell and the grave are cast into the Lake of Fire and the Son delivers the Kingdom to the Father. The restitution of all things, when God is all in all. Maranatha.

 

© 2018

 

Sacred Cosmology in the Christian Tradition

Retrieved from: http://www.orth-transfiguration.org/resources/library/orthodox-perspectives-issues/sacred-cosmology-christian-tradition/

The Ecologist, January, 2000

by Vincent Rossi

“Where is the life we have lost in living;
where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge;
where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”— T.S. Eliot

These three poignant questions, penned by T.S. Eliot over a half-century ago, point us directly at the problem of the Christian view of the Creation as we face the new millennium. The Christian conscience has lost its ancient wisdom, and needs to recover it, as an essential and indispensable part of its life.

The Recovery of Christian Cosmology

Many people today are calling for modern religion, and specifically Christianity, to be re-imbedded in the cosmos, so that religion might become a real force in providing the ethical and spiritual energy for the critical task of reversing the degradation of the Earth. A study of the roots of the living Christian tradition reveals that the sense of ‘embeddedness’ in Creation was a very real part of the overall experience of the religion. The early Church, especially in its Greek or Eastern half, but also in the West, transmitted a fully ‘cosmic’ faith. The great saints and sages of the early Church, in their writings, implicitly recognise a fundamental truth, as expressed by G. K. Chesterton: “Religion is not the church a man goes to but the cosmos he lives in.” Chesterton also observed pointedly that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and left untried.”[1] The point of this observation applies as much to the role of Christianity in relinking the Christian to Creation as it does to the more individualistic concerns relative to the salvation of the soul. Indeed, taken to its fullest meaning, the cosmic dimension so characteristic of Eastern Christianity implies that the salvation of the Christian’s soul is directly linked to the manner in which he or she responds to Creation. Far from being ‘anthropocentric’, the Orthodox Christian Tradition, throughout its 2,000 year history presents a world-view that is ‘theoanthropocosmic’.[2]

Religion’s Divorce from the Cosmos

If this ‘God-, Man- and Cosmos-centred’ world-view was so central to the early Church, how did we lose sight of it? While it is not the purpose of this article to rehearse the question of how Western religion got itself divorced from the cosmos, we cannot avoid touching upon it, however briefly. The root of the ecological crisis, according to Philip Sherrard, is ultimately theological. More specifically, it is a theological interpretation of the relationship between God and Creation that separates the created order from the Divine reality in such a way as to remove from Creation all spiritual value and leave only material processes and ‘resources’ to be exploited. The path towards the recovering of the integrity of Creation has been laid out in a number of significant statements from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, of which the following is a good example: “We must recognise the failure of all anthropocentric ideologies, which have created in men and women of this century a spiritual void and an existential insecurity, and have led many people to seek salvation in new religious and parareligious movements, sects, or nearly idolatrous attachments to the material values of this world. Similar are the dangers for the survival of the natural environment. The careless and selfindulgent use of material creation by man, with the help of scientific and technological progress, has already started to cause irreparable destruction to the natural environment. The Orthodox Church, not being able to remain passive in the face of such destruction, invites [us] to dedicate the first day of September of each year, the day of the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, to the offering of prayers and supplications for the preservation of God’s creation and the adoption of the attitude to nature involved in the Eucharist and ascetic tradition of the Church.”[3]

What I wish to suggest in this article is a way to recover the lost cosmic dimension of religion by showing how it might be found again in the Christian tradition. What must be recovered above all is the vision— not only that religion needs to be imbedded in the cosmos, but also that the world is imbedded in God. For it is this loss that inevitably led to the separation of religion from the natural order. In the words of Philip Sherrard: “There is a relationship of interdependence, interpenetradon, and reciprocity between God, Man, and Creation; and it is the loss by the Christian consciousness of awareness of the full significance of this relationship that is a basic cause of today’s ecological crisis. Correspondingly, if the Christian Church is to offer a positive response to the challenge of this crisis, it can only be through reaffirmation of the full significance of this relationship.”[4]

Man’s Divorce from Nature

If the root of this alienation of human nature from the natural order is theological, its tragic fruit has penetrated deeply into all aspects of modem society— political, economic, social, cultural and individual. But it is extremely difficult not to envisage even positive activities in terms that remain separating, alienating and abstracting. By the term ‘environment’ we usually mean ‘the natural world’, or, to use religious language, ‘Creation’. But if we look critically at the word ‘environment’, we will sense a certain abstract quality to it. It separates human nature from non-human nature, and turns non-human nature into an abstraction— something which we believe can be manipulated and controlled for our purposes.

Even with the best of intentions, we have created and are sustaining, a division between the natural world and ourselves— a division that is at the very root of all environmental problems. As Wendell Berry, poet, essayist and farmer, writes: “Abstraction, of course, is what is wrong. The evil of the industrial economy (capitalist or communist) is the abstractness inherent in its procedures— its inability to distinguish one place or person or creature from another. The right scale in work gives power to affection. When one works beyond the reach of one’s love for the place one is working in and for the creatures one is working with and among, then destruction inevitably results. An adequate local culture, among other things, keeps work within the reach of love. The question before us, then, is an extremely difficult one: How do we begin to remake… what will preserve our part of the world while we use it? We are talking not just about a kind of knowledge that involves affection but also about a kind of knowledge that comes from or with affection— knowledge… that is unavailable to anyone in the form of ‘information’.”

The Original Christian Worldview

A study of the lives and writings of the great spiritual masters of the First Millennium of the Christian Church— East and West— will show that a sacred cosmology was integral to the Church’s world-view. Salvation, or deification, as the ancient Church and the Orthodox Church of today calls the process of reconciliation with God, was cosmic as well as personal in scope. It included not only human beings but also everything else in the universe, through the reciprocal relationship of the human microcosm with the macrocosm of the created order.

The self-understanding of the ancient Church— the united Christian faith of the first thousand years— shows a complex and subtle relationship between Church and cosmos. For the sacred cosmology of the early Church— the traces or vestiges of which still can be found in the Orthodox Church today—showed that not only was the Church imbedded in the cosmos, but that the cosmos was imbedded in the Church. St. Maximos the Confessor describes the teaching of his own spiritual master (to whom he refers as “the great elder”) on the Church: “On a second level of contemplation, he [the great elder] used to speak of God’s Holy Church as a figure and image [ikon] of the entire cosmos, composed of visible and invisible essences, because, like it, it contains unity and diversity… in this way the entire world of beings produced by God in creation is divided into a spiritual world filled with intelligible and incorporeal essences and into this sensible and bodily world which is ingeniously woven together of many forms and natures.”

In the new order inaugurated by the Incarnation of Christ, the Church is the new cosmos. The Church is the Body of Christ, which is the new creation. As such, the Church is the destiny of the cosmos. The Church is the cosmos becoming itself, what it truly is to be— its end— as intended by God. The mission of the Church is the mission of Christ, which is the reconciliation, unification and glorification, not only of human beings, but of all things in the universe. But how can this knowledge become an effective force for protecting God’s Creation? This challenge is a form of asking how the knowledge of a cosmically-enlightened ancient tradition actually gives believers the power to transform our world. How, in short, in the Christian tradition does information become knowledge, become wisdom, become transfigured life? The answer to that challenge lies in the nature and method of Christian spiritual practice. The art of Christian Creation-keeping is an aspect of the Christian spiritual way.

Logos and Creation

The fundamental cosmic intuition of the Christian spiritual path is that creation is the manifestation of an order that at one and the same time transcends it, sustains it from within and manifests itself through it. This intrinsic, transcendent, immanent order is the Logos— the eternal son of God. The term ‘Logos’ in Christian theology marries, through the revelation of St. John’s Gospel and the Epistles of Paul, its Greek philosophical meaning of an all-encompassing rational order uniting nature, society, individual humans and divinity into ‘a great cosmos’[5] with the Christian theological meaning of Christ, the Word (Logos) of God, in, through and by whom all things are created and “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). It is thus the supreme ordering principle uniting all levels of being, from the sublimity of the Divine to the deepest density of the mineral kingdom. According to three great Christian masters of cosmological vision, St. Ephrem the Syrian (306-373), Dionysius the Areopagite (circa 500) and Maximos the Confessor (580-662), thereciprocal imbeddedness of cosmos and Church is groundedin the primordial imbeddedness of all creation in God.

St. Ephrem the Syrian

St. Ephrem the Syrian was a great theologian, and one of the greatest writers in the Syriac language, as the following excerpt from one of his hymns shows. “As the water surrounds the fish and it feels it, So also do all natures feel God. He is diffused through the air, And with thy breath enters into thy midst. He is mingled with the light, And enters, when thou seest, into thy eyes. He is mingled with thy spirit, And examines thee from within, as to what thou art. In thy soul He dwells …” Ephrem here represents God as the water, and all creatures as sea creatures. Just like the sea, God both contains and transcends his creatures. He is not only over all things, but also in and around and embracing all things. The separation implied in Divine transcendence never nullifies the unity implied in Divine immanence.

St. Dionysius the Areopagite

St. Dionysius the Areopagite lived in the late fifth or early sixth century. He was a great Christian neoplatonic philosopher, ascetic and speculative genius. Dionysius completes the picture or world-image of the traditional Christian cosmology.[6] His most important contribution is undoubtedly his concept of hierarchy in the cosmos. Dionysius is, as far as we know, the first person in literature ever to have used the word ‘hierarchy’. He seems to have coined the term. This profoundly Orthodox Christian concept is vital for a conception of the cosmos that includes not only the beings and activities of the visible world but also the ‘invisible’ world; beings and activity of the subtle, celestial or angelic worlds, not susceptible of scientific measurement, yet part of the order of created nature. “A hierarchy is a sacred order, a state of understanding and an activity approximating as closely as possible to the Divine.”[7] What does Dionysius mean by “approximating as closely as possible to the Divine”? His very next sentence gives the explanation: “It is uplifted to the imitation of God in proportion to the enlightenments divinely given to it.” According to Dionysius, then, the order, understanding and activity of the hierarchically-ordered cosmos is the sanctifying beauty of the Divine image, revealed simultaneously in the being, in the knowing of and in the activity of the hierarchy. A hierarchy, then, contrary to the popular Church notion, is not a ‘chain of command’; or an organisational chart representing a system of authority that is imposed from above upon a mass of individuals who are not part of the authority structure. To Dionysius, the sacred concept of hierarchy applied not only to the world of angels but to the world of visible nature. To quote from his treatise on the Church, the priesthood and the sacraments, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy: “We have a venerable sacred tradition which asserts that every hierarchy is the complete expression of the sacred elements comprised within it. It is the perfect total of all its sacred constituents. Our own hierarchy is therefore said to embrace every one of its sacred constituents. Talk of ‘hierarch’ and one is referring to a holy and inspired man, someone who understands all sacred knowledge, someone in whom an entire hierarchy is completely perfected and known.” [8]

In other words, the created order itself— the universe— in the Dionysian conception, is a God-given means of fulfilment, salvation and transfiguration for all its constituent parts or members. This is to say that human beings cannot be ‘saved’ without ‘saving’ the Creation. In Orthodox Christian terms, without the transfiguration of the cosmos, there is no ‘deification’ of human beings. Central to this, is the crucial insight that the purpose of the created order is “to enable beings to be as like as possible to God and to be at one with Him.” In the understanding of the ancient Church, the universe, far from being either an illusion or a vast mindless material force, is a Divine revelation and a sacred means of salvation,enlightenment and ‘at-one-ment’.

St. Maximos the Confessor

1,400 years ago, St. Maximos the Confessor (580-662) brought the ‘Logos’ paradigm to new heights, creating an unsurpassed synthesis showing that all are representatives of one simple and supreme principle, the Logos Principle which underlies the deep structure of the cosmos. For Maximos, the perennial integrity paradigm of the cosmos was self-evident. It was the Church as the cosmic ‘living symbol’; the house of all horizons and perspectives. The Logos is the eternal, which understands, explains and encompasses all. In the words of St. Paul: “In him, we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

The essence of this notion, which Maximos termed diakosmesis is this: all we know about humanity and all we know about the universe are reciprocal. This means that how we see the world depends upon how we see ourselves; and, equally, how we see ourselves depends upon how we see the world. The model we have of the universe depends upon our view of ourselves. This means that we live in a participatory universe of incorporeal and corporeal light where the observer and the observed are intertwined and interactive. This principle is enshrined in Genesis, Chapter One, where we are taught that God made humanity in His own image and likeness as microcosm and mediator. The image is the perfection of all nature, and our nature as God intended; the likeness is the actual state of our nature; the distance between the image of nature— the way God made it— and the likeness of nature— what we have done with it— is the source of all disorder and disharmony in the world. If there is dissonance in this liturgy, it stems from any paradigm of thought or action which enshrines the unnatural disorder and distance between the way things really are according to the Divine creative will; the end to which they are intended (teleology), and what we have made of them and the end to which we actually put them (economy/ecology). There is nothing in the principle of diakosmesis that is superseded by any technological development of the present, including computers and the ‘information revolution’ that would necessitate an all-out effort to find or declare a new paradigm.

St. Maximos, Liturgising the World Let us consider the cosmological and ecological functions of liturgy: the act of liturgising the world. The word liturgy is from the Greek leit-ourgos, which literally means the ‘work of the people’. The Byzantine Church of St. Maximos’ time recognised liturgy as the topos, or place, of the direct link between human knowing and ethical action, with the wellbeing of the cosmos and the metaphysical transparency of things. The insight that the cosmos itself is a vast liturgy is a revelation of the cosmological dimension to the liturgy of the Church. This theoria (contemplation), itself the fruit of natural contemplation (or physiki, in Maximian terminology[9]), leads St. Maximos the Confessor to interpret the Divine Liturgy of the Byzantine Church as sacred cosmology in action. We can clearly see this conception fully expressed in St. Maximos’ commentary on the Divine Liturgy, the Mystagogia. It starts with a section where he presents his image of the universe as a living symbol in which God, the Church, the cosmos, Holy Scripture and humanity are presented as icons— or reciprocal symbols— of one another. He then interprets the actions of the rite of the synaxis (or holy communion) in terms, not only of the life of Christ, but more specifically in relation to the goal of Creation, and most of all, in accordance with the ethical, ascetical, contemplative and mystical transformation of the human soul. The third section is a contemplation that unites the human image, the image of the cosmos, and the Divine image in and through the Primordial Sacrifice of the Logos. Because the human image and the cosmic image are reciprocal in the thought of the Byzantine spiritual master, the inner constitution and condition of the human soul or microcosmos will be seen to have a direct effect on the outer condition and order of the universe or macrocosmos. Clearly, St. Maximos understands liturgy to be the attainment of authentic being in knowledge and virtue, leading to ‘knowledge’, or the identity of knower and known in the experience of truth. This in return leads to ‘love’, or harmony of being and knowing and doing in Man and to peace (hesychia), or fulfilment of the destiny of Man, in which his deification or salvation and the transfiguration of nature are one and the same experience. To St. Maximos the Confessor, authentic liturgy is sacred cosmology in action. The field of the action is the human person as microcosmos, united reciprocally to the macrocosmos, the universe as a whole.

But even the cosmos as a whole is not seen as the spiritually empty universe of astrophysicists and evolutionists, but the universe understood liturgically and reciprocally as a Cosmic Man.[11] “The whole world, made up of visible and invisible things, is Man, and conversely… Man, made up of body and soul, is a world.”

The action of liturgy is twofold: first, the reconstitution of ordinary space and time into liturgical space and time, wherein the valences of eternity are manifest, as Blake’s “infinity in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour.” Second, the transfiguration of human nature by uniting mind, heart, will, soul and body into wholeness, which results in a person whose faculties are energised and oriented toward truth, goodness and beauty in self, neighbour and Earth. This cannot but result in a person capable of genuinely feeling the wrongness of the ongoing destruction of the environment. Enlightened and empowered by liturgy, Mankind’s true work in the world, such a person is thus capable as well of responding with ethical and practical effectiveness toward making the necessary sacrifice that will lead to healing and harmony in person and cosmos.

Liturgy, in its authentically Orthodox sense, is the transfiguration of nature (not just human nature but all nature) through the living symbolism of the sacramental act, which unites man and woman, this present world and paradise, earth and heaven, the sensible and intelligible dimensions of creation in its totality, and, ultimately, the Creation and the Uncreated.

In the conception of St. Maximos, which is the view of ancient traditional Christianity, the liturgy is the Divinely ordained work of the people in which the essence of religion and science is fully embedded in the cosmos because the cosmos is fully embedded in God. Through such liturgy, both the universe as macrocosm and the individual human being as microcosm are transformed, transfigured and deified. This transfiguration and deification is the ultimate destiny of both cosmos and man. Liturgy as sacred cosmology in action is able to accomplish this because of its essence; the communication of and communion with the Archetypal Sacrifice; the very foundation of the universe.

The heart of liturgy is sacrifice, and the purpose of sacrifice is to make holy. Liturgy was conceived as the primary work of all people, and the field of this work was not merely the horizon of the individual soul, but the whole world. The Church was embedded in the cosmos, the cosmos in the Church. The Church’s mission, through the Holy Spirit, was to bring about the reciprocal transfiguration of the cosmos and itself as the New Creation. The responsibility of people on the Earth was and is to liturgise the world, and by so doing, to heal divisions in an ecology of transfiguring light. Clearly, restoration of sacred cosmology at the heart of Christian teaching, is the single most powerful step in an effective Christian effort to reverse the desecration of the cosmos in the next millennium.

Vincent Rossi is an Eastern Orthodox theologian, environmentalist, and founder of Epiphany, a quarterly journal on traditional Christian spirituality. He is also an Associate of World Stewardship Institute in Santa Rosa, California.

References and Notes

[1.] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World, Chapter 5, 1910.

[2.] A term coined by Philip Sherrard. See Human Image. World Image (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1992), Ch. 7.

[3.] Excerpt from the Message of the Primate of the Orthodox  Church Regarding the Church’s Position on the Protection of the

Natural Environment, Phanar, Sunday of Orthodoxy, 15 March 1992.

[4.] Ibid., p.243

[5.] Roy A. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 349.

[6.] Thomas Aquinas himself quotes Dionysius some 1700 times in his works.

[7.] Celestial Hierarchy 3,1. (PG 3-164D).

[8.] Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 1,3. (PG 3-373C.

[9.] Physiki, or “natural contemplation” is a technical term in the Greek ascetic tradition. It means less the enjoyment of the beauties of nature than a rigorous noetic penetration  into the “living symbols” that are all natural forms.