Friday, July 21, 2017

Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible: First Steps

How can someone who has never really read the Bible before begin to read and understand it? I will try to answer that question in a series of posts, beginning with this one.

Why is the Bible Difficult to Read?

Let's face it, the Bible can be difficult to understand, and there are a number of reasons for this. The Bible comes from a very different culture, and it was written in ancient languages that are not our own. It was written a long time ago, and over a long period of time. And while it is all inspired by the same Holy Spirit, it was written by many different human authors who used many different literary types (genres) to convey their message to us.

We should not let this scare us off. There are parts of the Scripture that are very easy to understand. These are the low hanging fruit that God has put there even for the most untrained reader, but there are many things that require work on our part to understand, and we should be willing to do that work.

But why is it that some parts of Scripture are difficult to understand? St. Augustine tells us:
"Some of the expressions [in Scripture] are so obscure as to shroud the meaning in the thickest darkness.  And I do not doubt that all this was divinely arranged for the purpose of subduing pride by toil, and of preventing a feeling of satiety in the intellect, which generally holds in small esteem what is discovered without difficulty" (On Christian Doctrine 2:6).
We are humbled by the fact that we do not completely understand the Scriptures. It takes humility to understand the Scriptures, but it is also inspires humility that there is so much we do not understand.

We also never have a "feeling of satiety" in our understanding of Scripture, because of these difficulties. A "feeling of satiety" is that feeling we often have on Thanksgiving day, when we have had too much to eat, we feel like bloated jellyfish that have just washed ashore on the beach, and we couldn't be tempted to eat another bite, no matter how good the food was that was offered to us. We never get that feeling when it comes to the study of Scripture, because there is always much more for us to learn, and so we are left wanting more. And because we have to work to understand the more difficult things in Scripture, we value more what we learn because of the effort it took for us to do so.

The fact that there are difficulties in understanding Scripture should not leave us with a helpless sense that there is nothing we can do about it, and then just give up. There are many things we can do to help us in this work.

A Good Translation

The first step is for us to get our hands on a good translation of the Bible, and preferably a couple. For a complete discussion of this topic, and of the options that are available, see: "An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible." But to make a long story short, here are the texts I would recommend you get a copy of, at a minimum:
1. A good edition of the King James Version. My recommendation would be to get the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible with Apocrypha, which I think you will find more pleasant to read because it uses modern spelling, punctuation, and paragraphing, but the King James Version comes in many editions, shapes, and sizes.
2. The Orthodox Study Bible. This text is not perfect, and I don't think the translation is usable liturgically, but it is an relatively easy to understand English. In the New Testament it is the standard New King James text. It also has some brief but useful study notes, and introductions to each book of the Bible.
3. The New King James Version. A copy of the standard New King James Version is good to have for comparison with the King James text.
4. The Boston Psalter. For the Psalms, there is really no substitute for this text. This is what is generally used in our liturgical texts, and in the Jordanville prayer book, and there is no reason to not use this as your primary translation for the Psalms.
There are several other translations that are good to consult for comparison, but you don't have to buy them. They are available electronically, for free. Young's Literal Translation, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version, and the Brenton translation of the Septuagint.

The King James is a beautiful and generally accurate translation, and there are good reasons for using it, but if you have not grown up at least hearing it read on a regular basis, you might be better off sticking with the Orthodox Study Bible and the New King James text initially. I would not recommend using any other translation as a primary text for reading the Bible -- and for the reasons why, I would again refer you to "An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible."

War and Peace

I grew up hearing Bible stories at home and at Church and so understanding the basics of Scripture was not a problem for me when I actually began reading the Bible for myself, but I can relate to the problem that many have beginning to read Scripture. I had the same problem with War and Peace -- which is probably the most notoriously difficult-to-finish book of the great classic novels.

When I was a new convert to Orthodoxy, I began reading Dostoyevsky's novels, and loved them. But when I was finished reading those, I thought I would try Tolstoy, and so got a copy of War and Peace, and I read several chapters, and found it difficult to follow. I put it down in 1991 and did not pick it up again for nearly 20 years. The problem with the novel for me was it was a complicated book from a foreign culture, and a bygone era, and it was full of a vast array of characters, and had many elements that I was not familiar with. It was hard to see where things were headed, or to keep track of who was who.

What changed was that I saw the four part Soviet era film based on the novel. The movie is one of the best movies I have ever seen, and the acting was excellent. Watching the movie helped me figure out who was who, and also what the novel was all about. When I then picked the novel back up, I found it to be fascinating and very entertaining. It was also a pretty good way to learn the History of Russia's role in the Napoleonic wars up through Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, which was why Tolstoy wrote it in the first place.

There are ways to get the same bird's eye view of Scripture too, and once you figure out who is who, and where things are headed, Scripture begins to come alive.

Getting the Big Picture

One way to get a feel for the scope of Scripture is to read Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy's "Law of God". About 300 pages of that text are focused on the contents of the Old and New Testaments, and this text provides a very thorough overview of the Bible.

There is YouTube channel called "The Bible Project". The people behind it are Protestants, and they only talk about the books that are in the Protestant canon of Scripture, but they have a summary of each book of those books, and they do a very good job of explaining the structure and content of these books. I would recommend ignoring their word study videos, and their videos on the themes of Scripture, because there you get a lot more Protestant theology then you get help on understanding the actual content of the Bible. Furthermore, if you run across anything that sounds fishy to you, ignore it.

For example, here is the video on Chapters 1 through 13 of the Gospel of Matthew:

And this is example of how the explain the structure of one of the most difficult books of the Bible, Leviticus:

A Good Bible Dictionary

There are a lot of Biblical reference texts that one could buy, but if you are only going to get one, you should get a good Bible dictionary. There is a Bible Dictionary in Russian that was published by the Orthodox Church, and there may be one or more in Greek, but as things stand at present, if you want a text like that in English, you are going to have to make do with a Protestant text.

There are two I would recommend:

1. Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible, published by Thomas Nelson, is the lest expensive option.

2. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (5 Volume Set), is more expensive, but much more complete.

For example, if you are reading Exodus and you run across a reference to the Urim and the Thummim, if you look these words up in a Bible dictionary, it will tell you pretty much everything the Bible says about them, and everything that historians know about them. If you are reading Hebrews, and you run across Melchizedek, you can look him up, and find where else he is mentioned in Scripture and who he is. If you look up the name of a place that is mentioned, you will find things like what the name of the place means, its history, and often also find a map showing where that place is. You could of course look these things up on Wikipedia too, but the information you will find in these texts is generally going to be far more complete and reliable.

To be continued...

See also: Computer Based Bible Study... for Free

For a sermon on why we should want to study Scripture, read St. John Chrysostom's 9th Homily on Colossians. You can also listen to a sermon I gave, entitled "Rich Man / Poor Man," which was based on that homily.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Stump the Priest: In the Lord Shall My Soul be Praised

Question "At the beginning of Psalm 33 (in the Septuagint), which we hear often in the liturgical services, is the line "In the Lord shall my soul be praised." This seems a strange way of putting things. What do you think this means? Are there other similar verses in the Scriptures?"

In the Boston Psalter (the translation we use liturgically), this verse is translated:
"In the Lord shall my soul be praised; let the meek hear and be glad."
This is a very literal translation of the Greek Septuagint, which is a very literal translation of the Hebrew. The King James version translates this verse as:
"My soul shall make her boast in the Lord: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad" (Psalm 34:2).
Which translates the Hebrew idiom in a way that more clearly conveys the sense of the Hebrew. A more literal translation of the Hebrew would read:
"In the LORD doth my soul boast herself, the humble hear and rejoice."
By comparing different translations, you can often get a better idea of the range of meaning of the words in a text, and this is a good example of that.

The inscription of Psalm 33 [34], links this Psalm to David's flight from Saul, and his deliverance from the Philistine King of Gath in 1 Samuel 21:10-15:
"And David arose and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath. And the servants of Achish said unto him, Is not this David the king of the land? did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands? And David laid up these words in his heart, and was sore afraid of Achish the king of Gath. And he changed his behaviour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard. Then said Achish unto his servants, Lo, ye see the man is mad: wherefore then have ye brought him to me? Have I need of mad men, that ye have brought this fellow to play the mad man in my presence? shall this fellow come into my house?"
St. Basil the Great's homily on this Psalm provides a good interpretation of the verse in question, which explains it in the light of this background:
""In the Lord shall my soul be praised." "Let no one," David says, "praise my intelligence, through which I was preserved from dangers." For, not in the power of man, nor in wisdom, but in the grace of God is salvation. "Let not," it is said, "the rich man glory in his riches, nor the wise man in his wisdom, nor the strong man in his strength, but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth" the Lord his God [Jeremiah 9:23-24]. If, however, someone is praised for beauty of body or renowned parentage, his soul is not praised in the Lord, but each person of such a kind is occupied with vanity. The ordinary professions, in fact, those of governor, doctor, orator, or architect who constructs cities, pyramids, labyrinths, or any other expensive or ponderous masses of buildings, do not merit to be truly praised. They who are praised for these things do not keep their soul in the Lord. It suffices us for every dignity to be called servants of such a great Lord. Certainly, one who ministers to the King will not be high-minded because he has been assigned to this particular rank of the ministry, and having been considered worthy to serve God, he will not contrive for himself praises from elsewhere, will he, as if the call of the Lord did not suffice for all pre-eminence of glory and distinction? 
Therefore, "in the Lord shall my soul be praised: let the meek hear and rejoice." Since with the help of God, by deceiving my enemies, he says, I have successfully obtained safety without war, by only the changing of my countenance, "Let the meek hear" that it is possible even for those at peace to erect a trophy, and for those not fighting to be named victors. "And let them rejoice," being strengthened to embrace meekness by my example. "O Lord, remember David, and all his meekness" (Psalm 131[132]:1 LXX]. Meekness is indeed the greatest of the virtues; therefore, it is counted among the beatitudes. "Blessed are the meek," it is said, "for they shall posses the earth" [Matthew 5:4(The Fathers of the Church: St. Basil, Exegetic Homilies,, Homily 16, trans. Sister Agnes Clare Way, C.D.P. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1963),  p. 251ff).

Friday, July 07, 2017

Sister Vassa on Homosexuality

Sister Vassa Larin recently sparked a controversy by posting her advice to a mother who has a 14 year old son who "came out" as a homosexual. She has been a popular figure in the English speaking Orthodox world, and is a highly regarded liturgical scholar. She is a very bright and articulate person, and has often been invited to speak at Church conferences around the world --  and in fact was the featured speaker at a youth event in my own diocese, and my parish spent the money to send some of our children to that event, one of my own daughters included. So it is with genuine sorrow and great disappointment that I must take issue with her publicly, because she has publicly endorsed views that are in serious error, at a time when pro-homosexual propaganda is inundating our children from virtually every direction in society. Our children should be able to count on those within the Church to encourage them in the Faith once delivered unto the saints (Jude 3)... and to not be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2).

In the course of the discussions that followed the original post, I came across a sincere Orthodox Christian who has struggled with homosexuality, recognizes that homosexual sex is incompatible with the Christian life, and is striving to live a life in accordance with the Gospel -- and he interpreted much of the criticism of Sister Vassa's post as a failure to appreciate the difficulty of his struggle -- though he recognized that her post was problematic. Let me just say up front to him, and to anyone else who is sincerely struggling against this sin that the problem is not with them and their struggle, nor would I minimize their struggle. I would, however, suggest that while heterosexuals have different struggles, it is not as if we cannot relate and appreciate their plight. We all have crosses to bear. My wife's godmother grew up in the Soviet Union, faced near starvation, was separated from her husband who had been drafted into the Soviet Army, and had to flee for safety when the Nazis invaded with three small children, ending up in a displaced persons camp at the end of the war. She then had to come to a foreign land, and start from scratch. She never saw her husband again, and never knew whether he was alive or dead. On top of all of that, her son was killed during the Vietnam war. Despite all of these hardships, she lived a pious celibate life and was an inspiration to all who knew her. Being a Christian is usually difficult, and it is difficult for different people in different ways, but that it is difficult is something we all share.. and if we don't, it's because we aren't trying very hard. So God bless you in your struggles, and know that we all love and support you.

Now, to the specifics of Sister Vassa's post:

Sister Vassa began by trying to inoculate the rest of her answer with a disclaimer:
"Dear N., Thanks for writing. I can't reply to your question officially, but will reply to it personally. Because my personal opinion is not in line with some official pronouncements of my Church. So please just accept it as my personal opinion, no more and no less than that."
I'm not sure how she could give an "official" response, but presumably she means that this answer is sort of off the record... except that she posted it on Facebook for all the world to see, and it has since gone viral, and has been shared on pro-homosexual "Orthodox" groups. She has taken it down, but the horses are already out of the barn, at this point. She has not (at least as of yet) posted a retraction.

She acknowledges up front that she is disagreeing with the Church, but confines that disagreement to "some official pronouncements". The problem is these pronouncements include the Scriptures and canons of the Church which are clear and unambiguous on this subject.

Following some other introductory comments, she then, after giving quick lip-service to the idea that an active homosexual lifestyle was sinful, proceeded to undermine that belief by minimizing the seriousness of the sin:
"But here’s the thing about homosexuality. And please read this to the end, if you could. I must say, and cannot say otherwise, that actively living it out is a sin. It’s a no-no. But so are many other things, which we tolerate in ourselves as “only human.” Like, our consistent disregard for God’s word, which is worse than the sins of “Sodom and Gomorrah,“ as our Lord points out in Matthew 10: 14: “…And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable (ἀνεκτότερον) on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” (Mt 10: 14-15) [Emphasis added]"
It is simply twisting this text of the Gospels to attempt to equate someone who maybe doesn't read their Bible as often as they should with rejecting the Gospel, which is what Christ is talking about in that passage. I don't take the sin of ignoring Scripture reading lightly, mind you. I generally ask three questions when hearing someone's confession (aside from questions raised by the specifics of their confession), unless they bring these subjects up first:
1). How's your prayer life?
2). Are you reading the Scriptures regularly?
3). Do you forgive those who have offended you?
But not reading the Scriptures regularly is not the same as rejecting the Gospel. Both are sins, but there are degrees of sin. There is, for example, a big difference between having an unkind thought and engaging in mass murder. It would be insane to say that there was no difference between those two sins. Unkind thoughts can lead to the act of murder, and so should not be ignored, but they are not the same. And the canons of the Church show this clearly. There is no canon that suggests a lengthy penance for having an unkind thought. The penances for murder, however, are lengthy -- some suggest excommunication until the person is on their deathbed, other, more lenient canons call for 20 years.

There is no canon that calls for a period of excommunication for failure to read the Scriptures. The stricter canons against homosexual sex call for a 15 year penance, while St. John the Faster allowed for it to be lessened to 3 years, if the person was truly penitent and took their penance seriously. Both sins are sins; however, the sin of sodomy is far more serious. The sin of rejecting the Gospel is even more serious, because there can be no possibility of restoration for someone who has chosen to cut themselves off entirely from the source of healing, but that does not make the sin of sodomy a light matter.

Not a single Church Father could be cited to support the idea that Christ's point in this passage was to suggest that the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah weren't so bad after all. His point was to cite one of the most wicked examples found in all of Scripture, and to say that rejecting the Gospel is even worse than that.

Then Sister Vassa minimizes the sin even further by suggesting that the sin is really beyond the level of choice (which if true, would mean that it was not really a sin at all, in any usual sense of the term):
And here’s the other thing about homosexuality. We do know today, according to reliable scientific studies, that this sexual orientation is formed in most (not all) cases, by the early age of 3-4. Importantly, it is before the “age of reason,” which is traditionally considered the age of 7, so it is not a “choice.” You mention that you knew this about your son well before he came out to you now, at the age of 14. I have heard this from several mothers of homosexual children, including one wife of an Orthodox priest, that they “knew” it from their child’s early childhood.
There is actually little in the way of hard evidence that homosexuality is somehow innate (see for example: "Born gay or transgender: Little evidence to support innate trait"). Furthermore, while there are "scientific studies" that argue for homosexuality being rooted in genetics or other innate factors, they come in a highly politicized context, in which the pressure to produce certain results in this area is very great (just consider the firestorm a University of Texas Study received which shows that children of gay couples have more problems on average than those raised by both a mother and a father). And if you don't think political pressure can influence academic research, I suggest you read up on how Nazi politics influenced some of the most respected academic institutions in the world, and resulted in the kind of pseudo-scholarship produced by the Ahnenerbe to promote Hitler's theories of racial superiority. Academicians are human, and they are often motivated by a desire to be noticed and recognized, to make a good living at their work, and to be advanced. Unfortunately, the desire to find and present the truth for its own sake is all too often subordinated to those more selfish motivations. And so a healthy amount of skepticism is also in order here on issues that are currently driven by political agendas.

We do not accept the idea that we are slaves to our genetics, or to the environmental factors of our upbringing, and so effectively have no free will or ability to make moral choices. Such a view is contrary to the Orthodox understanding of what it means to be a human being. We reject determinism, in all of its forms. However, even if, for the sake of argument, we granted that there was some genetic predisposition to homosexuality, this would still not justify the conclusions that Sister Vassa suggests. There actually is a proven genetic predisposition for alcoholism, but this does not make being a drunk acceptable, nor does it remove choice from the equation. If you get pulled over from driving drunk, saying "I was born this way" is not likely to get you off the hook. It is certainly a lot harder for some people to not abuse alcohol than others, but we know that they have a choice, and in fact all of our laws assume that people who are not legally insane or mentally incompetent are responsible before the law for the choices that they make, no matter how disadvantaged they may or may not be.

The Church does teach that we are all born with an inclination to sin. And yet we are taught that we are to overcome that inclination, by God's grace.

What do you mean "we", Paleface!?
"Hence we come to the question of “culpability” for this state of affairs, in one’s gift-and-cross of (homo)sexuality. We can and do separate the question of “culpability” for the sin, and the sin itself, - so let me point out that God must also. In most cases, homosexuality is not one’s own choice. So, “crossing the line” in this area, and not committing to total celibacy, as one “must” do according to traditional, scriptural law, is “more tolerable” in God’s eyes (as Christ says in the above-quoted passage), than our other kinds of trespasses. Among our “other” trespasses let me mention heterosexual adultery, masturbation, premarital sex, and just “looking lustfully at a woman” (Mt 5: 28), - all “sins,” although we tend to “live and let live” with them, as they are only human. But we have a double standard when it comes to homosexual “sins,” for the plain reason, I think, that most of us feel free-and-clean of this particular thing."
I do not wish to be included in the "we" that Sister Vassa invokes here, and I suspect few Orthodox clergy would either. If someone confesses that they have engaged in heterosexual adultery or premarital sex, and they are not talking about a sin in the distant past, or before baptism, I treat them as very serious sins, that would call for some kind of a penance. The penance would would depend on a lot of other factors, but there would certainly be one.

The Lone Ranger, Tonto, and the presumptuous "we".

And again we have the problem of equating things that are not comparable. Generally speaking, sins that involve other people are more serious than sins that a person commits alone. Also, sins against nature are more serious than sins that are not against nature. And so if you take the sin of masturbation -- this is a sin one commits alone, and so, while still a sin that cannot be excused or ignored, it is not as serious as having sex with another person that you are not married to. Looking on another person to lust is, as Christ said in the Gospels, committing adultery in the heart. However, neither Christ Himself, nor the Church since, ever suggested that there is no difference between committing adultery in the heart, and committing adultery in deed.

Imagine for example two scenarios. In one case, you have a man who looks on his neighbor's wife with lust, and then later repents and goes to confession. At the same vigil service there is another man who actually had an affair with his neighbor's wife, which resulted in two broken homes, great harm to their children, and countless extended relationships being broken. Would it make any sense for the priest to treat these two cases as if there were no difference between them? Of course not. This does not mean it is OK for a man to look on women to lust, or that such a sin should be ignored -- adultery in deed always begins with adultery in the heart. But it is obviously better for a man to be struggling against the sin of adultery in the heart before it gets to adultery in deed, then it is for him to say "what difference does it make?" and fall into the act of adultery with another person.

If we take the teachings of Scripture seriously here, we also have to acknowledge that homosexuality is a sin against nature (παρὰ φύσιν), and so for that reason is worse in some respects than sins that are in many other respects, similar, but which are not contrary to nature (for example, heterosexual sex outside of marriage). First off, this is clearly what St. Paul says about it in Romans 1:26-27, and St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on this passage, elaborates on it further (see his 4th Homily on Romans). Now, in our time, when we say that homosexuality is against nature, those who argue that it is an innate and immutable characteristic for some people, object and say that it must be natural, since it happens naturally. One need only study human anatomy to see that the anus was not designed with the penis in mind. Furthermore, one need only study the serious health and psychological problems, the propensity for drug and alcohol abuse, and  the domestic violence that all go along with living an active homosexual lifestyle, to see that this is in fact contrary to the natural order (see: "Immoralism, Homosexual Unhealth, and Scripture," by Robert Gagnon). Cancer occurs in nature too, but cancer is not something that makes for healthy human living.

Heterosexual sex outside of marriage is still a sin, and as such, will (if not repented of) exclude one from the Kingdom of God too, but life can come from such immoral relationships. Also, such a couple can repent, get married, and their relationship can develop into something that God can restore and even bless. A homosexual relationship can only damage both parties, and cannot be restored into something good (at least not as a homosexual relationship), because it is against God's created order.

When we say that sins against nature are, as a rule, worse than sins that are not against nature, this does not mean that those who commit these sins are to be despised more, it means they are to be more pitied, because the consequences of such sins are greater because of this fact. It is not loving to enable or encourage an alcoholic to kill himself with alcohol, and it is not loving to enable or encourage a person struggling with homosexuality to live a lifestyle that is destructive in so many respects -- and most importantly, a lifestyle that St. Paul assures us will prevent them from inheriting the kingdom of God, unless they sincerely repent and turn away from that sin (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) nevetherless requires that we actually speak the truth.

Pastoral Discretion and Non-negotiable Principles of the Faith

Sister Vassa gets into the practical implications of what she is saying:
So what am I saying practically, about what you should do when your son “wants to date”? I think you won’t be able to change the fact that he will “date,” unless he wants to commit himself to celibacy. But I am going to go ahead and presume he doesn’t want to, and isn’t going to, do that, since he’s “come out” to you, and I don’t think you can change that in him, at age 14. So I would say, let him “date” in the daylight, with your knowledge, so he’s not chased into some kind of underground, of illicit hook-ups in certain kinds of pubs or bars. You aren’t “encouraging” him by saying, bring the guy here. Just like other parents, of heterosexual children, say, bring that girl (even the one of whom we disapprove) home, so we can meet her, aren’t saying, go ahead and do whatever you want. But what you are doing is bringing your child’s relationship into the daylight of your home, where your love, values, and mutual commitment, as family, can lend stability and light to your child’s behaviour in his/her relationships. You know, the whole gay-culture of previous decades led many homosexuals (as I know from a dear Roman-Catholic gay friend aged 60 at this point) to get into irresponsible sexual encounters, inspired by the whole aura of illicitness, in hook-ups in public bathrooms and that sort of thing.
If a mother with a 14 year old boy had written, asking for advice, and her son had informed her that he was a heterosexual, and was intent on having sex with his girlfriend, the proper response for a Christian parent would not be to provide them with a room and a condom. A responsible Christian parent teaches their children that they are not to have sex outside of marriage, and particularly when they are 14, they would generally tell them that they are too young to be dating anyway.

One can debate how best to handle a penitent sinner. The canons often lay out very strict penances, however, in our time we drastically reduce the severity of the penances, and  under some circumstances, we might not impose a penance at all... all depending on the circumstances, and the individual. You could argue that one priest or bishop is too lenient on such things, or that others are too strict. All good shepherds of Christ's flock are motivated by a common desire to see their people grow closer to Christ and to be saved. Practical applications of Church discipline are questions of wisdom, and spiritual insight. What is not open to debate, however, are matters of principle. A person who is engaged in a sin (any sin) and who refuses to repent of that sin cannot be given absolution by the Church, because sincere repentance is a necessary ingredient for absolution to be given. I have had people, who, when I ask if they have forgiven those who have offended them, will respond "No." I then explain why we need to forgive, and what that means and does not mean. However, if all of my efforts to get them to choose to forgive those who have offended fail, I cannot give them absolution. It is just not possible, and that is not a question that reasonable priests might disagree on. The same thing is also true of a heterosexual who is actively engaging in fornication with his girlfriend, and it is true of a person who is engaging in homosexual sex.

As far as your other practical question goes, of finding a faith-community for your son, I think he has two choices: 1. He can “suck it up” in your present community, like the woman wearing a scarlet letter. It’s not the worst thing in the world, because I can tell you from personal experience that it is liberating in many ways, to be the odd man out and OK with that, even if (and this might shock you) you are denied Holy Communion. (I am not homosexual, but I have been “the odd man out” in other ways). Your son’s humble presence in your parish could benefit both him and others, in unexpected ways. Just like the story of Mary of Egypt has been beneficial to all of us, even though she had no Holy Communion for over 40 years. 
St. Mary of Egypt did not have Communion for 40 years because she was living a life of repentance, which is not quite the same thing as being excommunicated because you are living an active homosexual lifestyle without any intention of repenting of that.

An Orthodox Christian Biblical Scholar commented on Sister Vassa's post, and asked why it would be better for a 14 year old to abstain from communion and to continue having homosexual sex, rather than for him to abstain from having sex and continuing to receive communion. Sister Vassa responded, "Have you ever met a 14 year old boy?" The woman she was responding to is a mother and a grandmother, and she pointed out that she was once 14 years old too. When did it become acceptable to assume that a 14 year old boy cannot control himself, and must have sex (either heterosexual or homosexual)?

Also, even heterosexual couples can be separated for lengthy periods of time. A husband might go to war, and be gone for many years. Should we just accept that he cannot control himself, and will have sex with whoever happens to be available? The Christian answer to that question would be "no."
The other choice is 2. Find a parish that is acceptive of your son’s particular gift-and-cross. There are parishes like that, here and there, but I don’t know where you live and whether you have one nearby. 
Encouraging someone to go to a parish that will ignore their sin, and commune them anyway is a shocking piece of advice from an Orthodox nun. There is absolutely no justification for taking such a position. You could not find a single example in the lives of the saints of such a thing, nor could you find anything in Scripture or the writings of the Holy Fathers that would support it.

St. Paul in fact warns against this very thing:
"For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth..." (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
And in case anyone thinks St. Paul does not consider homosexuality to be contrary to sound doctrine, they need only look at his First Epistle to St. Timothy to see that the opposite is true:
"knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites [i.e. homosexuals, Greek "αρσενοκοιταις"], for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust" (1 Timothy 1:9-11).
Then Sister Vassa concludes:
Frankly I find the first option the better one, as shocking and insensitive as that may sound. But here’s what I would NOT suggest: to leave the Church. Our church is our family, and as a family, we are called to learn from one another, to love one another, and, as a result, to suffer to a certain degree, from one another, that we may grow. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but I don’t believe in jumping ship when it comes to church-belonging. I think we don’t grow that way, I mean by jumping ship, but rather stunt or (best-case scenario) delay our growth. Please forgive me if this wasn’t helpful, but it’s all I’ve got. Love to you and your family from all of us in Vienna, SV
It is good that she encourages the mother to try to keep her son in Church, and even if a person is struggling without much success against their sins, the Church is the best place for them to be, because it is the place where they should be best able encounter God's grace, truth, and love. However, going to a parish that actively suppresses the truth, is another story entirely (Romans 1:18-32). Going to Church can help if the person hears the truth there, and God opens their heart to receive it. That is why we have to ensure that it is actualy the Truth that they hear in Church, and not the lies of this world.


Unfortunately, if there was any hope that Sister Vassa might back off from her comments, or clarify them in a more Orthodox way, she has dispelled them by doubling down on them, and doing so in a way that it would be charitable to call strident. There is no acknowledgment that she should perhaps have suggested that the mother in question encourage her son to refrain from sodomy. There is no awareness that being a childless nun who teaches Roman Catholic seminarians in Vienna has perhaps not made her an expert on child-rearing. Only the assurance from her zillions of fans that she is right.


In the course of the discussion that has followed, she said (on her personal Facebook page) in response to a deacon:
"I never said, in that post or in any other one, that I "often" disagree with the church. Please don't change my words. What I said, in black and white, was that I do not agree with some of the "proclamations" of my Church, today. If you read attentively, you will find that there are important nuances here, which point to the fact that I do not, actually, state that I am in disagreement with The Church. In fact I do not think that the dust has settled on what "The Church" actually thinks on this topic, in our today. But in the Orthodox Church we don't have the unified voice to discern and state what we think, because of our crippled state of (dis)unity. But regarding what I said in my little post, unfortunately most readers today do not read anything attentively, looking only for soundbites and lacking the patience to read deeply and prayerfully. That's all I've got to say, in addition to what I've already tried to say, in part unsuccessfully, on the matter."
So the Church may yet, in her opinion, take a very different view of homosexuality.

Another problematic aspect with regard to what is going on here is the fact that those who have disagreed with her have often been blocked and their comments deleted, while pro-homosexual activists have been free to promote their views and attack those who hold to the teachings of the Church. Here pro-homosexual fans seem to think they know where she is heading, and she is doing nothing to dispel that belief.

And with regard to Pope Francis being "the real deal," I think the folks at Lutheran Satire have him pegged pretty well:

Also, one homosexual activist on Sister Vassa's Facebook group took issue with my referencing the propensity of homosexual's to commit suicide, and suggested that this is because of religious people like me. The problem is that this is not borne out by the facts. Denmark is one of the most secular countries in the world, and yet studies there show that homosexuals in domestic partnerships in Denmark are 3-4 times more likely to die by suicide then those in heterosexual relationships:

Only 3% of Danes attend church at least once a week:

And homosexuality is widely accepted in Denmark:

For more information:

What Sister Vassa Should Have Said (Replying to Sr. Vassa’s Mail), by Fr. Lawrence Farley

The Bible the Church and Homosexuality: Obscurantegesis vs the Truth

Stump the Priest: Shrimp and Homosexuality

Robert Gagnon: The Bible and Homosexual Practice (7 Video Lectures)

Same-Sex Marriage: Separation of Church-State Issue, or a Moral Problem We Must Oppose? (a Live discussion on Ancient Faith Radio)

Statement on the Comments of Fr. Robert Arida on Homosexuality, by the Orthodox Clergy Association of Houston and Southeast Texas

Sexuality and Gender: Finding from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences

Robert Gagnon had an informative debate with a Lesbian Anglican on Homosexuality which you can watch below (if you only listen to 15 minutes, go to the 49:00 mark):

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

New, but not improved... A Response to Public Orthodoxy, on the Creed

The botched restoration of the Catholic Icon "Ecce Homo!" (Behold the Man!)

Defacing the English Language, one word at a time...

John Fotopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou, in their recent article "Women and the Creed: Who For Us Humans and for Our Salvation," (published by "Public Orthodoxy") have expressed their unhappiness that the Greek Archdiocese has decided to use a translation of the Creed that is in line with pretty much every other translation that English speaking Orthodox Christians have been using for as long as we have had Orthodox Christians speaking English. They are offended by the use of the word "man". Here is the line of the Creed in question,as it is usually translated:
"Who for us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man..."
And here is their suggested "improvement" to that translation:
"Who for us humans and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human..."
Aside from the fact that this sounds like a translation done by a Federation Starship's computer, it is simply ugly and unnecessary. It has long been said that the Greek Archdiocese has intentionally used the worst English translations possible, in hopes that people will just forget the whole thing, and keep using Greek. In this case, they are moving in the right direction. The folks at Public Orthodoxy, however, would have them opt for an even more ugly translation then they had previously ("Who for us and for our salvation...").

Their argument, in a nutshell, is as follows:
"...“men” is not the most accurate translation for the word ἀνθρώπους in contemporary English. Rather, translating ἀνθρώπους as “men” can be viewed, at best, as an expression of outdated English usage and, at worst, as an expression of gender exclusive English translation. There is no good reason to use outdated English in a new translation of the Creed or to use a gender exclusive English term when ἀνθρώπους is meant to be inclusive. The word ἄνθρωπος is the generic term for a human being in ancient Greek, while there are other terms for “man” and “woman.” 
It is certainly true that "anthropos" is not a gender specific word in Greek, but "man" is also not a gender specific word in English -- it can be, as the usage has developed, but we still use it in its non-gender specific sense... all of the time.

The PO folks may not have noticed, but the offending word "man" is also found in the word "woman". That is because a woman is a particular variety of man. The word woman comes from the Old English 'wīfman" -- "a wife man." Males use to be referred to as "werman" (a male man) but gradually the first syllable dropped out of common use. So should we opt for "wo-person" over "woman"?

A friend of mine told me about an English professor he had in college (who was a woman) who insisted on using traditional words like "man" in the generic sense, and she had a young female student who objected. The professor responded: "If you were at the beach, and you were told that there was a man-eating shark in the water, would you go swimming? Because if you wouldn't, you're a hypocrite, because you understand full well that "man" refers generically to all human beings."

If someone accidentally killed a woman, and was charged with manslaughter, I doubt a defense that hinged on manslaughter laws applying only to male victims would go very far.

The word "man" goes very deep into the history of Indo-European languages. We find a form of it in Sanskrit: "manu", which has the same meaning. To purge English of the generic use of "man" you would have to deface a good bit more of the language than just that word "man" itself. Even the word "human" has the offending "man" root word. So should we opt for "hu-person"? Or perhaps we should just go with "hu", since the last three letters in "person" might offend those who want to neuter the language. While this might expand the possibilities for future versions of the old "Who's on first?" routine, it is all just silly, and nonsensical.

The translation proposed by PO is certainly defensible in terms of accuracy, but it is indefensible in terms of the aesthetics of the English language. The reason why the King James Version has stood the test of time, whereas no other modern translation has approached its beauty is because the translators of the KJV were not just accomplished biblical scholars, well versed in the pertinent languages they were translating from -- they also were well versed in the language they were translating the Bible into. They had a sense of the English language that few scholars today have -- and clearly John Fotopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou are not among those few, regardless of how well they no doubt grasp the original Greek.

If we followed their proposal here consistently, we would have to make the following changes to our translations of Scripture:
Instead of Pontius Pilate referring to the blooded and beaten Christ with the words "Behold the man!" (John 19:5) we would have him say "Behold the human!" 
Instead of Christ saying: "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath no where to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20), we would have him say "the Son of Human," or more loosely "The human being has no where to lay his head."
And instead of putting off the "old man" at baptism, and putting on the "new man" (Colossians 3:8-10), we would put off the "old human" and put on the "new human."
None of these steps would be an improvement to accuracy, and they certainly would not add to the beauty and majesty of the services in which they were read.

On the broader question of neutering the English language -- there are two major languages that have no gender distinctions at all, and so the two cultures associated with these languages should have been feminist utopias, if gender neutrality was the key to such a thing. The two languages I refer to are Turkish and Chinese. However, I think one could easily defend the argument that women in European cultures have been treated significantly better in the past two thousand years, despite them having to suffer the indignities of being forced to use languages that make gender distinctions. In fact, I think one would be hard pressed to find two literate cultures in which woman have historically been treated worse than that of the Turks and the Chinese -- and I say that as one who otherwise loves Chinese culture, but the way women were (and to a large extent, still are) treated is not the high point of Chinese civilization.

To this day, Chinese girls are often killed at birth, or aborted selectively before birth, because of a very low view of the value of women. When I was in college, I once worked in a Chinese restaurant, and one day I was asked about my family by an elderly Chinese woman who worked there. When I told her that I had four brothers, she said "Your momma have five boy? Oh, she very lucky!" But my mother had five boys because she wouldn't give up trying to have a girl, until having five boys had sufficiently worn her down. One woman came from a culture with perfect gender neutrality in their language, and the other didn't. Feminists somehow think that the culture with gender distinctions is the one that needs to be fixed. Go figure.


Giacomo Sanfilippo made a comment worth passing on in response to the article at Public Orthodoxy on Facebook: "To say that ἄνθρωπος is un-gendered strikes me as a bit simplistic, and requires nuance. Gen 2 (LXX) uses ἄνθρωπος interchangeably/synonymously with Adam, going so far as to say the ἄνθρωπος (not ἀνήρ) leaves father and mother to cling to his wife."

Christ Himself also quotes this passage (Genesis 2:24) in the Gospels (Matthew 19:5), and the Greek text uses "anthropos" to refer to a male who leaves father and mother and is joined to his wife.

Furthermore, in Matthew 10:35, Christ says: "For I am come to set a man [anthropos] at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law."

James Latimir provides yet another example: "Consider 1 Esdras 9:40, where anthropos is used in clear opposition to gyne, as in, ‘men and women.’ (Jerome even translates anthropos in this case as vir!) That would make no sense if anthropos meant genderless ‘human’ (‘humans and women’: Public Orthodoxy are the real bigots! 😂), rather than inclusively masculine ‘man.’"

So clearly anthropos can be used to refer specifically to a male, just as the English word "man" can.

For more information, see:

An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible

King James English and Orthodox Worship

Monday, June 19, 2017

Uncovering the Truth: Head Coverings and Revisionist Biblical Interpretation

The misnamed blog Public Orthodoxy, which spends most of its efforts attacking the tradition of the Orthodox Church, recently published an article by Mark Arey, "Submission, Sexism, and Head Coverings," which attempts to undermine the Church's long established tradition of women covering their heads in Church. The article focuses its attention on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, which provides the Scriptural basis for this tradition. What is most noteworthy about this article is that it does not cite a single Father of the Church to support any of its contentions regarding the practice in question -- which is of course because there are none that could have been cited for that purpose. But in addition to lacking in any support from the Fathers of the Church, the interpretations put forth by Mark Arey also have scant support from Protestant biblical scholarship.

Mark Arey's argument in this essay runs along these lines: He first argues that this passage is focused only on married women. Then he argues that when St. Paul speaks of the need for a woman to have "authority on her head because of the angels," that this actually means that a woman should have authority over her husband (whom St. Paul refers to as the head of the wife) in a sense analogous to the mutual authority that a husband and wife have over each other's bodies in marriage (1 Corinthians 7:3-4), and that it somehow pleases the angels to see the mutual balance in the equal relationship of the husband and wife. He further argues that St. Paul is not really requiring any women (married or not) to wear any kind of head covering, so long as they have long hair, which he argues is an alternative covering, according to his reading of this passage.

So lets take a closer look at the merits of his line of reasoning here..

Married Women, or All Women?

One thing that Mark Arey does here, is he translates the word "woman" (in Greek: γυνή gunē, from whence the word "gynecology" comes) as "wife", without any acknowledgment that this is a highly questionable choice in translation. Few translations do this, the ESV being one exceptional example, but most (the KJV, DRV, RSV, NRSV, NKJV, NIV, NASB, CEV, etc) do not. Anthony C. Thiselton, in his his rather exhaustive commentary on First Corinthians, acknowledges that the husband and wife relationship is a major aspect of the context of this passage, but states that this nevertheless "does not justify restricting the translation of γυνή  to wife rather than woman (NRSV, NIV, REB, NJB) as if the emphasis were exclusive" (The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns Publishing Company, 2000) p. 832).

Mark Arey cites an article which claims that it was Jewish custom for unmarried women to be unveiled, and so he again tries to advance the notion that head coverings were only obligatory for married women. However, whatever his intended point here might be, it is difficult to see how this argument squares with his subsequent argument that long hair can serve as a covering in place of a veil. If that is so, then is he arguing that unmarried women at the time had short hair until they got married? If all that St. Paul was concerned about here was that women have long hair, why mention head coverings at all? And is it really likely, that the problem in the Corinthian Church was a rash of women with butch haircuts? I am not aware of any published commentary of any significance that makes such a case.

Greco-Roman Cultural Norms, or Christian Standards?

It has often been argued that in this passage, St. Paul was simply demanding that women maintain the cultural norms of the time and place in which they were written, but the fact of the matter is that in Roman and Greek culture, it was not mandatory for women to have their heads covered in public or in religious services. Head coverings were certainly not unknown, but there was no cultural requirement for it. There is no evidence that only prostitutes in that culture went about with uncovered heads either. If you look at Greek and Roman statues and paintings of women, you find both covered and uncovered heads. It was not the cultural norms of the pagan Greeks or Romans that St. Paul was advancing, but rather the cultural norms of pious Old Testament Jewish custom that he was instructing Christian women everywhere to follow when praying or prophesying. It should also be noted that one should not assume that later Jewish customs prevailed in the first century, but rather look at the more contemporary evidence of that practice. For example, Tertullian, who was a North African Roman living in a culture very close in time and practice to that of St. Paul, noted that Jewish women were notable and stood out of the crowd because they so consistently covered their heads (De Corona, 4, see also Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 3, ed. Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1964-1976), p. 562f) -- and so the actual evidence points to this being a specifically Christian requirement, rooted in Jewish custom.

But how can we be sure that St. Paul really intended to say that this was something he expected of all Christian women, regardless of the cultural norms of their society? Well, for one thing, he brackets this passage with two appeals to the tradition of the Church. At the beginning, he says: "Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the traditions, as I delivered them to you." And at the end of this passage, addressing those who wish to do contrary to this tradition, he says in verse 16: "But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither do the churches of God." The universal practice of the Church (and even of those mainstream Christian groups outside of the Orthodox Church) prior to the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show was for women to cover their heads in Church. I was raised in an Evangelical Protestant context, but I am old enough to remember the vestiges of this practice as a boy, even among the non-liturgical "holy-rollers" that I observed. And so we know that this is what St. Paul meant, because this is how two millennia of Christians have understood what he meant. It is only within living memory (i.e. post-sexual revolution) that this question has suddenly become a problem for some.

A scene from the 1955 movie "A Man Called Peter," which was a biographical film about the (then) nationally known Presbyterian minister Peter Marshall. The scene is depicting a Church service in the 1930's in Washington D.C., and you will note that every woman has some sort of head covering.

Furthermore, we can look at our iconographic tradition. It is extremely rare to see any icon that depicts a mature woman without a head covering. St. Mary of Egypt and our First mother Eve are the only examples that comes to mind to the contrary. In the case of St. Mary of Egypt, this is because the clothes that she wore into the desert rotted off of her, and she had only the tattered monastic cloak given to her by St. Zosima. In the case of Eve, she is depicted before fall in such a way as to convey the fact that she and her husband were "naked and unashamed." And then after the fall, she is shown with either the fig leaves she and Adam cobbled together, or the garments of skin given to her by the Lord. In both cases, their own stories require these depictions. Aside from that, if there are any other examples, they would be extremely rare, and probably aberrations from the general mainstream iconographic tradition.

Authority on the Head?

The King James provides a very literal translation of verse 10*:
"For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels." 
"διὰ τοῦτο ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους." 

The word translated as "power" here (ἐξουσία) is usually taken to refer to the power of an authority. and most translations add some words to clarify the meaning. for example:
"For this cause ought the woman to have a sign of authority on her head because of the angels."
Mark Arey dismisses this, because the word "sign" or "symbol" is not there in the Greek. However, it is often the case when translating from one language to another that one has to supply some words that are not literally in the original in order to convey the actual sense of what the other words (which are in the original) actually mean in their particular arrangement in a given context.

And for Orthodox Christians, if we have any doubt about the meaning of a text like this, our first resort should be to the Fathers of the Church, and as Thiselton observes,
"most patristic commentators saw no problem in understanding ἐξουσία in an active sense as a metonymy for a sign of power over. Chrysostom observes: "Being covered is a mark of subjection and authority" [St. John Chrysostom, Homily 26:5 on First Corinthians], and Theophylact explicitly understands the metonymic sign of power. Ireneaus understands κάλυμμα [veil,  Against Heresies 1:8:2] here" (Thiselton, p. 838).
To these three fathers, we could add the following examples:
"By authority he referred to the covering, as if to say, Let her show her subjection by covering herself, and not least for the sake of the angels, who are set over human beings and entrusted with their care" (Blessed Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, Vol. 1, trans. Robert Charles Hill, (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2001), p. 205).
"The veil signifies power, and the angels are bishops, as it says in the Revelation of John, where, because they are men, they are criticized for not rebuking the people, though good behavior on their part is also praised" (Ancient Christian Texts: Commentaries on Romans and 1-2 Corinthians, Ambrosiaster, translated and edited by Gerald L. Bray (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2009) p. 143).p. 172
Furthermore, I think it is safe to say that no Church Father ever took this passage as if it referred to a wife having authority over her husband, because if any did, those who dispute the traditional practice of head coverings would have alerted us to such statements long ago.

We should also wonder why, if in fact St. Paul was affirming the equality of the wife with her husband in verse 10 that he would have felt the need to follow that verse with a statement that affirmed that very thing, but which begins with "Nevertheless" (πλήν):
"Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God" (1 Corinthians 11:11-2).
Clearly, these verses are meant to balance out what precedes it, which would be unnecessary if what precedes it said essentially the same thing. Thiselton, approvingly referencing the commentary of Gordon Fee, writes:
"Fee rightly observes, "With these two sets of sentences, in each of which woman and man are in balanced pairs, Paul qualified the preceding argument." The strong force of πλήν, nevertheless, confirms this" (Thiselton, p. 842, emphasis in the original).
There are some Protestant commentators that argue that what St. Paul is saying here is that a woman ought to keep power over her own head by wearing a veil and thus either protecting herself from others in public (through her modesty), or from fallen angels, or both; and some have argued that it was a sign a woman was empowered to prophesy (Thiselton, p. 837-841). However, no Protestant commentator of any significance, as best as I can tell, has ever attempted to put forth any interpretation remotely similar to that of Mark Arey.

The idea that a wife is in some respects under the authority of her husband does not require an affirmation that women are inferior to men, anymore than the fact that Christ submitted Himself to the will of His Father implies inequality in the Godhead. Commenting on the meaning of "head" (κεφαλή) in this passage, Thiselton notes:
"Chrysostom is highly sensitive to the multivalency of κεφαλή in 1 Cor 11:3. Chrysostom is aware that a parallel between men/women and God/Christ should not give "the heretics" grounds for a subordinationist Christology. In certain respects head denotes a kind of primacy, but both God and Christ on one side and men and women on the other are of the same mode of being. "For had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection... he would not have brought forward the instance of a woman (or wife), but rather of a slave and a master.... It is a wife (or woman) as free, as equal in honor; and the Son also,  though He did become obedient to the Father, it was as the Son of God; it was as God" [Homily 26:3 on First Corinthians]. ...Chrysostom (a) reflects Paul's notion that in the context of love between God and Christ, or between man and woman, obedience or response is chosen, not imposed; and (b) reflects the endeavor to do justice to the duality or wholeness of difference and "order" on the one side and reciprocity and mutual dignity and respect on the other" (Thiselton, p. 818f).
For more on what the meaning of the phrase "because of the angels" in this verse, see: Stump the Priest: Because of the Angels.

Head Coverings or Long Hair?

Mark Arey concludes his essay with the claim that St. Paul is not really concerned with any woman, married or not, actually wearing a head covering in Church, because St. Paul speaks of a woman's long hair as being a covering, This is an interpretation completely absent from the Fathers. You do find a tiny minority of Protestants that will make such arguments, but few serious scholars buy such arguments.

The point that St. Paul makes is that just as it is a shame for a woman to have her head shaved -- which was a punishment sometimes given to women of ill-repute, so is it a shame for a woman to not cover her head in Church. Any other reading of this passage makes everything that precedes this point meaningless.

It is especially difficult to see how St. Paul could have in his mind the notion that long hair is the covering he wants the woman to wear, when he says:
"For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.(1 Corinthians 11:6).
You would have to believe that he is arguing that if a woman has short hair, her hair should be cut short... which it already would be. Furthermore it is hard to imagine how a woman's hair could ever grow long again, if it was being cut, because it was short.


The more common argument that contemporary Protestants make, who try to to avoid the obvious intent of this passage, is to argue that St. Paul was simply addressing a culturally specific issue, and that the principle at work in this passage would only be that one should not use Christian liberty to flout cultural norms and gender distinctions. N. T. Wright, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, evidently feels the weakness of this argument. After laying out all the reasons why it might be that this was a culturally specific question, he writes "That's a lot of 'perhaps'es" (Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), p. 140). He then adds a few more 'perhaps'es, and then says:
"The trouble is, of course, that Paul doesn't say exactly this, and we run the risk of 'explaining' him in  terms that might (perhaps) make sense to us while ignoring what he himself says" (Ibid, 141).
Perhaps, because N. T. Wright is a Protestant, we can cut him some slack for approaching this text in this way, and ignoring the history of the interpretation of this text in favor of one that comports to contemporary Protestant sensibilities, but Mark Arey should know better.

On what basis does Mark Arey present his novel interpretations as if they were the correct Orthodox understanding of this passage? Certainly not on the basis of the Fathers. Certainly not on the basis of how the Church has always understood this passage. And he can't really claim much of a basis for his readings of this text in Protestant biblical scholarship.

In the service for receiving converts from other heterodox Christian groups, one of the questions the convert is asked before he is received is:
"Dost thou acknowledge that the Holy Scriptures must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the belief which hath been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and which the Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, hath always held and still doth hold?"
The correct answer to this question for a right believing Orthodox Christian is "I do," ...not, "I don't."

*The King James Version, while providing a very literal translation of this verse, also provided a margin note that says: "That is, a covering, to sign that she is under the power of her husband."

For more information, see:

Stump the Priest: Head Coverings

Stump the Priest: Because of the Angels.

The Woman’s Headcovering, by Michael Marlowe (Protestant author, but interesting)

Stump the Priest: Men with Long Hair

Friday, June 09, 2017

How to teach your children to read and understand the King James Version of the Bible


Before getting into the question of how you can teach your children to read and understand the King James Version, we should probably first discuss why you should want to do so.

If you are an English speaker, even if you are an atheist you should want your child to be familiar with the great works in the history of the English Language, and the King James Version is certainly close to the top of the list, if not at the very top.

Even some of the greatest skeptics were of this opinion:
“It is the most beautiful of all translations of the Bible; indeed it is probably the most beautiful piece of writing in all the literature of the world.”  -H. L. Mencken 
“The translation was extraordinarily well done because to the translators what they were translating was not merely a curious collection of ancient books written by different authors in different stages of culture, but the Word of God divinely revealed through His chosen and expressly inspired scribes.  In this conviction they carried out their work with boundless reverence and care and achieved a beautifully artistic result.” –George Bernard Shaw
"It is written in the noblest and purest English, and abounds in exquisite beauties of mere literary form."  -Aldous Huxley 
The influence of the King James Version on the English language has been huge, and there aren't many other texts that would be comparable in that regard.

It also happens to be a very fine translation. It is not perfect, but it has many advantages over most other options. See: An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible.

Isn't it too hard?

For many centuries, even poorly educated people read and understood the King James Bible, because they made the effort to do so. For the most part, the King James Version is perfectly understandable for a modern reader. There are perhaps a hundred words or so that one would have to acquaint themselves with, if they were not already familiar with them. All of these words are found in a standard dictionary, and the intended meaning of the word in question will usually be listed as the primary or secondary meaning. There are also some handy guides online and in print that provide quick definitions with these words. And you could always look up a difficult text in the New King James Version, for clarification.


First off, you have to teach them how to read, and teach them to love reading.

My wife and I home schooled our children, and the single best text we used was a book entitled "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons," by Siegfried Engelmann. It provides a parent with simple and clear instructions as to how to use the text, and it effectively teaches a child how to read phonetically, and also how to understand the many quirks we have in English spelling (something that is often not taught in public schools in our times). Most importantly, it works. I started teaching both of my children how to read with this text when they were three, and had them reading on a basic level within a few months.

The first books I had my children read were in a series of Bible story booklets from Concordia Press that are designed for beginning readers -- the closest thing that they have to what we used in print now is in a series called "Hear Me Read.".

You should regularly read to your children. For very young children, I found reading them stories that rhymed got their attention, and so I read them rhyming Bible stories. Concordia Press has a large collection of short Bible stories that rhyme -- many of which I remember from my own childhood.

As they got a bit older, I read them a comic book collection of Bible Stories (The Picture Bible), and as their reading improved, they would read it on their own. This gave them an overall understanding of the Bible in broad strokes, and helped to improve their own reading.

In addition to reading books directly connected to the Bible, reading other classic texts to your children helps to develop a love for reading.

We did not have our children read much of Shakespeare, because Shakespeare's plays were not meant to be read -- they were meant to be watched. We had them watch all of his major plays -- some in multiple versions, and they enjoyed them. And this helped to familiarize them with Elizabethan English, and in a way that was not at all tedious.

Finally, when their reading level got to the point that they could begin to do it, I had them read the Bible to me. This helped their reading and pronunciation, and it also gave me a chance to explain any words that were obscure, and to discuss the meaning of the text. We started with Genesis, and stuck to the narrative portions of the Law and the Historical books. We eventually brought in the Wisdom books, the prophets, and also the Gospels and Epistles.

A very important help to this whole process was to get an edition of the King James that had modern spelling, punctuation, and paragraphing -- and to have the same edition in everyone's hand, so we were literally all on the same page. At the time, we used the Third Millennium Bible, but what I would recommend now is using the Cambridge New Paragraph Bible with the "Apocrypha". This edition is laid out in a way that is much easier for contemporary readers, and the more I use it myself, the more I have come to like it.

One other thing I did was to have my children memorize the names and order of the books of the Bible, and then we would do something which I learned from Sunday School as a child -- "Sword drills". When we finished reading the Bible, I would call out random Scripture references, and we would see which child could find it first. This taught them how to navigate their way around the Bible.

For more information:

An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible

A Simple Approach to Reading the Entire Bible

King James English and Orthodox Worship

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Soft-Pedaling Christian Morality: A Review of a Curious Review

In 2011, Archdeacon John Chryssavgis wrote a review of Homosexuality in the Orthodox Church, by the openly homosexual Episcopalian priest Justin R. Cannon. This review was published in the  Saint Vladimir's Theological Quarterly (Vol. 55, no. 3), and is now featured prominently on Justin Cannon's pro-homosexual website "Inclusive Orthodoxy."

Archdeacon John Chryssavgis is not just any deacon. He is the most prominent spokesman for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and a professor of Theology at Holy Cross Seminary in Boston, and so the semi-endorsement of a piece of pro-homosexual propaganda is profoundly disturbing.

You can read the portion of this book that repeats the usual bogus arguments of homosexual apologists which attempt to argue that the clear condemnations of homosexuality in Scripture don't really say what they actually do say, here:

You can find these arguments refuted in the book, "The Bible and Homosexual Practice," by Robert Gagnon (an actual Biblical Scholar, and a book endorsed by some of the most prominent Biblical scholars of the past half century) or by watching his lectures on the subject.

Fr. John Chryssavgis begins:
"There are some topics that Orthodox Christians are singularly uncomfortable about broaching—even if it is simply to affirm their outright rejection and unqualified condemnation—and homosexuality is certainly among them. Indeed, any questions in general related to sexuality or gender—including the nature of homosexuality, or the divorce of clergy, or even the ordination of women—are subjects that arouse much passionate emotion but little rational exploration within theological and especially ecclesiastical circles.
This has always astonished, if not perturbed me, because it is not as if these issues are either absent or even diminishing in our society and church. Indeed, one of my gravest concerns over the years is that the oppression of homosexuality and silence on sexual issues in a hierarchical institution, such as the Orthodox Church, not only results from unjustifiable and unacceptable ignorance and prejudice. It also results in the church's complicity in discrimination as well as the church's reticence concerning sexual abuse in our own communities. Saying we hate the sin but love the sinner can sometimes be rejection masquerading as acceptance. It is, after all, so much easier to label than to listen.
This is why I was pleased to see the publication of this edited collection of stories and reflections about homosexuality. The editor is proactive in encouraging dialogue and discussion about this complex, albeit controversial topic; he is also the author of a small study on biblical perspectives on the subject that appears in an edited version toward the end of this book and the manager of a website dedicated to "inclusive orthodoxy." As he correctly observes in the introduction: "We cannot explore the issue of homosexuality without hearing the life, stories, and witness of faithful, Orthodox Christians who happen to be gay." (12)"
I don't know of any clergy who do not have great compassion on those who are struggling against homosexuality, or any other sexual addiction... and I doubt Fr. John Chryssavgis does either. So I have to wonder what it is that he is really objecting to, and why, during the course of his review, he fails completely to recognize the propagandistic nature of the book he is supposedly reviewing, or to clearly state what the actual position of the Orthodox Church is on the question the book is all about.

And when it comes to other sins, such as adultery -- should we not label that as a sin, as Christ does Himself? Should we instead listen to the adulterers to try to understand their sin better first? No. We ought to have compassion on them, and seek their repentance and restoration, but there is nothing about the sin of adultery itself that we don't already know sufficiently to label it a sin. You may have a very mean wife, and a very nice mistress, but whatever extenuating circumstances you may raise, it is still inherently sinful, and we know this without any doubt or ambiguity. And that is true of any sin that is clearly condemned in Scripture and Tradition.
The book contains four such stories, with names changed to safeguard the anonymity of the individuals: by Helena, whose gay son was painfully rejected and spitefully ostracized; by Barry, for whom prejudice and exclusion on the part of a parish priest led to further traumatic confusion and harrowing anguish; by Matthew, whose raw honesty and heartfelt confession sparked a long soul-searching journey for healing and wholeness; and by Elizabeth, whose disclosure and divorce were ultimately only reconciled in theological reading and support groups in "some seemingly 'unorthodox' faith communities." (42)
There is no doubt that their stories cry out for hearing and healing. And there are surely numerous others. We will doubtless be judged by God for failing to notice and to respond compassionately, instead opting to find security in easy scriptural texts and theological castigations. Both of these comprise a simplistic approach and perhaps provide a convenient way out. However, the Incarnation of God's Word that "assumed flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn 1:14) implies and imposes a messy spiritual wrestle and not a black-and-white pastoral response. After all, who among us can cast the first rational comment?"
There are two separate issues that Fr. John Chryssavgis is making into a false dichotomy. There is the question of what the Orthodox Church teaches about homosexuality, and then there is the pastoral question of how to deal with people who struggle with it. On the first question, failing to be clear about it is not only unpastoral and unloving -- it is pastoral malpractice. St. Paul tells us clearly and unequivocally that practicing homosexuals will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). If we take what he says seriously, soft-pedaling this truth is not defensible. It is moral and spiritual cowardice. We can and should both unequivocally condemn the sin, and have love and compassion for the sinner. If we don't do both, we enable the sinner to kid himself into believing that his sin is not a sin, and thus fail to help him to overcome it.

Of course we should deal with people who struggle with that sin pastorally, just like we do people who struggle with alcoholism, adultery, drug abuse, or any other passion that is especially difficult to overcome. But if we fail to communicate what sin is, it is impossible for those whom we have confused to overcome sins that they do not recognize to be such.

If Fr. John Chryssavgis was simply arguing that we should have a discussion about how best to deal with those who actually are struggling to overcome homosexual temptations, few would argue with him. But that is not what this book is about, nor is it what Fr. John's review of this book is about.
Part of the problem of ignoring homosexuality is that it will invariably be restricted to and debated in fringe groups, prompting spurn and dismissal of it and related issues by those in mainstream Orthodox churches and society. Hence, instead of including stories from clergy in recognized Orthodox churches, the editor resorts to leaders within communities unrecognized by most Orthodox churches who, as a result, may further ignore the issue.
The problem in the Orthodox Church in the United States today is not that we are ignoring homosexuality. It is that so many in our Church are failing to take a clear stand on what we actually teach on the subject, and instead, like Fr. John Chryssavgis, choose to focus on how compassionate we ought to be to homosexuals, to the exclusion of clarifying whether or not the Church considers homosexual sex to be incompatible with the Christian life.
The foundation and history of the support group for gays and lesbians, known as "Axios: Eastern and Orthodox Gay and Lesbian Christians"—originally in Los Angeles (1980), but then in other cities of the United States, as well as in Canada and Australia— is a sign of the "work, even suffering, [that must occur] through an honest orthopraxy on the issue." (80) However, even such an organization is forced to "carry the baton underground." (84)
So is Fr. John Chryssavgis endorsing "Axios"? And if so, is he speaking on behalf of the Ecumenical Patriarchate? Axios notoriously does not believe that it is inherently sinful for a man to have sex with another man, or for a woman to have sex with another woman... and that is clearly and unambiguously contrary to the teachings of Scripture, and the Orthodox Tradition. I don't believe promoting such views is the kind of work that should occur in the Orthodox Church.

Finally, towards the end of his review, we have a few tepidly stated reservations expressed about the actual content of the book:
"Frankly, I remain unconvinced by the scriptural and terminological analysis provided in this book (87-113) that lends support to homosexuality, just as I am cynical of the simplistic parallels drawn between prejudice against homosexuals and the problems of anti-Semitism or slavery (62-65). Indeed, despite the truly fascinating and stimulating scholarship of John Boswell, whose work focused on religious understanding and social tolerance of homosexuality, I feel that it is a forced endeavor to re-imagine—if not re-invent—history for purposes of identifying the medieval rite of adelphopoiesis or "brotherhood ritual" (sometimes referred to as "adoption") with same sex marriage or union."
He "remains unconvinced" by a book that argues counter-factually that Scripture and Tradition do not unequivocally condemn homosexual sex? Anyone familiar with Fr. John Chryssavgis' very opinionated style knows that he is quite capable of expressing vehement disagreement. If someone suggests that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is something less than the eastern equivalent of the Pope, or that the recent council in Crete was not exactly pan-Orthodox, he is quite capable of expressing his opposing view with great strength, enthusiasm, and eloquence. Try telling him that you don't believe human activity is causing catastrophic climate change, and  you are liable to get a response reminiscent of the shower scene in the movie Psycho. But let someone write a book that presents a fraudulent case against the moral Tradition of the Church, and the best he can say in response is that he "remain[s] unconvinced"? Our people, who are bombarded with pro-homosexual propaganda every day need something a bit more clear and direct than that from their clergy.
"Still, the truth is that, as Orthodox Churches and as Orthodox Christians, we are going to have to discuss homosexuality with far greater candor and with far greater charity, admitting that the issue is far more prevalent among both laity and clergy on all levels and in all positions. After all, why would we be afraid of such an interchange ? Or what would we be afraid of in such an exchange? Seeking the way of God is not resorting to fear, but searching for compassion and honesty, especially among all the other dishonest places that we walk. We are called to strive for simple human decency—indeed, Christ-like decency—in a subject that is so often complicated by selfishness and pride, contempt and rejection, natural desire and degrading lust.
In that respect, I welcome the book as a first—and important, sometimes the most difficult—step in a long process of honest dialogue."
I wonder if Fr. John Chryssavgis thinks Christ objected to St. John the Baptist's denunciation of the immoral marriage Herod had with his brother Philip's wife? There is certainly no evidence of that in Scripture, and every reason to believe just the opposite. Does he think Christ or St. John the Baptist would welcome a book that defended Herod's right to marry his brother's wife? Does he think St. Paul was unpastoral when he directed the Church in Corinth to excommunicate a man who was in an immoral relationship with his step-mother? Would St. Paul have welcomed a book defending that kind of relationship? Why should we ever welcome a book that endorses sin, and especially one that does so with disingenuous argumentation?

It is disappointing that St. Vladimir Seminary would attach it's name to such a review, but far more disappointing to see such a prominent clergyman in the Ecumenical Patriarchate write such a review in the first place. We live in a time when the culture in general, and a very large number of our own flock in particular are confused about whether or not homosexual sex is compatible with the Christian life. True shepherds of that flock should speak clearly on the matter. Those who not only fail to speak clearly, but who actually add to that confusion ought not go unanswered.

For More Information:

The Bible the Church and Homosexuality: Obscurantegesis vs the Truth, by Fr. John Whiteford

Robert Gagnon: The Bible and Homosexual Practice (7 Video Lectures)

Statement of the Brotherhood of the Orthodox Clergy Association of Houston and Southeast Texas on the Comments of Fr. Robert Arida on Homosexuality

Homosexuality and Shrimp, by Fr. John Whiteford

Church History and Same-Sex Marriage, by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

Statement of the Russian Orthodox Church on Homosexuality (see section XII. 9).