All posts from "November 2009"November 23, 2009
The night Constantinople fell to the Ottoman armies may be the one time that the church was one.
My mother’s favorite chapter in the Bible was the “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus in John 17. This chapter is a prayer of Jesus that believers may share the kind of love and unity that he shares with the Father. “May they all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
There is a sorry irony about John 17, however, for if it is a chapter we Christians love, it is surely one we fail to emulate. Among the least attractive aspects of Christianity is the divisiveness woven into the warp of church history. Worse yet, many church divisions occur for reasons that, at least in the judgment of later generations, seem petty rather than substantive. It is tempting to conclude that Christians don’t take Jesus’ prayer seriously. I don’t believe that is the case. Most Christians, I think, take the prayer seriously, and probably even pray for its implementation.
In my judgment, our failure is rooted in two other factors. First, I think we take “May they all be one” to mean “may they all be like us.” If I constitute the epicenter of the Kingdom of God on earth, and others are not like me, then they are obviously not at the epicenter, and maybe not even be in the circle of faith. We make ourselves rather than Jesus the measure of unity.
Second, I think we assume “May they all be one” should be understood formally— uniformity on things like church order, liturgy, polity, and so forth—rather than confessionally, i.e., unity on the essential elements of faith.
There are endless mutations of traditions, divisions, factions, and experimentations in church history, but has there ever been a time when the church was united, truly one? I am aware of an extraordinary moment when deep divisions and distrust were, if not overcome, set aside for a worship service in which it can be said that the church was finally—perhaps for the last time—united.
The year was 1453. For 55 days the city of Constantinople had been in the vise grip of an Ottoman siege. Constantinople had, of course, been besieged many times before by the Ottomans, or their Muslim predecessors, or Vandals, pirates, and warring tribes and peoples. Surrounded propitiously by sea on three sides and on its western side by the impregnable Theodosian walls—which ranked as one of the greatest architectural achievements of the Middle Ages—Constantinople had withstood countless attacks since it was founded by Constantine 1123 years earlier. Apart from a freak defeat in 1204, the capital of the Byzantine empire had never been conquered, and many believed it never would be. The spring of 1453 was different, however, and everyone knew it. Mehmet II, the 21-year-old Ottoman sultan, had something in excess of 100,000 trained Turks in his army; and Constantine XI, the Byzantine emperor, had barely 7,000 soldiers, lacking provisions and equipment, to defend the city.
It is of course easier to defend a position than to attack it, but Mehmet’s numerical superiority vastly compensated for this fact. So did his tactical expertise. The first sultan to develop and perfect a navy, Mehmet found himself unable to break the massive Byzantine chain that spanned the Golden Horn. In a combination of desperation, genius, rage, and determination, Mehmet cut a mile-and-a-half long swath up and over the Galata hill opposite Constantinople, over which he dragged 70 warships on rolling logs, dropping them inside the Byzantine defenses of the Golden Horn. From there he pursued his naval attack against Constantinople’s innermost and weakest sea walls. His land attack was even more invincible. Mehmet’s arsenal included a cannon, built by a German engineer named Urban, with a bronze barrel 20 feet long and 8 inches thick. Urban’s supercannon could hurl a 1340-pound cannonball a mile with devastating accuracy and impact, burying its projectile six feet deep into earth or fortified wall The three-tiered Theodosian walls could not withstand the repeated concussions of such a weapon.
It was clear to attackers and defenders alike that the eternal city could not withstand the siege. Constantinople’s nadir was the inevitable outcome of a long, slow, and irreversible decline since the sack of the city by Latin Crusaders in 1204. Forsaking their declared objective of freeing the Holy Land from Islamic control, the Fourth Crusade attacked Constantinople instead, perpetrating in the name of Roman Catholicism indescribable atrocities on the Orthodox Christians of that city. The Latins ruled Constantinople for the next 60 years. That rule, combined with the savagery of 1204, and the still earlier bitter division of Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054, produced a deep loathing of the Byzantine Orthodox toward the Catholic West. Formal attempts had been made to bridge the rift between Catholics and Orthodox, most especially the Council of Florence in 1438, but the bridge collapsed, leaving Constantinople, weak and isolated, to face the formidable Ottomans 15 years later.
During the siege, Constantinople still contained many different Christian contingents, confessions, and sects that had populated the city in happier days. There were, of course, Orthodox bishops, priests, monks, and nuns. But non-Byzantine Christians were also present, including a Metropolitan of Kiev, and Christians from Greece, the Holy Land, and from other places and Christian traditions as well. In its bleak hour, Constantinople’s morale had been bolstered, if only symbolically, by several hundred soldiers of fortune from Genoa—all Roman Catholics—who had succeeded in penetrating the Ottoman naval blockade with their three galleys in order to fight for Byzantium.
Mehmet scheduled his final assault on Constantinople for Tuesday, May 29. On Monday night, May 28, 1453, the last Christian worship service was held in Hagia Sophia, which had been the spiritual heart and head of Byzantine Orthodoxy for more than 11 centuries. All Christians in Constantinople, whatever their tradition, were invited for a final worship service in Hagia Sophia. The emperor asked forgiveness of his sins from all bishops present, both Orthodox and Catholic. All Christians—Orthodox, Catholics, and those of other traditions—then shared the Holy Eucharist. At midnight the service concluded. An hour and a half later, Mehmet’s assault shattered the stillness, and by late morning on May 29, 1453, Constantinople became—and has been ever since—Istanbul.
From a Christian perspective, this worship service seems to me more significant than the more dramatic and tragic events surrounding the fall of Constantinople. In that momentous event, Christians at last—and for the last time—experienced a single ecclesial reality. True, there was less diversity in Hagia Sophia than we know today, but the divisions between Orthodox and Catholics were far deeper, and the unity of the hour the more remarkable. Equally true, the unity was constrained by external factors rather than by any particular virtues of the participants, but could that not be said of so many “triumphs” of Christian history? Jesus Christ uses many means to accomplish his will with his bride. Today, Hagia Sophia is no longer a church, but a vast museum. Nevertheless, inside its nearly 1600-year-old walls, I feel like I am standing in a very holy place. What happened on the evening of May 28, 1453, was, if only for an hour, a realization of John 17, and an empirical foretaste of the oneness that all believers will share with their exalted Lord in the world to come.
Guest blogger James Edwards teaches New Testament at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. He is the author, most recently, of The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition (Eerdmans, 2009). This essay appeared in the summer 2009 edition of his newsletter, The Edwards Epistle. For subscription information, contact the Rev. Phil Olson.
Image of Istanbul's Hagia Sophia courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Markus Mark, July 2009.
In November 1739, Jonathan Edwards preached not freedom from want, but freedom from demons.
Thanksgiving is a feel-good holiday. All Americans know, or think they know, about the “first Thanksgiving” celebration among helpful American Indians and grateful Pilgrims. Some Americans know, at least vaguely, that the national tradition is also connected to war. Abraham Lincoln began the annual observance in 1863, as the Civil War was nearing its bloody crescendo, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the federal holiday official by signing a bill in December 1941, a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. But hey, those wars happened a long time ago, and they were noble wars, and the good guys won. As the twentieth century spun on, Thanksgiving became synonymous with plenty, even excess, prompting an annual round of reduced-fat recipes, dieting tips, and warnings about the lethargy brought on by too much turkey. The dominant image was Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Freedom from Want,” another World War II artifact symbolizing all that was right with America and could be right with the world following an Allied victory.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), America’s foremost theologian, held forth a very different vision in his 1739 Thanksgiving sermon.
Naturally, Edwards could have known nothing of the Civil War or World War II. He did know about cooperation and conflicts between European settlers and American Indians; in 1750, having been forced from his prestigious Northampton parish, he became a missionary to the Housatonic Indians. But no meditations on ethnic harmony, national success, or bountiful harvests informed his sermon. Instead, he took as his text Luke 8:2-3 (NIV): “and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”
What, you might ask, has this to do with corn on the cob? The direct connection is the labor of women as cooks and caregivers. Before you dismiss this idea as hopelessly backward and sexist, read what Edwards said about the women who served the disciples:
How suitable and becoming was the behavior of those women that when Christ had been their deliverer from such grievous calamities, they thus showed their dear love and gratitude to him, and fed and clothed him as long as he lived, and prepared for an embalming of him when he was dead. How suitable and amiable was the behavior of Mary Magdalene, that had been a notorious sinner and out of whom Christ cast seven devils, in following Christ ever after wherever he went, to provide meat and drink for him while he lived, from a dear love which she always had for him, and followed him to the cross, and followed him to the grave, and was the most [?] of all in doing him honor at his death.
The members of Edwards’s congregation could not minister directly to Christ, so he exhorted them—men and women—to minister to “the least of these” in his stead. Edwards called for an active ministry: “We are not only to wait till the poor come to our houses a-begging, but we are to bring ‘em to our houses (Isa. 58:7). … We are not to wait till they come to our houses, but we are to go to theirs. This is said to be pure and undefiled religion (Jam. 1:27).” As further incentive, Edwards stressed that none of this work would come close to the effort Christ expended on our behalf, yet all pious efforts would be rewarded in heaven. Gratitude should beget service, which yields blessings and yet more gratitude.
If there is any freedom from want in this picture, it comes not through sun and rain on fields, or through national security, but through Christ’s people following his example and assuaging the grievous calamities of the poor and oppressed. Freedom from want is not a guarantee, but a goal. And it’s going to take a lot more work than the most lavish turkey dinner.
N.B., while we’re on the subject of gratitude, many thanks to the folks at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, who transcribed this sermon and made it available online.
Image: The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Communists now rule in North Korea where revival once flared.
The 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall passed with some fanfare on November 9. Speaking as someone born in the 1980s, I admit that it is difficult to remember much about the divided Europe that this wall symbolized. Stories of the oppressive Communist rule in East Germany strike me as far-removed, not the grim reality for millions as recently as 1989. I remember much more clearly the exultant speeches delivered by Western politicians as Communism collapsed elsewhere in the following years. Today, it is easy for all of us to forget that many millions live in worse conditions than even the East Germans endured. Indeed, the totalitarian government of North Korea imprisons an entire nation that once enjoyed the blessing of revival.
William Blair, a missionary commissioned by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, arrived in Korea in 1901 when he was 25 years old. He would go on to serve 42 years in the mission field. One of only two missionaries who saw the 1907 Pyongyang revival begin, he wrote a recollection in 1910 called The Korean Pentecost. As recently as 1865, Koreans had martyred one of the first Western missionaries as he tried to distribute the Scriptures. But the revival helped the number of Christians in Korea grow to 250,000 by 1910. They worshiped in 2,000 churches, nearly all of them self-supporting.
The revival broke out in the aftermath of the Japanese-Russian War, which started in 1904. After winning the war, the occupying Japanese military did not leave Korea. This insult led to surge of Korean patriotism, which sometimes stung the Western missionaries. Nevertheless, church leaders set 1907 as the launch date for an independent Korean Church. Not coincidentally, the first class of Korean pastors were scheduled to graduate that year.
More than 1,500 men gathered on January 6, 1907, at Central Church in Pyongyang for a retreat of prayer and Bible study that would stretch over a number of days. The missionaries were disappointed with how the meetings began, so they cried out for God to send his Spirit. At once the group felt God's presence, Blair later remembered.
After a short sermon, Mr. Lee took charge of the meeting and called for prayers. So many began praying that Mr. Lee said, "If you want to pray like that, all pray," and the whole audience began to pray out loud, all together. The effect was indescribable—not confusion, but a vast harmony of sound and spirit, a mingling together of souls moved by an irresistible impulse of prayer. The prayer sounded to me like the falling of many waters, an ocean of prayer beating against God's throne. It was not many, but one, born of one Spirit, lifted to one Father above. Just as on the day of Pentecost, they were all together in one place, of one accord praying, "and suddenly there came from heaven the sound as of the rushing of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting." God is not always in the whirlwind, neither does He always speak in a still small voice. He came to us in Pyongyang that night with the sound of weeping. As the prayer continued, a spirit of heaviness and sorrow for sin came down upon the audience. Over on one side, someone began to weep, and in a moment the whole audience was weeping.
Divine conviction and confession characterized the revival. "Man after man would rise, confess his sins, break down and weep, and then throw himself to the floor and beat the floor with his fists in perfect agony of conviction," Blair recalled.
When the meetings concluded and the men returned home, they took the revival with them. Other communities experienced the same movement of confession and repentance. This was no merely emotional outpouring. Revived Christians sought to make reparations with those they had wronged. "It hurt so to see them grieve," Blair wrote. "All through the city men were going from house to house, confessing to individuals they had injured, returning stolen property and money, not only to Christians but to heathen as well, till the whole city was stirred."
Almost immediately following the revival, the Korean church began sending out missionaries. Missionaries from nearby countries, including Jonathan Goforth from China, visited Pyongyang and carried the revival to other lands. South Korea, which now sends out more missionaries than any other country except the United States, remains one of the most inspiring stories of gospel growth in the 20th century.
It is impossible to know for sure the state of the church in North Korea today. Once the Communists came to power after World War II, they killed thousands of Christians, particularly church leaders. Many who fled south lost their lives in the Korean War when Communist forces overran nearly the entire peninsula. As we pause to remember how the Berlin Wall fell, we might also pray that God would once more do a mighty work for his people and for his glory behind the barbed wire in North Korea.
Image of entrance to the Joint Security Area at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea is in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Because of their mutual commitment to Scripture, says Robert Louis Wilken, evangelicals and the church fathers have a natural affinity.
On October 29, the nation's attention was focused on Yankee Stadium and game two of the World Series. But at Wheaton College, several hundred people chose instead to crowd into Barrows Auditorium to mark the public beginning of the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies.
Robert Louis Wilken, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, promised baseball fans he'd keep the Center’s inaugural lecture brief. In his short address, he dashed through the church fathers’ approach to interpreting Scripture, touching the bases at Isaiah 6, Matthew 5, and Job 14, before coming home with key insights on patristic exegesis.
In addition to relating the Fathers’ comments on these passages, Wilken explored why evangelical Protestants in particular should pay attention to writers like Gregory the Great, Augustine, John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa, and why evangelicals are indeed beginning to realize “that the early heritage is theirs also.”
The large majority of Wilken’s graduate students over the past ten years have been evangelicals, he said. The success of the ambitious Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (InterVarsity Press) testifies to such interest as well. Now the opening of the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies institutionalizes that interest—and in a first-rate location.
First, Wilken posed the question, Why this renewed interest?
Precisely because evangelical theology and spirituality are built around Scripture, and so were those of the patristic writers. You cannot read them without an open Bible in your hand. Their writings are shot through with Scripture. Evangelicals and the church fathers thus have a natural affinity.
Second, Wilken asked whether giving some priority to these early interpreters of Scripture isn’t at cross-purposes with the evangelical principle of scriptural perspicacity. Evangelicals have long taught that the meaning of Scripture is open to every Spirit-led reader, and that biblical interpretation must not be held hostage by church tradition. Isn’t the Bible intelligible without the Fathers?
Yes, of course, in a sense it is. But the Fathers help us go more deeply into the Bible, Wilken said. They teach us to read it more slowly and enter it more deeply. He illustrated this by looking at several passages through their eyes, showing the way in which they treated the Bible as a single, coherent book in which difficult passages are illuminated by other passages. Indeed, those other texts raise the questions that lead us deeper.
Thus Isaiah‘s report in chapter 6 that the prophet “saw God” is clearly in tension with passages (such as John 1:18) that suggest no human has seen, or even can see, God. The key, however, is found in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” By mining the notions in that passage, the Fathers were able, not only to explain in what sense some might “see God,” but also to point the way toward the ideal Christian life. Thus to see God is to be united to him through purity of life. Understand, said Wilken, that the Bible is not primarily about the head; it is about the heart.
Third, Wilken reminded us, the patristic writers were the best minds of their day. From their engagement with Scripture, they forged the language with which we express the Christian faith. To ignore their reading of Scripture is also to undercut the foundations upon which the great creeds were built.
The Fathers are replete with interpretations that diverge from the plain meaning of the text. This makes modern evangelicals nervous—though as Robert Webber has argued, because this approach is rich with imagery, it should have greater appeal to postmodern evangelicals. We have many ways of knowing, and imagistic thinking has been marginalized in some streams of evangelical theology.
Wilken made several key points about the Fathers’ nonliteral and image-laden reading of the Bible.
1. The New Testament authors clearly applied Old Testament texts in ways that departed seriously from the plain, surface meaning of the text. When Paul cites Psalm 19 in Romans 10 (“their voice is gone out into all the world”), he applies the Psalmist’s statement about the heavens to the preaching of the apostles. This runs against the plain meaning, said Wilken.
2. The books of Scripture do not bear their own significance. They must be united to something greater, which is Christ. Thus Paul interprets the creation of man and woman as a great mystery, which is Christ and the church; and he interprets the water-giving rock in the Sinai desert as Christ.
3. Typically, such creative renderings of the Bible are focused on the Old Testament. That is because the Old Testament text signifies Christ, but the New Testament text does not signify another Christ. It requires no allegory or analogy to reveal the Incarnate Word.
4. The Fathers also understood the interpretation of Scripture to require the reader’s participation in the spiritual reality of the text. Thus it is not enough to say that Christ was crucified. We must also say, “I am crucified with Christ,” and thus also I am raised with Christ.
All of this is new territory for many evangelical Protestants. It involves an ancient way of reading texts that is at odds with contemporary methods being taught in the classrooms of Christian colleges. Students will feel at first that the Fathers’ method places no limits on allegorical fantasy.
It will take some time for this kind of reading to take its place alongside our linguistic and historical approaches. Neither approach needs to edge out the other. But if we do not make an effort to imbibe the spirit of the church’s first interpreters, we can easily miss something close to the heart of Christian faith.