Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas in the Heart – Love and Authoritarianism 4

Now that it is the eve of Christmas for those who follow the Gregorian calendar, let us turn to look at how the Orthodox understand the Incarnation. First of all, the Word of God incarnate is ‘meek and humble of heart’; the Word of God came to seek the lost sheep to put it on his shoulders to take it back to the flock; he came to minister to the traveller who has been beaten by robbers and left for dead on the road to Jericho. He did not come to institute a political program: ‘So you are a king,’ Pontius Pilate said to him. ‘You say so,’ Jesus replied. ‘But know that my Kingdom is not from here…’

We have been trying to learn a little about two tendencies in Evangelical Protestantism: Premillennial Dispensationalism, the energizer of the ‘Left Behind’ series; and Reconstructionism, either allied to or the same thing as Dominionism.

Reconstructionism is the easier of the two doctrines to understand in its basics: it is a radical reinterpretation of Calvinist doctrine through the American Puritans that seeks to institute a Christian polity in the United States, in much the same way, we think, that Calvin instituted a Christian polity in Geneva and the Puritans instituted a Christian polity in New England. The radicalism of this doctrine arises from its very literalist interpretation of ‘Christian polity’: the Reconstructionists would implement the Mosaic Law as the law of the land, with the exception, we think, of certain provisions explicitly repealed in the New Testament.

But in other matters, the death penalty (by stoning?) would return for a number of transgressions against the Mosaic Law. It is not that we dispute the validity of the Mosaic moral law; we don’t. We do wonder, however, if today death by stoning or even lethal injection is an appropriate punishment for a number of transgressions of the Mosaic Law. We don’t see the early Church applying the Mosaic punishments at all. It is true that Ananias and Sapphira dropped dead at Peter the Apostle’s prophetic word, but the most severe punishment that Paul the Apostle applied to a transgressor was to deliver that transgressor to Satan—i.e. to cut him off from the body of the Church, to excommunicate him. And even then, Paul hastened to ask the Corinthians to restore the man to communion once the man had repented. Indeed, from an ecclesiastical point of view the canons of the Church revolve around defrocking offending clerics and excommunicating offending lay members of the Church.

When the Orthodox Church became the State Church (under Theodosius the Great in the late 4th Century), the Mosaic Law was not implemented wholesale as the law of the land, although it certainly influenced the laws of the state.

Slavery was permitted until quite late in Byzantium; St Theodore Studite (9th Century) is obliged to remark that slavery is permitted to lay persons but not to monastics. This seems to be one area where the Mosaic Law was implemented in Byzantium—i.e. in its acceptance of the practice of slavery. This would suggest that Reconstructionism, to be faithful to its principles, would have to reinstitute slavery as the law of the land in America.

The Reconstructionists also understand the Mosaic Law as supporting their own particular understanding of free-market economics.

The most radical aspect of Reconstructionism is that it would mandate a particular interpretation of Christianity (Reconstructionism) as the law of the land in America. All other forms of religion would be subject to the death penalty if exercised or promoted in public. This is pretty much the same legal standard as the one applied to non-Sunni Islam in Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia.

One of the problems with this sort of political program is what we find in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia: power is a powerful drug with a side-effect of hypocrisy. In other words, when zealots come to power they are often very sincere but when they taste power they often become less sincere; and their political progeny are often more interested in power than in the purity of doctrine.

Although Reconstructionism does not believe in Premillennial Dispensationalism, we have the impression that some of its ideas have been adopted by some Premillennial Dispensationalists, for example the notion that the laws of the United States should reflect Christian doctrine as understood by the Premillennial Dispensationalists. However, this is not at the heart of Premillennial Dispensationalism, which has another orientation entirely.

To understand Premillennial Dispensationalism, it is best to start with Dispensationalism. This is a complicated doctrine that was developed in the 19th Century by a certain J. N. Darby. Darby was an Anglican priest who became the founder of the Plymouth Brethren once he had left the Anglican Church. His ideas were promoted in the United States and elsewhere through being incorporated into the Scofield Reference Bible.

The key idea in Dispensationalism is that we can discern in the Bible a series of dispensations from God to Man that govern God’s relations to Man. The Mosaic Law is one such dispensation. The Church is another.

A key concept in Dispensationalism is the role of Israel in the dealings of God with Man. As we understand the matter, the Orthodox Church teaches that the Church is the new Israel that supersedes the old Israel in the sight of God. That is not the teaching of Dispensationalism, which teaches that the historical Israel is primary over the Church in the sight of God and that the Church is an interregnum in the dealings of God with Man until ‘the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled’. This is one of the underpinnings of the Dispensationalist support of the modern State of Israel: the State of Israel is the reconstitution of the Covenantal people primary to the history of salvation.

As we understand it, Darby also taught that his own people, the English, were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. In other words, Darby’s theology gave the English primacy over the Church as members of the People of Israel. Nice move, Darby.

Now, the Premillennial part of it. Part of Darby’s theology was an analysis of the prophetic texts of the Bible as concerns eschatology—the theology of the last things and Jesus’ return for his people. Darby developed a doctrine of two Second Comings of Christ. The Orthodox Church teaches only one Second Coming, at the end of time when Christ will separate the sheep from the goats and the sheep will enter into eternal life. Darby’s analysis, however, requires two Second Comings. The first is a secret Second Coming, secret because the Son of Man does not come in the clouds with the angels in glory. In the first Second Coming the pious members of the Church (as understood by Darby) are raptured from the earth to be with Christ as the Bride of Christ. This first Second Coming closes the dispensation of the Church. The age of the Church is over at this point. At this point there will commence a Tribulation for those left behind at the Rapture. This Tribulation is to last 7 years, Darby interpreting literally the numbers in certain prophecies. Then Christ will physically establish his earthly kingdom in Jerusalem as King of Israel for exactly 1000 years (the millennium), after which will come the second Second Coming, and the final judgement of the Devil and the living and the dead. However, whether Jew or gentile those who accept Christ as the Messiah after his first Second Coming will not be part of the Church, the Bride of Christ, since the time of that dispensation will have passed.

Now what does all this have to do with us? Premillennial Dispensationalists believe that the first Second Coming of Christ is nigh; they are persuaded that only one generation of men can intervene between the founding of the State of Israel and the first Second Coming of Christ, or Rapture, to be followed immediately by the seven-year Tribulation. However, there is a certain flexibility introduced as to the date of the founding of the State of Israel: since the years since the actual founding of the State are passing, other more recent milestones in the history of the State of Israel are sometimes selected as the true founding of the State of Israel, so as to keep less than a generation between the founding of the State of Israel and the first Second Coming.

Now what does this have to do with our topic, love and authoritarianism? And Christmas in the heart?

We are not sure that we have all the details either of Reconstructionism or of Premillennial Dispensationalism correct. We find the details to be very confusing, although we found an historical treatment of Darby’s own development of his doctrine to be quite helpful. However, let us look at some aspects of these two doctrines.

It should be obvious that Reconstructionism is in its essence an extremely authoritarian doctrine. The key issue is what this means: ‘The Kingdom of God is within you.’ Reconstructionism essentially intends to introduce the Kingdom of God on earth as an authoritarian political system. This is its basic divergence from Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy has never claimed to establish the Kingdom of God on earth: it has always understood the Kingdom of God as a matter of personal spiritual development in the context of the mysteries of the Church, including perhaps monasticism, in loving expectation of the Second Coming of the Bridegroom. Yes it is true that the Byzantine and Russian emperors were anointed by the Church, but there is still a very big dogmatic distance between Reconstructionism and Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Church teaches that the Kingdom of God starts with our own repentance and continues with our own progress on the road of divinization through our participation in the mysteries or sacraments of the Church. Our divinization is our acquisition by Grace of the characteristics that God has by nature, a progress that continues in eternity both after we die and after the Second Coming.

In the case of Premillennial Dispensationalism, we would hazard the guess that a concentration on such an elaborate—and false—eschatology creates the presuppositions for a very disturbed spirituality. We would hazard the guess that this disturbed spirituality is what we see when we observe the rage and hatred of Premillennial Dispensationalists for those whom they consider to be secular humanists or otherwise their opponents.

By contrast, let us look at how the Orthodox Church understands the Incarnation of the Word of God. The best explanation of the attitude of God to the Incarnation is to be found in a very famous icon, the Holy Trinity of St Andrew Rublev. In the icon we see the three angels who visited Abraham on their way to destroy Sodom. They represent the persons of the Holy Trinity. The angels are depicted as having a great dispassion—there is no anger or rage in their faces, only a calm serenity. We see that the head of the angel in the centre and the head of the angel on the right are inclined to the angel on the left. The explanation of this is that the angel on the left represents the Father, whereas the angel in the centre represents the Son (note the band on this angel’s right shoulder, the iconographer’s standard ‘emblem’ of Christ; and the fingers of this angel’s hand set in the priest’s blessing based on the name of Christ) and the angel on the right represents the Holy Spirit (whence the green robes, where green is the colour of the Holy Spirit, Him who gives life). The similarity of the faces of the angels reflects the equality of the persons of the Trinity (except for the relations of generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit). In one standard interpretation of the icon, the icon as a whole portrays the eternal counsel of the Trinity concerning the Incarnation of the Word and all the events that will accompany it, up to and including the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

The Fathers of the Church teach concerning the Incarnation that God became Man so that Man might become God by grace. In the Orthodox Church this is the heart of the Gospel. There is no Reconstructionism in this doctrine, no Premillennial Dispensationalism. The emphasis is on entering into an ever deepening relationship with God through the mysteries or sacraments of the Church to ever become more like the God that became Man for our sake. The Orthodox Church is first and foremost a Trinitarian Church, and the believer’s relationship to God is a relationship with the three persons of the Holy Trinity, each of whom plays a role in the economy of salvation. Of course, it is the Word of God incarnate who has died on the cross. No one who has participated in the Easter Week services would accuse the Orthodox Church of disparaging the importance of the incarnation of the Word and of the death on the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. And it is the Body and Blood of the incarnate Word that we partake of in the Orthodox Church.

Hence, we might find this to be the meaning of Christmas in the heart: it is the love of Christ that is given to us when we communicate the Body and Blood of Christ. Someone said to us after we had received communion this morning on the Eve of Christmas: don’t you celebrate Christmas? We didn’t reply.


  1. Thank you so much for this. I love Christmas and I love the idea that our Lord has truly "come under our roof" in every possible way, beginning with his birth in human form!!! Glory to God! It is truly one of the most humbling mysteries of all, that He wanted to be like us, in the most intimate way.
    Christ is born!!!

    Let Him born in every heart, in every word we speak, and let His love shine throughout the world.

  2. Interesting article. I had no clues about the meaning of those bigs words used in some protestant traditions. A couple months ago, I was invited to attend a seminar debate between pre-, post-, and a- millennialist preachers by some protestant friends. It was a frustrating and confusing debate to watch because they would completely ignore entire sections of the Bible. After the end of the debate one of the teacher's mention, "now what do we do about 1 Thessalonians?" The other debaters didn't say a word back, they were completely mute.