Recent conversations of the trans-temporal character of the Cross suggested I re-post this small meditation.
Christianity is sometimes referred to as a “historical” religion – its beliefs are specifically tied to events which have taken place in space and time. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are events which have taken place in space and time or Christianity is not true. No matter how noble or inspirational its teachings – the space-time reality of Christ’s death and resurrection are fundamental to the faith. Those who deny that reality have departed from the traditional confession of the Christian faith.
I offer this short confession of faith in order to allow myself to write with some care about time and history and the Christian faith – without – I trust – causing others to stumble.
There is a Russian proverb from the Soviet period: “History is hard to predict.” The re-writing of history was a common political action – enough to provoke the proverb. Students of history are doubtless well-aware that re-writing is the constant task of the modern academic world. The account of American and World History which I learned (beginning school in the 1950’s) differs greatly from the histories my children have learned. Some of the re-writing was long overdue – while other projects have been more dubious.
Of course re-writing is not a recent phenomenon. Virgil’s Aeneid was an effort to re-write history, giving Rome a story to rival Greece’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Reformation became a debate not only about doctrine but also about the interpretation of history and the Church.
The rise of historical studies in the modern period, which questioned long-held beliefs about the historical veracity of the Scriptures, gave rise to an anxiety within modern Christianity. Many of the debates that permeate Christianity at the present time turn on questions of history and historical interpretation. As the debates rage, history becomes increasingly harder to predict.
I would suggest that it is a mistake to describe Christianity as a “historical” religion, despite the space-time reality of its central events. It is more correct to describe Christianity as an “eschatological” religion – a belief that the end of all things – the fulfillment of time and history – has entered space and time and inaugurated a different mode of existence. To put it in the simple terms of the Gospel: the Kingdom of God is at hand.
There has been a tendency in some forms of Christian doctrine to draw abstractions from the concrete events of the Gospel. Thus atonement theory often speaks in forensic terms that primarily describe God’s own acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, whether as payment or punishment fulfilled, etc. In a manner, the event verges on being reduced to modern symbol (something which stands for something else) the abstractions and theories carrying most of the weight of significance.
For this same reason (I suspect) most modern Christians overlook the Scriptural doctrine of Christ’s descent into Hades: it does not fit within the atonement theories put forward in many circles. Even the Resurrection is diminished by many atonement theories – serving as a mere proof of Christ’s divinity for some – or a dramatic reassurance of forgiveness for others.
Thus, though these historical events are considered to be important in their historical reality – few articulate precisely how this is so.
I would agree that history alone is insufficient for an understanding and interpretation of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Christ is crucified on a particular day and hour in a particular place. But the Scriptures also teach us that the “Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth,” making Christ’s sacrifice something that also exists outside of space and time. His Crucifixion is an intersection of time and eternity, of heaven and earth. It is a manifestation of the coming of the Kingdom of God. In like manner His Resurrection has elements both of history and of something that utterly transcends history. The Kingdom of God is made manifest.
This is the very heart of the Christian faith – not simply that events happened about which we now theologize. Rather, the events are the in-breaking of Reality itself – earth fulfilled by heaven. We glorify Christ’s Resurrection – but we also know it, because though it is a historical event, it is also an event of the Kingdom. We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection because these events, though historical, are accessible to us in the mysteries of the Church.
The Orthodox faith is not what it is because it is simply the oldest, etc. Such concepts become entangled in the typical give-and-take of historical argument. The faith is what it is because it lives within the Kingdom of God throughout history. If it is not a way of life that incorporates us into the Kingdom – then it would be of mere historical interest. As it is, the Church constantly invites us into a way of life that is life in the Kingdom, despite the historical nature of our existence.
When the Orthodox faith is described as “mystical,” it is this very real proclamation that is being referenced. In Christ, the Kingdom of God is come and nothing will ever be same. What came into the world in Christ, abides in the world with us, and in that Reality we are changed – earth united to heaven – creation to the Uncreated – man to God.
Thank you for this post. It has stirred in me a question I’ve been hoping to pose for a while.
In an interview, the Bible scholar Bart Ehrman claimed that Jesus, among others of his day, was an apocalypticist who believed the world was ending very soon. When you write that Christianity is a “belief that the end of all things – the fulfillment of time and history – has entered space and time and inaugurated a different mode of existence,” you make, it looks to me, a less literal interpretation.
If you wouldn’t mind, I’d be curious to hear your take on Ehrman’s position. Is he correct as well? On what do you base your interpretation?
Great post. Knowing that we are both in history and in the Kingdom is so satisfying. It connects the spiritual and physical reality of my relationship with Christ. You explained this in a way I have never heard, but I feel refreshed. Thank you.
Ehrman’s position is an old canard that dates by to late 19th century or so and is rooted in the historical critical method (which in this case is deeply flawed).
I base my interpretation on the eschatology within the NT itself, both the gospels and the epistles. The gospels are not, as Ehrman would contend, a document that contains within it a historical mystery to be uncovered by modern scholarship. The gospels are written by the Church, post resurrection, and know exactly what they are doing (they are proclaiming the gospel of the Crucified and Risen Christ). The writers were not idiots (as Ehrman would seem to think). They wrote what they believed – and that which is still believed and taught in the Orthodox faith. There is an article by Fr. John Behr that touches on this and is well worth the read. It would be hard to improve on what Behr offers here and elsewhere.
Hi, Fr. Stephen, Bless!
Just wanted to say I found this a great read, helpful and inspiring. “When the Orthodox faith is described as “mystical,” it is this very real proclamation that is being referenced.” Great way to sum up! Thanks.
Father, would you consider writing about heaven and hell in light of the frenzy/interest created by Rob Bell’s new book?
I am left wondering what to make of the phrase ‘the Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth’. I have thought of the sacrificial offering of our God in terms of its efficacy in restoring relationship between God and man, maybe in a word, God’s ‘purpose’ among us. But this passage of Scripture seems to indicate something of the Word being ‘slain’, that precedes the appearance of sin in creation, and prior even to the creation itself. I am wondering if this quality of being ‘slain’ is then not only a divine reaction to the fallen condition, but maybe there is something else… something more central to who He is… ‘slain’, being an aspect of His very essence (?)
The issue of Mr. Bell’s book is the old controversy over universalism. A tempting concept. What would have to be addressed first is the nature of salvation inherent in the traditional Chrisitan understanding vs modern protetant thought with which I am familiar.
Seems to me that everything on this sight addresses the core issues. Plus I don’t think that Kalimaros “River of Fire” can be greatly improved upon. Expanded perhaps to make it more accessible to non-Orthodox.
Michael, well said. I had “River of Fire” in mind as a great source to address my questions personally. But I have several friends and family who read this blog that do not seem to have an interest in chasing down Kalimaros’s writing, but are interested in the cultural discussion and ramifications none-the-less.
Does the coming of the antichrist and The Second Coming of Christ have something to do with “The End of Time”?
..”The issue of Mr. Bell’s book is the old controversy over universalism”…Michael Bauman…do you mean old as in Clement of Alexandria and Origen and Greory of Nyssa..?
I haven’t read Bell’s book, and will not likely have time. Since he writes as an evangelical, I would be curious to see how he handles Scripture. Normally, the evangelical handling of Scripture and that of Orthodoxy are incompatible (in my opinion).
I do not have an opinion on Universalism.
“The Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth,” making Christ’s sacrifice something that also exists outside of space and time. ”
Father, couldn’t this also speak to the timeless nature of Christ’s priesthood?
I greatly appreciate your post and have it linked on my blog as “post of the day”. A also have a resource that speaks to some of the things you point out here-not only the eschatological essence of our faith but also the missional in light of that. It is written by the first Director of the World Council of Churches.
“In Christ, the Kingdom of God is come and nothing will ever be same. What came into the world in Christ, abides in the world with us, and in that Reality we are changed – earth united to heaven – creation to the Uncreated – man to God.”
Dear Father, bless! Beautiful words. Thank you.
Ryan and Michael, the controversy re: Bell has captivated me as well a bit since it is this struggle and my discovery of “The River of Fire” that both motivated and paved the way for my entry into the Orthodox Church. I have sympathies with the concerns of those on both sides of the controversy, and I see in it much potential for the Holy Spirit to work drawing Evangelicals of various theological persuasions nearer to the fullness of Orthodox faith. At least I pray this will be one of the results.
Mike, yup I mean that old. No notion ever leaves the human psyche. The old heresies are still around and each generation needs to take the received tradition and plum its depths so that we can articulate it and call our people to follow.
……Let us Praise God together brother.
What I’m asking is: If the Lamb and the High Priest are one and the same – Jesus Christ, the Son of God – isn’t it necessary to speak of both as having eternal existence? When I attempt to articulate this, I’m accused of being a Platonist (which I am, at least more than Aristotelian). That said, there is considerable evidence that Plato borrowed the concept of Forms from the ancient Egyptians who, as far as anthropologists know, were the first to believe in the unity of body and soul in the life to come.
Of the eternal God, we know only Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For instance, God is not eternally the “Creator” according to the Fathers, or creation would be by necessity. I would say the same about His priesthood and sacrifice. We are told only that “the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the earth” which does not have to push it back into the eternal nature of God. I do not think we should say more than we can. Plato always gets us into trouble (cf. Origen).
Thanks, Father. That’s helpful and clear.