Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Necessity of Method

Today, my pastor gave an excellent sermon on Titus 2.  He spoke of the need to avoid both moralism (what many refer to, erroneously, as 'legalism') and antinomianism.  The message was much appreciated, as it was grounded in the Gospel of the Cross and Resurrection and maintained a necessary synergistic sanctification understanding (that is, our experience of God's holiness, while a pure gift, does require our continual striving to realize).  However, while the necessity of 'watch, pray, and strive' was emphasized, notably missing was a discussion of method.  He did talk about spiritual mentorship, which I'll come back to in a bit.

Thinking about the background to the Pastoral Epistles (I was reminded of this as I revisited lecture notes on these books right before Pascha), it is vital to remember that there is a high level of elision present.  St Paul is not laying everything out for either Sts Timothy or Titus: they already possess the 'deposit' of the Christian Faith (1 Tim. 6:20, 2 Tim. 1:14; cf. Jude 3).  Much important discussion is, therefore, assumed.  To really get at what Paul is exhorting these young Apostle-Bishop-Missionaries to accomplish, we need to know what the 'deposit' contained.  Was it just the kernel of what would (much later) become the corpus of the New Testament?  Was it "the apostles' teaching, the breaking of bread, and the prayers" (Acts 2:42; 'the' before prayers is in the Greek and is necessary to grasp the formal liturgical experience of the apostolic Church)?  The Scriptures were always handed down with their proper interpretive context: the formal worship (testified to in Acts 2 and 1 Cor. 11-14, amongst other places) and a particular method of discipleship.  

What I'm getting at is simple, but profoundly existential for me: without the method -- how the commands of sanctification properly become efficacious in the believer's life -- the Scriptures and worship are nothing more than pious talk, misleading talk at that.  Unless, of course, your soteriology is nothing more than belief and worship as form of post-Cross propitiation.  In that case, where we are seeking to keep God 'happy' with us until we die, why would we need actual holiness? The motions become the point.  I don't bring this up as a strawman either; I think much popular Reformed Christianity functions in this way, even if it would never (thank God!) be encouraged from the pulpit.

True, Biblical soteriology, however, has much more to do with Christic union (what the Fathers call 'theosis') than propitiation, either on the Cross or afterwards.  Our goal, our end, our telos, is conformity to Christ's Image (Rom. 8:29), which is to say that we will be united to the Father by grace in the way Christ, His Word-Image, is by nature.  How are they united?  To use an expression from the Cappadocian Fathers: they share an essence, which is imparticipable (incommunicable), and an energy, in which all Creation can share.  What is this energy (or activity, if you will)? "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9): the activity of the Incarnate Word during His sojourn amongst us is the activity of the Father.  Christ is humble, compassionate, free from sin, and so on.  What He is is what we are supposed to become.  But, returning to the question at hand, how?

Here is where the difficulty of the Pastorals, and all Scripture really, becomes apparent: they already assume a method that is rarely spoken of explicitly.  This isn't to say that the Scriptures are insufficient, nor that they aren't the 'infallible rule for faith and life'.  Rather, it is to say that the Scriptures have always had a context for their proper interpretation and application: the apostolic worship and the method of discipleship, that is, the 'deposit'.  Without the Deposit, or as the Church (following St Paul) would call it, the Tradition, the Scriptures fall into the hands of the heretics that St Peter warned us about (2 Pt. 2:1; this being exactly what Sts Athanasius and Vincent of Lerins spoke of).  The method, to speak historically, is the ascetic form of life passed on from the earliest days of ecclesial life: fasting, feasting, meditation on Scripture, silence (hesychia), alms giving, liturgical prayer -- especially Psalmody, etc.  Without the build up of instruction we have in the Philokalia (for instance) and from seasoned spiritual fathers and mothers, we cannot attain to the commands of Scripture.  In my experience, at the least, they remain in the realm of desire, just out of reach.  However, if we build up the spiritual muscle to "rejoice always and pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:16-17), by the methods passed down from the apostles till today, we will find walking in the Spirit to be neither a thing of moralism nor antinomianism, as we will have transcended that false dichotomy.

However, as all of the saints I've read have carefully and repeatedly asserted, this struggle of discipline -- the actualization of what is already true in the Cross of Christ -- cannot be accomplished alone.  This is where my pastor's sermon really hit the mark. He spoke, eloquently, about the need for spiritual mentorship, of the old by the older, and the young by the older, whether male or female.  However, mentors need more than age: they need proven success in the method traditioned to us.  Are they able to guide us in askesis?  Have they followed the Lord in "denying themselves and daily taking up the Cross"?

While the method does not promise earthly success (it is no snake oil treatment), it is the only way that success -- the healing of the human person which leads to the healing of the cosmos in Christ -- can even be imagined. 

1 comment:

Mike Landsman said...

Some hastily scribbled thoughts (it's close to midnight)

Reading this post has reminded me of some of the things I've been thinking about in regards to holiness, sanctification and so forth. One thing I have noticed in my circles- I exist and serve in a quasi-charismatic context where occasionally some of the worst of what passes for Christian thought (Jakes, Osteen, et al.) is highly regarded- is this very odd mixture of monergism and sanctification. It gets presented like this: "Jesus paid your debts/took your punishment and has made you holy. You're already holy his grace has made you worthy and holy therefore all you need to do is realize that positionally you are already holy and rest in his grace (which energizes living in that realization)." Somehow this realization is supposed to make the Christian life nearly effortless, indeed "effortless living" is the subtitle for one of the bestselling books in this genre. This I think is worse than what you describe when you wrote, "belief and worship as form of post-Cross propitiation." In this schema it's not so much about post-Cross propitiation as it is post-Cross, Spirit empowered, self actualization that comes from a Spirit-led revelation of ones eternal right standing with God as the basis for holiness not based on any corresponding works we perform. In some forms of this teaching this negates the need for repentance because all of our sins, future even, have already been atoned for. What's even more odd is that mixed in with this doctrine is the belief that God literally makes you righteous. It's not a mere imputation of Christ's righteousness a la the Reformed, it's more Roman Catholic in the sense of infused righteousness or even the Orthodox view of theosis. There's a grain of truth to all this, Christ does make us worthy, and he has initially sanctified us in the scriptural sense of the word in regards to being called out and separated from among the world as Gods people but where it has been taken is much too extreme for my theological sensibilities, but it's incredibly popular at the moment. It's enough to make ones head explode.